Follow your art: Lessons on communicating science

Kaleigh Ballantine, undergraduate student and graphic designer at NOAA, shares her thoughts on the nature of visual science communication

Growing up, I fell in love with art, science, the outdoors, and the ways they can all overlap. From dissecting owl pellets and drawing the little bones and fur inside of them to creating eye-catching posters to promote my school’s environmental club, I’ve always looked at design as a tool to explore the natural world. But as I grew up and saw those subjects drift apart, I felt like I was at a crossroads for what to pursue.

Kaleigh Ballantine smiling in front of the beach at sunset.

Kaleigh visiting Newport, Oregon, right before starting college. Later, she returned to the Oregon Coast to take oceanography courses and participate in a research cruise. (Image credit: Courtesy of Kaleigh Ballantine/NOAA Office of Education)

When having to pick a major between science or art during my college applications, I began to wonder if these subjects were realistically compatible. I knew I wanted to keep pursuing science, but I also felt that I couldn’t just leave my passion for design behind. At the time, I had never even heard the phrase “science communication.” I had heard of “STEM” — science, technology, engineering, and math — but never “STEAM” with an “A” included for art.

Despite this uncertainty, I decided to “follow my art” and create a path where I couldn’t find one. I’m now a third-year undergraduate student at Oregon State University where I major in environmental sciences with minors in oceanography, science communication, and graphic design. A bit of a mouthful, I know.

Fortunately, through this mismatched journey, I’ve realized that art and science aren’t as incompatible as I once feared. Alongside my studies, I’ve had the opportunity to work with NOAA’s Office of Education for the last two years, first as a visual science communication intern and recently now as a ‘real-deal’ graphic designer!

I wasn’t sure how pursuing a science major while doubling as a graphic designer would work out, but it turns out these two roles aren’t mutually exclusive — they actually enhance each other. Through my slightly tongue-twisting collection of majors and minors coupled with my work with NOAA, I’ve learned some key takeaways about overlapping art and science that might just be helpful for anyone navigating a path to do the same.

Being a student in a STEM major while working as a graphic designer is a combination I had never known could work out, but it turns out, they go hand in hand! I’ve fallen in love with the field of science communication and finding ways to visually share information about our planet with the world in a nature that aims to be both engaging and accessible. I’m so glad that when it came between choosing science or art, I chose not to choose.

Kaleigh Ballantine sitting at her desk while working on her laptop to create a new graphic.
Kaleigh Ballantine, working on another exciting design for NOAA's Office of Education. (Courtesy of Kaleigh Ballantine/NOAA Office of Education)