Why I Do Science: Kandis Elliot

Plant Modifications poster by Kandis Elliot. Click on the image for a larger size.

Kandis Elliot didn’t think she’d make art her profession. “When I was in high school and thinking of a career, we were told back then that you can't make a living as an artist and if you're smart enough you go into the sciences,” said Elliot. She was smart enough- and interested enough- in the sciences to graduate from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in biology and Masters in zoology. “In all these courses I drew like crazy without letting too many people see these drawings,” she recalls.

But art drew her back and after her advanced degree Elliot returned to school, this time in a technical college program in commercial art. Shortly after that, the perfect opportunity came knocking. “I was out about a month when four people, four or five people called me up the same day and said, ‘The botany artist is leaving, go apply for a position,’" Elliot says. The position was as staff artist for the University of Wisconsin’s Botany department, one of the best in the country.

Elliot was strong on science and gifted in art, but she also had another card up her sleeve, “I knew back in 1988 there was this new thing called Apple Computer where you could draw a perfect square. You didn't need a right angle. You could draw a perfect circle, you didn't need a compass. And I said, ‘Surely you want to do this kind of work on a computer.’ And they said, ‘Alright, let's try it.’"

fungi poster
Kandis Elliot's poster "Introduction to Fungi". Click on the image for a larger size.

The idea of using computers appealed to the scientists, but Elliot had never actually used one. So she went to the campus computer center, held up a hundred dollar bill, offering it to anyone who could teach her how to use an Apple. That investment paid off in a position she held for over two decades. As the botany artist, she created charts and graphs for countless scientific publications and perfected the art of digital painting. Starting with less-than-perfect images taken by scientists in the field, or dried, pressed plant samples, Elliot’s job was to transform them into striking, painterly objects that could hold a student’s attention.

“It makes your eye dwell on the picture a little bit longer,” says Elliot, “I guess the only way I can describe it is that the paintings say, ‘Look at me.’”


After years spent shining the spotlight on nature’s botanical beauty, Kandis Elliot retired from the University of Wisconsin in 2011. But not before receiving one of the highest honors in her profession. A poster titled “Introduction to Fungi” won the 2010 prize for information graphics in the National Science Foundation’s International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. Mushrooms capped a brilliant career.

This video was updated from the original by producer Eleanor Nelson.