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The SMU Student Using Origami to Bring Dinosaurs to Life

Travis Nolan is the only person making show-quality origami dinosaurs in the university’s department of earth sciences.
| |Images Courtesy of Travis Nolan
Travis Nolan Origami dinosaur
Travis Nolan

The Walt Disney movie Dinosaur wasn’t well received when it premiered in 2000, but it did change Travis Nolan’s life. He was 3 years old when his father gave him a gray and red rubber hand puppet of the film’s villain, a Carnotaurus. His face filled with delight as the toy sparked an abiding interest in dinosaurs. When he was 8, he got involved with the Dallas Paleontological Society.

“You know, that’s how it is when you’re an obsessive little kid and you get into something and it’s all-consuming,” says Nolan, who is now a junior at SMU studying paleontology. 

He also happens to be the only person making show-quality origami dinosaurs in the university’s department of earth sciences. His mother helped foster that interest. When Nolan was 7, his mom gave him a copy of the book Zoogami, by Gay Merrill Gross. A beginner’s guide, it is filled with patterns for various animals, including a hippo, a giraffe, a Brachiosaurus, and a Tyrannosaurus. That book led him to Genuine Origami. The author, Jun Maekawa, is a mathematician and artist who, like Nolan, approaches his craft with the left side of his brain. Nolan’s figurines are intricate, the work of someone with a rare artistic skill and an intimate knowledge of his subject’s anatomy, gained through fieldwork.

“The deeper I dig into one, the more I dig deeper into the other,” Nolan says. “Over time, I’ve developed a deeper appreciation for the design challenges within origami and the scientific questions that paleontology presents.” 

It’s an unexpected spot in which Nolan finds himself. He didn’t have his sights set on SMU. Having grown up in Dallas, he wanted a change of scenery, a school someplace in the mountains. But life forced him to make some difficult choices, and now he’s glad it worked out like it did. Studying creatures that millions of years ago swam over the land he’s known all his life has helped him appreciate his hometown in new ways.  

This story originally ran in the September issue of D Magazine with the headline, “100Million-Year Fold.” Write to [email protected]