Artistic Bacteria

Welcome to my first guest post!  Today we’re hearing from Dr. Amy Sprenkle ( from my home institution, Salem State University (


Created with Nokia Smart Cam
The annual Darwin Festival ( coincides with Valentine’s day each year, and I usually invite my microbiology students to create ‘valentines’ by using bacterial cultures that have a macroscopic appearance that is opaque and colorful after growing on an agar plate. This year we shared them at the Darwin Festival.

“But why did you do it?” asked Lisa.

I could come up with many scientific reasons why allowing the students to ‘paint’ with bacteria is a good idea; reminders of the aspects of good aseptic technique, or the study of the interaction of the different cultures as they grow on the plate are just two, but I think the most important reason is that it helps to demystify bacteria, and perhaps break down some ‘germophobe’ walls that have been built in some individuals since childhood. As a microbiologist, I consider germophobes to have a certain lack of intellectual curiosity, and a lack of openness to new ideas, especially in microbiology! Created with Nokia Smart Cam


Created with Nokia Smart Cam

Thinking of bacteria as a medium of art, rather than germs to be feared and removed at all costs, makes manipulating them a lot less scary. Not being assessed on the success of the project also makes it more fun and less threatening

Created with Nokia Smart Cam

(but many students don’t bother to do the valentine because it’s not required). The best thing in being released from the fear of manipulating bacteria is that it gets one thinking about the ways in which we use microbes to our benefit; in food production and agriculture, bioremediation, biotechnology, and most importantly as a part of our resident microbiota that is so crucial to our health.

Created with Nokia Smart CamFinally, the delayed gratification that comes with making light ‘brush strokes’ with a sterile toothpick to place microscopic cells on the growth medium, and then to come in the next day and see that your sketch idea has bloomed into color and completion is one that applies to laboratory science and experimentation in general. Just finding out if you like the fine motor manipulation, the suspense of the wait, and the excitement and surprise of the result is a good thing to learn early in career exploration, no? You can find much more of the same on the web here:

Created with Nokia Smart Cam




For Your Perusal

I’m excited to share with you an important addition to this blog – a bibliography constructed by Nancy Dennis, Science and Technology Librarian at Salem State University, and my collaborator in the research on the topic of STEAM. Nancy has collected and annotated a stimulating selection of articles on the topic of the intersection of the visual arts and the sciences, all with relevance to higher education. We’ll be adding to this bibliography over time, so be sure to check back occasionally. The bibliography can be found in the ‘Pages’ section:

Let me draw your attention to a couple of items of interest from the bibliography. First, please note this quote from a fascinating 1988 interview with Dr. Elliot Eisner, Professor Emeritus of Education and of Art.

Tattoo designed by Christian Cordova of Tattoo del Mono, Chile

Tattoo designed by Christian Cordova of Tattoo del Mono, Chile

“Learning in the arts is cognitively a very sophisticated operation. It requires the exercise of imagination. It requires the cultivation of human sensibility, the ability to pay attention to nuance, the ability to capitalize on the adventitious and on surprise in the course of working on a project or topic, the ability to know when to shift goals when working on something. It is the farthest thing from an algorithm. Much of the lack of development of critical thinking in American schools has been due to an emphasis on subject matter and on processes that do not cultivate human judgement and other forms of higher-level thinking.”

As scientists, we use most of the same elements of higher-level thinking in our own practice. In the same interview, Dr. Eisner voiced support for arts integration as long as it did not involve the sacrifice of formal art programs in schools.

Second, you may enjoy a 2012 article by Poli et al. that describes the use of topic of tattooing to explore world cultures, design, microbiology, immunology, chemistry, public health, medicine, physics, and engineering!

Imagining the Brain

A recent paper by David Hay et al. of Kings College London ( examines the role of scientific illustration as evidence of expertise, and considers pedagogical techniques that can lead undergraduates to produce illustrations indistinguishable from those of PIs.

Image shows tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain. (

Tyramide-filled neurons from the cingulate cortex of mouse brain.

An understanding of invisible structures, processes and phenomena requires a level of abstraction that presents a challenge to the typical undergraduate student. The authors show how activities that support the creativity and imaginations of students can lead to expert-level work.Their interventions required the students to use imagination and movement to see themselves as their biological subjects, in this case brain cells undergoing development. The activities appeared to provide students with insight into the research perspective without the need for benchwork. After participation in the activities, student drawings were more likely to represent a variety of types of neurons and to demonstrate the creative approach, imagination, and hypothesis-building typical of PIs. They include elements of neuron identity that are not visible. It is suggested that illustrations by PIs, which to a certain extent represent their original conceptual models, may fuse objective scientific illustration with elements of design.

As an introduction to their argument, the authors present useful reviews of the topics of Science Studies and of Science Visual Culture. They also reference Objectivity (Daston & Galison, 2007), and use the framework presented therein for what they describe as the three types of representation in science: Truth-to-Nature, Mechanical Objectivity, and Trained Judgement. Benjamin Cohen gives a clear summary of this framework in his blog post on the topic:

The authors conclude that

“… an ability to label what is otherwise invisible, functions as the code marking-off a boundary between real professionals and novices or the boundary between the members of a specific laboratory culture and outsiders. Our current data reinforce this view suggesting that there is an imaginative constant to experts’ images, depending on their embodiment of relationships toward objects experienced thorough the material realization of experiments (see Radder, 2012).  “