Happy Birthday, The Short Answer!

This month marks one year since the inception of the illustrated journal club (of one) series known as The Short Answer. If you have been following these, you may have noticed that I haven't really settled on a particular style, or even a consistent format. I'm still not sure what I'm doing with these; they are my place to play. Some I am more proud of than others. But one unintended consequence is that it has brought me a few new clients, since I always share them with the authors. My science writer/communication guru friend calls this content marketing. Others might call it the old strategy of giving them something for free. I hadn't really considered any of this when I set out to make these. I suppose it's a lot of work to reach a very small audience, but it is exactly the audience I want to reach, and that's not really the reason I do it anyway. 

So without further ado, here is the anniversary installment. The reason that it is the 9th issue is that with the arrival of my second son in August, I had to drop it down to every other month for a while. I hope to get back to monthly installments soon. I also hope to fit into my shorts by summertime. As the hubs says, "We all want things."


Got the Chem Comm Cover!

This came out today, with cover art I made for the Szymczak Lab at the University of Michigan. They found that certain ligands in a copper-fluoride complex result in the trapping of the fluoride ion via hydrogen bonds after a change in copper's oxidation state would have otherwise let the fluoride go. When I read the manuscript, the first thing that popped into my head was that the hydrogen bonds were creating a sort of cobweb effect to capture the departing F-, then quickly disregarded it as silly. Soon after that, my client e-mailed me that he had had an idea about using cobwebs and spiders, but that as he was writing it he began realizing that it sounded silly. So as fate would have it, the spider metaphor persisted.

Image reproduced by permission of Nathaniel K. Szymczak from Chem. Commun., 2015, 51, 5490. Image credit: O’Reilly Science Art, LLC.

Image reproduced by permission of Nathaniel K. Szymczak from Chem. Commun., 2015, 51, 5490. Image credit: O’Reilly Science Art, LLC.

The Short Reminder

Just a reminder that The Short Answer is on an every 2-month installment schedule for now, so check back at the end of March for the next one. In the meantime please enjoy this image of some organelles that I have made available for your viewing pleasure. I made it using Maya and Photoshop, but it's for an animation I'm working on using the ultra high-end animation package known as PowerPoint. It's so cutting edge that the Hollywood studios haven't even caught on yet. Ha. Suckers. 

The 20-year plan

One of my old high school classmates posted this photo on Facebook earlier this week: 

Then I noticed that the photo was taken exactly 20 years ago today. It was the spring semester of my senior year of high school and since I had nearly completed my coursework, I was blissfuly spending nearly all day everyday in the art room. I had let go of the idea of going to art school since my mother succeeded in convincing me that it would be wise to have something else to fall back on. "Don't you also really like chemistry?!" It was true, I did. But as far as I knew an actual career in chemistry meant sitting at a bench all day doing acid-base titrations as your goggles fogged over and at the time it seemed a fate worse than the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I had vague ideas of combining science and art but didn't know what that sort of career would look like either. So I wasn't particularly excited about my prospects for the future and I certainly didn't foresee falling in love with research. Four years after this photo was taken, I had nearly completed my coursework at Purdue, and I was blissfully spending nearly all day every day in the lab. 

Fifteen years after this photo was taken I finally figured out how to combine my two loves. It helped that I now had google, which proved much more resourceful than my parents' encyclopedia set, and I was a bona fide grown-up who could pick up the phone and talk to lots of other science illustrators. And I was, and still am, very excited about my prospects for the future. 

As for the rest of the crew in this picture, I've lost touch with most of them. We lost Jonathon at a tragically young age to cancer. He was as amazing a person as he was an artist and he is still very much missed by many. Amy and I had been friends since the fifth grade, and she and I were sipping tea in my kitchen just a month or two ago. You can see her gorgeous paintings here: http://www.amymnorman.com/

Tough actin' Teixobactin

This animation is an old one, but I'm rerunning it in honor of the article out in Nature today about an antibiotic that is crushing all sorts of nasty drug-resistant bacteria. Super scary MRSA? Check. Mycobacterium tuberculosis? Uh huh. Even the bacteria that causes pneumonia (or ammonia, as I sadly heard it referred to recently by a healthcare worker). Because of the unique mode of action of the antibiotic, it is unlikely to lead to resistance, and indeed was unable to yield drug resistant strains in a laboratory test. I would love to go more into it; it's a great story. Maybe the next The Short Answer.

For now I'll just cross my fingers that teixobactin makes it through the safety studies in humans and is on the shelves before my sons start playing organized sports. Every time I hear about MRSA in locker rooms I want to hide all of the sports equipment. "What's that? Oh I thought you said Mathlete. Soooorry."  

O'Reilly Science Art holiday party of two

This year for the office holiday party I invited my closest and most trusted business associate, my fiercest critic and most ardent supporter, the hubs. We went to a tiny Japanese restaurant and ate tiny food and drank rice beer and sweet stout. I wish I could say that the porcelain characters accompanying us were our secret Santa gifts (the sombrero-clad owl holding up a waving frog would look amazing on my desk) but they were just part of the decor. I also wish I could say that we took full advantage of having a babysitter but by 10pm we were so. very. tired. In somewhat related news I've decided that for the time being, The Short Answer will be coming out every other month, which it sort of already has been lately, but now I won't feel badly about it. Someday when the childcare:workload ratio is a little more amenable to side projects I hope to return to monthly installments. 

Happy Holidays!!!

A parting gift amidst wistful musings

Today is my three-year old son's last day at Little Thinkers, a preschool that was designed for two year olds and young three year olds. It's time for him to move up to big boy preschool. I suspect that a tear or two will be shed (by me) as we say goodbye to this very special little place. To say thanks for helping usher the little guy into becoming a happily functioning member of toddler society, I made this sign and framed it for them. The little bird is from one of the many art projects that were brought home (and for my own amusement, reminiscent of Portlandia's "Put a Bird on It" sketch). I just photoshopped it in from a picture I took of it. (I snapped photos of his art projects because if we actually kept them all we would need to rent a storage unit. Shhhh...).  The only thing that makes me a little less sad today is knowing that we'll be back with the littler guy in about a year and a half.  

A tale of two covers

Big week, though you'll have to take my word for it. This week two journals came out whose covers I had a hand in. The first one is this JACS cover, which I actually made. However, due to an unfortunate policy, illustrators who create cover art for JACS are made to relinquish copyright and are not given credit for the work. This is not uncommon - it is called work-for-hire (and considered a scourge by many artists). The part that seems a little unfair to me is that I was paid for the artwork by the authors, not the journal. Nevertheless, I'm happy that I was able to get the cover for my client. 

© American Chemical Society

© American Chemical Society

Below is the alternate design that I gave my clients to send to JACS for consideration. The editors, as did we, preferred the one above. To give a little more context, the paper is about the teasing out of the precise molecular determinant of antibody recognition in Brucellosis, a highly contagious disease that can be passed from animals to humans via tainted milk or cheese, or just by very close contact (karma for cow-tippers?). The finding of a specific disaccharide on the Brucella bacteria that antibodies bind to opens up new possibilities in diagnostics and potentially a vaccine for the the disease. 

The next cover of note is Nature. The mock-up below is not the cover of the November 20th issue of Nature, but according to my client, for whom I made this image as candidate cover art, it was used as the inspiration for it. My image is meant to be a Venn diagram that represents the comparison of mouse and human genomes and the identification of functional DNA sequences. They discovered many of these functional units, some unique and some common between the two species, through both mining the sequences and some good old biochemistry. From this they were able to learn about which DNA regulatory elements diverged between these species in the course of evolution. It is actually a series of papers that describes an incredible tour de force. The cover that the Nature team created depicts two human heads facing away from each other and overlapping, wherein the overlapping region was made to look like a mouse. I don't think it's meant to be a Venn diagram any longer. It's as though they are both thinking the same thought. Mice! You rascally little rodents. Oh how we've diverged from you evolutionarily and yet kept some DNA regulatory elements in common. Please continue to be our lab slaves evermore.

Logo Biz

So it seems that the certificate in graphic design that I completed at UCSD is paying off. Here are a couple of logos that I designed just over the past few months.

For the first one, the clients asked me to incorporate neurons and a road into a black and white logo.  The little sausages refer to the fact that their work relates more specifically to myelin.   

The second one was for a chemistry professor at the University of San Diego who is starting up a network of local polymer scientists here in San Diego called San Diego Polygrid. His only request was to have a polymer sort of intertwined somewhere, like vines on a trellis. The driving force behind this group is the desire to bring together people and ideas, and possibly promote more collaboration, so I have two polymers using the word "grid" to bring together otherwise distant ligands. For you chemists out there, I was inspired by the concept of increased effective concentration. And I just realized as I'm writing this that this one also has little sausages (polymer monomers). In possibly related news, I spent the better part of my recent pregnancy with an overwhelming craving for kielbasa. 

The short answer

A ghoul ate my The Short Answer! Happy Halloween and we'll see you back here in November. 

Better late than never

After some lengthy and heated contract negotiations with white lab mouse #2, we are back. Forgive me if there are any typos - I haven't had more than three consecutive hours of sleep in over a month.

The Short Answer, Issue #5

I have to admit, this one sort of snuck up on me. Earlier this week I realized that today, and not next Friday, is the last Friday in July. How am I supposed to remember that there aren't 32 days in July? I know there's some knuckle trick but I can't be bothered. The good news is that this paper is hot off the presses, published online four days ago, and it's pretty interesting. Here's the pdf.

It's alive! It's ALIVE!

Here is another piece of candidate cover art, this time for Nature Neuroscience. The authors have discovered a new type of neuron whose electrical action potential can trigger stem cells in the adult brain to make new neurons. Hooray! 

Candidate Cover Art for PNAS

It's been too long since I've shared any real illustrations, so it's about time. Dong Wang's group at UCSD has used sophisticated computer simulations to track the movement of an RNA polymerase along a DNA template at atomic resolution and on the millisecond timescale. They were able to get information that you just can't get from X-ray crystal structures, and identified two intermediate states that no one had ever known of before.

Though I actually may have believed that I had invented the idea that NMR and computational dynamics are to X-ray crystallography what film reels are to polaroid snapshots (first way back here), I suspect that may not be the case, and now that it's been used by someone else on the cover of this month's Nature Chemical Biology, I know it's time to retire the analogy, at least for my purposes.  

The Short Answer, Issue #3

I started this little series when business was a bit slow, and shortly thereafter I happily became very busy for a couple of months with three cover art candidates, two TOC graphics, a figure for a review article and another for a biotech's slide deck, and one very touching gift from some graduating seniors for their beloved undergraduate research advisor. So sometimes, "The Short Answer" will very literally live up to its name, such as in this particular installment. Here, I really picked out what I found most compelling and glossed over many details (maybe that is the point of this thing anyway?). There's plenty more meat to the story so I recommend checking out the full paper if you're interested. 

As always, click here for a pdf version, in case you don't have your magnifying glass handy. To see older installments you can check out the "archive" (of two additional issues) here

My thumb is famous. I have arrived.

Yesterday a big story hit multiple news outlets - that of a living organism that grows and divides with an expanded set of nucleotides. In addition to the usual G, A, T, and C, a group at the Scripps Research Institute led by Floyd Romesberg has discovered a novel synthetic base pair comprised of two nucleotides that, interestingly, don't even hydrogen bond with one another. They introduced these new bases into the DNA of bacteria, and lo and behold, the bacteria grew and divided, passing this strange new code to their progeny. 

I had been hired to design candidate cover art for the issue of Nature that this paper came out in yesterday, but the project was halted when they realized that the paper was being fast-tracked and the cover had already been chosen. Nevertheless, the clients kept the drafts of the designs we had been working on, just in case they may come in handy for press coverage. The next thing I knew, my thumb was on BBC News, NPR's blog, and a handful (no pun intended) of other news sites as well. If you click on the image below, you'll see a gallery including the other two drafts. The printing blocks were a very rough draft, but got picked up by Live Science. Apparently no one wanted to use our favorite - an idea I had while hanging out with my two-year old. So while both he and I still remain relatively anonymous, my thumb is skyrocketing to superstardom.