UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Daryl Branford — one of the minds behind the groundbreaking multimedia instillation “The Zombie Ant Experience” — first came to Penn State in the 90s, it was the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts that convinced him Penn State was the place for him.
Now things have come full circle. “The Zombie Ant Experience,” which details the strange process by which a parasitic fungus infects and takes over the bodies of ants, will be on display Penn State’s “Art of Discovery” booth at the festival from 11 to 1 p.m on Friday, July 13.
“I’m honored, really honored, to be a part of Arts Fest,” said Branford, a design visualization specialist in the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences. “It was the first experience I had when I first came to State College, this amazing celebration of art and music, and that’s when I knew that I really wanted to be part of this community.”
“The Zombie Ant Experience” explores the research of Penn State professor of entomology and biology David Hughes, who studies the effects of something that sounds like it’s straight out of a science fiction story: a fungus that infects living ants, takes control of their muscles against their will, and forces the ant to become a mindless zombie driven to help spread the fungus to take over even more ants.
Branford knew that this research had the potential to capture people’s imagination, and he brought together an interdisciplinary team of engineers, architects, computer scientists, artists and more to bring “The Zombie Ant Experience” to life. The result? An intricate metalwork sculpture that details the life span of the fungus and the infected ants, complete with an augmented reality (AR) overlay that lets you step into the world of the zombie ants on their own terms.
“This project literally lets people walk in and experience what it’s like to be an ant under the forest canopy, and the AR then leads them through the life cycle of the fungus and its infection of the ant,” said Talley Fisher, a local sculptor who worked closely with Branford on the installation. “It’s really cool. You say ‘zombie ants’ and people say ‘what?’ It’s super sci-fi sounding, but it’s real. The sculpture brings this wild science to life, creating a unique educational experience."
Branford agrees: The science strikes many people as sounding like it’s too outlandish to be true, but that’s part of what makes the research and the project so exciting.
“We’re pulling back the curtain on an invisible world that’s happening around you all the time,” Branford said. “People should be excited about science; it’s a part of our everyday lives. And this project is taking this amazing science and bringing it to the public in a very tangible, very exciting way.”
Cole Hons, director of communications and marketing for the Huck Institutes, said “The Zombie Ant Experience” will be the first in a series of multimedia projects exploring the breadth of research being done by Huck’s multidisciplinary researchers — and that the series is off to a great start.
“We’re all a part of the natural world whether or not we think too much about it,” Hons said. “‘The Zombie Ant Experience’ gives us an opportunity to reflect on just how amazing natural processes are, and to have a moment of awe. That's the best of what science and art both do.”