Thursday, March 16, 2017

Chatting about #MattersMicrobial on the University of Puget Sound podcast

Given the state of our short attention span/bumper sticker mentality society, I have long been concerned with the way that microbiology is portrayed in the media.  We need far, far better #MicrobialPR.

Microbes are not #DevilMicrobes, always causing disease and bad things.  

Microbes are not #AngelMicrobes, who can solve all problems.

So what are microbes?  First evolved.  Last extinct.  Basis of the biosphere.  When you put aside the natural human-centric narcissism from which we all suffer, you can see that ours is truly a microbial planet.

So I was delighted to have a chance to talk a bit about #MattersMicrobial with the University of Puget Sound "What We Do" podcast.   It is a nice production that showcases great stories from our campus.

I am including the link to my podcast on Soundcloud (click here), and you can also find it on iTunes.

I am no Jack Gilbert, Seth Bordenstein, or Jonathan Eisen. But I adore the microbial world, and telling students about its depth, breadth, and wonders.

Plus I have a perfect face for radio!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Student Created Science Artwork in My Laboratory

I have been feeling a little low recently, so I wanted to write about something positive.  Care to tag along with me?

The other day on Twitter, the subject of #SciArt came up:  art influenced by science.  I have long encouraged students in my first year introduction to cell and molecular biology course (Biology 111, "The Unity of Life"), as well as my junior/senior level microbiology course, to explore their creativity as it relates to topics in class.  I contend that this approach allows students to "see" topics in a new light, which can help with their understanding of concepts and even improve course outcomes.   I have written about this philosophy several times on this blog.  

In every case, I have been awestruck by the creativity, humor, and perceptiveness of my students---most of whom claim that they "aren't creative."


Here at the University of Puget Sound, I have a modest lab in which I work with a few undergraduates.  This isn't an RO1 institution, with postdoctoral students, or graduate students (PhD or MS).  So with basic equipment, and currently no grant support (I pay out of pocket these days), I do my best to mentor my research students and help them develop into scientists.  Over too many years, I have sent 18 of my research students to PhD programs across the country; 15 of them women.

I may not do cutting edge research, but I believe I can call myself a good scientific talent scout!  There is surely value in that.

Thus, my little laboratory is where I like to spend my time; I have many good memories here. As a joke, my students and I call my lab and my research group "Martin's Microbial Menagerie," and label ourselves "microbial supremacists."

That last was my co-opting a departmental joke at my expense into a proud slogan!  The great artist Kaitlin Reiss even came up with a logo for my lab.

I don't have a ton of room in my little lab, but it is truly a fun place for me.  My geriatric -80 freezer, two PCR thermocyclers, a shaking water bath, a -20 freezer,  agarose gel rigs,  three incubators, a luminometer, and a microfuge.  What more do I need?

In any event, I have decorated my lab with some of the art created over the past few years by students in my "Unity of Life" and "Microbiology" courses.

May I take you on a virtual tour of some of the student-made #SciArt in my lab?

I hope you are as impressed as I am by what my students have created.  I look up at their art, each day, and feel inspired.  

One of my microbiology students insisted that she had no artistic talent.  But these pastel drawings of viruses argue otherwise.

This is a nice example of art created by two groups of students.  A microbiology student painted the wonderful large bacteriophage image you see. Above and below, you can see "mini-canvasses" that illustrate various stages of mitosis, made by a first year student. He told me it helped him keep the stages straight, and what to look for in each.

One quiet first year student turned out to have lovely sculpting skills.  Above you can see a small cross section of a eukaryotic cell that she made, hanging on one of my walls, complete with various organelles.    

Another first year student was quite taken with DNA agarose gels under the UV transilluminator.  So she checked out the internet, bought a canvas, and now I can display this lovely painting.

One of my microbiology students was clearly quite taken by the Marvel Universe, as you can see above:  casting various microbes as superheroes.  

One of my first year students had quite evident artistic talent.  She presented me with this painting of cancer cells, along with a summary of how proto-oncogenes and tumour suppressor genes are involved in the process of carcinogenesis.  

I could see this painting at an art gallery, can't you?

I also had a microbiology student make two "shadow boxes" with sculptures illustrating Gram negative and Gram positive cell walls. You can be sure he knew these structures inside and out when the final exam arrived.

Then there was a microbiology student I had a few years ago with impressive artistic talent.  Here you can see two of her woodcuts (that's right, these are printed from a woodcut) of a Type VI secretion system above, and a colony of the fascinating bacterium Paenibacillus below. 

One of my first year students became very, very interested in amniocentesis and genetic counseling.  The result?  A large canvas hanging near my shaking water bath.

Another one of my first year students decided to make "mini-pillows" depicting the various stages of mitosis.  Her work is quite wonderful, as you can see (I tacked it to the wall, because I want people to see it).  Quite intricate.

Finally, I would like to share three very special pieces of student-created #SciArt, if I may.

A number of years ago, I had a very quiet student in one of my classes and a semester of research in my lab.  Some students banter (or sass) with me, others are too shy.  It's all good, regardless; my lab students are like family to me.  

A year after this student graduated, she came back to see me in the summer, and brought me this enormous crocheted bacteriophage! That was a lot of work, and I will accept her labor as a compliment to me and my research students.

A few years ago, one of my microbiology students told me that she couldn't do a creative project for the class; she was too busy.  I told her that was too bad, but that I understood.  A while later, she told me that she was taking a ceramics class, and had made me something.  The student told me she would drop by my office with it.

And she did.  The student pulled the above large sculpture out of her backpack!  I tell you, that would have broken into a million pieces had I carried it.  But her sculpture was sturdy and quite lovely!  

Here is the last stop of this virtual tour of student-made #SciArt in my little laboratory.

Two years ago, I had a microbiology student turn in a lab report. Paper clipped to the report was the above, which I have since had framed.  It was a surprise, not for an assignment.  

It's true I prattle on.  But what "got" me about this artwork is how it summarized some of the points I tried to emphasize in my microbiology course.  If the student thought these were important, maybe I have been on the right track.  

Here are the concepts/facts/ideas that most stood out to this wonderful student.

  • I have long called my microbiology students "micronauts." This student created a wonderful motto:  "Micronauts We Soar," which will be the motto for next year's course T-shirt.
  • MRSA in a cape---a "superbug"---is to be expected.
  • A quite nice and accurate diagram of attenuation in the tryptophan operon of E. coli.
  • I often told students there is evidence for thin biofilm on the very surface of the ocean, and there it is---a "sea of microbes."
  • It's not microbiology without honoring Carl Woese and his Tree of Life.
  • I particularly liked seeing a bacteriophage giving the side-eye to a bottle of antibiotics.  Phage therapy is the future!
  • My students are always alarmed by the story of poor little Jimmy Phipps, the orphan who Edward Jenner tested his vaccinia small pox inoculation.  Wouldn't you love to have seen that IRB form?

There are many other pieces of student-made art around my cluttered lab and office, and every one of them mean a great deal to me.  Even on a sad day, it's nice to know that I have made some kind of impact among such creative and wonderful students.

I'm lucky at home.  And I am lucky at work.

Thank you for taking this virtual tour with me.  Best wishes.