Vis-a-thon 2021

What’s In a Drop of Mud?


Anna Schrecengost Doctoral, University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography

COLLABORATOR Avantika Velho Undergraduate, Rhode Island School of Design, Industrial Design and Nature-Culture-Sustainability Studies


Rafael Attias

What’s In a Drop of Mud? is an illustrated narrative that tells the story of ciliates living without oxygen and the microbes that live inside them, and how they work together as one entity to thrive in harsh conditions.

Initial Proposal Note

“I came into the experience with a really big and vague idea about what I wanted to accomplish. I had these grand plans for a citizen science project that would combine outreach with real data collection that is important for the research that I do. Obviously, this is not something that could be accomplished in one weekend. But I figured, maybe we could make an infrastructure for the project, or informational material.” 

Anna Schrecengost

“When I sat down with Avantika, she hit me with some hard truths. We needed to convince people that going out into a salt marsh and digging into stinky mud was something that they would actually want to do in their spare time. Put in those terms, that definitely seemed like a challenge, but I had faith in my microbes. I really felt like we could create something that could convince people that our ciliates had personality and that they should want to discover more about them.“ 

Anna Schrecengost

Anna and Avantika decided to create an illustrated narrative, like an adult children’s book. Anna thinks microbes’ compelling characters would spark the curiosity of the readers.

Anna was primarily the story writer, and Avantika’s was the illustrator. Although, ultimately those roles meshed as they story-boarded together. It was an intensely iterative process. Anna constantly had to re-frame her thinking about what was important to communicate and what could be left out even if it was something she originally thought was crucial. Even to the very end, she challenged herself to consider each and every word and idea that they put into the story.

What’s In a Drop of Mud? is both an educational tool and a work of art. The work was designed to empower people to explore the diverse and charismatic microbes that live in the mud in their backyards and communities, as well as bring awareness to the importance of symbioses in our ecosystems.

Its language is simple thus readers of any age could understand. However, it is still complex enough so that readers don’t feel like the concepts are being oversimplified.

“I learned not only about art and visualization but also about how to be a better scientist. Collaborating with Avantika and Rafael was an immensely rewarding, challenging, and delightful experience. Learning how to collaborate with an artist was extremely valuable. Through the process of collaboratively constructing a narrative meant to grab the attention of not only scientists but of any person, I developed crucial skills in science communication.

I learned how to pare down my research to its most basic and important components. Sometimes a science communication workshop says you should try to explain your research in a few sentences, or using only the 1000 most common words. But, I think instead, everyone should collaborate with an artist to make a research storybook!” 

Anna Schrecengost

Tools Used in the Project

Procreate Adobe Illustrator


© What’s In a Drop of Mud?, 2021

This material is based upon work supported in part by the National Science Foundation under EPSCoR Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221.
Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.