As a society, we consume the benefits of science through a technology centric lifestyle but detest the complexities of understanding science. If only we could have someone distill the concepts of science through apt visuals and images.

Gopikrishna Pillai, our next pathbreaker, Scientific Illustrator at Cactus Communications, designs and creates visual aids like infographics and animated videos to help scientists convey scientific information & research breakthroughs to a wider audience in such a way that the general public can understand.

Gopi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about deciding to focus on his strengths, as a scientist with illustration skills, in creating designs of several science-related images for organizations and institutions to disseminate scientific content in a simplistic language.

For students, the world needs creative minds to interpret science concepts into compelling visuals in a universal language. Make a career blending science with arts !

Gopi, tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Idukki district in Kerala, our village was predominantly agricultural, and my parents were not an exception. Other than agriculture my father also managed various small businesses from time to time. I did all my schooling in and around my village. Soon after higher secondary, I followed my father to Tanjore, Tamilnadu, where he worked in a coir factory. 

What did you study?

I enrolled for BSc Microbiology in a nearby college. Just like many other students of my time, the motivation to opt for this course was impulsive, there was no grand plan in play. 

After graduation, I moved to Madurai, Tamilnadu and joined The American College for masters in Immunology and Microbiology. It is one of the oldest institutions in India with almost 200 years of history. And here, I was in the company of motivated individuals and really gifted, inspiring teachers. More than classroom education, the rich experience of being involved in discussions and debates on various subjects helped shape an analytical thought process. Here, I started helping my friends from various specialities with their assignments and project works by creating illustrations and drawings. 

In 2008, soon after completing masters, I joined Amrita Center for Nanosciences (ACNS), Cochin for MTech in Nanomedical Sciences. Department of Science and Technology, Gov of India had just announced the “DST Nanomission” program and ACNS was recognised as a “Centre for Excellence”. Under this scheme, students selected for MTech programmes will be provided a “DST fellowship”. I was fortunate to be selected as one of the recipients. With a fellowship to assist my education and curiosity to learn more about an emerging field such as nanomedicine, I decided to join for a second mater degree. 

Joining ACNS was a major step in my life and education. Even at that time the centre was one of the premier research centres in the country. It had an experienced pool of scientists as faculty and an ever-expanding research facility. After graduation, I joined the same institute for a PhD in Cancer drug delivery using nanomaterials with Dr Deepthy Menon. 

My PhD thesis was to design and synthesize a new vehicle to deliver drugs directly for breast cancer intervention, in a way that it will maximize the positive effects of the drug and will reduce side effects. And we were using a type of drug which would stop new blood vessel formation for the tumour and will eventually starve the tumour.  The research was highly interdisciplinary, involving chemical reactions, cell and tissue cultures and animal studies. The first two years of the research was funded by a DST project, and in third year of the PhD, I was selected for Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) fellowship.  This fellowship is open to all eligible postgraduates with a research record to facilitate their PhD. There are many such fellowship programs initiated by various agencies including but not limited to CSIR SRF, INSPIRE fellowship, Women scientist Fellowship etc.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

During my time at ACNS, I started creating several science-related images in PowerPoint for my own academic work and to help my friends. More than my artistic skills (which were nonexistent), my ability to capture the key point of information was appreciated by many, which gave me the confidence to continue my work. By this time, I started thinking about making this a career. But without many examples to look up to, I was not sure how to proceed. 

I could find a few science illustration courses online, but those courses were either too expensive or too hard to pursue without proper artistic skills. So, I enrolled into the next best university, YouTube. Being a photography enthusiast, I started experimenting with Adobe Photoshop following YouTube tutorials. Slowly I picked up enough skills so that I could create custom shapes and fill them with colours. Yet, a long way from being a proper graphic designer. 

The tipping point came along in Dec 2015, when I saw an advertisement on Facebook (yes, I don’t use AdBlock) for a marketplace called Fiverr. If you don’t know what it is, Fiverr is a website where you can create a store selling your skills. It is a hub for freelancers for selling everything from language editing to graphic design to even educational services. With very limited photoshop knowledge, I created a storefront in Fiverr, selling scientific illustrations and graphical abstracts. I used some of the illustrations I created before as a small portfolio. 

While creating the profile in Fiverr I decided to focus on my strengths, which is, better scientific understanding than illustration skills. Within 2 months I got my first job. It was from a pharmacy startup, they wanted to illustrate the mechanism of their new medicine inside the body with an infographic. I took 3 full days to create that and was paid 10 USD as compensation. 

I realised that taking away so much time from my PhD for a little reward was unacceptable, especially since I had to spend almost the entire day in the lab, and work only at night. Hence, I needed a quick way to do my illustration work. I went back to the YouTube university again and started learning Adobe Illustrator, which is the industry standard in creating vector illustrations and designs. My first few jobs were tough, but those jobs guided me in the right direction and helped me learn a few new tips and tricks of the software. After each job, my confidence and my expertise of the software grew. And within a year, I had  helped almost 50 clients and retained a 4.9-star rating in the marketplace. Most importantly I made myself a good portfolio of scientific illustrations and received a few positive testimonials. 

February 2018 brought me an another boost in the right direction. A friend of mine, knowing that I am a photography enthusiast, forwarded me an advertisement for a Science Photography workshop conducted jointly by National Geographic Magazine and NCBS Bangalore. I applied for the same with a writeup and few scientific photos taken in our lab. I got selected as one of the 16 research students to this workshop from the entire country. All these participants were unique in their own way. There were a few who already made their transition to offbeat careers and many more planning to do so. The mentors of the workshop were Anand Verma and Prasinjith Yadav, both science students turned photographers from NatGeo. A session was handled by Robert Krulwich, an eminent science journalist and podcaster of Radiolabs. My experience in the workshop made me realise that science communication can be a fulltime career.    

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

Once you have the portfolio and basic arsenal ready, it is time to show everyone what you have done. I polished my Linkedin profile and started contacting several established science illustrators and Journal editors for advice. I was amazed by the responses I got; people also started contacting me with freelance opportunities. I had realized by then that there is a vacuum of designers with a science background. 

By this time, I came to know about a possible freelancing opportunity with Cactus Communications, which is a market-leading content creation company. I put together a profile with my portfolio and testimonials, specifically highlighting my science knowledge. An internal reference from a friend helped me in reaching the right people. After a few rounds of interviews, I got my first freelance job. That was to create an infographic based on a paper published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology. After about 3 years of freelancing, I joined Cactus Communications in Aug 2019 as a full-time Scientific Visualizer. 

Where do you work now? What do you do?

I work as a Scientific Visualizer in Impact Science. 

Impact Science is a division of Cactus Communication dedicated to helping scientists in communicating their research to a wider audience. We use visual aids like infographics, animated videos and social media shareables with condensed scientific information such that the public can understand. We also create podcasts, plain language summaries, and press releases of important scientific breakthroughs. 

Specifically, I create visual aids to convey scientific information. When a paper is provided to us by a scientist, a content expert will breakdown that paper into illustratable points and suggest ideas to a designer. Based on those ideas the designer will then create a visual abstract which is simple enough for the general audience. Most of my days are spent in creating these designs and reviewing them, but sometimes I also get involved in the visualization part as well. To be a designer the major skill you need other than having the passion to communicate science visually, is to have the expertise of Adobe Illustrator (or any other graphical design tool). But to be a content expert, one should possess the subject knowledge to read and understand a research paper to a point that it can be re-written in plain language.  

Unlike regular research work, we can work on a variety of projects ranging from neurology to geology. Each day presents itself with a new challenge and finding unique solutions to each of these challenges as a team is rewarding.  

How does your work benefit society?

We live in a time when the “truth” has become relative. With the abundance and easy access to information, there are multiple contrasting reference points to each news. At this point, scientists should take initiative to spread their discoveries among all stakeholders, not only among the academically privileged. But it’s not easy to report from these frontiers, the general public needs simple, yet accurate information. Impact science helps scientists to achieve this balance. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

During my freelance work in Fiverr, I was fortunate to work in many interesting projects. Each client came with a unique personality and a specific need. I made posters for a client opposing oil pipeline in Northern Canada many years before it became news, a bioenergy entrepreneur wanted me to create designs for a biogas plant based on his drawings, and several images for a pro-nuclear energy activist advocating nuclear energy as the most sustainable clean energy. Adapting to all these requirements made me very flexible at work, these gave me the ability to listen and understand the work before starting design. 

The most memorable of all the projects was the one when Dr Marek Mutwil of NTU Singapore (then Max Plank laboratories) acknowledged me in his Nature Communications paper for the illustrations I made for him. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Looking at my profile one may think that you need two master’s degrees and a PhD to be a science communicator, it doesn’t. 

There are three skills which helped me to shape a career in scientific illustration. And I list them below in the order of importance. 

  1. Communication 
  2. Analytical reasoning
  3. Design sense (not artistic skills) 

It might be surprising to see that I have listed design skills last, But I have seen excellent designers struggling to be a part of a team just because they lack good communication skills. Asking questions, understanding the expectations, and conveying the limit of your abilities is essential in any job. Communication is not about flawless language or impeccable accent, it’s about avoiding surprises. So that people know what to expect of you and prepare for that in advance. 

Analytical reasoning is something that we reserve for detectives and scientists but having such a skill will help anyone in many ways. While trying to learn illustration all by myself, I needed not to get overwhelmed by the vastness of the software. Approaching a task analytically and evaluating what is important to learn and what is not will make your life easier. Usually when trying to learn new software people try to master all the basic tools, even the one they will never use.

If you are a PhD student, you might already have this. We always think that the techniques and scientific concepts are the only things we learn from a PhD, it couldn’t be farther from the truth. A PhD scholar acquires problem solving skills, and those skill are in high demand in many other offbeat careers like consultancy, finance etc.

Now coming to design sense, I must state here that I am completely useless with a pen and paper. Design and drawing are two different skills. It helps if a designer knows how to draw, but it’s not essential. Designing is using visual elements to convey a story; this is a soft skill and THIS CAN BE LEARNED. Designing is a theory-based skill which improves as you do it several times. 

I learned about “ten thousand hours of training” in a book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, (which has so overused to a point that it has become a cliché). The point of the concept is that if you train 10000 hours on a specific skill or technique you can master that. But you do not need 10000 hours to get started, the key is to start and keep going. In my case, I was bound by responsibility. When you agree to a client that you will deliver a project in X number of days, you should. That pressure wakes up the “panic monkey” and it will keep you going. 

My advice to learn a new technique or skill any time is: Promise someone that you will do something for them in an area that you want to learn. The pressure to deliver will keep you hooked to the goal.  

Future Plans?

I thank “The Interview Portal” for giving me this opportunity because this interview is very much in line with my future plans. I intend to start a series educating PhD students and researchers on finding alternative careers based on their interests. On the professional side, currently, I am back to YouTube university to learn 3D designing tools.