Art in Bio –Beauty from ink to lasers

by Ryan Koch , PhD candidate, Parasitology at Oklahoma State University

Another installment for our series about Art in bio that we’ve been highlighting since spring 2020 to focus on all the beauty that’s still being created and how art and science are inseparable.

Uriel Buitrago

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Ink drawing by Uriel Buitrago of the ossicles of the Weberian apparatus in Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum (barred catfish).

Dr. Uriel Buitrago is a Teaching Assistant Professor at Oklahoma State University. Although teaching is his main focus, he spends additional time with research on Neotropical fishes, including fish morphology, phylobiogeography, and evolution. During his PhD at Southern Illinois University, he worked with the group Pseudoplatystoma and related pimelodids, the long-whiskered catfishes.

“The main objective of this analysis was to retrieve distinctive osteologic features with some phylogenetic signal. Such features were then used for comparative anatomy analyses to corroborate the monophyly of the species of Pseudoplatystoma and its sister membership with related groups of Pimelididade, ie., Sorubim, Hemisorubim, etc.” – Dr. Uriel Buitrago Part of Uriel’s work required the creation of detailed drawings of the various skeletal structures within the fish. The illustrations were attained by first drying or staining wet specimens, followed by the use of a stereoscope equipped with camera lucida, and then drawn with ink via an artistic technique called pointillism. 

Ink drawing by Uriel Buitrago of the anteroventral region of the skull of Pseudoplatystoma fasciatum (barred catfish).

The above specimens featured came from different fish collections such as The British Museum, American Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian. The specimens were originally collected in the major river drainages of South America, including the Amazon, Orinoco, Parana, Magdalena, and Sao Francisco.

Michelle Gilbert

Atlantic stingray (Dasyatis sabina). Photo by Michelle Gilbert.

Michelle Gilbert is a fifth year PhD candidate in Craig Albertson’s lab at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

“My research is broadly centered around understanding the origin of shape, evolution of form, and the connection between form and function. To answer my questions, I focus on fishes, which have more species diversity that all other vertebrates combined. What makes fishes such a good system for understanding shape, you ask? Well, fishes come in all shapes and sizes! From round fish to flattened fish, square fish to diamond fish, to fish built for speed, to fish that leave one wondering why their shape exists in the first place (we’re all thinking, Mola mola); fish provide a perplexing and beautiful system to study the intricates of shape evolution.”

Michelle’s approach relies on geometric morphometric methods to investigate patterns of morphological change, and she frequently integrates shape data with genetic, environmental, or phylogenetic data to better understand broad evolutionary mechanisms.

“Many of my photographs focus on cleared and stained vertebrates. Generally, I start by clearing and staining an organism. This involves fixing for preservation and then a series of ‘baths’ that stain different structures different colors and create the illusion of transparency. After the specimen looks aesthetically pleasing to me, I position it in a way that I find appealing and proceed to photograph it. This always involves backlighting, and I typically take numerous photographs at different depths across a section at a time, to maximize resolution and depth of field. Some of my finalized photographs are composed of only a few standalone images (10-15), but others are composed of numerous z-stacks across the body of the specimen (40-100 individual photographs). I then post process everything to align and blend the different layers, tweak the exposure, and remove small blemishes.”

Bighead searobin (Prionotus tribulus). Photo by Michelle Gilbert.
Yellow seahorse (Hippocampus kuda). Photo by Michelle Gilbert.

Many of Michelle’s specimens are obtained from colleagues and friends who have had specimens either die naturally or who have acquired deceased specimens through the aquarium trade for their own work but were unable to work with them due to their size. For example, Steve Huskey provided numerous specimens that he had acquired through his connections with pet stores and large aquarium facilities. More recently, Michelle’s specimens come from natural history collections, from her own connections with local pet stores, and through acquiring specimens in nature that have died of natural causes.

“Art and science have been romantically involved for millennia. We humans have been using art to communicate what we observe since antiquity (and likely before!). For instance, the Mesopotamians and Babylonians used clay models to communicate aspects of anatomy that they had observed in hopes of understanding how the cosmos worked. During the Renaissance, science and art were inseparable, with some of the greatest scientists being artists who used one to express, or communicate, the other. Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci were two of the great scientists of their time who primarily communicated their observations through meticulous illustration.”

“Art is a form of communication that science still heavily relies on today to convey what is observed. Science starts with observations, and I personally find that art is a universal form of communicating those observations to others.”

Michelle Gilbert

For more of Michelle’s photography, visit and follow Michelle on Twitter @Pterycombus.

see Michelle’s paper via our sibling journal IOB also

Plavicki lab

Larval zebrafish brain and antibody stained against acetylated alpha-tubulin, which stains the neuron axon tracks. Photos by Nathan Martin, PhD student in the Plavicki lab.

The Plavicki lab at Brown University, run by Dr. Jessica Plavicki, utilizes confocal microscopy, or laser scanning confocal microscopy, to answer various biological questions using the zebrafish model (Danio rerio). Michelle (post-doc), Nathan, Layra, and Shannon (PhD students), and several undergraduate students incorporate confocal microscopy into their routine laboratory work to photograph high resolution images of fixed and live zebrafish, tissue sections, and live time lapse videos of cell migration, cellular calcium activity, or the heart beating.

“Our lab research spans across cardiovascular development and toxicology, neurotoxicology, and reproductive toxicology. One of the projects I work on with Nate looks at the effects of a global toxicant, PFOS, on microglia and neuron function in embryonic zebrafish. The goal is to understand how exposure to this toxicant impacts brain development and embryonic behavior. The very long-term hope is that our work, combined with the work of other very talented scientists in the field, can be used to convince regulatory agencies to reconsider waste management of manufacturing byproducts to reduce environmental pollution. In addition to this project, my main thesis work investigates how embryonic-derived macrophages, a type of immune cell, are essential to cardiac development and function. Congenital heart defects are of the most common birth defects world-wide, so the goal of this work is to better understand the cell types involved in cardiac function to aid in our understanding of arrhythmogenesis.”

Larval zebrafish brain and antibody stained against acetylated alpha-tubulin, which stains the neuron axon tracks. Photos by Nathan Martin, PhD student in the Plavicki lab.

“Many of our fish have “transgenic” expression of fluorescent proteins. Since embryonic zebrafish are optically transparent, we can image many of our cell types of interest in vivo in live transgenic zebrafish. Alternatively, we perform IHC or IF, which utilizes antibodies specific to our proteins of interest to fluorescently label whatever it is we wish to image. Antibody staining can only be performed on fixed zebrafish or zebrafish tissue sections. All of our zebrafish are raised and housed in our zebrafish facility at Brown University.”

“If we as scientists ever hope to see our work translated productively into society, it is essential we master science communication. An integral and immutable way to do this is through expressing our science through art – a universal language capable of deep, emotional impact.”

Shannon Paquette, Plavicki Lab

“I think it is important to encourage the notion that science and art need not be mutually exclusive; rather, these fields could and should exist symbiotically for the benefit of progress.”

– All quotes by Shannon Paquette, PhD student in the Plavicki lab.

For more updates on the Plavicki lab, follow them on Twitter @ClubDanio. 

connect with Blogger – Ryan via Twitter


To celebrate more Art in Bio, visit our SICB (ICB’s founding society) student award fund site on Fine Art America

Author: suzannecrmiller

Author of Queen, Wage, The Selections on Amazon, Fly on site and soon to be Souvenir through @Inkdedingray publishing

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