transformation of a scientist into an artist

transformation of a scientist into an artist

by Janice Nigro

I am not coming up with much to write about this week except the sunset. It is the only thing I travel to see lately, and it is only a block and a half from my apartment to watch the sun go down over the Pacific. It is my home for now, but I feel like a traveler every day in Los Angeles. Each day I run out to the beach with my camera and iPhone to photograph the sunset, as if I will be flying out the next morning for some place colder and darker.

It is easy to feel like a tourist in Los Angeles every day even though I am living here. I mean, I wear flip flops every day! Palm trees, the beach, and the smell of Coppertone… I have tried stand-up paddle boarding, and I am navigating the city by public transportation. Los Angeles is one of those places, like San Francisco, where it feels like a holiday even when you come home from a holiday.

Traveling creates an opportunity to deviate from your norm. Or better yet, you. You try different cuisine, although McDonald’s and Starbucks can be found just about anywhere now (even Tahiti sadly), for the reluctant traveler. People look different and speak differently. Some words may not even really have a translation into English. But one of the biggest differences is that no one knows you when you travel. You do not have to be you because no one knows you…if you travel solo.


It is the one aspect of travel that is difficult to maintain after the holiday. I have had a seven-year holiday from my native USA life, and perhaps most importantly my career, in Norway.

Although I took incredible risks and achieved a major goal in my work (because why else would I go?), I could do this because I was somewhere else, it went too slowly…even for Norway. I probably could have made it all work if I had stayed another year as I had European collaborators in four different countries, but my options for professional growth were not great. And that could be for any number of reasons.

One approach to your working life is to keep doing what you have been doing, but find the right environment. I am a classic case of doing the right thing but in an environment that did not take advantage of some of my best attributes in addition to my skills as a work-at-the-bench scientist. So when I returned to the US, I decided to become a traveler in my own working life. At the core of the nature of a true scientist is to test the unknown.

It was obvious to me before I left Norway that I could make at least some extra money editing scientific papers as globally the world is becoming smaller and everyone is using the internet so papers are generally written in English. What was not obvious was what to do with the rest of my time.

I asked one day at a local farmers market what it cost to participate and the following week, I was setting up a tent to sell underwater photographs.

A friend told me that it was great that I was working on ways of finding career satisfaction that did not necessarily require my PhD (although it is far from sustainable in its current state). Ironically, it was my PhD that got me to this point. In Norway, I had enough holiday time to dive the places that I had read and dreamed about so that I could actually develop some kind of reasonable photographic skills as well as an incredible appreciation for underwater life.

It does not seem possible that after all of my education and accomplishments that I could be setting up a veritable lemonade stand and deriving so much pleasure from it. It has been a way to integrate with a community and to further explore right brain activity that I was sure did not exist. But in a way crafting is just another version of working at the bench.

Art has always been a part of my life but not as an artist. I never was good at it, but I found extraordinary peace when I participated in clay or painting classes once I managed to focus on the process and not the outcome. It was a natural course for me to take, in order to sort of to heal from the broken heart of a career.

It has not been surprising that people enjoy looking at my photographs. Even a poor photo of a pygmy seahorse defies imagination. That people might purchase a small photo was even conceivable because everyone needs a card for something. Or apparently their bathroom walls (I am not sure how to feel about that). What has been more impressive is that people have a lot of input. My tent feels like some sort of an idea hut. It was always a compliment in science that my work generated discussion and here too do I take this attitude.

As in science, I am sticking to my vision of where I want to go with my art though. My photography started underwater but in order to practice technique, I began to take more photographs on land. Who can resist a spectacular sunset in Indonesia or the colors of the ocean? I have even sold a photograph of a flower from Norway…

The big challenge is to keep it somehow evolving in the absence of diving frequently. These ideas are in development. My so-called artistic life is paralleling what is at the core of my scientific training-to have a vision. To see the endpoint. Like science the vision is clear and simple in concept and the rest is simply a technical issue.

But it has been a little easier than making a brain tumor model.


2 thoughts on “transformation of a scientist into an artist

Add yours

  1. Beautiful pictures Janice! Your photography is lovely and I am sure you will do great in the long run!
    BTW, somehow after reading your post, I remember of Sebastiao Salgado who was in the end giving up his career as an economist to photography…

    1. So nice Indah! I hardly know anything about photographers. Until recently I have never really been that interested even in photography! Science philosophically to me is like art-it is a creative process also. Now with modern technology, experimental results can really look like art. I feel sometimes that now we are saturated with images so it is not necessarily easy to go very far with photography. For now, photography and the projects I am developing around it are just giving me a big confidence boost and I get to meet/connect with a whole different world of people.

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