Exploring science through art


Micro photography of my lipstick.

Micro photography of my lipstick.

For the past year, I have been exploring different ways to incorporate science into my photographs. I have always wanted to bridge the gap between science and art so that viewers of all ages can experience a new form of art. I have dreamt of recreating the viewer’s childhood curiosity so that they leave feeling amazed, inspired, and curious once again. Some of my most recent work has been created by making various assortments of slides taken from my own body, such as saliva, zits, hangnails and much more. Each created slide is a self portrait of me on a smaller scale or what I like to call my smaller self. The slides are then viewed and photographed under a microscope. Each image taken can be built up of about 50 to 200 photos that are combined together using Adobe Photoshop.

But where exactly does this all fit in with the Ohio State University’s Triplehorn Insect Collection? In spring 2017 I attended Columbus College of Art and Design’s (CCAD) Biodiversity class. I was lucky to have attended that class when I did because soon after it was dissolved. As part of the class we took a tour of the Triplehorn collection. I was overflowing with excitement! At that time I had only gotten to see a small fraction of what the collection had to offer but it was enough to get me hooked. When it came time to leave I was feeling unfulfilled, the hour we had spent there didn’t seem like it would have been enough. As my classmates and I were collecting our belongings to head out the door someone had mentioned that they also take in interns to help photograph specimens. Hearing that was both extremely exciting and terrifying.

I knew I wanted to help out and be a part of the great things that were happening at the collection but I had also immediately started to doubt myself. I had started to think that I wouldn’t have be a good fit only because I did not have any background experience in entomology. With encouragement from some friends I took the time to look over my completed credits at CCAD. I found out that I had completed all the major photo courses required for me to graduate but I still had extracurricular credit that needed to be completed. Instead of filling my free time with classes that didn’t fit my career path I decided to try and spend it at the collection. With the information I had gathered from my class visit I reached out to the Curator, Dr. Luciana Musetti, who responded to my email almost immediately. Plans were then made to meet up within the week and before I knew it, I was accepted as an intern.

I have already started to work with both macro and microscopic photographs which just so happens to be right up my alley considering this has been where my artwork has been heading. On my second week here I had the chance to photograph a feather-wing beetle, one of the smallest beetles in the world. To the human eye the beetle looks nothing more than the tiniest of speck of dust, but once the beetle was placed under the microscope I could see the silver facets that make up the eyes and that its body was completely covered with hair. But the most amazing part about the beetle was its wings. The wings looked nearly identical to a bird’s feathers, hence the common name, featherwing (or featherwinged) beetles (family Ptiliidae)

Featherwing beetle image work in progress.

Featherwing beetle image work in progress.

This experience has been the perfect opportunity for me since everything I have learned along the way was self-taught and was always a struggle to find the resources that I needed. The techniques they use here to acquire their final image is similar to what I have been doing but more efficient. There are many things I still have to learn that will further help my artwork and future career path within the field of scientific documentation. It’s been under a month since I’ve started interning here and everyone I work with have been extremely helpful and friendly beyond all expectations. Being here is constantly driving me to learn and do more every day. It is so inspiring to be around people with a passion for the world of insects. This has brought many ideas for future projects in mind.

Over the next 4 months or so I’ll be working on various specimen imaging projects, butterflies, beetles, minute parasitoid wasps, and more, and I’ll be trying to learn everything I can along the way. I will also be working on an individual project that I will present at the end of the internship. Keep tuned to my next post here at the Pinning Block.

 

About the author: Evie Moran is a Columbus-based fine art photographer skilled in microscopic imaging, archival preservation/imaging, and shoot coordination, seeking projects where she can add value within academia. She started her internship at the Triplehorn Insect Collection in January 2018. Contact Evie here at the blog or at evievmoran.com. You can also follow her on Instagram @eviemoran

Butterflies go digital 1 – the skippers


Skipper buterflies

The term digitization, when applied to the specimens in an insect collection, refers to the process of capturing all the information associated with a specimen — its name, where it was collected, when, by whom, how, etc. — in electronic format.  It is also used to refer to digital image capture of the specimen and the labels.

Specimen data digitization may sound straightforward, just copy the information into a computer and you’re good to go, right?! No quite so. Before label data can be turned into bits and bytes, collecting localities plotted on distribution maps, and species names populating checklists, a lot of careful physical and intellectual preparatory work needs to take place. That’s actually the bulk of the work and the kind of work that takes the most expertise to accomplish.

In an ideal situation, an insect collection would be neatly curated, names updated, specimens intact. In reality, the curatorial status of collections varies from group to group, depending on how much the specimens were used over the years. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Lepidoptera, the group of the butterflies and moths, was never a focus of researchers at Ohio State. Consequently, the OSU butterfly collection was never a priority for curation. The specimens are well preserved, but still stored in old-fashioned drawers and trays, tightly shingled (wings overlapping) to save space, and therefore not very easily accessible.

We started our portion of the LepNet project in August 2016. The first big step for us was to curate the Parshall and the old OSU collection so the specimens can be more easily handled by the data entry staff. That took months of very hard work. Riley Gott, who was an undergraduate student assistant here at the collection at the time,  had an interest in skippers, and had already done an amazing job curating part of that collection. It was only natural that the skippers be at the top of our databasing priorities.

We’ve now reached a milestone  that is worth celebrating: all the skipper specimens in the collection, 15,761 specimens to be precise, are now in our online database and freely available for anyone to consult. Of those, 6,753 are part of the “old collection“, which includes specimens in the Homer F. Price, Richard A. Leussler, and James Hine collections, plus many specimens collected and prepared by Joe & Dorothy Knull.  A small number of the specimens (127) dates back to 1876-1899, and 57%, roughly 3,800, were collected between 1900 and 1969. The newest specimens were collected in 2001. As it is expected in an old collection, some specimens do not carry complete label data. In our case, 17% of the old skipper specimens do not have a year of collection. On the other hand, the over 9,000 skippers in the Parshall donation are much more recent. Most were collected between 1970s and 1990s, and most specimens have detailed locality information.  

Overall, the skippers in our holdings were collected mostly in the USA (~91%), followed by Canada (~4%), and various other countries (5%.)

Distribution of skippers in the Triplehorn collection holdings

Distribution of skippers in the Triplehorn collection holdings

Funding for the databasing of the butterflies in the Triplehorn Insect Collection comes in part from the Lepidoptera of North America Network (LepNet), a collaborative projected supported by the National Science Foundation, and from the Knull endowments to the collection. We are grateful to the amazing volunteers who are working side-by-side with our undergraduate assistants and technical staff on the curation and databasing of the butterflies. They make a formidable team.

We started working on the curation and databasing of various genera of brush-footed butterflies (Family Nymphalidae) and will be reporting on our progress soon. Keep checking back for updates or, better, sign up to receive updates from our blog.

About the Author: Luciana Musetti is the Curator of the Triplehorn Insect Collection.

Arting and Sciencing: First Impressions at the Triplehorn – Part 1

I have loved science longer than I have loved art. I was big into rocks and dinosaurs when I was little and as I got older I had my mind set on being an astronomer. I had little interest in the other domains of science (I actually quite disliked bugs). I enjoyed art, did it for fun but wasn’t passionate about it. Then about 8th grade, while practicing coding I discovered animation. I could go on forever about art and animation and how amazing it is but I’ll skip to the relevant parts.

Jessika sketching a beetle while looking through a microscope

One of the first things I did when I got here was to try and draw small beetles through a microscope

My interest in teaching science through art is a more recent development and I think the seed was planted when my high school English teacher, senior year, mentioned offhand that I could do art for interactive textbooks but I didn’t think or pursue this idea for the longest time. It was in college, at CCAD (where I am currently a junior), that I started to find my path and what I liked making. As you can imagine, most people studying animation want to go into classic entertainment. And while I never dreamed of working at Disney, I did (and still do) love making silly cartoons but I could never get super passionate about it.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what I want to do and how I’m going to do it. For the longest time I didn’t even know what to call this educational animation I wanted to do, and people had a hard time understanding what it was that I was talking about. I’ve recently found the title I think fits best and it is “Science Communication”. But to be a Science Communicator, one has to know science and I, being the stereotypical art student, knew nothing about anything. I was into geology and stars as a kid but I still hardly had an understanding on those topics, and has zero insight into everything else that science encompasses. So, I knew I needed to learn about scientific subjects in order to create educational animation. Not too long after this revelation, I found the OSU Triplehorn Insect Collection and lucky for me, they love (and have a history of) taking on artist interns!

Jessika mounting insects at a microscope

Learning how to mount wasps that were a millimeter long (it was very difficult)

Working at the collection and being taught about the world of insects by all the helpful staff has been overwhelming at times. I failed to mention earlier that not only did I fall in love with art at the start of high school, I also fell out of love with learning science (I’m looking at you Chemistry); the classes were hard and I received my first F’s. So, it was like learning all over again why I didn’t become a scientist. But it was also exciting to see other people so passionate about the tiniest of insects. The students and entomologists are just as enthusiastic about beetles as I am about pencils. I am surrounded 24/7 by people who are all passionate about art and creating, it was refreshing and a good reminder to see people being passionate about other (tiny!) things.

A wasp under a microscope with a sketch of the wasp larger in front of it

A shot of a drawing I did using the Camera Lucida, an old method used to create scientific drawings before cameras

One thing I was not expecting to learn at this internship was how insect collections work and function and what the curation of such a place is like. Going in, thinking back to it now, I honestly didn’t know what I expected to learn. Probably just the different types of bugs, the orders, genus, etc. And while I did learn a little about that, I learned more about the parts and how they vary species to species. A lot of this came from pinning bugs, something I wanted to kind of do for a year or two now but never really looked into it and it turns out it can be pretty fun (if the bug is big enough at least)!

As the internship chugs along, my hand has been too, drawing the specimens but with no specific plan for an animated short in mind. I still have a lot to learn and discover, especially about the nearly invisible parasitoid wasps. I will be working in the Triplehorn collection until December 2017, researching and consulting with the entomologists about what stories need to be told and figuring out how to tell them so it’s engaging. These ideas will be explored in later blog posts here on The Pinning Block.

 

About the Author: Jessika Raisor is a Junior Animation Major at Columbus College of Art and Design. You can follow her work on Instagram at @jessikaarts. She started her internship at the Triplehorn Insect Collection in August 2017.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 5

On August 10, I traveled to Zaleski State Forest with Dr. Norman Johnson and Dr. Luciana Musetti to collect Pelecinus polyturator specimens for my research. The area we visited has come to be known as Pelecinus Cove due to the relative abundance of Pelecinus wasps in the area.

image of Pelecinus Cove

The author searching for Pelecinids at Pelecinus Cove, photo by Dr. Luciana Musetti

Upon arriving at Pelecinus Cove, I could clearly see why Pelecinids are attracted to the locality. Adult Phyllophaga beetles tend to lay their eggs in the soil near trees. Pelecinids then parasitize the larvae that hatch from these eggs. However, females are not able to navigate their abdomen through the soil to oviposit if the ground is covered in grass or other dense vegetation. Therefore, the ideal location for a Pelecinus wasp would be a wooded area with mostly open ground. Pelecinus Cove definitely fits that description.

Equipped with insect nets and killing jars, we trekked through tall weeds and swarms of mosquitoes in search of the large parasitoids. Several minutes into our expedition, we noticed that not many insects were present other than a few moths and a lot of mosquitoes. We used our nets and feet to stir up the weeds in hopes of also stirring up resting Pelecinids. Unfortunately, even after an hour and a half of searching, there were no Pelecinids to be found.

Although the location itself was ideal, we speculate that other conditions were not. Ohio received a lot of rain in the weeks prior to our collecting trip, and the ground was very damp. This may have flooded out some of the Phyllophaga grubs or deterred the Pelecinus females from ovipositing. The number of grubs available to parasitize is a major limiting factor of how many Pelecinus females successfully reproduce, so if fewer Phyllophaga grubs were accessible due to damp soil, then fewer Pelecinids would be expected to stay in the area. The weather was also very cool, humid, and overcast. A little more sunshine and warmth may have enticed the Pelecinids, as well as other insects, to come out of hiding.

Despite the disappointing outcome of the collecting trip, fresh specimens are not completely unavailable. Prior to the collecting trip, I found a P. polyturator female in one of the Malaise trap samples. This exciting find also suggests that there are more wasps in the area that could be collected, so I am keeping my hopes up for more fresh specimens in the future.

image of gel electrophoresis

The author learning protocols for gel electrophoresis

Due to my autumn class schedule that begins next week, today is my last day working and researching at the Triplehorn Insect Collection for the summer. Looking back, I realize just how much I learned over the summer through my research experiences, including the value of DNA barcoding, how to extract DNA and amplify genes, how to collect from a Malaise trap, how to photograph large insects, and the fascinating behaviors of P. polyturator.

Although I won’t be participating in active, ongoing research this autumn, that doesn’t mean there won’t be more opportunity for learning and progress. I still plan to revisit my research regularly, read more about Wolbachia, continue editing my research proposal for the Honors project, and learn how to trim and read DNA sequences. When I return to my regular research schedule (hopefully in the spring), I will be well-prepared to continue where I left off. Thank you for following my research journey this far, and I hope that everyone reading has developed a new appreciation for the intriguing parasitoids of the genus Pelecinus.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.

Researching Pelecinids – Part 4

image of author extracting DNA

The author learning DNA extraction protocols

Over the last several weeks, I have been hard at work with my research on Pelecinids. I continued to collect weekly samples from the Triplehorn Insect Collection’s malaise traps, and I began to practice keying various families and superfamilies of Hymenoptera. I also learned the protocols for DNA extraction, PCR, and gel electrophoresis from graduate student Huayan Chen.

Not every aspect of research, however, is an active endeavor taking place in a lab or in the field. Research also requires a considerable amount of time for reading, writing, planning, and patience.

I am now in the process of shaping my research into an honors project that will span multiple semesters rather than this summer alone. Honors research is a much more demanding ambition than a single semester of research, but it is also a very rewarding experience that will push me to delve deeper into my research topic. I plan to expand the scope of my current research on Pelecinus DNA by also looking for DNA from Wolbachia, a bacteria that can influence sexual differentiation in insects. Huayan and I have already found that Wolbachia is present in several of our wasp specimens. I am also interested in the possibility of geographical parthenogenesis in P. polyturator females.

My current focus is on composing an honors project proposal. The purpose of the proposal is to establish how I plan to conduct my research, what materials I will need, and what goals I aim to meet. The proposal also includes an abstract, which is vital for exhibiting my research to the scientific community, and a literature review, which is important for ensuring the quality and relevance of my project.

The literature review has proven to be the most challenging portion of the proposal. It involves finding and reading the research of others, then synthesizing the information into a concise review and citing the sources in a list of references. Because there is such a vast amount of previously conducted research available to read, picking out the relevant studies and piecing the information together can be a time-consuming process. While searching for material to read, it isn’t uncommon for me to feel a little overwhelmed.

Despite the challenge, the literature review is one of the most important components of any research project for many reasons. First, it prevents the unnecessary repetition of collecting and interpreting data that another study already collected and interpreted in an identical manner. Second, it provides helpful context for the researcher. By reading about work that others have done on Pelecinus, Wolbachia, and parthenogenesis in Hymenoptera, I will be better equipped to design a procedure that is effective and efficient, or modify that procedure should something not work. Third, I can interpret data from other studies in relation to my own research findings, and vice versa, leading to a more comprehensive understanding of my final results.

image of P. polyturator

P. polyturator female

Although summer semester is coming to a close, I still have several research-related plans before I head back to classes this autumn. I will collect fresh P. polyturator specimens from Zaleski State Forest this August, which is when adults are most prominent in Ohio. These specimens will then be used for DNA extraction, along with several frozen or mounted specimens already in the collection. We also received a generous donation of West Virginian and Canadian P. polyturator specimens, which will be very useful for sampling DNA from a wider range of localities. I will also continue collecting from the malaise traps, keying Hymenoptera families and superfamilies, and reading relevant materials on DNA barcoding.


About the Author: Hannah McKenzie is an undergraduate entomology major at the Ohio State University. She currently works at the Triplehorn Insect Collection and is participating in undergraduate research on Pelecinus wasps.