By Vivian Cheung, Operations Coordinator
To celebrate this year’s Science Odyssey, Canada’s biggest science and technology festival, we are highlighting amazing scientists from across the country! Young adult staff members at Fresh Roots interviewed inspiring individuals contributing to science, to learn more about their personal and professional journey, career, and what advice they have for youth. These scientists surprise and delight us with their unique topics and backgrounds, and the unexpected ways their work connects back to healthy food systems and a healthy environment.
Interview with Jacelyn Shu
Jacelyn is a biologist and scientific illustrator. She completed both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree at the University of British Columbia. She continues to be involved in the Department of Zoology as a lab manager and research technician in the Mank Lab. In addition to her managerial duties to support her lab’s research on guppies and sex chromosomes, her interests in the art and communication side of science has led her to be involved in today’s cutting-edge research through making figures for scientific publications and presentations. For Jacelyn, she enjoys translating complex scientific concepts into simple diagrams and help with turning the gruelling hours of data collection and analysis into a compelling narrative that can be shared with others in a visually appealing manner. See more of her work on her website Jacelyn Designs.
We have a tradition at Fresh Roots of starting our conversations with this question: What vegetable do you feel like today?
Today I feel like a carrot. Stubby and covered in dirt, but could still be sweet.
Gosline Lecture, UBC, 2018
Can you describe your work as a biologist and scientific illustrator?
By day, I wrangle guppies! My lab has about 6,000 fish that I am responsible for taking care of. I also support my labmates in their research, which a lot of the time means helping with their research projects, ordering supplies, doing administrative work, or taking care of the finances.
When all this technical stuff is done, I get to do more of the fun and creative things. I designed my lab’s logo, ran a course on Adobe Illustrator, and produced a bunch of figures for the papers coming out of my lab. I also started freelancing my science illustration services, and have produced figures and illustrations for other scientists as well.
When water contains toxins, these toxins can be taken up by fish at the gills, causing a physiological cascade that results in cardiovascular collapse.
McCormick, S. D., Schultz, E and Brauner, C.J. 2021. Methods in Fish Biology, American Fisheries Society. In Press.
What was your path to becoming a biologist and scientific illustrator?
I started becoming involved in research in my third year of my undergraduate degree, and did an Honours research project in a lab that I would later continue to do my Master’s degree in. After my Master’s, I decided that I enjoyed research and wanted to stay involved but, but didn’t think pursuing academia was the right path for me.
I was very fortunate to find a job as a lab manager/research technician with my current lab and Principal Investigator Judith Mank. I’ve always enjoyed the behind-the-scenes roles, and I like being able to support my labmates with their research, watch it unfold and take form, then help to communicate the final result.
My path to being a science illustrator is a bit less straightforward and is still definitely in its earlier stages. Throughout my degrees, especially during guest lectures or research seminars, I would take notes in the form of doodles to keep myself entertained. I also learned how to use Adobe Illustrator in one of my graduate courses, and spent just as much time making my presentation figures for talks and seminars as I did on the content itself. My Master’s supervisor noticed that I enjoyed drawing sciency things, and asked me if I wanted to make some figures for his lecture material and some of his publications. I agreed, and since then, I’ve been drawing people’s science wherever I can.
(1) An experimental setup used by Yvonne Dzal. The divided chamber allows Yvonne to measure whole-body respiration and ventilation in little brown bats, contributing to her research on the effect of white-nose syndrome. This figure was recently published in a review in Conservation Physiology. (2) Another of Yvonne’s experimental setups, this one used to measure whole-body respiration. You can read more about Yvonne’s work here.
What motivates you to keep doing what you do?
I’ve always enjoyed nature and biology, and there’s so much about the world we know, but so much we still don’t know. My favourite thing about my current positions as a lab manager/research technician, as well as a science illustrator is that I get to dip my toes into a bunch of different research areas. It’s inspiring and humbling because there’s so much cool stuff happening on the frontiers of science, and I get to play a small part in investigating the big research questions that are being asked and answered in our current day and age.
As a science illustrator, I also see the importance of what I do. I feel like so much cool and current research goes unnoticed by 99% of the population because most of us are not well-versed enough to understand exactly what it means, and there is often so much jargon and background to wade through. Simplifying and illustrating the research is a great way to make it more appealing and more easily understandable.
Trinidadian guppies (Poecilia reticulata) vary greatly in colour patterns among males. In particular, two main competing selection pressures have resulted in the same colour phenomenon in multiple river systems. Downstream, high predation results in selection against bright colours that are easily seen by predators; as a result, males are duller. Upstream, there are fewer predators, and sexual selection by female choice favours more brightly coloured males. The Mank Lab studies the genetic basis for colour and sexual dimorphism in these guppies.
How does your work relate to food systems or the environment?
No obvious, direct link, but everything is connected somehow! My lab does basic research on guppies and sex chromosomes, so that is less applied than some other research like climate change or food availability, but no less important (we can discuss the importance of basic research another day). As an illustrator, I get to work with a whole bunch of different projects, but so far no food system stuff or environmental stuff yet. Would be fun though!
What advice would you give to your younger self, or to youth today?
Success in science doesn’t have to follow the three paths of a doctor, professor, or engineer that are so often preached to budding scientists. These are great professions, but far from the only options. I would say don’t limit yourself, try different things, see what you like, and don’t try to rush the process.
from a talk given by Eleanor Caves at Evolution 2019