From Instagram to Rutgers lab, the art of microscopy

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

Tardigrade at 400x magnification. Courtesy: Julia Van Etten

A series of colorful, lively, rather large looking images are actually microscopic.

“For me, I was always interested in all of these tiny microscopic organisms that are all around us all the time and you can’t readily see them,” said Rutgers University doctoral student Julia Van Etten.

It began as a hobby for Van Etten. In 2017 she was home recovering from Lyme disease.

“I was really tired all the time so I was just looking for a new hobby. So I would just lay on the couch, watch TV and just casually do microscopy at the same time,” she said.

She collected water samples near her home, put them on slides, studied them under her microscope and posted photos and videos of the microorganisms on her Instagram page, aptly titled Couch Microscopy. She now has more than 20,000 followers. She enrolled in Rutgers University last year.

Impressed by her images, distinguished professor Dr. Debashish Bhattacharya asked Van Etten to turn her hobby into a research project in his lab, which focuses on genomics.

Cirri (feeding legs) of an acorn barnacle at 40x magnification. Courtesy: Julia Van Etten

“Genomes are actually what make us who we are, it makes every cell in our planet what they are. This is the collection of all the DNA that’s in the chromosomes. So every cell in our body contains a complete genome, about 3 billion bits of DNA that encodes the information that controls how we live, how we look and so on,” Bhattacharya said.

Genomes are found in all living cells, says the professor. He and his fellow researchers want to know how genomes are interrelated, which is why they study genomes in many different types of organisms, including algae.

In the lab researchers are looking at algae found in the water on campus, specifically at Passion Puddle, to identify new organisms of interest to science. They’re looking for new species with traits that make them good candidates for biofuel production and things like rapid growth rate and lipid production.

Algae store lipids in its cells, so if food is scarce down the line it can use that energy later on, says the professor.

“So there are ways in which we can culture algae, have them make lots and lots of lipids, and then we can harvest the algae and take the lipids away and use chemical process to turn them into bioethanol or other forms of energy,” Bharracharya said.

The researchers’ goal is two-fold: they hope the images will make people more environmentally conscious and appreciative of the microbial world.

Volvox sp. at 400x magnification. Courtesy: Julia Van Etten

“The waters, they have unseen diversity and they contain some of the most important species in our planet,” Bhattacharya said.

“Visualizing them helps us understand a whole new area of life,” said Van Etten.

“Julia’s talent is to take this sort of amazing diversity and make it approachable, make it into an art form where you look at it and say, ‘whatever that is, it’s a beautiful thing.’ And it turns out that thing is microscopic,” said Bhattacharya. “It’s like looking at a star. We can look up at the sky but we don’t see a galaxy. But when we have the Hubble telescope show us what a galaxy might look like, we can’t believe there’s such a thing in the world. It’s the same thing. We look at pond water and we see there’s an alga in there and it has a beautiful image made of it, we can’t believe there is so much complexity at the microscopic scale.”