Blue paint squirts onto a paper plate. Next is red, black, yellow, and finally, white. The pallet is ready. “Jay” dips her paintbrush hairs into the blue, moves the brush up, and gently graces the pigment across a white stretched canvas, making the first mark. She glides the paintbrush around the canvas, pushing and pulling the color until the whole canvas is filled with a dark blue hue. She dips the paintbrush ink into a little flimsy cup filled with tap water, wriggles the bristles around, removes the paintbrush from water, and pats it dry using a tool. She is ready for the next color.

What is Jay painting? A night sky? The ocean?

“This is what an onion looks like at 40X in the microscope. Here is the cell wall!”

Jay used paints on canvas to represent what she had learned moments before when she turned on a microscope for the first time. She saw the inside of a plant cell. “Moments like this are why we teach,” remarked their teacher.

The ASCB Compass Outreach Grant allowed a team of University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) student scientists to purchase 10 portable microscopes for an outreach event at John Herbert Phillips Academy hosted by the Science Mentoring Outreach in Biology program at UAB. Julian Jackson, then a graduate student, enrolled in the program because he believes teaching helps scientists come out of their comfort zones and allows them to be able to share their love for science with the future of STEM. Jackson and colleagues from the Department of Biology Sarah Adkins-Jablonsky and Rachel Rock were fortunate to have been awarded a local Arts & Social Good grant from UAB to teach laboratory science using art but soon realized not all K-12 classroom spaces could support some of the basic laboratory skills students seemed interested in. Their goal was to not only teach with science but to engage through art.

Thus, microscopes, funded by the ASCB Compass award, were a perfect solution—students could still use laboratory skills without needing an aseptic space in which to work and could still reflect what they had learned using artworks. Not only were students learning about science through art, but they were also doing so through conversation with a diverse group of scientists who work in their local community.

The scientists were learning, too. “Watching students getting excited took me back to the feelings I had when I first started my science career. Watching these kids get interested in science through art has been one of the most satisfying experiences of graduate school,” said Sarah Adkins-Jablonsky.

These one-off events expanded into what is now the STEM Outreach (STEMO) club at UAB thanks to the expansive efforts of many other UAB graduate students like Elise Keister. STEMO seeks to encourage scientific thought and critical thinking through hands-on STEM activities, inspire elementary through high school students to use scientific thought in their daily lives, give students exposure to individuals working in the STEM fields, and enable scientists to serve as mentors to students. As Julian, Rachel, and Sarah move forward in their scientific careers beyond UAB, they know the microscopes will be in good hands with the next generation of passionate science educators continuing outreach at UAB through STEMO. If these experiences can help even one student like Jay imagine themselves as a scientist, it will have been worth it to break out the paint.

About the Author:

Sarah Adkins-Jablonsky is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and PhD candidate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she studies biology education and microbiology. She is also an artist at Ground Floor Contemporary in Birmingham, AL.
Julian Jackson graduated with a master’s from University of Alabama at Birmingham where he studied microbiology. Now Julian is a student doctor at Boston University’s Henry M. Goldman School of Dental Medicine en route to becoming a dentist.
Rachel Rock graduated from University of Alabama at Birmingham where she studied molecular biology and then went on to study biology at the University of Edinburgh. She currently works professionally in a clinical lab, and is passionate about STEM outreach and helping the next generation of scientists find their place.