Whenever I tell people that I'm a scientific illustrator, I get one of three responses:

1. No pulse: We're flatlining here. Talking to an economist/I-banker and they could care less. One of us will awkwardly change the subject.

2. Honestly clueless: "A scientiffiwha... I'm sorry, what is that!?" Depending on how much they loved dinos as a kid, they'll fall into one of the other two categories upon hearing my answer.

3. Super excited dino-science freak-out: "ZOINKS! A scientific illustrator at the University of Chicago?! Do you work for Paul Sereno?" Of course, the answer is no... but I'd like to introduce you to Paul Sereno's illustrator. Her name is Carol Abraczinskas.

Carol was the first scientific illustrator I ever met. She also taught the first scientific illustration course I ever took and introduced me to the fundamentals of illustrating for science. Her resume is as impressive as her work - she has a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and has been working as a professional illustrator for 22 years. She is currently the Principal Scientific Illustrator in Paul Sereno's lab at the University of Chicago. Her work has appeared in numerous peer-reviewed journals and popular magazines, on the covers of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Cladistics, Evolution, and The International Journal of Plant Sciences, and in exhibits at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Science and Industry. She has received numerous honors including the John J. Lanzendorf Paleoart Award for Scientific Illustration twice over and honorable mention once. And fun fact? In her spare time, she's helping the FBI track the case of D.B. Cooper, the mysterious hijacker who jumped Bond-style from a plane 40 years ago never to be seen or heard from again.

I interviewed Carol over email in October, which is kind of ridiculous because she works in my department. But her office is separated from mine by four flights of stairs (up, duh) and my glutes are atrophied from living 11 years in the flat-as-a-pancake midwest, hmm-kay? But I digress. Without further ado (cue Kermit the Frog arm-waving and a big "yaaaaaaay!")... Carol Abraczinskas!

When was the first time you realized you could combine science and art into a career?

I think that there were certain people in my life and particular moments that became important and together, steered me in the direction towards art and art school and finally, a career combining science and art. My grandmother, Marian Oleksy was a painter and she and I would work on art projects together and discuss art. When I was a freshman in high school, she and my mother asked me if I would take just one art class for them. If I didn’t like it, then I didn’t have to sign up for another class. It was then that I began to develop a serious interest in art.

I became a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and the first time I think I remember science and art coming together, I had been taking a figure drawing class and the instructor kept telling me that I needed to draw on a larger scale. She also wanted me to “get aggressive” in my drawing style, draw more freely, and to not be afraid to get my clothes dirty and the paper dirty. I had always drawn in a clean, tight, precise style so I abandoned my current style and eventually broke out and learned to draw on a very large scale (maybe 9 feet by 5 feet) but I was never really comfortable with it, and ultimately returned to the tight, precise work that I enjoyed. It was then that she suggested that I might want to look into taking a scientific illustration course that the school offered.

Another significant moment also occurred during art school. I was in the middle of a studio drawing class when two Chicago police detectives walked into the room. They spoke with the instructor and were interested in hiring an illustrator to produce some drawings of a victim that had been tortured and killed here in the city. They knew what had happened to the victim, but because it was extremely complicated, they were looking for a series of drawings to clarify the murder for court purposes. I saw the opportunity as very unique and a chance to make a difference. It was an opportunity to help someone, where the art really meant something. I wanted the job but wasn’t chosen. The detectives made the right decision in selecting another student in the class who was extremely talented, much better than me. It was the first time that an unusual, paid opportunity presented itself, and it was a situation where I realized that one could combine science and art (and in this case, law) into a possible career. It just wasn’t the exact path I ended up taking.

You were the first illustrator I know to make the distinction between being an "illustrator" rather than an “artist.” Do you still make such a distinction in regards to your work? Why or why not?

I do make the distinction between “illustrator” and “artist” and I think that idea stems from my days in art school where everybody was an artist. One would always state what kind of artist they were - painter, sculptor, printmaker, ceramicist, illustrator, etc. We were all artists, so it seemed redundant at the time to refer to someone else as one. If I do refer to someone as an “artist” it is the artist in the classical sense – usually a painter who works in oils, paints exactly what they want to paint, and lives solely off of their paintings. They produce in their studio, actively participate in gallery shows and have no other income except from their fine art. Actually, I know of only one person personally in the city who fits this description. To me, that’s the real definition of an artist.

I remember you showing our sci-ill class a stipple you did for the cover of a JVP and asking us to find the mistake (one dot was missing). Assuming this kind of mistake happens rarely, if ever, (grin!!) does it bother you that due to the nature of science, some of your illustrations are now riddled with what we now know are errors?

I remember the illustration well. It was a stipple pen-and-ink reconstruction of the left lateral view of Stegosaurus stenops that was published on the cover of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology in 1992. My boss had a manuscript in the journal at the time, and we were asked to submit a drawing for the cover. Our drawing was selected. We eventually received a copy of the journal in the mail at the office, and when I ripped off the packaging and saw the cover I exclaimed something like, “Aw! I missed a dot!” Everyone laughed but I was completely serious. There was one tiny spot on the drawing that had too much white and needed just one dot to visually smooth out the area. It bothered me forever and I went back to the original and filled in the area with a stipple. It wasn’t a mistake per se, but merely an unfinished drawing by one dot. I think it is a great example and a learning tool for my students in understanding the importance of the placement of every single stipple, and it also is a terrific test of a student’s observational skills. I always show that drawing and tell that story at the beginning of my scientific illustration course, and no one can find the spot for the missing dot. By the end of the class, however, it has become obvious to every student.

I can think of one drawing though, that I produced where a mistake was made and it wasn’t realize until after the drawing was published. It was a weighted-line drawing reconstruction of a left lateral view of a skull and my boss and I had been going back and forth trying to locate the exact placement of the premaxillary/maxillary suture. We were extremely confident about all of it except a tiny portion that disappeared into an area of broken surface. One day we’d place the suture in one position and the next day we’d change our minds and with some hesitancy, put it in the other position. It was only a few millimeters of suture, but it was important and we hemmed and hawed over it for a long time. Eventually we made as confident a decision as possible, and the drawings were submitted for publication. A month or two after the work was published, we located that particular part of the suture on another specimen. We had chosen wrong. Looking back, I should have drawn a couple of dashes in place of the questionable suture area. It was painful, but it happens.

You have worked with Paul (Sereno) for 22 years now. Can you describe the process you usually go through when preparing an illustration?

Well, I don’t get to choose what I draw. I’m handed a group of specimens with some accompanying notes and the name of the journal the manuscript will be submitted to. My boss selects the views he’d like me to draw based on which particular areas of the specimens are important to his work or need clarification. He selects the figure order that best compliments his paper and a deadline is communicated. I’m usually given a dozen or so plates of drawings to start with, but as the illustrations and manuscript progress, other ideas come about or a particular drawing may promote further discussion and together we usually decide to add additional views. The latest paper I’m working on started out with 30 plates and has grown to 100.

Any artists/illustrators inspire you?

The artists that inspire me are artists whose work happens to be the complete opposite from mine. Surprisingly, none are illustrators, but true artists (and an artist/photographer) in the classical sense. Vik Muniz has been a favorite for years. He produces really clever, intricate work and is always evolving in interesting ways. I’m a huge fan of British street artist Banksy. Painter Jenny Saville and chewing gum artist, Jason Kronewald are also favorites.

What’s your favorite medium?

Pencil. Always pencil. I really prefer how a scientific specimen looks when drawn with a great range of tone.

What’s your illustration pet peeve?

Sometimes I’ll begin designing a series of plates of drawings for a particular publication, and then we’ll ultimately decide to submit them to another journal that has different requirements. I never begin a drawing without knowing which journal it is going to because things like overall layout size, number of columns, and font type will change. If a drawing is completed for one journal and then is going to be submitted to another, I’ve got to redo a bunch of work. The drawing never turns out as well as when it is designed for a specific journal from the very beginning. A pet peeve, but it’s just the nature of the job.

In your experience, did art school prepare you for the business end of making a career as an artist? Any advice for the young'uns out there?

Surprisingly, looking back, I never thought about or worried about what I would do after art school, career wise. I was never concerned with how I would make money at art, or IF I would make money at art. I went to art school only because I was interested in it. I hope there are more business classes available for the student artist today. When I was in school, there was just a simple class that was required, but it involved more of the fine art aspect of art as a business – how to approach galleries, how to write an impressive résumé cover letter for a gallery, etc. and not the career side of art. I went through art school at a time when no one used a computer so everything had to be done the hard way. There was a small computer lab at the time (maybe 6 stations), but it was required that one had to be a registered design student to gain access, of which I was not. It seems like things are so much easier today.

Hmmm…art advice? If one is interested in a career in art, keep your mind open to unusual and interesting opportunities as you never know what path they may lead you down. Go with your gut and do what makes you happy. And when it doesn’t make you happy anymore, make a change - without fear or hesitation.

Finally, you've been in the news a lot lately, but for something far from paleontology... how did you become involved in the investigation of the 70's hijacker known as D.B. Cooper?

I became involved in the D.B. Cooper case three years ago while attending a meeting for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Cleveland, Ohio. A friend of mine, Tom Kaye had been contacted by the case agent at the time, FBI Special Agent Larry Carr out of the Seattle office. Larry, who was the Bank Robbery Coordinator, was looking for a creative way to allow the case to continue being worked on without using government funds. In bank robberies, the details of the case are given to the public with the hope that information is brought back. Tom began assembling a small team of people to work with him on the case, myself as well as metallurgist Alan Stone from Aston Metallurgical Services. Our group was invited to examine the evidence in the case at the FBI in Seattle.

[FYI, Carol's contribution to the 40-year-old mystery of a skydiving hijacker, D.B. Cooper can be found at Citizen Sleuths. It's been hot in the news lately - read articles in the National Post, The Oregonian, The TODAY show, CNN video, and KVAL.com.]

Links 'n schtuff:

"Artists help push science forward" - a University of Chicago feature on Carol and yours truly

"Scientific illustrator works Egyptology, forensics on the side" - A University of Chicago feature on Carol

Sereno, P., & Larsson, H. (2009). Corrigenda: Sereno PC, Larsson HCE (2009) Cretaceous Crocodyliforms from the Sahara. ZooKeys 28: 1–143. ZooKeys, 29 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.29.368

Sereno, P.C., & Dong, Z. (1992). The skull of the basal stegosaur Huayangosaurus taibaii and a cladistic diagnosis of Stegosauria Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 12 (15), 318-343