Balaram Khamari is a doctoral research scholar at AMR Laboratory, Department of Biosciences, Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, Prasanthi Nilayam, India. His research focuses on studying antimicrobial resistance mechanisms. Apart from doing incredible science, Balaram enjoys bringing art to science together through agar sci-art that keeps him motivated. Here, Balaram talks about his journey to win 2nd prize in the ASM agar art contest 2020.
I hail from a small village located in an underdeveloped region of the state of Odisha in India. With my parents’ blessings and the grace of God, I have excelled both in academics and extra-curricular activities throughout my school and college life. Among the many hobbies that I love to spend my time in, arts, crafts, architecture and designing are my favourites. When I joined the University for my bachelor’s, I joined the Arts & Crafts department there. Six years down the lane, I had cleared multiple national-level exams. I received my fellowship for Ph.D. from the Govt. of India. I found myself continuing to do my Ph.D. from the same University. Due to my experience and the little talent that I had, I was made in charge of the Arts and Crafts team, making sure that I was in constant touch with art and craft.
Cut to Sciences and my research work, there I was, in the microbiology lab working on antimicrobial resistance. My lab works on antibiotic resistance mechanisms in bacterial pathogens and designing rapid prediction tools to detect antibiotic resistance. I worked for over three years in the lab and still did not have the slightest idea about what Agar Art could probably be. In the year 2019, a colleague of mine from a neighboring lab came up to me and asked if I could make art on the agar plates that I was driving to grow bacteria. He insisted that I must take part in the International competition that is taking place at the American Society for Microbiology (ASM). It was at that moment. It struck me. I suddenly realized that I am missing out on a significant link between two of my favorite hobbies, Science and Arts. Initially, I was a little nervous about whether my hands would be as steady as holding a pencil. I still remember my first attempt, which was a small Rangoli made entirely of Escherichia coli.
For the Agar Art contest 2019, I had planned to make something special, which could be relevant and of interest both to my institution and the world. There, I began my journey and started practicing on contaminated and discarded plates of nutrient Agar. The piece I made for the 2019 contest was “unity of the faith.” It was the ‘Sarva-dharma’ emblem that endows the Sri Sathya Sai international organization’s logo. I used E. coli, Klebsiella pneumoniae, Staphylococcus aureus, and a mixed culture of multiple bacteria. The media that I used was LB Agar in the central circle and MacConkey Agar as the peripheral circle. My entry was shortlisted among the top entries and was out on Facebook for voting.
Even if I did not get into the winner’s list that year, I received a lot of love and appreciation for my work. Here, I would especially like to make a mention of my research supervisor, who was very kind, encouraging, and supported me in all my endeavours, both academic and non-academic. The interest in agar art showed by people around me kept me motivated throughout the following year, and I was eagerly waiting for the competition to get started in 2020. All my colleagues and friends left for home during the lockdown due to Covid-19, but I could not go. I finally got access to the microbiology lab after a long wait for permission from the administration. The Agar art contest 2020 was finally announced by ASM in September, and I started planning for a simple, practically feasible yet grand design that could be made on an agar plate. Peacocks and traditional Indian art forms have a deep connection underneath. I have always been fascinated by peacocks. The magnificence of peacocks has inspired several of my usual drawings and designs.
I started working on this art piece by trying out different bacteria to get different colors on various growth media. I had thought of an elaborate 3D structure with depth and colors. Many of my attempts to create what I had imagined remained futile. There was not much time left, and I was constantly being disappointed. In the end, I decided. I would go by the outline of my design on traditional LB Agar media with some of the most basic bacterial pathogens in my labs, like E. coli, S. aureus, and Micrococcus-based contaminant colonies. As expected, the design had come out quite basic and straightforward. However, when I took photographs and showed them to my lab-mates and colleagues, they were pretty satisfied. And thus, I submitted my entry for ASM Agar art 2020, named aptly as “microbial peacock.” However, I was not very satisfied with this entry of mine. So, I tried another piece of art and named it an “intricate geometric symmetry.” Surprisingly, both the entries made it up to the shortlisted category, but “microbial peacock” was the one that won me an award, the most awaited award I was praying hard for.
Working in a microbiology lab for a Ph.D. degree requires a lot of hard work. While doing so, one can get exhausted. Making small pieces of art with what is available in the labs and the curiosity to see how it manifests can keep someone excited and interested in Sciences. Nature is lovely, so are its creatures. Exploring nature under the microscope is a hobby for many scientists across the globe. Some of us find it exciting to create art using living microorganisms. I would urge every artist, who works in a microbiology lab and has learned to handle microbes, to try Agar art. If you are worried about resources, use contaminated plates to practice!
On behalf of all the agar artists out there globally, I would like to thank everyone who has recognized our tribe and motivates us to take up such an unusual and dangerous hobby. Yes, they are dangerous, so a word of caution for every person reading this article, please do not try them at home and without bio-safety precautions.
Written by Balaram Khamari
Art by Balaram Khamari
Edited by: Kshipra S. Kapoor (Copy editor, Volunteer, Biopatrika)