One illustration shows a hand pulling up a patch of grass to show a layer of money plastered on its underside.

Another portrays industrial chicken production with magenta and green arrows tracing how bacteria makes it from the birds into the guts of faceless humans.

Yet another shows an ancient reptile perched on a tree trunk, using long fingers to pry beneath the bark.

Artist Victor Leshyk scrolled through the images Wednesday and as he pointed out their details and explained the ideas behind them, it quickly became clear his visuals go far beyond eye-catching illustrations.

The grass’ rich composition is meant to communicate the economic value of biodiversity outlined in the scientific paper the image was meant to promote. The lifelike chickens crane their necks out of tiny battery cages because those are conditions under which heavy antibiotic use spurs the growth of superbugs that eventually infect humans — a focus of that illustration’s related research paper. And in drawing the prehistoric drepanosaurs, Leshyk even sought out a petrified log as a model to ensure he accurately depicted the reptile’s surroundings.

A brand new staff member at Northern Arizona University’s Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Leshyk’s charge is to use the power of art to help interpret and communicate science produced by the center's researchers as well as others at the university.

It’s a unique opportunity to highlight fascinating science that may otherwise get lost in the fray as well as a challenge to not lose sight of the core facts, Leshyk said.

“Research is so careful, quiet and humble you have to give it a loud face that doesn't distort it. It’s making science sexy but you can't sacrifice the meaning and accuracy behind the message,” he said.

Leshyk will be speaking about his work portfolio, the challenges of modern science communication and his goals of increasing science literacy through his art Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Green Room as part of the “Flagstaff Science on Tap” program.

Since he graduated from college with degrees in pre-med and art, Leshyk has built a career on translating science into compelling visuals. His work ranges from a mural at Petrified Forest National Park that recreates with exactitude the area’s prehistoric ecosystem to a metaphor and symbol-rich illustration for a paper investigating the potential for biochar to increase crop yields.

He said the field of science illustration is a growing one, with degree opportunities and even doctoral programs. There are likely several reasons for that, he said.

Research is evolving to a point where there is more focus on concepts that need to be illustrated versus objects or specimens, he said. The rise of big data has also created a need for people who can process loads of information and turn it into visuals that people can understand, he said.

In other cases, 3D sculpting, animation or other digital visualization has become important to running simulations, modeling things people have never seen before and testing research hypotheses, he said.

“Now, science illustration feeds back into the process of discovery,” he said.

Creating compelling art also helps draw people in and get them thinking in a way that a research paper cannot, he said.

“What I’m creating for ECOSS is engagement,” Leshyk said. “Not to take a conclusion but taste the excitement of why do we have that question and what do we do with the answer?”

THE ARTISTIC PROCESS

Leshyk said each illustration is a back and forth process with the scientists. He will interview them about broad concepts and the tiniest details like the structure of fibers in a certain plant. Some assignments take a week and some can stretch over months, he said. His pre-med background helps him understand the researchers' manuscripts and add informed comments, he said.

The work is so appealing because it gives him a firsthand, behind the scenes look at cutting edge research, many times before it is published, Leshyk said.

“I get those insights first or at a level of detail that most people can't quite have,” he said. 

DRAWING ANTIBIOTIC PATHWAYS

One of Leshyk’s recently released projects involved two researchers at Northern Arizona University and one affiliated with Flagstaff’s Translational Genomics Research Institute. Their paper explores how to apply ecological principles like the spread of invasive species or species survival in disconnected patches of habitat to better understand and manage the movement of antibiotic resistant pathogens. 

It highlights how new technologies can map the genetic makeup of those pathogens and in doing so track how specific strains move from animals to humans and vice versa, said Ben Koch, one of the paper’s authors and an assistant research professor in ECOSS.

The paper suggests that new genetic mapping tools combined with ecological principles can trace the movement of antibiotic resistant pathogens from food animal production to consumers and identify places where that movement could be stopped by better or different practices, Koch said.

For his part, Leshyk worked with the paper’s authors to map out how industrial meat and egg production and food handling practices could provide pathways for dangerous bacteria to move throughout a system.

The flow chart crowded with detailed drawings was meant to show people what an intricate system exists between Big Ag and the food that ends up on the dinner plate, Leshyk said.

In his new job at NAU, Leshyk said he sees ample opportunity for more projects to help bring research into the public sphere.

“It seems that it’s really time for science literacy to get some cool visual art,” he said. "There are a lot things unexplored. We haven’t fully throttled art toward the task of presenting science.”

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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