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Bringing science to life through art and illustration

Profile: Mary O’Reilly, Ph.D., science artist and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry

Mary O'Reilly: Ph.D. chemist, science artist, adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Courtesy photo.

Mary O’Reilly is a Ph.D. chemist who wears lots of hats.

Some days, she’s a freelance artist for her company, O’Reilly Science Art, working on assignments for various clients. Other days, she’s an adjunct assistant professor, teaching classes at the University of San Diego. But most days, she’s a little bit of both.

As an undergrad at Purdue University, Mary found that she loved research, which led her to earn her Ph.D. from MIT (Biological Chemistry, 2006) with the goal of pursuing an academic career. During grad school, science art was Mary’s “Plan B” in case an academic job didn’t pan out.

While working on a post-doc at Scripps Research Institute, she did some serious self-evaluating to figure out if academia was something she really wanted and would excel at.

“In the end I decided that I could make the best contribution to science and gain the most personal fulfillment from a career in science illustration,” Mary said. “Once I was able to couple this with teaching, another creative pursuit with the goal of communicating science, everything just fell into place.”

Her duties as a science artist include talking with clients about assignments, doing background research, making sketches, and creating illustrations and animations that communicate scientific concepts. The job also involves all the things that come along with running your own business, including writing license agreements, emailing, tracking hours, advertising, collecting payments and book-keeping.

“My projects have spanned from creating a technical promotional poster for a biotech company to illustrating a collection of chemistry poetry,” she explained.

As an adjunct professor, Mary spends her time preparing and giving lectures, meeting with students, writing and grading exams and the like.

Mary explained how her two jobs complement each other well: “Illustration and animation make their way into my lectures, and alternatively, as I observe how students assimilate material, it informs the design aspect of my illustration work.”

Side note: I bet her lecture slides, decked out with art and animations, are really sweet.

An illustration made by Mary O'Reilly that shows two different applications of chemically derivatizing a viral capsid. This image appeared as a table of contents graphic in Chembiochem. 2010 Mar 1;11(4):481-4.

“One of the reasons that I like my jobs is that no two days are the same,” Mary said.

But balancing two jobs comes with a unique set of challenges, especially since neither job is the type that you can squeeze into a 9-to-5 type of schedule.

“Freelance is not for everyone,” Mary said. “It is highly unpredictable and unstable, which is why many freelancers supplement with more consistent work, such as teaching.”

Mary first got curious about science art as a career when she began wondering who made the artwork in scientific magazines. She started with a simple google search on science illustrator.

She then joined the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, where she found a wealth of information about the field. Mary found informational interviews and networking to be the most valuable components of her research on the field.

“Everyone I talked to had taken a different path, which was comforting, since I certainly didn’t follow a traditional path to the career,” she said.

Mary’s advice to aspiring science illustrators is: get experience, build your portfolio, and boost your skill set with classes.

During college and grad school, Mary took several night classes and workshops. She’s now working toward a certificate in digital design at UCSD.

“More traditional paths to this career include art school or specialized master’s or certificate programs,” Mary said. But it’s debatable whether a formal art degree is necessary to be a science artist.

“If someone wants to find a full-time job with an agency or magazine, then some sort of degree in art and/or design is probably important,” she said. “While many freelancers do have degrees, the consensus seems to be that potential clients are going to look at your experience and portfolio more than your education.”

Although it’s certainly not necessary to get an advanced degree in science, Mary said the training from her chemistry Ph.D. and postdoc in immunology and cell biology has certainly helped.

“I am competing with many extremely talented artists, but my ability to speak a common language with my clients is something that can set me apart,” she said. “I am not just putting their ideas into images, but rather I am able to make intellectual contributions to the conceptualization of images and animations.”

“But to be completely honest, if I had always known that this is the career I would pursue, I wonder if I would have had the drive to make it through graduate school,” she added.

Science art is a highly competitive field. There are several subfields, including medical, natural science, and molecular and cellular illustration.

While there are jobs out there for freelancers, “it takes some tenacity to find it and to keep it coming.”

Occasionally, Mary does miss being in the lab and doing original research.

“But I think I miss the idea of it,” she said. “I miss designing experiments and seeing how they turn out. On the other hand, I don’t miss the weeks or months worth of failed experiments.”

It’s nice to have a job as an artist where there is “a direct relationship between input of effort and progress made,” she added.

I think anyone who has ever done research could empathize with that!

Overall, Mary is happy with the path she took to become a science artist.

“I feel that I am doing exactly what I should be doing,” she said.

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