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May 27, 2020

Agara Bio hosts event combining biology and art

By SABRINA ABRAMS | October 24, 2019

Courtesy of Justin Greene

Agara Bio, a community biology lab and innovation center founded by undergraduates in fall 2018, hosted “Agar Art” on Wednesday, Oct. 17 and Thursday, Oct. 18. “Agar Art” has participants trace microbes on petri dishes in order to create colorful art after the microbes are placed in an incubator. This marks one of many community-based events that Agara Bio’s organizers have held and aim to hold.

Justin Greene, a junior Molecular and Cellular Biology major who is one of the co-presidents and co-founders of Agara Bio, explained that Agara’s “Agar Art” is inspired by a yearly international competition by the same name that the American Society for Microbiology hosts. He noted that Agar Art is meant to introduce people to the intersectionality of biology with other disciplines, with the hope of producing creative innovations.

“That’s the important part of having a lab like this, biology is no longer in its own bubble. Agar Art is a simple but also obvious way of how you can do things with biology that you wouldn’t typically think of,” Greene said. “The next step of Agar Art is people are rethinking how you make materials for clothing that are sustainable with the same bacteria.” 

Greene cited a company called Spyber as inspiration for the potential technology advances that could come about from an interdisciplinary approach to Agar Art, which uses bacteria to make affordable and sustainable synthetic spider silk and recently partnered with North Face. He also stated the importance of having people who had limited exposure to biology at the event. 

“Some people are uninformed and scared of a lot of the biological innovations that are coming out, so getting people in the lab that can be exposed to it is important,” Greene said. “It democratizes science to everybody. Now there are people who can see where they can go from Agar Art, whether it’s biomaterials or designing murals, seeing how they can incorporate two disciplines that they thought were separate.”

Sophomore Steven Solar, who is studying Biomedical Engineering and Computer Science, explained that the event was an exciting way to pursue an interest in biology within a relaxing venue. 

“It was a fun and laid-back way to apply my interests in biology, since I don’t really have the chance to do art often,” Solar said. “It was also just nice to kind of relax with my friends in a wholesome way.”

Other students highlighted the most integral aspect of the event as its function as a creative venue for them to collaborate with fellow interested students, such as Ire Shobayo, a junior Computer Engineering major. 

“I’ve always had a passion for biology and the opportunity to work with fellow students in a fun and interactive manner while learning and growing as a scientist pulled me to the event,” Shobayo said.

Greene highlighted Agara’s goals beyond Agar Art, stating that he founded the club in 2018 with seniors Ryan Bhowmik and Evan Qu in hopes of creating a fully-functioning community lab. 

Agara’s main initiative at the moment is launching their first community project, which will be an ongoing research project open to the community, and they will decide as a group what specific project to pursue. 

“This month we’re going to start our first community project,” Greene said. “You’ll be trained not by being told what to do but by actually getting involved in the project. We’re still trying to figure out what that project is and getting input from people. We’re going to decide together, and take on this role together.”

Greene highlighted the accomplishments that the group has made headway in thus far. 

“We’re a lot of the way to having a fully-functioning community lab, as far as ordering and stocking the lab. We’re able to give students access to the lab to work while we’re there,” Greene said. “The next step is getting more funding and being able to accelerate student projects, and having a mentorship network where students can come in with an idea and actually execute it.”

Greene noted that Agara Bio was applying to the Idea Lab competition, which will grant them $20,000 if they win the vote. The group is also affiliating with the International Genetically Engineered Machine (IGEM) Hopkins division of the worldwide synthetic biology competition. While still a separate club, Greene explained that IGEM would begin to work out of Agara’s lab in UTL G72. 

Greene also stated that having more upperclassmen join Agara is crucial in order to maintain a functioning mentorship network where younger students are able to learn from more experienced upperclassmen, but that the club also holds programming directed especially towards younger students.

“We have skills-based workshops, which are especially for freshmen who are looking to apply to labs who don’t really have a way to gain those skills,” Greene said. 

An example of such a skill-based workshops includes their interactive workshop designed to teach underclassmen the PCR and Gel Electrophoresis techniques, held on Sept. 27. 

Greene emphasized their desire to promote open learning and democratize science in order to increase the accessibility of medicine and technology, highlighting the Open Insulin Lab in California that aims to create new forms of producing insulin and then sell the medication more cheaply. 

Greene also stated the importance of having collaboration within the lab, citing the fact that students are able to work together in order to overall net a better all-around experience and increased learning. 

“I want people to come with their ideas and work on their projects here,” Greene said. “The big goal is for us to have everyone that is working on something to be working in the same place and then be able to share ideas and improve with each other.”

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