Poznań student who paints with BACTERIA in finals of international microbe art competition
A Poznań student has her sights fixed on an international Agar Art competition, an artistic discipline that uses bacteria instead of paints.
Resting on a public vote conducted on Flickr, polls close today in the ASM Agar Art Contest, an annual award organised by the American Microbiological Society “to share the beautiful and diverse world of microbes with the public.”
Agar art uses naturally coloured microbes such as red coloured Serratia marcescens bacteria, or genetically modified microbes such as yeast fungi.
These are then used to ‘paint’ on agar plates with these special petri dishes acting as the artist’s canvas.
Split into four sub-categories – including one for children, one for ‘creators’, an open category, and a final one for ‘professionals’ – it is in this last category that Martyna Pietrzak is competing in as the only contestant from Poland.
As one of 85 contenders, Pietrzak has been classified as a ‘professional’ due to having access to a laboratory as well as possessing personal knowledge as to how to safely handle bacteria.
A student of veterinary medicine at the Poznań University of Life Sciences, Pietrzak told PAP that she first became interested in this niche artistic genre after googling the search term ‘microbiology of art’.
Fascinated by the colourful images that greeted her, she approached the university’s Professor Agnieszka Pękala-Safińska who enabled her to take the next step by allowing her access to bacteria collected from cats, dogs, fish, pigs and cattle.
Usually used for scientific processes such as testing drug resistance, Pietrzak began experimenting with these samples to create her first artworks.
Combining her passions for microbiology and art, the student says that it took about a year to create her submission for the competition.
“I had to work in a lab, painting and working in special conditions so that, for instance, spores would not spread,” she told PAP.
“Of course, with this type of art you have to make sure that everything is properly disinfected and use UV lamps, gloves, masks and aprons,” she added.
“I had to remember to tie my hair up so as not to transfer any bacteria by accident, and it was also critical that I was careful not to leave any bacteria behind with the special brush that I was using.”
Following highly complex procedures, Pietrzak says that having obtained the necessary bacteria, she would then inoculate them so as to “bring them to life”.
“These bacteria don’t have their own certain colour,” she said, “only under the influence of a substrate do they then develop colour.”
Having applied a substrate, Pietrzak would then wait 24-hours to see the results after the bacteria had been incubated to the right temperature.
Submitting three portraits of eminent scientists, Pietrzak chose to paint Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, and Odo Bujwid, a Polish microbiologist that had studied under Koch.
“I study veterinary medicine, that is why I became interested in the story of the woman who became Poland’s first female vet in 1923,” she explained on Flickr.
“While exploring her story, I discovered that behind her achievements was her father, Odo.”
Born in 1857, Odo Bujwid overcame a traumatic childhood impacted by the alcoholism of his parents to become one of Poland’s top scientists.
Dedicating all his free time to academic study, his early hardships allowed him to develop into the focused and diligent scientist that history remembers, explains Pietrzak.
Titled ‘Microscopy and microchemistry of sputum in respiratory diseases’, he sent one of his early papers to Robert Koch who was so impressed that he invited him to study under him for a six-week course, and he later spent three months with Louis Pasteur himself.
Subsequently founding the first bacteriological lab in Poland in his Warsaw apartment, he also opened Poland’s first pastoral vaccination station whilst also campaigning for the emancipation of women and higher hygiene standards in hospitals.
Justifying her choice of subject, Pietrzak says: “Odo Bujwid showed that scientific development is the result of hard work and determination, as well as joint action.
“He also proved that our family environment and associated difficulties should not determine our choices if we make science our passion.”