The Keeling lab runs like a fine-tuned scientific instrument. If you ask Patrick Keeling, a professor in the botany department at the University of British Columbia, why his lab is so efficient, he’ll openly say, “It’s not me, man. It’s all Erick.” He’s referring to Erick James, lab manager extraordinaire.
Erick sits in the back corner of the lab, calmly filtering the administrative chaos of a major research program. Receipts, bills and other important documents glide effortlessly across his desk, which is also home to a lofty pile of Tupperware containers and old cigar boxes. But Erick’s no slob – these containers harbour the lab’s termite collection – and he’s no paper-pusher either. Along with his administrative duties, Erick carries out his own experiments on the microbes that live inside insects.
Many of these microbes look like something out of a horror movie. (Erick and other scientists in the lab recently discovered some microbes that they named after sci-fi monsters created by H.P. Lovecraft, the U.S. horror author.) You don’t believe me? Come to the Keeling lab, where giant metal replicas of the world’s funkiest microbial creatures decorate the walls. One of my favorite pieces is of a unicellular carnivore called Didinium, which resembles a seashell with hundreds of protruding hairs.
Erick made all of this artwork by hand in his metal shop at home.
In 2007, after working for almost a decade as a research technician in various UBC labs, Erick took a sabbatical from science to study metalworking at Selkirk College’s Kootenay School of the Arts in Nelson, B.C. Ever since, he has combined his love of art with his passion for biology. “After a long day in the lab, I’m inspired to go home,” says Erick, “and recreate the microbial world using my hammer and anvil or plasma torch and welder.”
Recently, he was featured as both a scientist and artist in the Journal of Eukaryotic Microbiology. Erick frequently publishes research articles, and one of his latest papers is on a termite gut microbe called Trichonympha. The cover of the journal issue in which this article appears carries a detailed image of Trichonympha which looks like it was taken with a powerful microscope. I asked Erick how he got a clear shot of such a tiny organism, which when magnified seems like a cross between Chewbacca (from Star Wars) and a jellybean. “It not a real image,” he confided. “It’s a high-definition photo of a metal sculpture that I made.”
But his art is not confined to the eyes of academics. A few years ago Erick was commissioned, as part of a community development project, to make a metal sculpture for a pedestrian bridge in Burnaby, B.C. The result was Rasmus: a large troll, constructed from welded rebar, sprockets and cogs. Rasmus was placed on a small footpath underneath the bridge, and it quickly became a neighborhood landmark. Cyclists, runners and walkers used Rasmus as a meeting point for their weekend outings, small kids climbed and swung from his gnarled metal body, and parents hid Easter eggs inside his massive mouth. One evening in the spring of 2010, Rasmus went missing, causing a scandal in the community. Although he was likely stolen, legend has it that Rasmus became so fed up with being peed on by local dogs and having Easter eggs crammed down his throat that he picked up and left town.
Like Rasmus, Erick the artist is celebrated within his community, both at home and on campus, but he’s not planning on leaving the lab anytime soon. Academics and science give him the stability and intellectual engagement that help fuel his art. “The art world can be a chaotic and highly critical environment,” says Erick. “Surrounding myself with scientists keeps me level-headed while also accustoming me to intense debate and honest criticism.” (If you want to see just how discerning scientists can be, attend a Keeling lab meeting. At these weekly gatherings, which are used as forums for presenting new results or ideas or for practising conference presentations or job talks, the feedback is often harsh, but always constructive.)
Not long ago, Erick was shortlisted for a big art contract as part of a housing development project in Burnaby. The final selection process involved a 30-minute presentation of the proposed artwork, for which Erick created a series of beautiful origami birds made from sheet metal. Following weeks of preparation, Erick rehearsed the talk at a lab meeting and was bombarded with comments and suggestions on how to improve its content and delivery. He revised the talk and, a week later, went in front of the selection committee and nailed it. For days, the entire lab was on pins and needles waiting to hear the result. When the email finally arrived, you could hear the cheers three labs over.
David Smith is an assistant professor in the biology department at Western University and a postdoctoral alumnus of the Keeling lab.