Students Sweep Tech Park’s First Annual Microscopy Art Contest

Demonstrating how science can become art

The first-place entry, by Ph.D. student Shirley Huang.

The first-place entry, by Ph.D. student Shirley Huang.

Often a new tool leads to a new discovery—and that’s as true for art as for science. UConn Tech Park showcases the relationship between tool and knowledge beautifully in its inaugural microscopy competition, which invited UConn researchers to submit images taken with Tech Park’s state-of-the-art equipment.

“This competition is a wonderful opportunity to showcase our students’ creativity and display the beautiful images they have captured using Tech Park’s high-tech electron microscopes. It encourages students to continue discovering art in their scientific research and gives them a richer perspective on research programs as they move forward in their careers,” says Pamir Alpay, executive director of UConn Tech Park.

UConn Today interviewed the three winners of the competition and had them shed a little light on their images’ origins.

The first-place entry, by Ph.D. student Shirley Huang.
The first-place entry, by Ph.D. student Shirley Huang.

“I knew I was going to get a prize for that picture,” says Shirley Huang, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Suib Lab in Chemistry and Material Science. Huang loves photography, taking pictures primarily of friends and of landscapes in her spare time. She has an equally good eye for the microscopic, which is how she captured her winning image of the titanium dioxide nanotube array shown above. She used a Verios Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to snap a bottom view of the array in order to measure each tube’s length and diameter. The titanium dioxide array can be used to drive chemical reactions that depend on light, such as pollution treatments, carbon dioxide reduction and water splitting.

The second-place entry, by Lamya Tabassum.
The second-place entry, by Ph.D. student Lamya Tabassum.

Ph.D. student Lamya Tabassum won second prize for her image of a copper sulfide nano array that didn’t turn out exactly the way she’d hoped. But sometimes, from accident comes success.

“I use the SEM to check the shape. I can do the synthesis, but there’s no way to determine if the particles are actually arrays or not,” without scanning them under the microscope, Tabassum says. The copper sulfide arrays are intended to split water for hydrogen, a valuable energy commodity.

The strange shape of the nano array in the image above was not what Tabassum was expecting. In fact, it was new to science, and now Tabassum is publishing a paper about it. It also made for a prizewinning photo. Happy accident indeed.

The third-place entry, by Ph.D. student Andreas Godoy.
The third-place entry, by Ph.D. student Andreas Godoy.

The image above was taken by Andreas Godoy, a fourth-year Ph.D. student working with Dr. Jankovic at the Center for Clean Energy and Engineering, for his work on a film containing titanium nitrate and platinum. Godoy used a transmission electron microscope (TEM), which can see several nanometers deep into a material. Essentially it compresses the depths it sees into a flat image, giving a two dimensional picture of a three dimensional object. The TEM can show individual atoms, but at the cost of resolution.

“The higher the magnification, the harder it is to get a good focus,” says Godoy. This image was good enough for him to see how much platinum and titanium there was in the film. How much? Not as much as he had hoped. But what the image lacked in precious metal it made up for in technical merit, and Godoy won third place in the competition.

“It was really fun seeing the entries come in,” says Melanie Noble, executive administrative assistant to the executive director of Tech Park. Noble organized the competition, and was impressed by many of the entries, but she wasn’t doing the judging herself. The judges were microscopy experts, project managers, a prototyping specialist and a graphic designer. Their votes were tabulated and determined which images won prizes for first ($1,000), second ($750) and third ($500).

Noble says she hopes the competition becomes an annual thing, and is already making plans for next time.