Johanna Emgård


Photo by Işık Güner

I was born in Lund, Sweden, in 1990 and grew up in a creative home. Both my parents are architects and they encouraged me and my siblings to paint and draw from an early age. I have also been fascinated by plants for as long as I can remember. At the age of 16 I combined my interests and started to do botanical illustrations. With a lot of encouragement from my biology teachers, I decided to make a book with illustrations of all the plant species growing around the lake Humlesjön in the south of Sweden. It took me two years to draw and write descriptions of all the 227 species I found around the lake. In 2009, about a month before my high school graduation, the book “Humlesjös flora” was published. I was 19 years old. 


This enormous project opened many doors for me. I was awarded best exhibitor at “Utställningen Unga Forskare” (Young researchers science fair) in Stockholm and got the chance to be one of four Swedish representatives at the London International Youth Science Forum (LIYSF) in 2009. There I met Maia from Israel who became a dear friend. Her dad later became my supervisor during my M.Sc. studies.


After graduating from high school, I went to art school to improve my skills. A year later I started my B.Sc. studies in biology at Lund University. In addition to botany, I also became fascinated by cell biology, microbiology and immunology. I got the chance to be involved in a research project where we studied the effects of novel cancer therapies and that was where I realised that I wanted to become a researcher.


For my M.Sc. studies, I moved to Israel to continue doing research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I studied the role of bacteria in cancer development and I became even more interested in mechanisms by which bacteria can modulate the immune system. I am now a PhD student at the Center for Infectious Medicine at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. My main research interest is on immune responses to severe bacterial infections. I love working in the lab and it is privilege to be able to test my ideas and contribute to our knowledge on infectious diseases. 


So, what happened to the illustrations?  In parallel to my research career, I have continued to work as a botanical artist and I have also started to illustrate my scientific findings. In 2018 we published a paper in the prestigious journal Immunity, and my illustration was selected for the journal cover. Currently I am also doing anatomy illustrations of the vocal tract for a text book on voice. 


My focus as an illustrator is scientific accuracy. When I make a botanical illustration, the plant is the only thing that matters to me, not the beauty of the final painting. If I succeed in capturing every little detail of the plant, the painting or drawing will come out beautiful automatically. My aim is to create an illustration of such detail that you can identify the exact species just by looking at the drawing. This requires knowledge of what differs one species from the other to not miss important details. I believe that scientific understanding is key to become a good scientific illustrator.