Agar art refers to growing bacteria on microbiology plates so that it forms the shape of a purposeful pattern. Learn here about it from one of the most popular agar artists on Instagram: @stylish_streaking.
Interview With: Caitlin Cahak, MLS (ASCP)
Interview By: Timothy P. Gauthier, Pharm.D., BCPS-AQ ID
You would probably not be alone if you read the title of this interview and thought: what is agar art? Well, agar is a gelatinous material used in biological culture media upon which microbiologists grow bacteria. Start getting creative with how you grow your bacteria and there you have it, agar art!
Agar art images are fantastic and vary considerably depending on the artist and materials employed. Some of my favorite Instagram accounts for a daily dose agar art are @Stylish_streaking (the current interviewee), @chaetomium.queen, and @ASMicrobiology. The American Society For Microbiology now even hosts an agar art competition (details here), for which first place gets you over $450 in prizes!
Given that there is a growing interest in agar art and not many people know much about it, I reached out to the owner of the @Stylish_Streaking Instagram account to see if she would let me interview her. It turns out Caitlin Cahak is the artist behind this account and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about her experience with agar art.
1. What motivated you to pursue a career working in a microbiology laboratory?
Honestly, I kind of just fell into this career. I did not have a full understanding of what I was getting myself into until my junior year of college when we were touring our clinical locations.
Originally coming out of high school, I wanted to go to school to be a medical examiner (or at least something in forensic science). My college advisor was not really sure what route I should take for that so she suggested that I at least start with clinical laboratory science. While this was actually a great starting point for my original plan, I ended up falling in love with microbiology and have stuck with it ever since.
For a while I condisdered going back to school and eventually medical school, but I really cannot see myself doing anything else right now.
2. How did you get into using Instagram to share what you were looking at through the microscope?
I have my own personal Instagram and Facebook accounts, but I decided to create a separate account just for my nerdy micro stuff, because I always felt weird about posting it on my personal pages. Not that I ever got negative responses from people when I did, in fact people would ask and look forward to seeing pictures of my holiday creations, but I am actually very self conscious about my work. I felt more comfortable posting them under a “hidden” identity.
I honestly did not think anyone would see the photos or follow the account, it was more just for myself than the social media world.
3. With nearly 25k followers on Instagram it is clear people are intrigued by the agar art of @Stylish_Streaking. What do you suppose draws people to it?
I think its a big mix of proud nerds like myself, and people who are looking for other means of assisting their learning.
I get a lot of personal messages from people looking for information on how to get into the field, advice and questions for boards exams, and even people asking for help identifying certain organisms they are working on. That last one I’m a little careful on though, because typically it is students asking for help identifying their unknown organisms for their school practicals. While I will help point them in the right direction, I will not give them answers or tell them what exact tests need to be done. Students need to work it out on their own, and I do not need any angry professors coming after me!
Aside from an educational interest, I think a lot of other lab oriented people are drawn to it, because it is relatable. No matter what science/health care field you’re in, you will always have specific passions that the rest of society will not understand. I mean, lets be honest…drawing things from bacteria is a little weird, but people who work with microorganisms on a regular basis can draw a connection to that and appreciate the “nerdiness” and creativity.
4. Is it hard to make agar art?
The actual process is very simple if you have the right organisms and equipment (i.e., personal protective equipment [PPE]). The most difficult part for me is that I am by no means an artist. I would like to think that I can be creative, but I really cannot draw or paint a picture to save my life.
I use different techniques depending on what I am trying to accomplish. The first step is getting the organisms I want to use. Really, I just base this on color and not what the bacteria actually is (except for my Valentines day plates, because personally I think it is hilarious to use Neisseria gonorrhoeae for it). Most of the time I will make a suspension of the organism in saline, that way I can just dip a swab in like putting a paintbrush into a can of paint. If I want to make more fine or detailed lines I will touch a sterile loop to the actual colonies as if I were going to streak it out for isolation. Then you just streak or “paint” wherever you want the growth. Incubate overnight at the apporpriate conditions for the organism, and there you have it…agar art!
5. Is making agar art dangerous or are there warnings you have for others?
In general, no. It is no more dangerous than working with my regular clinical cultures for work. It is important to always use your PPE (labcoat, gloves and biological safety cabinet if necessary), but in general all the organisms I use are safe to play with.
The only time I use added precautions and protection is if I am working with molds, which is also standard for my clinical work.
I guess the only warnings or advice I would have is to treat your agar art for what it is, living potentially pathogenic bacteria. Use proper PPE, safety precautions, and hand washing techniques that you have been taught in school and/or work training and you’ll be fine. And I would like to think people are not making agar art at home, but just in case lets say it: do not try this at home!
6. What do you suppose the future holds for the field of agar art?
Considering I did not anticipate its popularity to begin with, I really have no idea!
I find it amazing enough that the American Society of Microbiology is now having its 2nd annual agar art contest, and even little “holiday art” contests on the side. I really hope it keeps going, if anything just because people have fun with it.
One aspect I do love is that it connects people and has potential for new learning. A perfect example is when you (@IDstewardship) and I collaborated our posts. It was great to have a cross over of clinical microbiology and ID pharmacy, and to show how important these professional interactions and crossovers are. I am honored to have been able to meet people such as yourself and other instagram “celebrities” who work in similar fields. If I could hope for a future in this, it would be for more collaborations among health care professionals and scientists to help in education and to get more people interested in STEM.
I would like to express my utmost appreciation to Ms. Cahak for taking the time to complete this interview.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWEE
Caitlin Cahak, MLS (ASCP) is from Milwaukee, WI. She graduated from UW-Milwaukee with a B.S. in Biomedical Sciences and a submajor in Medical Laboratory Science. She has spent her career thus far working at Wisconsin Diagnostic Laboratories, which is a high volume lab within Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital.
As a Medical Laboratory Scientist, she is certified to work in all areas of the lab, but chooses to work in microbiology specifically. Her current site serves as a clinical and reference lab that works along side the Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW). The site serves as a teaching facility that deals in education of MLS/MT students, medical students, and pathology residents doing rotations for their residency. The site also does work with MCW for research studies and validation studies for new media and instrument testing from outside companies. Mrs. Cahak has worked in the field for 8 years doing clinical and study work, and is one of the education coordinators for the department.
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