More Than Meets The Eye

A conversation with Julia Van Etten

AlgiKnit: We’re so curious to find out: who are you, where are you from, and what do you do?

Julia Van Etten: My name is Julia Van Etten. I’m from New Jersey and I’m a PhD student at Rutgers University. My research spans the fields of both Microbiology and Ecology & Evolution. Currently, I’m working with freshwater algae and also with coral genomics. I also run the Instagram account “Couch Microscopy” on the side which I started from my living room before beginning my PhD. 

Microorganisms are everywhere but because we cannot easily see them, their effects on our lives and in the environment are often overlooked.
— Julia Van Etten

AlgiKnit: Your work largely revolves around ecological life. Why is it so influential to you and what role have microorganisms and their ecology played in your life?

Julia Van Etten: Microorganisms are everywhere but because we cannot easily see them, their effects on our lives and in the environment are often overlooked. That is why I became interested in microscopy as a hobby. It is important to me to highlight the fact that you can go to the ends of the Earth to find and observe cool life forms but you can also just look at a clump of dirt or jar of water from your backyard. There are uncultured and undiscovered microbes (especially protists) all around us that have novel physiological traits, play important roles in nutrient cycling, and sustain ecosystems. One example of how important these microorganisms are is that about half of the oxygen available to us for breathing comes from marine and freshwater phytoplankton, mainly microalgae like diatoms. It is important to learn about these organisms because we wouldn’t be here without them. They are also very beautiful so just getting to look at them through the microscope and share them with the world is a privilege!

AlgiKnit: It appears you work with algae quite often. What, if anything, is unique, about algae on a microscopic level? And, does algae have any outstanding properties that might not be commonly known?  

Julia Van Etten: On a microscopic level, algae is very beautiful. Some have intricate symmetrical shapes. Some are motile. Some link together and form beautiful chains. There’s just so much diversity among these organisms. There are many many different genera and species of different evolutionary lineages of algae and as a microscopist (and I think many other microscopists feel the same way), it’s always exciting to find and observe an alga that you’ve read about or seen others’ photos of and to come across it yourself and add it to your mental repository of found organisms. In terms of properties, microalgae, like virtually all unicellular organisms, work like tiny machines, photosynthesizing and producing the oxygen we breathe as a byproduct. For this reason, these types of primary producers are vital to our survival and are also being looked at by many research groups (including the Bhattacharya lab at Rutgers) as candidates for biofuel research. Algal cells have spent billions of years of evolution perfecting their craft of converting light energy into chemical energy and it’s a crucial time for our society to decide if we will take threats like climate change and natural resource depletion seriously and algae offer a carbon neutral alternative to traditional fuel sources and thus, hope for more responsible energy practices in the future. 

AlgiKnit: "Couch Microscopy" is a wonderful medium to portray the hidden beauty of everyday objects. What exactly is "Couch Microscopy"? What inspired you to start it and what, thus far, have you gotten out of it?

Julia Van Etten: Couch Microscopy is a visual arts project that I started while recovering from a very debilitating flare up of Lyme disease. While stuck at home with little energy and growing tired of old hobbies, I was in the market for a new way to express myself artistically and randomly came up with the idea to purchase an inexpensive microscope. I just felt like it was something I could do without exerting myself too much physically and I was always a fan of looking at plankton samples when I was in college. I hadn’t previously been on Instagram and I didn’t know what to do with the photos I was taking so I decided to make an account and everything just developed from there. I think that all people, whether or not they have a science background, can relate to art and visuals of things that they have never seen before and over time it developed into a way for me to combine my artistic and educational passions into a project that reaches a very wide audience. From continuing this endeavor, I’ve learned how to more effectively communicate some of the more obscure science and natural history topics, connected with others with similar goals and interests, learned how to run a business, and I have become a more confident scientist and artist. 

AlgiKnit: After finishing your PhD at Rutgers University, what are your plans for the future? Is there a dream job that you would like to pursue?

Julia Van Etten: I am still in the very early stages of my PhD so I’m not entirely sure what my long term goals are but I’ve always wanted to work in academia and teach and maybe one day have my own lab. Since starting Couch Microscopy and being fortunate enough to work in a lab that supports that project and lets me integrate it into parts of my research, I’ve also become more interested in using film as a medium for science communication and I would like to explore further ways to highlight the beauty and diversity of life through visual media, whether that be documentaries, more social media stuff, or more involvement in the art scene.

Algal cells have spent billions of years of evolution perfecting their craft of converting light energy into chemical energy and it’s a crucial time for our society to decide if we will take threats like climate change and natural resource depletion seriously and algae offer a carbon-neutral alternative to traditional fuel sources and thus, hope for more responsible energy practices in the future. 
— Julia Van Etten

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Julia Van Etten is a microscopist and Ph.D. student at Rutgers University based in New Jersey, USA. Julia is also the founder and curator of Couch Microscopy, a project she started to illuminate the unseen microscopic worlds that exist around us. Through Couch Microscopy, Julia is able to create stunning visuals that are both educational and aesthetically delightful. To learn more about Julia’s work, visit couchmicroscopy.com, or, to see more of her photos, visit her Instagram here.