Rachel Kippen, Our Ocean Backyard

Nicholas Ta is the founder of “Reef Renders,” a company focused on enhancing scientific communication in natural sciences through 3D arts, including 3D printing, creating immaculate and to-scale depictions of underwater organisms.

Growing up, Ta loved video games, toys, and animated and special-effects movies, and still does today. He’d visit museums and aquariums and seek out miniature models of animals from the gift shop. He enjoyed spending time outdoors — hiking, climbing, and dabbling in photography. Days inside were spent painting miniatures and watching movies — engaging his imagination in both realistic and surreal media depictions of nature. This untamed imagination fueled an interest in marine science.

For the past decade, Ta has explored Monterey Bay’s marine environment through scuba diving. In his heart, Ta knew there was room for the combination of his passions, but oftentimes he was advised against casting too wide a net.

“I love diving. The unlimited potential of what you could see underwater was enticing to me. I’d dive twice a day almost every day.” As a dive professional, Ta utilized his background in environmental science to lead educational dive tours. “I really enjoyed inspiring ocean education and accessibility. However, the pace I kept demanded a lot of time and energy, so much that I had no time for anything else. I sustained an injury and then everything came to a halt,” says Ta. “Imagine having the one thing you built your whole life around suddenly become inaccessible.” This forced time out-of-water was a pivotal turning point in Ta’s career. “It allowed me to reflect on how I could express myself and the energy I want to put into my community,” he says.

A participant at one of Reef Renders' workshops paints a nudibranch to take home. (Nicholas Ta/Contributed)
A participant at one of Reef Renders’ workshops paints a nudibranch to take home. (Nicholas Ta/Contributed)

Ta enrolled at Monterey Peninsula College where he began with an introductory class in dimensional arts. He progressed rapidly in 3D printing, clay and digital sculpting, scanners, and machine repairs. Ta now assists the 3D arts program by collaborating with other students, departments, and visiting companies on a variety of printing projects.

Ta, alongside MPC engineering students, worked with Monterey-based LED lighting company Light and Motion to prototype a new dive light handle. “We’ve been successful because of team efforts. We helped a geology professor explore a new way to teach topographical maps by 3D printing USGS maps. Most recently, we created a custom trophy for the Monterey County Culinary Challenge,” he says. Moving forward, Ta plans to work with the MPC Horticulture Club to see if 3D printed tools can increase accessibility in gardening.

What started as a full-time hobby is now a career pathway. One of Reef Renders’ series is 3D printing detailed and brilliantly painted nudibranchs, or sea slugs, found in the subtidal and intertidal environment. Three dioramas of nudibranchs and their underwater environment were featured in the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History during the “Art in Nature” exhibit. He also hosts public painting workshops where attendees can learn about nudibranchs and delve into miniature painting. “It’s like taking a piece of the ocean back home with you,” he says. Based on his career and life experiences, Ta found himself wanting people to easily relate to the ocean even when they could not dive or go tide pooling. “The ocean is for you to enjoy, it’s something you can access through many different facets. There are no language barriers when you pick up a 3D printed organism, and no boundaries if you’re exploring a digitally created ocean. You can touch and examine, it’s a tangible and multisensory experience.”

Reef Renders’ printed works are made using filaments made from starches such as corn and sugarcane, or infused with nuisance-algae or wood, and soy-resin mixtures. Ta takes great care to reuse materials and reduce waste. He is experimenting with a new filament called PHA (Polyhydroxyalkanoate) which is made of sugars from fermentation and is compostable on a home scale. Ta believes that 3D printing can increase global sustainability. “Instead of shipping a product, you can share digital files and then print something at home using your choice of raw filament. There’s no wasteful packaging and no shipping footprint. People can even create their own machine to reclaim specific recyclables and re-extrude them back into filament.”

Ta said he believes that 3D accessibility is larger than ever before. “We’re entering an era of ‘How can I make this?’ rather than ‘Where can I buy this?’” He continues, “It’s possible to create large prints in a small room at home. 3D printing companies are making technology more affordable, and different software is becoming accessible too. Innovation in this industry can be driven by anyone, especially when we all work together in these open communities. Public locations like libraries are hosting Maker-spaces for people to enjoy and experiment. Printing is starting to show up everywhere.”

A Reef Renders workspace that includes 3D printed organisms by Nicholas Ta, founder of Reef Renders. (Nicholas Ta/Contributed)
A Reef Renders workspace that includes 3D printed organisms by Nicholas Ta, founder of Reef Renders. (Nicholas Ta/Contributed)

Reef Renders took off in 2022, which Ta insists is due to the collaborative process and willingness of partners who want to explore 3D arts in scientific outreach. Professionals contribute specific knowledge which, in turn, is accurately conveyed through the art. Kalikonani Dailey, a marine scientist and research diver for Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, is a co-creator of Reef Renders’ nudibranch dioramas. “Her expertise on invertebrates and sea floor substrates was immensely helpful when arranging underwater dioramas,” says Ta. “It was one of the reasons the nudibranch dioramas were so successful. There was special attention to every detail that anyone could appreciate.” Ta recently completed a commission with colleague and mentor Cady DeLay with the National Marine Mammal Foundation to 3D print two halves of a large replica dolphin. The 3D dolphin exterior is part of an interaction piece used for education. “The dolphin started as a plaster cast mold made by Cady, and then I scanned it into a digital file to print. My favorite part about this is we now have a digital file that can be reused and modified for any future projects.”

Ta recently visited Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Deep Sea Exhibit. “It was so validating to see this particular exhibit. There are life-like replicas of animals, immersive mixed media dioramas, video game and animation-focused exhibits to engage the audience. It is a level of 3D art I aspire to achieve. There are so many opportunities for 3D arts to enhance scientific communication.” Readers can learn more about Ta’s models and upcoming events by following @reefrenders on Instagram and visiting www.reefrenders.com.

Rachel Kippen is an ocean educator and sustainability advocate in Santa Cruz County and can be reached at [email protected].

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