Fairbanks microbiologist mixes science and art

  • Saturday, February 18, 2017 1:52pm
  • News

FAIRBANKS — A tall, willowy woman with the looks of a model, the grace of a dancer and the mind of a scientist, Mary Beth Leigh is so lovely and accomplished it would be tempting to be jealous of her, but she’s also so nice and down-to-earth one can’t help but take an instant liking to her.

A microbiologist at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Leigh is the co-founder and director of “In a Time of Change,” an arts, humanities and science consortium that pairs scientists with artists to explore different aspects of the natural world. The artists then create original works that interpret what they’ve learned, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. Since 2008, the program has sponsored five such collaborations, with the most recent being “Microbial Worlds,” a diverse collection of sculpture, paintings, tiles, textiles, costume, writing and multimedia works currently showing at the Well Street Art Company.

A love for art and science

Leigh was born and raised in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, home to the headquarters of Phillips Petroleum. Her parents both worked for Phillips — her father as a chemist and her mother as a clerical worker — while Leigh studied ballet and played cello in the symphony orchestra.

“If you’re going to grow up in a small Oklahoma city, that’s the one to be in, because there’s the business headquarters but also their research center, so there was a lot of science. And they invested heavily in the schools and in the arts, so I had great opportunities,” Leigh said during a February visit to the exhibit.

Leigh enrolled at the University of Oklahoma to major in music in 1990, “switched majors a few times” and eventually settled on modern dance performance, with a minor in botany. While dance and science may seem like an odd combination, it worked well for Leigh, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance and a master’s degree in botany. Not content to stop there, Leigh continued on at OU, earning a Ph.D. in microbiology in 2003.

“I was very interested in using plants to clean up contamination, and what I learned was it’s actually the microorganisms around the roots that are breaking down the contaminants. Plants can facilitate that process, but I realized what I needed to do was understand the microbiology, so I did the Ph.D.,” Leigh said.

Leigh co-founded the Deliquescent Dance Ensemble with three friends in 1993, and also moonlighted as a cellist in well-known Oklahoma rock bands such as The Flaming Lips, Chainsaw Kittens and Starlight Mints throughout her college career. In her spare time, she did internships with the Environmental Protection Agency in Corvallis, Oregon, spent a summer with NASA at the Kennedy Space Center, and learned to speak Czech while studying contaminated sites in Prague on a two-year fellowship.

“The sites dated back to the communist era, so there were lots of them to choose from. It’s really hard, especially as a student, to get access to contaminated sites in the U.S., because our environmental regulations are such that if there’s a contaminated site it’s reported and usually cleaned up pretty quickly,” Davis said. “But the responsible parties are different there. Because the contamination occurred under the communist era it was the state that was responsible, so the companies aren’t paranoid. Plus, nobody can afford to clean it up, so any new technology is great.”

Saving the Earth one microbe at a time

Leigh spent three years doing post-doctoral work at the Center for Microbial Biology at Michigan State University and at the Center for Ecology and Hydrology, a government research lab in Oxford, England, before coming to UAF in 2006. Though her job title is associate professor of microbiology, Leigh teaches only one class per semester because she’s busy doing research, writing grant proposals and papers and doing field work. She currently has a field site in Kaltag where she and her students are using a process called phytoremediation to clean contaminated soil.

“There’s a widespread problem throughout the state of schoolyards with diesel contamination from aging storage tanks leaking. So the Department of Environmental Conservation cleaned up the school yard and relocated the contaminated soil to the edge of town. They gave me some funding to do an experiment, and we’re planting local willows and native grasses in different combinations,” Leigh said.

“Microbial communities are very complex. There are thousands of different species and billions of different individual cells. If you add just a few from the lab, usually they don’t compete well against the native community, but what you can do is shift the environmental conditions in a way that favors the existing organisms you want to grow,” Leigh said. “That’s the idea behind phytoremediation. The plant can create an environment that’s favorable for oil-degrading microbes in the soil. You just have to encourage them to grow.”

Leigh also collects sea water off the coast of Utqiagvik (formerly Barrow) to do studies on the effects of an oil spill in the Arctic Ocean, is investigating the use of microbes to biodegrade the sulfolane contamination in North Pole and studies methane in Arctic lakes created by thawing permafrost.

“I study particularly the microbes that eats the methane on its way out, so they’re the helpful ones,” Leigh said.

Opening minds though art

Leigh said she feels at home in Fairbanks and particularly enjoys the feedback she gets after each “In a Time of Change” show.

“We’re reaching the public with science in a way that’s more approachable, potentially. One of our big goals is to help society address major environmental challenges, and we realize that these problems are so complicated that it’s not something that science alone can address. So what science can do is tell you facts about the world and maybe provide some projections,” Leigh said. “But what we do about it is really a question of values and ethics. We come around to the notion of empathy. It’s an important thing to care about other people that are affected by climate change, environmental problems, contamination, biodiversity and wildlife that are going extinct.”

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