Monthly Archives: June 2012

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The Biology / Art Intersection

Tanya Rogers FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

Blue crab – colored pencil

IGOR chip- human appreciation 150Art is something I’ve always loved almost as much as biology. If I hadn’t been a biology major in college, I probably would have been an art major, and it is the fusion of the two that I like in particular: the realistic artwork of plants, animals, other living creatures, and their environments. There is something I especially enjoy about drawing plants and animals, because to draw them accurately, you have to look at them with a closeness and a consideration beyond the everyday. You notice the forms and structures and beautifully intricate details you would have never seen otherwise. I find that you see the organism in a new light, with a new appreciation, understanding, and respect.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that I discovered the field of scientific illustration – that this  marriage between biology and art was in fact an entire line of work. Artwork of biological organisms is used for a variety of purposes, including field guides, identification keys, scientific papers, descriptions of new species, textbooks, educational displays, brochures, and posters. A number of people work as full or part time scientific illustrators, often for museums or publishers, or as free lancers. Beyond the fine arts, it appears there’s a market for the exact types of drawings I’ve always loved to create.

Sand dollar and sea urchin – pen and ink

You may wonder why scientific illustrations are still important today given the ubiquity of photography. It is mainly because there are limitations to what photographs can depict clearly. With illustrations, important details can be captured and highlighted, the background and unimportant details omitted, photographic artifacts eliminated (like obscuring highlights and shadows), and the organism best positioned to convey its important features in a way that is easily interpreted. Interactions, behaviors, and assemblages can be depicted that would be difficult or impossible to capture on film. Fossil and other extinct plants and animals can be portrayed as they would look in real life. Illustrations are also very useful for schematics and diagrams, and are very commonly used to depict medical procedures.

Scientific illustration differs from other forms of art in that accuracy is imperative, but aesthetics are also of consideration. Composition is important, as is skillful use of the artistic medium and the portrayal of three-dimensional form, light, shadow, and depth. Great illustrations should look both realistic and visually appealing, capture the right amount of detail, and perform well the interpretive function for which they were created. The medium itself can range widely depending on how the illustration is to be used. Pen and ink, colored pencil, watercolor, and other traditional media are common, and digital artwork is increasingly common today.

The whelk Busycon spiratum – graphite

Last summer I decided to attend the annual conference of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators held that year in Olympia, Washington. It was a fabulous conference where I met many phenomenal scientific illustrators, all far better artists than me, and all wonderful and friendly people with a common love of both science and art. The talks, workshops, and field trips at the conference, like the interests of the attendees, were a mixture of art and biology, encompassing everything from techniques (like how to draw fish scales accurately) to interesting local natural history (like research on crows’ ability to recognize human faces). I picked up many new techniques and ideas to take back with me and try. Having previously attended college in Washington state, it was also wonderful to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest for a week.

Ultimately, I plan to go into biology rather than illustration as my primary career, but I hope that illustration might be a fulfilling side venture. I hope you enjoy the illustrations of mine I’ve included in this post, which are all of species found in Florida.

For more information on scientific illustration, visit the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators webpage, or Science-Art.com, where you can peruse the work of many of its members. There are also a number of blogs on science and art, such as this one, which has links to several other blogs on its homepage.

Hughes/ Kimbro (Hug-Bro) Labs Poster

Hughes-Kimbro Lab poster and t-shirt design – pen and ink

Green sea turtle – not actually an illustration, this is a sand sculpture I made on a beach (one of my more bizarre artistic hobbies)

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The Combined Benefits of Research and Teaching

Dr. Randall Hughes FSU Coastal & Marine Lab

I recently completed teaching a 2-week course in Field Marine Science at FSUCML. Nine undergraduate students and one graduate teaching assistant lived in housing at the lab for the duration of the course, and we were busy from virtually sun-up to sun-down each weekday with class activities. It was a lot of fun:

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The students of Field Marine Science 2012 inspect what we caught trawling through a local seagrass bed.

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A group of students works to complete our field survey before the sun sets.

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Students hunting for mud crabs for a lab mesocosm experiment.

This year, we focused on oyster reef ecosystems, taking advantage of past and ongoing projects in the Hughes and Kimbro (aka, “Hug-bro”) labs. We conducted a field experiment, field survey, and mesocosm experiment examining sediment accumulation on oyster reefs – and all in just 2 weeks!

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Students quantify sediment accumulation on oyster shells during our field experiment.

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Students process the contents of cages from our field experiment, looking for crabs.

Well, the field experiment and survey were started ahead of time by Hugbro personnel, but the labor-intensive breakdown and sample processing tasks were handled by the class.

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Surveying mud crab abundance on our experimental reefs.

After all that time spent learning about, walking around on, and handling oysters, everyone was ready to eat a few by the end of the second week!

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An underwater camera gave us a great view of the seagrass!

In addition to gaining hands-on research experience, a goal of the class was to become familiar with common coastal habitats in northern FL. So we squeezed in a few trips to seagrass beds and salt marshes as well, enjoying the opportunity to ride on a boat that didn’t require paddles.

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Happily preparing to snorkel in St. Joseph Bay State Park, FL.

We observed lots of sea hares as we snorkeled in St. Joe Bay.

And we were all happy to don snorkels and masks to explore the seagrass instead of gloves and boots for the oysters!

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Results of a study by Feldon and colleagues demonstrating an increase in the quality of hypotheses included in graduate student research proposals when the students had teaching responsibilities.

As I catch up on the research projects that languished a bit while I was teaching, it is reassuring to think about the results of a recent study illustrating that teaching can increase the quality of research. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy and value teaching for its own sake – but the tasks of teaching and research can often seem in competition with one another when time is limited (and when is time not limited?).

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Additional results from the study by Feldon et al. showing better experimental design in research proposals written by graduate students that teach and do research.

Enter the study by Feldon and colleagues in the journal Science, showing that graduate students with teaching responsibilities formed better hypotheses and generated better experimental designs in their own research proposals than graduate students without teaching responsibilities. This benefit did not result from explicit instruction in hypothesis testing or experimental design geared towards the graduate students themselves – rather, the process of teaching scientific concepts to others made them better able to conduct research. So add to the inherent fun and satisfaction of teaching a boost to my research! Time to write a (better?) research proposal…