Paleontology Conference - SAFA 2016

IMG_5304 Hello!

This post is a small departure from my regular prosthetic-centric posts, but ties in to work I completed for the Biomedical Visualization program.  Earlier this month I had the opportunity to present my graduate research to a group of paleontologists at the 2016 Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) meeting in Toulouse, France.  Dr. Paul Sereno, from the University of Chicago, lead a session at the meeting that was exclusively related to all things Gobero - a massive grave site in Niger where he and his team discovered a burial complex with over 200 plots.  I had the opportunity to digitally excavate of one of these burial plots and create interactive 3D models and animations for three human skeletons recovered from a single grave (dubbed the "Triple Burial"). You can read a more detailed summary of the project in a previous post, Digital Paleontology.



The conference was divided up into different sessions that took place over several days, each session concerned with a specific topic, such as geoarchaeology, pottery, fossils, and so forth.  Most sessions had a common theme with examples from several different regions, excavation sites, etc.  The Gobero session was unique in the fact that every single presentation was specific to the region, dealing with the fossils, artifacts, climate, and geology of the Gobero region; a monument to the sheer volume of information and data recovered from the singular site.  Over the course of the day, 15 presentations were given by experts in the field and graduate students who also worked on the Gobero site, many of whom were part of the excavation teams that went to Niger.  Here is a National Geographic special following Dr. Sereno on a dig in Gobero.

Dr. Sereno gave several presentations on the history of the site, covering information about the two separate groups tho occupied the area (Kiffian and Tenerean populations).  The amount of detail and analysis done for the site was incredible, with presentations on the soils and sediments of the region, how the climate changed, and how the paleolake levels changed over time.  Other presentations included ceramics, fabric, and ornamentation recovered from the site, as well as extremely well preserved fishing points.  Another presentation was centered around the very effective means of excavation and transportation that Dr. Sereno's team utilized in order to pull entire specimens out of the ground in their original orientation.  This allowed the specimens and artifacts recovered from the site to be documented extensively as they were cleaned in a lab environment, rather than having to excavate the specimens on-site.

Tyler Keillor, a paleoartist who works with Dr. Sereno at UofC, and also a member of my graduate research committee, was responsible for creating a highly detailed and realistic replica plaque of the Triple Burial specimens.  The result is quite impressive as a physical display, and works hand-in-hand with the work I completed digitally.  Since Tyler was unable to attend, I presented the work he completed for the plaque side-by-side with my work to show the various ways in which the burial was preserved and replicated.  Here is a video of Tyler making the plaque, and here are some photos of the plaque and the digital renders:

Plaque - front

Plaque - back




As someone without a background in paleontology or archaeology, it was an incredible and humbling experience to be invited to share my contribution to the project in front of such a knowledgable group of specialists.  I felt as though I had somehow manipulated the system, being invited into a secret society that many people don't get to see.  Honestly, as someone with an art degree and an affinity for Indiana Jones films, this was one of the LEAST likely situations I ever expected to find myself in - and it was amazing!  Dr. Sereno is planning on putting together another paper and exhibit on the Gobero site, which will use the Triple Burial specimens as a focal point, so hopefully I'll get the opportunity to contribute more 3D models and animations to the project in the future!


The group of people I met in Toulouse were really great.  After living in Belgium for the past eight months, it was funny to meet with a group of people from Chicago, in another country, and all talk about the various aspects of this huge project that we all had in common.  This was a reunion of sorts for many of the people who worked with Gobero, since the most recent excavation of the site was several years ago and many of those involved had moved away from Chicago to work on new projects.  These types of professional meetings are cool for many reasons, but one reason in particular is the cameraderie.  Everyone has ties to a single subject, and these meetings allow everyone to come together to share what they know and reminisce.

Toulouse itself was a really beautiful city.  This was my first trip to the south of France, but it will definitely not be my last.  Aside from the huuuuuuuuuumidity, the weather was nice and hot.  There were open-air markets in the city squares, and tons of people were out taking advantage of the summer weather.  I was only there for a short period of time, so I didn't get to do a lot of exploration outside of the city center, but Carcassonne is only a short trip from Toulouse, which is reason enough to return. Anywho, here are a few pictures from the trip:


Silicone Valley

Sculpting has always been something that I enjoy doing, and I have made things in many a material over the years.  As an undergrad I spent much of my time learning the ins and outs of  woodworking, metal fabrication, welding, mold-making, lost wax casting, and many other sculpture-related skills. I even took the requisite "trash 101" (or its equivalent - every art school has one), where you reclaim junk materials and create something out of nothing. Graduate school was an opportunity to see the other side of the coin and learn digital sculpting techniques.  It was a lot of fun to learn new programs (ZBrush, 3Ds Max...) and see what was possible to do with them.  I had zero background in any sort of digital art before going into Biomedical Visualization, aside from the occasional foray into Photoshop to add watermarks to scans of my work.  But having a firm grasp on traditional sculpting really helped me pick up the digital workflow and hit the ground running.  3D modeling, along with photogrammetry and 3D printing, really blew the door wide open and made the whole experience come full circle.  Being able to go back and forth between digital and physical objects was really exciting, and taking those skills into prosthetics was,a no-brainer. Of all the materials I had worked with up to the point of graduate school, the one material that I had absolutely no prior experience working with - and possibly the most important - was silicone.  Luckily for me, about 90% of the work for facial prosthetics requires almost the exact same skill set as lost wax / bronze casting: sculpting in wax, texturing, making molds, and so forth.  So learning how to work with silicone and finding out what makes it tick was my main focus with anaplastology.  The silicone we use is a liquid 2-part base-catalyst mixture that you add pigment to and paint into a mold (ear, nose, orbital, etc.).  Everything is sculpted in wax, you make a mold (negative), remove the wax, then paint the silicone into the mold to replicate whatever missing anatomy you are working on.  Example:

However, prosthetic limb covers are made in an *entirely* different way... as I soon discovered.  The process requires all the same components, the same tools, the same materials, but in a completely different order and for different purposes. The silicone that I was finally beginning to feel comfortable with was miles away from the silicone used to make a realistic limb.  For silicone covers, you still use a 2-part compound, but it is extremely hard, no liquid at all, and it has to be mixed together with huge metal rollers, similar to a laundry wringer.  So you mix all of your pigment into your silicone with these giant, potentially finger-crushing rollers, until you have a nice, smooth, air-bubble-free sheet of silicone.  And the process goes thusly:  You take a cast of the prosthesis (which, in this example, is a vaguely leg-shaped prosthesis without toes), take your huge, flimsy, delicate sheet of silicone off the rollers and wrap it around the plaster, seal all the seams, sculpt some toes, paint the entire leg, then wrap ANOTHER layer of silicone over that (avoiding air bubbles the whole time), and finally sculpting in the fine details and texture.

It was a very steep learning curve.

So the past several months have been a crash course in yet another new material and sculpting process, rife with trial and error.  I'm pleased to say that each new prosthesis looks better than the last one, and I come away with a ton of new ideas and techniques to implement in each new project.  Perhaps somewhat naively, I thought that after finishing graduate school, I would be wading through familiar waters as an anaplastologist, but it would appear as though I leapt from the frying pan into the fire.  But I love it.  Any opportunity to learn a new skill is welcome, and I have enjoyed it tremendously.  There is little that gives me as much pleasure as hoarding new skills - the stranger and more specific, the better.

On that note, here are some process photos for a hand I made.  Enjoy!




I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to go to Leipzig, Germany a few weeks ago for the OTWorld 2016 Convention, which is an international showcase for the latest in orthopedic technology, prosthetics, myoelectric/bionic limb tech, etc.  It was a dream come true.  Futuristic mechanical limbs and realistic silicone prosthetic covers as far as the eye could see, all being worn and displayed by amputee models! It was incredible.

The options available for amputees ranges from the purely aesthetic to the highly functional, with offerings from a lot of heavy-hitters in the world of orthopedics.  Touchbionics (Ossur), Bebionic (Steeper Group), Vincent, and Ottobock all had extremely nice, sleek myoelectric / bionic hand options, with models showing their functionality and various grip patterns.  The tech in these hands is improving exponentially, making them smaller and lighter weight, with more functions and faster response time.

I spend the majority of my time as an anaplastologist making realistic silicone covers for prosthetic limbs (also called a "cosmesis - cometic + prosthesis).  I work one-on-one with patients in order to accurately match the shape of their prosthesis to their own anatomy, as well as creating accurate textures and matching colors to their skin tones.  At the convention, there were several companies offering very detailed and well-made prosthetic covers, and this was awesome to see.  I spoke with a lot of technicians who work on these types of prostheses and I learned a lot of really great information and different techniques.  Each group makes their silicone covers in a slightly different way, so having the opportunity to speak with others in the field was an invaluable experience.  My personal favorites came from Dorset Orthopaedic (Ottobock), which is based out of the UK.  Not only are their sculpts very nice anatomically (thin ankles, realistic toes, prominent vasculature), but their colors are spot on.  The variation in color and freckle patterns was really impressive to see up close.


Aside from rubbing elbows with other people in the industry, I went with the company I work for to launch and promote a new prosthetic technology that we have been developing: the CLICK-ON modular arm prosthesis.  Over the past few months I have been working with a small team doing research and development for this new, patient-specific, customizable prosthesis.  With this system, the patient is fitted with a custom silicone liner for their stump and a socket with a carbon tube structure, which allows a prosthetic hand and "click-on" armatures (that mimic the shape of their arm anatomy) to be attached to the structure.  Here is a short demo video showing the various components being attached and swapped out:

The major perks of the CLICK-ON (aside from being a perfect match of the opposite arm, anatomically) are that each component is completely customizable and extremely easy to change out without needing tools.  The hand, the radial click-on, and the ulnar click-on can all be designed to the patient's specifications, and come in a variety of different colors and materials.  The hand is designed after a digitally scanned, mirrored, and printed copy of their opposite hand, then sculpted in silicone to mimic their other hand, either realistically or in a solid color of their choosing.  Each hand is also designed in a standard pinch position so that they are able to have basic functionality with their prosthesis. The click-ons can be a solid 3D printed material, silicone, leather, carbon fiber, etc.  Once the base model has been designed for the patient, they can acquire new components in different styles and colors, allowing them to quickly and easily switch between different combinations to suit the occasion.  Additionally, we are developing accessories that can be added in place of the hand using the same mechanism, such as a utensil holder and an attachment for bicycle handles.


It was a really spectacular experience - an amazing hub of innovation and spectacle!  And it was also very exciting and rewarding to see the CLICK-ON amongst the options available at such a prestigious convention.  Here are a few more pictures from the event (in no particular order):

Now to get back to the Uncanny Valley.  There are differing opinions about what type of prosthesis a patient should get, and obviously a lot of it depends on what the patient hopes to get our of their prosthesis.  The spectrum ranges from less functional and highly realistic (cosmesis), to highly functional and less realistic (myoelectric).  In general, the more functionality that a prosthesis has, the less realistic it has to be, due to the requirements and constraints of the mechanics of the hand.  Realistic silicone covers work on prostheses with minimal functionality because they have fewer moving parts, and there is less wear and tear on the silicone.  In order to make something that will work on a bionic hand and bend and flex correctly, you need to use a softer, less durable silicone, which will be prone to tearing, discoloration, and a whole host of concerns.  Nonetheless, there is still an ongoing converstation about how no one in the field has been able to make a really good, life-like silicone cover for a bionic hand.

But why would you want to?

At first, I thought to myself that the marriage of the two ends of the spectrum would be the ideal outcome - a hand with high functionality and a realistic silicone cover.  At face value, it makes perfect sense to try to regain functionality, but to disguise it, so as not to draw attention to the fact that the anatomy is missing.  But in this ever-progressing era in which we live (take that with a grain of salt), with  tattoos, piercings and body modifications, combined with the broad diversity of fashion choices that we encounter on a daily basis, having something different isn't necessarily a negative thing.  Having or wearing something different or unique has become increasingly common, while becoming less taboo.

So instead of trying to look like the T-1000, why not try to look like Iron Man?  Instead of covering your prosthetic arm to make it look more realistic, why not show it off?  Every person I have met who has a myoelectric hand has been very satisfied with the look, perhaps even wanting to take it one step further to make it look even more out of the ordinary.  Wear a copper-plated steampunk arm with moving gears and a rocket fist.  WE CAN BUILD IT.  The only limitation is your imagination. It can act as a symbol, a way for an amputee to take back what they have lost, to own it and to flaunt it.  I mean, c''s pretty cool, right?  A robotic hand? If nothing else, it's a sign of progress that shows what we are capable of as a technologically innovative society.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and as long as there are problems to solve, there will be someone out there to find an inventive solution.

Lastly, I have been compiling a list of medical art, illustration, and prosthetics -related websites, blogs, people, companies, and organizations that may be of interest to those who want to find out more about the field.  I created a Medical Art Resources page HERE  on this blog, and I will continue to add more resources as come across them.



Uncanny Valley

As an amputee looking for an arm prosthesis, you are limited to several options: You've got the standard silicone cover (stiff, lifeless silicone in a single color with minimal detail), the lifelike/realistic silicone cover (painted and sculpted to more accurately match your own anatomy), a few simple mechanical options (ie. the hook, or basic hands with simple grip), and the much more functional (and expensive) myoelectric/bionic options.  The last option is ideal for a person who wants to regain some functionality with their prosthesis, as they allow the wearer to to switch between several different grip patterns and hand positions for grabbing, pointing, pinching, and so forth.  Myolectric hands use sensors placed on muscles higher up in their arm to control the hand, allowing them to regain some (limited) manual dexterity from their new hand. The technology they are developing for bionic hands is reeeeeeeally cool and it has come a long way in the last few years.  We are starting to see the stuff of science fiction films become reality - Terminator and Iron Man and the like.  It's pretty gnarly. And as 3D printing and other tech continues to grow and become more streamlined, accessible, and affordable, the possibilities for prosthetics will continue to grow exponentially.  One of the biggest limiting factors in implementing myoelectric technology in prosthetics is the size and weight of the materials and mechanisms.  Companies like Bebionic, TouchBionics, and Ottobock are whittling down the weight and size to make myoelectric arms more user-friendly, and a MUCH more realistic option.


There is a certain amount of taboo associated with the loss of a limb or having some type of facial difference, which requires a prosthesis as either an aesthetic or functional solution.  This is especially true with facial prostheses, as people can immediately tell when something seems off or not-quite-right about a person's face.  This becomes even more glaringly obvious when a person is wearing a prosthesis that is poorly made.  Instead of covering up the area in question, an ill-fitting or poorly color-matched prosthesis draws attention to the fact that the wearer is missing a part of their anatomy.  This is the slippery slope of the Uncanny Valley.

Here's a quote and a nifty graph to explain:

[Masahiro] Mori's original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some observers' emotional response to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes that of strong revulsion. However, as the robot's appearance continues to become less distinguishable from that of a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.[9]

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a "barely human" and "fully human" entity is called the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot will seem overly "strange" to some human beings, will produce a feeling of uncanniness, and will thus fail to evoke the empathic response required for productive human-robot interaction.


Robots aside, this is a HUGE deal in prosthetics.  Many considerations need to be made when creating a prosthesis for a patient, and the skill of the prosthetist/anaplastologist needs to be exceptional. However, where facial prostheses need to be more realistic in order to avoid the Uncanny Valley, it's less of a concern with arm and leg prostheses.  In a way, we have the science fiction genre to thank for this because we, as a society, have been exposed to the futuristic idea of robotic, biomechanical, cybernetic organism (living tissue over metal endoskeleton) -type limbs for decades.  And because of this, we are primed for an evolution that can and will, ultimately, break the taboos surrounding artificial limbs.

The old-hat thought process that anything different is strange changes dramatically once a group of people takes ownership of these changes and embraces them.  Looking to amputees as an example, wearing an exceptionally strange or aesthetically interesting limb prosthesis changes the dialog surrounding what is "different" and "strange" entirely, and this only increases as prostheses become more functional.

Because of the era in which we live, having something new and interesting and innovative is cool, which gets people talking about it more, thus, changing what is deemed "normal" by social standards.  This is incredibly important because it means that the options for an amputee are only limited by the available technology.  And with the advent of 3D printing, the options for design are truly limitless.  Almost anything you can imagine can be created digitally and made into a physical object.  If you want a steampunk arm prosthesis with moving gears and a solar-powered USB port, you can have it!  And it's a wonderful conversation piece, which perpetuates the cycle of acceptance. And as long as there are individuals who are willing to flaunt the technology, and people eager to develop it, this idea will continue to grow and become more mainstream.

Luckily, there are some really innovative and interesting companies and people who are doing just this.  One group that comes to mind immediately is The Alternative Limb Project, which I have been following closely for the past few  years due to the INSANE quality of work that the founder, Sophie de Oliveira Barata, has been creating.  Her work is aesthetically very interesting, and great for patients who are interested in changing how the loss of a limb is viewed in society by engaging the public. Two projects in particular that AltLimbPro has been involved with have had really interesting results:



These are both great examples of how people are taking ownership of their amputation in order to make something good and positive (and visually bad-ass!) out of it.  Since becoming involved in the prosthetics industry I have also been trying to get more involved with the people who are trying out new and experimental prosthetic technologies. Social media is an amazing tool, and I've had the opportunity to speak with a few people who are heavily invested, including James Young and Angel Giuffria (both of  whom are in the 2nd video). Following and interacting with them on Twitter has been really great because it has introduced me to even more people, groups, fabricators, technicians, and prosthetists who are like-minded, looking for innovative answers to these questions.

...Which leads me to my personal experience on the matter.  Over the last few months I've had the opportunity to work with a small group of people on a development team to create a new, customizable arm prosthesis system.  It's been a really interesting project to work on, mostly because of the sheer number of possibilities that become available to the patient with the system.  We use 3D scanning and printing, combined  with traditional silicone work to create customizable prostheses that are patient-specific.  I recently had  the opportunity to attend the OTWorld 2016 orthopedic convention in Leipzig, Germany, for the debut of the new  prosthesis, as well as to peruse the massive amount of prosthetic tech that was on display.  It  was incredibly impressive and a great way to become more familiar with what is commercially available to patients, as well as new technologies that are being developed.

But this post is getting a bit long, so I'm gonna make it a two-parter.  I'll put together another post very soon detailing the new product launch and OTWorld 2016, as well as childish photos i took of amusing German signs (hyuk hyuk hyuk).

Until next time!


Limb Fabricator





Feverish schooling and a trans-Atlantic voyage has led me here, to this place. BELGIUM. I am currently living a surreal existance in a far off land, in a bizarre dreamscape of what only the half-mad could dream to call a "career".

I make limbs.

Yes, after decades of being fascinated by horror movie props, severed objects that polite society has referred to as "gory" and "gross", I have found myself on the other side of the fence, making life-like prosthetic apparatus which dance the fine edge of the Uncanny Valley... Oh, frabjous day!

My typical day goes as follows:  Wake up.  Coffee.  MAKE SOME AWESOME GODDAMN BODY PARTS. Coffee.  Play with dogs and the miss in the the Belgian countryside.  Repeat. Life is good.

The V!GO Group (not to be confused with Vigo, the Scourge of Carpathia, the Sorrow of Moldavia), is primarily an orthopedic company, which makes braces, mobility devices, prosthetics, and so forth.  I work for a smaller branch of the company which specifically makes facial prostheses and aesthetic silicone covers for prosthetic limbs.  They make the guts, we make 'em purdy.  When I was hired, I was basically put in charge of all things legs and feet, something I had never done before.  While in the BVIS program in Chicago, I primarily worked on eyes, noses, and ears, which I felt very comfortable with.  Arm and leg covers are a whole different ball of wax (no pun intended).  Making silicone covers for limbs is completely different from what I had learned, and proved to be a rather daunting, intimidating task.


Now that I've been at the new job for several months, things have definitely gotten easier and I feel like I'm finally starting to find my niche.  I have learned a TON of new information regarding prostheses and orthotics, more than I could have ever hoped to learn with facial prosthetics alone.  The world of orthopedics is massive, and there are a lot of really interesting things going on in it.  New bionic and myoelectric technologies, engineering, 3D scanning and printing - it's insane.  Luckily, I fell in with a group that was willing to test my mettle with something that was not really in my wheelhouse.

Making silicone covers for a prosthetic limb, as with facial prostheses, is basically artistic sculpting, but in a completely new and different way from what I was used to.  I've sculpted in wood, plaster, and wax, and I've welded metal armatures and whatnot, I've carved and laminated, and I've made molds and castings.  But this was a process unlike anything I had ever done before.  Dealing with massive sheets of silicone, covering cast models of legs, sculpting toes and veins and arteries - that's difficult enough.  But this requires extremely realistic painting ON TOP of that, followed by more silicone and meticulous patterning and fine detail work in order to make (what will eventually just be vulcanized rubber) look like human flesh.  All the pores, wrinkles, creases, pimples, moles, blemishes, ruptured vessels, scars, scabs, excema... And each one of these skin types and conditions requires some ingenious texturing tool to be created out of strange and mundane household items.  I've MacGyver'd more toothbrushes and bits of string into glorious texturing tools than I could ever hope to list.

I really love the work.  Getting the opportunity to spend the majority of my day sculpting is phenomenal, and the bonus of learning completely new information, new materials, and new techniques is like getting an additional education.  And above all else, I'm gettin to do something that legitimately impacts people who have suffered through a physically and psychologically traumatic event, which is an incredibly rewarding experience.

And, ya know, I get to wear a lab coat with my name on it.

Part III: The Arrival

  backyard + dogs

The details of our eventual arrival in Belgium are far too numerous and tedious to mention, so I'll keep it brief.  "Jet lag-fueled international house-hunting extravaganza" is a good start.  Add some slap-stick language miscommunications, a necessity for extremely important legal documents to be filled out in Flemish (often times with an AZERTY keyboard, to boot), and having to learn an entirely new set of traffic laws, and that's a pretty rough summary.  Level of difficulty: Ice Sculpting on the Surface of the Sun. But, luckily, we were able to find an awesome house (our backyard literally dissolves into a forest and Belgian country side), and after two months we were finally reunited with our dogs (due to the tireless efforts of my mother - thanks ma!).   The erratic spinning of the world, though far from resuming its normal trajectory, slowly began to even out.

(Things were faaaaaaaar from coming into focus at this point, but, for the sake of speeding things along...I'll speed things along!)

In addition to the endless visa application steps, the house search, outfitting said house with essential trinkets and the lot, there was still the matter of the new job to tackle, which was the whole reason for this crazy, whirlwind adventure.  Luckily the transition went very smoothly, aided in part by the great team of colleagues that I have had the pleasure of working with.

The job is awesome, and I've learned a helluvalot in a relatively short period of time.  The prosthetic work I had done in my graduate program was primarily focused on facial prostheses, but working here has allowed me to get learn  upper and lower limb prosthetic covers as well, which is amazing.  The process is completely different from facial prostheses, but man, is it coooooooool!

Anyway, that's the story up until arriving in Belgium, in a nutshell.  Now that I've gotten all caught up on the details leading up to now, the REAL fun begins: flooding the internets with really cool pictures of disembodied limbs!  More to come soon.



The journey from Chicago, IL and Albuquerque, NM is a gruesome 2-day trek.  No offense to those who reside between points A and B, but driving through Flatlandia leaves much to be desired.  To be fair, having to lug all of your worldly possessions across the United States in two days isn't the most ideal way to explore and enjoy your surroundings.  St. Louis was very nice.  Modern day tarp technology doesn't seem to have evolved in several decades, and after an hour on the road, regardless of the number of straps and whatever tuck-job you cleverly implement, you still end up conspicuously displaying the tattered flag of your displacement from whatever vehicle you happen to be driving.

 "The farther we go today, the less we'll have to drive tomorrow." - Everyone.

Plagued by leg cramps and exhaustion, you drive as far as you possibly can the first day. But, of course, you woke up late the first day, had issues acquiring your rental vehicle, you realize you did a not-so-great job calculating how much space you would need to pack, you find a mystery pantry full of stuff you forgot about entirely, the person who contacted you on Craigslist about picking up your crap at 7am was a no show, etc., etc. So the first day you drive until your eyes burn and you start to hear voices, then you succumb to your soft, weak body's overwhelming desire to sleep and you find the closest (cheapest) hotel you can.  But, since everything you own is in the back of a pick-up truck, concealed and protected by only a few tie-downs and half a tarp, you sleep with the curtain open with a clear view of your belongings.  Outside, the constant buzzing of the neon lights and whatever mechanical racket being produced by the turbine-technology that is, somehow, powering the hotel keeps you in a half-awake daze, covered in sweat, peering through the blinds every 23 minutes like a cop on a stakeout.

On the second day, late in the afternoon, you find yourself staring out your windshield and it suddently dawns on you that you are NOW in the Southwest.  The familiar terrain sends waves of strange comfort throughout your body as the vastness of the horizon stretches out into infinity.  Bands of pink and orange in the sky beckon you into the suddenly mountainous pass that lies ahead.  You pick up speed, as it slowly begins to rain in the final hour of your journey, lightly seeping into your exposed boxes of books, as the remaining third of the tarp whips against the cab of the truck, wearing away paint and your chances of getting back your deposit.

To say that it was a comfort to be greeted by close friends and family would be a dramatic understatement.  After being away from home for 2 years, the familiarity of the people, old haunts, and weather was overwhelming.  Whenever I think about summertime in Albuquerque, the memory is always very vivid: sitting outside on a sun-drenched patio with close friends,  a warm breeze surrounding you as you drink ice-cold beer and eat mountains of nachos. Those sun-drenched, halcyon days of youth, totally free from worry.

The next several weeks were a glorious montage of enchiladas, glorious weather, and conversations both deep and ridiculous around the fire. Being reunited after long periods apart, you talk about everything and nothing with such depth and breadth that it can never be repeated with any sort of specificity, yet it's somehow still extremely meaningful. Conversations move fluidly between serious world issues and cheesy Hollywood time travel plots, with equal vehemence and eloquence.

The comfort and familiarity of the desert was a much needed and appreciated pause in the midst of everything else that was going on.  However, all the preparation and paperwork and bureaucratic crap that would still need to be taken care of in order to get to our final destination still lay ahead, and would prove to be an absolute living hell...

See you in Purgatory.


Salutations. I apologize for my prolonged hiaitus, but will try to amend this error with a series of posts to catch you all up!

I'm constantly reminded that any and every tremendously difficult hurdle that you strive to overcome only amounts to another rung on an endless ladder.  You build toward some lofty goal that resides off somewhere in the unknowable future, only to arrive at its conclusion suddenly, almost without warning.  And just as soon as it arrives, you are on the other side of it.  The all-consuming goal slowly begins to fade into memory, and a new one looms ahead of you in the distance.  Graduate school occupied so much of my time and energy for so long, and now, just like that, it's over and done.   It's strange to think of that huge, stressful, life-changing two years as "in the past"...but now it is, and the time span from then to now just keeps getting bigger each day.

And now I'm here, on the other side of ANOTHER hurdle.

Over the summer I was offered, and accepted, a job as an anaplastologist in Belgium.  This opportunity was an absolute dream come true - a serious career path in an exciting field, straight out of grad school... and relevant to my degree!.  The whole thing came out of nowhere and left me in a fair amount of shock.  I couldn't believe it was an actual reality, and to this day I still catch myself staring into space, wondering if it's all real.

The last 6 months have been a fever dream.  in 2013, I moved out of my hometown to much bigger city for graduate school, and THAT was difficult.  Packing everything I owned into a moving truck and driving across the country to start a new life, leaving friends and family and a steady job behind to become a student again - that was a very difficult situation. Very exciting and full of opportunity, but very difficult.  However, I could never have anticipated how difficult it would be to move overseas.

When you only have a couple of suitcases, your priorities shift dramatically.  Did you keep it on a shelf in your last house?  Probably not coming with you.  As a typical American Hoarder, one acquires lots and lots of things over the course of a lifetime.  You buy miscellaneous crap because you need it one time, for one project, and then you stash it away, knowing that if you ever need it again, it'll be there.  This is NOT conducive to a life that requires you to travel great distances.  Action figures, muffin pans, welding equipment, amusing wall-hangings - these are not things that make the final cut, no matter how much garage sale rummaging or haggling you might have done all those years ago just to get that rug that "really tied the room together". No, you abandon the rug.  You don't need the rug because you have no floor, no furniture to tie together.  You will need to find a NEW rug in a new house in a quaint little European town, filled with IKEA furniture (cuz damn, is it cheap!).  Outfitting a new house from scratch is a huge hassle.

But the purge is quite liberating.  The moment in Fight Club where the camera pans through the Narrator's house to see all the catalog-bought items he acquired to make his hollow life more perfect... In the end, you just throw it all out.  It just doesn't make the cut.  Leaving Chicago for Albuquerque (for a long visit with friends and family before the big move), I found myself leaving boxes of appliances out in the alley of my apartment for the neighborhood to pick through.  That rug? 5 bux to a haggling mother. Easel, bass guitar, big screen TV?  All irrelevant when you are packing your original moving truck sized load into a slightly-more-managable pick-up truck, half of which will be taken up by 2 dogs.  Yes, the cross-country journey home to my parent's garage only allowed the most essential items to be hauled back for storage, much to my mother's dismay (sorry mom).

But the downsizing of personal belongings was only one step in a gruesome, time-sensitive process.  Leaving the comfort of your home for parts unknown requires lots of loose ends to be tied up.  Ending a lease, selling your crap, closing accounts, quitting jobs, not to mention all of the paperwork necessary to move overseas.  The minutiae...God, the minutiae!  It's enough to bring a man to the very edge, to dangle his feet over the precipice of what he is willing and capable of doing, before ultimately deciding whether or not the plunge into the abyss may be a better use of his time.

In the end, I'm happy to say that I did not plunge into that abyss, but rather packed up my remaining doodads, hit the road, and headed home for a long overdue visit the people who mean the most to me.  And, of course, to gorge myself on as much delicious New Mexican food as possible.  Withdrawals are a helluvah thing.

To Be Continued.


The End of An Era

IMG_3573 BOOM - Graduate School is done.

Hello, dear readers.

The end of my graduate experience finally arrived on May 7th, 2015.  Like so many landmark dates in my time on Earth, the build-up to that moment was epic and unfathomable.  The biggest hurdle, the thing that hauntingly loomed ahead of me for the past year, was the defense of my Graduate Research Project ("Non-Invasive Digital Excavation and Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of Human Paleontological Remains"), which came and went so quickly that I scarcely remember it.  White noise and a "Missing Reel" image are my only memories of the event itself.  But all is said and done now, and the fallout has finally settled...

Since graduation, my time has been filled with the rigors, trials, and tribulations associated with that age old question: "What's next?"  In the time immediately after graduation, I have been lucky enough to become involved in a project at the National Museum of Health + Medicine Chicago teaching students how to code, of all things!  The last three months have been CRAMMED with HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jquery, mobile app development, and website creation.  It has been a thrill to stride through this previously unexplored territory, to say the least.  And, at the same time, looking for a more permanent job (dare I say career?), a new place to live, and trying to keep my level of sanity in check.  The comedown from the past two years of back-to-back projects still results in sudden bursts of panic, thinking that I've missed a due date for this or that, but that is, thank ODIN, starting to subside. Yet still lingering in the front of my mind is that same question of what the unknowable future will hold.

Since March I have been diligently applying for any and all job opportunities that looked like they might be fun and relevant to my newly acquired degree.  However, the hellish landscape of the Job Hunt always comes with fever dreams and soul-crushing emptiness, regardless of your skill set or the opportunity you are pursuing.  I couldn't count the number of times I reached out to companies of interest to introduce myself if you held a ray gun to my temple!  On numerous occasions I applied for completely outlandish positions, just to see if anyone would bite.  I interviewed with nut jobs and con men alike; parties who had no idea what Biomedical Visualization was and others who knew, but wanted to harvest my hard-earned skills on the cheap. HELL NO, I say!  Gone are the days where I will take a pay cut because someone has a "really good opportunity" for someone with my skill set.  If a good opportunity that requires your skills presents itself, you should be compensated accordingly, by God!

Just when things were looking especially grim, one of those previously mentioned "outlandish positions" did, in fact, bite.  If I could go back in time and tell my five-to-ten-year-younger self "DUDE, keep your head up!  Cuz in a few years you'll be making PROSTHETICS in EUROPE!" ...I'm pretty sure my head would have caved in, right then and there. or a rift in time would have likely opened up on the spot as soon as future/present me opened my mouth to tell past me about the future (a big no no).

But here I am, about to embark on an insane journey to a foreign land to make people new faces for money.  What a strange world to live in.

Also, effective immediately, the focus of this blog will shift from chronicling my experiences as a graduate student in Biomedical Visualization, to chronicling my experiences as an ANAPLASTOLOGIST in EUROPE!! Whoooooooooaoaaaaaaaaa!!!!

Plus à venir!

Digital Paleontology

Dig, Lazarus, dig! For the past year I have had the incredible opportunity to work with Paleontologist Dr. Paul Sereno and paleoartist Tyler Keillor at the University of Chicago for my research project.  I have been tasked with taking CT scan data of a very old grave and creating 3D models of the human remains in the plot.  Using equal parts sorcery and technology, I have work diligently on this project day in an day out over the past year, and it is now nearing completion!  Here are some of the finer details, in a nutshell:


The grave I have been digitally excavating was found in Niger, West Africa and is part of the much larger Gobero burial complex, which contains approximately 200 separate graves.  The specimens in the graves occupied the area roughly 10,000 years ago when the Sahara was a (comparatively) lush and wet landscape.  There were two distinct groups of people who lived in the area with a 1000 year gap between them, due to climatic change making the area arid and uninhabitable.  The burial plot I have been working with comes from the later population and contains three bodies (dubbed the "Triple Burial"): an adult female and two children.  The bodies were buried facing one another and holding hands, along with an assortment of artifacts (points, scrapers).

Delicious slices of CT data


The specimens were physically separated into smaller parts and sent through a CT scanner, each resulting set of CT data containing upwards of 3000 images.  I took that data and imported it into a software program that compiles the images and interprets them as three-dimensional volumes.  The specimens are extremely fragile and were only partially excavated on-site in order to preserve the structural integrity of the bones. Once the CT data was scanned and compiled, what I was left with was a big hunk of rock and dirt with bones sticking out in every direction.  Thus began the arduous process of digitally removing all the extraneous (non-bone) material, layer by layer. This was a grueling process and required countless hours in front of a computer, manually masking areas and removing data.

Picking the bones clean

After all the models were *just right* I took them into a ZBrush to smooth out the rough areas, then imported them into 3Ds Max to put the skeletons back together, piece by piece.  I converted each skeleton into an interactive model that can be viewed on a computer or touchscreen device - the latter being an incredibly awesome bonus feature. I was also able to take all of the edited CT data from each specimen and create a user-controlled animation that lets the viewer scroll through each individual slice of CT data to see the bones (without the rock!).

Cross-section of data

Whoa.  Breaking that whole process down into 2 paragraphs reeeeeeeeeally doesn't capture the true essence of the project.  The struggle.  The drama.  The revelation and discovery. The bleary eyes, callused fingers, and crooked spine... The unabridged final paper breaks down the process in 84 extremely detailed pages - "Non-Invasive Digital Excavation and Three-Dimensional Reconstruction of Human Paleontological Remains."

If you'd like to learn more about the Gobero site and the excavation, you can read an article HERE.  Also, Tyler Keillor was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal article: Did Dinosaurs Have Lips? Dinosaur and Paleontology enthusiasts should definitely read both!

In addition to feverishly finishing up the various aspects of my research project, I recently had the opportunity to present my research to a group of students and professionals in the field of Medical Illustration at Georgia Regents University, in Augusta, Georgia.  The O.A. Parkes Symposium and Student Conference was an amazing event.  Getting to meet with other students in the field and hear about their research was very exciting, and the presentations were incredible! Getting to hobnob with Medical Illustration VIPs ain't a bad way to spend a weekend.

I think I'm gonna like this line of work.

National Museum Intern of Mystery

  LSD - AP

The end is nigh.  My final semester of graduate school is upon me.  The past two years have culminated in this moment; the closely approaching convocation.  I will be draped in silken ceremonial garb and my head will be adorned with the mortarest of boards.  I will make my final stride with my hand outstretched, grasping for my hard-won prize...the scroll!  And then I will be cast ceremoniously into the world to make cool anatomical doodads and whatnots.

Life is good.

This semester I was fortunate enough to be chosen for an internship at the National Museum of Health + Medicine Chicago.  As part of my course work for my final semester I get to work on making awesome 3D models and assets for museum exhibits!  The primary project I'm working on right now is for an upcoming exhibit about Traumatic Brain Injury.  Two other graduate students from the Biomedical Visualization program are working on the exhibit as their final research project, as well as two recent BVIS grads who are affiliated with the museum, and a handful of interns from another program.  The final exhibit will have animations, interactive modules, 3D models of brain and head anatomy, and more.  I'll be working on a short animation that will show the way in which the brain moves within the skull during trauma, leading to TBI.

Thorax Cryosection - The Visible Human Project male dataset (courtesy of


I've been working with the Visible Human Project male dataset, which was an effort made by the National Library of Science in 1986 (more info HERE).  Essentially, a human male cadaver was frozen and sliced into 1mm cryosections and each slice was photographed in high detail.  This type of data can then be imported into a segmentation program and compiled into a 3D model.  This particular data set has since been segmented into skeletal, organ, and soft tissue models in isolation, each of which can be interacted with as it's own model (a kidney or the skull, for example).  I'm working in Materialise (R) Mimics to segment out the skull, cervical vertebrae, and brain in order to create an animation.  This is a nice extension of my research project, in which I've been using the same program (Mimics) to segment skeletal data from a burial site.

In addition to the internship, I am getting ready to begin the final stages of my research project (as mentioned above) and will try to make several exhaustive posts detailing the process.  I met with my committee this past week and finalized the plan for my research - now it's just a matter of organizing the pieces and putting it all together.  I've already finished the heavy lifting, which consisted of manually segmenting the skeletal data of three 10,000 year old human subjects.  The prospects look good and I'm excited to get the last stage of this year-and-a-half long project under way.

Stay tuned for more detail than you could ever want to know about digitally excavating the dead!


Greetings. When last I left you, I was tumbling head over heels through the broad and deep valley of 3Ds Max modeling, attempting to piece together a somewhat appealing composition for a still life.  Finally, after many long weeks in the sand-choked wastes of rendering, my throat sandpapery and eyes glazed over from hours of staring slack-jawed into computer monitors... I have scaled the crumbling walls of the aforementioned wasteland and have emerged on the other side!!  This has been my most in-depth and ambitious assignment so far in the BVIS program, and the time and effort have paid off.  I'm extremely pleased with the outcome! Come with me, on a journey through the various phases of this laborious project...

In my last post I was still putting together all of the various elements and objects that would be in the final scene of the still life, each of which pertaining to the memento mori theme: a skull, a pocketwatch, candles, etc.  Throughout the process, I took lots of in-progress screencaps and a few short weeks ago, this single shot blew my mind and I said to myself "YES.  It's really happening for me.  THIS is the future. I'm almost done!"  I was so wrong...


I also discussed the process of using photogrammetry to create a realistic skull model.  After implementing a little bit of computer-based magic, I was able to get a pretty good model in a *very* reasonable amount of time - the majority of which took place in ZBrush, where I optimized the model, textured it, and added paint:

Completed skull model in ZBrush


All of the other objects in the scene were created in 3Ds Max, with lots of lighting, material, and bitmap manipulation.  This is where the !real! !fun! (sarcasm) began - RENDERING FOR HOURS.  The first set of render passes was the whole scene together, with a beauty shot, lighting, shadow, zdepth, ambient occlusion, diffuse, specular, etc. etc.  After that was done, I rendered each individual object by itself, with the same previously listed passes for each.  finally, I rendered out each individual light in the scene to maximize my ability to tweak the settings in the scene.  Here's the final break down:

PHASE THE FIRST:  The Beauty Shot

This is the beauty pass from the final scene.  This is a single pass without any manipulation:


PHASE THE SECOND: Beauty Composite

This is the result of taking the previous beauty pass and compositing it using the lighting, shadow, ambient occlusion, diffuse, specular passes, etc.:

~10 passes

PHASE THE THIRD: Final Master Composite

This is where the majority of the fine details were adjusted.  Before getting into the final shot of the scene, here is a single object in the scene that was composited using roughly 10 different render passes, before and after for comparison:

Original --> Composite


This step was taken for each individual item, every light, and every shadow, before adding Z depth (for distance blur) and the candle flames to the scene.  So, without further ado, here is the final shot:



The result is leaps and bounds better than what I was hoping to achieve.  In previous attempts at rendering and compositing, I had only made adjustments to the beauty composition as a whole.  Rendering out individual elements and being able to adjust them ever so slightly - that's where the real CG sorcery happens.  This whole project was an exercise in learning how to create realistic materials and lighting, and I feel like I've improved quite a bit since my last few attempts.

I will never underestimate a lace tablecloth again.


still_life2 Hello, and Welcome!  To yet another glorious installment of Things That Occupy My Time - the Blog.

This semester I'm taking a catch-all independent study that explores three-dimensional modeling technologies and different ways of manipulate them.  My first experiment was to attempt to use photogrammetry, which allows you to take a series of pictures of an object from multiple angles, then convert those photos into a 3D object.  I had a little practice doing this over the summer, using the 3DMD system in our Anaplastology clinic, which we use to capture patient data for reference when sculpting prostheses.  3DMD, however, is an expensive setup which I have limited access to, so I sought out out a different method...

...Enter 123D Catch - a free iPhone/iPad app which is, essentially, photogrammetry for the average Joe.  Autodesk, the company that is responsible for Catch, 3Ds Max, and Mudbox, has created a suite of apps to be used for 3D printing.  I wanted to see just how accurate the program was, so I decided to go into our student lounge and take 30+ pictures of our ever-grinning plastic skeleton model.  The result was pretty impressive:

123D Catch skull tests

*I'd like to point out that I am aware of the fact that pictured above is a screenshot (2D) of an interactive model (3D) that was made using a series of photos (2D) of an actual object (3d)...*

Using the free app, I was able to log in to the Autodesk website, convert the 3D model into a file type that I could import into 3Ds Max, and voila - a completely manipulable three-dimensional skull in a matter of minutes.  The model wasn't perfect, but once I was able to get it into 3Ds Max, it was a simple matter of choosing the best half of the skull and mirroring it.  After importing it into ZBrush, smoothing out some of the rough spots, and remeshing it, the skull was pretty much ready to go.  I still need to go in and add some more texture and color, but that comes later.

ZBrush modifications


The skull was just a test to see what was possible using 123D Catch, and I decided to incorporate it into a larger project where I could mess around with different textures, materials, and lighting.  I've always been interested in memento mori, vanitas, and all those classical depictions of life and death conversing with one another.  "Quello che voi siete noi eravamo; Quello che noi siamo voi sarete..."  What you are, we once were; What we are now, you will become - a message from the dead.....Boooooooooooooooooooooo!!!  So I decided to try my hand at a CG still life which includes all the staples of a good convo between the living and the dead: a timepiece, a flickering candle, some old books, a skull, et cetera. Oh, the impermanence of life!!  Now comes the fun part of making the leather look like leather, the wax like wax, and the lace like lace.  And I'll try to add a dash of dystopian abandonment for good measure!  I'll post the final result as soon as it's done.  In the meantime, here's a li'l bit of the work in progress:





Body Parts Made To Order

  ...My birth cry will be the sound of every phone on this planet ringing in unison.


Ack!  It's been a while, dear readers.  But with this hectic summer drawing to a close, I am finally able to sit down and jot down some more anecdotes from my time as an aspiring Biomedical Visualizer.

Hands down, this summer semester, which only accounted for 8 weeks of this past year, was the most INTENSE semester I have ever faced.  I charged into it headlong, one arm shielding my face as I blindly fired overhead at seemingly invisible targets.  But I emerged triumphant!  Mildly scathed, bruised, and battered, but as vigilant as ever.  Here is my tale...

The remainder of the summer semester was spent constructing a multitude of faces, whole and in part, digitally and by hand.  Using the ocular prosthesis I constructed last semester, I made an orbital prosthesis to house said ocular.  A patient will generally get an orbital prosthesis after a trauma requires that not only the eyeball itself, but the muscles and tissues within the eye socket be completely removed.  This involved taking 3D scanned patient data, flipping it digitally, then milling the new data in hard wax.  Using that as a modeling base, I reconstructed a new orbital on a stone cast of a anonymized patient defect cast.  Using artistic liberties and ensuring that the anatomical landmarks were in place, I constructed the prosthesis in wax, made a mold, mixed different silicones to match various skin tones, packed the mold, and cast it.



Orbital + ocular


The real challenge came at the end where I was tasked with adding eyelashes.  This was no small task, requiring a needle, store-bought eyelashes, and  a *lot* of patience.  If I learned nothing else from this project, it's that getting good, realistic eyelashes is extremely important when making a prosthesis.  Placement is crucial, and if they are added in too uniform a manner, it is immediately noticeable.  I'm hoping to get a fair amount of practice this semester as I begin my clinical coursework (my first case being an orbital - huzzah!).

After a brief 4 week dash through orbital construction, I started working on my first nasal prosthesis.  I scanned my face using 3DMD, which captures 3D surface information as well as photographic information projected directly onto it.  I took the data into 3Ds Max and manipulated it (we had to make adjustments so that the proportions were slightly different), then milled the nose in wax.  The same basic steps followed in constructing the nose as with the orbital and auricular.  Each prosthesis comes with its own set of challenges, and with the nose the challenge lies in the fact that it sits directly in the middle of your face and draws immediate attention.  Since every nose is unique, it's actually better to make a nasal prosthesis slightly asymmetrical to give it some personal character.  Perfect symmetry is a red flag.  Getting the color gradation took a fair amount of time to get right, but the red coloring really helps make a natural skin tone.




My last assignment may prove to my most disturbing and horrifying own grinning mug!  Using the 3DMD to capture multiple expressions, I imported the data sets into ZBrush and knitted them together to make a grotesque abomination, an abhorrent doppelganger...


My final form...BEHOLD!


The original plan was to do a study of ears, noses, and eyes as a supplement for the work I'm doing in Anaplastology, using digital sculpting and painting techniques.  However, I thought it would be more interesting to make something..."dynamic," for lack of a better word.  The end result, as you can see, is equal parts Lawnmower Man and The Thing.  Aside from the mildly off-putting aesthetic qualities of the project, I really did get a lot of experience digitally sculpting the very things I was sculpting in wax and silicone.  I even got to add eyelashes and eyebrows digitally, to boot!

Now I just need to work on making those eyes a little less soulless...


Xenomorph Embryology

  The summer semester is upon us!  The last few weeks are a blur, but the BVIS program continues full steam ahead as I clutch the bow of this unstoppable ship with my tenacious and sweaty grip…

Half way through the semester and the first round of project deadlines are approaching.  I’m slowly but surely learning ZBrush, and I am thoroughly pleased with the results!  Our first assignment was to pick a non-human embryo and model it in any developmental stage of our choosing.  In keeping with my on-going theme of science fiction horror, I landed on the most beautiful, shiny, biomechanical specimen I could find:  The Chestburster.


Roughed out clay model


Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the developmental stages of the Xenomorph, I will elucidate on some of the finer details of this amazing creature.  Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting in the mess hall of your interstellar cargo vessel, minding your own business and gabbing with your buddies, making jokes (typical miner/minor punchlines, what-have-you…), enjoying some space grub.  All of a sudden, your chest seizes up.  You begin to choke.  Oh god – what…is happening..?  What could you ever have done to deserve such an excruciating pain?  You start to get fuzzy, your vision crosses.  You dramatically rip your shirt open an-rrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaAHHHHHRrrhahghghaaAAAAHHRRGGhgharhharhaghahha <CHESTBURSTER>


Looking for a nice, shiny material...


You shouldn’t have put your face so close to that strange egg you found in the derelict ship…

In the Alien movie franchise, the terrifying antagonist(s) go through a number of different phases, progressing through their awkward and angsty adolescence before blossoming into the slippery, multi-mouthed Xenomorph that we all know and love.  An Alien Queen lays a bunch of eggs, each of which are home to a Facehugger.  Once a host entity comes withing facehugging distance, they spring from their egg and latch onto whatever unfortunate human, dog, oxen, etc. happens to be close by.  The Facehugger deposits an embryo down their gullet which, after a quick gestation period, erupts from deep, warm, soft, pink innards of the host.  This Chestburster then scurries off to lay low until it rapidly matures into its final stage: The Xenomorph (of varying genetic varieties).


Final composite


Our assignment required that we crop and edit our model into an editorial piece of our choosing.  I decided to go full nerd and make it as Alien-y as possible.  I imagined this as a poster decorating the wall of a United Systems Military science and research institution studying the species, a la the USM Auriga (helmed by captain Dan Hedaya).  Emblazoned on the poster would be a friendly announcement from your friends at the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, who DEFINITELY have your best interests at heart.

Stay tuned for my next post coming soon, where I present my latest project: an Orbital Prosthesis.  Oh, joy!

The Anatomy of Horror: A Love Story

  Well, in the blink of an eye, my second semester as a graduate student has come to a close!  All things considered, I would say it was a resounding success.  I was able to pace myself a bit better this second time around and keep procrastination to a minimum.  To summarize the semester, here is what I presented in front of the BVIS Department (duplicated as faithfully as possible), which briefly summarizes some of the childhood interests that led me to become a student in Biomedical Visualization.  So, without further ado, I present to you...

The Anatomy of Horror: A Love Story. 

When I was growing up I had a lot of lofty ideas of possible career paths that I would choose as an adult, from a cowboy to an astronaut firefighter – and to be clear, that is an astronaut who fights fires in space, not two separate professions.  I have always been a huge fan of movies, and still am to this day.  And like many children growing up watching movies, a lot of what I found interesting came out of the movies that I watched.  My interest started with action movies, but quickly spread to science fiction and horror.  Lucky for me, I have great parents who thought that it was appropriate for an impressionable youth, such as myself, to have movie role models such as these:


Role Models


So, thank you mom and dad.

Now what I’m about to say may seem like a stretch, but watching horror movies eventually led to a profound appreciation of science and anatomy.  How is this possible, you might ask?  Well, I challenge anyone to watch any 5 zombie movies without coming away with a cursory knowledge of skeletal anatomy - It’s unavoidable.  As a child, any time I saw a zombie rip someone apart, I would pause the movie, grab an anatomy atlas, and advance through the scene shot by shot, fact-checking to see if they got the anatomy right.


A clear theme emerges


These types of movies were the “stepping stones” that ultimately evolved into a more scholarly and sophisticated interest in science and anatomy.  Other early nudges in this direction came from my high school anatomy class, where I got to see a polycystic kidney – one of the most disgusting and fascinating things I’ve ever seen – and later that same year when I saw the Body Worlds exhibit at LACMA.

But how, you might ask, does one shed a juvenile interest in slasher films in order to create prosthetic devices and informative visualizations used for patient education?  The answer is simple: You don’t!  And I hope that my work will prove just how important horror films have been in getting me to where I am today, and how they have informed many aspects of the work I have created during my time in the Biomedical Visualization Program.

My first semester in the BVIS program consisted almost entirely of two-dimensional forms of visualization.  This semester, however, has focused on three-dimensional art forms exclusively.  I took the 3D Trinity: Computer Visualization, Haptics and Augmented Reality, and Anaplastology.  Each course offered a new realm of possibilities for what could be created in 3D, and  resulted in learning very different and unique sets of skills.  Here are the last few projects I have finished since my last post.

For my final Computer Visualization project, I got to make a Polycystic Liver!


cysts cysts cysts


This was a fun one.  We used chryosection data from the Visible Human Male project (from the National Museum of Health and Medicine Chicago) and compiled the data into Mimics, a program that converts CT data and, in this case, consecutive JPEG "slices", and renders them into a 3D object.  We then imported that data into 3Ds Max and retopologized the model to smooth it out and make it more managable to work with.  The retopped model was then imported into MudBox where it was painted and sculpted. It was imported into Max AGAIN and lighting was added to bring out all the juicy, shiny cysts.  And, finally, the rendered Max files were composited in Photoshop to make the cysts, for lack of a better word, "pop."

For Haptics and Augmented Reality, I put together a small video compilation of some of the projects we completed.


For the first project, we had to recreate the solar system as an exercise to learn C++ and code hierarchy.  For the second project, we learned how to create haptic mesh objects and how to apply haptic effects to each one (slippery surface, sticky surface...).  For the third project, we had to create Jenga programmatically and be able to interact with it using the haptic device.  There are also 3 interactive buttons in the scene: reset, destroy, and easy.  The last project was still in progress when I put the video together, but we made a carnival shooting range game.  The haptic cursor is a gun and when you press the button a cork attached to a chain pops out and knocks over the glass bottles.  When I presented this last project in class, I was able to retrofit a plastic cap gun to fit over the haptic device, using a bit of string, a paperclip, and a li'l ingenuity (MacGyver style).  That way, when you pull the trigger of the plastic gun, it presses the button on the haptic device.  It actually made it a lot easier to aim, and it made it feel more realistic.

Last but not least, I finished my ocular for Anaplastology:


It knows your secrets


Once again, just like the auricular prosthesis I completed earlier in the semester, I got to get my hands dirty and use actual, tangible materials and tools ("instruments" if you're in a clinic)!  We started out by painting the lens and fitting it with a clear corneal button, then got it all lined up using a wax sclera "blank." Then we made a two part mold, cast the sclera in white acrylic, ground it down,  and added color and vasculature (strands of thread). Finally, a layer of clear acrylic was added, polished, and buffed to create the end result.

And there you have it.  A quick tour of the Spring semester.  Now to sit back, relax, and put in as many hours into video games as humanly possible before the summer semester starts... Stay tuned!

Ear. Fungus. Jenga.

  Hello faithful readers! The last few weeks have been busy, but very productive in the world of Biomedical Visualization. Here’s a breakdown:

First and foremost, the ear prosthesis that I’ve been working on for the past several weeks has been cast in silicone and the final touches have been added. Here are a few pictures of the process:


Intrinsic Coloring - Front


Intrinsic Coloring - Back


The whole process was really impressive and the end result blew me away. This was not only my first stab at working with silicone, but the first time working on a sculptural piece since entering the BVIS program. It was a lot of fun getting to work with materials with my bare hands and create something tangible. The process involved mixing several different colors of silicone using my own skin tone. I mixed different silicones to create colors for the base, shadow, helix, cartilage, and a red glaze. The base of each color was achieved by adding small amounts of pigment combined with, of all things, rayon flocking – miniscule fibers of varying color and tone. Who knew?

The red glaze was the first color to be painted into the 3-part mold (shown in my previous blog entry) to give the ear an overall semi-transparent color to simulate vasculature. To make this layer look even more realistic, small pieces of yarn were frayed and split into individual fibers and added, very sparingly, to mimic larger vessels. This first layer was cured, and then the helix color was added, the shadow was painted onto the highest parts of the mold, and the cartilage color was painted into some of the deeper areas. The whole process is “backwards” since you are making a positive silicone object from a negative mold. This made applying the shadow and cartilage layers a bit tricky.


Extrinsic Coloring  - Base


Extrinsic Coloring - Final


After those layers were cured, the base color was used to fill in the rest of the mold, the 3 parts were squeezed together with clamps, and the entire mold went into the kiln to cure. After the silicone set up, the mold was pulled apart, the excess silicone was trimmed flush, and the anterior margin was cut back in order to make a gentle, tapered edge that helps to blend into the face of the patient for a seamless look. Extrinsic coloring was added by mixing pigments with a medical grade silicone, which, oddly enough, resembles bathtub caulking. A few more minutes in the kiln and the process was complete! Weeks of hard work finally paid off with surprisingly realistic ear prosthesis. I couldn’t be happier with the result.

In the Haptics & Augmented Reality class, we just finished our fifth assignment in which we had to programmatically recreate everyone’s favorite block stacking game: Jenga! This is the first half of a two part assignment. Here we had to create Jenga blocks randomly and with varying widths and thicknesses with code alone, rather than importing objects. Once the blocks were generated in the scene, we had to create physical mesh objects in the scene that act as buttons that can be interacted with using the haptic device. Here’s a video:


The red sphere acts as a “RESET” button, which randomly regenerates the stack of blocks. The blue sphere acts as a “DESTROY” button by removing two of the blocks making up the base, causing the entire stack to fall. Finally, the green sphere is an “EASY” button and automatically removes half of the stack. There were a number of hang-ups with the project - mostly related to the specific nature in which objects had to be created and imported into the scene in order for them to be identified as physical objects and interact with one another - but would say that it was a success overall. The next project will require using virtual hinge joints in order to create a dynamic “tool” that can be used to grab the blocks and move them in order to accurately simulate the real game. This class has been a crazy head first dive into the very foreign world of coding for me, but I’ve learned a tremendous amount so far, regardless of the blank stare I often have when sitting in front of the lines upon lines of carrots, brackets, asterisks, and jargon on the screen.

I’m also happy to report that I have finally completed our first major project in the Computer Visualization class. The cordyceps militaris model that I have been diligently working on for the past several weeks has finally been rendered, composited, and adjusted!


cordyceps militaris


The view is from inside the hemocoel of a moth larva in the soil looking up through a rupture caused by the fruiting bodies of the cordyceps fungi. The fungi attaches itself to the cuticle of a larva and extends its hyphae (the thread-like material) into the body. The mold spores proliferate and cover the interior of the insect, slowly deteriorating its immune defenses until the level of toxicity kills it, or its organs fail. The body then acts as a breeding factory for the cordyceps, which continues to grow and proliferate, eventually sprouting a long, white stalk with a bright orange tip that can be seen above ground. I wanted to make the scene look as bleak and ominous as possible, and I think the combination of the camera position, coloring, and the depth/blur effect worked really well together to accomplish that.

3Ds Max is an awesome program and is becoming easier to use with each project. It is an *incredibly* powerful tool, as I’m coming to find out, and when used in tandem with MudBox, the possibilities are literally endless. We just had our first introduction to Mimics Software which can be used to take stacks of CT data and isolate objects of specific densities. Our next project involves using scan data from a human head and isolating the mandible, which can then be imported into Max for further manipulation and texture addition. With these three tools, an artist could take over the world! And I intend to do just that.

More insane rants about world domination to come.

Mutagen Ooze

3Ds Max + Photoshop composites Before Photoshop


With all the "medical advancements" that "doctors" have accomplished,  it's easy to forget modern day medicines creepy, sweaty cousin: the Mad Scientist.  Let me take you back to a simpler time. That horror movie world where all a maniacal, deranged doctor wanted to do was perform abhorrent experiments on people in an attempt to beat death.  And how, exactly, did he propose to accomplish this feat? Why, with a syringe full of fluorescent green liquid, of course!

I've been working on modeling a syringe in 3Ds Max, rendering the scene layers, and compositing them in Photoshop for our next assignment. I thought that Max was already an amazing tool by itself, but once you take the rendered images into PS, that's where the magic really happens. The differences between the two syringe pics aren't TERRIBLY drastic, but the compositing process lets you bring out specific shadows and highlights that you can't achieve in Max alone.  Being relatively unfamiliar with Photoshop before the BVIS program, gaining an understanding in what exactly you can do with it is pretty remarkable.  Using multiple programs to make a single, unified image is really amazing.  The small tweaks to the details make all the difference, and it's plain to see when flipping through the progression pictures.  

While the first syringe I made for the assignment was fun (I used it as the Haptic pointer in the videos of my last post), I wanted to do something more interesting than your average plastic syringe, and needed an excuse to work with glass and chrome texture materials.  I just watched the Re-Animator a few weeks ago, so BAM!  Old school horror movie syringe. It also gave me the opportunity to work with fluorescent materials.  Win win win.


Before Texture...

...After Texture


In Anaplastology this week we have been working with adding texture to our wax models.  I had no idea how we were going to tackle the problem of making skin-like textures.  The solution, however, was extremely impressive in its simplicity.  It required a toothbrush and a flame.  That's it!

The process involved roughing up the wax with the toothbrush and making divots and dimples all over the surface, then bringing a flame just close enough to it to flash melt the surface.  The miniscule chunks of wax that were dug out by the toothbrush would flatten down, and the pits would smooth out making this kind of texture all over the surface: ~~~~~~~.  The end result looked just like pores, and it took a matter of seconds.




With every type of casting, there comes a point where you have to destroy the precious, painstaking modeling you've been working tirelessly on in order to make a negative for the final product.  Making a prosthesis is no different.  In order to make the mold for the final silicone cast, we learned how to make a 3-part mold.  The "third" part is a wedge that sits under the back of the ear so that you can actually pull the silicone out of the mold.  Taking all of the undercuts into account is a bit of a process, but with the wedge and the soft silicone, it isn't too bad.


3 Part Mold


This week we will be putting the molds together and casting the silicone, and all this hard work will finally pay off! Next week we get to work on painting on color to make it look even more realistic.  More photos to come!

My, What Shiny Organs You Have


Well folks, I finally have enough time and photos for a fairly extensive post!  So without further ado, here’s what’s been going on:

I'm in the thick of learning the essentials of 3Ds  MAX, which is building at an alarming rate!  Shading, lighting, and modeling are all finally coalescing,  leading into our first big project.  For class this past week we had to storyboard a series of steps in a scientific process and pick a single still to illustrate and render in MAX. Being the zombie-lover that I am, I chose to work on a scene of Cordyceps Militaris attacking the guts of an insect.  Cordyceps is a nasty parasitic fungus that attacks ants, spiders, and other insects, takes over their minds, and mummifies them from the inside out.   In the video game The Last of Us (hands down one of the *best* games I’ve ever played) a ficticious Cordyceps variant evolves spreads to humans and brings on the apocalypse.   This is some truly terrifying stuff, ficticious version or real, and is going to be a lot of fun to work  with.  All those moldy textures and glistening organs...Anywho, I’ll be working on this project over the next few weeks and will post the result on here once it’s finalized.


Super Slick Stomach


In Anaplastology, we’ve been working in the lab, learning about the machinery, tools, materials, and techniques necessary to create an auricular prosthesis.  Working from a model, the goal is to duplicate the opposite (missing) ear on a plaster cast of an existing ear defect.  We started by mixing clay, wax, and Crayons to get the right consistency and a “fleshy” color.  The wax is then sculpted into the basic shape of an ear, carved, smoothed, and refined so that it matches its partner.  After getting the basic shape right, the wax model has to be tweaked and repositioned until the elevation of the ear is right from all angles, sized appropriately, and includes all of the anatomical features in the correct proportions.  Holding the two sides up to one another, the slightest difference becomes glaringly obvious, and drawing attention to a prosthesis defeats the purpose.  As of right now, the basic wax ear is complete and we will be adding texture next week, casting it in silicone, attaching mounting hardware, and finally coloring it.


Ear ma  gerd


I’ve always enjoyed working with wax and it feels good to work with something that I have a fair amount of experience with.  The BVIS program has consisted a lot of fumbling around in the dark up to this point, as far as learning unfamiliar skills.  Photoshop and MAX has definitely been a challenge, but more fun than I could have ever imagined.  The Anaplastology coursework is really great because, in spite of all the CNC machines and fancy gizmos, it is still very much grounded in traditional sculpting techniques.  The ear project has been an awesome exercise and soon we’ll get to start working on a glass eye.  Righteous!

Up to this point I have only been throwing around vague information about the Haptics and Augmented Reality class, which has mostly been due to not knowing quite how to explain it.  But Lo, and behold!  I took some video of the haptic device we are using IN ACTION, which will hopefully shed some light on what you can do with it. To set up the scene, our current project requires us to build four 3D models in C++, add them into a blank scene, and apply different parameters to each object so that they "feel" different from one another.  The user can then interact with the virtual objects with the haptic device and feel the differences between them.   Here are two videos:


If you watch both the screen and the haptic device, you can see how they interact with one another.  The parameters of the sphere are set so that it feels dense and has a slippery surface.  The haptic pointer slides off of the sphere with almost no resistance and follows the rounded contour of the object.  The cube has a bouncier surface and is somewhat squishy (more of a deflated kickball consistency).  As the device moves across the surface, it falls off the edges sharply.  By adjusting the attributes assigned to each object, you end up with a variety of different touch senses, which make an object feel sticky, slippery, soft, hard, etc.  These attributes can also be combined with one another to create even more complex surfaces.

If you feel a tickle in your ear, that’s just your liquefied brain oozing out.  Cuz your mind just got blown.  This technology is insane!!

Finally, my research project is gaining momentum.  I just chose my committee members and started fleshing out the final ideas for my topic.  For the project I will be working with a paleontologist to reconstruct the skeletal remains of several individuals who lived in sub-Saharan Africa approximately 7000 years ago.  Using CT scan data, I’ll be “virtually digging” the skeletal remains out of the ground, and using 3Ds MAX to reconstruct the missing pieces, put  them back together, and stand them up.  As far as projects go, I think I picked a winner!  This semester and over the summer I will be fine-tuning my modeling skills in preparation for the project.  After compiling all my data and presenting it to my committee in  the summer, the 3D modeling begins.  Huzzah!

To be continued.

Dramatic Teapot

  Practice safe tea parties...

Hello hello.

I apologize for my absence these past few weeks, but if ever there was an excuse to delay such an important blog post as this, here it is: I have been slaving over a hot PC, giving myself carpal tunnel syndrome and perfecting the S-curvature of my spine so that I can present to you...a teapot with sores.

You heard correctly.  The all-consuming world of 3Ds MAX has turned me into a hideous creature - avert your eyes!  What started out as a quick 3D fix was just the beginning.  Spheres? More like gateway shapes.  A torus, you say?  Hook it into my veins.  Don't even get me started on non-uniform rational b-splines... I... need... more...

So it all started out with this beauty:

The Kessel Run.  In under 12 parsecs.


My first real foray into the world of 3D modeling is more Twinsen's Odyssey than fine art, but it was a step in the right direction.  The first few classes in MAX were a bit clunky for me, but I've been steadily warming up to it since. Monday we started adding lighting, which was a total game-changer and got me really excited about working with the program more. Today we started working with materials.  I've barely scratched the surface, but this is definitely turning out to be something I can get behind. The culmination of my blood, sweat, and tears has become manifest in the form of the aforementioned diseased teapot.  Again, not fine art, but it gets my stamp of disgusted approval!



The rest of the semester, thus far, can be summarized (for the sake of a short post) as follows:

  • Making a mold of an ear, pouring a positive in stone/plaster, and replicating it in wax (mirrored)
  • Expertly dissecting a human face (I cannot express how much easier this task has proven to be now that I have a little experience under my belt!  Last semester was exhaustively thorough, thanks to the talented anatomists at UIC, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise.)
  • Learning how to poke at various objects virtually through the magic of C++
  • And a large part of the past two weeks has been spent trying to find a research project to work on next year and compiling a list of potential research advisors.  I think I've found a doozy of a project and should be getting some more info soon

Hopefully I'll have more info on my Research Project to share with y'all next time.