In a Pandemic, Medical Illustrators Made Science Accessible

When Jennifer Fairman started to work on drawing the SARS-CoV-2 virus, she wanted to make it more approachable. “When you look at the virus, it’s really beautiful. The geometry of it is beautiful,” says the medical illustrator, who works with clients including the National Institutes of Health and Harvard Medical School. “I think I wanted to just highlight that.” She ended up choosing to paint in blues, greens, and purples, colors that would intrigue people.Veronica Falconieri, an illustrator who does work for companies like Genentech and researchers at Oxford University, took a different approach when designing images for Scientific American. She envisioned the virus’s eponymous spiky crown as a fiery orange, reminiscent of the corona around the sun. “That was mostly just an artistic decision,” she says.Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, illustrators have been working hard to create images that help teach scientists and lay people about how the virus works and how to take precautions to avoid it. There are images of the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself, depictions of how it wreaks havoc on the lungs, and diagrams of the nasal swab used for testing and how it extends deep into the sinus cavity. Some images are meant to illustrate specific research advances. Others aim to educate the public. But behind all of these drawings are people who combine scientific expertise with artistic flair. “It’s such a hidden field,” says Fairman. “It’s in front of people every day, but people don’t think about it.”
Even if people may not notice it, medical illustrations are common; they’re in medical journals, textbooks, public health pamphlets, and everyday publications like newspapers and magazines. “Many people ask: ‘Why don’t you just have a photograph?’” says Jeff Day, an illustrator who teaches at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “But with an illustration, you have much more control.” Illustrators can decide what’s important to emphasize and which details might crowd the image and make it difficult to read. Plus, some things are too tiny or too difficult to capture clearly with a conventional camera: it’s hard to photograph a swab going up someone’s nose and into their sinuses.

Illustrators use the artistic tools of their trade to do more than create beautiful images. “If they’re not teaching anything, then there’s nothing of value,” says Fairman. By carefully framing a specific protein or system, or by employing eye-catching shades and contrasting colors, illustrators use visuals to tell a story. Their diagrams might teach a medical student how to perform an appendectomy by walking them through each step, or they might illuminate recent research on the structure of the coronavirus’ spike protein . In recent years, more and more illustrators can use 3D models and animation to bring these mages and processes to life.

Telling those stories can require a huge amount of research, particularly if the image is of a brand new discovery. Falconieri, who specializes in molecular and cellular images, will consult with researchers, delve into scientific literature, and pore through databases of protein structures before she begins to craft her renderings. For subjects like the SARS-CoV-2 virus, she’ll piece together research from structural biologists and microbiologists. Often, she says, individual scientists only work on one piece or aspect of the virus—the binding site on the virus’s membrane, for instance, or how it replicates. So to create a full picture of the virus she’ll need to pull together information from several different research groups and images taken through different technologies like electron microscopy or x-ray crystallography. “Things that are so small that we have to look at them in special ways, and no one way gives you the whole story,” she says. “I’m coming in and piecing all those pieces together to create what we think is the whole story.”