Pretty science

By Solène Derville, Postdoc, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab

Ever since I was a teenager, I have been drawn to both arts and sciences. When I decided to go down the path of marine biology and research, I never thought I would one day be led to exploit my artistic skills as well as my scientific interests.

Processing data, coding, analyzing, modeling… these tasks form the core of my everyday work and are what generates my excitement and passion for research. But once a new result has come up, or a new hypothesis has been formed, how boring would it be to keep it for myself? Science is all about communication, exchanges with our peers, with stakeholders, and with the general public. Graphical representations have always been supported in research throughout the history of sciences, and particularly the life sciences (Figure 1).

I have come to realize how much I enjoy this aspect of my work, and also how much I wish I was better prepared for it! In this blogpost I will talk about visual communication in science, and tackle the question of how to make our plots, diagrams, powerpoints, figures, maps, etc. convey information that goes beyond any spoken language? I have compiled a few tips from the design and infographics fields that I think could be reinvested in our scientific communication material.

Figure 1. Illustration from anonymous biology book (credit: Katie Garrett)

Plan, order, design

This suggestion may appear like a rather simplistic piece of advice, but any form of communication should start with a plan. What is the name of my project, the goal, and the audience? A scientific conference poster will not be created with the same design as a flyer aimed at the general public, nor will the same tools be used. Libre office powerpoint, canva, inkscape, scribus, R, plotly, GIMP… these are the open-source software I use on a regular basis but there so many more possibilities!

For whatever the type of visual you want to create, there are two major rules that need to be considered. First, embrace the empty space! You may think that you are wasting space that could be filled by all sorts of extremely valuable pieces of information… but this empty space has a purpose all by itself. The empty space brings forward the central elements of your design and will help focus the attention of the viewer toward them (top panel of Figure 2). Second, keep it neat and aligned. Whether you choose to anchor elements to each other or to an invisible grid, pay attention to details so that all images and text in the design from a harmonious whole (bottom panel in Figure 2).

Figure 2. Empty spaces and alignment principles of design – examples presented by Kingcom (

Alignment is also an essential aspect to consider when editing images. More than any text, images will provide the first impression to the viewer and may subjectively communicate ideas in an instant. To make them most effective, images may follow the ‘rule of thirds’. Imagine breaking the image down into thirds, hence creating four directive lines over it (Figure 3). Placing the points of interest of the image at the intersections or along the lines will provide balance and attract the viewer’s attention. In marine mammal science where we often use pictures of animals with the ocean as a background, aligning the horizon along one of these horizontal lines may be a good technique (which I have not followed in Figure 3 though!).

Figure 3. Rule of thirds example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how the tip of the calf’s jaw is at the intersection of two lines.

When adding text to images, it is important to not overwhelm illustrations with text by trying to use extensive written material (which happens much too often). I try to keep the text to the strict minimum and let the visuals speak for themselves. When including text over or next to an image, I place the text in the empty spaces, where the eye is drawn to (Figure 4). When using dark or contrasted images, I add a semi-transparent layer in between the text and the image to make my text pop out.

Figure 4. Text embedding example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how I placed the text in the empty space so that the nose of the calf would point to it.


Tired of using Arial, Times and Calibri but don’t know which other font to pick? One good piece of advice I found online was to choose a font that complements the purpose of the design. To do so, it is necessary to choose the message before picking the font. There are three categories of fonts (show in Image 1):

– Serif (classic style designed for books as the little feet at the extremities of the letters guide the eye along the lines of text)

– Sans serif (designed to look clean on digital screen)

– Display (more personality, but to be used in small doses!)

Image 1. Examples of each font category

I have also learned that pairing fonts together is often about using opposites (Figure 5). Contrasting fonts are complementary. For instance, it is visually appealing to combine a very bold font with a very light font, or a round font with something tall. And if you need more font choices than the ones provided by your usual software, here is a web repository to freely download thousands of different fonts:

Figure 5. Paired fonts example applied to a photo of a humpback whale calf (South Lagoon New Caledonia, credit: Opération Cétacés – Solène Derville). Notice how I combined a rounded  font with  a smaller  sans serif font.


Colors have inherent meaning that depends on individual cultures. Whether we want it or not, any plot, photo, or diagram that we present to an audience will carry a subliminal message depending on its color palette. So better make it fit with the message!

Let us go passed the boring blue shades we have used for all of our marine science presentations so far, and instead open ourselves up to an infinite choice of colors! Color nuances are defined by three things: hue (the color itself), saturation (intensity, whether the color looks more subtle or more vibrant), and value (how dark or light a color is, ranging from white to black). The color wheel helps us visualize the relationships between hues and pick the best associations (Figure 6).

Figure 6. The color wheel helps us visualize the relationships between hues and pick the best associations. Any of the principles above should work, from the simple monochromatic schemes to the more complex triad or tetradic schemes.

First, pick the main color, the hero color for your design. Choose a cool color (blues and greens) if you want to provide a calming impression or a warm color (reds and yellows) for something more energizing. This basic principle of color theory made me think back on the black/blue dark shaded presentations that I might have attended in the past and had trouble staying awake!

Now, create your color palette, which are the three to four colors that will compose your design, ideally combining some vibrant and some more neutral colors for contrast. For instance, in a publication, a color palette may be used consistently in all plots or figures to represent a set of variables, study areas, or species . Now how do you pick the right complementary colors? The color wheel provides you with a few basic principles that should help you choose a palette (Figure 6). From monochromatic to tetradic schemes, the choice is up to you:

– monochromatic colors: varying values or saturation of a given color picked in the wheel

– analogous colors: colors sitting next to each other in the wheel

– complementary color: colors sitting opposite to each other

If you are an R user, there are a myriad of color palettes available to produce your visuals. One of the most comprehensive list I have found was compiled by Emil Hvitfeldt in github ( For discrete color palettes, I enjoy using the Canva palettes, which are available both in the Canva designs and in R using the ‘canva’ library in combination with the ‘ggplot2’ library (

In practice, this means I can produce R plots or maps with color codes that match those I use in my canva presentations or posters. And finally, thumbs up to Dawn and Clara for creating our very own GEMM lab color palette based on whale photos collected in the field (Figure 7:!

Figure 7: Example of a R plot colored with the musculusColors package using the blue whale “Bmlunge” palette (credit: Dawn Barlow & Clara Bird)

I hope these few tips help you make your science as look as pretty as it is in your mind!


A lot of the material in this blog post was inspired by the free tutorials provided by Canva:

About the rule of thirds:

About alignment:

Oceanus Day Three: Dolphin Delights

by Florence Sullivan, MSc student

Our third day aboard the Oceanus began in the misty morning fog before the sun even rose. We took the first CTD cast of the day at 0630am because the physical properties of the water column do not change much with the arrival of daylight. Our ability to visually detect marine mammals, however, is vastly improved with a little sunlight, and we wanted to make the best use of our hours at sea possible.

Randall Munroe

Our focus on day three was the Astoria canyon – a submarine feature just off the Oregon and Washington coast. Our first oceanographic station was 40 miles offshore, and 1300 meters deep, while the second was 20 miles offshore and only 170 meters deep.  See the handy infographic below to get a perspective on what those depths mean in the grand scheme of things.  From an oceanographic perspective, the neatest finding of the day was our ability to detect the freshwater plume coming from the Columbia River at both those stations despite their distance from each other, and from shore! Water density is one of the key characteristics that oceanographers use to track parcels of water as they travel through the ocean conveyor belt. Certain bodies of water (like the Mediterranean Sea, or the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans) have distinct properties that allow us to recognize them easily. In this case, it was very exciting to “sea” the two-layer system we had gotten used to observing overlain with a freshwater lens of much lower salinity, higher temperature, and lower density. This combination of freshwater, saltwater, and intriguing bathymetric features can lead to interesting foraging opportunities for marine megafauna – so, what did we find out there?

Click through link for better resolution: Randall Munroe

Morning conditions were almost perfect for marine mammal observations – glassy calm with low swell, good, high, cloud cover to minimize glare and allow us to catch the barest hint of a blow….. it should come as no surprise then, that the first sightings of the day were seabirds and tuna!

I didn't catch any photos of the Tuna, so here's some mola mola we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan
I didn’t catch any photos of the tuna, so here’s some sunfish we spotted. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

One of the best things about being at sea is the ability to look out at the horizon and have nothing but water staring back at you. It really drives home all the old seafaring superstitions about sailing off the edge of the world.  This close to shore, and in such productive waters, it is rare to find yourself truly alone, so when we spot a fishing trawler, there’s already a space to note it in the data log.  Ships at sea often have “follower” birds – avians attracted by easy meals as food scraps are dumped overboard. Fishing boats usually attract a lot of birds as fish bycatch and processing leftovers are flushed from the deck.  The birders groan, because identification and counts of individuals get more and more complicated as we approach other vessels.  The most thrilling bird sighting of the day for me were the flocks of a couple hundred fork-tailed storm petrels.

Fork-tailed storm petrels
Fork-tailed storm petrels. photo credit: Florence Sullivan

I find it remarkable that such small birds are capable of spending 80% of their life on the open ocean, returning to land only to mate and raise a chick. Their nesting strategy is pretty fascinating too – in bad foraging years, the chick is capable of surviving for several days without food by going into a state of torpor. (This slows metabolism and reduces growth until an adult returns.)

Just because the bird observers were starting to feel slightly overwhelmed, doesn’t mean that the marine mammal observers stopped their own survey.  The effort soon paid off with shouts of “Wait! What are those splashes over there?!” That’s the signal for everyone to get their binoculars up, start counting individuals, and making note of identifying features like color, shape of dorsal fin, and swimming style so that we can make an accurate species ID. The first sighting, though common in the area, was a new species for me – Pacific white sided dolphins!

Pacific white sided dolphin
A Pacific white sided dolphin leaps into view. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

A pod of thirty or so came to ride our bow wake for a bit, which was a real treat. But wait, it got better! Shortly afterward, we spotted more activity off the starboard bow.  It was confusing at first because we could clearly see a lot of splashes indicating many individuals, but no one had glimpsed any fins to help us figure out the species. As the pod got closer, Leigh shouted “Lissodelphis! They’re lissodelphis!”  We couldn’t see any dorsal fins, because northern right whale dolphins haven’t got one! Then the fly bridge became absolute madness as we all attempted to count how many individuals were in the pod, as well as take pictures for photo ID. It got even more complicated when some more pacific white sided dolphins showed up to join in the bow-riding fun.

Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis
Northern right whale dolphins are hard to spot! photo credit: Florence Sullivan Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

All told, our best estimates counted about 200 individuals around us in that moment. The dolphins tired of us soon, and things continued to calm down as we moved further away from the fishing vessels.  We had a final encounter with an enthusiastic young humpback who was breaching and tail-slapping all over the place before ending our survey and heading towards Astoria to make our dock time.

Humpback whale breach
Humpback whale breach. photo credit: Florence Sullivan. Taken under NMFS permit 16111 John Calambokidis

As a Washington native who has always been interested in a maritime career, I grew up on stories of The Graveyard of the Pacific, and how difficult the crossing of the Columbia River Bar can be. Many harbors have dedicated captains to guide large ships into the port docks.  Did you know the same is true of the Columbia River Bar?  Conditions change so rapidly here, the shifting sands of the river mouth make it necessary for large ships to receive a local guest pilot (often via helicopter) to guide them across.  The National Motor Lifeboat School trains its students at the mouth of the river because it provides some of “the harshest maritime weather conditions in the world”.  Suffice it to say, not only was I thrilled to be able to detect the Columbia River plume in our CTD profile, I was also supremely excited to finally sail across the bar.  While a tiny part of me had hoped for a slightly more arduous crossing (to live up to all the stories you know), I am happy to report that we had glorious, calm, sunny conditions, which allowed us all to thoroughly enjoy the view from the fly bridge.

Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.
Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the Columbia River Bar.

Finally, we arrived in Astoria, loaded all our gear into the ship’s RHIB (Ridged Hulled Inflatable Boat), lowered it into the river, descended the rope ladder, got settled, and motored into port. We waved goodbye to the R/V Oceanus, and hope to conduct another STEM cruise aboard her again soon.

Now if the ground would stop rolling, that would be just swell.

Last but not least, here are the videos we promised you in Oceanus Day Two – the first video shows the humpback lunge feeding behavior, while the second shows tail slapping. Follow our youtube channel for more cool videos!