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Artwork, a piece of glass with screen printing of a DNA sequence inside of it.

Microbiologist Jerri Bartholomew elevates microbes to fine art

By Grace Peterman

Myxidium anatidum suspends the genetic sequence of a parasite species discovered by the artist within cast glass.

Knowledge is only as good as our ability to share it, and innovative science requires innovative communication strategies. Some of our students and faculty have danced their Ph.D. research, been featured in documentary films and created board games about ocean microbe ecology. The College of Science is full of creative researchers who explore how different media can help tell the stories they care about, convey the relevance of science to the public and foster engagement from diverse audiences.

Microbiologist Jerri Bartholomew epitomizes what it means to be a scientist-artist. For the last 25 years, the director of the J.L. Fryer Aquatic Animal Health Laboratory has created glass art inspired by her research on parasites that live in salmonids — fish within the salmon family.

“As a microbiologist and artist, I am fascinated by what occurs at the intersection between these disciplines,” said Bartholomew. “I use glass as a medium to express the beauty of the natural world I study, and through collaborations with other artists and scientists, I explore ways to encourage that curiosity and wonder in others.”

A new curation of Bartholomew’s work is on exhibition in The Little Gallery in Kidder Hall from March 7 to April 8, 2022. “Abstracted: Where Science Meets Art and Music” contrasts the scientific abstract with the artistic concept of abstraction. Collaboration with faculty from the College of Liberal Arts made this rich, dynamic show possible: Dr. Jason Fick, assistant professor and coordinator of music technology; Andrew Myers, instructor of fine arts, and Dr. Dana Reason, assistant professor of music. Bartholomew’s previous interdisciplinary collaborations have been covered by SciArt Magazine and MIT News.

Glass panes with data graphs in layers of gray, black, and white.

There Will be Good Years: 2009-2021 uses fused glass to depict a decade of data affecting salmon survival. Color corresponds to risk factor of environmental variables like temperature and water flow.

“Through collaborations with other artists and scientists, I explore ways to encourage that curiosity and wonder in others.”

In “Abstracted,” Bartholomew’s extensive work on endemic wild Pacific salmon myxozoan parasites becomes vibrant and accessible. In Murky Waters, a decade of temperature, water flow and parasite data is translated into sound in real time, allowing the listener to hear how climate change will affect salmon survival.

In video piece Weapons of Microdestruction, a piano performance and live drawing turn microscopic processes into a riveting drama. The original composition expresses the musical tension of the parasite-host relationship, while broad brushstrokes elucidate the flow of parasite development.

Microscope slide boxes and slides integrated into the show reference Bartholomew’s affection for her own research tools. “As a microbiologist, glass microscope slides are the tools of our trade, but every time I sit down at a microscope it is with the anticipation that something interesting or beautiful will be revealed,” she said. “I find microscope slides themselves to be magical; small pieces of glass that hold an invisible surprise that changes with magnification.”

A wooden microscope slide box with a model of a parasite and drawings inside.

Myxozoan Life Cycles features a pâte de verre casting of a lens-shaped parasite spore that infects both salmon and duck species, nestled within a microscope slide box.

Bartholomew believes scientists are obligated to disseminate their research and that dynamic, interactive communication can expand science’s impact. “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,” she said. “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.”

She encourages scientists of every level to experiment with artistic media, because creativity and curiosity are equally important for both art and science. Even artwork not directly linked to research can have a positive impact on your scientific potential.

“Art has largely been a tool for communicating science, but I believe there is room for a larger role,” Bartholomew said. “Being an artist has helped me, as a scientist, by providing a different perspective either through examining a topic using a new medium or through collaborations and discussions with other artists.”

Artwork, a piece of glass with music inspired by the coronavirus spike protein flowing through it.

In COVID Sonnet, Bartholomew used a score by Markus J. Buehler that translates the the structure of SARS-Cov-2 surface proteins into music. The figures are transferred onto silkscreen, printed on a sheet of glass, fused and cast to create a series of increasingly abstract representations.

In 2017, Bartholomew led the formation of ART-SCI, an inter-college faculty network that sponsors events and offers curricula designed to foster discussions about the convergence between the arts and science. ART-SCI supports student engagement with interdisciplinary knowledge through the Seminarium, a student club dedicated to promoting art-science crossover.

“For me, Seminarium has been an opportunity to work with folks who share my interests in using art to communicate science, and to expand my own horizons of how the two intertwine,” said Grace Deitzler, club co-founder and microbiology Ph.D. candidate.

“Seminarium has always been about bringing together the members of the OSU community who love art and science — whether they are scientists who are also artists, or artists who are also scientists, or folks who just enjoy both — and showing the beauty of the liminal space that exists between the two disciplines.”

“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.”

Students and faculty interested in exploring the connection between art and science are invited to apply to participate in the ArtSci Fellowship, a year-long program in which students will develop a creative project informed by active engagement in lab or field research under the mentorship of artists, writers, musicians and scientists from OSU and the local community. Fellows are awarded a $1,000 stipend, a modest materials budget, ongoing networking opportunities, art and science mentorship and more. Graduate and undergraduate students from any college can apply. For more details, contact Jerri Bartholomew.