A quick glance at news headlines will reveal the underrepresentation, but gradually increasing prominence of women in the tech sector. After years spent as active members of the Sketchfab community, Sketchfab masters Mieke, Jasmin, and Abby decided it was about time to highlight the incredible work of women on Sketchfab!
Each instalment of the series will focus on one great artist, her background, what kinds of work she does, and the obstacles that she overcomes to make her work even better. The series will spotlight everyone from medical illustrators to lithic scanners to character modelers. Join us as we get to know the diverse Sketchfab community a little bit better.
It Started with a Shipwreck
I began my unconventional approach to 3D modeling with an introduction to photogrammetry in 2014. The scene was an underwater shipwreck in Dry Tortugas National Park, and I was watching as my mentor and dive buddy carefully photographed the wreck from each angle, making pass after pass to document the 70-foot ship. Shortly afterward I traveled to Hawai’i and discovered a new application for photogrammetry: creating models of live corals underwater.
I learned and implemented this technique as the Vice President of The Hydrous as we created 3D models from around the world to monitor coral reef health. By using photogrammetry we could bring corals to life for those who weren’t scuba divers or snorkelers, and the educational opportunities were endless. Creating 3D models of the same coral over time also allowed us to analyze how corals were reacting to environmental stressors like warming ocean temperatures.
In 2016 I was selected as a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines, and flew to Manila to pursue my dream research. I had proposed an ambitious research project: to 3D model endangered and vulnerable coral species in the Philippines. Unfortunately the list of threatened coral species is quite long; the Philippines is home to over 500 coral species, of which almost 200 are listed as endangered or vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Philippines is part of the Coral Triangle, an incredibly biodiverse marine area that includes the waters of Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands and Timor Leste.
Identifying Threatened Coral Species
I was very fortunate to work with an incredibly talented team of researchers in the Philippines, led by Dr. Wilfredo “Al” Licuanan of De La Salle University. Every few weeks I would go on an expedition to a different part of the country, searching for specific species to photograph underwater. Coral identification can be challenging given that there are so many coral species, not to mention the fact that you’re trying to distinguish tiny features underwater. Luckily I worked with researchers who had years of experience identifying threatened species, and together we whittled down my list.
The Last Record Of Extinct Species
The Philippines is home to 10 endangered coral species and 166 vulnerable coral species. As my grant experience progressed, I had difficulty finding many of the species on my list. I only found three of the ten endangered species, and only 55 of the vulnerable species. Nine months of travel and searching for these threatened coral species yielded less than half the species on my list. My mentor and Fulbright advisor, Dr. Al, remarked near the end of my grant that my 3D models may be the last record of some of these species- a disconcerting thought.
Besides not being able to find all the corals on my list, other challenges surfaced, including intense logistical planning and poor internet connectivity. Each research expedition required careful planning and budgeting around travel, diving, and transportation to and from Manila. My bags of scuba gear and camera equipment meant that I never traveled light! After each trip I returned to De La Salle University and began the arduous process of uploading images to my cloud-based photogrammetry software, then downloading the model, and finally re-uploading the edited model to Sketchfab- all while dealing with a spotty internet connection shared with thousands of students.
While I enjoyed the 3D modeling process for its own sake, it was important to me that the models be scientifically useful. With that in mind, I used Sketchfab to create a collection of Endangered and Vulnerable Corals of the Philippines, as well as a master collection to house the 165 models I created as a Fulbright Scholar. These models are being used by coral researchers in the Philippines as a tool to teach coral identification, and are available for local stakeholders to use to learn how to identify corals in their area. I also co-wrote a coral identification field guide with Dr. Al, with photos from my models, for use in areas of poor internet connectivity.
Coral Reef Alliance
It will be a year since I returned home from the Philippines in just a few short weeks. Today I work to protect coral reefs at the Coral Reef Alliance, and some of my 3D models are featured in the California Academy of Sciences’ newest planetarium show, Expedition Reef. I am constantly amazed at the advances in technology, and grateful for its impact on science and education.
Check out Yasmeen Smalley’s profile on Sketchfab!
Photo credit: Alexis Principe