Art in bio – Wolbachia and watercolors by Dr. John Beckmann

By blogger Kaitlyn M. Murphy , Ph.D. Candidate, Auburn University

Figure 1. This image visualizes cytoplasmic incompatibility, which is what Dr. Beckmann’s expertise is in.

Predating the use of smartphones and the accessibility of high-definition cameras, a talented naturalist was also gifted in artistry. To visualize the work collected and analyzed, the use of colors and sketches and drawings was almost as important as the data itself. This mindset of “visual persuasion” is the focal point of Auburn University Assistant Professor Dr. John Beckmann.

Dr. Beckmann

As a medical entomologist, Dr. Beckmann investigates sterility in disease-transmitting insects to limit pathogenesis. Specifically, his research targets Wolbachia in mosquitoes that populate insect testes sterilizing sperm cells. The bacterial genes of Wolbachia responsible for the mechanism that prevents the replication of male gametes (i.e., cytoplasmic incompatibility) was discovered by Dr. Beckmann in 20171, and this work was highlighted in Nature News and Views. Not only has Dr. Beckmann excelled in biotechnology research, but his art has also rendered similar highlights. An article published in “The Season”, Auburn University College of Agriculture’s magazine, describes Dr. Beckmann’s background and art in visualizing the academic discoveries he encounters in his lab. With illustration, Dr. Beckmann has visualized many of his scientific interests and for communicating his findings (Figures 1 at the beginning of the blog and 2 below).

Figure 2. In this illustration, clothing items that cling to the skin are shown and where mosquitoes can bite you are highlighted in red.

“Art philosophically guides my science. Art in college really blew my mind. There are no rules in art,” Dr. Beckmann says. “When you get to the higher levels of science there isn’t a protocol – so at that point you really have to become an artist and tinker. You must learn to play around.

…I think science students need some art education or they become robots.”

Dr .Beckmann

What began Dr. Beckmann’s interest in utilizing art to visualize his research was long hours analyzing bacterial genomes on the website for the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI). “I needed a way to visualize genes in long chromosomes. I opened photoshop and started making maps of chromosomes; I printed the gene maps and made posters,” Dr. Beckmann adds. An example of this networking style is shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Gene maps of cytoplasmic incompatibility factors originally published in Beckmann and Fallon, 2013. “This was my original discoveries I was discussing in the article. The black genes are an operon that controls cytoplasmic incompatibility in insects,” Dr. Beckmann adds.

In many of Dr. Beckmann’s publications, he utilizes a variety of software programs. He adds, “ I use Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator for diagrams, paintings, and technical drawings. I use Adobe Premiere Pro to digitize my lab videos, protocols, lectures, techniques, journal clubs, paper discussions, and mentoring. I make animations and gifs. I make posters for recruiting, class advertisements, and lab decorations. I use GraphPad Prism and Python libraries for graphing.”

Aside from teaching Biotechnology I and Medical Entomology at Auburn University, Dr. Beckmann also instructs Scientific Illustrations (Figure 4 and 5). “Art also improved my observations and my scientific communication. Drawing forces you to see detail….you have to build those neuron connections,” he adds.

Figure 4. This is a knolled Platypus from Dr. Beckmann’s scientific illustration class. “In this assignment students itemize and knoll all the bones from a vertebrate animal in order to master photoshop objects,” he adds.

Creativity and science are often recognized as ends to the continuum of liberal arts; however, Dr. Beckmann thinks that “Creativity is the core of a real PhD. It’s a requirement…. real PhD means you tinker, you solve problems, you troubleshoot, you plot your own independent path, you question everything, and you test things.” He adds, “Many people have PhD level knowledge, but what separates the people I admire is that they are ALSO very creative experimentalists; they can envision novel creative ways to test hypotheses. To really earn a PhD, you have to be a very creative experimentalist.”

On the opposite side of this argument, “Creativity ruffles feathers. Thinking independently attracts hate. This is the inherent burden of creatives….Art essentially has no rules. This creates paradoxical conflict between the fields. Finding where they intersect and can coexist has been a fun and controversial journey for me.”

Figure 5. In this image are toucans from Dr. Beckmann’s Scientific Illustration class for Project 2. This illustration was from the main color project that teaches color painting techniques.

When asked about how to encourage more scientists to engage in creativity, Dr. Beckmann suggests “learn to draw in black and white – it will re-organize your brain. Make a 10-minute drawing of a simple object each day. Focus on drawing every detail of that object.” Lastly, he advises “Certainly, never break the law. Read Nietzsche. Make stupid people really mad; then blame it on me and this blog post. Have fun while you do it.”

Figure 6. A recruiting poster for undergraduate positions in Dr. Beckmann’s lab. He adds “to recruit students on our knitting projects.”

See what else Dr. Beckmann is up to

Man vs. Mosquito

Buy merch

with one of Beckmann’s works of art on it. Profits go to SICB’s student fund so that students can receive scholarships for our annual SICB conference.


ICB entomology related reads:

Mosquitoes Actively Remove Drops Deposited by Fog and Dew

by Dickerson & Hu

Episodes in insect evolution

by Bradley et al

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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