Riverdale resident, Ikumi Kayama, sits in front of the lightboard in her spare bedroom. The tiny space is crowded. Five or six framed paintings lean against the closet door. A large L­-shaped desk occupies one corner of the room, a bookshelf heavy with textbooks, the other. A smaller, secondary desk, rounds out the little horseshoe of work space where Kayama sits at the apex. On a computer screen next to the lightboard, a close-­up of a macrophage spans the monitor. Kayama glances at it occasionally, carefully shaping the debri­-eating cell with her blue pencil. A couple of stuffed birds perch on the smaller desk behind her, observing her progress. Kayama is a scientific illustrator.

According to the University of Georgia, where Kayama earned her BFA in 2005, scientific illustration is a “visual tool of communication [used] solely for the purpose of education.” Kayama’s illustrations show medical students where to make their incisions or sixth graders where the lionfish lives. “The difference comes from how much detail is needed to relay the information to the audience,” Kayama said. “An extreme example is that an image for [a] sixth grade science textbook will look pretty different from an image for a researcher at a conference. The challenge is to make the illustrations look cutting edge but familiar at the same time.”

Kayama first understood the power of pictures when she was seven years old and a new immigrant from Japan. She described the challenges of enrolling in an American school when she could not speak English. “I was always in trouble because I didn’t know what was happening and I couldn’t follow instructions. So I was pretty angry and sad,” she said.

After her parents refused to let her drop out, Kayama passed time in the classroom by drawing. When her classmates saw her pictures and identified the subjects in English, Kayama’s vocabulary expanded.

“The kids would say, ‘that must be a cat,’ and I said, ‘Cat, I know cat!’ Now I look back and think it was then that I realized there is something special in drawing. You don’t have to live in the same country or speak the same language or have the same education level, but you can look at a picture and get the gist of what’s going on,” she said.

Though Kayama specializes in medical illustration, she said her favorite subjects to draw are birds. “I’ve always been drawn to birds. Something about how they are very cute to us, but super ferocious to each other and other critters,” she said.

Scientific illustrators generally draw biological subjects like birds, insects, and fish from dead specimens that have been preserved through taxidermy. In order to illustrate the specimen as it would have been in the wild, the artist has to familiarize herself with the way it would have moved and lived, as well as its habitat. Kayama’s training included both art and science courses at the University of Georgia, and later at Johns Hopkins where she earned her Masters. “There’s a lot of reconstruction going on,” she said. “Even though you’re looking at a dead thing, you’re trying to make it look alive again so that’s where the knowledge of what they look like in the wild [comes in].”

Kayama works with scientists from all over the world, many of whom are publishing cutting ­edge research. When commissioned to do a piece, Kayama often studies the subject herself to ensure accuracy. “I think it is that constant learning that excites me,” said Kayama. “I love putting my creativity and knowledge together to make a piece that will, hopefully, help someone understand something better.”