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UF Scientists, Graduate Students Turn Plant Research Into Art

Lindsay Johnson displays her amoeba art as part of the Art of Biology exhibit at the Hippodrome State Theatre. Photo courtesy of Bernard Brzezinski.
Lindsay Johnson displays her amoeba art as part of the Art of Biology exhibit at the Hippodrome State Theatre. Photo courtesy of Bernard Brzezinski.

Cody Howard didn’t know the plant he’s been researching, Ledebouria, would look so beautiful behind the lens until he started snapping pictures of it.

Howard is one of 11 scientists and graduate students in the University of Florida department of biology who have been using the camera and microscope lens at the McGuire Center for Lepidoptera and Biodiversity for more than just research.

These researchers are layering images of microscopic organisms to create pieces of art.

“A lot of people think us scientists wear lab coats or just sit at our desks all day, but in reality, we actually get to see a lot of really interesting things during our work,” Howard, 29, said.

The National Science Foundation, a federal agency created to guide and help fund scientific research at American universities, has been stressing the importance of incorporating art into scientific research, according to its website.

The foundation turned the acronym STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) into STEAM, with the ‘A’ standing for art, said Sarah Carey, a UF department of biology graduate student.

She answered the foundation’s call for merging the two fields and came up with the idea for the first Art of Biology exhibit in Gainesville.

Art of Biology will showcase photographs by the researchers accompanied with an explanation of the research, an exhibit that has never been done before, Carey said. The gallery will be at the Hippodrome State Theatre Nov. 13-22.

“We are taking our science and sharing it to the public in an interesting way,” Carey said.

She came up with the idea after taking pictures of moss placenta for her moss genetics research, she said. Carey realized how beautiful the images looked and wanted to share them with the community.

UF graduate student Lindsay Johnson said her research was a little challenging to photograph. She studies death rates in pathogens and has been mainly working with millimeter-long nematodes.

“Getting the worms to slow down enough to take pictures was difficult, but it worked out and it came out pretty cool,” Johnson said.

In Johnson’s display, the worm she photographed had a jellyfish gene, which made it appear green under UV light. She then layered the photo and enhanced its colors.

Johnson said she is excited for the exhibit because it gives her, and those participating, the chance to show their research to others in an interesting, artistic way.

She hopes to one day be able to find genes that relate to resistance or susceptibility to pathogens, Johnson said.

In addition to this project, UF has made an effort to incorporate art into sciences. This summer, the university hosted its first STEAM Quest, a program for high school students that merges the different sciences with the arts, according to its website.

Cody Howard said he hopes to teach a class on botanical illustrations next summer.

“Since I study plants, I hope to cure plant blindness so that people don’t just walk past plants,” Howard said. “I want them to actually stop and look at them and appreciate them for what they are.”

Oriana is a WUFT reporter who can be contacted by email at oribravo1@ufl.edu or Twitter at @oridbravo