Betsy Palay, MS Medical Illustrator Entrepreneur Educator
Betsy Palay, MS
Medical Illustrator,

Career Profile

Please introduce yourself. What is your current training/educational status and/or where do you work? How did you decide to get into scientific visualization?

For the past four years, I’ve been focused on empowering scientists themselves to become better visual thinkers. With the goal of advancing visual literacy skills for science research, education, and communication, I’ve been teaching and lecturing at the University of California, San Francisco, and at Stanford University and Stanford Medicine. I’m currently developing an online course on the visual communication of science with Tami Tolpa of Tolpa Studios.

Before shifting to my current focus, I worked in biotechnology as the founder and creative director of a design firm specializing in investor communications for the world’s most sophisticated science. I got into the field originally as a medical illustrator and served as president of the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI) 2009-2010. I became a medical illustrator because I was very attracted to the interdisciplinary nature of the field and found it to be gratifying in a way that art or science alone was not.

What do you like the most about this field?

What originally attracted me to this field has remained true for over three decades — the intellectual challenge of combining art and science and the lifelong learning it inspires. The field offers the opportunity to work not only with some of the top scientists in the world, but also with other creative professionals such as writers, designers, and photographers. Collaboration has been one of my favorite aspects of this work.

Sample 1: Biotechnology Work Collage
Sample 1: Biotechnology Work Collage

How and where did you acquire your current skillset in scientific visualization?  Was it all via a graduate or other program or are you self taught?  If so, did you use any particular online resources to help with your training?

I earned an MS in medical and biological illustration from the University of Michigan. But I feel fortunate that my first professional job was for the Life Sciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The demands of that job (unconventional for a medical illustrator) broadened me to think more as a designer/communicator than as an illustrator. I learned graphic design, exhibit design, and art direction on the job. It gave me a foundation for all my work that has followed.

What do you consider some of the biggest barriers to entering the field?  Are they technical, training, scientific, professional (availability of jobs or projects)?

I think the biggest barrier to entering the field is the absence of clear career paths. This is due to several things: the emerging/rapidly changing nature of the field, the scarcity of professional/academic training programs (especially ones that offer diverse multiple tracks within science communication and visualization), and the broad lack of understanding of the value that visualization can bring to the world of science. Compounding all of these issues is the absence of succinct nomenclature that describes the full range what we do. Our field is still largely invisible (or misunderstood) to most people, even in the scientific, academic, and business communities. But I firmly believe that the need for our skillset is greater than ever!

Which practitioners (or what visualizations) have been most inspirational to you?

Rather than “name names” I’d like to acknowledge the inspiration I get from all who push the boundaries of science visualization in myriad ways — whether through new technologies, the application of existing technologies to new subject matter, or by creating something that’s both meaningful and exquisitely beautiful.

Which conferences would you recommend to those interested in this field and why?  What particular insights or benefits did you get out of attending this (these) conferences?

I attend the AMI annual conference and never fail to learn a tremendous amount. Benefits include: keeping up with new developments, inspiration from the impressive work of others, and a chance to connect with like-minded people. Some long-term professional benefits that come from membership and participation in a professional organization (like the AMI) include: an opportunity to have work seen by peers, to develop public-speaking skills, and to take leadership roles in the field.

If there was one resource, tool or conference that you could wish for to facilitate your work, what would it be?

A conference specifically on visual literacy for scientists.

What other advice would you offer those interested in either a professional or full-time academic career in scientific visualization?

I would look for a mentor who is in a position to champion both your career path and also the field of science visualization.

Sample 2: Online course booklet
Sample 2: Online course booklet

Please comment briefly on the samples/links that you have submitted for this profile… why in particular are you proud of these and what do you hope viewers will notice and get from seeing them?

Each example in the first image — a collage of my work in the biotechnology field — required the collaboration of scientists, medical illustrators, graphic designers, writers, business people, and other specialists across many disciplines. Leading interdisciplinary creative teams has been a source of joy and satisfaction for me. The results are always “greater than the sum of the parts.”

The second image shows the booklet accompanying the online course on the visual communication of science that I’m currently creating with Tami Tolpa. After teaching and refining the course for the past four years, I’m extremely excited about the potential of reaching a global audience with the upcoming launch of this online version.

Where do you think the field of scientific visualization is ‘going’?  Do you perceive any trends in its evolution or are there certain directions that you would like to see implemented?

I think there’s growing recognition of the need for improved science communication and of the vast untapped potential of emerging visualization technologies. That’s all great! But the challenge for our very interdisciplinary field is to find the most nurturing “home.” Do we belong in science? In visual arts? In technology? In communications? In my view, the more we’re embraced as professionals with an essential role in science, the more beneficial it’ll be for our future.

And then lets end with a simple question… What is your ‘10 year plan’ in terms of what you hope to accomplish in scientific visualization?

I plan to continue to promote the power of pictures for science communication and understanding. I’d also be thrilled to be able to contribute to establishing an academic program in science visualization/communication on the west coast.

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