Women on Sketchfab: Shellie Luallin

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My name is Shellie Luallin; on Sketchfab I am Paleogirl. I am an avocational paleontologist whose passion is to build a collection of models of invertebrate fossils to be used as a reference so that like-minded collectors can examine and perhaps identify cephalopods, brachiopods, and other fossils they have collected. I retired a few years ago so I have some flexibility to achieve this.

Note: Retirement is all it’s cracked up to be! I have chunks of time to devote to volunteering and to photogrammetry. Before retiring, I was a full-time IT Systems Manager who still found time to volunteer at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS). I have gone on fossil digs, prepped fossils, molded and casted them, and more.

As a fossil preparator, I cut open plaster jackets brought in from the field, cleaned the dirt and rock (matrix) away from the fossils, applied glues to repair and consolidate fragile and broken pieces, and even learned to make cradles for careful storing of fossils. There was always more to learn.

There’s an organization that provides a forum for some of this learning called Association for Materials & Methods in Paleontology (AMMP). A few years ago, at one of their annual conferences, I attended a workshop on photogrammetry. I’ve been learning and creating 3D digital models ever since. Mostly I create models of smaller objects as my passion is invertebrate paleontology.

I have found many sources of objects and can’t help but see potential 3D candidates everywhere. One of my earliest attempts was at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) where I used my cell phone to photograph a Protoceratops andrewsi exhibit. I couldn’t believe how well it turned out, despite the exhibit being behind glass and I couldn’t get all the way around it. I was hooked on 3D!

I spent a lot of hours making, or rather, trying to make good models. I had some successes along the way. For example, a friend of mine has this fantastic collection of ammonites. He offered to let me photograph them to create models. One of my favorite models I created is still of the Didymoceras nebrascense from his collection.

My process is quite simple, using a turntable (aka “Lazy Susan”) and a camera on a tripod, I take from 90-130 photos of an object. I usually make 3 circuits of an object for this.

I use Agisoft Photoscan standard edition to process the photos: masking, aligning, building the mesh and adding texture. This sounds deceptively simple. It takes a bit of practice to make sure you have good light coverage, the right photos, and then sufficient masking to yield successful models. After 400+, I still say “wow” to myself when I’ve completed a model!

I wanted to make as many 3D models of fossils as I could because having them available can be so educational and helpful for those trying to identify fossils in their own collections. I began to get more particular, wanting specimens that are as complete as possible and that have good information. For fossils, you want to know geologic age and formation, and where it came from.

I was so excited to find Sketchfab where I could post models for any fossil fan to see. I can put the relevant information about a fossil in the description, and use the editing tools to present the most interesting side of a specimen.

I wanted to digitize more specimens so I had to find more fossils. Graciously, I was allowed access to a collection of fossils stored at the USGS facility in Denver, CO (USGS = United States Geological Survey). This includes collections assembled by folks who wrote the book on the geology of the Western Interior Seaway (WIS: a seaway that existed in the western interior of the United States during the Cretaceous Period, thus fossil remains of many kinds of aquatic beings may be found here). There are hundreds of wooden cabinets there containing specimens that were used to document hundreds of species!

Shellie Luallin at USGS Aug. 23, 2018

I’d been working on fossils at the USGS when I learned that they were actually in the purview of the Smithsonian Institution (SI). In the near future, the entire fossil collection will be moved from Colorado to be housed in a location where those at the Smithsonian can manage them. I entered into an agreement with SI that allows me to continue to digitize these fossils, but I know I’m in a race for time to get as many fossils done as possible before they’re packed up. Hopefully, though, the Smithsonian Institution will find my models of use as they are hard at work to digitize their collections (see 3d.si.edu).

Here is my Sketchfab collection of some of the models of the SI fossils:

One more aspect of my work in photogrammetry is to help with research. At DMNS, I am working with a researcher and the museum’s photographer to create models of specimens that have yet to be published. I’m proud that my models are being used by scientists to learn and describe fossils. I’m hoping that the museum will continue to support 3D digitization work and build a cadre of photogrammetrists to capture some of the millions of fantastic specimens curated there.

So many models to make, so little time!!!


About the author

Shellie Luallin

Avocational paleontologist

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