Work Hard, Play Hard
The lab can be intense, but Sophia Chandrasekar makes sure any drudgery comes with its fair share of recreation
Georgia Hulme | | 6 min read | Interview
The world of pathology and laboratory medicine can be characterized by long hours and overwhelming workloads. And that’s why Sophia Chandrasekar – artist, podcaster, and fashionista – is committed to lightening the laboratory mood. Whether it’s through her business (Warbler Works Studio) or her Off the Bench podcast, Chandrasekar knows that all lab and no play is a recipe for running out of steam. After finding a space for fun in her profession, Chandrasekar shares her illustrations to offer a breather from the stresses of laboratory life.
I caught up with Chandrasekar to learn more.
Tell us about your double life…
I am a medical laboratory scientist in the US. But I am also the founder of Warbler Works Studio – a laboratory themed comic strip that publishes every Monday and Thursday. Warbler Works Studio is also an online store that is filled with all sorts of laboratory-based illustrations and merchandise. In my senior year, just before I was about to graduate with a biology and anthropology double at UNC Chapel Hill, I saw an ad on the way to campus for the Clinical Laboratory Science bachelor’s degree. It drew me in with the question: “Do you want to solve the patient puzzle?” I guess I did, because two weeks after I graduated I started the program, and have been in the lab field ever since!
What do you love most about your job?
I love being a part of patient care! Although, I’ll admit we often don’t get the credit we deserve. A good analogy can be found in theater – you don’t realize how important the crew, pit, costume, and set designers are until they’re missing. I would love it if we were more front-facing so that people knew exactly what we did.
How do you think recognition can be improved?
I am a part of the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science (ASCLS), and one of our biggest goals is advocacy. Although self promotion is important, there’s only so much we can do. We need more recognition from hospitals and other sectors of the care team. Some hospitals have huge celebrations for lab week, but some hardly have any. You constantly hear about nurses, doctors, pharmacists, and radiologists, but people generally neglect jobs in the lab. It’s a whole practice of medicine that people don’t even know about. If hospitals recognize their laboratory staff on the same level as nurses and doctors, we will get somewhere – because, at the end of the day, hospitals have the largest voice in the medical community.
Where does your artistic inspiration come from?
I got into scientific art as a way to study in college because I am very visual. I took a lot of invertebrate anatomy and anthropology classes – and some of the concepts were extremely lofty. If I didn't understand the concept, I would sit and draw out the process. But it was COVID-19 that really pushed me into pursuing scientific art more seriously. Art was my way of journaling what I was going through as a laboratory professional. I went from working day shifts to night shifts with hot instruments and a mask on my face; a corner of hell, as I liked to call it. Writing little comics for myself was my way of dealing with everything; my art became a medium to convey how I was feeling.
Why did you start Warbler Works Studio?
The store started because I really liked what I was creating. I wanted to make lab-based ephemera that people could relate to. I would often go online, and just see clipart microscopes plastered on everything. I think I had the laboratory mindset of, “If no one else will do it, then I will.” I like to think my comics bring awareness to the profession, and help to showcase the ups and downs of laboratory life. The lab can be stressful – it’s tiring and long hours are often inevitable, so I hope that people get enjoyment out of my art. There are so many cool and funny memes for nurses and doctors, but the laboratory field was missing that. It’s nice to have created a space to joke about the highs and lows of our niche.
Could you walk us through the process of creating one of your designs?
I’m a very slow illustrator! For my “Lab, but make it fashion,” series, I start off by picking an object or a subject in the laboratory. For my chromosome fashion piece (Figure 1), I sat and thought, what makes a chromosome a chromosome? You’ve got the X shape. You’ve got the DNA. You’ve got the centromeres. I then put the shape on a paper doll, grabbed my sketchbook, and did some general form and silhouette sketches while I figured out the color combination. Once I’d got that, I drew it out on my computer before painting and coloring. For the entire process, it usually takes four to seven hours. I think my Erlenmeyer flask fashion piece took the longest (Figure 2).
And where did the idea for the “Lab, but make it fashion” series come from?
I started the series after a bad day in the lab! My fashion inspiration is definitely the 2000s, and some of my favorite designers include Alexander McQueen, Elie Saab, Paolo Sebastian, and Ruth Carter. My more outlandish designs – like the chromosome and the Erlenmeyer flask fashion pieces – are a huge nod to Cirque du Soleil. I love the dramatic sculptural looks and the huge shapes.
What’s your favorite lab-based design so far?
The Klebsiella pneumoniae fashion piece (Figure 3). It looks horrifying and disgusting – but also beautiful. I love the juxtaposition.
Illustrations aside, you’re also a co-host for the laboratory-based podcast Off the Bench. What’s that like?
Off the Bench is a podcast run by ASCLS. We discuss a wide range of topics, from addressing gaps in healthcare quality for transgender patients to an interview with Alan H. B. Wu – a laboratory storyteller that has published a selection of short stories, books, and has a laboratory TV show currently in the works. There are so many educational podcasts for laboratories, so we thought it would be fun to have an educational and laboratory-adjacent podcast that covers more light-hearted topics. In one of our episodes, we sat down and watched medical TV shows and just talked about how inaccurate the laboratory scenes were! I think that some professional organizations forget that lab professionals are more than just the laboratory. We’re people who like to have a laugh! It’s nice to have built a community where we can connect without having to be so professional all the time.