Sharp drawings for cutting-edge science

Guo used Jacks to illustrate a paper about a protein pathway called JAK. It ran on the cover of the journal Cell.
Guo used Jacks to illustrate a paper about a protein pathway called JAK. It ran on the cover of the journal Cell.
Posted: July 08, 2013

Everyone in Lili Guo's family expected her to follow the family tradition and become an artist, but she felt drawn instead to a career in science.

Now, like a latter-day Leonardo, she has figured out a way to do both.

While earning her Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine, Guo is earning acclaim for vivid illustrations that she creates to accompany colleagues' research articles.

In the hands of Guo, 29, an obscure molecular interaction turns into a metaphorical battle between swashbuckling knights and spear-wielding Vikings, or perhaps a group of mice warily eyeing a cat's paw. Other illustrations are more literal, depicting the actual molecules and cell biology involved.

No matter the vision, Guo's fellow scientists are realizing that her pictures can help them get their message across - especially if the audience for a particular journal includes policy makers and other scientists who may be unfamiliar with the area of research. A deft piece of artwork can even help an academic paper land on the journal's cover.

For example, a paper by researchers Wenyu Luo and Amita Sehgal, the latter a professor of neuroscience at Penn, made the cover of the prominent journal Cell.

The paper described a protein pathway called JAK, which plays a role in the daily rhythms of the body's internal "clocks." Sehgal suggested using a Jack from a deck of cards. Guo drew one "jak" with its eyes open, next to a sun, while the other is asleep, next to a moon. Both are clutching a type of micro RNA.

"She just took it and ran with it, and produced something that really caught everybody's eye," Sehgal said.

For the journals with a broad audience, such conceptual metaphors are key, Guo said.

"We normally try to create a very eye-catching design and emphasize the impact of the work, instead of what is the theory behind that," the artist said.

Guo grew up in Wuhan, China, about 500 miles west of Shanghai, and in high school she was on track to pursue a career in the fine arts. Her mother is a graphic designer for a major publisher, and her father is a professor of fine arts, specializing in lithography. Aunts, uncles, and grandparents also have been involved in the arts.

But Guo always loved science, and by age 17 she decided to shift gears. She studied biology at Wuhan University, where she excelled, yet she also kept a hand in the visual world by drawing illustrations for a microbiology textbook.

In 2006, she came to Penn, where she works in the lab of Xiaolu Yang, at the Abramson Family Cancer Research Institute. Her research involves elements of cancer biology that have an impact on neurodegenerative disease.

In 2010, she offered to draw an illustration for a colleague who was publishing an article in the journal Molecular Cell. Since then, she has illustrated at least 10 covers, and she has drawn images to run on the inside pages of journals, including Science.

She does artwork at nights and on weekends, using a variety of techniques. Sometimes, she will draw or paint something by hand, then scan it and alter it using Photoshop. Other times, she creates paper sculptures and photographs them.

So, is Guo tempted to illustrate one of her own papers? So far, it hasn't happened.

"The stuff I'm working on is kind of abstract," she said.

Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or

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