The dirt on mutualism

Plan Author

  • Elizaveta Mitrofanova, 2015

Fields of Concentration

  • Biology
  • Ceramics

Sample Courses

Project Description

Clay sculpture and installation exploring concepts of loss, environment, and growth.

Faculty Sponsors

  • Megan Mitchell
  • Jenny Ramstetter

Outside Evaluator

  • David Katz, Bennington College, and Robert Engel, ecologist


This Plan included installations in fired and unfired clay, exploring loss and time, in addition to field work and writing in biology focused on the symbiosis between legumes, rhizobia, and mycorrhizae. The written portion is composed of three parts, the first of which is an independent personal reflection connecting work in ceramics and biology, titled “Making sense of loss.” The second part is based on a pilot study conducted on the Marlboro College farm, titled “The effect of soil disturbance on the tripartite symbiosis of Phaseolus vulgaris, arbuscular micorrhizal fungi, and rhizobia in the field.” The third and most lengthy is a literature review titled “Three-way relationships, when they work, when they don’t, and how to use them: Tripartite symbiosis in legumes, rhizobia, and arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi.” This paper suggests that researchers are now able to seriously consider the role of this tripartite symbiosis in restoring degraded systems and providing an alternative to modern agriculture.


The summer before my senior year, I managed the college farm and carried out my pilot study. I turned sod and grew beans inoculated with nitrogen fixing bacteria and corn inoculated with native mycorrhizal fungi. I watched these plants emerge from the ground, grow, and lose their leaves to the appetites of all manner of passersby. I went for runs and I swam in a cold, clear pond. This project spilled deep in the fall, and I spent many hours working in the lab to stain roots, make slides, and collect data. I agonized with blurry eyes through hours of counting through a microscope. In spite of, and maybe because of, the difficulty of this work, this experience deeply changed the way that I read scientific literature. Humanity lies beyond the Latin binomials, methods sections, and objective voices of these studies. Passion and tedium stand side by side.

When my research began it was infused with the desire to support the notion that this “team” of mutually beneficial organisms could provide an agricultural solution that would eliminate the need for fertilizers, decrease erosion, and increase water efficiency. In other words, my research began in the appropriate optimistic and fashion. Immersion in the literature dissolved these preconceptions, and replaced them with conclusions typical of ecology. Depending on environmental conditions, both biotic and abiotic, this tripartite symbiosis will act differently with varying consequences for the host plant and ecosystem. Exploring the literature allowed informed uncertainty to replace optimistic bias, but brought with it apprehension that soil ecosystems are too complex to manage. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that the data available at our fingertips is an asset, and it is the work of reviews like this to digest those studies to point out patterns, contradictions, and areas of needed insight.


The inspiration for my Plan work was rooted in a desire to understand the world around me and—also—myself. The whole Plan process was revealing and valuable.

I was most invested in the installation based in melting ice blocks and unfired clay buckets. I enjoyed the process of sawing out the ice blocks from the fire pond, storing them until April, and figuring out how to suspend them above the clay buckets. The suspense of not knowing whether my ice would survive the initial thaw in their home-made refrigerator was an exciting factor out of my control.

The first semester of senior year I felt like I was trying to roll a giant stone through a bog, building momentum when inertia was against me, but in January that changed.  The work that felt like it wasn’t getting me anywhere finally began to reveal itself in tangible results and endless ideas. It came together, and for that I am thankful.