Artists Help Push Science Forward

Released: 14-Nov-2011 3:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: University of Chicago
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Newswise — A student in Carol Abraczinskas’ graduate-level scientific illustration course once approached her with a seashell that he wanted to render in pencil.

Abraczinskas, principal scientific illustrator in organismal biology & anatomy at the University of Chicago, examined the specimen for a few minutes and then pointed at barely visible structures that the student had missed. “What are these little groups of concentric circles?” she asked.

The startled student immediately recognized the significance of her observation and said he would need to revise his research paper.

“I think my brain is just wired to notice the most minute things,” Abraczinskas says. Sometimes she sees the tiniest details that scientists have overlooked. So does Kalliopi Monoyios, another scientific illustrator in organismal biology & anatomy. Together with departmental colleague Tyler Keillor, a paleoartist and fossil preparator, they bring the prehistoric world to life for scientists and the public alike. Such art makes an especially large impact because UChicago’s preeminent programs in evolutionary biology routinely produce major paleontological discoveries, which the artists help present to the world.

Their specialty requires extensive research and biological training, and an artistic sense that makes their reconstructions as beautiful as they are scientifically revealing. Monoyios describes her work as “scientific visualization” — a term that reflects the contribution such artists can make to the research process.

“Visualization is a critical part of moving the research forward,” Monoyios says. “It’s an important part of analysis as well as communication.”

Building a cadre of artist-scientists

The combination of important paleontological finds and skillful artists has made UChicago a fruitful place for scientific illustrators to ply their craft.

Abraczinskas, a 1990 graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, has twice received the Lanzendorf Prize and one honorable mention for outstanding achievement in paleontological scientific illustration and naturalistic art. Like Tyler Keillor, Abraczinskas works for UChicago dinosaur paleontologist Paul Sereno. She began teaching a graduate-level course in scientific illustration at UChicago in 1994.

“I had a couple of graduate students come to me and say, ‘We really feel it’s important to learn how to do illustrations for our own research, and would you be willing to help us?’” she recalled. It was a pencil-and-eraser-101 sort of course for students with no artistic background.

Now when Abraczinskas opens a copy of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology or ZooKeys, she occasionally recognizes the work of former students who have gone on to become professional scientists.

Monoyios is one of Abraczinskas’ most successful former students. With a bachelor’s degree in geology from Princeton University, Monoyios came to UChicago in 2000 to help Neil Shubin, the Robert Bensley Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, establish a fossil-preparation laboratory.

Both art and science were familiar worlds to Monoyios. Her mother was a singer, her grandmother a potter, her grandfather a chemist. “The academic and the art worlds have been closely intertwined in my family, so this was a natural fit for me,” she says.

But it was only after seeing the work of Abraczinskas and other scientific illustrators that Monoyios discovered her niche. “I never realized that you could combine the two in a career until I came here as a lab tech,” she says.

Discoveries call for innovative art

Keillor has made flesh-model reconstructions of all of Sereno’s major discoveries since 2001, including Nigersaurus, which Sereno has described as “the dinosaur equivalent of a cow,” and Eodromaeus, the “Dawn Runner.” His work has earned praise for its artistic merit; a solo exhibit of Keillor’s paleoart was on display in Lake County earlier this year.

“Every project presents its own special challenge, because nothing about this kind of fossil reconstruction and flesh reconstruction is straightforward,” says Keillor, who in 2008 received the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for three-dimensional art.

Another artist in Sereno’s stable of talent is Champaign, Ill.-based freelancer Todd Marshall, a 2005 recipient of the Lanzendorf Prize. In recent years, Marshall has illustrated creatures for Sereno such as Eodromeus, Raptorex, and the parrot-beaked Psittacosaurus gobiensis.

For Monoyios, pushing scientific and artistic boundaries can amount to the same thing. Her work has adorned the covers of the journals Science and Nature. She did extensive illustrations of Tiktaalik roseae, a historic find by Shubin’s team from the time when sea-based vertebrates first ventured onto land. She also illustrated Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish and, as a freelancer, Why Evolution is True, by Jerry Coyne, Professor in Ecology & Evolution.

Explaining to the public what such work entails is part of Monoyios’ professional mission. She oversees Shubin’s outreach program, aimed at engaging public interest in science and especially paleontology through a Tiktaalik website, Facebook page, and Twitter feed, and writes a blog, “Symbiartic,” about the intersection of science and art, for Scientific American. One of her blog entries earlier this year summed up the special skills that such artists bring to the research process.

“Simply put, I am an artist in the service of science,” she writes.


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