Medical illustration in veterinary sciences combines advanced education in science and art. For insights into this line of work, AVMA News interviewed four experts about this unique profession, the challenges these professionals face, and how they’ve developed their careers. This is the second article in our three-part series.

Visual veterinary science communication

Three medical illustrators talk about their career paths

Dr. Diogo Guerra, a veterinarian and a freelance veterinary medical illustrator, has always loved drawing and animals.

“I remember watching National Geographic documentaries on Saturday mornings, sitting on my parents’ big brown couch, and then spending the afternoons drawing some of the animal species I had just seen,” he said.

He did most of his veterinary studies at the University of Lisbon in Portugal before heading off to do research work for his master’s at the Institute of Parasitology at the University of Zurich in Switzerland.

This figure for a scientific publication shows the anatomical features and location of the appendix in healthy rabbits. (© Dr. Diogo Guerra) [Enlarge]

Dr. Guerra decided to become a medical illustrator after realizing there was a lack of investment in visual science communication in veterinary sciences.

“I get asked all the time if I miss being a veterinarian, and I always answer that I still consider myself one–just a very different kind of vet,” Dr. Guerra said. “I wouldn’t be able to do what I do today had I not studied veterinary medicine.”

His knowledge of reference textbooks, experience performing necropsies, and understanding of the scientific publication process make it much easier to navigate the world of veterinary illustration.

“Speaking the same language as my clients is fundamental to translate their ideas into didactic visual materials,” Dr. Guerra said.

Developing the necessary skills

Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn is another veterinarian turned medical illustrator. She is the owner and creative director of Sawchyn Medical Illustration. Most of her clients work in veterinary academia and research.

Dr. Sawchyn also works part time in clinical veterinary medicine, performing small animal relief work. She enjoys practicing preventive medicine and developing relationships with owners and pets.

She went to the University of Maine and majored in preveterinary science with minors in zoology and studio arts. During an undergraduate class in the history of medicine, she was fascinated by the illustrations of anatomy that her professor shared.

This illustration is used by veterinarians to show the normal anatomy of the ferret, as well as the common disease of adrenocortical adenocarcinoma. (© Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn)

She decided to change the direction of her studies, attending the graduate program in medical illustration at the Medical College of Georgia, now part of Augusta University, before attending Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

“It was a rigorous program that taught me not just about illustration and science but also the business aspects of medical illustration,” Dr. Sawchyn said.

At the Medical College of Georgia, students of medical illustration attended classes with students of human medicine, performed cadaver dissections, and participated in and observed surgeries.

“For an artist, you need to work hard on your anatomy and your science training,” said Dr. Sawchyn. “It is not enough to be proficient in the latest software program because that will change.”

Never a dull moment

Deborah Haines is a certified medical illustrator and design specialist at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine.

Her medical illustrations have been published in numerous veterinary clinical journals, research journals, and textbooks. She uses 2D and 3D work as well as traditional media to translate veterinary information into educational tools.

“The more senses you bring to the table, the better people learn,” Haines said.

She also oversees veterinary students as they develop teaching exhibits with key faculty and staff members, fundraise, and educate the public about veterinary medicine during the annual Open House event.

Haines stressed that her job is not only about illustrating but also about teaching students. “My goal isn’t always to give them the answer; we want to think about the diagnostic process,” she said. “That means utilizing didactic illustrations, animations, and helping students understand key pieces of information.”

After Haines earned her bachelor’s in art from Goshen University, she went on to the Medical and Biological Illustration Program at the University of Michigan.

“I don’t think you can be a truly effective scientific and medical illustrator without knowledge, artistic technique, and artistry—constantly working to develop all three,” Haines said.

Haines has worked at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine for nearly 30 years.

She explained that there is never a dull moment at her job. She might be illustrating an abscess in a bovine hoof, developing 3D models to preplan a surgery, or helping create an effective poster session.

“Because of the variety, it’s a lot of fun,” Haines said. “Veterinary medical illustration has been a really good fit for me.”

View an accompanying photo gallery of the veterinary medical illustrations created by Dr. Diogo Guerra, Dr. Lauren D. Sawchyn, and more professionals working in this unique profession.

A version of this article appears in the February 2023 print issue of JAVMA.