Outreach: Making the invisible visible

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07 / 11 / 2017

Microbiology Society member Dr Eliza Wolfson illustrates biological and scientific concepts for a variety of different audiences. Eliza has recently designed the Multicoloured Microbiomes colouring book which is on sale now via the Microbiology Society website. Below are some of her experiences with the world of scientific illustration and ‘sci-art’. 

I’ve been torn between the lab bench and sketchpad for as long as I have been initiated into the dark arts of plate pouring, colony counting and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) optimisation. Between experiments and cartooning, I’ve always followed the Nikon Small World and Wellcome Images Awards with interest. It wasn’t until I embarked upon a freelance career of scientific illustration that I realised these images and my science-inspired doodling had a name: ‘Sci-art’. 

Sci-art is art derived from science. It’s a rather loose concept that can involve anything from art inspired by scientific observation, as with traditional anatomical drawings, to art illustrating or exploring scientific processes and ideas. It can be focused on one principle or far-reaching in scientific scope. It can be made by artists alone, in collaboration with scientists (for example, www.ascus.org.uk), or by scientists with an artistic bent. 

The sci-art pieces themselves can be explanatory, investigatory, abstract or multi-dimensional. Sometimes they’re as simple as post-processing some micrographs for artistic effect (www.micronaut.ch). Alternatively, they can be quite complex like Mellissa Fisher’s Microbial Michael (www.mellissafisher.com), where entire microbial ecosystems are replicated onto complex agar shapes. 

Sci-art is gaining momentum in popular culture. During a given week, #sciart gets nearly 3,000 mentions and reaches 1.3 million people on Twitter and Instagram alone. Then there are special events, like the sci-art tweetstorm last year, which involved more than 6,000 contributors and reached 13 million people in just one day. The buzzing from social media may be faintly irritating, but it’s a good indication of a curious audience out there. 

Lucky for us microbiologists, sci-art is so well suited to the subject. Even the media used to make it lends itself to microbiological analogies; lino printing is easily likened to bacterial clonal reproduction, right down to the small differences or mutations with each print or generation. Yet, the main reason sci-art works so well with microbiology is because very little of what we study is seen directly. Indirect measurement – some magnification here, some sample preparation there – is necessary for us to study many microbiological phenomena, which can make it difficult to talk to people about what you do. I’ve found that sci-art is a great way of starting that conversation. Getting people to pay attention and see what’s inside your head is half the battle to any dialogue, whether these people are family, students, Joe public or a funding body. Sci-art can kickstart this process, making invisible ideas visible, allowing everyone to start on the same page.

The appeal of sci-art about microbiology doesn’t stop at simply looking at it. Sci-art can be used as an engagement activity to explore and understand microbiological concepts. This is one of the reasons behind the Microbiology Society developing the Multicoloured Microbiomes colouring book. Creation of art from scientific ideas also feeds back into further scientific ideas. How many times have you realised how little you know about something when trying to construct a model figure for a paper? Sometimes placing your ideas into a physical space allows you to realise there are elements you hadn’t even considered. So, the next time you find yourself doodling in a lab meeting, maybe ask yourself how sci-art might be able to help…

Eliza Wolfson

Eliza Wolfson is a microbiologist and scientific illustrator based in Bristol, UK. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram as @eliza_coli or visit http://lizawolfson.co.uk.

For further information about the colouring book please contact books@microbiologysociety.org or see the flyer included in the print issue of the magazine.