Emilie Springer: Microbial Worlds

Jun 21, 2021

"Impermafrost" by Gail Priday
Credit Pratt Museum and Park

Expressing and Sharing Collaborative Arts and Science to Learn About Place Around Us


     Marybeth Leigh is a professor of Microbiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where she teaches courses like General Microbiology and Environmental Microbiology. And, she also has a special interest in coordinating arts and science integration efforts for UAF.  This includes efforts to integrate curriculum across the diversity of disciplines. I also have a research lab that's environmental microbiology oriented. “We look at things like microbes that break down oil spills in the ocean, contaminants in groundwater, contaminants in soil. And, also just general ecosystem processes like biogeochemical cycling of methane and decomposition of litter, things like that,” she said.

     Leigh is coordinator for the show “In a Time of Change: Microbial Worlds” currently on display in Homer’s Pratt Museum.  The show premiered in February of 2017 and has been shown in other places in Alaska as well as galleries in Oklahoma and Oregon.  “Microbial Worlds is the fifth major arts-humanities-science project sponsored by a program at the University of Alaska called “In a Time of Change” (Leigh is also the director of that program).

     I ask, “how does humanities play into the project? How are various arts included?”  Leigh explains, “it’s come together in this program called In a Time of Change and acronym ITOC (https: itoc.alaska.edu) for short. It emerged originally through the Bonanza Creek long-term ecological research (LTER) program.”  Bonanza Creek is located about 20 KM southwest of Fairbanks, on Alaska state land, with Forest Service and university research activities conducted with a long-term lease and cooperative agreement.

     “There are many other NSF funded long-term research sites across the country that include some form of arts or humanities activity. Sometimes very small, sometimes larger. And so, when I first got to UAF in about 2006 or seven with Terry Chapin (Professor Emeritus Botantist with the Institute of Arctic Biology), we talked about starting one up,” she said.  “We started with a writer's workshop, that emerged into a live performance about wildfire. And then, we kept renewing projects. Every couple of years, every two or three years, a new crop of artists or writers and a new theme. And then we shifted, we did, we'd sometimes done live performances that are performing arts oriented and sometimes art exhibits or sometimes both,” she explained.

     “Microbial Worlds” is the fifth major endeavor. It includes mostly visual artists, but there are some writers involved as well, the poet and a writer. There's a variety of different reasons why we're combining things like this together.”  

     Mary Beth is also a dancer, and her video performance was one of the first display pieces that caught my attention before I met her and we started talking.  

     Leigh concludes,
“these grand social ecological challenges that we face require more than just science to solve. There's a tendency for scientists, but others also to think, well, if people just had all the facts we could solve these problems.   But, you need to have a combination of values, feelings and emotions about the issue. When you put those together, then society or individuals and societies can come up with decisions as to what they want to do with the information that they have in combination with their values, when it comes to anything from climate change and wildfire to changes in land use, or resource use, pollution like that.  Arts are a good outreach tool. So, people who may not identify with science or feel uncomfortable with it, might find these topics more approachable through the arts and humanities. And, I think the opposite is also true to some extent.  Maybe people who are excited about science might come to this exhibit and discover how great art is.  It can expand people's horizons.”

          “In a Time of Change” will be on display at Homer’s Pratt Museum until September 25th.