When a Target gift card just won't cut it

Lately I've been getting requests for artwork to be given as gifts, which is something that I never would have even thought to offer as a service, but it is such a great idea. In this Etsy era of handmade personalized gifts, what's more personal than a gift that celebrates someone's specific contributions to science? While I was wondering why I never thought of this before, I realized that I've sort of been doing it for years. For instance I often draw Valentine's Day cards that are based on the science that the hubs is doing at the time. I remember one card during his postdoc that read, "Roses are red, Violets are blue, If you were a phosphotyrosine, I would be SH2." Or something like that. It never occurred to me that this could be done on a larger scale.  

One recent request came from the wife of a researcher at HHMI's Janelia Research Campus. He had published a paper in Science and was about to be promoted to group leader. She wanted something special to mark these exciting (and apparently unrelated) events, and thought that some original artwork for his new office would be just the thing. So I read the Science paper, which is about a calcium-binding fluorescent protein they designed that can detect activation of neurons by their change in calcium concentration. Upon action potential firing, calcium ions barge into the cell, and that leads to a shift from green to red fluorescence of the protein when hit with a certain wavelength of light. Using this probe, they were able to image the whole brain in mice, flies, and, remarkably, freely swimming zebrafish larvae. They saw specific regions of the brain lighting up when the organisms did things like smell an aromatic compound, "hear" a specific vibrational frequency, or have to process the changing directions of a grating. I assume the last one lights up the part of the brain that gets activated when I have to look at a map upside down. Actually I think the portion of my brain that is supposed to carry out that function has been replaced by recordings of Yakety Sax, aka the Benny Hill theme song. Anyway, this calcium-sensing protein is called calcium-modulated photoactivatable ratiometric integrator, or CaMPARI, which is also a popular red-colored liqueur known for its bitter flavor. When I started looking at some old posters for Campari the aperitif, I came across the original 1920's poster depicting a clown inside of an orange peel holding a bottle of Campari. The orange peel reminded me of the structure of CaMPARI, so I thought it would be funny if the clown was replaced with a cute little zebrafish larva and the orange peel by the actual protein structure. You can't really tell in this image, but the original clown has white polka dots on his red pajamas. These were replaced by neurons on the zebrafish (my client's idea). Most of them are green, but in a few small regions they are lighting up red. The recipient of this bizarre parody found it in his new office alongside a card with the original poster image as shown below. I was relieved to hear that he was quite pleased with it.

In another project, the sister of a soon-to-be assistant professor of polymer science and engineering contacted me to commission a piece of artwork for her brother's new office. His work has two main themes. One is optically functional polymers, so for example, a polymer that can take light and convert it to a higher frequency. The other is stimuli-responsive materials, or polymers (generally) that change properties (ie. color, local concentration of a molecule, etc.) when stimulated with something like light, mechanical stress, etc. Interestingly, the sister who hired me is a Ph.D. biochemist. I am working on tracking down the parents for their playbook. 

I have two more of these possibly in the works and I hope it catches on. It's fun to be a part of such a thoughtful gesture. I am inspired to up my game this Christmas. 

Latest installment of The Short Answer

I've been wanting to do a paper from ACS Central Science, a brand new open access journal that covers a range of topics with chemistry at the heart of everything. This paper was exciting to me because it not only links two molecules that are the basis for ongoing clinical trials for cancer, but it also links two of my long-time scientific heroes.

Am I boring you?

Yesterday I got trapped by a car nap. Neither of my kids can be transferred from car to bed so sometimes this happens. I assume it's because we are really really boring. It reminded me of the time when the hubs and I were talking about some transcription factor in the car and we turned around to find our older son fast asleep, nowhere near his nap time. Anyway, there are worse things than getting trapped by car naps. I had a coffee and a sketchbook and nothing else I could be doing. Poor me. 

Do you want the good news or the bad news first?

So the bad news is that this image was not chosen for the cover of this week's issue of Nature. It was beaten out by something quite literally more sexy. It is a stunning photograph of an Australian bearded dragon, which is now the first reptile to have been found to undergo sex reversal in the wild. Add to that a temperature dependence to the sex determination that has scientists wondering about their ability to adapt to climate change. Hard to compete with that. 

  A colloidal quantum dot spectrometer. Bao J, Bawendi MG.  Nature. 2015 Jul 1;523(7558):67-70. doi: 10.1038/nature14576.


A colloidal quantum dot spectrometer. Bao JBawendi MG.  Nature. 2015 Jul 1;523(7558):67-70. doi: 10.1038/nature14576.

The good news is that variations of the image that I also made for the project were picked up by various news outlets including the MIT News Office,  Popular MechanicsSciFeedsScitech DailyProduct Design and Development, and myScience. I had to give Popular Mechanics a little tap on the shoulder to remind them to credit the image to me, but they acknowledged and fixed their mistake faster than an Australian bearded dragon can say. "What the what? I thought those were going to be ovaries!"


The latest installment

Since I don't have all of the time in the world to work, I tend to do a lot of my thinking about projects when I'm away from my desk and doing dishes, driving, or, as the current installment of The Short Answer suggests, playing with my 3 year old son.

Sneak preview of this month's The Short Answer

Having been thoroughly disappointed by the quality of pen lines I could get in Photoshop, I splurged and bought a Rapidograph ink pen. SO I thought I'd give a try with this month's The Short Answer. It's real ink on real paper! Imagine that.

These ninja inteins were inspired by the following paper. Look for the final version in the next couple of days!

Chemical tagging and customizing of cellular chromatin states using ultrafast trans-splicing inteins.

David Y, Vila-Perelló M, Verma S, Muir TW.

Nat Chem. 2015 May;7(5):394-402. doi: 10.1038/nchem.2224. Epub 2015 Apr 6.

Does this mean I can call myself an award-winning science illustrator now?

As I mentioned in the last post, I am excited to have won this cover art competition for Nature Chemical Biology's 10th anniversary issue, which just came out today:

The piñata is sort of celebratory - because what 10 year old journal doesn't want a piñata at their birthday party? I assume they also had a bouncy house and large inflatable slide. An early sketch I did had the stick as the "1", but that just ended up looking like a "0" getting beat up, which didn't really make any sense.

Another drawing I did for the competition was a little more bizarro.. The call for submissions asked for something having to do with the future of chemical biology, and I thought that many if not most chemical biologists have their eye on the ultimate prize of finding new therapeutic interventions for human diseases. Hence the medicine cabinet full of molecules. 

And one other design I made was based on the fact that it seems like neurobiology is going to play a large role in the at least near future of chemical biology since that seems to be where a lot of money and effort is going right now. So this is the structure of the acetylcholine receptor from the side view and from the top view, with some neurons hanging out in the background.


My prize for winning the competition was not just getting my artwork on the cover, but also a year's subscription to Nature Chemical Biology. So look for a lot of The Short Answer installments coming from there in the next year.  

Lucky Number 10

This is my 10th journal cover, and it was for a journal that is apparently celebrating its 10th anniversary. Also in April, I learned that I had won a cover art competition for Nature Chemical Biology's 10th anniversary issue (will share that when it comes out). My string of good luck has included being very busy with work, so 10 is also roughly the number of consecutive days that I've been working late nights to keep up, and the minimum % ABV beer that I will enjoy when I finally get a night off.

The paper highlighted on the cover below is about an arginine deiminase called PAD2 that is activated through a series of calcium ions binding to the enzyme in a particular order. As a co-activator of the estrogen receptor in breast cancer cells, it's a pretty important therapeutic target. The padlock in the active site was chosen because the corresponding author has a company called Padlock Therapeutics that was built on this basic research, so the idea is that the calcium ions are unlocking activity. 

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.