More Scientific Images Should Be This Hard

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I read many press releases about new scientific articles for my job. Sometimes the art that accompanies them is funny, like this one without apology fuchsia processing your microscopic creature Saccorhytus. Sometimes they evoke a past world, for example This reconstruction of a 100-million-year-old crab. Sometimes these images ambitious infographics horse Disturbing actions of Photoshop. On the face of it, the purpose of these images is the same – to invite people to click through to a story about something new we’ve discovered about the world.

On Thursday, while scrolling through press releases, I saw a picture that stopped me where I was. At one level, it was a photograph of a Nile crocodile rising from the water with half of a hoofed animal known as the impala dangling from its teeth. But it was also an artistic collage of processed molecules, charts, and three neon lines running through the water where the crocodile had just preyed upon. These visual details were so striking that when I first saw the image, I almost missed the delicate carcass of the half-swallowed impala, part of an image containing many. It was as if the alligator had been teleported back to the 1990s to hunt among Portland International Airport’s famous teal carpet. Sure, I wanted to click. But the image also did what great art should do: It got me thinking. I wanted it on a t-shirt.

I saw the picture on a site called, which collects science and technology news. Accompanied by a press release,Study illuminates mystery of crocodile hemoglobinhighlighting the results of a new study in the journal Current Biology It was published by a group of scientists including Jay F. Storz, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. The press release was written by University science writer Scott Schrage. But who created the image? When I found the image in the University of Nebraska newsroom—Nebraska Today—I saw the image credit: “Shutterstock / Current Biology / Scott Schrage | University Communications and Marketing.” Scott Schrage! Writer and artist. I needed to talk to him.

Schrage, who has been writing about the university’s research for nearly seven years, is responsible for not only writing scientific articles from the university but also finding images to accompany them. Sometimes this secondary task is easy, Storz and a colleague Pose with the penguins at the Omaha Zoo Introducing a recent article on the evolution of penguin hemoglobin. (Storz is genuinely interested in hemoglobin. His team is making headlines these days: catching the highest living mammalThe yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse, which lives at altitudes above 22,000 feet, where about 44 percent of the oxygen is at sea level.) But it won’t always be a penguin or yellow-butt leaf-eared. Mouse nearby for a photo shoot, Schrage, had to innovate.

“While you’re navigating these giant seas of text like a 15- or 20-page piece of paper, there are these beautiful little islands of visual interaction,” Schrage told me, referring to charts or drawings that are often included in an article. “They go into some technical details that fall outside the scope of the story I’m planning to write, but they’re very, you know, nice,” he said. So Schrage began experimenting, creating images that combined the visual components of a paper with stock photography.

Storz told Schrage she was always interested in images of crocodiles found in nature documentaries: seeing large reptiles lurking beneath the surface, popping out of the water and dragging their prey underwater to drown them. This hunting style meant that the reptiles had to hold their breath for an extraordinary amount of time. even more than an hour. Storz told Schrage for the press release, “They may do so because they have developed a specific way of regulating crocodiles’ hemoglobin, a “slow-release mechanism that allows crocodiles to efficiently use their onboard oxygen stores.” (To learn more about the new research, you should definitely read on. Schrage’s storymuch more comprehensive and subtle than that.)

Schrage began looking for stock photos of crocodiles ambushing their prey in the water. “This particular image I just thought of was incredibly fascinating,” he said. “Obviously, it’s deadly serious. But it’s also a bit cartoonish.” The Impala’s dangling legs reminded him of the Tom and Jerry cartoons, how a tail dangling from Tom’s mouth might have been the only clue that Jerry was in trouble.

Then came the strips. “I felt I needed something to frame the crocodile,” said Schrage, adding that he arranged the lines in a way that reminded them of an evolutionary tree. Returned to the color palette of the 90s. First came the teal stripe—reminiscent of the colors of the Charlotte Hornets, she noted—and then an orange crema, followed by a fuchsia stripe at the bottom. Schrage often tries to include the familiar University of Nebraska-Lincoln red in his paintings, but he worries that in the context of a watery prey, there might also be blood red on the nose. Also, an alligator’s hunt is not necessarily a bloodbath. “He’s drowning, doing a death roll on his prey,” Schrage said. “It pretty much just swallows it, especially when it comes to prey like the impala.”

Schrage covered the image with figures from the study: some charts and drawings of hemoglobin resurrected from the ancient ancestors of crocodiles. He also added a real paper phylogenetic tree in the lower left corner. “When I was looking at these, okay, these look childish, I was really thinking about primitive representations of crocodile teeth,” Schrage said. So I said, “Okay, let’s include that element.”

Altogether, these elements form a completely unforgettable scientific image. When I asked Schrage if he considered himself a maximalist, he objected. Corporate writing often comes with guidelines, many editors, and many eyes that want to have a say in what is published. “But when I put together an image like this, I let my flag fly a little,” he said. “When it comes to that, I have more freedom.”

Schrage said she feels lucky to have covered this type of research. Rebuilding hemoglobins that are hundreds of millions of years old almost seems like science fiction, he said. And I feel lucky to have come across the work of Schrage and this particular image that feels like a scientific communication hallucination – an image that takes my breath away, causing my own humble hemoglobin to rush through my bloodstream.

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