Communicating science with illustration: A Q&A with Betsy Cantwell
Art and science have always been inextricably intertwined, from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks to science fiction book covers to engineering schematics. An image, drawing or design can convey an idea, process or concept immediately, playing a critical role in communicating science broadly and engaging people of all ages.
Translating science and the impact it has in everyday life is a fundamental role of the University of Arizona Office of Research, Innovation and Impact, and Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, senior vice president for research and innovation, is an enthusiastic supporter of using illustration as a translation tool.
Cantwell recently sat down with members of the RII communications team to discuss the power of illustration and design in effectively communicating science.
You often speak of the importance of communicating science to broader audiences as a fundamental part of RII's mission. Can you explain why you are passionate about this?
Too often, researchers end up talking to themselves. We write papers, present at conferences and collaborate among ourselves. All of that is critical to getting the hard work of research and innovation done, but when it comes to impact, it is essential that we communicate effectively to diverse groups of stakeholders.
Can you elaborate on the different groups of stakeholders you believe it is important to reach?
As part of the research ecosystem, communications play a role in everything from K-12 STEM education and student recruitment to workforce development and helping to drive Arizona's economic engine. Additionally, it is critical that we play a part in building a scientifically literate citizenry. As we've seen with the pandemic, educating the public around health and public policy issues can be a life-or-death proposition. And, on top of all this, to stay at the forefront of groundbreaking research, institutions such as the University of Arizona need engaged and informed local, state and federal decision-makers, legislators and philanthropists because we are necessarily always actively seeking and securing the funding needed to build and maintain the University's cutting-edge research infrastructure.
Have you always been so passionate about illustration and science?
Yes! I grew up reading science fiction and comic books, and I'm still a huge fan. I enjoy both the modern, futuristic tech that CGI portrays in movies today and the classic sci-fi book cover aesthetic. I love how a good illustration can rev up your imagination and send it charging off to explore new worlds and ideas.
Can you give an example from your own career of how illustration helped illuminate a complex scientific principle or concept?
I've seen the power of illustration to translate very complex systems – that would take pages and pages to explain – captured in a single image. I remember sitting around a table with a group of space scientists all gathered to discuss a challenging project and map out the processes we needed to take to see the project through to completion. And all the while, sitting in the corner, watching and listening and sketching, was our on-staff illustrator. When all was said and done, he captured not only the science but the process of doing science in engaging drawings that completely captivated me. I remember them to this day.
The University is involved in so many fascinating research projects across so many fields of study. How do you imagine illustration playing a role in these varied disciplines?
The possibilities are endless. I'm interested in using illustration to show how viruses mutate, explain star formation, allow us to imagine quantum communications, and illuminate the promise of machine learning, artificial intelligence and technologies for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. I could go on and on, but we'd be here all day. Suffice it to say that I'm very excited about the University becoming a leader in using illustration to make science more exciting and more approachable for all audiences.
See more of Canto's illustrations on the RII website.