Attracted to science and art, a student chooses both

Adriana Bellomo ’17 reconciles her two passions through scientific illustration
Adam Grybowski

As part of the normal campus tour, potential students and their families amble through Rider University's Campus Green, which is dotted with dogwoods, oaks and other plant life that is easy to take for granted. 

One day in the spring of 2015, Adriana Bellomo, a tour guide herself, set out to walk these grounds alone. She trained her eyes on the trees and bushes that populate the campus and the peculiar bugs that live underfoot. 

Her goal was to gather specimens for an independent research project. Bellomo, a behavioral neuroscience major and fine art minor now in her junior year, wanted to combine her passion for art and science by creating a suite of scientific drawings that showcased and illuminated some of the florae and faunae found around the Lawrenceville campus. She intends to create a pamphlet that can be distributed on tours to help visitors appreciate the diverse beauty of campus. 

“I picked things that caught my attention,” Bellomo says. “There are a lot of interesting plants and animals, but for this project, I could only illustrate four of them.” 

Adjunct instructor Ann Hoffenberg, who’s also a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists and a freelance botanical illustrator, has worked closely with Bellomo on creating the illustrations. “This project is an example of one of Rider’s greatest strengths – the opportunity for students to collaborate with faculty and to carry out custom-tailored projects,” Hoffenberg says. “Without this project, Adriana may not have become exposed to this type of work that could, potentially, earn her a living doing something she loves.”

The goal of scientific illustration, Hoffenberg says, is “to communicate and educate.” The work requires first-rate observational skills and artistic skill, as well as scientific knowledge — either acquired firsthand or through close partnerships with scientists. Plant species can be identified partly by characteristics like the shape of leaf edges. Such details — edges that are either scalloped or toothed or smooth — must be portrayed accurately in scientific illustration. “Aesthetics,” Hoffenberg says, “are important but not at the expense of accuracy.”

Before any illustrations for this project happened, Hoffenberg made sure Bellomo knew how to identify the species she would be examining. “This focused her on the diagnostic features that needed to be part of her illustration and enabled her to do more research,” Hoffenberg says. “Adriana has her own style, and I didn’t require that she learn my style of drawing, but I did require that her drawings be scientifically accurate.”

Bellomo has expanded her project to include more drawings beyond the pamphlet. In addition to illustrating plants and animals, she began drawing cells and neurons after an assignment staining mouse brains in the lab of Dr. Phillip Lowrey, an associate professor in the Department of Biology. To stain brains, Lowrey teaches his students the Golgi method, a technique named after the 19th-century Italian scientist Camillo Golgi that allows the capillary-like structure of neurons to be seen with a microscope and recorded. From those stains, Golgi would use ink to draw what he observed.

“People today still use those illustrations — they’re very good and very intricate,” Lowrey says. “With a drawing, you can capture the ideal version of the neuron for study, but people usually don’t sit down and illustrate the structure of neurons anymore because it’s so time-consuming. Now, they would probably use high-res photos.”

Photographs, though, aren’t equipped to show all of a specimen’s features, or show them in the most accurate way. A photograph is locked into one perspective, and the specimen it portrays may be damaged or flawed in some other manner that betrays its salient characteristics. A drawing is better equipped to overcomes these deficiencies. 

“What Adriana is doing is at the intersection of art and science and gives you what you might not see by looking at multiple slides,” Lowrey says. 

Bellomo became serious about art in high school under the influence of a teacher named Mr. Calvert. “I was very quiet, but he gave me a voice through my art,” she says. Particularly drawn to pointillism, an art form that employs small dots to create an image, she used the technique to draw portraits of people and natural landscapes. 

When it came time to choose a college, she considered applying to art schools but decided instead to follow in the footsteps of her mother, Lisa Clarizio ’87, a Rider alumna who majored in business administration and education and met her future husband while an undergraduate. “Rider was one of the few colleges in the area to combine science and art, and my parents and grandparents were excited for me to come here,” Bellomo says, adding that she has had professors who also taught her mother. 

She decided to continue pursuing art by minoring in fine art, while majoring in behavioral neuroscience. “I like learning why you do the things you do — how the brain influences your behaviors,” she says. 

For Bellomo, the illustrations serve as a way to promote science literacy, and she sees great opportunity in adapting scientific illustrations for short, explanatory videos. “Science explains the natural world,” she says, “but I’m a visual learner and never understand what’s going on without the help of photos and illustrations in textbooks. A lot of students are great at memorizing but have a harder time truly grasping the concepts. When they’re drawn out, it’s easier to understand the science.” 

Right now, as she continues to refine her ambition, Bellomo sees several possible career paths, ones that might diverge from what Hoffenberg calls “‘art in the service of science.”

Still, Lowrey says, “I think she’s been bitten by this illustration bug and it might lead her to a possible career with illustration and science. I fully support that. Students have to find some personal hook for themselves in science for it to be meaningful, and Adriana has done that. Not many students combine science with another field the way she has.”