Friday, 23 March 2018 16:53

Agar Art as Part of a CURE: Getting Creative with a Course-Based Undergraduate Research Experience

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Published in Teaching Microbiology
Sarah Adkins and Jeff Morris with agar art made by the Art of Microbiology students. Photo by Julian R. N. Jackson. Sarah Adkins and Jeff Morris with agar art made by the Art of Microbiology students. Photo by Julian R. N. Jackson.

Have you ever struggled to explain the beauty of microbes to your friends? Agar Art—the process of using living microorganisms as “paint” on an agar “canvas”—shows people a side of microbiology that most never experience. It’s also a great motivator in the classroom. In the spring of 2017, the University of Alabama at Birmingham debuted a course-based undergraduate research experience (CURE) called the Art of Microbiology to expand on the idea that training in the arts can enhance scientific thinking.

Graduate student Sarah Adkins and her advisor, Dr. J. Jeffrey Morris, encouraged introductory microbiology students to explore interactions between microbes they isolated from the soil by creating living works of agar art. By looking for the unexpected in their art, students generated hypotheses about how their microbes were interacting, and tested these hypotheses over the course of the semester. Agar art became a springboard into the world of scientific experimentation.


ASM: How was the Art of Microbiology curriculum conceived?

Jeff: There was a lot of serendipity involved. I was interested in reforming the way intro microbiology was taught, and I happened to have a grad student, Sarah, who was a trained artist.  During Sarah’s first semester as a grad student, we were reading Jo Handelsman’s book Scientific Teaching, which talks about active learning reforms, and we also both independently discovered the ASM Agar Art contest. One day, it hit me that we could combine these two things by using agar art in the teaching labs, and Sarah, with her undergrad training as an artist, was in a perfect spot to make that happen.

Sarah: Exactly. Jeff asked, “How do we make this happen?” and I figured it out by troubleshooting over a summer. We thought it would be fun to have the students make art, so I began piloting the exercises with labmates and volunteers. We wondered why bacteria on the art plates were interacting in ways we did not expect. Why wasn’t our art showing up like we designed it? I thought about making methodical procedures for students to explore these ideas, like having them cross-streak but Jeff was like, “Why don’t we have them figure it out on their own?”

Jeff: Right, and that’s how it went from being a neat creative project to help students get interested in the class and practice aseptic technique, to a full-on CURE.  The focus shifted from pure aesthetics to a way to generate unexpected interactions on the fly, from which students could design hypotheses and execute new experiments.

ASM: What was the student response to the new curriculum, especially at the beginning of the course? Was anyone resistant or concerned it wasn’t rigorous?

Sarah: We had students collecting their own soil samples the second week of lab, so with everything that goes into that process, especially juxtaposed to their expectations from other lab classes, I don’t think they saw the curriculum as lacking rigor. But they did tell us that they didn’t get the point of the art as they were doing it, even though we told them. The teaching staff has done a great job explaining it to subsequent classes, but regardless, it’s like students see it as a fun artistic aside until it’s time to scientifically analyze it. In a way, this is a great thing, because students can be more playful and exploratory in making their art.

It’s worth noting that compared to a traditional lab class that didn’t have the art or scientific inquiry, students in our class were more likely to affirm values associated with persistence in the sciences. Considering that almost half of all U.S. students who start STEM degrees don’t finish in four to six years, we’re hopeful that these types of active reforms have downstream effects on retention in STEM.

Jeff: I definitely don’t think anyone was concerned that the course wasn’t sufficiently rigorous— if anything, it was the opposite. Some students get really anxious when they don’t have really precisely laid out assignments. The requirement that they synthesize a bunch of previously unobserved facts into a meaningful story is so far outside of what they’re used to in a science class that a lot of grade-focused students get stressed out about their performance. A good portion of our efforts revising how we teach the course have looked at how to improve that kind of student’s experience in the course—stress management, basically.


ASM: What are some of the unique interactions between microbes that students have captured in their art?

Sarah: My favorite “aha!” moment is when students realize the zones of inhibition they’re seeing on their art plates are the result of antibiotics -- just like the discoverer of the first antibiotic, agar artist Alexander Fleming. Many of our students are pre-med and have a conception of antibiotics as being artificial, not extracted from the natural chemical warfare going on between organisms underneath our feet.

Jeff: One student group isolated a bright red organism, but every time they restreaked it for isolation, yellow colonies appeared in the denser streaks.  Of course, the TAs and I thought they were just contaminating their cultures. It turned out that somehow, every time they picked a single colony, it actually contained two organisms, one that was red and one that was yellow. After a really aggressive effort, the students were eventually able to separate them. They turned out to be two closely related strains of the same species, Hymenobacter gelipurpurascens, and subsequent experimentation showed that the red one had higher stress tolerance in the presence of the yellow one than it did on its own.  Of course we weren’t able to figure out much more than that in a single semester, but I thought it was pretty awesome that something that weird and unexpected could pop up the first time we tried this curriculum out.  


ASM: In practice, how difficult was it to switch from a traditional curriculum for this lab to the Art of Microbiology curriculum? Were there any logistical or institutional barriers?

Jeff: LOL, I plead the fifth on this one. Seriously, though, I had a lot of support from my department, but as you might expect, there was some concern from the people that actually had to do the logistical work. One thing we try to emphasize, though, is that this curriculum uses the same basic media and equipment as a standard cookbook micro lab, it just reframes everything and lets the students have a lot more license in terms of the experiments they perform. So it wasn’t like trying to implement a CURE that needs special reagents or expensive equipment.  We’re still just inoculating cultures and watching them grow—only now we don’t know exactly what they’re going to do until we see it happen.


ASM: Do you have any advice for instructors who would like to implement your curriculum?

Jeff: One big thing that came up, that was a surprise to us, was the concern that students might accidentally isolate a nasty pathogen. Prior to teaching this course I didn’t realize that, based on 16S ribosomal RNA sequence, you can’t tell the difference between harmless Bacillus thuringiensis and anthrax! So we had some students the first semester that BLASTed their PCR products and started telling their friends that they were painting with anthrax cultures. Fortunately that wasn’t actually the case, but some folks got pretty scared nonetheless. Now we put a lot more effort up front in educating the students about Biosafety Levels, and how they should treat unknown isolates like they’re opportunistic pathogens (BSL2) until they know otherwise. Working with unknown organisms is a lot of fun, but people who are interested in trying this out need to make sure that all the safeguards for BSL2 labs are in place.

Sarah: We’ve partnered with faculty in our art department, and their feedback has been invaluable. One of the biggest pieces of advice I’ve gotten from them: ensure the art creation is not just a means to do the science, but is also an artwork in its own right. Following this advice, we’ve put these art works on display several times at our university including a special show for the Dali Lama’s assistant, Ven Geshe Lhakdor.  My advice is to to network with different departments. Sometimes a new perspective can be helpful.


ASM: What do you think the future holds for the Art of Microbiology curriculum?

Jeff: Well, we plan to change the source of the microbes the students work with as time goes by.  Right now, we’ve been using soils collected around downtown Birmingham, and on top of the student-designed experiments, we’ve been testing the hypothesis that antibiotic resistance levels increase with proximity to the big concentration of hospitals near our campus.  In the future, I’m planning to have students work with cryopreserved samples we’ve brought back from research cruises. Their interaction experiments will provide some grounding of the ‘omics work we’re doing on the same samples—that is to say, can we see living microbes doing the things we infer they are doing based on molecular evidence (RNA, DNA, proteins)?  We’re also hoping that other universities will get interested in the curriculum, and we have an idea to put together a database of all the interactions students have studied, along with their data, to be used by anybody who is interested in learning more about the ranges of behaviors for different microbial taxa.

Sarah: I will be happy if our work helps science educators feel encouraged to implement more art in science, especially if it can aid in scientific discovery. We can attest: it’s worth it!

 ASM's Agar Art 2018 contest


Create a magnificent microbial masterpiece and win up to $400-worth of prizes! Submit photos of pieces that are, at their core, one or more microorganisms growing on agar, accompanied by a description that captures key features of the piece in language appropriate for a general audience, to ASM’s 4th annual Agar Art contest. You have until April 13, 2018 at 11:59 p.m. U.S. ET to put your best streak forward.

Last modified on Friday, 23 March 2018 17:02
Katherine Lontok

Dr. Katherine Lontok joined the American Society for Microbiology as the Public Outreach Manager in January 2016. At ASM, she works to bring the microbial sciences to adult and youth audiences, as well as enable ASM members to effectively engage in their own public outreach.