Instructor Background: Coming Full Circle Back to Science

In this section, Felice Frankel shares how she began creating science and engineering pictures.

My undergraduate degree is in biology and chemistry, but I don’t have a graduate degree in the sciences. The story of how I began creating science and engineering pictures started when my husband, who was in Vietnam during the height of the war, bought me a very fine camera. This detail is not trivial, because having good equipment makes a difference. I started playing around with the camera, and when he came home, we moved to a town where I started volunteering as a photographer for a local PBS station. For one of the projects, I was sent to photograph a building under construction. The architect asked me if I knew how to take architectural pictures. I said, “Oh, sure.” But I had never taken architectural photographs before in my life! It turned out I had a knack for taking pictures of spaces and interiors.

So I was good. I published some work through the architect in a garden design magazine. That led to a new life for me of photographing the built landscape in architecture and landscape design.

And then, because of that, I published a book. The book led to my receipt of a Loeb Fellowship, a mid-career fellowship at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. During my fellowship, I realized I missed science.

So I audited as many science courses as I could with very famous people. One of the instructors was very clearly visual. I didn't know him from a hole in the wall, but I invited myself to his lab. He agreed, even though he didn't know who I was.

He had just had a paper accepted to Science. I looked at his pictures, and they were awful. I said, “Let me give it a shot, literally.” We got the cover.

That's the beauty of the MIT community. If you do something that people think is worthwhile, somehow they find a spot for you.

— Felice Frankel

It turns out that he was George M. Whitesides, the world-renowned chemist. He said to me, “Stay with this. You're doing something no one's doing.”

That encouragement from somebody who knew what they were talking about led me to continue playing around in his lab. And eventually, in 1994, a position opened at the MIT Edgerton Center. Whitesides wrote to a number of people at MIT, urging them to give me a chance. They did. That's the beauty of the MIT community. If you do something that people think is worthwhile, somehow they find a spot for you. Twenty-two years later, and I’m still here. Can you believe it? I’m thinking deeply about scientific concepts and how to reveal them pictorially. I’m very lucky. I've come full circle back to science.