A garden-variety scientist

Biologist Amy Lamb fell in love with seeing nature close-up, then traded her microscope for a camera lens

By | June 1, 2007

It's a glorious May morning at the United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. Spring is in full bloom: Bees buzz, birds twitter, and flowers wearing colorful crowns sway gently in the cool breeze.
But the most striking botanical specimens hang inside a gallery near the Garden's entrance. The 21 up-close photographs of flowers and other plant parts comprise Patterns in Nature, the latest exhibition from photographer and erstwhile scientist Amy Lamb. Lamb grows almost all of the plants she photographs in a garden outside her Bethesda, Maryland home, which also houses her studio. She takes cuttings from her plants at various stages of their lifecycles, carefully lights her subjects, and photographs them against jet-black backgrounds, highlighting their tiniest hairs and thinnest veins. What results are intricately detailed photos that capture the innate grace of flowers.
As a PhD who studied protein synthesis at the University of Michigan, Lamb (née Falvey) brings a scientific sensibility to her photos that other artists lack. "Humans often take for granted the amazing engineering that goes into plants," Lamb says. "I'm looking for the overall structures and for the details that make plants unique." In Patterns, Lamb juxtaposes the spirals, star-shapes, and curves of several plant species with similar structural motifs found elsewhere in nature.
Her photo of a spiraled Cyclamen tendril cradling an unemerged flower bud, for example, hangs beside images of other natural spirals -- spiral galaxy NGC 4622, 1992's Hurricane Andrew whirling off the coast of Florida, and a seahorse, with its slender, curved tail. "These are purely visual comparisons as opposed to scientific comparisons," she says. "But as a scientist, I looked at the flowers not only for their beauty, but also from [the perspective of] why and how they got to be these forms and colors. My eye is not just about design, it's about science." Strolling past vivid photos of a star-shaped Stapelia next to a drawing of a sea star, and an emerging peony shoot mirrored by a drawing of a cerebral pyramidal cell, Lamb says that her appreciation for biological beauty took root in an electron microscopy lab where she worked for a summer after graduating from university. "I fell in love with sub-cellular structures," she says. "You'd be in this dark room with a huge machine, and all of a sudden there would appear this whole world that you couldn't even see before." This aesthetic seed lay somewhat dormant, however, as Lamb continued her scientific career. She completed her PhD in 1970, then pursued postdocs in Switzerland and at the National Institutes of Health, where she studied the transcription of globin mRNA. Lamb earned a reputation for thoroughness. "My experiments were always repeatable, and I took my time," Lamb says. "I didn't stop doing something until I got it perfect." "She did her biochemistry how she now does her photography," says Marjorie Robert-Guroff, Lamb's NIH collaborator and now a senior investigator at the National Cancer Institute. "It was meticulous [with] very much attention to detail."
After taking an extended leave from the bench to raise a family, Lamb returned to science in the early 1990s, co-teaching a molecular biology course at George Washington University with biology professor David Morris. "She really did make a brilliant contribution," says Morris, "The students loved her." In the mid-1990s, Lamb took a Smithsonian-sponsored photography class, and was immediately hooked. She quit teaching and devoted herself to developing her photographic skills, and realized that close-up shots of the botanical world were an ideal vehicle to express her wonder for the intricacies of nature. We pause in front of Lamb's photo of the drooping, bud-bearing shoots of a Cimicifuga plant, and see the pattern echoed in a nearby line drawing of endoplasmic reticulum. Diane Abeloff, the medical illustrator who drew all the juxtaposed line drawings in the exhibition, says that Lamb is as valuable to the art world as she was to science. "The scientific world had a great loss losing her," Abeloff says, "but the artistic world would also be at a loss if she stopped doing her art." As we file past more of her photos, bristling with living detail, Lamb says she hopes her work helps convey the value of biodiversity. "My mission is to share the beauty and magnificence of the actual structures, but also that what we have is so special on this planet," she says. Thousands of photos and 50 major exhibitions after she left scientific research, Lamb continues to see the world with a scientist's eye. "I think you can say as much about science through vision as you can in the lab. It's just very different." Patterns in Nature: Photographs by Amy Lamb will be on display at the United States Botanic Garden until September 9. Bob Grant mail@the-scientist.com Images: Lamb in front of Cyclamen IV, Stapelia (©2005 Amy Lamb), Peony Emerging I (©2007 Amy Lamb), and Sea Star, drawing by Diane Abeloff. Links within this article: United State Botanic Garden http://www.usbg.gov/ Patterns in Nature: Photographs by Amy Lamb http://www.amylamb.com/exhibitions.htm Amy Lamb Studios http://www.amylamb.com/ AK Falvey and Staehelin T, "Structure and function of mammalian ribosomes. II. Exchange of ribosomal subunits at various stages of in vitro polypeptide synthesis," Journal of Molecular Biology, 1970. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/5485919 The Cyclamen Society http://www.cyclamen.org/indexCS.html Spiral Galaxy NGC 4622 http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2002/03/ Hurricane Andrew http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2002/03/ Stapelia gigantean - Carrion Flower http://www.plantoftheweek.org/week048.shtml B. Nasto, "Small is beautiful," The Scientist, September 2002. http://www.the-scientist.com/article/display/20732/ AK Falvey et al., "Mechanism of action of ribonucleic acid-directed deoxyribonucleic-acid polymerase. I. transcription of globin messenger ribonucleic-acid," Journal of Biological Chemistry, 1974. http://www.the-scientist.com/pubmed/4140187 Cimicifuga racemosa http://www.missouriplants.com/Whitealt/Cimicifuga_racemosa_page.html

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