NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

How Do You Picture Science?

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Explaining the environmental ramifications of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill [leaves this blog] in the Gulf of Mexico is no easy task. Visualizing those impacts in an easy-to-understand way? Maybe even harder.

Last year NOAA scientists Mary Baker and Debbie Payton needed to figure out how to do just that, and as a communications coordinator for NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R), it was my job to make it happen. Although I had yet to work with her, I thought of Kate Sweeney, a medical and scientific illustrator for UWCreative [leaves this blog], out of the University of Washington (Seattle), whose specialty is creating accessible and understandable illustrations that depict complex scientific processes.

After the initial spill in the Gulf, oil moved through the water column in a variety of ways, and the potential for it to move into the sediments at the bottom included several possible scenarios. The challenge for this graphic was to clearly describe the different ways the oil could move into the sediment layer at the ocean floor. Using mapping data provided by OR&R and discussing the concepts with NOAA scientists and myself, Kate developed a single, striking graphic illustration that clearly encompassed all the possibilities. As a result, we were able to use the illustration extensively to inform the public about the spill.

Potential Pathways of Oil

Illustration showing the potential pathways of spilled oil following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon/BP incident in the Gulf of Mexico. Click to view larger image. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney.

Kate compares the process of creating complex scientific images to telling a story, and she has seen demand for her illustrations grow as the expectation for high-quality visuals has increased.

According to Kate, a key component to this process is working collaboratively with the scientists. When we first sat down with her at our office, she created a rough sketch in the first hour that we were able to comment on. With that initial feedback, she returned to her office and developed the first electronic draft. She didn’t hesitate to do several rounds of drafts back and forth, using discussion along with trial and error to get it right.

Kate recently completed another marine illustration for OR&R, “Conceptual Model of Arctic Oil Exposure and Injuries,” that shows natural resources at risk and the potential impacts of an oil spill in the Arctic.

Oil impacts on Arctic food webs

The illustration shows potential oil spill impacts to wildlife and habitats in the Arctic sea. Click for larger view. Credit: NOAA/Kate Sweeney, Illustration.

As sea ice recedes in the Arctic, shipping routes will open, increasing vessel traffic and increasing the likelihood of spills. Increasing pressure for more oil exploration in the region also highlights the need to be prepared in the event of a spill during offshore drilling. This diagram in particular is useful in discussions with the public, industry, and other trustee agencies to reach a common understanding of which resources are most at risk, and what information on those resources is needed now as baseline data we can use for comparison and for planning how to respond in case of a spill.

Kate says that her biggest challenge as a scientific illustrator is gaining enough of a fundamental understanding of the subject matter. Meeting that challenge, however, and executing the drawing successfully is what she enjoys most about her job.

Contact Kate Sweeney at kateswe@u.washington.edu.

Example illustration of repair of a herniated diaphragm

Example of the artist’s recent work for the University of Washington: Repair of Herniated Diaphragm, prepared for JD Godwin, MD, Department of Radiology. A: Front cutaway view of herniated diaphragm B: Plication sutures are placed in the diaphragm C: Top view of sutures before they are drawn tight D: Sutures are drawn tight to reduce the bulge in the diaphragm. Credit: Kate Sweeney.

“To create the images for this surgical procedure, I met with both the radiologist and the surgeon who performs this repair, and we discussed the anatomy and subsequent repair. Over a series of sketches, we developed and refined the views and details of the narrative.”–Kate Sweeney

Author: Vicki Loe

Vicki Loe is Communications Coordinator for NOAA's Office of Response and Restoration.

2 thoughts on “How Do You Picture Science?

  1. Pingback: Views from the blog-o-sphere | The Compleat Wetlander

  2. Pingback: Charging BP for Deepwater Horizon « University of Chicago Undergraduate Law Review

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