Mia Nickell, a UGA student studying scientific illustration, poses for a portrait just outside of the Lamar Dodd School of Art on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019, in Athens, Georgia. (Photo/Tristen T. Webb, tristentwebb.com)

Despite modern culture forcing a widening gap between STEM and creative fields, a select group of students are transcending barriers to bridge the two lifestyles. Mia Nickell, a sophomore majoring in scientific illustration at the University of Georgia, is one of these artists.

Of the 11 areas of study offered by the Lamar Dodd School of Art for those looking to get a BFA in art , scientific illustration stands alone as it expands beyond the intensely creative focus applied by other areas of study. 

“Generally people don’t know what it is,” Nickell said. “I say ‘textbook illustrations’ and people are like ‘oh, I’ve never thought about the people that actually do that.’” 

Beyond illustrating textbooks, Nickell said scientific illustration is used in a vast array of hyper-scientific study, some artists even illustrate for massive organizations such as NASA. Nearly all STEM fields including “cell biology, microscopic things we can’t see or larger things we can see, life sciences and medical sciences,” posses a similar need for informative artwork.

Scientific illustrators are mediators between the left and right-brained and must be capable of developing artwork which visually regurgitates complex information for a wide range of viewers.

“We have to work with scientists who understand a ton more to help communicate ideas they have to people who don’t understand as much,” Nickell said. 

To this extent, Nickell and her fellow scientific illustrators employ their skills to develop pamphlets, posters, diagrams and animations which can be used by both scientists and laymen with equal efficiency. 

This interdisciplinary nature of scientific illustration celebrates both academics and creatives, yet  remains the only field of study doing so, amongst a worldwide movement seemingly determined to maintain their separation. 

“It is this weird ‘in between’ where science majors think I’m not as science-y as them and art majors thing I’m not as artsy because I’m doing something more structured,” Nickell said.

Nickell has always found herself to be artistically inclined, and during high school developed a passion for humanities such as reading and writing. She then realized her ability to achieve both high academic and artistic standards offered a particular set of individual opportunities.

“Mia is one of the most dynamic and heroically brave artists I have ever encountered,” Joseph Norman, professor at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, said. Describing her work as “boldly expressive, innovative conceptually and original,” the difficulties of finding a place for such raw artistic skill in the academic universe is understandable. 

She discovered medical illustration as a junior in high school, and after familiarizing her parents with the major,  attended the scientific illustration exit show at the Lamar Dodd School of Art to further understand all components of the major and career options beyond graduation.  

Ultimately she was drawn to the prospect of allowing clients to make emotional connections to their situations.

“It helps people to visualize things, like when you go to the doctor, it's a lot of medical jargon and words,” Nickell said, “Sometimes it helps people to see something first and then talk about it.” 

Hyatt, a junior at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, first met Nickell through art history and 3D design classes a year ago.

“I think [scientific illustration] fits well due to her determination to capture precise visual ideology” Grace Hyatt said, “The detail, time and energy spent on making a project [and] the way she envisions is profound.”

Hyatt finds the arts to be intensely integrated into daily life, and said there is always a need for designers and creators. Nickell agreed and said she initially took posters and other types of informative art for granted, but is now able to appreciate the delicate balance of art and science in routine activities. 

“It’s really important science people take an art class or do something artistic, even if they’re bad,” Nickell said. “And art people should take a science and not brush it off so easily.” 

Nickell is anticipating a future of continuous learning and hopes to attend graduate school for scientific illustration. She plans on continuously investing time in scientific illustration to further the communication between academic and creative fields of study.

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