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Bringing science to life through art and illustration

Profile: Mary O’Reilly, Ph.D., science artist and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry

Mary O'Reilly: Ph.D. chemist, science artist, adjunct professor of chemistry and biochemistry. Courtesy photo.

Mary O’Reilly is a Ph.D. chemist who wears lots of hats.

Some days, she’s a freelance artist for her company, O’Reilly Science Art, working on assignments for various clients. Other days, she’s an adjunct assistant professor, teaching classes at the University of San Diego. But most days, she’s a little bit of both.

As an undergrad at Purdue University, Mary found that she loved research, which led her to earn her Ph.D. from MIT (Biological Chemistry, 2006) with the goal of pursuing an academic career. During grad school, science art was Mary’s “Plan B” in case an academic job didn’t pan out.

While working on a post-doc at Scripps Research Institute, she did some serious self-evaluating to figure out if academia was something she really wanted and would excel at.

“In the end I decided that I could make the best contribution to science and gain the most personal fulfillment from a career in science illustration,” Mary said. “Once I was able to couple this with teaching, another creative pursuit with the goal of communicating science, everything just fell into place.”

Her duties as a science artist include talking with clients about assignments, doing background research, making sketches, and creating illustrations and animations that communicate scientific concepts. The job also involves all the things that come along with running your own business, including writing license agreements, emailing, tracking hours, advertising, collecting payments and book-keeping.

“My projects have spanned from creating a technical promotional poster for a biotech company to illustrating a collection of chemistry poetry,” she explained.

As an adjunct professor, Mary spends her time preparing and giving lectures, meeting with students, writing and grading exams and the like.

Mary explained how her two jobs complement each other well: “Illustration and animation make their way into my lectures, and alternatively, as I observe how students assimilate material, it informs the design aspect of my illustration work.”

Side note: I bet her lecture slides, decked out with art and animations, are really sweet. Continue reading →