Salk Institute for Biological Studies: InsideSalk

Resident Artist Jamie Simon's Witty Illustrations Display the Lighter Side of Salk

Jamie Simon has a keen memory. As he illustrates how neurons compete with one another to form a synapse, he remembers how biochemical pathways can determine a cell's behavior.

"Not to sound Darwinian, but it's probably a matter of whose signal is louder," he guesses, referring to three, knob-like protrusions reaching for an axon in the picture on his computer screen. "Of course," he muses, pointing to the most distant bouton, "this one may have a subtle but much more important message."

At 57, Jamie is rangy and tanned, with boyish ears and a receptive face. He usually wears shorts, a t-shirt, and hiking sandals to Salk, where he has worked for 33 years, 31 of which as a graphic artist designing scientific models to support researchers' papers and presentations, as well as cartoon illustrations to publicize lectures, meetings, and various events.

The items around his workspace are a reflection of Jamie's humor and the lighthearted spirit he brings to the Multimedia Resources department and to Salk. On the shelf over his head, for example, you'll find a bottle of Polygamy Porter (from a brewery in Utah) and a plastic action figure of Tao Berman, the world-renowned waterfall kayaker. (Jamie is a kayak enthusiast.)

Also on this shelf is a small reference library of college texts and orphaned books. The most important component is a first edition with a faded tan cover and General Zoology in flaking gold on the spine. It was his father's in college and Jamie says he's read it hundreds of thousands of times, cover to cover, since he was about 10.

"This is where I first learned about organ systems and genetics," he remembers, thumbing through it to show stippled illustrations. "I used to draw with dots as a consequence. It's a great technique, but it leaves calluses on the hands."

Beyond appreciating its pictures, the book fueled his passion for biology. Growing up in Alhambra, CA, "I would savage the tide pools at the beach," he remembers, bringing specimens home to tanks in the family garage and keeping the water cold with bags of ice. He eventually earned his undergraduate degree in biology at the University of California, San Diego, and was hired at Salk in 1974 as a cell culture technician in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory (MCBL) – then called the Tumor Virology Laboratory (TVL).

His lab technique was not good, Jamie admits, and to make matters worse, "I realized I was never going to see a live animal in the lab except to extract some portion of its body," he says. But, on the bright side, the MCBL is where his talent for creating scientific graphs and illustration was first noticed. It's also where he met his wife, Suzanne, and many of his longtime friends.

Today, his in-depth knowledge of science, pop culture, and world events imbues Jamie's work with tremendous wit, as does recalling personal trivia around Salk. The cartoon posters for the annual Oncogene meeting, which he designed for 20 years, for example, capture the discoveries and changing emphasis in cancer research with creativity that resembles the current events pages from high school yearbooks. The journal Oncogene featured a history of the meeting in February 2007 and highlighted several of Jamie's illustrations as part of the article.

Most of the jokes in Jamie's artwork stir widespread chuckles. But on very rare occasions, they don't. Such was the case with the Oncogene meeting poster in 1990. Titled "Showdown at the Onco-Corral," Onc and Anti-Onc square off during a game of cards with the bad guy dressed in black sitting across from the good guy in white, while a wide-eyed, buxom-blonde bar maid leans provocatively between them.

"This one got me into trouble with a few of the women at the meeting. My wife's attitude was 'dream on'," he recalls.

Looking around Salk, you can see Jamie in more than just his art. You'll likely catch him emceeing at the Institute's picnic, working his core at the lunch-hour Pilates class, or hanging a poster in the East building with a device he built in his garage from fishing line, a broken rod, and a reel. And if you ever visit the MCBL and notice a jeweled sword hanging over Tony Hunter's office, ask him about it–there's a story about Jamie behind that, too.

"Jamie is essential to the way the Institute as we know it is run," says Hunter. "I think it's important in any serious business to have a lighter view at times. Jamie has helped to make it that way."

InsideSalk 11|07 Issue | © Salk Institute for Biological Studies