Friday, May 9, 2014

Art and Biology Work Well Together!

Well, my freshman-level Biology 111 course ("The Unity of Life") is now officially over at the University of Puget Sound, leaving only the final exam. Gulp. As usual for the class, there were high points and points that...well...could have gone better.  But isn't that true of most things in life?

As I plan out the cumulative final exam (double gulp!) and begin thinking about summer research with students, and my classes in the Fall (still far away, but the glittering battlements of those challenges are visible across the summer months before me), I like to reflect a bit about the semester past.

One thing that I particularly enjoyed this semester was working a bit with Katie McKissick, better known of as "Beatrice the Biologist."  Katie is a teacher/artist/science enthusiast, and we share a similar quirky sense of humor (I don't know that she would find that observation a compliment, by the way...sorry, Katie!).

Katie's artwork is awesome (and I don't often employ that unfortunately overused word), and you should check it out for its mixture of humor, accuracy, and ability to provoke some pretty deep thinking.

During the past semester, I was able to commission a bit of artwork from Katie, twice.  You see, I am trying to soften her up as a possible illustrator for a book project I have in mind (I'm thinking of calling this future endeavor "Matters Microbial" after the famous mathematics book, or even "Microbial Supremacy"). Not that she needs my help in that whole book-writing area, incidentally:  do check out her insanely great (miss you, Steve Jobs) book "What's In Your Genes?" that mixes good information with her own unique artwork.  Here is a peek of Katie's view of genetics, and her book.

A must read for genetics fans.

Getting back to Biology 111, I first commissioned Katie to create a piece of artwork demonstrating that students---even while gently dozing in class---are actually quite busy on a molecular level. Heck, they are veritable overachievers, as Katie puts it!

She wrote about the artwork on her blog, here.  

I don't know about you, but I intend to use the phrase "It's ATP go time!" often because of this cartoon.  I like this more than the more often seen "On a cellular level, we are all quite busy" meme, because it really does employ some concepts from class directly!  So there is education in the artwork, which makes Katie's cartoons of genuine pedagogical value, I think.

One of my big interests in biology is how we are more communities of organisms rather than simply one creature.  Just as the poet John Donne wrote that "No man is an island," I am with Thomas Miller, as seen in this slide from one of my microbiology lectures.

Indeed, we are metaorganisms or superorganisms, as Margaret McFall-Ngai and her collaborators suggest:  collections of myriad organisms that make up the "whole" that we visualize as "the" organism.  We are "crowdsourced" organisms, in a manner of speaking.

In any even, I have become extremely interested in how parasites and symbionts can alter the behavior of their hosts, often in outlandishly cool ways.  Here is a very serious book on the topic, and here is a nice overview with great examples.  Now, this topic will be the focus of a freshman writing seminar I am teaching next Fall (triple gulp), but I find it really grabs student attention.  

In Biology 111, I reminded students how mitochondria and chloroplasts were once bacteria, and how eukaryotic cells and symbionts have shaped one another over evolutionary time. But I do hint at the students that some microbes alter the behavior of their hosts.  

Because it is beyond cool. That's just how I roll:  I cannot help but enthuse over the weird and wonderful in biology, and I do not apologize for my excitement over those things!

So with some communication, and some back and forth, Katie came up with the following:

Katie blogged about this illustration here.

The cartoon brings up the question: who is in control?  As I often tell my long-suffering microbiology students, there are about ten times more bacterial cells in and on you than...well, you.  So who is speaking?  Doc Martin or the microbial aspects of that metaorganism?!  Microbial Democracy Now:  One Cell, One Vote!  It's not science fiction; the numerical superiority of microbes is fact.  

And the idea of behavior of an insect controlled by a nematode worm is accepted fact.  And the idea of worms' behavior controlled by a bacterium also a fact (and the study of weird and wonderful Wolbachia is SO worth your time, by the way---Seth Bordenstein's lab is a great place to start).  And the concept of a bacteriophage altering how the bacterium works is true, as well.  What's next?  IS elements inside the bacteriophage DNA?

So IS elements control phage, phage controls bacteria, bacteria control worms, worms control insect...  

It makes you wonder if any of our behavior is controlled by parasites?  And perhaps it is!

In any event, my interactions with Katie over the past semester remind me of the emergent properties that occur when science and art mix:  both benefit.  I hope that my students felt that way.  Ditto Katie. 

So, educators:  try to use artistic approaches in the classroom or in your laboratory.   I know that I have some new insights and approaches, courtesy of this synergy.  Thanks, Katie!

No comments:

Post a Comment

I am happy to hear your comments and suggestions. I hope to avoid spammage. We shall see how that works out!