Meet a Citizen Scientist: Eric Keller

April 29, 2016

This week's blog is written by one of our @NHMLA citizen scientists, Eric Keller:

If I were to make a list titled, “Accomplishments I Never Really Planned On But Achieved Anyways,” I think having a species of phorid fly named after me would have to be at the very top. And how did I manage to do this? Simple, I just volunteered as a citizen scientist by giving a little time and a small patch of real estate to Dr. Brian Brown and his BioSCAN team at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and as a nice thank you the museum dubbed one of their newly discovered species “Megaselia kelleri”.

Digital model of a Coffin Fly, Conicera tibialis.

But this is not all I got out of the experience. In fact, much more valuable to me than the eponymous fly species is the connection that my participation in BioSCAN gave me to the museum itself. I have been involved in the science for many years acting as a digital illustrator, creating graphics and animations for researchers and for science educators. I started out on the East coast in the late 90s working for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute creating animations for “BioInteractive” a free resource of animations, interactives, and lectures. In 2005 I moved out to Hollywood to study the art of visual effects from the leading artists in the field. To earn a living I became a freelance animator and digital artist working in a number of studios around town, most recently I had the opportunity to create some digital monsters for JJ Abram’s latest scif fi horror movie, “10 Cloverfield Lane”. But getting into the production houses in Hollywood did not necessarily mean abandoning science. In fact, I have been lucky enough to bounce between animation jobs in both the entertainment industry and in science. One of my proudest achievements was being a lead animator and artist for E. O. Wilson’s Life on Earth which is a digital biology textbook available for free on the Apple iPad. I worked on this project with a team of talented scientist-animators at a small company called Digizyme Inc. which is led by my good friend Gael McGill, a Harvard scientist, professor, and all-around digital visionary.

Digital model of a jumping spider (somewhat fictional species), that I created for an article in 3D Artist magazine.

In preparing to work on Dr. Wilson’s book, Gael encouraged me to familiarize myself with his work, so I started reading Dr. Wilson’s books. Almost immediately, within the first few chapters of Biodiversity I became aware of the astonishing world of insects, especially ants. His writing inspired me to dive deeper into the world of entomology and in my spare time I started creating insectoid creatures from my imagination using my modeling and rendering software. I created animations of what I imagined insect life would look like on other worlds and this work generated a kind of creative feedback loop. To make better animations I needed to learn more about existing earthling insects which in turn inspired more fantastic imaginary insects. I began to concoct detailed physiology for my creatures and I wrote up descriptions of life cycles striving to make them as fantastic as possible but also completely plausible. I soon discovered that no matter how far-fetched my imaginary entomological creations were, I could soon find a real world example of an insect or arachnid more incredible than anything I could dream of. So I finally gave up trying to out-do the creative genius of mother nature and instead I decided to just dive head first into studying this new amazing world where it seems as though there is an endless supply of inspiring stories to draw from.

Digital models of black garden ants, Lasius niger.

I became a bug addict. I needed more information on insects and I needed expert eyes to help me correct mistakes in my digital insect models. My good friend Inna-Marie Strazhnik, who is an amazing scientific illustrator and oil painter got a job at the Natural History Museum. She took me on a behind the scenes tour to show me where she worked and I got to see the insect collection first hand. It was an incredible experience, drawers and drawers filled with fantastic creatures from all over the world. She also introduced me to Brian Brown whom I had read about in an article in the LA Times. I was a little bit star struck when I met him but very excited. Over several months I met more of the staff at NHMLA and around the same time my wife and I became home owners in Eagle Rock. When the museum put out the call for volunteers for the BioSCAN project I was more than happy to offer up a small part of my new backyard for a chance to be part of an actual scientific study.

Digital model of the head of a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster.

Becoming part of BioSCAN made it clear to me that the museum is much more than a storehouse for dinosaur bones. It’s a place where real research is going on and, even more importantly, a place that directly connects the general public with the practice of science. I think being able to interact with people like Emily Hartop and Lisa Gonzalez is the best part of my connection to the museum. Its painfully obvious that most people think of scientists in a very narrow stereotype. Popular culture paints a picture of researchers as being obsessive robots, ivory tower academics, or even worse, sociopathic madmen. Getting to know scientists as individuals who enjoy sharing their curiosity with the rest of the world is incredibly valuable. And even more so, spreading the word that everyone can be a part of scientific discovery, regardless of their age, experience, or academic training is something that the museum can do better than any other public institution I can think of.

A fictional alien beetle I created just for the fun of it.

I take pride in being able to say that I am playing an integral roll in advancing mankind’s knowledge of the world. Even though most of the real work is being done by Emily and Lisa. I’m hoping to be a part of more projects through the Museum. I’ve also started an online web animation series called “Entomology Animated” that explores various topics in insect physiology. This is something I do in my spare time and I’m hoping teachers and students find it a useful resource, its absolutely inspired by my connection to the Museum. I’ve promised Lisa, Emily, and Brian an animation on Phorid flies, getting the anatomy of my digital model up to their standards is proving to be a pretty big challenge. The task is made a little bit easier since I know there is one species of phorid fly that literally has my name on it!

Interested in more? Eric's website can be found here.

**All photos and animations by Eric Keller.


(Posted by: Eric Keller)

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Ant Love From an Ant Nerd

February 23, 2013

A few weeks ago, this ant nerd traveled to the wilds of Arizona to pick up two ant colonies. Yes, myself and Leslie Gordon (the Museum's live animal queen), drove over 1000 miles in under two days to bring a few hundred ants back to the Museum. Why?

 



Our new harvester ants, Pogonomyrmex rugosus,

taking down a wax worm!

 

Well, these ants are for display in the Museum's new Nature Lab exhibit, which is opening this June. That's right, we're going to have a live colony of harvester ants, a.k.a. Pogos (the ultra cool, ant nerd way to refer to this ant genus), inside the Museum!

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Since the exhibit isn't opening for another four months, we're keeping the ants in our super secret insect quarantine space. Here's a photo of our set-up, check out those sexy, glass nest chambers. The ants seem to really like them, they've been laying lots of eggs.

 



It's true people, these ants pack a mean 

punch, uh I mean sting!

 

Leslie and our animal keepers have become an expert ant housekeepers. Here she is, diligently sweeping up the ant's trash pile which includes uneaten grain, dead ants, and the odd cricket leg that wasn't so juicy.

 

 



Leslie is an ant queen. 

Well, not the one laying all the eggs!

 

Inspired to visit the ants? Come visit the Nature Lab this June!


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Twelve Days of Christmas 2012

January 4, 2013

Since tomorrow is the twelfth day of Christmas, I thought I'd give you your belated gifts. Of course they're all part of L.A.'s surprising biodiversity, yes even those turtle wasps!

Twelve weevils wandering

 



Eleven pepsis wasps piping

 

 



Ten spiders-a-leaping

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Nine ground squirrels dancing

 

 



Eight ants-a-milking (though technically they should be milking aphids)

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

Seven spittlebugs-a-spitting

 



 

Six roaches-a-laying (down that is)

 



 

Five under wings

 



 

Four warbling birds

 



 

Three French (phorid) flies

 



 

Two turtle wasps

 



 

And a hawk in a pear infested pond

 



Wishing you a happy New Year...what urban nature will we find this year?


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)

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Who are Those Ants in Our Homes and Gardens?

August 11, 2012

Lots of people in the L.A. area have been complaining about the heat. Over the last week, cities in our region have been experiencing temperatures well into the 90s. On Monday, Woodland Hills reached 108 degrees!Whenever the temperature rises like this, I start to notice ants indoors. Only this morning during our Nature Lab meeting, I found a trail of ants leading to the sink, and another leading to the snack shelf.The ants I found are Argentine Ants, Linepithema humile. They are an introduced species from South America (Argentina and Brazil) and are now considered the most common ant in our area. According to the Insects of the Los Angeles Basin book, these ants were "introduced to New Orleans before 1891 in coffee shipments from Brazil, and it has since spread rapidly over much of the United States."This is what the same book has to say about their pest status:"The species is one of the most persistent and troublesome of all our house-infesting ants. Argentine Ant workers seek out and feed on almost every type of food, although they are especially fond of sweets. Making themselves most objectionable, the ants invade the house through minute crevices and cracksfiling along baseboards, across sinks, and over walls and tables in endless trails."How do you feel about ants in your home? While writing this blog, I've found it interesting to ponder this question. As you may have noticed I am a nature lover, however I am definitely not a fan of ants in my house and will go to great lengths to remove them. Many times this feels like a losing battle, especially because I'm not one for spraying pesticides all over the place I live.

Argentine Ant about to take drink of water in our Nature Lab trailer(It is one eighth of an inch long)The Argies, as we "fondly" refer to them, have also been found throughout the North Campus. This isn't surprising as it is well documented that this ant species has displaced many of our native ants. According to Alex Wild, author of the Myrmecos ant blog, Argentine Ants, "can drive native arthropods to extinction, instigating changes that ripple through ecosystems. In California, horned lizard populations plummet. In South Africa, plant reproduction is disrupted. Worldwide, the Argentine Ant is a persistent house and crop pest. This is not a good ant." Here are some pictures of their activities on the North Campus:

Argentine Ants killed all the paper wasps in this nest

Argentine Ants tending citrus scales in our orange treesWhen I found the ants had killed all the paper wasps in the nest pictured above, I have to admit I was disappointed. I know many would be cheering for the ants, as paper wasps are viewed as a pest themselves. However, I had already become invested in the livelihood of that particular wasp nest and would check up on it every time I was out in the gardens. I find it infinitely interesting to ponder our notion of pest. What is acceptable in some circumstances is unacceptable in others. However, I still haven't come across anyone who is a fan of Argentine Ants!Need tips of managing ants in your home? Check out the UC Davis Integrated Pest Management website.


(Posted by: Lila Higgins)


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