Labmates Snag Top Honors in Scientific Images Contest

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Radha Boya (left) and Keith Brown (right) with their winning images at Evanston Township High School in October.

Radha Boya and Keith Brown have more in common than winning images in the 2013 Scientific Images Contest. They are also both postdoctoral fellows in Chad Mirkin’s research group.

This is not the first time two scientists from the same lab have placed in the contest. Andrew Koltonow and Mark McClendon, both from the Stupp group, took home first and third place prizes, respectively, in 2012. But, this is the first time labmates have earned the top two spots, with Boya nabbing first place and Brown tying for second.

Boya and Brown are also both members of the Mirkin Dip-Pen Nanolithography (DPN) subgroup. DPN, which was invented by the Mirkin group in 1999, is a technique that allows scientists to evenly deposit molecules and materials on large surface areas at a nanoscale level.

“If you think about how a pen writes, you have a tip that’s coated in ink and you drag it across a surface and it deposits the ink,” Brown said. “That’s the same as what we’re doing, except in our system the pens are very, very small and we have many of them. We have tens of thousands of them working together.”

Instead of ink, these nanoscale pens “write” with biomaterials, like DNA and proteins. A scientist can use DPN technology to deposit thousands of microscopic DNA spots on a solid surface, called an array, which can be used by doctors for high-throughput medical screening, a first step in the development of new drugs.

Boya’s image, “Nanoscale Lego Puzzle,” depicts a bird’s eye view of the grooves used to mold the nanoscale pen tips. And, Brown’s image, “Meltdown,” shows a nanoscale electrical device, used in molecular printing, after it exploded during testing.

With brilliant hues of blue and a shocking splatter of red, the images appear to be an artist’s abstract compositions drawn from the depths of imagination. It is impossible to imagine such whimsical shapes under a microscope. But, that is exactly where these images originated.

“Art captures interest,” Dr. Chad Mirkin said. “Scientific art can be an important bridge between science and the non-scientist.”

Throughout the year, winning scientists will have the opportunity to share their images with the public. The hope is the colorful images will spark conversations about the research projects they represent.

This year, the first exhibit was held at Evanston Township High School, where more than 400 students viewed the images. Students also voted on their favorite image, awarding Brown’s “Meltdown” the student-choice award.

And, at a reception on October 15, Boya and Brown had an opportunity to speak with members of the community about the work they do in Mirkin’s lab.

These outreach opportunities are an integral part of the contest, which is in its fourth year. For Mirkin, science outreach is critical.

“As scientists, it is essential that we educate the public as to the importance and value of [outreach] and, of course, it is critical to cultivate and stimulate the next generation of potential researchers and inventors,” he said.

With a lab comprised of biologists, chemists, physicists and material scientists, Mirkin has assembled the best and brightest to lead the way. Boya and Brown say their mentor gives his lab members the freedom to be creative and innovative.

“I love the freedom of choosing your own problem,” Boya said. “You basically have a framework in which you will choose the problem, but you have a lot of independence in choosing the problem and experimenting with new things.”

Inspired by the work they do each day, Boya and Brown both hope to run their own labs someday, continuing to think outside the box.

“The really crazy thing about research is at the end of the day it’s all about creativity,” Brown said. “When you’re a lab scientist there’s a lot of diligence. You need to spend the hours and you have to recover from failure and all these things. But, to do something that no one has ever done before really requires creativity.”

The winning scientific images will be on display at Evanston Public Library beginning on December 7. 

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