Have you seen this image? It generated headlines as part of the American Society for Microbiology’s annual Agar Art contest. ASM has run this contest since 2015, but some scientists, like scientist/artist Caitlin Cahak of the Instagram account @Stylish_Streaking, have been creating pieces of their own well before the contest started.
Caitlin began drawing with bacteria while in college and continues to do so while working in a clinical laboratory as a Medical Laboratory Scientist. She says her microbial masterpieces have been instrumental in sparking new students’ interest in microbiology, creating networking opportunities with other healthcare professionals, and allowing her to collaborate on educational social media posts.
1. What sparked the idea to begin drawing with bacteria, and what was the first thing you ever drew?
When I was in school at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in my microbiology lab, we were using EMB (Eosin methylene blue) agar to isolate E. coli. Not only did I think the colors were beautiful, but the metallic green colonies against the dark red agar reminded me of Christmas colors. I half-jokingly said it would be cool to streak it out in the shape of a Christmas tree, and the next thing I know, the whole class was having a little mini-contest to see who could draw the best tree with E. coli.
2. What do you do in your day job and how did it tie into drawing with bacteria?
I am a Medical Laboratory Scientist in the Microbiology Department at Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories (WDL). We are a high-volume clinical and reference laboratory that performs culture and molecular testing for Froedtert Hospital, and for numerous other clinics and hospitals in the Wisconsin and Illinois areas. I have worked at WDL for about 8 years. I primarily work with [agar] plate reading and culture interpretation. Our plate reading workflow is divided by specimen source (urines, respiratory, wounds, etc.), with some cross-over between benches. Our total workflow is best managed using a team-based approach, which adds a fun and productive environment at WDL.
An individual tech can work on upwards of 100 cultures per day. We also work alongside the Medical College of Wisconsin with research studies and education. We are a teaching facility, so we work with clinical students doing their rotations, pathology residents, and medical students. I started drawing with bacteria in college and continue while working in the laboratory. It has been a great way to spark new students’ interest in microbiology.
3. What is the biggest impact you’ve seen with your drawings, both on your audience and on your career?
The biggest impact was being able to create an online learning environment with the use of my agar art. It has been amazing to see the unexpected popularity among my followers and to see it grow into something as large as ASM’s annual Agar Art contests.
Besides its entertainment value, this has allowed me to network with other healthcare professionals and collaborate on educational social media posts. I was lucky enough to have the fun experience of teaming up with an Infectious Disease Pharmacist (@idstewardship) to share both the clinical and treatment sides of microbiology.
I love that I am able to use my agar art to catch the attention of people both in and outside of the laboratory field, and then use that as a catalyst to learn further or initiate a career in the field.
4. What has working with bacteria both as an art medium and a target of scientific investigation taught you? Has there been any shift in your perspective?
When I was younger, I was somewhat artistic, dabbling in photography and music, then I ended up extremely interested in science. Somewhere along the way, my affinity for creativity in the arts and sciences eventually merged, and has molded me into who I am today. Through my pictures, I feel that I am able to demystify bacteria and diseases for people from non-microbiology backgrounds, which led to being more passionate about my work.
5. What is your favorite agar drawing and why?
I don’t think I have just one favorite drawing, but I certainly do love making Christmas trees with Pseudomonas aeruginosa. There are so many beautiful morphologies when they grow, and I’m just a sucker for those green metallic colonies. In all honesty, my favorite “artwork” is just my normal pictures of cultures or microscopic stains. Natural art in science is my true passion, and I hope to share the beauty I see with the rest of my followers.
6. In terms of your career, where do you see yourself going?
As far as career goes, I would like to stay in clinical microbiology at least for a good while. I am lucky to have experienced both research and education while working at WDL, but I prefer the hands on work with clinical cultures. I am extremely passionate about working in clinical microbiology, and knowing the impact our job makes on patient healthcare is very gratifying and important to me.
7. How did you come up with the name Stylish Streaking?
I’d be lying if I said there was a good story behind this, but it is essentially a combination of my admittedly immature sense of humor and trying to come up with a clever name. The whole “streaking” thing has been a long-running joke between me and my old classmates, with the delightful play on words between streaking bacteria for isolation and naked streaking (see…immature humor). I had asked a friend of mine to help think of a name, and after a quite interesting list of options we came up with Stylish Streaking.
8. ASM has opened its 3rd annual Agar Art contest for submissions. Do you plan to enter this year?
I will definitely be making an attempt at a submission this year, but as always it will just depend on whether I have time. My patient and clinical work obviously has priority, but I do have a few things in the works so I’m hoping I will have them done in time to submit. Either way, I will once again be promoting the Agar Art contest and look forward to seeing the incredible submissions! Contest closes in two weeks on April 27th.