The Beauty of Science

 A cleaned and stained Moorish idol (Zanclus cornutus).

Michelle Gilbert, PhD ’22, wants to push people to ask questions in a logical manner.  

“People should always encourage themselves internally to seek out answers to their questions,” she said; “Ask questions and attempt to tackle them.” 

Gilbert, who recently completed her PhD in Biology, believes everyone should think like a researcher and is passionate about making science accessible. This is apparent through her work as a doctoral student at UMass. 

Gilbert’s own research arose out of a desire to satiate her curiosity about the natural world. “I’ve always been curious why animals are shaped the way that they are,” she said. 

This curiosity led her to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology at Murray State University in 2014 and a master’s degree in biology at Western Kentucky University in 2016. While working on her PhD, Gilbert worked under Professor R. Craig Albertson studying organismic and evolutionary biology. Gilbert studies an animal specimen’s morphology, or form and structure, the animal’s anatomy, and the evolution of the animal in order to better understand evolutionary mechanisms. 

And Gilbert’s animal of choice for her research? Fishes. “There’s no competition when it comes to the diversity of fish,” she explained, also clarifying that scientists use “fishes” as opposed to “fish” when referring to multiple species of fish; “fish are unrivaled.” Because fishes have more species diversity than all other vertebrates combined, their variety of shapes and sizes make fishes a paragon subject for studying the relationship between form and function. 

In order to better understand the diverse forms of fishes, Gilbert looks at the bones. Sometimes, this work involves skeletonizing a specimen with the use of flesh-eating beetles so all that is left are the specimen’s bones. Other times, this work involves disassembling skeletons and putting them back together to see how they work. Additionally, this work can involve diaphonization, a process of clearing and staining, that results in the vibrant and spectral images like the purple fish above. 

To capture images like these, Gilbert clears out the tissues of fishes and then stains their skeletons and cartilage. Two dyes are used in this process; alcian blue is used to stain the specimen’s cartilage while alizayin red is used to stain the specimen’s bone. This process creates a visual that helps researchers understand how bones respond to stress. 

After the clearing and staining process, Gilbert photographs the specimens herself. However, this next step is not as easy as snapping a quick picture. 

In order to capture the clarity of the purple fish above, around 60 photos were taken from different angles. The majority of specimens Gilbert photographs require around 50 to 100 photos, while the most photos she took for one fish was about 720 photos. 

All this time and effort is not just work or even just research to Gilbert—it is art. 

Gilbert’s website displays her photography works and illustrations of fishes alongside additional projects of amphibians, reptiles, and mammals. 

“Science and art have been married for a long time and I feel like it’s often unappreciated how important art is to the sciences,” Gilbert explained, “I see art and science as inseparable.” 

The interconnectedness of her research to art is one of her favorite parts of her work. 

“I feel like it makes my work more accessible,” she said. 

Gilbert’s art accomplishments include having a piece accepted into the “Images from Science 3” exhibit in 2019 and winning the 2018 and 2020 Federation of American Societies of Experimental Biology BioArt contest

Gilbert believes presenting this aspect of research in a visual and aesthetically pleasing form allows science to be more open and inviting; it helps make science and research available to everyone. Art brings “awareness and appreciation to the complexities of vertebrate anatomy, development, and evolution,” she said. 

Another way Gilbert promotes access to science and research is through her teaching and mentoring. While at UMass, Gilbert taught undergrad biology courses as a teaching assistant and mentored undergrads in research projects. “Teaching is one of my absolute favorite things to do,” she said, “I’m extremely passionate about getting undergrads involved in research.” 

Gilbert’s clear enthusiasm toward her work is a great motivator, but this enthusiasm occasionally becomes an obstacle. Gilbert explains that when one is so excited at learning more and sharing information about the topic, it can be difficult to place all the parts of a research project together. “Making a coherent story out of many different moving parts is challenging,” she said. 

Additional challenges she has faced in her research involve the practicality of obtaining and working with specimens. Gilbert has contacted natural history museums as far away as Australia and Japan for a certain species of fish, and laments that while she has conducted research on fanfish, she has never seen a living one. Furthermore, working with old specimens at museums can be intimidating because of the age and rarity of the specimens. “They feel precious,” she said, but acknowledges that these specimens’ purposes in museums are for researchers like her to work with. 

Despite these challenges, Gilbert is grateful for the support she received during her time here at UMass. She said being part of the Albertson Lab is “a wonderful environment to work in,” and Professor R. Craig Albertson is “the best mentor I could have ever asked for.” Furthermore, while at UMass, Gilbert received internal funding from the UMass Natural History Collections Grant and the Dissertation Research Grant to support her research. 

Now that Gilbert has completed her dissertation and earned her PhD, she has accepted a position as a postdoctoral researcher at Penn State University. She will be working and continuing her research with Professor Thomas Stewart, whose lab focuses on “fins and limbs.” The postdoc position is a research one, but Gilbert hopes to return soon to teaching and mentoring. 

As part of her new position, Gilbert hopes to continue her efforts increasing access to science through artwork, involving undergraduate students in the lab, and encouraging everyone to think like a researcher. “Everybody,” she said, “should be able to get involved in science.” 

Written by Nicole O'Connell, PhD student in English, as part of the Graduate School's Public Writing Fellows Program.