Summarizing years of research work into visual stories (illustrations) that can be understood by a diverse cross-section of people requires creativity, attention to detail and a flair for science !
Disha Chauhan, our next pathbreaker, collaborates with research labs, institutions and individuals/researchers to create Illustrations for their Manuscripts, Book Chapters, Web Articles or Sci-art for their websites.
Disha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about initially doodling things to understand difficult concepts, and realising the power of illustrations and images to communicate things in more dimensions than words can convey.
For students, illustration is fun, but becomes much more impactful when it breaks down the barriers between complex scientific concepts and the society in general !
Disha, can you tell us about Your background?
I was born and brought up in Chhattisgarh and completed my education in three different cities of Chhattisgarh. My father who was an Engineer in Chhattisgarh State Govt, is now retired. My mother is a teacher turned homemaker. My home is a combination of cultures of two states, Chhattisgarh and Kerala, and my parents were exponents of education. While growing up I wanted to be many things like doctor, journalist, architect, chef, artist, farmer etc. But in high school I realized that I am most fascinated by the human body and its functioning. So, I wanted to pursue medical studies. I was particularly intrigued by the Human Brain.
I enjoyed drawing and painting since childhood and my mother had an influence on me as she was an amazing artist. But drawing soon took a backseat and was restricted to biology class only as studies became intense, although I did realize at an early age that I am a visual person who expresses herself primarily through art. I preferred making infographics and was never a fan of writing long answers. While studying I just doodled things to make myself understand the concepts.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
Though I wasn’t able to get a free seat in MBBS, I did get one in BDS. BDS was not something I thought I would enjoy, so I took admission for BSc in Microbiology/Zoology. It was my Zoology journals which became my field of practice. In Masters I opted for Biotechnology because at the time of graduation I developed an interest in Molecular Biology. I did my graduation and post-graduation from St. Thomas College, Bhilai. Then, I did my PhD from University of Lleida, Spain in Molecular and Developmental Neurobiology
What were some of the key influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
When the dream of becoming a Surgeon was lost, I knew I had to find another way to study the human body & brain to find answers to my questions, and that was by becoming a researcher. I knew I wanted to be a researcher but I didn’t know how, as no one in my family was into science. During my Master’s dissertation in DRDO, DIPAS seniors who were doing their PhD at that time (and other mentors) helped me in understanding how to ask right questions, hypothesize, find methods to answer those hypotheses etc. and also to prepare for CSIR-NET to be eligible to apply to various research institutes. After my Masters I started preparing for the CSIR-UGC NET exam, and Saurabh (now my husband) helped me in that as he qualified before me. I also worked as a remote content creator for a research based educational website based in Bangalore, as opportunities to work in the science field in Chhattisgarh were limited and only as a Hindi Radio News Reader for local channels. Though I was never an extraordinary student, I enjoyed learning new things immensely and grabbed any opportunity that I found. I qualified CSIR-UGC NET and TIFR’s Entrance Exam after my Masters and started applying to all eminent institutes. I was selected in one of the IIT’s but had to wait for a few months to join because of reconstruction work in the lab which turned out to be a turning point for me. Meanwhile another senior from DRDO suggested that I apply for a PhD position in Europe. I applied to a few labs and got positive responses, but most positions were starting after 6 months or next year which I found tough to wait for. Then I got another positive response from a new lab in IRBLLEIDA, Spain, got interviewed by them and selected. My next step was to search and apply for a Fellowship. My “would be” mentor suggested that I apply for the AGAUR Fellowship, which I applied for and got. Inspite of getting selected in research institutes in India I opted for The University of Spain because the work here was related to Cortex development and their earlier work was really exciting, and in an area that I wanted to study.
All that we know, see, perceive comes from the way Neurons are connected. A mature human cortex comprises approximately 21-26 billion neurons & 30-40 billion glial cells. Transmembrane proteins with extracellular leucine rich repeats (eLRR-TMs) are considered as important players in neuron connectivity & have been linked to human neurological and psychiatric disorders including Epilepsy, Tourette’s syndrome, Alzheimer’s etc and proper cognitive function in general. Identification of their role is an important piece of puzzle to understand molecular biology of development of the brain. My PhD work was to create an mRNA expression map database of genes, coding for transmembrane proteins with extracellular LRRs using in situ hybridization technique in human fetal and mouse embryonic brain sections at different developmental stages, specifically in cortex development and further understand their functional role using different neuronal markers. This meant I spent long hours everyday with microscopic images and also with earlier published data, where researchers have explained different mechanisms that happens in brain through illustrations. It is just fascinating to see how research work of years is summarized in just one illustration, for instance, neurons migrating from their point of origin to the cortex. As readers we see just one impactful conclusion, the foundation of which is based on numerous experiments spanning years. These illustrations can simplify an entire research even for a person without a neuroscience background. And not just illustrations, images in general, like microscopic images, also make it possible to look at things in more dimensions than words can convey.
Below is a snapshot of cortical development and the chromatin remodelling complexes involved in its formation. This illustration was done for review article ‘Chromatin remodelling complexes in cerebral cortex development and neuro-developmental disorders’ [D’Souza et al., 2021] published by Dr. Bhavana Muralidharan’s lab, inStem, Bangalore.
After finishing my PhD, I returned to India and started applying for various post-doctoral positions in developmental neurobiology. Though I got a few responses from other countries, I wanted to work in a lab in India.
I currently work as a Freelance Science Illustrator and Visual artist for my own brand, The Visual Stories Studio. I had to take a break from my first post-doctoral position due to a health emergency which stretched to a year of recovering physically and mentally. This was the time when I picked up painting again since my childhood. Art became my refuge and path to recovery and I stuck to it since then. I wanted to be back in a lab desperately and hence joined my second Post doc lab where I started working on neurodegenerative diseases. Though I enjoyed the project, my physical and mental health was getting affected. My family was concerned about my degrading health and suggested looking outside academia or maybe other fields. I started applying for industrial positions but wasn’t into it with all my heart. One of the hardest things I have had to do in life was to let go of the idea of working as a researcher. I didn’t have any plan B. All I ever wanted to do in my life was to be a researcher, but life brings surprises. With time in hand, I started combining my passion for science with my rediscovered interest in Arts. Saurabh who used to do a lot of science related art and Science Illustrations (2D & 3D) for his friends & colleagues suggested that I hone my digital illustration skills as well. During my PhD I learned Adobe Illustrator and other software too for my work. I always thought if only there were better Illustrations or animations to explain these complex phenomena, the same thought that I had even in my Masters and in high school. I realised that this is something that I would like to take up seriously. I started teaching myself more mediums of art, reading about SciArt and Science Illustrations voraciously, interpreting Data visualizations and also getting to know the work of various artists in India and across the world. In this process of learning and exploring, I came across the work of Hemlata Pradhan, a Botanical illustrator from India who has left her mark in the world botanical society through her mesmerizing work on Orchids. I was spellbound by her work. I always enjoyed being in nature and collecting treasures from nature. Hence, I wanted to learn natural history Illustration. Books and Youtube turned out to be great sources for self-learning, I got inspired by many more Botanical Illustrators and it was something that came naturally to me. I was happy to finish an online certificate course on Natural History Illustration from University of NewCastle, Australia. That gave me a better understanding of the subject. Though I am still learning it, I realise that this wasn’t why I started doing it. Natural History Illustration is still one of my favorite areas to work on and learn, but I wanted to dive deeper, so I also started working on how I could illustrate novel mechanisms that were being published recently. I was influenced by the work of other Science Illustrators like David Goodsell, Gemma Anderson, John Liebler and many more. I was learning two forms at a time and they both helped me see the other from a better perspective. It took me some time to gather the courage to start sharing it on social media. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
Graphite work submitted for completion of Natural History illustration course.
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
As mentioned earlier I started teaching myself through all possible resources online as India doesn’t have any specific courses in Science Illustration or Medical Illustration and the ones available abroad are expensive. Further, the use of terms Sci Art & Science Illustration is often ambiguous, but they have very different approaches and functions. I was amazed by various forms like Natural History Illustration, Paleo Art, Medical Illustration etc. Being a good artist doesn’t make one a good Science Illustrator although it gives an advantage. Understanding new concepts and being able to translate them into simpler visual forms is a prime requisite in this field. For the last few years my focus was on the Neuroscience field; I started reading more on other fields and studying the work of other artists to better understand their thought process towards a given subject. I learned the basics of graphic designing myself to have a better understanding of shapes and colors. I and Saurabh felt that the research scene in India lacks good visual communicators. We definitely have talented science writers, journalists, but very few science illustrators, and so we co-founded ‘The Visual Stories Studio’. I love science illustration but wanted to tell stories in visual form, not just stories of science but also of the society we live in. I also work as Illustrator for Club SciWri and some other science media platforms. While working for Club SciWri I had the opportunity to learn other aspects of science communication and while collaborating with editors, authors & other artists I learned what was missing or lacking in my work and got to experiment with various styles and mediums in illustration. I was grateful for fresh perspectives I was receiving from others.
Cover art for research published in April, 2021 ‘Altered Membrane Mechanics Provides a Receptor-Independent Pathway for Serotonin Action’ from Lab of Dr. Sudipta Maiti, TIFR, Mumbai [Dey et al., 2021]
How did you get your first break?
When I began sharing my work on social media platforms, a friend from my previous lab introduced me to Club SciWri and Ipsa Jain’s work. Her work and path were inspiring and as a person she is even more supportive and motivating. She recommended me for my first gig at Club SciWri and I like to believe that since then I have learned a lot.
Cover Art for article published in ClubSciWri ‘Reflections on a pale blue dot: The legacy of Carl Sagan as an animal rights activist and environmentalist’, part of series ‘Cosmos’.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Since Science Illustration is in its nascent stage as a career in India, there are many challenges, but three to consider will be:
Teaching yourself: Since specific courses are nonexistent in India, those who want to pursue it have to learn traditional and digital art forms in the usual context and then learn its application for their specific purposes making it a twostep process apart from science studies. And learning never stops with regard to various mediums and concept building. I look forward to the works of fellow artists from across the world to stay updated in the context of both tech software and ways of representing ideas.
Target Audience: The work depends a lot on other people like the client and their audience. You have to understand how to adapt to various styles based on the requirements. For instance, if you are presenting a scientific idea to a group of school children or research scholars you may use different complexity to appeal to each group or find a solution mid-way. If you are an introvert like me, it can take a bit more time and patience to connect, interact and understand each client’s requirements.
Lower Pay: Often your work is underestimated in regard to the time & energy it takes to read, understand and think about the visual concepts. Also, expenses on the software, time spent on learning them and many iterations are not considered in the pay. I feel this will change in the future with better communication of work.
Illustration explaining mechanism of breathing created for illustration series for Dept. of Zoology, PSGR Krishnammal College for Women, Coimbatore.
Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?
I currently Freelance for my own brand “The Visual Stories Studio” where I collaborate with research labs, individuals to create Illustrations for their Manuscripts, Book Chapters, Web Articles or Sci-art for their websites. I am also involved in various other branding activities (non-science work) if I can manage time in between. I joined temporarily as a consultant in the communication team of C-CAMP recently and am learning more aspects of Deep Sciences with their communication team which has been an amazing experience. My day starts early and involves a lot of drawing, replying emails, designing and reading. I am also trying to strike a work/life balance and hence trying to keep my Sundays free, which were meant for Urban Sketching with Delhi Urban Sketchers group or Nature Journaling (before pandemic). I try to practice almost daily even if just for a few minutes, apart from the commission work, which helps me a lot when I am conceptualizing. I also keep learning new mediums and methods of telling stories, for instance, during the beginning of lockdown, I attended a Comics Workshop for two reasons; I love comics and strongly feel it’s a great way to connect & share stories of science to STEM and non-STEM people of all age groups alike. In Club SciWri I also came across the incredible work of Arghya Manna which proved my theory about comics. I am also fan of Comics by Caroline Hu.
My work makes every day exciting and creative, but the best part is that, through it I get to explore new work in science and also the life of science doers. What’s most fascinating about Illustrative work is that, like music, it can cross the barriers of language. A person who can’t read English or any other language can also understand concepts explained through visuals. I now feel involved in all facets of research except bench work. In between I do a few workshops for colleges where I teach basic outlines about science illustration & Sci-art.
What are the skills needed to be a Science Illustrator?
Being a Science Illustrator, one has to learn something new every day, it can be new medium, style or working on a research area which is comparatively new for you. PhD is lot about stepping into the unknown and exploring in order to seek answers & new questions at same time, so it definitely helped me in breaking down any new area I work on into easier steps. Work of an Illustrator is not just to draw something but to cross research, and study the given topic and often summarize it for a different audience. All this might not be equivalent to the amount of work an actual researcher does, yet it requires a good amount of reading to make sure you do not miss key points. A PhD trains you for this although one can develop this skill on his/her own if they he/she has the flexibility to learn and relearn various subjects. Technical issues like choosing correct reference images, image quality, understanding guidelines of Illustration for publication purposes, learning new software, understanding plagiarism, is a basic requirement. In my personal opinion, having a PhD degree is not a requirement for being a Science Illustrator, but it definitely gives a broader outlook on subject matters and more streamlined yet innovative approach to learn new things, so yes it has been extremely helpful.
I personally do not think a PhD is necessary for visual interpretation of advanced research work, especially if one has research aptitude & interest in updating oneself with current studies in different fields, but it definitely gives advantage of better understanding and confidence.
How does your work benefit society?
When I was in academia and spoke to non-STEM people or even people from STEM who transitioned to different fields, they seemed disconnected from what’s happening in scientific research apart from some big events like Mars Mission or in the current scenario, vaccine development where the public is extremely curious. Scientific conferences and symposiums can be boring for non-STEM people, but for progress in science we need inclusion and one thing that involves & attracts everyone is storytelling. If you present the most complex ideas in the form of a story, people listen; and what’s more wonderful than a story you ask? It is a story with pictures and animations. But I also think that my work is not restricted to just resharing the work being done but is also focused on seeking new answers for existing questions and asking new questions through art. I hope that the work of Science Illustrators in general can bridge the gap between Society and Science through Art. I am also hopeful that amalgamation of Arts with Science will bring a new perspective to questions of science that we struggle with. At present I feel my work is more restricted to certain sections of society (Researchers) and I am willing to push this boundary.
An artwork from a series of Women Scientist from diverse fields to raise awareness about contribution of Women in STEM.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I have enjoyed most of the work I have done so far and each project has taught me something surprising. Currently I am doing a series with Somdatta Karak from CCMB called “I am a Scientist” through which we are showing school kids the life journey of scientists in CCMB. This work will always be very close to me for many reasons, the most important one being, I get to tell stories of some amazing, brilliant humans of science and how they thought of the questions that they are answering through their work. I am learning so much from Somdatta about science-storytelling while doing this series that makes me feel like I am growing as an artist & person.
Cover page for Comics based on Journey of Dr. Manjula Reddy, CCMB from series ‘I am a Scientist’ in collaboration with CSIR-Jigyasa & CCMB.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be curious about Ideas and their implementation strategies. It doesn’t have to be from science exclusively. In the new world we will have less traditional job roles, so expand your horizon, know your strengths and work on your weaknesses, and be open to criticism. Read books on many subjects outside your field, interact with people from different walks of life, learn about their work and struggles. Put your heart & mind in the work that you love and do it so that people should aspire to do it that way. And one thing I learned from my PhD mentor; Happiness is a journey, so make sure you are enjoying your journey.
I would like to work more on my existing skills in the coming years and add more to my skill sets. I would like to work towards making science more accessible to people from all walks of life because only with everyone’s participation will the whole process of doing science be more transparent, well-funded and popular. Scientific awareness plays a vital role in a country’s progress and that’s my aim through my science illustration work. As a visual artist I aspire to write more visual books for youngsters that should make even students in the last bench curious about it and inspire them to read.
My website is under construction:
My current comics series ‘I am a Scientist’ in collaboration with Dr. Somdatta Karak & CCMB can be seen at:
I am also active on Social Media Platforms: