ASKXXI: Arts+Science Knowledge – Building and Sharing in the XXI Century

[This article appeared in the Newsletter of Friday Harbor Laboratories —TideBite— in March 2018]

In 2004, under serendipitous circumstances after my first year of graduate school in UW’s Biology Department, I found myself at FHL taking the Comparative Embryology course taught by Richard Strathmann and George von Dassow.  Having moved to Seattle from Chile the previous year, I’d roughly navigated the first year of grad school exploring my role in scientific research and my overall interests and passions in scientific illustration, pedagogy and visual arts.  I found in the Comparative Embryology course a uniquely fruitful playground, led by inspiring and knowledgeable mentors with whom I could explore the beautiful diversity of life’s earliest stages.  In a pedagogical world driven by graded tests, exams and reports, I had the rare opportunity to reflect, at the same time both deeply and playfully, on the ecology and evolution of embryos’ development.  The only stated expectation of the course was to “look very closely,” ask questions, and remain open to gaining new understanding while in close proximity to the tools and community to support that process.

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On the importance of accuracy in scientific illustrations (or sculptures)

A few weeks ago, I had a one-hour phone conversation with my friend Jacqueline Parada on how we are constantly encountering new details on the forms of the organisms that we are drawing or sculpting. She is also a scientists, illustrator and a ceramic sculptor and we both spend quite a lot of time observing organisms under the microscope, identifying their forms, reading scientific papers, looking at SEM images and then translating all that visual information into an illustration or sculpture. It is actually nice to be able to talk about these things with someone that knows exactly what you are talking about.

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Illustration versus Photography in Science

I often get asked, specially by students, “why do we need to draw when we can take photographs?”, “isn’t scientific illustration old-school?”. To answer this I always start by clarifying one issue: I am all for technology, new media, learning new techniques and enjoying the many advantages that we have in the XXI century, from smartphone, to GPS, to confocal microscopy. In my view, we are not replacing one tool by the other, but we are expanding the array of tools and possibilities to do what we want to do: visually record or communicate something in science.

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