The rise of 'Brit Art' and the small fortunes paid to the likes of Damien Hirst mean that the image of the struggling artist in a garret is fading. But swapping the lab bench for the even greater uncertainty of palette and easel might still seem like an unusual career choice. Nonetheless, the opportunity to do so has been like a dream come true for me.
At school I was interested in both art and science, but when the crunch came and I had to decide which direction to move in, I opted for biology. My reasoning was partly that I wouldn't necessarily spend my free time learning biology, but knew I could always keep up my art. I graduated with a degree in biology in 1995, full of enthusiasm and determined to pursue a career in research for as long as I continued to enjoy it. I headed off to Oxford, first for a doctorate and then a postdoctoral position.
Although I enjoyed my time in academia, I soon realised that research is not a soft option and that I wasn't going to succeed unless I became devoted to a single topic, gained a lot of publications to my name, and was prepared to move around the world. More importantly, I only ever wanted to continue so long as I enjoyed research, and sadly even the novelty of purifying DNA wore off. I needed a change.
Thankfully even within the hard-working research environment I was determined to make sure my other interests didn't suffer, and this proved to be my escape route. It was in the summer of 1995, just before I started my doctorate, that I had the idea of combining my interests in painting and biology, which had always been quite independent up until then. But what about trying to paint biological subjects? This seemed particularly appealing because I was in the fairly unique position of being able to apply what I'd learnt academically in a very different way.
My aim was to produce impressionistic/expressionistic paintings to show the beauty of the biological world. Paintings gave me the opportunity to hint at rapid movement using brushstrokes, while choice of colour remained entirely subjective in the absence of colour at the subcellular level.
But what would other people think? I was keen to display the results, and persuaded the biochemistry department to let me put on an exhibition called 'The Inner Landscape' in March 1996. The promise of free wine and a pair of interesting talks--from Professor Sir Rex Richards, biochemist and art collector, who spoke about the scientific revolution of perspective in art, and the Merton Professor of English Literature, Professor John Carey, editor of The Faber Book of Science, who talked on bridging science and the arts--lured a variety of people to the opening. The event was fantastic, and I was absolutely thrilled to have attracted a couple of hundred people into a science department.
I continued painting, but it seemed a shame to be producing so much work without a real outlet. The ideal opportunity arose when my supervisor spotted an advert in The EMBO Journal appealing for artistic biologists to send in their images for the front cover. Fortuitously, the journal was based at Oxford University Press, which meant the editor could see my paintings 'in the oil.' I was thrilled to have four paintings printed on covers of this journal. Since then I've been commissioned by Chromosoma, TIBS, Drug Discovery Today, and my cover for Neuropharmacology is due to appear in the new year. In addition, I've held several exhibitions of my work, including a display at Oxford University Press which resulted in my life-time's ambition: a book cover, for Enrico Coen's The Art of Genes.
These covers have formed the basis of an excellent portfolio of my biological artwork. Simply by doing what I enjoy I had managed to build up a considerable body of evidence that my paintings are good enough to be commissioned and published. This has proved invaluable in switching careers. No one is going to believe you can change from being a scientist to an artist without a great deal of proof!
E. coli PICTURE CREDIT: Elizabeth Burns
Somewhere along the line my dream plan began to take shape. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if I could persuade a funding body to sponsor me to spend a year or so producing paintings based on research? In addition, I wanted to spend time meeting researchers and taking photos to show what it's like working in a lab. The final images would then be displayed as an exhibition for the public. The idea seemed fairly far-fetched, but I knew I could do it and decided to give it my best shot. At least I wasn't going to have any regrets. I spent a year trying to make it happen.
My first application was to the Wellcome Trust, a biomedical charity which is also interested, as part of its science communication activities, in funding artists. This seemed the obvious choice and forced me to write a structured project proposal. I was obviously really disappointed to be rejected and, as my postdoc contract was coming to an end, started looking for other possible career options.
But if there's one thing I've learned, it's that you should never count on just one possibility. Fortunately, after submitting my Wellcome Trust application I had written to as many other organisations as possible, including the Medical Research Council (MRC). At the time I received an enthusiastic reply from MRC that suggested I would be contacted, but as time passed, I forgot about it. Then, with only a few months remaining on my research contract, MRC invited me to London for an interview. I brought along my paintings and enthused about my proposed project, and amazingly my dream did come true.
'Medical Research Revealed' started in April 2002 and it's working out even better than I hoped. Not only have I been able to spend time developing my painting, I've also been learning a lot of science during this project. I feel very privileged to be meeting some truly inspiring researchers and to learn about worthwhile, cutting-edge research funded by MRC which should have real benefits for human health. My days are now spent on a mixture of reading, painting, and occasional visits to labs around the country. The discipline of working in research has given me the skills to be independent, to organise my own work schedule, and to rapidly read and assimilate a research topic. Working at home can be isolating so I'm spending most mornings reading in my old lab, which keeps me in contact with friends, and then painting in the afternoon. I'm still not quite used to the idea that I no longer have to paint at weekends.
My future is uncertain, but I will certainly pursue my self-employed career for as long as possible. However, achieving my 'dream job' has also made me realise that finding the right career isn't everything. Ultimately it's the people in your life--your partner, friends, and family--that are more important and bring you more happiness. Nonetheless, there's nothing worse than not enjoying your work, so if you need a change, persevere!
'Medical Research Revealed' is due to be unveiled at the Salford Museum and Art Gallery in September 2003 as part of the British Association Festival of Science. For further details about MRC and this project see www.mrc.ac.uk. Alternatively, please feel free to contact Elizabeth at firstname.lastname@example.org.