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OHIO professors’ 3D visualizations of fossils highlighted in National Science Foundations’ ‘Bits and Bytes’ newsletter

3D visualizations cast new light on organisms, especially for students studying them


The work of two Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine professors was recently featured in the National Science Foundations’ “Bits and Bytes” newsletter.

The publication, which focuses on innovative computer science research, showcased Dr. Patrick O’Connor and Dr. Nancy Stevens’ research on how computer technologies can help bring extinct species to life and allow students to take a deeper look at living and extinct organisms’ anatomy and environment.

Technology in the professors’ labs, including digital mapping and micro CT imaging, have made it possible to see inside rocks and fossils and provide valuable new information about the organisms being studied.

The newsletter explains how Computed Tomography (CT) scans can rotate an x-ray tube around an object or person and take thousands of pictures that computer software can knit together to create a single 3D image.

Such technology allows the cross sections of the pictures to be manipulated through computer programs and provide students an opportunity to better study individual parts of the object. With these programs, students can better see how an organism may have evolved based on where it lived, how it fit into its habitat and more.

Thus far, O’Connor, Stevens and their students have focused their CT scanning efforts on fossils found in the Rukwa Rift Basin in Tanzania, an area that the professors have focused on excavating for nearly two decades. The group has made several discoveries in this region, including dinosaurs, mammals and crocodiles from 99 million years ago, as well as a plethora of mammals, reptiles and invertebrates from 25 million years ago – all organisms that students have been able to identify thanks to technology in the labs.

Various outreach activities for readers to create, manipulate and measure their own 3D images from scientific data pulled from the discovered fossils in the Rukwa Rift Basin are also displayed within the newsletter, including animations that explain how multiple CT cross sections can be combined to form a 3D image.