“Please draw a bacterium.”

(This post is mirrored from Jody’s blog Intersection of Everything)

That’s an actual request I received from a committee member on my doctoral comprehensive exam way back in 2009. A bacterium of the genus Rhodobacter, to be exact, is what he was looking for. My bacterium looked something like this:

While I don’t think the success of my exam depended on an accurate artistic rendition of Rhodobacter, my committee member did have a very insightful purpose in asking me this question, a purpose which was well illustrated by the crude nature of my drawing and the difficulty I had in detailing it. Those of us working in genomics (the study of genomes) are often accused of thinking about the natural world as ‘bags of DNA’ in shades of A, T, G, and C, such that we sometimes neglect that the organisms we study have a shape, a mass, a physical structure, and an existence beyond their genetic code. I find this to be particularly the case in studying microbial genomics, because I’ve never even SEEN any of my specimens, under a microscope or in a photograph tagged with fluorescent probes or otherwise. As such, I must leave it to my imagination to dream up what these mysterious deep sea microbes might look like and how their tiny interactions might play out in the dark, cold abyss. (I’ve had several existential crises to this effect – in the moments when I grasp the reality that 5 years of my life have been dedicated to studying things I can’t evensee).

As challenging as it can be at times to conjure up a realistic perception of a deep sea microbial community, I’m trying hard to make it a daily practice. This is crucial because the mental models we create to explain and visualize the physical world have a direct impact on our ability to uncover nature’s stories and to be able to interpret them. As an added bonus to improving my ability to do good science, my deep sea immersion practice will ensure that the next time someone asks me to draw a Rhodobacter, I’ll be ready.

Deep Sea Microbes (courtesy of Dr. Ed DeLong)

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Jody is a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology at UBC.