Tasked with a botany class assignment to “interpret a plant-pollinator relationship,” Cerise Bennett knew the obvious—she had to write a paper detailing the intricacies of this natural tango. But the not-so-obvious, which the professor intentionally left open-ended, was the optional bonus project: showcase the relationship with something visual.
For Bennett, then a 4th year student at San Francisco State University (SFSU) and a part-time student researcher at Berkeley Lab, this assignment was exactly what she had been hoping for. Her subjects of choice were an exotic Hawaiian plant and its pollinator, a hawk moth. She started by sketching the plant and the moth. “But I decided I wanted to do it in another medium,” Bennett recalled. “So I made an embroidery of it, and that just set me off on a bug patch-making spree!”
Sewing was, according to Bennett, an excellent introduction to understanding and following lab protocols. Now a research associate with the Biological Systems and Engineering Division (BSE), Bennett continues to work and play in the overlapping space between science and art. “I’m constantly surprised by how much creativity is needed in the lab,” she said.
With a family that explored both science and art, Bennett grew up with the two worlds blended together. Her mother is a medical herbalist who constantly sews and makes fiber art, while her father is a recently-retired aerospace engineer with hobbies that include recreating medieval suits of armor and tools. When Bennett’s grandfather, a polymer chemist, would invite her to visit his lab, she remembers feeling like it was all simply magical. So when Bennett explored science classes in school, she quickly realized that not only did she love it, she was good at it.
It all meshed so well with my art background, it felt like such a good fit.
In 2015, Bennett enrolled in a two-year biotechnology program at Berkeley City College. Her chosen focus was particularly appealing because of its multi-faceted approach to science. “It’s very syncretic—there’s chemistry, there’s biology, it has a lot of opportunities in different directions,” she said. “I was just fascinated.”
A year into her program, Bennett landed an internship at Berkeley Lab working under Mina Bissell, a Distinguished Scientist in BSE. Bissell’s group was exploring how a cell’s environment influences tumor growth. Bennett’s temporary project turned into a part-time student researcher position. “Mina and her team were working on so many neat projects, I just kind of kept sticking around and got to work on a lot of them.”
One project that Bennett remembers in particular was studying the cellular microenvironment in breast cancer and how sometimes, tumor cells revert to a non-malignant behavior. “There’s crosstalk between the different [tissue] layers and the basement membrane,” she explained. “I realized that everything is just this living system.” In 2017, when Bissell and collaborators published an article that showcased decades worth of research demonstrating the influence of a cell’s microenvironment, Bennett contributed hand-drawn artwork to the Berkeley Lab article.
In her role as a student researcher, Bennett learned and got really good at the technical lab protocols, too. She did a lot of Western blots and immunostaining of cell cultures, two different types of methods used in labs to identify certain proteins. And both of which require plenty of attention to detail and, according to Bennett, “a lot of little tiny fiddly work.”
“It all meshed so well with my art background, it felt like such a good fit,” she said.
The COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed Bennett’s decision to continue pursuing the next academic degree and she enrolled in the SFSU botany program in 2019. After Mina Bissell retired, Bennett transitioned to working part-time with Antoine Snijders and Jian-Hua Mao, both BSE senior scientists studying how environmental and genetic factors can influence tumor growth. “The whole time I’ve been with the Lab, my role has been changing and evolving,” she said.
After graduating in 2021, Bennett was hired as a full-time research associate. Based at Potter Street, she splits her time between performing hands-on, wet-lab work and more of a “lab caretaker” role, where she helps to organize, analyze, and prepare for all of the varying experiments.
Right now, Bennett is investigating the effects of low-dose ionizing radiation on skin tissue. Using tissue samples that resemble human skin and are about the size of a dime, she works with her team to apply different levels of radiation and then analyzes the skin cells’ behavior and appearance to see what, if anything, changes. “Most research has been done with high-dose radiation,” Bennett clarified. Her work is part of the Targeted Evaluation of Ionizing Radiation Exposure (TEI-REX, pronounced T-rex) program, which feeds into a larger effort to develop a non-invasive test that can detect when low levels of harmful radiation, for example from a bioweapon, are present.
While the project’s experiments are running, Bennett switches over to her other role on the team. “There’s always hang-time with wet-lab work,” Bennett pointed out. So when one of her tissue samples is incubating for 30 minutes, she’ll update information for the next round of experiments into a database and prepare the samples for the following week.
With her days of juggling school and work behind her, Bennett is enjoying having more time to devote to her creative pursuits. Her interest in hand-embroidering insects has only continued to flourish. She recently gifted her sister-in-law a patch of an indigo bunting bird, which they had rescued and helped nurse back to health. Other recently crafted treasures include a three-dimensional bumblebee and a cicada with pearlescent organza wings. With each project, Bennett relishes the challenge of trying out a new technique.
The crossover between her work and hobbies is a constant source of inspiration. Even if she follows the instructions and pays attention to where each colored strand should be threaded, there is still the occasional point in which the rule book doesn’t have what she needs. “It’s so similar to research,” she said. “Things don’t always go as planned, but if I take a step back and look for a different direction, I can almost always find a new way forward.”
Read other profiles in the Behind the Breakthroughs series.