Sparks fly between arts and science — and a giant petri dish

Michael Baym, professor of biomedical informatics at Harvard Medical School, was driving across Texas with his wife when award-winning science writer Ed Yong tweeted a photo of a striking charcoal drawing by Oregon artist Bets Cole entitled “Evolution of a Superbug/11days 1000x Antibiotic Solution.” Yong was sharing the art from Oregon State’s exhibit “To See the Unseen: Where Science and Art Converge,” co-sponsored last spring by the Microbiology Department and the Corvallis Arts Center.

Cole’s art just happened to be inspired by Baym’s experiment demonstrating how bacteria, as they reproduce across a giant petri dish, mutate over the course of 11 days to be able to withstand antibiotic at 1,000 times the concentration normally used to fight infection.

Baym decided almost immediately to purchase the artwork.

“First off, it was a gorgeous piece. And it was very cool that I had created something that inspired someone else to do something so lovely.”

The chain of events between Baym and Cole may seem like mere coincidence, chance “sparks” between art and science, but in fact it is exactly the sort of interaction that the creators of SPARK, a yearlong collaboration celebrating the interplay between arts and science at OSU last year, envisioned and hoped for. Jerri Bartholomew, head of the Microbiology Department and an accomplished glass artist who was a lead organizer of the event, offers this about the intersection of the two disciplines.

“Although the increasing specialization in science during the last century seems to have drawn a line between science and art, those lines are becoming blurred. Scientists increasingly see the value of art in interpreting their research and in collaborating with artists in looking for solutions to the problems that face society.”

The backstory behind Baym’s giant petri dish experiment, oddly enough, is itself a striking example of how art can spark science. In 2015, Baym was working as a postdoc with Roy Kishony at Harvard Medical School and the Technion Israel Institute of Technology. Kishony was inspired by a digital billboard advertising the 2011 film Contagion, a grim narrative about a deadly viral pandemic. It involved giant frames filled with agar displayed in a store window, implanted with slowly growing bacteria and fungi that over time spelled out the title of the movie, to gruesome effect.

Struck by the concept of using a giant petri dish as a teaching tool, Kishony and co-investigator Tami Lieberman along with Baym spent six months developing their Microbial Evolution and Growth Arena (MEGA-plate), creating a novel platform for microbial experimentation beyond the classic petri dish. Not only has the MEGA-plate proved a highly effective teaching tool, allowing students to instantly “see” hitherto obscure and abstract concepts in evolution like compensatory mutation and clonal interference, but the visualization tool has yielded key insights about the behavior of bacteria. For example, the fittest, most antibiotic-resistant bacteria aren’t always the ones who win the race; sometimes they get “landlocked” behind faster-growing strains. See a fascinating time-lapse video of the experiment, below.

Oregon State and SPARK definitely created a favorable environment for the Baym-Cole, science-and-art serendipity to happen. Cole, whose usual artwork involves abstract landscapes and portraiture in oil, was moved to look outside of her normal sources of inspiration thanks to workshops at OSU last year between microbiologists and artists, including lab art “experiments” where artists cultured their own cells or painted with pigmented bacteria. Ed Yong, who tweeted her artwork, was invited to the “To See the Unseen” microbiology art exhibit as part of the Oregon State Microbiome Initiative (OMBI) last spring, where he gave a public talk about microbiomes and his New York Times bestselling book, I Contain Multitudes.

The SPARK momentum continues on November 15 from 6-8 p.m. at The Corvallis Arts Center, with a public talk, “Superbugs & Antibiotic Resistance: An Interdisciplinary Conversation.” The talk will focus on how the giant petri dish experiment has helped scientists visualize the evolution of antibiotic resistance in E. coli and also inspired artists.

Panelists for the free event include Baym, Cole and OSU composer Dana Reason in the School of Arts and Communication. Baym will share his research along with Cole, who will talk about how his research inspired her painting. Reason will share how she is taking the data from Baym’s experiment and transferring it into sound. She hopes to generate a new creative work that both stands alone and prompts insights into the data itself based on how it translates into sonar patterns.

Inspired by SPARK, a group of scientists and artists at OSU will continue to meet monthly to explore other opportunities and lines of mutual investigation.

As for Bet Cole’s “Evolution of a Superbug,” it now hangs on the wall just outside Baym’s Harvard office in Boston. “I wanted to hang it in my office, but this way, more people can see it.” See it, yes, and then? Who knows what other sparks may fly.

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