The Pencil and the Scalpel

Sarah Roh PO ’12 was recently featured on Pomona College’s website for her collaboration with Chemistry Professor Dan O’Leary on illustrations for the Journal of Organic Chemistry. The project was the first time that her manga-style drawings were published in a professional journal. In an interview, Roh shared the story of her personal development as an artist and how her creative work fits in with her aspirations of becoming a doctor.

Like many of us, Roh started drawing when she was very young—at three or four years old—just trying to copy what she observed in the world around her. Her early scribbles may have been crude, but the truly significant thing was what she was exposed to.

“Little kids in the states grow up watching Muppets,” Roh said. “I grew up with Sailor Moon and DBZ…The comic books that were all available to me were manga.”

At first, she just imitated the anime—Japanese animation—that she saw on television or in the manga that she read, but eventually she started “mixing and matching” to create her own style.

While she was exploring the technical specifics of her style, Roh was also developed concepts for her work. People often ask artists what inspires them, expecting some drawn out philosophical response, but with Roh, the answer is a little more straightforward.

“Random things I find on the Internet,” she said. “Things my friends say, music I hear, or random ideas that pop into my head…I have really weird dreams, and some of them are like, I wonder what that looks like sketched out.”

In terms of the drawing for the journal, O’Leary had a fairly good idea of how he wanted the illustrations to be structured. The cover design, which was developed as the expanded version of a table of contents spread, served as context for the research by O’Leary and coauthors Dan Hickstein, a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Poul-Erik Hansen and Bjarke K.V. Hansen of Roskilde University in Denmark.

Roh attempted to use her drawings to translate the chemical concepts O’Leary is studying. In the cover illustration, two elves, representing enthalpy and entropy, are seen pulling at hydrogen-bonded molecules. It was intended as a fun way to introduce the subject and grab readers’ attention.

Although for the most part Roh “just kind of drew what [O’Leary] wanted,” she did add some of her own details. For example, she drew the elf representing entropy, the measure of disorder, as a scruffy boy with messy hair and ripped clothes.

Though Roh does not expect to make a living as a manga artist, her work has opened up new artistic opportunities for her. One of O’Leary’s colleagues at the University of Kansas saw Roh’s cover art and asked her to work on some sketches for him.

Sketching for the journal provided a unique outlet for Roh, combining her interests in chemistry and art and offering a means to publish her work.

“I know I’m studying to be a doctor…but I’d like to continue drawing,” she said. “If I draw the occasional graphic for a scientific article, I think that’d be fun.”

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