Linda Trueb is researching a family tree for frogs.
Trueb, professor of systematics and ecology and curator of herpetology at Kansas University's Museum of Natural History, has focused her research on members of the family Pipidae, also known as pipid frogs. She hopes to determine the number of species and their relationships among themselves and to their fossil relatives.
"These are commonly used laboratory frogs," she said. "They used to be the frogs used in pregnancy tests before rabbits came along. That's its claim to fame."
Because pipids, particularly the African clawed frog called Xenopus laevis, have been used so extensively for biological and medical research, much is known about their genetic makeup. However, the physical similarities of different species can be deceiving.
"You can walk into a room full of living specimens, but not tell them apart until you look at their DNA," said Trueb.
By collecting morphological and developmental data on the frogs, she hopes to "make development tables more accurate so that all future researchers working on the frogs will know what they're working with," Trueb said. "Then you can look at their characteristics and see how genetics have evolved and patterns have occurred."
FOR THE LAST 120 years, researchers have studied the development of the Xenopus and tabulated the findings. However, the information frequently is contradictory and contains errors. "They didn't have the techniques we have now," Trueb said. "There's some gross misinterpretations."
Trueb is more than a researcher of frogs. She's a scientist with a special talent for art. In addition to peering at frogs through a microscope, Trueb also draws them to illustrate her research.
"Computers still can't do it all for us, nor can cameras," she said. Unless the illustration is done by hand, some important detail is bound to be out of focus.
Her artistic avocation started when she drew more than 100 cross sections of frog skulls for her dissertation about 20 years ago.
"At that time, they didn't have an illustrator in the museum and I had people asking me how to draw things," she said. "I figured it might be easier to teach a class."
So that's what she does. Her science illustration course, taught through the department of systematics and ecology usually one semester each year, attracts students from both the sciences and fine arts.
SCIENCE illustration encompasses virtually everything related to any aspect of science, and students must be prepared to produce illustrations for all types of science publications.
"The whole class is geared toward drawing something for publication," Trueb said. "It must be reduced for scientific illustration."
Biology students use their newly discovered drawing abilities to illustrate college projects or journal articles, and also become better biologists, Trueb said.
"By learning how to draw, they refine their powers of observation. By drawing frog skulls or whatever, they see things they might not have seen otherwise."
Although about 90 percent of her class is made up of science students, fine arts majors also enroll to learn a new way to apply their skills.
Surprisingly, Trueb said it's much easier to teach art to biologists than vice versa.
"The bottom line on all of this is the person doing the illustration has to know something about art techniques, but they also have to know their specimens," she said.