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Science and art have come together beautifully in an exhibition of photographic images by a researcher in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

The pictures, actually photomicrographs, are on display in the outer office of Provost Jo Ann Gora, which has been the site of a small revolving art exhibit in recent years. Inspired by the colors and forms of the natural world, the images offer a unique view of living things invisible to the naked eye.

"These images are truly unique," Gora said. "They demonstrate better than any words the beauty in nature. I admire the scientists who worked with our art department faculty to create and preserve these interesting images."

The enlarged images are of marine and estuarine organisms, most of them so tiny that they must be viewed under a microscope to be seen. They were taken for fun in the lab and on research trips by OEAS research scientist
Lisa Drake.

Larger images are of seagrass leaves, measuring about 1 centimeter wide and 1 meter long, collected in California, and a hydroid, a relative of the jellyfish. The images were taken by Drake using an Olympus DP-10 digital camera attached to an Olympus BX50 compound microscope and an Olympus SZX12 dissecting microscope.

All of the images, save for three -- the hydroid, seagrass and "Spinning Tops and Flowers" -- are of phytoplankton, tiny plants that drift on the tides and currents. Specifically, they are diatoms, representatives of a class of marine algae with "glass" cell walls that form elaborate and distinctive shapes, said Drake, who received her master's and doctoral degrees from Old Dominion.

Drake collected the phytoplankton in a net she lowered by hand off the Lafayette River bridge on Colley Avenue in Norfolk during the spring bloom of phytoplankton, and then photographed the images in an OEAS lab.

"The spring bloom tends to be dominated by diatoms. Their beautiful shapes, coupled with colored backgrounds created by filters and prisms on the microscope, can yield images that are, I think, very striking and artful," Drake said.

The organisms were collected between January and October 2000 from three tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay: the Lafayette, Elizabeth and Rappahannock rivers. "Spinning Tops and Flowers" is an example of simple animals called protozoans that Drake collected, along with sediment and seagrass, at Lee Stocking Island in the Bahamas.

Other samples were collected at Elkhorn Slough, which flows into California's Monterey Bay. Most of the photography was done at Old Dominion, although "Spinning Tops and Flowers" was taken in the Bahamas, where Drake and OEAS colleague Fred Dobbs had shipped the microscope and camera to do field work.

Only the seagrass image was taken for research, said Drake, who is a principal investigator on a project called "Coastal Benthic Optical Properties," a study of the optical properties of shallow-water environments in California and the Bahamas.

"The rest were taken as I was looking at seagrass or sediment for work and happened to see something picture-worthy, or I collected plankton samples specifically to take photomicrographs in my spare time," Drake explained.

Martina Doblin, a research assistant professor in the ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences, saw some of Drake's images and was inspired to share them with a broader audience. She approached Robert Wojtowicz, chair of the art department, with a suggestion that they do something with Drake's images. Wojtowicz and Stephen Carpenter, assistant professor of art,
subsequently suggested displaying the images in Gora's office and enlisted the help of University Gallery director Katherine Huntoon to mat, frame and install them.

Both Drake and Doblin consider photography a hobby, and Doblin is studying art at Old Dominion with a view toward doing more collaborative art-science projects.

OEAS chair Jim Sanders approved the exhibit, which included reproducing the images in large format and printing postcards of two of them. The photomicrographs will be on display in Gora's office throughout the spring semester and then moved to the Oceanography and Physics Building.

This article was posted on: March 11, 2001

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