A common stereotype about pursuing a career in the visual arts is that it’s not as practical as more profitable fields like law or medicine. Though some superstar artists are both well-known and highly paid, the median salary for those in fine-arts professions is $45,080 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the industry is only projected to grow 2 percent by 2024.
Meredith Osborn, an illustrator in Columbus, Ohio, found a way to combine her background as an artist with a field that tends to bring in steady earnings: medicine. The median salary for a medical illustrator is higher than that of the average artist, ranging from $62,000 to $100,000, according to the Association of Medical Illustrators. Osborn creates visuals that convey medical or scientific information about complicated subjects such as genetic testing.For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Osborn about her illustrations of DNA and what it’s like to belong to both the art and medical communities. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Green: What inspired you to become a medical illustrator?
Osborn: I found out that the career even existed when I was a senior in high school taking a careers class. I knew that I really liked art, and was also good at traditional academic stuff. I felt like I was forced to choose between one of those things, so I was trying to find a way to combine them. I was reading about art therapy, but it wasn’t for me. At the end of the day, I'm an educator, not a counselor. One website [with information about art therapy] had a “see related careers” tab, and listed medical illustration. I clicked the link and that's been the plan ever since.
Green: What exactly does a medical illustrator do?
Osborn: Broadly, medical illustrators just use visuals to communicate complicated science. The first thing people think of when they hear about the field is the illustrations from textbooks. That’s certainly a part of it, but it's actually a very small part. Any visuals in research journals, medical-malpractice cases, personal-injury cases are a part of medical illustration. A sub-field of medical illustration is called medical-legal, which are the illustrations that are made to teach the jury about what the attorneys are trying to show about the case. Even anaplastology, which is prosthetics, and surgical illustration are part of the broader medical-illustration umbrella.
For being such a small, niche field, there are so many different directions you can go. I actually ended up focusing more on the molecular side of things. I work for personalized-medicine labs that do DNA testing. Personalized medicine is really cool, cutting-edge science. Ever since the development of the Human Genome Project, that's kicked off this huge research push to see how our genes affect our health. One of the biggest fields within that is called pharmacogenomics. We know that everybody responds to medicine differently, but pharmacogenomics says, “Hey, some of those different responses are in your genes.” The way this works is, for example, option A, you can take medicine that we know works for most people, which may or may not work for you. Or option B, we can do a little DNA test and we can give you a medicine that we know will work for you specifically. It’s really cool to be an illustrator, communicating this new science.
Green: What influenced your desire to work on the molecular side instead of medical-legal or another other sub-field?
Osborn: Medical illustrators broadly tend to either do gross anatomy, which in this case means the opposite of microscopic, and things are either microscopic or gross. Gross means you can see it with the naked eye; molecular is microscopic. I like the molecular better, because I think it's really interesting to try to visualize things that are too small to see. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about what molecules look like or how they move, or how they interact with each other. There’s some room for educated guesses at different points depending on the project. At the end of the day, my core skill set is to be able to break complicated information down in a way that people can understand. Since I happen to be good with a pencil, and also with graphic design, I do that visually through artwork. I like being on that edge of the field.
Green: Did you have to study molecular biology before you could illustrate it?
Osborn: You can actually get a master’s degree in medical illustration. There are four accredited programs in all of North America. I went to the program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. We took the gross-anatomy class—so I’ve done the whole cadaver-dissection experience—molecular pharmacology, web design, 2-D and 3-D animation. I took a class in video-game design to [learn how to] create educational interactives. Medical illustrators, in general, fill in the gaps between the people who know the science and the people who need to understand it.
Green: What is an average day like for you?
Osborn: I work at a personalized-medicine company in the marketing department. It’s my job to explain how DNA testing works and why it is useful to a whole range of different audiences: corporate-wellness programs, physicians, insurance companies, and patients. What that means is that I mostly do a lot of graphic design for brochures and pamphlets. I worked with our marketing manager on the company's website, and then e-mails. Most of the time is spent sitting at my desk with my computer and tablet with Adobe Creative Cloud, Photoshop, and InDesign opened.
Green: What would you say is the most challenging and rewarding part of your job?
Osborn: The most challenging is when I’m designing paperwork. If you think forms are annoying to fill out, they are even more annoying to create. I don't often interface with the people who see the materials that I create, but when I have occasion to, I really enjoy those experiences. Being able to see myself as an educator is a relationship between my work and my identity. Being in a field that gets to do all of this cool tech stuff—the video-game class, or augmented reality, or virtual reality—I get to feel like I’m part of the cutting edge, even though I primarily do graphic design.
Green: When people hear about what you do, are there any misconceptions?
Osborn: Most people don't have a clue what I do. I didn’t meet a medical illustrator until I was 21 years old, and I had already wanted to be one for two or three years at that point in time. We are a pretty rare breed. Most of the time, you get one out of three responses. People sometimes pretend like they've heard of it, even though they totally haven't and just move on with the conversation. I get this one a lot: “Oh, that's like textbooks and stuff.” The last one goes something like, “Oh, yeah. Of course, somebody has to make those, but I never thought that that would be an entire career.”
Green: You said that medical illustrators are a rare breed. Is it very diverse as a field?
Osborn: The majority are women, and that historically has always been the case. Like any field that requires this level of education, it is more likely that people who come from a position of privilege are able to become a medical illustrator. That certainly holds true in the racial demographics—it’s primarily white, though not exclusively, fortunately. Truthfully, I was a little bit disappointed when I found out that it was mostly women. At the time, I was like, “I'm going into a male-dominated field!” Of the 18 people in our graduate program, I think we had two men and 16 women.
Green: Do you consider yourself more a part of the medical community or the art community?
Osborn: That is a big challenge; I flip back and forth. In some situations I feel like an artist, and other times like a scientist. When I started grad school, there were 18 of us in the incoming class. We all had this moment during new-student orientation where we were like, “Ah, I'm weird and you're weird in the same way—let's be friends.” We have all spent our lives bouncing back and forth between those two worlds.
Green: Does that influence the level of esteem that people regard your profession with? Doctors and artist appear to be revered differently in the mainstream.
Osborn: There are times when citing my scientific expertise grants me instant respect. Other times, citing my artistic accomplishments can do the same thing. But there are times when I lose respect by saying I’m an artist in the science community. The Association of Medical Illustrators founded a certification program, and one of the motivations behind that certification initiative is the need for respect and acclaim, and being able to stand toe-to-toe with the other experts in the field.
Osborn: It certainly never feels good to know that someone is devaluing you or your work, or your contribution. One of the first experiences with that was a gross-anatomy class. This is a five-credit-hour, graduate-level lab class, which just means it’s very difficult. Our program had only 18 people, so we were put in with another small program and the physical-therapy program.
When interacting with the students from the other programs, it was really obvious that a lot of them didn't think we knew what we were talking about. On the one hand, it really depended on the person and whether or not that was a valid assumption; medical-illustration graduate programs pull from a very diverse group. I had been a double major in undergrad in both biology and illustration, so I had just as much science background as anyone else in the room. However, some of my classmates had been fine-arts majors.
Green: Why do you think that having a science background is something that warrants value or credibility, as opposed to an arts background?
Osborn: For better or worse, I think science is put up on a pedestal in our zeitgeist in general. If you say that you're doing something scientifically—whether you are or not and whether doing it scientifically is the best way or not—that word just carries weight. Sometimes that's very well earned. Science as a collective endeavor to pursue knowledge and go through the scientific method to answer questions and discover new things—that deserves a lot of respect. However, there are limits to science, so making science the “king of all truth” is a little bit erroneous. That's a fallacy of our culture but it's the way it is right now.
This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a sculptor, an optometrist, and a surgeon.