Mitochondria, microbes and intertwining DNA structures jump out at you in Bristol-based artist Claudia Stocker’s colorful illustrations. With Vivid Biology, a science illustration company she founded two years ago, Stocker and her team illustrate a range of science-based projects: from complex research papers to concept artworks for biotechnology products. Her vivid, colorful drawings have character and give a glimpse into the person she is: an individual who champions scientific detail, with a passion for communicating biological research with simplicity, scientific correctness, and creativity at core.
Stocker has an interest in visualising minute biological structures we can’t see, making complex structures bolder and clearer while bringing scientific processes into focus. She compares her artistic process to how artists go about illustrating a comic book.
“I always draw everything by hand first,” Stocker explains. “I sketch the image using pencil, outline the illustration with ink using a brush pen, then scan the drawing to clean up the lines. After this, I color the piece using Adobe Illustrator.”
Prior to starting her MSci in natural sciences at Cambridge University, Stocker took a year off to do an art foundation course. “When I started at Cambridge I did a lot of illustrations for student papers like The Tab, Varsity, TCS and graphic designs for a lot of societies,” Stocker says. “This was great for getting a portfolio, but I didn’t realise you could do scientific illustration as a career until my fourth year at university. I got work experience at Equinox Graphics, which does 3D rendering and animation for scientists, particularly for space and biological science. They needed someone who could draw to speed up their concept sketching and storyboarding process.”
After Stocker’s internship she considered a PhD but instead started freelance graphic design. “It was important to use my degree and to be able to understand the science behind the drawings.” Since then, Stocker completed a scholarship at The Royal Drawing School and has undertaken a range of science-art collaborations in Bristol, Cambridge, and London, from which she then began Vivid Biology.
Recently Stocker completed illustrations for a research paper conducted by Johanna Ivaska involving a software called FiloQuant, an ImageJ plugin that can extract quantifiable information such as protrusion dynamics, density, and length from various cell types in a range of microenvironments. The project let her come at the research from an artistic and scientific point of view, Stocker explains. “It was cool because it was relevant to the software I use. Every step that the software took to extract the data was directly comparable to something I do in Photoshop. It was interesting to see how you can scale up millions of images and get the exact numbers.” For Stocker, this project was especially relevant and challenging as it demonstrated why visualizing complex findings in biological research is so vital.
Stocker describes her background in science as both a “blessing and a curse.” Being able to understand the science behind a research paper, she is mindful of taking the “easy way out” by illustrating the biological structure literally rather than artistically. “I sometimes feel that I’m not saying anything new by just regurgitating the science in slightly brighter colors. I try to think of a way to approach the subject that hasn’t been done before.”
In relation to synthetic biology, Stocker stresses that more than ever it is important to engage the general public; to ensure that everyone feels involved in the process and understands the implications of the research. “A lot of people are a bit scared by synthetic biology, those who know about it anyway, and that includes scientists,” says Stocker. “The technology is still in the developmental phase and the potential implications when it is cracked are huge. I think scientists are aware of a repeat of the negative press that occurred with genetically modified foods.”
An ongoing challenge for science communicators such as Stocker is the lack of grant funding. “A lot of research grants are specific about how you spend the money, and some of them don’t allow it to be spent on outreach and engagement projects,” Stocker says. “Most of the work I do for scientists has to be paid for out of the institute marketing budget, or the scientists have to pay for it themselves. Obviously that limits how much work you can do with science at the cutting edge.”
To view more about Vivid Biology, click here.
This interview was conducted in February 2018 by Anna Marks.