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Symbiartic


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Parasites and Phenotypes: the art of scientist Tommy Leung

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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While the discoveries in science and developments in technology continue to inspire artists and illustrators with increasing frequency in our culture, some researchers take the tools of illustrators and use them to freely explore new ideas.  Parasitologist Tommy Leung is one such scientist.  I’m really excited to present this interview with Tommy, and present some of his artwork on Symbiartic.

Follow the links in the image captions for more insight into Tommy’s images. His contact information and gallery links are below – leave comments and questions!

Science, My Way © Tommy Leung

Good day Tommy, may I ask you to introduce yourself?

My name is Tommy Leung, I am a recently appointed lecturer in parasitology and evolutionary biology at University of New England in Australia. I previous did my PhDstudies and postdoctoral research at University of Otago.

While I’ve been drawing pretty much all my life, the stuff you see in my dA gallery are illustrations I have drawn since 2006, which was about a year into my PhD studies. I started drawing cartoons and comics as a way of alleviating the multiple stressors that accompanies postgrad research. So as well as being a hobby, it was also a way for avoiding burn-out.

Coffee for Myxini © Tommy Leung

Why did you start creating these creatures visually? Why not just wonder about their features in bulleted lists?

I assume you’re talking about some of my evolutionary-themed drawings. When I’m not drawing cartoons or comics, I’m drawing imaginary creatures, but I have only recently started drawing evolutionary-themed drawings like the Parasitic Trilobites and Cleaner Placoderms. Visual art is more accessible (and much more satisfying to make) than a mere list – it gets the basic gist of your ideas across to an audience in a few short seconds, whereasa purely verbal or literal description of the idea depicted in those drawings can get a bit long-winded, and lacks the impact of a picture.

Just as I might have a clear picture of the creature in my head, that doesn’t guarantee that I will necessarily be able to convey that fully to another person purely by using words. Even with a scientific publication, often a single diagram or photograph can clearly convey a concept that may have required multiple paragraphs to explain.
Seeing how I have what I think are passable drawing skills, I thought I might as well start bringing some of my ideas to life. And as I mentioned above, I find both the process and end-product more satisfying than writing a list.

Symbiosis Tree © Tommy Leung. I love this one. .

Your gallery on dA is relatively new, and has filled up quickly! What made you decide to take your images online? Is feedback helpful?

It has filled up so quickly simply because I have a very big backlog of material! They have accumulated over the years and some of them have never been seen by anyone aside myself. I’ve mixed them in with some new stuff which I’ve drawn since I got myself an account.

The gallery on dA provides a convenient place for people to see my work – in the past when I’ve struck up a conversation with people about my hobby and they were interested inviewing my work, there was no way for me to show them – now I can just direct them to my dA gallery. In addition, since putting my work up on dA, I have found that there are people out there who actually appreciate my work, even though I have never met them before.

Do you foresee or have you found that your paintings have informed your research in some way?

Not so far but I’m open to the potential. I’ve found myself drawing more evolutionary biology-themed, even though there has always been an element of science in a lot of my drawing, only recently has it become a major theme. While I haven’t found my drawing to inform my research in any particular way, I have found that the process helps my brain to “switch gear”. So while the art itself may not help inform my research, the thought process generated while creating these drawings seems to help with my research – though not in any specific way.

Do you have a favourite art medium to work with?

I have always preferred simple line drawings – with just pen or pencil outline overlaid by pen. But a not long after I began scanning in the drawings to build a digital archive back in 2006, I discovered how much transformation I can impart on a drawing with the use of a simple paint program. I haven’t used anything more sophisticated than that, though I have considered investing in some more versatile digital art tools at some point in the future.

The first thing I notice when I look at your gallery on deviantart is your use of bright colours. There’s almost a cartography feel to these organisms, like the features are mapped by their colours and borders. Do you consciously use colour to describe and highlight the features?

For me, colour means a great deal. When I compare the coloured images with the original line-arts, I can see that the colours enhance the impact by orders of magnitude (metaphorically speaking, it’s not as if you can actually measure such a thing). Regarding the cartographic use of colour in my gallery, the Holobiont or Tangled Bank probably represents the most obvious example. In that picture, I used colours very deliberately to delineating the individual animal/components and how they fit into the whole.

In my cartoons / comics I use colour to contrast the characters and set their respective identity, but from a purely visual arts perspective, I am most proud of the beasties found in my Bestiary of the Eschaton series (which has nothing to do with science!). Each creature has a certain feel / mood to them and colour plays a very big role in conveying orhighlighting that aspect.

That series has a bit of a Cthulhu-feel to it, though with a lot more organs and limb-types than H.P. Lovecraft likely considered for his own creations.

Tell us about the image that’s made the most impact.

Judging by the stats and comments, I think it is probably Parasitic Trilobites from last November.

Parasitic Trilobites © Tommy Leung

It is one of my first forays into combining visual arts with scientific theories. The organisms my research is based on are parasites– which are usually small (or microscopic) soft-bodied organisms – a state which is very incompatible with fossilisation. The fossil record has left very scant (but intriguing) clues to the existence of parasitism in the past, and it is certain that despite having a paltry fossil record, parasitism as an ecological niche has existed for as long as there has been life on this planet, and as ubiquitous in the past as it is today.

I plan to do more drawings based on the idea of parasitism and other symbiotic relationships which might have existed in prehistory – while I admit it is *speculative* evolution, those drawings are based on careful consideration and interpretation of existing evidence along with what we know about evolutionary processes. So I consider each of them to represent something closer to an actual scientific hypothesis rather than an arbitrary opinion of life on Earth, which means like any scientific discovery, they are open to revision and change!

Why or how did you get into this field? What do you hope to do with your work?

It’s very much a hobby, I guess I see my drawings as a form of self-expression – I used to write short stories, but I found that the audience has to invest too much time in order toget anything out of them, whereas with a drawing, that can be accomplished within a few seconds – I guess a picture is really worth a thousand words! Intentionally or not, my gallery seems to reflect the kind of person that I am – I like dreaming up bizarre, fantastical creature,and I enjoy cracking jokes, even if some of them do seem rather geeky and surreal or non-sequitur. I guess it was a natural progression that I eventually started using my drawings to explore scientific concepts.
I have only recently started combining science directly with visual art – well, at least intentionally, I’ve conducted experiments using a fluorescent dye to track where parasites settle once they get in their bivalve hosts, and the end results were quite pretty. When viewed under a fluorescence microscope, the encysted parasites looked like glowing orbs, somewhat like Christmas tree lights, but I thought the red ones looked more like burning embers.

I’ve considered turning them into Christmas cards.

Curtuteria australis. More images at this link (PDF).

That is an intriguing image, and an even more intriguing idea.

If you are wondering, yes, those parasites are still alive and viable – the dye is a neutral lipid-analogue, and it simply fluoresces when excited by the correct wavelength. Different dye gives off different fluorescence, and it would only show up at a certain specific spectral filter, so you can only see one coloured dye at a time, but conceivable if you take successive images of the same spot as you switch between the different filters, and then overlaid them on top of each other images, you can get a bunch of different parasites labeled with different dye to light up like cities viewed from space. And if you expose the bivalve host to successive waves of parasites over different periods of time, each wave with a different colour dye, the successive overlays can allow you “time travel” and watch as successive parasite infection build up. In fact, that was the function of the different dye in my experiment described in that paper, to label two successive waves of parasites which were exposed to the host two weeks apart.

Unfortunately due to time constraints (as fun as it always was to look at those glowing parsites – and it always was fun to see them glow –  it was after all an ends to a mean), and because the microscope available to us was limited to two spectral filters, it meant we were limited to using only two dye colours, so the thought of having this multi-coloured constellation of glowing parasites was just a pipe dream. And even if those things were available to me, I would have still felt irresponsible using precious research time and funding trying to create that “parasite constellation” for something other than scientific output. Artistic output on another hand…it’ll still be quite expensive, I’m thinking in terms of thousands of dollars (most expensive are those microscope filters are VERY expensive) if someone wants to set up such a thing. Anyway, I bet it’ll be interesting if someone like those “bio-artists” I spoke of earlier get hold of this technique and decide to make something of it!

Where can interested science-art fans and institutions find you online?

I have a dA account. Just note I can’t guarantee everything I draw will be science-themed. You are just as likely to encounter surreal fantastical creatures and some very silly cartoons (though some of the latter often contains reference to science)!
Links:

One last question: what’s your favourite colour?

Turquoise (and its variants), it seems to find its way into most of my works. The probability of turquoise appearing in one of my drawings seems to increase exponentially with the number of colours that are included in the said drawing!

Thanks Tommy!
- Glendon Mellow

Glendon Mellow About the Author: Glendon Mellow is a fine artist, illustrator and tattoo designer working in oil and digital media based in Toronto, Canada. He tweets @FlyingTrilobite. You can see Glendon's work-in-progress at The Flying Trilobite blog and portfolio at www.glendonmellow.com. Follow on Twitter @symbiartic.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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