Illustrating Science

Dr. Robert Naczi is a renowned scientist in the Institute of Systematic Botany at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). The breadth of his research is rivaled only by its depth. Among his current projects: Fully revising and updating the 1991 Manual of Vascular Plants of the Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada, a reference manual that will include new tools for identifying more than 5,300 species of vascular plants growing spontaneously in 22 states and five Canadian provinces. Rachel Peverly ’20 spent ten weeks last summer assisting Dr. Naczi on the project. 

“The goal for my portion of the project was to create a proof of concept for the manual,” explains Rachel. “I worked on developing illustrations for the book, with a focus on Cyperaceae, particularly the Cyperus genus, which includes about 700 species of sedges worldwide.” 

The illustrations will serve as highly refined and updated visual identification tools in the manual. To create them, Rachel first needed to learn plant identification techniques and become familiar with plant morphology, or structures, particularly those critical to differentiating and identifying plant species. 

“The idea was to get a representative model of each species,” Rachel says, “which means knowing which characteristics to look for to get as close to the ideal as possible.”

Rachel spent many hours over several weeks examining hundreds of specimens in NYBG’s William and Lynda Steere Herbarium—home to 7.8 million plant specimens— in search of representative models. Of the hundreds of specimens Rachel sorted, perhaps 40, she says, fit the bill. 

Rachel worked with renowned botanical illustrator Bobbi Angell to generate and reproduce full specimen drawings; she also produced some images, herself. 

“We did that two different ways,” says Rachel. “I photographed the plant spikes of each species with a digital camera, which was very straightforward. I also learned how to take high-resolution photomicrographs with a dissection microscope using ‘stacking’ software, which essentially produces a very crisp, clear, three-dimensional image of the spike’s structure. Those fine details are really useful in identification, and something never seen before in an identification manual.”

Rachel scanned Angell’s drawings, then used Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator programs to prepare the final images to be integrated into the pages of the manual by labeling, sizing, and formatting them. All of the work was intensive and required tremendous attention to detail. For Rachel, it was a revelation. 

“I always knew I would study biology in college,” says Rachel. “It is such a broad field, so I was eager to learn about the different branches of science it had to offer. When I saw Taft had a partnership with The New York Botanical Garden, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to further explore something I had little exposure to. Still, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love with it the way I did. Now I’m really looking to go into plant sciences; that’s a pretty profound takeaway from this experience.”

Rachel's made possible by Donald B. Stott '56 New York Botanical Garden Internship and Sonia M. and John J. Batten III, 'P15 Internship Fund.