The Art of Science

NDSU Microbiology
by NDSU Microbiology

Guest Blogger, Michael Mann, VMS Undergrad

Only on rare occasions would I ever equate art and science. The two are both alike and different: science is inherently objective, while art is greatly subjective, but both require a certain amount of creativity and technical skill. Scientists must be creative with how they approach their research, but the creativity does not extend much further. There are a few instances, however, where science may be truly beautiful in its raw essence. Such instances might be a wonderful screw up in the lab, or when an experiment actually goes exactly as wanted.

This blog entry illustrates an example of the former.

I was in class learning about the different kinds of stains microbiologists use to differentiate cells, when all of a sudden, I heard the most dreaded words of all…group project. I have usually been okay working with others. I am even fine with doing the majority of the work and being the one to help everyone else out, but with lab work, I like to work alone. Nevertheless, we were assigned groups and tasked with mastering a specific staining technique. My group got negative staining. This technique is done by placing cells on a slide, letting them dry, then covering them with a drop of nigrosine dye. The tricky part is to take another slide and get the ink front just perfect so an even amount of ink covers the slide. If done properly, the stain will only remain on the outside of the cells. Nigrosine is acidic, so when it encounters the negatively charged cell wall, the dye remains on the outside, highlighting the cell on a background of solid black against a light-filled shell of what the microbe should look like. To the left is a picture of an electron micrograph of a negative strain of influenza A virus.

I was unable to produce anything like this, so when my slides were ready for observation, to the eye they looked great, but under the microscope, they were useless as a negative stain. They were, however, beautiful in their own way. They were art.

The slide resembled a cloudy night sky, but with cracks of light shining through. Also, because the ink was uneven, the darkness was staggered throughout the view, so it swirled just ever so slightly. Even though the technique to this stain was not done properly, the end product was even more amazing than a masterfully rendered negative stain.

Later in the week, we learned about even more ways to stain the different bacteria we would come to be better acquainted with. Although none of the other stains looked nearly as good as my messed up negative stain, they were all beautiful in their own right. Some of the stains were simple like the negative stain, but most utilized multiple colors, making for other pieces of vivid art.

This event was the point in my career when I knew microbiology was the place I should have always been. I have not had too many artistic encounters in my short scientific career, but I hope to have many more of them in the years ahead.

Image: CDC.

This entry is part of the MICR 354 (Scientific Writing) student-blog series.