I was asked by the science artist Kelly Stanford to create a poem celebrating Manchester’s contribution to science and technology, for her STEM-themed bee sculpture as part of #BeeInTheCity. The poem takes a bee-twist on Rutherford’s atomic model, splitting the atom (a Manchester first!) and graphene, for which Manchester scientists Professor Andre Geim and Professor Konstantin Novoselov won the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics. Professor Novoselov signed the bee along with 80 other researchers and scientists working in Manchester.
“Input Segregation was first published by Palaver Magazine in 2017. The poem was inspired by the paper “Modality-specific segregation of input to ant mushroom bodies.” published in 1999 by Gronenberg, W. This paper was one of the first insect neuro papers I ever read, so it made quite the impact on me and really drew me into the field.
This is a ‘found’ poem, which means the words were all ‘found’ in a different source. To make this poem, I took each section of the paper (abstract, materials and methods, discussion, etc) and pulled out poetic words, remixing them to make something new while still maintaining the essence of the original paper. While poems can be ‘found’ in newspaper articles, blog posts, and more, I enjoy using primary research articles as my source material – sometimes we forget to see the beauty among the more dry terms, but it is always there.”
Meghan Barrett is a PhD student at Drexel University studying bug brains, pesticides, and bee diversity; she splits her attention between insects, poetry, baking, hazelnut coffee, and her cat, Nyx. Her writing has previously appeared or is forthcoming in Firefly, The Trumpeter, Gandy Dancer, Palaver, and Crabfat magazines. The biology behind her poetry, as well as more about her scientific and science communication work, can be found on her website: meghan-barrett.com or by following her on Twitter (@Abiogenesister) or on Facebook.
A fellow Twitter user and science writer (@philonotis) encouraged me to stretch myself and engage poetically with a paper in the journal Nature, on plants recognising pathogens (Rezzonico, Rupp, Fahrentrapp 2017). This was daunting; a ‘proper’ science paper in a field I knew nothing about.
I had to read the paper several times to understand it, but as I did several themes emerged that set the course of the poem. The first was the idea that ultimately all communication depends on the interaction of physical elements in biological systems, even visual stimulii. This was illustrated by the use of different colours representing different states of ripening (a physical process) and the diffusing perfume text.
The second and most important idea in terms of the form, was that the researchers fragmented the plants at a molecular level in order to extract a jumble of internal messages – the signs of genes being expressed in response to invading pathogens. This seemed analogous to putting a book through a shredder, to see what words came out, and led to a deliberately cut-up, collage style. The phrases are fragments without punctuation or capital letters, and do not follow a clear rhythm or rhyme structure, but together they can be interpreted as a story.
The final theme was that the plants ‘remember’ their attackers (the pathogens), with the disconcerting suggestion that they may also recognise on some level, the researcher who both cared for and injured them. The different choices (tend, infect, cut) available to the researcher within the confines of the protocol were presented as a drop-down list, with the infection of grey mould shown as encroaching grey pixels arising from that choice.