Bacteria research inspires students' creative artwork

Shayna Anderson '16, "Untitled," lithograph. This image, inspired by Ruth Ley's research, appeared as the cover art for the November issue of the science journal, Cell Host and Microbe.

As disciplines, art and science may seem worlds apart, but a Cornell course bridges the two.

This fall, 12 undergraduates in Introduction to Print Media (ART2301) listened to a lecture by Ruth Ley, associate professor of microbiology, visited the Ley Lab and learned about her research on gut microbe behavior and activity. Ley discussed her recent study, published in the November issue of the journal Cell Host and Microbe, which explains a mammal’s immune system thwarts bacterial movement in the intestines and prevents inflammation in gut surface cells. The students translated aspects of that research into visual terms.

“It was a little bit of both having art students learn about what goes on in a science lab and having lab members learn about how artists work,” said Gregory Page, associate professor of art, who teaches the course.

“The science served as the inspiration for me and my classmates to create the work and still represent the science,” said fine art major Shayna Anderson ’16, of the project. Students created images for a portfolio of prints made through a variety of media, including lithography, screen prints, mono prints and stenciling. Anderson’s print, “Untitled,” was selected for the cover of the issue of Cell Host and Microbe, where Ley’s research paper appeared.

lithography and screen print
Rebecca Potash '16, "Tribal Warfare," lithography and screen print.
lithography and screen print
Minhye Choi '16, "The Mothers Womb," lithography and screen print.

Page has collaborated with other faculty and staff members, namely Todd Bittner, director of natural areas at Cornell Plantations, and entomologists Linda Rayor, Laura Harrington and Rick Hoebeke. Last summer, when Ley inquired if any fine arts faculty members were interested in working with a scientist, she was referred to Page.

“As part of my teaching at Cornell, I plan on training science students in the interpretation of concepts in visual arts and eventually even have them learn some basic skills for producing images or video,” Ley said. “I also want to bring science to fine arts students, and my collaboration with Professor Page was my first attempt at this.”

Ley believes that many of the skills taught in the liberal arts are essential for good scientists, including writing well, creative thinking, visualizing how things work and using images to convey complex biological processes.

“Communicating science requires powerful visuals, great images, movies, novel ways of showing data that capture people’s attention,” she said.

Read about Ley’s research on gut bacteria and inflammation here.

On Nov. 25, the class invited Ley to sit in on critiques of their work. She said that even though many of the students had little biology background and didn’t always understand what they viewed under a microscope, “they made very lovely images, some of them depicting structures with high complexity.”

Another class that Page teaches, Large Format Print Media (ART3401), has been collaborating with Bittner to visually represent the naturally occurring erosion found within Monkey Run Natural Area along Fall Creek in Ithaca. An exhibit of the work by three students will be held in Mann Library Gallery until Feb. 28.

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