Thomas Splettstoesser, Freelancer
Thomas Splettstoesser, Ph.D.
Scientific Designer, Freelancer

Career Profile

Please introduce yourself (what is your current training/educational status and/or where do you work?) and share with us how you decided to get into scientific visualization.

My name is Dr. Thomas Splettstoesser and I am from Berlin, Germany. As a freelancer I help scientists visualize their research, by making complex scientific subjects easy to grasp and visually appealing in an effort to increase the impact of their publication.

Setting out to become a researcher myself, I first studied molecular and then computational biology at Heidelberg University. During my doctorate studies I came to realize that my true passion is more on the creative side, rather than doing research. I noticed how I enjoy visualizing the proteins of my research project and preparing the figures for my publications much more than doing the actual research. This made me question my plan for an academic career and subsequently change paths. When I received my doctorate degree in 2010 I decided to combine my background in biology with my newly found passion for visual creation and started freelancing as scientific illustrator.

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’ve been doing webdesign since the early days before my undergraduate studies, and during my PhD years, I got into photography and videography too. Those were just hobbies at the time and it never crossed my mind that those skills could become relevant for my profession one day. When I made the decision to become a scientific illustrator, I started learning Adobe Illustrator, AfterEffects and the 3D modeling software, Maxon Cinema 4D. I have never enrolled in any formal creative study programs, I just watched plenty of screencast tutorials online. The tutorial series are pretty efficient. For Cinema 4D there’s great basic tutorials at and many more specific ones at Cineversity, some that are even related to scientific illustration.

Protein Lysozyme
Sample 1: Protein Lysozyme

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

With scientific illustration being a rather specific and small niche, I find entering the field a major challenge. Here in Germany, there are no specific degree programs for scientific visualization. Also, there are very few SciViz companies that would offer internships for newcomers. So you are pretty much on your own and starting freelance is often the only choice. There is plenty of work, but getting the more attractive projects is challenging, especially when you are just starting out.

Which scientific illustrators have been most inspirational to you?

When I was an undergrad student, the first edition of Pollard’s “Cell Biology” text book just came out. The illustrations in this book were so much better and more consistent than in any other text book I have seen. As I found out, Graham Johnson did those and I started to follow his work and website. He inspired me to consider freelance scientific illustration as a possible career option. David S. Goodsell’s illustrations of proteins and viruses have been another great inspiration.

Sample 3: Protein Folding Tunnel
Sample 2: Protein Folding Tunnel

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

Getting started is the hardest step. Try to build a solid portfolio first. It doesn’t need to have many items and it doesn’t matter if those works are actually published, from your own research project or done in your free time out of interest – as long as they are science related. It’s hard to get other people and potential clients interested in your work, if you don’t showcase your illustrations. If you don’t have enough illustrations yet or are looking for new projects to practice your skills on, ask the postdocs in your lab or collaborating labs. There is always someone who needs a good illustration.

Another suggestion is to reach out to other scientific illustrators to chat and exchange experiences. It’s a small field and people are usually happy to talk about their work or give helpful tips.

How do you feel your Ph.D. training has an impact on your scientific visualization work? What specific skills from your Ph.D. training have empowered you your scientific visualization work? Do you think your Ph.D. training has given you a unique perspective on viewing, interpreting, and creating scientific visualizations?

Let me start with saying that I don’t believe it’s necessary to have a PhD training in order to be a great scientific illustrator. My specialty are protein structures, since these were subject of my PhD. However, I do a wide range of illustrations, some of which – such as nanotechnology – are far out from my area of expertise. I feel that doing a PhD was most useful in the sense that you are published in peer review journals and have a good grasp of that process and the requirements. Much of my work are figures and graphical abstracts for publication, where this experience has been helpful. Besides that, my PhD project involved the use of various molecular viewing packages to visualize protein structures. These are not always so intuitive and I’m glad to be familiar with such packages, as I still use them frequently for my illustrations.

Sample 3: Penicillin Bound to Beta-lactamase
Sample 3: Penicillin Bound to Beta-lactamase

Please comment briefly on the samples/links that you have submitted for this profile… why in particular are you proud of these?

Sample 1: Protein Lysozyme
The first illustration is of the protein lysozyme which I display in slices of different protein representations. This is a personal project for my website and I like it because it nicely demonstrates how there are different ways to represent the same scientific data, depending on what aspects you want to highlight.

Sample 2: Protein Folding Tunnel
The second illustration is a 3D illustration of a protein folding funnel. The 3D technique here works great to show the different folding states of the peptide, from unfolded state at the top, to the fully folded end state at the bottom well of the funnel. I also like it because it makes the concept of the overall folding funnel, with its many local minima along the folding path, easy to grasp.

Sample 3: Penicillin Bound to Beta-lactamase
The last illustration is a more artistic take on penicillin bound to the enzyme beta-lactamase, which is produced by bacteria. The background shows such bacteria, located on the alveoli of the lung, and is inspired by an actual electron microscopy image. I liked the idea of using actual EM images as a base for the illustration and then take it one step further and show the structural details of the molecules all combined in one illustration.

Where do you think the field of scientific visualization is ‘going’?

Scientific visualization is a field that is growing continuously. It is my impression that until now it consists mostly of individual freelancers like me, who cater the illustration needs of the academic world and larger animation studios with their clients from the industry. With the constant growing demand for scientific visualizations I suspect we might experience a wave of professionalization where more companies sprout, serving the different demands of this field.

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

I am very happy with my freelance life as it gives me a lot of freedom, both personally and also in terms of what kind of illustration work I take on. I would like to collaborate more with other illustrators for larger projects, such an animation. Also, I’d be curious to get more into 3D visualization of raw data besides molecular structures.

Portfolio Link: