IN THE LAB
with Julie Wolf
Julia Buntaine Hoel, Editor-in-Chief: As a microbiologist, you are a Science Communications Specialist for the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). Can you a talk a bit about the work you do at ASM?
Julie Wolf: I’m really lucky, because I get to read science articles and speak with scientists all day! It’s a great position for someone like me, who loves both science and the news. I distill technical articles into short summaries for social media, ASM’s website, or our member magazine. My favorite project is hosting a podcast run by the society, which features scientists discussing their research. I also work with scientists to help them improve their communication skills.
My science communications career really began at Genspace. At Genspace, you never know if the member you’re speaking with is an art student, a venture capitalist, or a research scientist. When I was a research scientist myself, I made a game when I visited Genspace: I would explain my research, but didn’t allow myself to ask whether the other person was a scientist or not. The follow-up questions they asked would guide the conversation and inform the depth and detail of my responses. This taught me the importance of clear, succinct language, and the dangers of making assumptions.
JBH: What drew you to microbiology in the first place?
JW: The so-called simple systems of single-celled microorganisms like bacteria are actually very complex! I recall learning about the ways that bacterial cells can detect their environment - whether there’s food nearby, whether neighboring microbes are friend or foe, whether there are toxic substances nearby. A single bacterium can detect its environment and change its behavior based on what it detects; bacteria in a dense culture can communicate with their neighbors to change their lifestyle based on how many neighbors they ‘hear.’ Learning that these purported simple systems have complicated communications methods - using chemicals instead of words - is what first drew me into microbiology.
JBH: At Genspace, you teach a "Painting with Bacteria" course. How would you describe the value of learning about microbiology through creative expression?
JW: There is nothing like learning by doing, and the "Painting with Bacteria" workshop teaches participants all sorts of microbiology fundamentals as they create a beautiful, original image. The workshop starts with the most important lesson: not all microbes are ‘germs'. I love to dispel the notion that all microorganisms are dangerous or the source of infectious disease, so we begin with a discussion of where microbes are found. Incidentally, I’ve noticed younger participants tend to be more aware of beneficial microbes, so some of the microbial PR may be working.
The workshop requires a brief discussion of microbial characteristics so everyone understands how to create with bacteria. After we discuss the natural shapes and pigments produced by different microbes, participants learn about the genetic techniques that produce their microbial ‘paints', the nutrient agar that comprises their ‘canvas', and the sterile technique necessary to prevent contamination.
The scientists inside really come out as students start to use the differently colored bacterial strains. Students can ask very sophisticated questions about bacterial competition as they try to predict what will happen if they layer strains over one another - the goal is to create a specific image, but you have to understand the microbes to plan the final picture! I think the students benefit from receiving a compelling image - who doesn’t like fluorescent bacteria? - as well as an introduction to microbiology.