Class Note Up Close: Science illustrator Tami Tolpa
Tolpa has dual degrees in studio art and environmental studies. It wasn’t until she had surgery during her senior year at Binghamton University that she saw how the two disciplines complemented each other.
“The procedure sparked a curiosity about the science of the human body that I hadn’t had before. My aunt was in nursing school, and I saw the pen and ink illustrations in her textbooks. The elegant line work reminded me of the etchings I made in studio art classes, and something clicked. I decided that I wanted to make art that was beautiful and that also illuminated science,” she says.
Deciding what to include and what to eliminate, as well as how to frame the entire graphic, is Tolpa’s biggest challenge. “There’s a big push in scientific illustration to clarify rather than simplify. It’s work to strike the right balance,” she says.
Tolpa says it helps that she’s not particularly squeamish.
“When I was at Binghamton, I often performed amateur taxidermy on birds I found on campus. I also have performed dissections. I took human gross anatomy as part of my MFA program in medical illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and it remains one of the most profound experiences of my life.”
She and a colleague recently finished illustrations for the American Association of Pathology Assistants for their Grossing Guidelines, a tool for examining and processing cancer specimens.
“Looking at clinical photographs of cancer took some getting used to. What kept me inspired was knowing that our illustrations were ultimately going to help cancer patients. And I learned a great deal about pathology and about the people who do this important work.”
Tolpa and a business partner formed a company called Picture as Portal LLC to help scientists communicate. “We realized that most science visuals are made by scientists themselves, not by professionals like us.”