UW student selected for Arctic Circle expedition

Erin Bentley, a second-year UW master’s student in botany from Green River, was one of 40 artists and scientists selected to The Arctic Circle, an annual expeditionary residency program, now in its 12th year. Bentley will be part of the summer solstice expedition, scheduled June 7-24, 2021. Here, Bentley is in Cambodia as part of a volunteer trip in which she worked on an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. (Photo by Sarah Verhey; via University of Wyoming)

Erin Bentley soon will embark on the journey of a lifetime.

Bentley, a University of Wyoming second-year master’s student, majoring in botany, will explore the Arctic aboard a research ship next summer. Bentley is one of 40 artists and scientists selected for The Arctic Circle program.

The program is an annual expeditionary residency, now in its 12th year. Bentley will be part of the summer solstice expedition, scheduled June 7-24, 2021.

“On this trip, I hope to learn more about the microbial diversity of the region, but I also hope to engage the public in the mission of the Microbestiary,” says Bentley, from Green River. “By engaging with the other scientists and artists on this expedition, I intend to develop new projects that combine art, science and education. I am hopeful that other members of this expedition will be able to give me some novel insights in that pursuit.”

The Microbestiary is an outreach project coordinated by Bentley, who studies the consequences of rarity for plant genetics and plant microbiomes in UW Professor Alex Buerkle’s botany lab. Bentley says the Microbestiary started out as only a website. Over the past year, the site has expanded to include working with schools, holding classes for the public and hosting free activities at summer farmers markets. 

“The Microbestiary strives to show the public, in welcoming and memorable ways, that the microbial world is populated by strange and beautiful characters. We are transitioning over to focusing on the diversity of microbes across a landscape, and the opportunity to take this to the Arctic was too good to pass up,” Bentley says. “A piece of my current studies focuses on microbial diversity and, since the purpose of my involvement with this expedition would be to characterize the diversity of the microbes present in the snow, water and soil of the Arctic, it fits in nicely with my current research.”

The Arctic Circle program brings together international artists of all disciplines, scientists, architects and educators who collectively explore the high-Arctic Svalbard, an Arctic archipelago located just 10 degrees of latitude from the North Pole. The research group will sail aboard a specially outfitted barquentine, or schooner vessel. The ship is equipped with workspace, common areas and ample room for privacy and creativity.

To be considered, Bentley had to submit an application that included her essay, titled “Finding Thule.” Thule is the most remote northern location mentioned in ancient Greek and Roman literature.

By titling the project “Finding Thule,” Bentley says she drew from her original inspiration for the Microbestiary: She compared the diverse world of microbes to the fantastical beasts the world once believed in during the Middle Ages, and the existence of an unexplored, mythical land with the unseen microbial world of the Arctic.

The Microbestiary website features these mythological beasts, along with artistic responses to each microbe, in an effort to make the science more engaging and accessible — as well as fuel the crossover of science and art, Bentley explains.

“Through extraction and high-throughput sequencing of microbial DNA, followed by microbe classification through database comparison, all of which are accessible through the facilities of the University of Wyoming, I will classify the microbes present in samples of snow, water and soil taken throughout the expedition,” Bentley wrote in her application. “After classification of these micro-organisms, I will compile a new chapter of the Microbestiary, that of Thule.”

Bentley says one project that will result from the expedition will include an online interactive map of the locations where the samples were taken and which “beasts” were found there. Additionally, Bentley says she will dedicate a section of the Microbestiary website to teaching the public about the microbes present in the Arctic. This will include explanations and links to scientific research about the effects that microbes have on climate change, the Arctic environment, and greenhouse gas and nutrient cycling.

“I am very excited to have been selected,” Bentley says. “I was confident in my application, but I wasn’t positive that I would make the cut, given the small number of accepted applications.”