Looking Glass Gallery hosts ‘Extinct Art’ exhibit

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The Appalachian Online

Kelsey Hamm

The Looking Glass Gallery in Plemmons Student Union will feature “Extinct Life” Sept. 23 through Oct. 10,  an art exhibition and ongoing project collaboration between multidisciplinary undergraduate students working to shed new light on very old secrets.

The exhibit consists of 17 laser scanner images, topography prints, macro photography, 3D prints created with Appalachian State University’s 3D printing resources and a video of a 3D reconstruction.

The gallery is part of a much larger research project headed by Johnny Waters, a geology professor at Appalachian State University. Three undergraduate students collected the imaging and 3D reconstruction of extinct fossil specimens from all over the world, including lost classes of echinoderms, or a marine animal phylum encompassing sand dollars, star fish and sea urchins.

Waters recruited the students by placing an ad in The Appalachian.

“When I put the ad in the paper, I knew I wouldn’t have time to learn the software necessary for this project,” Waters said. “I said I would need students that could do 3D imaging and 3D constructions. I wasn’t looking for someone with a specific major. I was looking for someone with a specific skill set.”

Senior exercise science major Bonnie Nguyen joined Waters in December 2013 and created the video for the project, while senior studio art major Carmen Gonzalez focused on photography and lighting. Lyndsie White, a junior industrial design major, worked on computer generated 3D constructions and rapid prototyping.

Waters said the team used a variety of softwares to complete their models, including Rhinoceros 3D modeling software, Solidworks design software, Spears technical software and widely used programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator.

“Learning to use 3D modeling software was frustrating and complicated,” Nguyen said. “I often contacted the customer support of the people who made the software, and they had to walk me through a lot of specifics. This software isn’t popular like [Adobe] Photoshop or [Adobe] Illustrator, and it’s not as user friendly.”

White noted that 3D printing is a very difficult process in addition to the modeling aspects.

“Creating a graphic 3D model does not automatically mean 3D printing capability and it takes a lot of tweaking to make sure that the specimens won’t fall apart after the process,” White said.

The art gallery is an extension of Waters’ research with the University of Tennessee and the Paul Scherrer Institute, of which the latter is the largest research center for natural and engineering sciences in Switzerland.

Waters, while abroad in Switzerland for research, imaged extinct specimens in the institute’s synchrotron machine.

“This is about a $5 million machine, and in the machine the fossil specimen sits in the path of a high energy set of X-rays,” Waters said. “It takes views at about five micron slices. For one particular fossil Bonnie worked with, the one you see in the video, we have over 2,500 layers. [The research team] brought the data from those experiments, and [Nguyen] took the 2,500 layers from the software and constructed 3D models of it.”

The group has traveled to two scientific meetings to present their work, and at the end of October, Waters, Nguyen and White will attend a meeting in Canada to conduct further presentations. The team will also travel to Spain in the coming months and collectively write papers on the results, which will contribute to a Ph.D. program at the University of Tennessee.

“This can be art or science, depending on what your goal is,” Waters said. “Scientists will be able to look at these specimens to see what their morphology is, and some of photographs will be part of a scientific paper. Everything we’ve imaged will appear in scientific publications, but [the images] stand in their own right as exquisite photographs.”

Waters said because of the undergraduates’ work, the scientific community can more easily figure out how an extinct class of echinoderms, one of which is shown in the video, relate to each other on an evolutionary basis. Their research documents the first evidence of soft tissue found in a number of the specimens.

The students spent over 150 hours recreating, constructing and imaging certain individual fossils.

“Not only are [these students] very talented, but they are very hardworking, and the attention to detail that they have is spectacular,” Waters said. “Many students getting a Ph.D. couldn’t do this. This is incredibly meticulous work with an enormous amount of technical detail, finesse and artistry.”

Overall, Waters has received student assistant money totaling almost $50,000, which is used to pay the students’ salaries, travel and 3D modeling expenses. The project has received support from National Science Foundation, the Office of Student Research at Appalachian and the Department of Geology.

Gonzalez said she encourages students of every academic background to visit the exhibit.

“All of this is cool to look at whether or not you know something about what these are,” Gonzalez said. “We relied on Dr. Waters to know the geology side of a lot of this, and we learned along the way.”

Story: Kelsey Hamm, Intern A&E Reporter