There Is No Set Path
Both my parents are architects, so they both have the analytic but artistic tendencies. I've always loved art, and they have always encouraged me to express myself with art — but once I got into high school, I didn't think there was any way that I could make a living as an artist, it didn't seem realistic. On the other hand, though, I also always loved biology and animals. In junior high and high school I had the opportunity to volunteer at a raptor rehab center. The more I could learn about animals, the more engaged I was. That is why I decided to go for a degree in biology. I did have dreams of becoming a paleontologist, so I also started college with a minor in geology.
The summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college I volunteered at the Cincinnati Museum Center to prep out fossil specimens, and while I was there the main paleontologist there did a very good job of convincing me that I would never have a job in paleontology. He said there are no jobs, it's so competitive, and so I promptly went back to school and dropped my minor in geology and picked up a minor in art, which I was far more excited about. Geology just never caught my imagination like art did. At that point, it still hadn't occurred to me to combine science and art, until I took a Painting and Drawing Botanicals class in my junior year. That is the point where my professor told me about the field of scientific illustration, and she helped me build up my portfolio to apply to grad schools. I would go over to her house, we would talk about what I would need, and she did a lot to help me out.
I went to graduate school at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) for Biomedical Visualization, which was a program targeted toward the medical side of scientific illustration, but they were open to people exploring other fields as well. For my graduate research project, I chose to work with Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago. I had mentioned to him that I had taken mammalogy in my undergraduate program and he said he knew the just the project for me. I already had experience with using CT data and he had a CT scan of a multituberculate waiting to be looked at. A multituberculate is a superficially rodent-like mammaliaform from the Mesozoic Era that is not directly related to modern mammals. They were the single longest living group of mammaliaform, with a fossil record that spans 160 million years. I did an animation showing two possible walk cycles for that multituberculate. When I was getting close to graduating I asked him to keep an eye out for possible jobs, and it just so happened that the university had just hired one of the researchers whose research I used to create that animation, and he was looking for an illustrator who knew how to work with CT data. It was so perfect! I ended up in a field with paleontology and art combined.
My primary role is a scientific Illustrator, but in practical terms more than half of my time at work is spent working with a micro-CT scanner and CT data. Much of the CT scanning I do is for other scientists, including biologists, geophysicists and even an Egyptologist once.
Traditionally, a scientific illustrator produces any kind of two-dimensional Illustrations for print. That could be anything from textbook figures to scientific journal articles to public communications. Most of my work is for primary research articles in scientific journals. With the advance of technology and visual communication, I do 3D animation and 3D printing as well. Right now I am working on a 3D animation that describes to the public the process of taking a fossil, CT scanning it, turning that into a 3D model, and reconstructing the animal. This won't be published in the journal itself, but it will be associated with the journal in publicity materials.
One of the biggest challenges I have is having other people take me seriously as an artist, because a lot of people have preconceived notions of what an artist is and should be. Having a degree in Biology and running a micro-CT scanner doesn't fit the artist stereotype. I've always pushed myself to explore new art concepts. There are things like the dynamics of light that I find very interesting, and color and how color changes in light. I'm constantly pushing myself to do better in my own art, which, to me, is scientific because it's a way of observing and learning more about light. I also spend time researching better ways to produce CT scans that have fewer artifacts but have the best possible contrast. It all ties in together because CT is using X-rays and X-rays are light too, just a different type of light. Art and CT scanning seem very different to people when I talk about it initially, but they do tie together very much in my mind.
There was a speaker at the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators conference who talked about not just using art to communicate science but using art as a scientific approach that I found very fascinating. I think most people don't even realize that Scientific Illustration is a field until they are older. I had classmates that came from fine arts backgrounds, medical backgrounds, scientific backgrounds, and everyone just kind of found their way there. There is no set path. Everyone I've talked to has a different story about how they got to SI. And I know there are people that never get a degree in it but still find work because they have a good portfolio and have found opportunities. If it's something you want to do and you're practicing and passionate about it, you will find a way to do it. It is a ripe field. That being said, full-time scientific illustrations jobs are rare and most people freelance part or full time or have a full-time job where they have other responsibilities, like me.
Something that artistically I continue to strive for in myself is to work on my understanding of anatomy, light on form, and shadow. I continue to learn and play with new techniques too. I just used scratchboard for the first time at the GNSI conference and I absolutely loved it. From my CT work perspective, I am continuing to read articles about how to get scans with good contrast and fewer artifacts. Someone recently asked me about CT scanning a flower and I've been doing some research into that. Flowers wilt over time, so trying to get a CT scan is very challenging because any movement in a scan results in a bad scan.
As a kid, I didn't think art was realistic and I was convinced not to go into paleontology, and now I work in both fields, which is pretty crazy.
April Neander is a professional scientific illustrator specializing in mammal paleontology, but also does work in broader fields of biology, such as anatomy and botany. She did her graduate studies at UIC for Biomedical Visualization. April has worked as the illustrator and visualization expert for the Luo Mammal Paleontology Lab at the University of Chicago since 2012. In the Luo Lab, April fills the additional roles of lab manager, CT data specialist, and UChicago PaleoCT technician. Her illustrations range from technical pieces for scientific journals to editorial illustrations to captivate public interest. In her free time, April hones her artistic technique by doing visual studies of a wide variety of animals and plants. She is fortunate to live in Chicago, where there are a plethora of resources available at local zoos, museums, and art communities. See more of April's work here.
Words: April Neander
Art: April Neander