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Finding Art in Biology

  • News Image
    Allyson Plantz made this drawing to explain her research on the predation of apple snail eggs by turtles known as red-eared sliders. The egg clutches are the pink objects on the right of the drawing.
  • News Image
    Allyson Plantz has been working in the lab of Biology Professor Romi Burks since her first year at Southwestern. Plantz credits Burks with helping her "find art in biology.”
  • News Image
    A turtle in the lab swims between a real egg clutch (left) and a fake one Plantz made to determine if the turtles have a preference for real or fake egg clutches.

Student with an eye for art brings creative skills to biology lab

As an aspiring biology professor, sophomore Allyson Plantz brings a lot of enthusiasm to her biology lab work. But she also brings something else – a talent for art.

Whether it be drawing sketches of her ideas for research projects or sculpting objects that can be used in experiments, Plantz is using artwork to help with her biology studies.

“Designing experiments is very artistic,” she says. “It involves a lot of creative thinking that people do not realize. You have to think about things like color, size and shape. I approach science with a creative mind.”

Plantz has been working in the lab of Biology Professor Romi Burks since her first year at Southwestern. Her research focuses on predation of apple snail (Pomacea insularum) eggs by turtles known as red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans).

“Southwestern is good at making connections between different areas, and Dr. Burks has really taken me under her wing. She has helped me find art in biology,” Plantz says.

Burks says she is delighted with the contributions Plantz has made to her lab. For example, Plantz figured out how to “sculpt” fake egg clutches using Plaster of Paris for one of her initial experiments on predation with red-eared slider turtles. Part of the research Plantz does also involves determining whether the turtles have a preference for real or fake eggs.

Plantz had the opportunity to present her research at the 2011 meeting of the Texas Academy of Science, which was held March 3-4 at St. Edward’s University. At that same conference, she took second place in the undergraduate grant competition and received a $1,500 grant to further her research. The grant will enable Plantz to do more fieldwork for her studies on the effects water levels have on where apple snails lay eggs.

She also recently landed an $800 grant from the science research society Sigma Xi. Plantz will use this award to create more housing for the turtles she uses for her predation experiments. She hopes the experiments will help her solve the puzzle of why predators appear to avoid apple snail eggs in the terrestrial environment.

Burks said Sigma Xi grants are very competitive because both undergraduates and graduate students compete for them. In 2010, the organization funded 422 projects from a pool of 1,785 proposals.

Plantz credits art classes that she started taking as a middle school student in Georgetown with helping her land the grant. “No matter how much you know, you need to be able to portray yourself and your ideas,” she says.

Plantz hopes to one day combine her abilities in art and science as a biology professor, and says, “I would hate to do one and not develop the other. That would kill me if I went to school for biology and just ignored the artistic side of me. When you focus on something so much in science, you might forget how beautiful it really is.”

- Rosalie Bonner