How I Turned My Art and Science Obsession into a Thriving Career | Dr. Radhika Patnala

Dr. Radhika Patnala’s career may have started on a traditional path, but it didn’t stay that way!  Though she was a neuroscientist by training, microscope imagery and the visual aspects of science were her real interests.

Her PhD experience allowed her to experiment with different ways of presenting complex scientific ideas, including illustrations and presentations. This sparked her interest in science communication and visual art. 

“And the highlight of my PhD was that in one lab meeting, I put my image on the screen and someone gasped. They were like, ‘Oh!’. And I still can’t forget that.” Radhika recalls fondly.

Now, Radhika can’t imagine choosing between science and art. She says it’s like being asked to choose between food and water! Her current role ticks all the boxes.

Dr. Patnala is founder and CEO of her own science communication and design agency, where she provides services to clients interested in effectively communicating scientific concepts through visual media.

The “Big Break”

Radhika’s transition from the world of pure academia to the world of science communication was not smooth sailing.

Many forces came together to inspire her to make the change. Her parents were big influences. As entrepreneurs themselves, they instilled within her a desire to create something of her own, leading to the creation of her own agency.

At the beginning, the transition was tremendously difficult.

“I didn’t know if I could live off it [creating art]” Radhika states. “You realize how many things are stacked against you only when you’re outside the system.”

“None of the operational or logistical challenges of running a business were as difficult as the biases and ceilings.” Radhika highlights.

Things changed massively for Radhika during the COVID-19 pandemic. Patnala created a gorgeous 10-image series titled “COVID dreams”. She was inspired to separate the pain of the pandemic and the science of the virus, and create something beautiful out of it.

Commissioned by the BBC, the series propelled Radhika’s stunning artwork into the global spotlight. She was invited to deliver a lecture by the WHO, which culminated in a global science communication forum, providing 50 female artists a platform to showcase their work. 

Making Visions Come True

So you want to be a visual science communicator? Radhika dives into what it takes to make the career work.  Patnala stresses how creating art for others can be a profoundly different experience than creating art for oneself.

“The first step is to find out what they think is important because you are an outsider. You don’t know their story. You don’t know what story they want to tell. And so for us as science communicators, I would say the first most important thing is to find out what story is that person trying to tell. And then when it comes to your desk, it becomes your job to understand it almost as well as they have. And then find… basically then find order in the chaos.” Radhika says.

Being able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes and share in their vision is vital to creating art for clients. Radhika also highlights that the field comes with its fair share of challenges.

“It comes with the trade offs and it comes with sacrifices… Sometimes it’s good to be naive because then it helps you taking bigger risks and playing with your career” Radhika states. “The grass is definitely always greener on the other side.”

Visual communication for science is definitely a rapidly evolving field.

“I’ve seen the field change drastically in that time, especially in the last two, three years I’ve seen like this great transformation where there are so many more people like aware of the option of doing this as a sustainable business.” Radhika stresses.

The options for visual artists are varied. Institutions or labs often hire in-house artists. Communications agencies may also need visual communicators. An often unexplored industry in the science-art space are legal firms, who often need illustrations for accident suits or filing patents. Career paths in visual science communication are varied and change every day.

AI: An Artist’s Perspectives

As an artist herself, Radhika has doubts and hesitations surrounding the use of generative AI. AI models like Dall-E 2, Stable Diffusion, and Midjourney have been available to the public since 2022. With a simple prompt, users can create an image that perfectly suits their requirements. The problem is AI programs don’t have the same filters that living and breathing artists do.

“One scary thing about the AI coming in is… the potential for misinformation. It is crazy right now. It’s just crazy because you see so many scientists also relying on AI -generated imagery to communicate their research.” Radhika comments.

A recent peer reviewed journal published an AI generated image of a rat, complete with nonsense anatomical labeling and absurd proportions. Outlandish images like these can easily be dismissed.

“The most dangerous thing is when it looks OK, but it’s not. And that gray zone in the middle, where it’s hard to know, is actually the most dangerous.” Radhika stated.

Generative AI is also not as independent as it would seem. While the user provides a prompt and gets a seemingly effortless image in return, they don’t get an insight into how AI actually functions. Vast databases of artwork power this AI. It creates new images based on existing data, using it as a template. This raises questions of copyright and ownership. If an AI program uses an artists’ image to create its own, who does the art belong to?

“It is very unethical because a lot of people have all of their content scraped off out of the internet and used for making a profit” Radhika comments.

Although AI has advanced tremendously over the last few years, Radhika isn’t worried yet.

“What I have found is people still want to talk to a human to get things done.” Radhika states, smiling.

Dr. Radhika Patnala’s transformative journey encompasses the ever-changing landscape of science and science communication. Moving beyond the confines of academia, her creativity and passion creates new possibilities. Even in the face of uncertainty and technological change, her deep-seated drive fostered the success she enjoys now.

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