The white laboratory coat is the uniform of science – and it’s uniformly boring.
Unless you happen to work in the Quackenbush Laboratory in Colorado State University’s Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Pathology. Here, sophomore Lani Benedict is launching a fashion trend to reflect the creativity involved in science.
Benedict, a microbiology major from Aurora, Colo., uses black fabric markers to embellish lab coats with intricate drawings that represent a scientist’s inspirations and research interests. She started with her own, then worked on the coat of a research colleague, and now is accepting commissions from students and researchers across campus.
“It’s a nice way to communicate, ‘This is what I do, and I’m proud of it,’” said Benedict, who started a research internship in the Quackenbush Lab during fall semester. “Art is one of the ways you can communicate your findings in science for a wide audience, and that’s a really important thing to do.”
Her artistic project began when Benedict bought her first coat for a CSU science laboratory, and the course instructor encouraged students to personalize the white smocks they wore to protect clothing from laboratory spills. She did just that by drawing on the back a larger-than-life barn owl, her favorite bird, encircled by a vine of flowers.
Next, Benedict went to work on the coat of Connie Brewster, research associate in the Quackenbush Lab. This time, Benedict wanted to reflect her love of molecular biology. She drew bighorn sheep and walleye surrounded by strands of DNA and glycoproteins, with mosquitoes alighting on the lapels.
The drawing represents the virology research under way in the Quackenbush Lab. Sandra Quackenbush, associate dean for academic and student affairs in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, studies how retroviruses trigger the formation of skin tumors that seasonally grow – and then mysteriously regress – in walleye, a fish species common in the northern United States and Canada.
In the past few decades, these lesions, known as walleye dermal sarcoma, have presented a model for broader understanding of the role of retroviruses in tumor formation – not only in fish, but in other species, including humans. Study of retroviruses in fish has led the research team in a new direction, to examine molecular dynamics in development of mosquito-borne dengue fever. The lab also works to identify retroviruses associated with nasal tumors in bighorn sheep.
“I’ve always loved the concept of DNA – it’s like a big puzzle, and it’s the common denominator for life,” said Benedict, who hopes to pursue a career in veterinary research after earning her bachelor’s degree. “Doing lab work makes you a better student. It makes you apply everything you’re learning so you think critically about it.”
She realized the value of drawing as she tried to explain her laboratory work to her parents, and their eyes glazed over. Instead, she sketched a picture to illustrate her use of vectors known as plasmids to replicate DNA for laboratory analysis.
“Art and science have been partners through the ages, and Lani has joined them in a new way on our lab coats,” Quackenbush said. “It’s great to have the scientific talents and creative energy of undergraduate students in our CSU research labs.”
Benedict pointed to none other than Charles Darwin as inspiration for her artistry. After all, she noted, his detailed drawings of Galápagos finches were central to development of his theory of evolution by natural selection.