Infinite Careers is a collaboration between Career Services (CAPD) and the MIT Alumni Association to explore career paths and the non-linearity of career decision making. Read profiles of alumni with unique career paths, hear their stories and network at a series of talks.
- MIT, PhD Course 5
- Purdue University, BS Chemistry
Mary is a freelance science illustrator specializing in the chemical and biological sciences. Her work includes journal covers, slides, publication figures, website graphics, and animations for clients in academia and industry.
She received her B.S. in chemistry from Purdue University, a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from MIT, and postdoctoral training at The Scripps Research Institute. Facing an uncertain job market in 2008 and 2009, she began to explore a lifelong dream of combining art and science.
While teaching for three years as an adjunct assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of San Diego, the illustration business grew into a full-time pursuit. She now lives and works in the Boston area.
What influenced your choice of undergraduate major? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
I was fortunate to have excellent chemistry teachers in high school and I really enjoyed the subject. I was tempted to go to art school, but realized that art would make a better hobby than chemistry, and if I decided to pursue art later in my career I would always have the chemistry degree to fall back on. While I didn’t necessarily need a Ph.D., having a strong background in science was crucial to the success of this career, and also makes it much more personally fulfilling since I can independently conceptualize the ideas rather than simply carrying out someone else’s vision.
What influenced your choice of graduate program? How has it shaped your career choices and professional ability?
MIT Chemistry was the best program I got into, and I was keen to work with my advisor, Barbara Imperiali. At that point, I had fallen in love with research while working in Jean Chmielewski’s lab at Purdue, and wanted to pursue an academic career. It wasn’t until the financial crisis of 2008 and the hiring freezes that followed that I began seriously considering science illustration. The network I created at MIT has been invaluable in launching this career. Many of my early jobs grew out of those connections, and I am sure that my MIT Ph.D. has given me added credibility with potential clients. And of course, graduate school taught me how to think critically, how to fail, and how to research something I didn’t know much about. All of my projects start with a lot of research.
What do you wish you’d done differently or more of while you were at MIT?
I wish I’d done more career exploration and soul searching. I think I had an inkling that academics wasn’t for me (or maybe I wasn’t for it), even though that was my ultimate goal. My post doc experience was rewarding and I am happy with the work I did but if I had known I was going to pursue science illustration, I wouldn’t have done a post doc
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your career?
The most rewarding aspect of my career is the feeling that I am filling an unmet (or incompletely met) need, rather than being one of hundreds of qualified applicants vying for a faculty position. To paraphrase Simone Giertz, if you want to be at the top of your field, choose a really small field.
What motivates you to do the work that you do?
While the process can be painful, seeing an idea through to a finished product is extremely motivating. I have a compulsion to create things. I also feel a keen sense of responsibility toward my clients, and so I’m highly motivated to see them satisfied with the work.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in your career? How have you managed or overcome it?
The first challenge was not having enough work. To overcome this I attempted marketing through various venues. In the end, I found that work begets work, and I just had to do good work and be patient. Now the challenge is having too many requests for work, and so I am in the process of expanding the business to sub-contract some aspects of the work out to other freelance science illustrators.
Making decisions, especially important-feeling career decisions, is really challenging. What strategies have you used to make career decisions?
When I was deciding whether to pursue science illustration, I did three things. I identified people with the job I thought I wanted, and then talked to several of them. Secondly, I tried it out while still a post doc by volunteering illustrations for the Scripps newsletter, which most importantly gave me deadlines. And finally, I did some soul searching to honestly assess my strengths and weaknesses. I even took a Myers-Briggs personality test to get some insight into my temperament and what sort of career I might find most fulfilling (though I wouldn’t give this too much influence).
What professional development experiences or opportunities shaped your early career?
Volunteering illustrations for the Scripps newsletter allowed me to build up a portfolio and start a website, which enabled my first paying client, a local biotech company, to find me. In that project I saw firsthand the benefit of having a strong science background, which gave me a great deal of encouragement to follow this path. Finally, by telling everyone I knew what I was doing, I was able to be recruited to work on a series of projects with a former member of my thesis committee, Cathy Drennan. I created several illustrations and animations for two of her HHMI-funded initiatives and this was a huge boon to my early career.
What career advice to you have for current MIT students?
As I’ve done since college, I try to find painting and drawing workshops and classes. A recent class in staging and composition was very helpful. I also read books to further study design and color theory, and I use a subscription to lynda.com for continued training on the software applications that I use to create images.
What professional development activities do you find really useful these days?
Think deeply about your interests, abilities, motivations, and priorities in life (bearing in mind that all, and most likely the last, are liable to change). Explore many career options, especially by talking to the people in them.
What does “work-life balance” mean to you, and what do you do to maintain a work-life balance?
This is different for everyone. I am glad that I can pick my kids up from school, but that means that I start working again as soon as they go to bed most nights. I’m not promoting this as the way to balance work and life by any means. I can do a lot of brainstorming while I’m with the kids, and in fact most big ideas don’t come when I’m sitting at my desk anyway. I’ve never felt the need for the clock-in/clock-out mentality, so this works for me. Having the option is one of the greatest benefits of being a freelancer.
What do you like to do outside of work for fun/relaxation/inspiration?
Hang out with my kids, read both fiction and non-fiction, watch movies, and go to museums. I guess I’m rather indoorsy, so it’s a good thing that I feel compelled to take my kids outside.
Do you participate in any volunteer/community service activities? If so, how do you balance your professional and personal responsibilities?
I volunteer at my kids’ schools, help make meals for local families through Community Cooks, and sit on a committee of Riverside Community Care. These don’t take up that much time, but I also just don’t take more work than I can handle. I have a small community of designers and illustrators I can refer potential clients to if I can’t deliver in the needed timeline. As I mentioned, I am beginning to sub-contract out work so that I can take more projects but operate more in a creative director capacity, thus relieving the most time-consuming parts.
Surprise! Richard Branson called and gave you $10 million to start a business. What’s your heart telling you to do?
My first instinct, because this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, is to set up a global exchange for high school students to create stop motion animations that explain scientific concepts, and then exchange them with students in other parts of the world. This idea started after a high school teacher in Tanzania contacted me because he said his students were in need of animations to help explain chemistry concepts. I pointed him to some resources, but it occurred to me that a much better way to learn these concepts is to make, not watch, animations. And with a free App called Stop Motion and about $10 worth of modeling clay, anyone could do this. No artistic talent is needed. I suppose this isn’t a money-making venture and I wouldn’t need $10 million, but that is what I would want to do.
Last updated 2019