In this age where digital is preferred to analog and automatic processes lord over those done manually, there is still a truly exceptional skill - a fusion of art and science -- which has found a special way in the heart of scientific research.

This specialty, called scientific illustration, has already been practiced for more than several hundred years but has been appreciated at first as a skill in the arts, rather than as an input/output to/of science.

Kendra Mojica, a scientific illustrator by profession and a parasitologist by education, said that "scientific illustration allows us to visualize science," and hence, is very important to scientific research.

Mojica, a native of Kansas, USA volunteered at the UPLB Museum of Natural History from April 22 to May 1, 2014. She delivered a lecture on Scientific Illustration last May 1 to the 25 participants of the Museum Short Course on Biodiversity for Beginners.

Visualizing science through illustrations

Science concepts are usually abstract and it is difficult to demonstrate them visually. According to Mojica, illustration may allow people to demonstrate visually scientific concepts that are more abstract. "With scientific illustration, for that matter, we may be able to observe interpretations of scientific processes or of biological specimens via illustrations of these subjects," she added.

Scientific illustrations, according to Mojica, can also depict structures at the molecular level that cannot be seen with the naked eye or through any other visual medium. This skill therefore is very important and is applicable to all all sciences, including physics, chemistry, biology, and many more.

Traditional tools of the trade

There is a wide variety of media and methods that are used by scientific illustrators most of which are more traditional and have been used by artists’ for a long time. 

These media may include dry media like pen and ink, graphite, charcoal, colored pencils, different types of pastels, etc. There are also a variety of wet media such as paints, watercolors, acrylics and oils, etc. which will often allow illustrators to achieve brighter colors and more opaque illustrations. 

"Many artists often mix media, implementing a combination of various drawing and painting media in a single illustration," Mojica said. The choice of medium, according to her, depends on the subject and also as what the artist is most comfortable working with, as well as what is most appropriate in terms of efficiency and overall cost.

Illustrators, according to Mojica, can also use digital media. "He or she can create illustrations directly with the use of imaging and drawing software, or use a combination of traditional and digital media by beginning with either a traditional or digital media and then transferring that illustration to the other format and adding detail using that remaining medium," she said.

Limitations

Despite the modernity of today's tools and technologies, the craft of scientific illustration still has limitations. One such limitation, Mojica said is that of the artistic skills and knowledge of the illustrator.

"For example, some scientific illustrators are simply scientists and not necessarily artists by craft or by nature. Thus, a lack of artistic skill and/or knowledge may greatly limit the possibilities in executing a proper scientific illustration," she discussed.

Of course, the tools available to illustrators are obviously an essential component of the craft. "Microscopes, cameras, imaging and graphics software, etc., allow us to properly view, study, and illustrate biological subjects and if we do not have access to good microscopes, for example, we cannot view microorganisms or even fine details of microorganisms that may be scientifically important," Mojica explained. 

In order to effectively communicate and visualize science, Mojica said that one should have sufficient tools that enable the study and illustration of scientific subjects.

Importance of illustrations

But of course, even if scientific illustration may have certain limitations, its importance far outweighs the drawback of having no visual representation of specimens at all. 

"In my field alone, there are more than 150 new species of sharks and rays described since 2005, only half of which have been examined for parasites," Mojica said. According also to the speaker, of the different parasites from sharks and rays, (arthropods, nematodes, annelids, etc.), tapeworms are by far the most diverse and most prevalent.

"So in our study our of tapeworm specimens, I extensively draw detailed illustrations which allow us to view all of the important internal anatomy at a glance," she explained. 

According to Mojica, scientific drawings are extremely useful in taxonomic research as well as in many areas of biodiversity studies. "With their very succinct information, illustrations help us to easily visualize and distinguish between unique orders, genera, and species," she said.

 


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