Scientific Images Contest fosters collaboration with unlikely partners

The power of collaboration between researchers, and between scientists and the public


Vikas Nandwana's image of iron oxide nanoparticles assembling into a honeycomb pattern

Nandwana won an honorable mention for his image capturing magnetic nanoparticles self-assembling.

Amid a long row of easels, Vikas Nandwana stands beside an image of a honeycomb pattern, smiling. “The whole idea is to control the growth of cancer,” explains Nandwana, a materials scientist at Northwestern, gesturing to his artwork.

The honeycomb pattern comprises nanoparticles of iron oxide, which he plans to deploy as a targeted form of cancer treatment. Nandwana says that within a decade doctors could inject these nanoparticles into a patient and direct their flow using magnets, attacking tumors without surgery or chemotherapy.

As one of the winners of the 2015 Northwestern Scientific Images Contest, Nandwana’s honeycomb pattern has travelled to the gallery of Evanston Township High School where all twelve contest finalists are in residence for the third year. From here, the contest images and their attendant researchers will tour the Chicago area as a collection, visiting sites including the Museum of Science and Industry and Harold Washington Library.

In the Evanston Township High School gallery, the twelve finalists are on display alongside ETHS student artworks. Marla Siebold, an AP Studio Art teacher at ETHS, asked her students to produce an original work inspired by the scientific images.

Carly Korleski, a senior in Seibold’s class, chose to work with Nandwana’s honeycomb pattern. She created a rainbow tessellation of hexagons, closely mirroring the repeating geometry of Nandwana’s original nanoparticles. Her classmate, Isak Magnuson, interpreted Xiolong Liu’s image “Carbon on Fire”, reimagining the structure of carbon atoms into a vibrant lizard’s textured skin.

When assigning the project, Siebold purposely withheld the science behind the Northwestern images, instead allowing the students’ imaginations to explore.  “The whole time we were trying to figure out what everything was,” says Korleski. “It was the most scientific our class has ever gotten.”

Which, according to ETHS-Northwestern partnership coordinator Kristen Perkins, is the whole idea. After the art projects were completed, the Scientific Images Contest winners visit the high school as part of the Good Neighbor, Great University initiative, a program meant to share Northwestern resources with the local community. Students render artistic interpretations of the science, and then the scientists visit the school and explain the technical aspects of each image. The artist-scientist relationship is part of providing STEAM education  at ETHS – integrating arts and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects. This interdisciplinary approach has led to some unexpected results.

For example, the ovary in the winning image, “Supporting Potential Life,” was reimagined by an ETHS art student as a moon, looming over a shadowy pair of human figures.

It’s a powerful image for researcher Adam Jakus, whose winning image represents a development in oncofertility–the combination of oncology and fertility–particularly the ability for cancer-surviving women to conceive. Jakus collaborated with Monica Laronda, a Postdoctoral Fellow in Obstetrics and Gynaecoloy, to create the innovative support material in their image, which provides new hope for potential mothers.

As a materials scientist, Jakus engineered and then 3D-printed a paper-like biomaterial which Laronda and medical researchers in Northwestern’s Woodruff Lab use to develop budding ovarian follicles into viable eggs. The way the ETHS student’s artwork inserted a pair of humans, however unknowingly, resonates with the mission of the research team.

“If the woman wants to have a child and she can’t, that’s just sad,” Jakus says. “It’s sad not just for the woman, but for the family and the couple. This is kind of about new hope. I think [Rena Newman's] image kind of captures that.”

Jakus and Laronda’s winning interdisciplinary collaboration is a first for the Scientific Images Contest. “Supporting Potential Life” represents the fruits of reaching across disciplines to solve tough, wicked problems. Women are demanding a solution now, Jakus says, and researchers from both fertility and materials science specialities are combining their skills and knowledge to get one step closer.

That message – collaboration and communication – is what Jakus says is most important, and what he hopes audiences take away as his image travels to venues across Chicago.

“People in pure medicine generally never talk to engineers,” Jakus says. “Engineers generally never talk to pure biologists or people in medicine. But when we come together, I’m not going to say it’s easy, but problems can be solved.”

Full galleries of both the 2015 Scientific Images Contest winners and the ETHS student artworks inspired by them can be viewed on HELIX.



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