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A Cultural Triumph: Microbiology Student Makes A Petri Dish Masterpiece

<em>Microbial Peacock</em> by Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari
Microbial Peacock by Balaram Khamari

Balaram Khamari is a doctoral student in microbiology who has always felt the connection between science and art.

"They are interlinked," he says. "Even doing a science experiment requires art."

Now, Khamari is bringing the worlds of art and science together – in a petri dish. He's been spending a lot of time in his lab in Puttaparthi, India, culturing colorful bacteria and artfully arranging it on a jelly like substance called agar. He is part of a growing body of scientists across the world who make agar art, and even compete for prizes.

Khamari recently won an award from the American Society for Microbiology for his work, Microbial Peacock. It shows a peacock — the national bird of India — surrounded by intricate feathers. The peacock's body is made from Escherichia coli and the tail feathers are composed of both Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. The eye of the bird is made of a gut bacterium called Enterococcus faecalis.

<em>Intricate Geometric Symmetry</em> by Balaram Khamari
/ Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari
Intricate Geometric Symmetry by Balaram Khamari

Khamari is well trained in handling these pathogenic materials — rather than running down to the closest art supply store, he gets the bacteria from local hospitals where they have been isolated from human hosts — and he doesn't suggest you try this at home. "I happen to be a microbiologist and I know how to handle bacteria ..." he says. "I can do it on my own without any danger to myself, but I wouldn't recommend anybody to try it at home or anywhere where there is not much protection."

He says that while the connection between large scale artworks and science may be more apparent — for example, the design and architecture that go into making sets or floats — for him, the two disciplines have always gone "hand in hand."

"Even when you are doing very small art, I think a little bit of scientific mind is required ..." he says. "Science and art are not really separate subjects."

<em>Unity of Faith</em> by Balaram Khamari
/ Balaram Khamari
Balaram Khamari
Unity of Faith by Balaram Khamari

Andrew Craig and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.
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