Spotlight on our Students: Illustrating the Details

Christina enjoying the view at her internship.

“Being a part of the University Honors Program convinced me to seek out research opportunities and gain lab experience with professionals related to my field. I think learning to communicate and work with veteran researchers has been incredibly helpful to my success; you want to seem confident and capable, not meek and unsure, and the most prudent way to become confident is through experience. “

In this edition of Spotlight on our Students, we get to hear from Christina Burnham about her internship at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco as a biological illustrator. Christina is a rising senior University Honors student from Fayetteville, North Carolina double majoring in Zoology and Poultry Science. Read on to learn more about her work at the museum and how she got involved in this fascinating field.

UHP: Christina, sounds like you’ve stumbled upon a really amazing internship opportunity that really aligns with your interests and majors. What specifically sparked your interest in biological illustration?

CB: I’ve been obsessed with animals since I was very young, and I would always be bringing nature indoors to observe (much to my parents’ chagrin).  It was only a natural progression that I would choose to study zoology in college and dedicate my life to understanding more about the natural world. How I got into illustration is a tad more anticlimactic; someone in my family gifted me a “How to Draw Animals” booklet, maybe 30 pages long, that gave step by step drawing instructions.  Practice bred skill and after several years I apparently became good enough to score this position! I would like to take this time to remind people that “natural talent” is mostly a myth, and if you work hard and practice something for long enough you too will be considered quite talented at it!

UHP: Yes! That is crucial advice. Practice makes for better practice, which leads to developed skills. So what do you hope to learn from your time at the Academy of Science this summer?

CB: I would like to learn more about managing living and archived natural science collections, but mostly I’m interested in picking these researchers’ brains. I believe this is a very good opportunity for me to pick up tips and life experience from these incredibly well-learned and traveled scientists I can use to help navigate my own life and one day get a job at a prestigious research institution like the Academy!

UHP: Sounds like you’re really open to learning from the pros! Tell us a bit more about the actual illustration work you’ve done there so far. What has been the most interesting or challenging thing you’ve been tasked with illustrating?

CB: I’m attached to the botany department, so I’ve been tasked with illustrating plants from the Melastomataceae family found in Madagascar that is previously undocumented in literature. My illustrations will be published with the accompanying paper describing the plant, its identifying features, and where it can be found. The most challenging part of this is that they are not bringing the living plant back but rather a dead specimen pressed flat to archival paper. It is up to me to infer how the plant looked while alive and render it as three-dimensionally as possible!

As for most interesting, I’m illustrating a Gravesia sp. plant that has “formicariums” in it, which are little holes that ants live in. No one knows whether the relationship is commensalistic or mutualistic, or how the holes are formed. Interspecies relationships are fascinating to me, so I’m interested to see how further research pans out!

UHP: That’s super cool. You’re using creative and critical thinking skills to bring biology to life through illustration. What would you say is the most valuable thing you’ve learned so far?

CB: I learned a valuable life lesson; be sure to research how far your housing is time-wise from your workplace on public transportation so you don’t end up having to commute an hour and a half either way to save a little on rent…

UHP: Oh no! That’s a struggle. Just make sure you’ve got a good book to read on the bus. How would you say your time in the University Honors Program has helped you prepare for this experience?

CB: Being a part of the UHP convinced me to seek out research opportunities and gain lab experience with professionals related to my field. I think learning to communicate and work with veteran researchers has been incredibly helpful to my success; you want to seem confident and capable, not meek and unsure, and the most prudent way to become confident is through experience. This is the most important time in our lives to start networking and gaining references we can draw upon in the future, so you definitely want to impress the people you work for with your work ethic and competency.

UHP: Yes, it is crucial to present your skills and abilities realistically and honestly with confidence. What would you tell other University Honors students about how to prepare for an internship they are really excited about?

CB: Learn to be open to everything (within reason, of course), and roll with the punches. You might be far from home or completely independent for a few months, and that can be a scary experience. Being flexible when dealing with adversity is the most important thing I can think of, because if you pack up and go home then you’ve just shut a door to some possible future opportunities. Also, always check with your home institution to see if they have resources you can use to help you during your internship, financial or otherwise.

UHP: That’s great advice – be open to possibility, take informed risks, and ask for resources and help as needed. What would you say is the best advice you’ve ever received?

CB: I’ve been lucky to have several advisors and mentors throughout my life bestow upon me useful advice, but most of what I’ve taken to heart has all been in the same vein: if you’re passionate about something, don’t take no for an answer, and don’t worry about what others are thinking while you’re at it. Many people at the Academy have recounted that they got their positions by being persistent and unyielding in the face of rejection. Apply for that job you think you’d never get, or that school you’ve only dreamt of attending. I was told I wasn’t even in the top three applicants for this position from NC State yet here I am! As cliché (and aggressive) as it may sound, you really do have to go out, grab your dreams, and make them happen.

UHP: That’s the spirit, set goals and work towards them no matter what! Well, Christina, best of luck to you as you finish up your time in San Fransisco. Soak up some of that California sun for us. We’ll look forward to hearing more about your work when you get back to campus this Fall.

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