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'Finding Nemo' biology consultant to speak at Virginia Tech

May 3, 2017

Fish biomechanist Adam Summers with the jaw of a shark

summers shark jaw
Adam Summers is a professor at the Friday Harbor Laboratories at the University of Washington and an expert on fish biomechanics, knowledge that informed the animation in Pixar's "Finding Nemo" and "Finding Dory." He'll share his experiences in an upcoming public lecture.

If you thought that the fish, sharks, rays, and other aquatic creatures in “Finding Nemo” and “Finding Dory” were strikingly lifelike, you have biomechanist Adam Summers to thank.

For his expert advice on marine life, Pixar credits Summers at the end of both films as “The Fabulous Fish Guy.” And now, Virginia Tech and Blacksburg audiences will have the chance to hear about what it was like behind the scenes.

Summers will discuss his work at the intersection of science, art and entertainment on May 9 at 4 p.m. in the Quillen Family Auditorium in Goodwin Hall.

His lecture, “From Finding Pixar to Finding Patents: Natural history as inspiration for science and art,” is free and open to the public.

A professor of biology and aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington, Summers is based at the university’s Friday Harbor Laboratories.

His research investigates how the material properties of organisms like reptiles, amphibians, and bony and cartilaginous fishes influence an animal’s form and function.

“Adam Summers is a rare breed — someone who can bridge engineering, biology, and art,” said Jake Socha, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and mechanics in the College of Engineering. “He’s an outstanding scientist, and he also communicates beautifully, in a way that’s both clear and engaging.”

Summers was working on a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley, when Pixar Studios approached him for help creating realistic animations for “Finding Nemo.” He worked with the studio for several years, providing insight on how to accurately depict the movements of the film’s underwater characters and other aspects of marine biology.

Summers has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals on his research in vertebrate biomechanics. Before coming to the University of Washington, Summers was a professor at the University of California, Irvine, where he won multiple teaching awards, as well as the George Bartholomew Prize from the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. He served as a program director of integrative organismal systems at the National Science Foundation, where he was honored with the Director’s Award for Excellence.

Summers earned bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and engineering from Swarthmore College, but experience diving along the Great Barrier Reef drew him toward biology, in which he earned a master’s degree from New York University and a doctorate from the University of Massachusetts. Throughout his career, Summers’ early training as an engineer has influenced his research on the ways animals’ material properties and mechanical build affect their movement and behavior.

Summers’ work in science communication isn’t limited to Hollywood. He’s also written extensively in the popular press, and was a columnist at Natural History Magazine for many years. Most recently, he has produced a collection of photographs of cleared and stained fish, using scientists’ traditional techniques for revealing fishes’ detailed anatomy, and the interplay between bone and cartilage, to create strikingly colored images.

Summers’ lecture is sponsored by the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science and hosted by the Department of Biomedical Engineering and Mechanics