NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - A doctoral student in ecology and evolution is turning microorganisms into art, and her hobby into a powerful tool for genomics studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick.

Scotch Plains native Julia Van Etten’s Couch Microscopy Instagram page has attracted close to 18,000 followers in a year and a half, thanks to her breathtakingly detailed videos and photos of diatoms, algae, plankton, insect larvae and other microorganisms collected from New Jersey bodies of water. The images, captured with a $315 microscope, have garnered attention from scientists, artists and everyone in between.

“Major research groups are going to the ends of the earth to search for diverse beautiful species to uncover and of course that’s really important, but there are literally undiscovered species right in our backyards that need to be found as well,” Van Etten said. “I love capturing them as both a scientist and an artist.” 

Sign Up for E-News

Her images are now the basis for a research and teaching project at Rutgers–New Brunswick’s Genome Cooperative, established by Van Etten’s doctoral advisor, Debashish Battacharya, to support rapid growth in genomics study and research at the university. 

Bhattacharya has assigned undergraduate students to catch plankton and algae at Passion Puddle, a popular spot on Rutgers–New Brunswick’s campus, for the creation of a genomics database highlighting the biodiversity on campus. The project will also share photos on Instagram, drawing on Van Etten’s social media expertise.

“We want Julia to lead research on understanding the diversity of local algae and learning how to adapt it for human needs – similar to work being by ExxonMobil and other companies which are seeking to use algae for fuel production and other applications,” Bhattacharya said. 

About Van Etten’s artistry, he said, “Julia takes biodiversity and fundamental aspects of genomes, and translates it into the sharing of beauty and diversity of life. It’s not just for scientists who focus on sharing data and research findings, but for everyone who finds inspiration and excitement in the hidden worlds of nature.”

Van Etten began sharing images of microorganisms on her Instagram page in July 2017, after late-stage Lyme disease forced her to delay her start date at Rutgers for a year while she recovered. Unable to spend time studying algae out in the field, she worked on locally collected samples and viewed them with a home microscope – hence the name “Couch Microscopy.”

“She took a bad situation and turned it into something positive.  I was so moved by her story,” Bhattacharya said.