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Meet our student-artist: Anjali Kumari

Introduce yourself, your process for creating art, and any tools that you use to generate art

My name is Anjali Kumari. I am a second-year MS/PhD nanoengineering student at the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering in Greensboro, North Carolina. Before the Air program, I was splitting my time to balance my passion for art and science, but this program taught me how to combine both passions to enhance my current project. My process for creating art involves creating multiple sketches until I answer all the questions that I have and then creating a final draft containing the most amount of information regarding the project. I then convert this draft into a final drawing, either digitally or as a painting. My first drawing step is always done using a very light-colored pen or pencil for creative freedom and room to modify. I then complete one component of the project at a time. I take a break during each of these processes to step away from the idea and revisit it with a fresh mind, allowing me to make modifications and think creatively. Depending on the project, I use conventional paper, canvas, and paint or digital tools such as BioRender, Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, and Adobe Illustrator.

How do you communicate with scientists to define or communicate their visual communication needs/goals?

“A picture can say a thousand words.” I try to figure out how the same picture communicates two thousand words yet maintains its engagement with the audience. I email the scientist, requesting them to send me relevant materials for their research, and then we follow up via a virtual or in-person meeting. Having a background in art and science, I can usually comprehend scientific literature and start thinking about topics that can be translated into art. Meeting with the researcher helped me to understand what aspect of the research is most important to emphasize. Following our conversation, I drafted at least three art ideas, ranging from cartoons to scientific diagrams. This allows me to identify gaps in my understanding since simplifying a scientific idea requires you to have a comprehensive idea about the subject matter. I attempt to identify initial gaps by reading scientific literature. I then scheduled a meeting with the scientist in about two weeks. During this meeting, I discussed the difference between each type of art and the different audiences it caters to. The scientist and I have a deeper conversation about who they want their research to impact, dictating the art style. Within two weeks of this conversation, I created a detailed draft of the finalized art, which I use to discuss any remaining gaps in my understanding of the project. After a final walk-through of the draft, I completed the artwork in about three weeks and sent it to the scientist for critique. Due to extensive initial discussions and constant communication throughout the process, the artwork submitted usually receives no major critiques. 

What feedback have you received on your art and how have you adjusted your design?

When I first proposed my artwork to Dr. Rollins, it was more in the form of a scientific illustration for a graphical abstract where I discussed the overall research method. My initial draft was based on the slides and presentation Dr. Rollins shared regarding the project workflow and results. The first draft allowed me to write questions about the project while sketching. After discussing my draft with Dr. Rollins, she answered all my questions regarding the conditions under which the research was performed. Still, she also suggested that I have more fun with the project instead of taking the prompt literally, especially because she planned to use it for engaging presentation purposes. Following her advice, I changed my drawing into a cartoon demonstrating the project's conclusion through conversations. This allowed me to sketch art entertaining for all age groups and clearly communicate the findings. This allowed me to develop a new method of scientific communication using dialog-based cartoon art. I enjoyed working with this art style, especially since it forced me to work on my digital drawing skills. 

What is storytelling and its role in science communication and art?

Storytelling is communicating an idea using a narrative that different audiences can relate to. Storytelling plays a crucial role in scientific communication, especially since the research we conduct is not only meant for other researchers to get inspired from, but it is meant to serve the wider population by informing and helping a wide range of audiences. Every aspect of science has a background and a future direction with its present benign work that we do. This is the narrative that every project begins on. We serve as authors who shape this narrative to tell a specific story. Conveying this story simply, comprehensively, and relatable helps even non-scientists understand or at least appreciate its importance. By starting the past, our story builds credibility and puts into perspective the work's origin and why anyone should care. The present work addresses our question using Who?, What?, When?, Where?, and How? Finally, stating the future possibilities gives hope and motivates the future generations to care about the work and inspires them to reach their full potential. The three tenses (past, present, future) is something that people can relate to no matter if they are telling a personal life story or talking about the protein. As professionals, we must identify how we can efficiently address these three aspects of any work and capture our audience. Recognition of our audience is the first step towards successful storytelling. A story will be lost if no one deems remembering it worthwhile; therefore, recognizing and keeping the audience engaged is the most important and hardest part of storytelling.

Tell us about your experience in the AiR program so far

My experience in the AiR program has been amazing, especially because I had the opportunity to meet many artists and scientists who have the same passion for communication and creativity. I learned about this program through one of my undergraduate mentor’s twitter. The program intrigued me by integrating my passion for art and science. Upon first joining the program, I have worked on multiple art projects and even led aspects of the website renovation process. I can confidently say that the program has taught me many skills such as digital drawing and leadership. My first project was a conventional watercolor artwork. I explored digital drawing for my second project and created my work on my iPAD. Now, I am using advanced drawing tools on my iPAD and have ventured outside of graphical abstracts to work on a new style of cartoon-based scientific communication work. In addition, during the website renovation process, I was able to use my website design skills and prior design experience from journalism to contribute my skills to the success of the project. One thing I love most about the AiR project is my interaction with scientists and other students since it gives me a chance every day to learn about very cool projects and skills. I have been able to apply every skill I learned from this program in my current PhD journey. 

What has it been like working on the hub projects?

I contributed to the initial project idea with the hubs while developing the proposal. I am currently working with my school to host activities conveying scientific communication's importance. During the summer of 2023, as president of Materials Research Society at the Joint school of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering, I hosted a workshop where Dr. Kendra Oliver talked about effective communication and the double diamond method of problem solving. I was thrilled to see the same double diamond in one of my mentees’ final project presentations. I was excited that the workshop inspired him to communicate his project ideas and approaches using the same method. I am currently working on a proposal to translate this into a website platform where, using a cartoon character, the audience will be able to follow the journey of scientific communication, why it is important, and how they can participate in this journey despite being a scientist and not an artist. My long-term goal is to establish a permanent program at my institution to include scientific communication and its importance because as graduate students, communicating our work is more important than presenting posters to only a scientist. audience. This program has made me a better scientist by helping me express my creativity, improving my critical thinking skills, and enhancing my communication skills to understand and translate many projects to different audiences. 

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