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INSTAAR seminar: Mary Beth Leigh - Addressing environmental challenges with the art & science of...

Monday, November 23, 2020, 12:00PM - 1:00PM


Mary Beth Leigh

University of Alaska Fairbanks

Full title

Addressing environmental challenges with the art and science of microbiology


I’ll share two projects that incorporate microbiology and/or the arts to address environmental challenges important to Alaska and beyond.

Part I: In North Pole, Alaska, a petroleum refinery contaminated the underlying discontinuous permafrost aquifer with the industrial solvent sulfolane, resulting in a contaminated plume approximately 6.4 km-by-4 km in size that has impacted hundreds of private drinking water wells. Despite its widespread use, little is known about the microbes capable of biodegrading sulfolane or the biochemical processes involved. Our research team applied a combination of microbiological, molecular biological, and stable isotopic methods to identify sulfolane-degrading bacteria in the aquifer and to understand the environmental factors limiting their activity. We identified a novel sulfolane-degrading bacterium and characterized its genome, allowing us to identify putative pathways of sulfolane biodegradation. We then determined the distribution of this organism throughout the aquifer and in an experimental groundwater treatment system (air sparging) to better understand the potential for natural or accelerated biodegradation of sulfolane.

Part II: The need for public understanding of science is critical as society faces social-ecological challenges that are growing in intensity and number, including environmental contamination and the many broad-reaching effects of climate change. The arts and humanities can stimulate curiosity, empathy, and a sense of wonder about the natural world and connect scientifically derived information about the world with environmental ethics, which may lead to changed attitudes and behaviors. In this part of the presentation, I’ll highlight an arts-humanities-science collaborative exhibition, “Microbial Worlds”, in which artists and writers developed original works for the public following interactions with microbiologists through lectures, labs, and field trips to Arctic and subarctic ecological research sites. Artists incorporated microbial morphology, metagenomics, history, biogeochemistry, and climate change concepts into their art works spanning multiple media (visual art, writing, dance, and multimedia art). Audience survey data from this and prior art-science exhibits in Alaska revealed positive impacts on audience knowledge and attitudes about science and increased awareness of the mechanisms and outcomes of climate change.

Coffee time

As usual, a half hour "coffee break" will immediately precede the seminar, starting at 11:30 a.m.