What is your scientific background?
I was a late bloomer. Throughout my 20s, I worked odd jobs, studied graphic design, dabbled in painting, and spent some time as a bicycle mechanic. I finally began my undergraduate degree in biology at the University of Toronto shortly after I turned 30.
I had the vague notion that I might become an entomologist, but I ended up accidentally falling in love with microbiology. After graduation I got a job as a research technician in a lab where we study the evolutionary forces and molecular mechanisms that guide interactions between a variety of pathogenic bacteria and their hosts.
How did you transition from the lab to your current job?
I still work in research by day, but I’ve always had an artistic side, so when I saw an opportunity to blend my art and science into a new career path, I had to jump at it. I had started exploring ceramic arts around the same time that I started studying biology, so the two merged quite naturally for me.
I began to use clay to explore scientific themes, particularly in the realm of microbiology. I quickly discovered that there is a great demand for accurate, beautiful, and unique representations of microbes, anatomical structures, and scientific concepts.
There have been a number of steep learning curves along the way; running a business comes with a whole set of organizational challenges even when you’re not managing a day job.
I’ve reached a happy balance where I’m able to engage in both science and art in equal measure, but eventually I’d like to transition to working in the lab part-time so that I can grow my business further.
How do you spend your day in your job?
I keep a running list on my phone with all the ideas I want to try out. At last count I think I had about 40 design concepts on there!
My workday starts when I get home from the lab. I dedicate one evening a week to working in the pottery studio, creating and glazing. The other evenings (and my weekends) are spent finishing the assembly process, taking product photographs for my website, and managing the shop.
I’m always designing in my head, though. I keep a running list on my phone with all the ideas I want to try out. At last count I think I had about 40 design concepts on there! I also spend a lot of time on Twitter chatting with scientists and science artists from a wide range of disciplines, and developing ideas for new projects.
What do you like most about your job?
My favorite thing about my job is getting to delve into research on stuff I can’t study in the lab. It’s really important to me that I get the major details right, so for instance if I create a design based on a certain species, someone working in that field should be able to correctly identify it.
As a result, I end up spending a lot of time poring over papers and searching websites to make sure I’ve got the design down before I start. In my own lab, my research is very focused on a handful of species, so it’s great to be able to broaden my knowledge.
It’s especially fun when someone comes to me with a specific request and it’s something I know nothing about. I’ve had some wonderful conversations with scientists about their study organisms!
When I go to art shows, the audience is generally decidedly non-scientific on average, so I get a lot of curious people asking about my designs.
I’ve also enjoyed learning how to speak to the lay public about my scientific art. When I go to art shows, the audience is generally decidedly non-scientific on average, so I get a lot of curious people asking about my designs.
Learning how to navigate these interactions has opened up a whole new world to me, and I’m learning a lot about the field of science communication. It’s great fun to watch someone get excited about something they might have thought of as being boring if it had been introduced to them in a different setting.
Do you have any advice for current graduate students and postdocs looking to move out of the lab?
We all come to science with our own skills and talents and perspectives, and those are part of our value as workers and as humans. It’s easy to think that the formal education and training you’ve received is the only thing you have to offer, but you’re so much more than that.
If you can find a way to tap into your existing skills and interests, you can build your own career path, or find one that suits your unique circumstance. Never assume that you’re not fit for the world outside the lab!
Where can you be reached if readers want to ask you more about your job?
I’m pretty much always on Twitter (@vexedmuddler), but I can also be reached via the contact form on my blog or through my Etsy shop.
Join the conversation by commenting below or using the #moretoscience hashtag on twitter. Do you have a job in science that you love, or know someone who does? Contact me at email@example.com or @DanaBerryBMC if you’re interested in participating in our series.