The "Richmond Plague" sickness that infects campus each fall semester has struck, and University of Richmond students are now thinking about the different ways and places they interact with bacteria. From sharing drinks at 8:15 at Boatwright to sharing a hall bathroom with 15 friends, college students are constantly surrounded by bacteria.
But what if some of these bacteria are actually good for us? Shaina D’Souza, WC '18, a Biochemistry and Molecular Biology student from Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, has been working to change the narrative that all bacteria is bad, through her project, Microbes by Shaina.
Microbes by Shaina is an initiative that uses microbes to create art.
The microbes D'Souza works with are non-pathogenic (non-harmful) bacteria, although not all microbes are non-pathogenic. The inspiration for the project came during D’Souza's sophomore year in the lab of Laura Runyen-Janecky, a professor of biology, as D'Souza was studying Sodalis bacteria in tsetse flies. The professor had explained that one could culture bacteria of different colors, and D'Souza had had the idea of using the vibrant microflora as art.
That same semester, Runyen-Janecky was searching for an interesting image to use as a banner photo on her website. She needed a photo that was both informational and inviting, and that would attract students to her lab.
For D’Souza’s first microbe-art project, she decided to create a colorful banner made of bacteria for Runyen-Janecky’s lab, which appropriately involved a microbe image of a tsetse fly. While working on her project, D’Souza had started to understand the connections between science and art, and she knew she wanted to do more.
“I think science employs a lot of creativity in the way that art employs a lot of creativity, although people think of them as very separate things,” D’Souza said. “I really liked that overlap.”
As D’Souza delved deeper into her project, she began to think more about the broader implications of her work. D'Souza is minoring in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS), and she said that she believes in the importance of social activism, specifically scientific literacy.
“I always wonder whether scientists are doing enough to promote scientific literacy,” D’Souza said. “Science can be really scary, and there aren’t enough people working in the scope of science communication.”
D’Souza entered the world of science communication through her microbial art projects as a way to promote the beautiful aspects of bacteria. She began posting images of her work on an Instagram account dedicated to her project as a way to fight the common notion that all bacteria is harmful to us.
“People don’t realize what a vital role microbes play in our health,” D’Souza said. “I think microbiologists should feel obligated to help change that narrative from reduction of bacteria to having a healthy relationship with it.”
As a microbiologist herself, D’Souza considers her project to be her own tiny form of science activism. She also recognizes the value of a liberal arts education, and believes Microbes by Shaina is only strengthening her experience as an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.
More images of D'Souza's "agar art" can be found on her Instagram account: @microbesbyshaina.
Contact features writer Sydney Lake at email@example.com.
Editor's note: This article originally stated that "Microbes are non-pathogenic (non-harmful) bacteria." However, not all microbes are non-pathogenic. The article has been since edited and corrected.