The art in microbial oceanography – why data visualizations and art are two sides of the same coin

Contributed by Mpvj0vEct_400x400arkus Lindh

When I visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York City this December, I was struck by the similarities between the Jackson Pollock collection and data visualizations of microbial oceanography. It may seem surprising, but the processes of science and art are very similar, if not identical. Some of the major cornerstones of both involve observation, collaboration, research and creativity. Here’s how art can help us appreciate the infinite depth and beauty of biological complexity in the ocean.

In our field of microbial oceanography, we are trying to understand the distribution and function of the smallest plankton in the ocean. Marine microbes have high diversity, short generation times and rapid turnover, and despite their small size, these numerous microorganisms regulate fluxes of energy and chemicals in the ecosystem by processing organic matter. Microbial oceanographers often employ artistic renditions to depict how the very small interact with each other and the environment. For example, in her excellent text on why microbes matter Alice Vislova showed an image by professor Roman Stocker, which illustrates microbial life and organic matter fluxes within a drop of seawater. In particular, illustrations based on ideas by professor Farooq Azam have provided us with a concept of how microbially driven ecosystems work. Azam once drew an illustration on a napkin to convey his ideas to fellow colleagues. This illustration (shown in A, below) has since been used in thousands of classrooms and lectures and is widely known to the oceanography community via his 1998 Science paper ”Microbial control of oceanic carbon flux: The plot thickens” (Science 280: 694-696).


Illustration of the microbial loop, from Azam (1998) “Microbial control of oceanic carbon flux: The plot thickens,” Science 280:694-696 (left), and Jackson Pollock’s No. 31 (right).

Let’s compare Azam’s illustration with Jackson Pollock’s No. 31 (B, above). Ok, now you are probably wondering what Pollock’s drip technique type of painting has to do with a conceptual scientific idea about biological complexity. First, let me quote Pollock when he was explaining the process of his new technique:

New needs need new techniques. And the modern artists have found new ways and means of making their statements… Each age finds it’s own technique. On the floor I’m more at ease…I feel nearer, more part of the painting since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.

In essence, the process of painting can be analogous to the process of science since we, like artists, use different techniques for different purposes that develop over time. Further, we the scientists are often trying to conceptualize data that are abstract and complex. For example, microbial oceanography deals with multidimensional variation, resulting from differences in ocean circulation, hydrology, and environmental disturbances, and also biological variation.


Jackson Pollock in the process of painting with his “drip” technique.

One of the major challenges for microbial oceanographers today is to understand and predict the consequences of changes in climate for microbially driven ecosystem processes like biogeochemical cycling of elements that are essential to all living organisms. It’s safe to say that the technique of the current age is performed by collecting “big data” from high-throughput sequencing of genes and/or genomes in the ocean. Samples are taken, water is filtered and biomass collected. From the vast complexity of billions of microbes in a liter of seawater, we retrieve gigabytes to terabytes of data. There are several different approaches ranging from amplicon sequencing focusing on specific genes, to annotating microbes taxonomically, to transcriptomics that addresses the expression of particular functional genes. Still, all techniques have the same common tool for understanding results – data visualization. We are working with an ocean canvas that helps us conceptualize microbial dynamics. There are a million ways to visualize data but in the creative process of choosing visualizations, we are constantly learning. In a sense, this is where the science occurs. Hypothesis are born from this artistic process of data visualization. Alternatively, it is in the visualizations that hypotheses are answered. Therefore, regardless of whether your particular field of interest is hypothesis-driven or hypothesis-generating, the art of science is invaluable.

So how do we visualize science? Using computer programs such as R, MATLAB, Excel, or by hand? If you are an ecologist and a deft R programmer, you have probably encountered the Vegan package in R. Vegan is a fantastic resource for microbial ecologists and includes many of the essential analyses to describe alpha and beta diversity as well as population dynamics. I often couple such analyses with the graphical tool ggplot2 , also in R. This tool is very versatile and allows users build essentially any type of plot imaginable. Actually, one of R’s greatest advantages is that it can be used to bring to life virtually any idea for data visualization. Moreover, although ‘help’ functions in R work poorly and are often incomprehensible, there are thousands of online communities with people who are probably doing something similar, from which you can draw inspiration and solutions. Typically I render the art in R and make the finishing touches in Adobe Illustrator. However, often times the process of art begins even before even collecting samples or conducting experiments. By making drawings with a pen and paper, I can take the first step towards a particular analysis I want to make. In the end, few ideas for data visualization are kept, but that does not mean that the process of making the many others was in vain. Rather, it is in this selection process of trial and error that we may learn the most. In fact, I believe that it is in this moment that we as scientists endeavor to push the limits of human knowledge.


Bacterial populations distributed in time and space. Figure by Markus Lindh

 Once the data have been visualized, another process begins: the process of writing. But that, as they say, is a completely different story…

Markus Lindh received his doctoral degree in Ecology at Linneaus University in Sweden. He is interested in how projected climate change could influence the dynamics of particular bacterioplankton populations. He’s also curious about the use of marine bacteria as bio-indicators of environmental change to determine the health status of the sea. He is currently a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Microbial Oceanography Research and Education at UH Manoa.                                                                                   

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