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Career Ladder

Career Ladder: Mary O’Reilly

This science illustrator combines her passion for research with her love of art

by Alexandra A. Taylor
August 1, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 32


Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly
An old photo showing a young O’Reilly sitting on a man’s lap with other families sitting nearby.
Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly

Dreaming up a path


Growing up in Indiana, Mary O’Reilly wanted to be both an artist and an inventor. She wasn’t aware of many people who had combined art and science successfully, although her mother set an early example by performing in a singing group while working as a software consultant. O’Reilly remembers looking up “science illustrator” in her parents’ encyclopedia around age 16 and finding only a drawing of a microscope. “It wasn’t until much later that I started researching this as an option.”


Fulfillment in the lab


Entering college, O’Reilly was passionate about art and chemistry and was looking for a way to keep both in her life. It seemed more likely that she could study chemistry and have art as a hobby than the other way around, so she decided to pursue science and continue studying art in workshops outside school. “When I joined a lab at Purdue [University] doing undergraduate research, I saw what it was all about and just fell in love with research.” O’Reilly went on to earn a Ph.D. in biological chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later completed a postdoc at Scripps Research Institute California.

A bold move

Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly
An image illustrating brain regeneration made by O’Reilly.
Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly


O’Reilly was in the middle of her postdoc when the recession hit and everyone around her started considering other options. She began to think seriously about science illustration and started making illustrations for Scripps’s monthly newsletter. “Finding an outlet for some work and creating a situation where I had deadlines that forced me to make a portfolio was really what got me over the hump from having this dream to actually making it a reality.” O’Reilly says it took a “hefty dose of audacity” for her to get started in science illustration: “When I look back at some of the illustrations I made when I was getting started, I am absolutely mortified.” She began teaching chemistry part-time as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego, which allowed her time to build up her business.


An established artist

Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly
A self-portrait of O’Reilly showing her black-and-white profile in front of a colorful background.
Credit: Courtesy of Mary O’Reilly


After three years, O’Reilly had a full-time venture. “It got to the point where I would have to turn down illustration jobs because I just didn’t have enough time, so I decided it was time to let go of teaching.” Today, her science illustration business has grown to include journal covers, figures for journal articles, PowerPoint slides, website graphics, and animations. Her clients are mostly academics, with some biotech companies mixed in. She says her favorite projects are those in which she has an opportunity to dig into the science and help the researcher find a new way to communicate. And her business is thriving: “Work begets work,” she says.

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