Jake McKinlay’s art features alien shapes and arresting colors, making his illustrations feel otherworldly, but his subject matter is actually much closer to home. An associate professor in the Indiana University Department of Biology, McKinlay creates original artwork to help his students understand complex biochemical concepts associated with metabolism.

Associate professor of biology and artist Jake McKinlay.

McKinlay says that many students were force-fed those subjects in high school. “The Krebs cycle and glycolysis can bring up negative emotions,” he says. “It just becomes memorization, and nobody knows why they’re memorizing it or why it’s important. So, it’s always been a challenge to me to teach it in a way that’s interesting and even enjoyable. I thought this might help.”

When he’s not teaching, McKinlay studies the metabolism of bacteria and their potential to make useful products like biofuels. “My research has looked at how we can get bacteria to interact in cooperative ways,” he says. 

Although students have reacted positively to his artwork, McKinlay is working to formally assess its effectiveness as an educational tool. “I’ve been collaborating with Katie Kearns,” he says. “We want to make sure this is actually benefiting the students.” Kearns is the assistant vice provost for student development in the University Graduate School. 

 “I’ve always loved drawing,” McKinlay says of his artistic endeavors. “In high school, I thought I was going to make a career out of art, but that didn’t seem realistic, so, I got into the sciences, which I was also interested in.” 

The Vancouver, Canada, native completed his undergraduate work at The University of British Columbia and earned a master’s and Ph.D. in microbiology from Michigan State University. In 2011, McKinlay joined IU and became a U.S. citizen last year.

To date, McKinlay has made 20 pencil-and-ink images. He scans the originals, then adds color and texture via Photoshop. “I lose confidence once I bring color into it,” he admits. “So, I really need the ‘undo’ button!”