Photo by: Heather J. McClelland
An Assistant Professor at the LSU Health Sciences Center in New Orleans, Schachner studies the anatomy of the respiratory system of reptiles and birds, and how they have evolved over time. The TEDxLSU 2019 speaker is also an accomplished artist who uses various forms of art to communicate her research to both the scientific community and the public.
Her detailed scientific illustrations have been published in a number of scientific journals and major media outlets. Emma was previously part of a research team from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History that discovered and named a 66-million-year-old bird-like, 500-pound dinosaur species, Anzu wyliei, which the researchers nicknamed the “chicken from hell.”
In her addition to her research and artistic endeavors, the Pennsylvania native manages the online presence for Mila of Troy and Augustus (aka The Velvet Burritos), her celebrity rescue pit bull mixes, and advocates for changes in the public attitude about bully breeds while promoting science-based methods for training and enhancing canine welfare.
We recently chatted with Emma about her research, her art and her internet-famous dogs. Read some highlights of the conversation below.
How did you end up in your profession?
It was a rather unusual path. I have always loved dinosaurs and animals since I was a small child — but I have also many interests and found it difficult to choose. I was recruited to play Division 1 lacrosse at Bucknell University and originally planned to study animal behavior there. I ended up experimenting with the classics, history, and then landing in political science for a bit. Halfway through my senior year, through the assistance of a family friend, Bill Pinder, I started doing illustrations of fossils for a professor at Swarthmore College, Dr. Scott Gilbert, and his student, Tyler Lyson, who is now the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum, and a frequent collaborator of mine. Tyler started his own paleontological research foundation on his family’s cattle ranch out in North Dakota, so I was able to get into dinosaur field work, which was my sideways door into grad school, along with my art portfolio.
I did an MSc at the University of Bristol, which was like boot camp for paleontology. They throw you in the deep end and see if you can sink or swim. I loved it, and then came back to the US for my PhD. As I continued with my studies, I became more and more interested in the biology of modern animals, and how we can use reptiles and birds to better understand the biology of their extinct ancestors.
What is the most important aspect of your work and art?
All aspects of my research are important for the final product, but dissection, building the 3D models and then putting together the final figures is my absolute favorite. Dissection and modeling are both the best combination of art and exploration. Every time you build a model or open up an animal you are the first person to have ever seen that specimen.
Dissection is like reverse sculpting, and no animal is the same, even if the anatomy of that species has been well described. There is always enormous variation, even in humans, which often shocks my dental and allied health students when they first get into the gross anatomy lab.
Is it true that your parents send you dead things so you can investigate and dissect them?
It’s more that they tolerated my propensity to collect dead animals and dissect them in their kitchen since I was a very young child. Although they did mail me a beautiful mummified cat that I then had professionally mounted, and they helped me move my large (and growing) taxidermy collection around the country every time I took a new academic position.
How did you develop your artistic style?
I have no real formal training in art or scientific illustration. However, my mother, Judy Schachner, is an artist and New York Times best selling children’s book illustrator/author. So I grew up surrounded by art, and thankfully had an informal lifelong education in creativity. When it comes to learning scientific illustration I would practice by copying the images from the Ellenberger, Dittrich, and Baum Atlas and would constantly seek and receive basic advice on technique from my mom. Ultimately, my style improved a lot over the years via trial and error, and input from my research collaborators and mentors.
What’s the most interesting thing the team uncovered in your summer field work in North Dakota?
We found a mummified hadrosaur, a duck-billed dinosaur, with intact skin impressions. I’ve illustrated quite a few extinct Mesozoic turtle skulls from the Hell Creek Formation. But my favorite animal to work on that came from North Dakota was definitely Anzu wyliei — our “chicken from hell.” Anzu was a new species of gigantic oviraptor — a biped with a large crest on its head and a beak like a bird.
Tell us about your rescue dogs and how they became Instagram celebrities.
I currently have two rescued pit bull mixes, Mila of Troy and Augustus (whom I just rescued a few months ago). However, their Instagram account, @thevelvetburritos started with Murphy Bean (who died in 2016), a pit mix that I adopted when I lived in Salt Lake City. He was a ridiculous dog with silvery velveteen fur, deranged yellow dot eyes and severe behavioral issues.
When I moved to Baton Rouge for my second postdoc, I adopted Mila of Troy: the face that launched 1,000 treats. Unsurprisingly I had a lot of trouble with the two of them, and instead of presenting a perfect façade on social media, I shared all of my struggles, failures and successes with the world. Murphy was my silver-lining dog. He taught me how to be a much more successful dog parent, and because of him I was able to become a much better advocate for a really misunderstood and maligned breed.
Also, because I like to share science-based dog training tips and promote rescue, Mila and Murphy were featured twice by the Huffington Post as one of the top 10 pit bull Instagram accounts to follow. Just this past year, as I have been working to safely integrate Mila and Auggie, I have been writing about the efficacy of super slow and careful introductions, and I’m continuing to promote science-based training and bully advocacy. Thankfully Mila of Troy, aka the Phocid Queen, aka the Sausage-Shark, has accepted Augustus of the Velvet Legions into her home.
What do you do to relax and unplug from your work?
I’m not very good at relaxing, but I like to read as many books as humanly possible on ancient military history in my “free” time, whilst being crushed to death by Mila and Augustus in a velveteen dog pile. Right now I’m really focused on the First and Second Punic Wars (between Rome and Carthage), but I’m generally really interested in most of ancient and classical history.
Do you have any other hobbies?
I’ve trained Muay Thai on and off for about 10 years, and recently switched to boxing because it’s more accessible here in New Orleans. I also like to run, with my dogs of course, and lift. I also play a six-string electric violin. I played in a rock/blues band with my dad and sister growing up and all through college, but I haven’t really had the time to play it much since moving here. I also have an obsessive origami and paper crafting habit that can occasionally get a bit out of hand.
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