An Interview With Artist Cheng (Lily) Li

I met Cheng (Lily) Li in one of my many rounds of conventions.  She's a
fascinating example of how people can share an combine their loves –
she's both an artist and a Life Sciences Research Assistant at
Stanford.  Not only does she do fannish work, she does detailed
scientific illustration – you can find much more at her website,

A person who combines fandom, art, and science sounds like someone
with quite a story to tell, and Lily was nice enough to let me interview

1) You have a fascinating career – both artist and a
scientific assistant.  Which career did you start first?

Both careers started when I was in college, even though I have
wanted to become a scientist or an artist ever since I was little.  I concentrated my study on biological science and hoped to do research upon graduation. A few professors and graduate students suggested that I look into scientific illustration when I told them that art is my hobby.  Around the same time, I met amazing artists (such as,,
who inspired me and encouraged me to draw digitally.  Two months after getting a tablet, I found myself drawing a fossil tooth for a graduate student. Two months
after that, I started my first independent undergraduate research project in the same lab.

2) Do you have any plans to become a full-time artist,
or do you
prefer it as a side business?

I was a full-time visiting artist at American Museum of Natural History for awhile, and being able to draw all day long was like a dream come true.  Part of me hopes one day I can become a full-time illustrator, possibly for an agency, because I still have a lot to learn if I were to freelance full time.  Another part of me enjoys doing research, so I am content with my current situation.

3) You've managed to make your art interest a vital part
of your scientific job – your illustrations are extremely impressive – was that always a goal, or did it evolve?

Thank you. I guess it was one of my goals, since I remember saying
"I want to be a scientific illustrator" when I first met my wonderful major advisor in college. The goal helped me to get started on doing independent scientific research, which allowed me to meet more scientists and scientific illustrators.

4) How did you start doing art as a "parallel career" to your other

I looked into scientific illustration because it sounds like a
natural combination of art and science, and I was fortunate to meet the right people who helped me to develop as an artist and a researcher. Right now, illustration is more of an integral part of my research job.  In term of personal art, it had been more of a hobby for me than career — I sell art at conventions because I enjoy visiting new cities and meeting people with similar interests. Also, I remember not knowing what to do when I first attended an anime convention as an attendee, so being able to draw and chat behind a table solves the problem. Seeing other amazing artists at conventions also inspire me to draw more and to try different styles.  I certainly hope this can help me to develop a serious parallel freelance career or to dive into an illustrator career someday.

5) You have a well-designed, simple, but effective web presence.  Is that a vital part of your art business?

Thank you!  I haven't had many people contacting me for business because they have seen my website, so I'm not sure if it's a vital part of my art business. I hope to do work on the website more, such as adding a blog. Maybe that would help.

6) What challenges are there in running your "fannish" business?

I drew most of my fan art either for my friends or to celebrate
my favorite characters, so the majority of the business component is applying for convention tables and tax permits.  My current challenge is to draw better and to tell better stories with my art.

7) What advice would you give people wanting to start their own fannish business?

If “fannish” business means tabling at artist alley, I would
recommend not doing it too frequently, as it can be quite tiring. Also it’s nice to table with a friend, so you are not bound to the table all day long. and have fun!

Thanks Lily for your fascinating insights and your time!

– Steven Savage