A month before she started school at Iowa State University, Caitlin Mock, Pella, planned to study biology. Then she discovered a different major, one that was a little under the radar but combined her keen interest in science with her artistic side — biological and pre-medical illustration.
Now a senior, Mock is one of about 60 Iowa State students majoring in Biological and Pre-Medical Illustration (BPMI). Although BPMI may be an unusual major — fewer than 10 similar programs exist or are planned at other American universities — Iowa State’s program turns 30 this year.
An artist who leans more to the science side, Mock was drawn to the program’s “unique” environment.
“I said I’d try BPMI and switch majors if I didn’t like it,” Mock recalled. “But I fit right in. It’s a cool community.”
The art of learning and understanding
Biological and medical illustrators work with researchers, doctors and others to turn detailed and complex information into visual images. Their work is found in textbooks, scientific journals, instructional videos, museum exhibits, surgical brochures and many more places, including courtrooms when juries need to understand complicated medical information.
At Iowa State, BPMI is a shared program between the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Design. The program educates students in the divergent fields of natural science and art to produce drawings, paintings, sculptures, computer animations and other scientifically accurate art forms that also are aesthetically pleasing.
“Most of the students will say, ‘I love science, but I can’t give up the art’ or vice-versa,” said Jennifer Owens, who has been a BPMI academic adviser for about 15 years. “They tend to live in both worlds equally. It’s really a unique skill set.”
About half the graduates go into master’s programs to become certified medical illustrators. The other grads find positions with scientific publishers, museums, gaming and software companies, and other employers needing people with keen artistic skills and an eye for detail.