By Natalie Saleh
“Scientists and artists used to be one, but I think along the way people started getting more and more focused on one or the other. Then people split into artists versus scientists,” says Wei Wei, a graduate student in Oregon State University’s Department of Microbiology.
As a creative problem-solver, Wei spends her time researching agrobacterium in the lab of Dr. Walt Ream. When she is not collecting or analyzing data, however, Wei enjoys painting and sketching, talents she has cultivated from a young age.
Currently Wei is working with a soil bacterium, called agrobacterium.
“Agrobacterium is really interesting, because it’s able to naturally genetically modify plants on its own. So if you ever see a big gall on a tree, kind of towards the bottom, that’s most likely an agrobacterium infection. What it does is transfer some genes to the plant, and it causes the plant to grow a lot of cells,” says Wei.
Agrobacterium impacts a lot of crops, such as stone fruit, grapes, and woody ornamentals. This is a problem in the nursery industry, because nurseries cannot sell plants that have this growth. Customers will not buy them. Unfortunately, up to 80% of a crop can be impacted by agrobacterium, causing a huge economic loss.
Though agrobacterium has clear negative impacts, Wei’s research aims to harness the power of agrobacterium to naturally genetically modify crops. For example, scientists can remove a harmful gene from a crop and replace it with a useful gene that they have inserted into the agrobacterium. Then the agrobacterium delivers that gene to the crop.
On a surface level, this project may not seem to have much in common with art. However, Wei sees a clear connection between the process of research and her process of painting.
“Artists of all sorts are very creative, but they also think in patterns. They have a principle of art, like what makes a piece good or not good. Scientists are also like that. They think very creatively to solve a problem, and they also look for patterns to help recognize something new,” explains Wei.
Wei’s experience with art shapes the way she conducts research, and her research impacts the way she creates artwork. Essentially artists are problem-solvers, just like researchers.
“I oftentimes will start painting something, and then this one little part does not work out the way I wanted it too. But instead of just getting rid of the whole piece, I have to dabble with it and make it work. I think that’s how I’ve always done my art, and I think it translates over into science,” says Wei.
Wei plans her experiments in careful, tidy steps. However, the experiment itself is never as tidy as her plan. When any steps deviate from the plan, she does not give up or start over. She adapts.
Passionate about sharing science with people outside the academic science community, Wei was eager to get involved with The Art Center’s “To See the Unseen.” She has ample experience with outreach, regularly participating in “Meet a Scientist” events in Portland and having taught microbiology lessons to elementary school students. Though Wei’s outreach has not yet extended to her artwork, she is excited to illustrate the microbiome through art, and again use her talent to educate others.