KU researcher fosters online community of fish scientists and artists

Rene Martin draws a green sunfish in this time lapse video.

What started as a personal project to hone her art skills as a fish biologist now lures like-minded Twitter users around the world — more than 100,000 of them each week — to University of Kansas researcher Rene Martin’s #SundayFishSketch community.

“It started very simple,” said Martin, a fourth-year doctoral candidate in ecology and evolutionary biology. “I just wanted practice, but it’s turned into something that I think has been really great for the art/fish community on social media.”

Martin started #SundayFishSketch in 2016 with the idea that posting publicly and regularly would help her hold herself accountable for improving her art. She never expected to draw so many other people on the idea.

Now, dozens of Twitter users post their own pieces — and the tweets receive hundreds of comments and engagements. Martin chooses a theme each week, such as bottom dwellers or a fish that starts with the same letter as your name. Then, participants choose how to interpret that theme and decide which fish to create.

Martin’s research influences her art. From a university in the middle of the United States, she studies the evolution of deep-sea fish. One of her #SundayFishSketch pieces depicts a deep-sea opah, made with watercolor and ink — her preferred medium. Another shows off a sabertooth fish.

But her research centers on lanternfish, an abundant group that makes up about 60% of all deep-sea fish. The small, glowing fish are found in every ocean. Despite their prevalence, however, lanternfish speciation is understudied, which makes Martin’s work especially useful.

“She’s quickly setting herself up to be the expert on that group at a young age,” said Leo Smith, Martin’s adviser and associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at KU.

Rene Martin gives a presentation on her research.

Creativity breeds groundbreaking research

Martin’s interest in general biology started early, and her experiences honed her research focus. Growing up in Minnesota — a state that boasts about 2.6 million acres of lakes — she spent a lot of time camping and fishing and enjoyed maintaining fish tanks at home. She even completed multiple internships with the state fisheries department.

“I really enjoy being out on the lake, sampling, and just learning and researching,” Martin said.

After finishing her bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State University, she worked on her master’s degree with a professor who studied deep-sea fish. Martin has continued that path at KU and its Biodiversity Institute.

She researches evolutionary patterns of lanternfish, such as their shape, sense of smell, ability to produce light and more. But studying deep-sea fish requires a creative approach. It’s difficult and expensive to access the deep sea — let alone trap deep-sea fish. When captured, the fish don’t usually look like they did in the ocean.

“They just look like they were literally dragged in the net behind a boat with other things getting piled on them,” Smith said.

Instead, researchers often take a historical science approach by working with specimens. That’s where Martin’s artistic skill comes in handy.

“She can draw them and make them look lifelike again,” Smith said. 

Illustrators, like Martin, can emphasize certain evolutionary characteristics that may be lacking or impossible to capture in photographs, such as a fish’s color or light-producing ability. The illustrations can help explain scientific information to colleagues and non-expert audiences alike. 

“I think that we as scientists have to find the best ways to disseminate our research to the general public in ways that they would understand,” Martin said. 

#SundayFishSketch is certainly one avenue for reeling in an audience. In an average week, anywhere from 30 to 80 pieces of fish art reach more 100,000 Twitter accounts. And artists have gained recognition from participating. Martin said many, including herself, have received art commissions because of their posts.

“I think it’s been really beneficial for getting people’s names out there,” Martin said. 

Rene Martin's drawing of a green sunfish.

Sustaining a lost art

Michelle Gilbert, a doctoral candidate at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, posted artwork for #SundayFishSketch regularly for several years. With a background in photography, Gilbert saw the online community as a chance to polish her self-taught art skills.

“I didn’t really have my own art style, so this was a wonderful opportunity to draw things that I was really familiar with and try to refine my personal style,” Gilbert said.

After participating for over three years, Gilbert mostly supports #SundayFishSketch from the sidelines now. She still finds it rewarding to uplift the community that engages scientists, artists and a non-scientific audience. 

“I think that it’s been a very positive influence on the participating Twitter community,” Gilbert said. “I’m really proud of Rene because it takes a lot of work to maintain 52 days a year. She’s really phenomenal in facilitating this atmosphere, and the atmosphere is so positive.”

Smith, Martin’s adviser, said scientists with artistic skills are rare, especially with the growing prevalence of easily accessible photography.

For those scientists who are fine-tuning their creative capabilities, illustration provides an opportunity to depict realistic, life-like details that are difficult to describe solely through photographs of a specimen. Martin — and other #SundayFishSketch participants — are using their art to bring fish back to life on paper and canvas.

“[Illustration] is a lost art,” Smith said, “and it’s not lost with her.”