Media contact: Cynthia Medina, [email protected], 848-932-1940

Student Turns Microorganisms Into Art, Becomes Vital Part of Genome Research

Julia Van Etten’s “Couch Microscopy” gains mass Instagram following

Newswise — New Brunswick, N.J. (Jan. 16, 2019) – A doctoral student in ecology and evolution is turning A doctoral student in ecology and evolution is turning microorganisms into art, and her hobby into a powerful tool for genomics studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Julia Van Etten’s Couch Microscopy Instagram page has attracted 17,700 followers in a year and a half, thanks to her breathtakingly detailed videos and photos of diatoms, algae, plankton, insect larvae and other microorganisms collected from New Jersey bodies of water. The images, captured with a $315 microscope, have garnered attention from scientists, artists and everyone in between.

Her images are now the basis for a research and teaching project at Rutgers–New Brunswick’s Genome Cooperative, established by Van Etten’s doctoral advisor, Debashish Bhattacharya, to support rapid growth in genomics study and research at the university.

Bhattacharya has assigned undergraduate students to catch plankton and algae at Passion Puddle, a popular spot on Rutgers–New Brunswick’s campus, for the creation of a genomics database highlighting the biodiversity on campus.

 “We want Julia to lead research on understanding the diversity of local algae and learning how to adapt it for human needs – similar to work being by ExxonMobil and other companies which are seeking to use algae for fuel production and other applications,” Bhattacharya said.

Van Etten began sharing images of microorganisms on her Instagram page in July 2017, after late-stage Lyme disease forced her to delay her start date at Rutgers for a year while she recovered. Unable to spend time studying algae out in the field, she worked on locally collected samples and viewed them with a home microscope – hence the name “Couch Microscopy.”

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