AMHERST, Mass. - A dynamic and colorful painting honoring the life and work of renowned University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher Lynn Margulis is being installed this week in the Morrill Science Center on campus, where it will aptly dominate a shared hallway between the biology and geosciences departments.
Her UMass Amherst colleagues say the 4 x 6-foot reproduction of a bright and complex painting, "Endosymbiosis: Homage to Lynn Margulis," by Shoshanah Dubiner of Ashland, Ore., is a fitting tribute to the brilliant originality of a woman who combined microbiology, chemistry, geology, paleogeography and many other disciplines to form a unique vision of the Earth and humans’ place in the cosmos. An accompanying plaque remembers Margulis for her theories of endosymbiosis and Gaia, her teaching abilities and zest for communicating science to the public.
A Distinguished University Professor and National Medal of Science recipient, Margulis was best known for her theory of symbiogenesis, which posits that inherited variation, a basis of Darwinian evolution, does not come mainly from random mutations. Instead, new tissues, organs and even new species evolve through a collaborative "intimacy of strangers," her phrase for expressing how microorganisms join forces and evolve over time to solve problems together.
The painting and plaque are located near Room 220 Morrill Science Center II South, 627 North Pleasant St., on campus. Micro-paleontologist Mark Leckie, an expert in ancient plankton and chair of the geosciences department, says, "This painting is so appropriate as a tribute to her, as is the fact that it’s right around the corner from the Life and Earth Cafe, the student lounge and the College of Natural Sciences advising center. It recognizes her as a passionate mentor to young scientists, a talented educator and an out-of-the-box thinker."
"She was extremely creative and she challenged our understanding and knowing of biology, especially of evolution. Her ideas provoked deep thought. In her theory of endosymbiosis, in talking about evolution, she was also talking about Deep Time and Earth history. That was the frame for her discussion of the evolution of life, that we evolved together with Earth and our development was integrally related to Earth’s from the beginning," he adds.
Dubiner, who never met Margulis, says the scientist’s remarkable ideas about the interconnected web of life profoundly touched her as an artist over many years. The artist began the painting when she learned of Margulis’s death last November. Dubiner also attended the campus symposium "Celebrating a Life of Science: In Memory of Lynn Margulis," at UMass Amherst in March, where she presented the painting to the university community.
She says, "Meeting the people she attracted to her life gave me a real feeling for who she was and how much they all loved her. I got a sense of her as a spunky, motherly, interesting, non-traditional, brilliant woman doing cutting-edge research and thinking amazing thoughts. I was very, very excited to be there. I had read all her books and they transformed my ideas on the origin of life. I had taken cell biology and worked as an exhibit designer for the California Academy of Sciences, among other projects, but I found the books Lynn wrote with her son, Dorion Sagan, exceptionally poetic."
Dubiner’s original gouache painting measures 23 x 35 inches, from which a large high-resolution gicle reproduction was made on canvas with archival, non-fading inks to match and retain the original, brilliant colors. Dubiner says, "At the top you see free-swimming spirochetes as well as some attached to other cells to become flagella and undulapodia, which were inspired by illustrations in Lynn’s book, Dazzle Gradually."
"The large red protozoan is Urostyla grandis based on an 1859 drawing by Stein in Leipzig. The purple protozoan with two rows of cilia is Didinium, the pale "puffballs" on the bottom are Besslauides and the protozoan in the lower right is Euplotes. The blue feathered dragon-like creature at the center was inspired by a microscope image of a phospholipid cylinder by David Deamer. All the small background cylinders are bacteria. I wanted the individual organisms in this work to be accurate enough so a biologist would recognize them, but I allowed the overall painting to be a totally imaginary bioscape," says Dubiner.
Margulis’s graduate student and teaching assistant, James Macallister, adds, "Lynn was a broad thinker, interested in very broad questions. And, she loved reading from other disciplines, which she grew up doing and continued all her life. Her natural childlike curiosity had not been crushed by education. She had a wonder, a respect and deep love for the natural world."
Celeste Asikainen, another of Margulis’s doctoral students and her assistant at UMass Amherst for several years, agrees. "She went well beyond the current paradigms and always questioned the evidence and conclusions. She practiced not accepting any dogma or assumptions. Lynn was also the great connector, the great matchmaker of the universe for scientists. If she met two people who she thought should meet, she would get them connected. To this day some of them are still working together."
Both recall that Margulis often said there are no higher organisms than microbes, with their varied lifestyles and abilities. She said a tree is nothing more than scaffolding made by bacteria to get their relatives, the former bacteria in the leaves now called chloroplasts, up near the sun. Macallister notes, "The artist’s picture shows a community of organisms, which is what Lynn was all about. The organisms themselves create an organism, embedded in a community that is perfect and can’t be divided."