Student illustrations bring the nature book to life

When Laura Donohue, a veterinary student, learned that Cortland Seafood had fresh, whole fish available, she promptly claimed some bass and returned home to dissect them on her kitchen table. The result — perch organs, scales, and tiny bones scattered across garbage bags and plastic wrap — may have been an eerie scene for anyone outside the veterinary profession, but it was enlightening for Donohue. She wanted to see for herself where the fish’s spleen was in relation to its stomach.

The College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) gives its veterinary students in-depth anatomy classes, but Donohue was on a mission for another project: to draw illustrations for a new nature book published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

“I was asked to illustrate common lesions in a fish disease,” she says. “As I was drawing it, I realized I didn’t really understand the relationship between a spleen and the liver and stomach. Can you see a liver at the same time as the spleen, at the same time as the stomach, or do I have to show it with the liver removed? I had to look for myself.”

Donohue, DVM ’22, combines her artistic talents and passion for animals in illustrations for ‘Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation’. The book features more than 100 of her drawings, which depict common disease cycles in wildlife, as well as their social, cultural and economic influences. With the exception of one art class as a student, Donohue is self-taught and has been drawing since childhood.

An illustration by Laura Donohue, DVM ’22, shows how waterfowl share a diverse habitat with many species.

The co-editors of the book, David Jessup, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California-Davis, and Robin Radcliffeassociate professor of practice in wildlife and conservation medicine at CVM, invited Donohue to participate in the project last year.

“When we found out that Laura went to the grocery store, bought fish, and dissected them there on her kitchen table, we knew we had hired the right person for the job,” says Radcliffe.

Donohue originally planned to join one of Radcliffe’s educational trips to Indonesia in 2020, but due to pandemic restrictions, the trip was canceled. Although Cornell couldn’t send her halfway around the world as planned, Radcliffe saw a unique opportunity to simultaneously provide her with a learning opportunity that suited her needs while injecting multicolored life into his and Jessup’s newly crafted collection.

“Art and aesthetics can inspire people to worry about and take action on serious issues, which we are certainly dealing with regarding One Health and environmental issues,” says Jessup, referring to the concept that animal health in the wildlife, pets, people and the environment are inextricably linked.

Donohue’s art accompanies each of the 25 chapters, which focus on diseases ranging from Ebola in endangered mountain gorillas to avian malaria and the extinction of Hawaiian forest birds.

Each chapter also examines non-biological factors that are important to the diseases, including the social, financial, legal and political factors involved. “We hope this is done well enough that the book, along with illustrations, will be helpful to policy makers and stakeholders who may not have strong biomedical training, and who can also influence how society deals with health and disease and conservation,” says jessup .

That’s where Donohue comes in, adds Radcliffe. “She has been able to capture the disease risk landscape – all the elements that contribute to a disease and can impact conservation efforts. For some, perhaps it’s habitat loss or increased transportation. Laura helped illustrate these ideas and gave the book a very rich visual element.”

Case-based learning

Many of Donohue’s illustrations show disease cycles in action and the animal systems in each chapter.

“One of the things I love about Cornell is the way we’re taught using real-world cases,” Donohue said. “This was an extension of that. I am a very visual person and for me the book was a combination of science, art and learning.”

One of her favorite chapters to work on was one on waterfowl diseases, written by Jessup. “I’ve been working with him to renew the images, especially in relation to botulism,” says Donohue. “We often see an outbreak of botulism due to flooding, but other ways are tillage or irrigation, which can kill invertebrates or small animals, which can spread the spores.” Donohue’s illustration shows the behavior of ducks as an example, which ingest the poison and die in great numbers.

“Some of my favorite illustrations are the ones that show organs in the body as the bird goes about its day-to-day life,” says Donohue. “I draw them as you would see them in nature. It’s a fascinating way to learn about the life cycles.”

To achieve the desired artistic effects while remaining scientifically accurate, Donohue was in constant contact with the authors of 45 chapters. After meeting via Zoom or the phone to discuss an author’s goals for the chapter, Donohue outlined ideas and sent them with follow-up questions. She created a WordPress site specifically for tracking and providing feedback on concepts.

“I had to make sure I was on the right track before spending too much time on a sketch as there was so much to do,” says Donohue. “Sometimes I’d share a sketch where one of the included animals was just a box, and they trusted me to deepen them along the way.”

“Laura was approachable, responsive, and welcomed input during the design process for my chapter,” said Andy Ramey, director of the Molecular Ecology Laboratory at the US Geological Survey Alaska Science Center. Ramey wrote the “Avian Influenza in Wild Birds” chapter, for which Donohue created three custom illustrations, including a cover image highlighting avian flu research in western Alaska.

Donohue also illustrated the general ecology of influenza A viruses in wild birds and overflow hosts, as well as some of the common signs and lesions associated with highly pathogenic influenza A virus infection in wild birds. “She gave vivid and clear examples of what a person might observe in the field or in the clinic if they come across a bird infected with this ecologically and economically important disease,” Ramey said.

Jessup was particularly struck by the illustrations of sea otters and bighorn sheep. “The designs of bighorn sheep, in particular, help explain a process of bacterial pneumonia that has eluded wildlife health specialists for nearly three decades. It’s hugely helpful,” says Jessup. “Many others show the influence of landscape and environment on wildlife diseases or health problems.”

“Laura has even brought challenging concepts such as the evolution of viruses to life by showing the transition of disease over time as viruses cross both species and geographic barriers,” Radcliffe says.

Potential for global impact

The editors hope that the combination of rigorous science, storytelling and illustration will make the book a useful guide for readers. “We hope it will open up the world of wildlife health professionals to a wider audience,” says Jessup, “and inspire current and future generations to more effectively manage the health, disease, and conservation of wildlife. “

Radcliffe expects that especially the illustrations will help to capture information in the minds of the readers. “A lot of the people who use this in other parts of the world may not be English-speaking, so it could have an even bigger impact,” he says.

“I am proud to have worked with the editors and authors on this book,” said Donohue. “I feel like I’ve contributed to the learning that comes out of it, not just for myself, but for those who will use it in the world when it’s published.”

“Wildlife Health and Disease in Conservation” will be available in 2023 from Johns Hopkins University Press. Funding for this project and Donohue’s position came from Cornell; the University of California, Davis; the Wildlife Disease Association, USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services; International veterinary services for wildlife; the American Association of Wildlife Veterinarians; and Vétérinaires Sans Frontières Belgium.

Melanie Greaver Cordova is deputy director of communications at the College of Veterinary Medicine.

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