Illustrating science: an interview with Leslee Lazar

Neuroscientist Leslee Lazar has always been interested in design and art. Now, as a freelance graphic designer, he creates visual aids that communicate complex scientific information – especially biomedical research – to the right audience.
Leslee Lazar
Leslee Lazar.

Image credit: Leslee Lazar

Did science fascinate you from a young age?

Not really. I was pretty aimless until I joined college, where I was fortunate to study zoology and chemistry. Science was not the most preferred course in India back then, and even now. Coming from a middle-class Indian family, I was expected to become an engineer or a doctor. But I did not do well in the exams and qualified for neither. So I joined Zoology, in Loyola College, Chennai, which I ended up really liking.

There, I met Dr. Ravichandran who was setting up his lab. I volunteered to work with him and I was hooked immediately. I started spending more time in the library and the lab. Most of the hands-on training in college was spoon-fed and utterly lacking creativity, but working in his lab introduced me to the joys of designing and performing experiments.

Why did you choose to focus on neuroscience for your PhD?

It was and still is the most exciting field in biology. When I was deciding which discipline to pursue, there were many stories published in newspapers and magazines, which were quite inspiring. Also, I had become interested in animal behaviour, and neuroscience allowed me to investigate the mechanisms underlying such behaviour.

What did you investigate during your PhD?

I worked on information processing in somatosensory cortex [the main brain region that processes the sense of touch] in primates. Humans, apes and old world monkeys have evolved opposable thumbs. This is a very important evolutionary milestone that led to greater manual dexterity, tool use and cultural evolution. I found that tactile information from the opposable thumb has a modular input to the brain.

Why did you choose to do a postdoc at Harvard Medical School?

I wanted to correlate behaviour to more specific anatomical regions, sub-types of neurons and clearly defined circuits. This was being made possible by advances in transgenic mice and optogenetics. So I applied to many labs and I accepted a position that I thought was best for me. Also, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t seduced by the fancy reputation of Harvard.

What did you enjoy most about research?

I enjoy doing experiments and writing. I also enjoy tinkering in the lab, and working in an electrophysiology lab gave me ample opportunities for that. Travelling and meeting people, which science affords because of its internationality, is an added benefit.

And did you have any difficult times?

Plenty. My PhD took much longer than planned for many unfortunate reasons. There was a period of two years of uncertainty where I had doubts if I would ever graduate and in hindsight I think I was depressed for most of that time.

My postdoc stint was not enjoyable at all. In hindsight I should have quit in the first week. I spent way too long in a lab which was not a good fit for me. So I spent most of the time being one of the thousands of the unhappy postdoc flock in Boston.

At what point did you decide to pursue a career as a graphic designer?

After my unsuccessful postdoc stint in Boston I came back to India and was writing a paper with my PhD advisor and applying for research grants. I had a lot of free time and so I was asked to make illustrations for my friend Dr. Sumiti’s science blog. I realised that I really enjoyed it and that there was a need for designers and illustrators who are science savvy.

In your opinion, how important are images for science communication?

I think there is a shift in how people process information. With the internet age, the average length of articles is reducing, and so is the time spent reading them. But there is so much more information generated and the complexity is increasing. So we have less time and space to convey more information, and so we are using visual aids more and more. A clear trend is the increased use of data visualisation tools and infographics, which you will find in any magazine or newspaper now.

How did you set yourself up as a professional graphic designer?

I am still in the process of setting myself up. The first thing was to make a portfolio and a website. I did some projects for friends and spent a few months making a portfolio. Then I launched my website and my social media presence on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.

What kind of projects do you work on? Do you restrict your designs to scientific topics?

I do not restrict myself to scientific projects, but the design needs of the biomedical community are large and varied. The kind of projects I can contribute to range from app design to figures in a review paper. Some of the things I have done include illustrations to increase traffic to a blog, infographics to break down complex information for a review or news article, conceptual designs for cover art, and social media publicity for research articles.

How do you approach a new project?

I start by reading papers and books to get an understanding of the subject matter. Next, I decide what to convey to the audience visually. I sketch a few ideas down and decide on a style. Then I render it on a computer and add and subtract things until I am happy with the outcome.

Do you have a favourite project that you’ve worked on?

Yes, I made a poster for a conference on neuroimaging and cognitive disorders. It was based by a drawing by one of my favourite Indian artists, F. N. Souza. He made a series of sketches of the human face depicting suffering due to mental illnesses. I used one of them as my inspiration and it turned out pretty satisfactory.

What do you find most satisfying about your work?

At the end of the day, it’s creating art, so it is quite satisfying to create something. Working independently is also quite enjoyable.

What has been the most unexpected challenge you’ve faced in your professional design career?

To convince people that good design can communicate their work better and more widely. Scientists believe that content is everything, but they fail to realize that communication is at the core of doing science.

And, freelance doesn’t mean free!

What skills did you develop during your research career that you use regularly now?

The ability to read critically and to get to the core issue is something that comes with scientific training. Of course, organisational skills and perseverance are something you pick up during inadvertently in grad school.

Are there any other skills that are essential for design work?

It is essential to have a good aesthetic eye. The rest of the skills – techniques, creativity and scientific knowledge – are all trainable. Also, good marketing and social media skills can come in handy.

What are your next career goals?

I want to establish myself a visual designer for science communication. I am exploring the use of new design solutions (interactive websites, apps, games, virtual reality etc.) in neuroscientific research and communication. The plans are still raw, but I am working on it.

What do you do in your free time?

I like hiking and travel in the Himalayas when I get the time. Apart from that I play football, attempt to invent new cocktails, cook, read and watch a lot of TV shows.

Do you still stay up to date with the latest neuroscience research?

Yes. I still do. It's exciting to read isn’t it?!

What advice would you give to early career researchers who want to go into graphic design?

I am wary of advice. I have come to realise that it’s short-sighted at best and self-serving at worst. But if I am forced to – look at other people’s work. There are a lot of great designers who put their work up online. Go look at what they do, why and how.

Leslee Lazar CV

  1. 2015 – present: Visual Science Communicator
  2. 2014 – 2015: Research Fellow, Harvard Medical School, US
  3. 2004 – 2013: Phd in Neuroscience, National Brain Research Centre, India
  4. 2001 – 2003: Freelance content writer
  5. 200 – 2001: Photojournalist,
  6. 1998 – 2000: Masters of science in Zoology, University of Madras, India
  7. 1995 – 1998: Bachelor of science in Zoology, Loyola College, India