How do you communicate your research when photos of your study species are impossible to obtain or contain sensitive material? An illustrator can help create beautiful objective imagery when photos can't be used.
This scenario happened with Ph.D. candidate, Melissa Cronin at UC Santa Cruz. Melissa works with manta and devil rays, and her work focuses on understanding the life history of these giant animals and working with the tuna industry to reduce the impact of by-catch on manta mortality. She needed visuals to use for communicating her research that would also serve to help with species identification.
The first problem: these are massive animals. Manta rays can get to be 23 feet across and 6,600 lbs! Many of the mobulid ray species live in pelagic offshore habitats where they aren't often seen by humans, so photographing something this huge, underwater, in the open ocean, is simply impossible for her to do.
The second problem: many of the photos of these rays are from by-catch. The animals are in distress and the photos cause viewers to bring in an emotional response that distracts from focusing on the details of the research findings.
The Solution: Work with a science illustrator!
Melissa and I talked about what she needed, and she sent me photos, videos, pages from guidebooks, and resources I would need to make her paintings. I then created these ten watercolor and gouache paintings for her. Now, she has illustrations she can use in her talks and to help with species identification and research. The artwork is clearer and more objective than the available photos. I hope my illustrations help her achieve her research goals and help conservation efforts for these magnificent animals. To learn more about Melissa's work, check out https://ccal.ucsc.edu/melissa-cronin/
I share a home office with an ecologist. My husband is a research associate at Princeton University, and his home desk is right next to mine. This means that I often look over my shoulder and end up saying "are you publishing your figure like that? What does it even mean? Hold on, let me see what I can do."
This happened the other day as he and his collaborators were finishing up a really exciting experiment they had recently completed in the Swiss Alps. This experiment involved moving entire plant communities down mountains in order to see how the plant-pollinator interactions would change under climate change. As the world warms, alpine plants would experience warmer temperatures. Moving the plants down the mountain is a super clever way of warming them and simulating climate change. The challenge was to create a figure that showed communities moving downslope and the different climate change scenarios faced by alpine plants.
Here is the first version of the figure:
This figure shows plants being transplanted downslope, where they will experience warmer temperatures. And then migrating upslope to escape hot temperatures as the climate warms from minor to moderate to extreme. As he explained the figure to me, it was clear that there were some things I didn't understand and that didn't make sense to me from what the figure showed. It is always a good idea to get fresh eyes on a figure because often the scientist is so familiar with the work that they become too close to the project and can't see what it looks like to someone reading this for the first time.
Here is what I came up with:
This figure now shows the mountain slope and different plant communities with pollinators, to give the reader context. The colors more accurately represent a conventional heat gradient and match the colors of each plant community. By creating the big panel on the left, showing the Experimental Manipulation, it gives context to the smaller panels on the right, showing Climate Change Scenarios. As the climate warms, those warmer zone communities will be forced to move up the mountain to escape the heat and will interact with colder zone communities. Showing the communities overlapping helps the reader understand the novel environment in which these species will exist.
This new illustration was added to the final paper, which just was published this week in Global Change Biology. This type of work is where science illustrators can make a big difference for scientists. By sitting down with an artist, the scientist can communicate the main message and the most important aspects of a figure, allowing the artist to bring a visual language to the figure and communicate the science more effectively to the reader. This is especially important for very complicated experiments or concepts where the diagrams are often a more effective form of communication than writing.
So when your schematic looks erratic, enigmatic, or problematic, consider hiring an illustrator who can make it more dramatic, diagrammatic, and even polychromatic.
Check out the really cool and important work done by these scientists. Their paper is: Asynchronous range shifts drive alpine plant-pollinator interactions and reduce plant fitness by Sarah K. Richman, Jonathan M. Levine, Laura Stefan, and Christopher A. Johnson in Global Change Biology.