Kevin J. Carpenter '99, Master's in Biological Sciences

carpenter1For Kevin J. Carpenter, biology is more than a complex set of biochemical reactions and microorganisms. The Cal Poly Pomona alumnus and College of Science faculty member also sees it as a form of art. Through the lenses of his electron microscope, Carpenter uses microorganisms to create unique and stunning portraits of such things as bacteria, protozoa and highly complex subcellular structures.

“I like the higher magnification images that show the abstract patterns,” he says. “It draws people in. You don’t have to be a scientist to take part in the scientific process.”

His images or micrographs are so extraordinary, they are part of the permanent collection at the Exploratorium science museum in San Francisco and also part of the “Invisible Portraits: Revealing the Secret World of Microbes” exhibit, running through Jan. 5, at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia. Some of the images are enlarged to enormous proportions, such as the one at the Exploratorium that measures 12 feet tall and 4 feet wide. Others have been featured on nine journal covers, the National Science Foundation’s website and in 17 peer-reviewed articles.

Image acquisition with scanning electron microscopy is not simple and can take up to an hour from setup to capture. Generally, though, Carpenter says he can acquire 15 to 20 images per hour and has taken “a few thousand overall.”           

This blending of science and art is part of Carpenter’s passion for nature photography and science, an interest that began as a child growing up in Southern California in the 1970s. Carl Sagan’s television program, “Cosmos,” was an early inspiration, and Carpenter translated those interests into a bachelor’s degree in biological science from UC Irvine, a master’s from Cal Poly Pomona and a doctoral degree in plant biology from UC Davis. He did post-doctoral research at the University of British Columbia (where he created the images in his museum exhibits) and at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco.

In addition to his work with electron microscopy, Carpenter led a project to apply high resolution imaging mass spectrometry to study how microbes utilize and transfer nutrients to their 
symbiotic partners. His first paper from this research was recently published online in the journal “Microscopy and Microanalysis.” The cover of the print version will feature one of his NanoSIMS images.

carpenter4Carpenter joined Cal Poly Pomona in September as an adjunct faculty member teaching plant ecology. Next quarter, he will teach biodiversity as part of the Foundations of Biology series. He plans to use some of his micrographs in class – melding art and science once more.

While Carpenter acknowledges it would be wonderful to one day see his micrographs in art galleries and museums such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art or New York’s Guggenheim, science is still his priority.

“I am a scientist first and foremost,” he says. “These images provide data. But the fact that some see this as art is very gratifying.”

* Kevin J. Carpenter’s images can be seen on his website and on Facebook at


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