Art meets science: The world is your multidisciplinary oyster

Dr Erin Walsh

Dr Erin Walsh was inspired by the lead singer of her favourite band to become a scientific illustrator, doctor in psychology, and to work in epidemiology.

Well, sort of.

“Throughout my school pathway I enjoyed both art and science subjects,” Dr Walsh explains. “I headed towards university and thought: well what do I do?”

“Then I spent one afternoon sitting and listening to music and thinking, and I realised that the lead-singer in my favourite band, Frank M. Spinath from Seabound, was both a university professor and a singer for several bands.”

“And I thought well if he can do it, I can give it a go.”

Not one, but two science degrees later (and both from ANU), all the while improving her illustration with the help of friends in art school, she can safely say she gave it a go.

Dr Walsh describes her career as both scientist and scientific illustrator “a wonderful division”.

She explains that scientific illustration will never go extinct—even in the age of photography—due to the powerful way it engages people with science, and brings interdisciplinary scientists together.

“There’s always going to be room for the interpretation that an illustrator offers.”

“A common example is when you go swimming and see a fish in the ocean. You could take a photograph of that fish, but if the lighting or angle is wrong, that image alone won’t be enough to identify it.

“The untrained eye isn’t going to know what’s important to distinguish that species of fish from another, so what an illustrator does is take that artistic information and pull out a scientific point.”

It was during her time as a psychology PhD student at ANU that she realised how high the demand was for good scientific illustration.

“I started off just illustrating my own work and other people started showing an interest, asking me to draw things for their research posters or stimuli for their experiments. That made me realise that there really is a need out there for illustrators with a scientific background.”

One of her current projects involves drawing cartoon characters engaging in different scientific occupations.

“The aim is to show that scientists are not just lab-coats with floofy grey hair, there’s a much larger variety to what we do.”

Case in point: Dr Erin Walsh.

Another of her projects involves drawing illustrations for a community-engagement series by the Journal of Conservation Physiology in Action.

“The journal provides summaries of scientific papers that the general public should be able to read. The idea is that the illustration gets the reader’s attention, then they read the rest of the text and that gives it context.

“That’s been really enjoyable so far, because there’s just such a great range of stuff. There’s been bees, molluscs, bats and even pandas.”

Just another day in the office.

Aside from getting to draw cool animals, the biggest advantage of being both scientific illustrator and scientist—according to Dr Walsh—is exposure to methods and ideas from different disciplines.

And all of this multidisciplinary work would not have been possible, she explains, without the transferable skills that her undergraduate science degree(s) gave her.

Shameless self-promotion doesn’t hurt either, apparently.

“I have built a career in scientific illustration by elbowing my way into opportunities. It isn’t one of those things where you put your name on a register and work flows in.

“A lot of it is by word of mouth, going to academics at conferences and giving people my business card, which has an example of illustrations I’ve done on it.

“If anyone is interested in building a dual career like this, it can be really rewarding but you can’t be shy about it.”

So whether it’s singing in a band and studying psychology, or working in epidemiology and being a scientific illustrator, just remember that the world is your multidisciplinary oyster.

Find out more about studying a PhD in psychology at ANU.