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October 1, 2019

Drawing Dinosaurs: A Young Illustrator’s Publishing Breakthrough

Sae Bom Ra 19' with Professor D'Emic designing graphics on Adobe Photoshop

Sae Bom Ra works on drawings of Deinonychus dinosaur fossils.

Last September, assistant professor of biology Michael D. D’Emic, PhD, was given a two-week deadline to publish a paper in the journal Science Advances on newly discovered fossils. Needing a graphic to accompany his findings, he turned to Sae Bom Ra ’19, then a senior who had created her own major in scientific illustration.

This was the first of three paleontological illustrations that Ra presented at Adelphi’s annual Research Day in April 2019.

“Scientific illustration and data visualization are very important for breaking down concepts in ways that can be more easily understood,” said Ra, who built her major by combining her passion for biology and art. “While photographs are useful, illustrations are more purposeful and can be made to highlight the important parts of complex subjects,” she explained.

For Dr. D’Emic’s study, Ra used Adobe Photoshop to create data visualizations of 90-million-year-old fossils from flowering trees. These fossils proved that flowering trees grew in North America 15 million years earlier than previously thought. Ra’s illustration was included in the study’s press release, which led to news articles by National GeographicLive Science and other organizations.

Sae Bom Ra 19' with Professor D'Emic looking at fossils

Sae Bom Ra and Dr. Mike D’Emic

“I think it is just so important for students to take ownership of their work and what they’re creating,” Dr. D’Emic said. “Learning is promoted when you’re creating rather than just absorbing or regurgitating. So giving a student the opportunity to have an abstract, to have a poster, to actually give a talk—it just brings it to another level.”

For her second illustration, which she presented on Research Day, Ra took computed tomography (CT) scans of the jaws of the carnivorous dinosaurs Majungasaurus and Allosaurus. She created 3D models of these fossils using the program Dragonfly. She then used the models to paint watercolor renderings of the dinosaur heads.

“People were surprised to see my illustrations in the science section of the research conference because they were very different,” Ra said. “There were a lot of people that didn’t know such a field existed, so I was excited to share my work.”

For the third project, Ra used Adobe Illustrator to create drawings of arm bones from Deinonychus dinosaur fossils. She worked with one of Dr. D’Emic’s graduate students to reconstruct the dinosaur’s muscles using comparative anatomy.

“This was my first time doing something like this, and I realized how collaborative this process can be,” Ra said. “It really helped to show me what my career will be like.”

Ra graduated in May 2019 and is now preparing to apply for her master’s degree in medical illustration. She’s taking art classes to build a portfolio of work and using her Research Day experience to build her career.


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