More Scientific Pictures Should Be This Hard

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I read a lot of press releases about new scientific papers related to my work. Sometimes the art that accompanies them is funny, like, unapologetically fuchsia image of a microscopic organism Saccorhytus. Sometimes they remind of the past world, e.g This reconstruction of a 100 million year old crab. Sometimes there are pictures like this pretentious infographic or Disturbing actions of Photoshop. Apparently, the purpose of these images is the same – to invite people to click on a story about something new we discovered about the world.

As I was scrolling through the press releases on Thursday, I saw an image that stopped me in my tracks. On one level, it was a photograph of a Nile crocodile rising from the water with half of an ungulate known as an impala dangling from its teeth. But it was also an artistic collage of molecules, graphics, and three neon lines running across the water that the crocodile had just killed. These visual details were so striking that on my first look at the image, I almost missed the half-swallowed impala, its delicate carcass as one piece of the multitude of images. It’s as if the alligator had teleported to hunt among Portland International Airport’s famous river carpet in the 1990s. Of course I wanted to click. But the image did what great art is supposed to do: It made me think. I wanted in a shirt.

I saw this image on a site called, which brings together science and technology news. It was accompanied by a press release “Research sheds light on the mystery of alligator hemoglobin,” highlighted the results of a new study in the magazine Current Biology It was published by a team 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 Communication and Marketing.” Scott Schrage! writer and artist. I had to talk to him.

Schrage, who has been writing about the university’s research for nearly seven years, is responsible not only for writing about the scientific articles that come out of the university, but also for finding the images to accompany them. Sometimes this secondary task is easy, a matter of sending Storz and a colleague Pose with the penguins at the Omaha Zoo to promote a new paper on the evolution of penguin hemoglobin. (Storz is really into hemoglobin. His team made headlines captures the highest mammalA yellow-throated leaf-eared mouse that lives above 22,000 feet, where about 44 percent of the oxygen available at sea level.) nearby mouse for the photo shoot, meaning Schrage had to innovate.

“When you’re wading through these huge seas of text like a 15- or 20-page paper, there are these beautiful little islands of visual engagement,” Schrage said, referring to the graphics or illustrations that are often included in a paper. “They explore some technical aspects that are beyond the scope of the story I’m planning to write, but they’re just, you know, cool,” he said. So Schrage began experimenting, creating images that combined the visual components of a paper with stock photography.

Storz told Schrage that he had always been intrigued by the images of alligators found in nature documentaries: seeing the large reptiles lurk beneath the surface, leap out of the water and drag their prey underwater to suffocate them. This style of hunting meant that the reptiles had to hold their breath for an extraordinary amount of time. even more than an hour. Storz told Schrage in a press release that alligators are able to do this because they have developed a special way to regulate their hemoglobin, “a slowly oscillating mechanism that allows alligators to use their oxygen reserves efficiently.” (Be sure to read on to learn more about the new study Schrage’s storyit’s more comprehensive and nuanced than that.)

Schrage began searching for stock photos of alligators ambushing their prey in the water. “I thought this particular image was incredibly fascinating,” he said. “Obviously, it’s deadly serious. But this is also a kind of cartoon.” The impala’s dangling legs reminded him of Tom and Jerry cartoons, Tom’s tail dangling from his mouth might have been the only sign that Jerry was in trouble.

Then came the stripes. “I felt like I needed something to frame the alligator,” he said, adding that he made the stripes to resemble an evolutionary tree. He turned to the color palette of the 90s. The teal stripe came first—reminiscent of the Charlotte Hornets’ colors, he noted—then the orange creme, then the fuchsia stripe underneath. Schrage often tries to incorporate the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s customary red into images, but he worries that blood red can be too on the nose in the context of a watery hunt. Moreover, the hunt for a crocodile does not necessarily turn into a bloodbath. “It suffocates, it does the death cheat inside its prey,” Schrage said. “More or less, especially with a predator like an impala, it just swallows it.”

Schrage overlaid the image with figures from the study: some diagrams and images of hemoglobin resurrected from crocodiles’ ancient ancestors. He also included the actual phylogenetic tree from the paper in the lower left corner. “I was looking at these, and I was thinking, ‘These are like really childish, primitive drawings of alligator teeth,'” Schrage said. “So I said, OK, let’s include that element.”

All these elements combine to create a completely unforgettable scientific image. When I asked Schrage if he considered himself a maximalist, he demurred. Institutional writing often comes with guidelines, multiple editors, and multiple eyes that want to have a say in what gets published. “But when I take a picture like this, I wave my flag a little bit,” he said. “When it comes down to it, I have more freedom.”

Schrage said she feels lucky to be covered in such research. According to him, the reconstruction of hemoglobins that are hundreds of millions of years old almost seems like science fiction. And I’m lucky to have encountered this particular image, which feels like Schragen’s work and a hallucination of scientific communication—an image that makes me gasp, my own humble hemoglobin coursing through my blood.

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