Culture Club

Hey, microbe haters, knock it off. That’s the message University of Richmond student researcher Shaina D’Souza ’14 is sending. But maybe it’s not the haters’ fault. “People have been fed a strictly antimicrobial narrative,” D’Souza says.

petrie dish art

To counter that narrative, and to show the world the benefits of bacteria, D’Souza has taken paintbrush to petri dish. Using agar, a medium for growing microorganisms, she “paints” within the clear, sealed circles. The bacteria incubate for about a day, and then, as they grow, colorful images emerge—from abstract mandalas to representations of a bee, a human skull, or a deer (pictured above). The practice mingles her love of art with science, and the results are living designs. She secured a grant to pursue this work, and started the Instagram page @microbesbyshaina.

Microbes need the makeover, she says, because they unfairly get a bad rap. “When I see people overusing antibacterial hand sanitizer and soap, it makes me sad that people don’t realize that they are also killing all of the microbes that fight off sickness-inducing microbes.”

D’Souza will begin a Ph.D. program in biomedical sciences at Tulane University Medical School this August. “My dream job would be working as some sort of bacteria Khaleesi,” she said, referring to the Game of Thrones fictional Dothraki title of queen. In that vein, she’s interested in finding new commercial applications for bacteria. Many of the microbes she works with produce pigment as part of their own evolutionary fitness, she says, which could replace plant- and insect-based dyes.

She also expressed interest in using “bacterial machinery” for the production of drugs and enzymes.

Ultimately, she hopes to bridge the human-bacteria divide. “I hope people realize that the microbes they harbor can be beautiful, too!”