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Biology class creates art with bacteria & fungi

Led by Assistant Professor Antonio Izzo, students in a fall microbiology course designed portraits by inoculating various strains of microbes.

Microbial art by Elon senior Taylor-Rae Harrold


Elon University senior Taylor-Rae Harrold wanted to create a red and pink hibiscus. Harrold’s classmate, senior Lauren Stranahan, opted instead to use yellows and oranges in the petals of her own floral portrait.

Painting, however, this was not. The “flowers” were quite literally alive and well, their vibrant colors the result of bacteria growing at a controlled rate in a small incubator on the second floor of a McMichael Science Center lab.

And, ultimately, students and faculty members in the Department of Biology deemed Harrold and Stranahan’s two creations the best entries in the Microbial Art competition for students in the fall semester Microbiology class led by Assistant Professor Antonio Izzo.

Now in its fifth year, the lab exercise in the upper-level biology course challenges students to design miniature works of art by inoculating common microbes. First, students isolate the bacteria from soil samples. They next consider different biological characteristics, including growth rates, the medium on which the bacteria will grow, even the expected color.

Microbial art by Elon senior Lauren Stranahan

Once their bacteria grow and the art piece develops, students took photos of the image to be judged.

“The project pulled together a lot of the techniques we learned during the semester. To create a drawing and ‘paint inside the lines’ you really need to know how the microbes are going to grow, and how they’ll compete with each other,” said Stranahan, a senior biology major from Chapel Hill, N.C. “I was looking forward to this project. I like to draw, and this was a cool way to combine my love for art with my love for science.”

Izzo said the assignment gives students a chance to think about how to obtain and communicate their results similar to the process that researchers use.

“Getting a good image of a particular phenomena you’re trying to study is about interpretation and understanding the phenomena. At the end of the day, it’s probably the simplest project they do for the semester, but it really encompasses so much about what they learned throughout the semester ” he said.

Plus, Izzo said, it’s fun.

Collage of art assignments from Assistant Professor Antonio Izzo's fall Microbiology course.

“For some students, it shows me a whole other side to them. They may have been very quiet all semester, but then suddenly they hand in incredible pieces,” he said. “A lot of science students don’t give themselves enough credit for being creative. They have that creativity. It just comes out in different ways such as the ways they choose to present their research findings using a particular image or graph.”

Harrold offered similar observations on the nature of the assignment.

“Coming into this, being around exams, I was going to do something easy since there wasn’t a grade attached. It was a participation assignment,” said Harrold, a senior biology major from Charlotte, N.C. “But then I stepped back and saw it was a unique opportunity we have and that there aren’t other undergraduate classes that let you express your creativity through science in this way.”


Eric Townsend,
12/9/2011 1:47 PM