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Geisel Welcomes Biomedical Illustrator Vinald Francis

For as long as he can remember, Vinald (Vinnie) Francis has been drawing. At three years old, he became fascinated with 18-wheel trucks and repeatedly drew them. By middle school, he was creating his own fonts and developed an interest in comics, superheroes, and animation. And by high school, he was an honors student in English and Biology.

“I loved life science, I loved biology, and I loved art. But I hadn’t settled on a career path until I learned about medical illustration during a high school assembly,” Francis says. “The clouds broke, and the angels started singing because everything I’d been doing since my childhood came in to play—drawing superheroes relies on anatomy, musculature, and structure. In retrospect, I see the correlation to medical illustration.”

Vinald "Vinnie" Francis
Vinald "Vinnie" Francis. Photo by Kurt Wehde

After completing his degree in medical illustration at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and an internship at the Cleveland Clinic, Francis worked at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center in Burlington, MA, where he created surgical illustrations.

Leaving the hospital environment for academia, he began collaborating with researchers working on a molecular rather than physiological or surgical level—an endeavor he found liberating. But he also no longer puts pencil to paper to initially sketch an illustration—he has completely digitized and streamlined his process by drawing directly in Photoshop.

“In some ways, biological illustration is more enjoyable than traditional medical illustration,” Francis says. “We don’t know the actual color of mitochondria or organelles, but if you work within the conventions of established science, you have more liberty and artistic freedom. You don’t have that with something that is as purely representational as surgery.”

Putting his expertise to work at Geisel, Francis will primarily be working with faculty scientists and physicians creating illustrations for research papers, teaching, manuscripts, grant proposals, and other applications to either signify specific subject matter or an overview.

“Overview life science imagery is similar to editorial illustration—it conveys the entire scope of a project rather than a specific aspect,” he says. “As opposed to depicting a surgery, which is almost like creating a comic strip because it is a clear, step by step depiction,” he notes.

Even so, Francis’ biomedical work remained separate from his love of comics. “It was serendipitous that the two came together and became a large part of my life,” he says.

Francis and one of his close friends from art school were collaborating on a graphic novel unrelated to medicine when his friend’s fiancé was hit by a car. “He told me stories about what he overheard after hours in the intensive care unit of a rural hospital where his fiancé spent months recovering,” Francis recalls. “I suggested that we create comics based on his experience—we ended up creating a series of seven. But rather than depicting humans, we used animals and monsters in real-life scenarios.

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Examples of biomedical illustrations by Vinnie Francis

“I was working at Lahey and living in Providence, RI at the time, when I heard about a doctor at Brown’s Warren Alpert Medical School—a pediatric surgeon with a lifelong interest in comics and medical illustration—who taught a medical comics workshop there for medical students and students from Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) who had taken his medical illustration course,” he says.

When Francis started working at Brown, he met Francois Luks, MD, the pediatric surgeon who directed the medical comics workshop. Luks asked Francis if he was interested in co-teaching the workshop with him.

Francis was. And in 2022, he and Luks talked about medical comics during their presentation at the Graphic Medicine conference in Chicago.

“Medical comics are different from other comics because of the subject matter—it’s heavy and deals with points of poignancy,” Francis points out. “You need to be careful with how you handle the subject matter.”

Both medical and RISD students who have taken the workshop have had their work published in The Annals of Internal Medicine [Example 1, Example 2, Example 3, Example 4] in a section dedicated to graphic medicine. “Each year that we’ve offered the course, at least two students have been published,” Francis proudly says. “Continuing to teach medical comics is important to me.”

Francis has also collaborated with Rebekah Gardner, MD, a physician-researcher at Brown’s medical school, to draw eight comics based on bedside language that were published in the May 2023 issue of The Annals of Internal Medicine.

They again partnered to expand the bedside language comic to one modeling language, interactions, and patient participation that will be used in a study this summer for transitioning doctors to conduct rounds in patient rooms. Gardner is presenting their latest work at the upcoming 2023 Graphic Medicine conference in Toronto.

Although he enjoys this work, Francis admits that he still loves pencil drawing, “Whenever I’m in a restaurant with paper placemats, or wherever there is a surface that can be drawn on, I have to draw on it.”

To learn more about Geisel’s Biomedical Illustration Services or to request a consultation with Vinnie Francis, visit this page.