Tracy Debenport’s educational art showcases the inspirational creative properties of mould
A unique practitioner working at the intersection of science and art, Tracy Debenport – also known as Under The Scope – shows the creative, life saving properties of mould.
- Lucy Bourton
- 23 July 2021
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
The last thing you might expect to hear from a microbiologist is an explanation on the creative properties of mould, but this is exactly the conversation you’re likely to have with Tracy Debenport. A unique practitioner working at the intersection of science and art, Tracy fuses the two together by sharing the aesthetic qualities of her lab work via photography and design. Opening up her specific area of study to new and growing audiences, Tracy can trace back this practice to her first role at a plant pathology lab at Cornell University. “It was the first time that I worked with fungi and when I saw Aspergillus flavus (a pathogenic mould) under the microscope, I fell in love,” she tells It’s Nice That.
When looked at in detail, Aspergillus flavus didn’t present the likely image of mould you may have in your mind. Instead its properties created “beautiful, delicate structures” – the kind that reminded Tracy of flowers and peacock feathers, “stunning features that I would never have associated with the word mould,” she admits. “All of a sudden I related to this organism in a whole new way. I was so inspired and couldn’t wait to share this discovery with my family and friends.” Tracy’s scientifically creative practice grew from this sentiment, creating a process “dedicated to highlighting the beauty of these microbes – especially moulds – and inspiring curiosity.”
Today, Tracy specialises in conducting research on fungi (specifically moulds, yeasts and mushrooms), as well as working with pathogens and beneficial microbes, primarily relating to agriculture. Her artistic pieces are often created in the spur of the moment, when certain microbes grow to produce “unexpected patterns or compositions,” she explains. “In those moments, I’m inspired by their beauty and have to document it immediately.” At other points, Tracy will work towards a specific structure she has in mind. This will involve piecing together a composition by “preparing slides, experimenting with stains and editing to produce microbial ‘glamour shots’.” Either way, the same goal remains: “to create images that make these incredible organisms relatable in a positive way.”
This description of a positive reception appears to be the driving factor in Tracy’s work. Science and art after all are often at opposite ends of the spectrum, but through her documentation, the microbiologist pulls them far closer together. It’s the world of microbiology and mycology (the study of fungi) that Tracy hopes to interest viewers in, largely due to the amount of “untapped potential when it comes to microbes”.
Tracy explains that moulds and yeasts have key positive roles in our ecosystems, which those outside the field are likely to be unaware of. “Beyond sharing this science, I want to inspire curiosity and create positive associations for people with microbes,” which can additionally benefit agriculture and medical fields. “For example, many people think of pathogens and contaminants when they hear the word ‘mould’, but there are so many more beneficial mould species than there are detrimental species." In fact, mould species are responsible for recycling nutrients that are difficult to break down on behalf of other organisms, especially plants. “I hope that my art does their true beauty justice,” Tracy adds on the multifaceted qualities of mould. “Maybe even inspire others to help progress the scientific field!”
Most recently, Tracy has been breaking down this information digestibly through educational art in collaboration with the non-profit, The Microbe Institute. Highlighting microbes that are used across medicine and food production, Tracy’s pieces showcase the form of fungus when under the microscope, as well as the chemical it produces which then saves lives. Penicillin is an example of this; the fungus Penicillium chrysogenum produces Penicillin G, which “kills bacteria by interfering with its ability to grow and ultimately makes them explode!” Streptomyces aureofaciens is another example of this, which produces the medication Tetracycline, used to treat bacterial infections, which viewers can discover “all while experiencing microbial art!” She's also about to embark on her PhD in Plant Biology in just a few weeks, you can keep up to date with Tracy’s educational art here.
Tracy Debenport: Microbial Pom-Poms (Copyright © Tracy Debenort, 2021)
About the Author
Lucy joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In October 2016 she became a staff writer on the editorial team and in January 2019 was made It’s Nice That’s deputy editor. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about new and upcoming creative projects or editorial ideas for the site.