More Scientific Images Should Go This Hard


I read a lot of press releases about new scientific papers for my job. Sometimes the art that accompanies them is funny, such as this unapologetically fuchsia rendering of the microscopic creature Saccorhytus. Sometimes they are evocative of a past world, such as this reconstruction of a 100-million-year-old crab. Sometimes these images are ambitious infographics or unsettling acts of Photoshop. Ostensibly, the purpose of these images is the same—to invite people to click on a story about something new we have discovered about the world.

On Thursday, scrolling through press releases, 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 rendered molecules, charts, and three neon lines streaked through the water where the crocodile had just made its kill. These visual details were so striking that, in my first viewing of the image, I nearly missed the half-swallowed impala, its delicate carcass one part of an image that contained multitudes. It was as if the crocodile had teleported to the 1990s to hunt amid the famous teal carpet of the Portland International Airport. Sure, I wanted to click. But the image also did what great art is supposed to do: It made me think. I wanted it on a t-shirt.

I saw the image on a site called Phys.org, which aggregates science and technology news. It accompanied a press release, “Study clarifies mystery of crocodilian hemoglobin,” which spotlighted the results of a new study in the journal Current Biology 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 Scott Schrage, a science writer at the university. But who had created the image? When I found the image on the University of Nebraska’s newsroom—Nebraska Today—I saw the image credit: “Shutterstock / Current Biology / Scott Schrage | University Communication and Marketing.” Scott Schrage! Writer and artist. I needed to talk to him.

Schrage, who has been writing about the university’s research for about seven years, is responsible not just writing about the scientific papers that come out of the university, but also for finding images to accompany them. Sometimes this secondary task is easy, a matter of sending Storz and a colleague to pose with 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 for capturing the highest-dwelling mammal, the yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse, which lives at heights above 22,000 feet, where there is just about 44 percent of the oxygen available at sea level.) But there won’t always be a penguin or yellow-rumped leaf-eared mouse nearby for a photoshoot, meaning Schrage has had to innovate.

“As you’re wading through these giant seas of text in like a 15- or 20-page paper, there are these beautiful little islands of visual engagement,” Schrage told me, referring to the charts or renderings often included in a paper. “They’re sort of…



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