Between science and art: conversations with a scientific illustrator


Born in Poland, raised in Germany, and currently steering her own company in Sweden, Daria Chrobok found her passion at the convergence of science and art. During our conversation, Daria’s love for plants and illustration shone through.

What’s behind your unflagging love for plant physiology?

I love nature and I am a very outdoorsy person. Green is my favorite color. It all fits together: I studied general biology for both my bachelors as well as masters and was drawn toward plant physiology over animal physiology. 

I think plant research is underrated and I believe it is very important to focus on plants. If we don’t have food, if we eradicate everything, we won’t have enough oxygen to breathe. I wanted to find my own way and never liked the herd mentality. Although I questioned myself frequently, I was always strongly drawn toward working with plants, one way or another. I think it is very important to listen to yourself and what you truly want to do in life.

Can you tell us about how you entered the world of scientific illustrations? How did you transition from the lab to DCSciArt?

I always had an interest in arts, be it drawing or painting. Also, I’m more of a service-oriented person; I wanted to share things and help others. 

During my PhD I did a lot of illustrations not just for myself, but for friends and colleagues, too. When I faced the biggest crisis during my PhD, when I questioned what I wanted to do, I realized that I loved to sit and illustrate all day long. Illustrating was an antidote during my trying times. 

To be honest, my journey started unexpectedly. During my PhD, a colleague approached me with an opportunity to illustrate a fantasy book she was writing for her niece. I had never done anything like that. I happily agreed and bought myself a graphic tablet to work on. After we finished the project, because we shared love for plants, we started a plant comics series. Seeing this succeed, another colleague approached me with an idea to publish the comic in a poster format to help with public outreach. We did it, and my network kept expanding. Then, another colleague came to me with an opportunity to write a grant to promote plant science. I applied for it, wrote a mini project, and started making comics for Physiologia Plantarum, a Nordic scientific journal. All these things led me in the direction of illustration. 

Concurrently, I was contemplating on combining two of my favorite things: science and art. I felt that doing scientific illustrations would fit my personality the best, leading me to unequivocally take that leap of faith. So, I decided to hop on and start DCSciArt, my very own company. And, here I am!

I was of the opinion that holding a part-time position in the beginning stages of starting my company would be a good idea. So, during my first year, I worked part-time at Physiologia Plantarum, while DCSciArt was slowly striding toward building its customer base. As I started getting more customers, in my second year, Physiolgia Plantarum partially became my customers and I have been helping them with their social media and creative tasks.

This illustration was done by Daria for the Journal Physiologia Plantarum and their special issue on Early-Career-PIs.

How would you describe your workflow?

It really depends on my customer. 

Typically, it starts off with a conversation where customers explain the concept and I ask questions to understand it better. Some customers give me sketches or scribbles or articles to read, and others get very specific, down to nitty gritty details such as color scheme. I work at it from my end and deliver the first version of the sketch. We work together to refine this, and I fine-tune it until they are happy. 

In my current project, I am illustrating for a book chapter on the phytohormone Auxin and the different strategies that can be taken towards investigating Auxin biology. The focus is on systems biology and synthetic biology, how they complement each other, and where they can be incorporated better into research. At first this seemed very abstract and challenging to illustrate as the authors also had an open mind about its potential look. Eventually, I had to find out what they had visualised in their minds, understand this and match it to their expectations as much as possible. A lot of back and forth conversations and significant brainstorming sessions were needed. In the end it worked out and I find it immensely gratifying when I manage to break down something really complicated into a simple yet beautiful illustration.

Often, before moving to digital, I sketch on paper with a pen. I taught myself the software; I use Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop and Procreate. Based on my customer’s requirements, I pick vector- or pixel-based programs. Illustrations could be comics, in which case it doesn’t have to be strictly scientific to match publication standards. It could also be content for a webpage or brochure.

Can you share some information about a favorite project of yours?

Out-of-the-box projects are my favorites. These customers give me the freedom to choose the way I illustrate. Through Florian Hahn, a colleague of mine, there was one such project I got involved in last year. I was invited to join an organization about agriculture called Progressive Agrarwende, a German dialogue platform that facilitates progressive ways to change agriculture. As a part of this, we made a CRISPR-based advent calendar last December. Each day, in the form of a comic, information on a well-researched genetically modified plant was disseminated on social media. We came up with 24 such drawings of all kinds of genetically modified plants. I depicted the science that was happening, drew plants with funny expressions, and threw in a lot of Christmas decorations to spur the festive season. 

The resulting publicity expanded my reach to people with broader illustration needs. I thoroughly enjoyed working on it. I have also done some illustrations for popular science articles published by Progressive Agrarwende, about alternative protein sources, particularly insect-based products.

Who are your clients and how would you classify them?

I started off from my base with the network that I had, which is plant physiology. Although a predominant portion of my work revolves around plants, I am very open to illustrating other themes as well. If it is anything scientific, it could be methods, mechanisms or pathways. Sometimes it could even be logos; it doesn’t have to essentially deal with science only. 

I do scientific illustrations for researchers, life science companies, educational platforms, publications, grants, presentations, journals, books, magazines, etc. When something science-y and artsy needs to be combined, I can do that. My customers can be anybody, literally; from a university, a company, a publishing house, or anybody managing a social media platform. It could even be a school teacher who wants some nice slides. It’s an endless box of potential clients. 

The only restriction is that people need to be able to finance my services. I need to make a living from it as well. 

Are scientific illustrations used heavily in Europe? How wide-ranging is your customer base?

From a career standpoint, scientific illustrators are not very well-known in Europe. However, scientists have started realizing that hiring professional illustrators is becoming a necessity. I am sure there will be more education and awareness in the future. I am based in Sweden, so the majority of my clients are from here. I have worked with clients from Germany and the United States, too. 

Last year, when I designed the advent calendar for Progressive Agrarwende, to make its reach international and widely accessible it was translated into 10 different languages. Stemming from this project, I was contacted by customers from the Netherlands and Czech Republic. The work I do at DCSciArt is not constrained by geographical boundaries and customers are welcome from across the globe. 

What would you say to someone considering scientific illustration as a career?

I think there is definitely no one way to do it. In my case, I did a PhD and then got into it. Someone can also hold a degree in arts and jump in. But not having the scientific background may pose a challenge. I have not done any formal education in scientific illustrations, but I can still do it. Online and distance learning courses can improve knowledge and skills. A colleague of mine took a natural science illustrations course offered at the Zurich University of Arts. There is no streamlined career path, one can jump in from different sides. 

If you enjoy illustrating, keep doing more of it. When you are off work, in your free time during your PhD, find ways to practice the software and hone your illustrative skills. You have to transfer the knowledge you have through drawing something in a digital program. In my case, it has been a process of constant learning by consistently doing more of it—practice, practice and practice, loads of it! 

I would suggest starting from your network and working your way around by taking up opportunities that let you explore and expand your scope, so that people will get to know about you through your work. Starting from a book illustration to clinching a grant, talking to people and telling them why I liked doing what I was doing, I built a strong network along the way. Sometimes we just have to dare, do things, not be afraid and simply try it out! You never know what is in store. One opportunity may lead to another and set the stage for new beginnings. 

You can reach out to Daria here:

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