Nina Chhita | Medical Writer & Illustrator
Hi everyone! I'm really excited to share with you today's STEM story from the wonderful Nina Chhita (She/Her) aka @nina.draws.scientists.
Nina works as a medical writer for a non-profit in Vancouver writing educational materials for health care workers. Nina also uses illustration to showcase trailblazing people in STEM, who happen to be women. Her annual Instagram 'Heroines in STEM' series in the lead up to the International Day of Women and Girls in Science has become one of the highlights of my year! All heroines are selected by the instagram community and it's great to see all the love and support everyone has for one another.
Prior to moving to Vancouver in September 2019, Nina was based in London and I was fortunate enough to meet her several times last summer. When I asked Nina if she is enjoying Vancouver she said this...
"I am enjoying exploring the area and getting acquainted with local wines (pop up wine bars are my latest favourite activity.. if I can call it that?!). I also have an inability to turn down ice cream, so don’t be surprised if I one day change my page to a dessert Instagram".
How did you become a medical writer? What is life like as a medical writer?
I always enjoyed writing and ended up applying for a job advertised through a science communication email list. I’ve figured out along the way that I am really interested in adult education - I enjoy distilling information and also representing it visually, where possible. Although my job is writing focused, it’s varied in the types of projects I get to write. I started out working in agencies that support pharmaceutical companies who were releasing new treatments. When moving to Vancouver, it was also an opportunity to change career direction, so I recently switched to a non-profit. It’s the best decision I’ve made. My biggest project right now is working on an educational course about substance use disorders. It’s freely available and includes the evidence-based treatments available. I get to work with people who are really passionate about the field, and who are determined to make an impact.
Nina, I've loved watching @nina.draws.scientist grow. When did you start illustrating and what was the motivation behind it?
I officially created this account in December 2017, but I started painting a little bit before that date. Fascinated by history, I was illustrating the people on London‘s blue plaques. It was a conduit for me to learn about historical figures, and to explore London! I used to visit the location and then take a photo with my painting and the blue plaque in the background. I naturally gravitated towards scientists, as a scientist myself, and particularly scientists who were women just because I didn’t know their stories as much.
My idea of exclusively focusing on women was cemented following a Christmas quiz at a former workplace. A slide was pulled up with scientists, less than half were women and all were Caucasian. It was quite galling that in a room of scientific people, most with PhDs, barely anyone could name these trailblazing women. This experience encompasses our time - few people can name a famous person in science, and even fewer a woman in science.
Over time, I have broadened out to STEM. I hope that by representing women in STEM in art makes their names memorable and breaks down any stereotypes of what someone in science, technology, engineering, or maths should look like.
How do you create your illustrations?
My illustrations are firstly painted with gouache paints, and then I scan the images so I can add digital elements. I strive to keep likeness to the person so they are recognisable, and try to represent them as accurately as possible - women do not have to bow to any stereotype and can be introverted or serious, and that’s alright.
What big change you would love to see in STEM over the next couple of years?
Increase in salary for people in academia, particularly PhD students. I think academia is incredibly important, but it’s not a financially viable option for many.
What is the greatest challenge that you've had to overcome?
This one is tough! It’s definitely been a battle with my own confidence and being limited by other people’s expectations. I think as I’ve challenged myself, I’ve definitely become more confident. But I still find it excruciating doing some things!
Photo: Inspirational postcards from a past collaboration between Nina and Heidi from @scienceonapostcard.
If you could go back and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Apply anyway. There was always something stopping me from applying to something, be it universities or jobs. It was really just a defeatist attitude - “oh I won’t get in”. But actually going through an application process is completely worthwhile, regardless of the outcome. Got an interview? Great! That could be a valuable experience to understand what types of questions people ask. And if things do not go quite to plan, there are always options.
I want to end by saying a a huge thank you to Nina for taking the time to answer my questions and share her STEM story. Nina is doing amazing things as both a medical writer and a freelance illustrator. To everyone that read Nina's story, I hope you feel inspired. Please visit @nina.draws.scientist to learn more about trailblazing women in STEM - past, and present!