Chemistry students vie for artistic accolades at U of I’s Beckman Institute
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Chemistry students vie for artistic accolades at U of I’s Beckman Institute

There is more than meets the eye to the newly framed artwork hanging on the walls of the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology director’s conference room this week.

Six framed images capture the research of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign students at the institute, which were selected in an internal contest highlighting the intersection between art and science.

The images that emerge at the microscopic level are stunning even before finding out whether something is a human pancreatic andenocarcinoma implanted in a mouse, a colon cancer tumor or even a delicate mix of calcium and collagen.

The students’ work represents a wide swath of research that wasn’t meant to be shown in an art gallery, yet does have an abstract, ephemeral quality to even the untrained eye.

“At the Beckman Institute, we celebrate the collaborative and interdisciplinary research happening with our walls,” said Jeff Moore, director of the Beckman Institute. “I’m excited about showcasing images captured using our core research facilities, by the students and postdocs doing incredible work in this space.”

What the students captured is not your everyday molecular beauty and in each case the research has practical everyday applications.

Undergraduate chemistry major Elizabeth Murphy created a portrait that looks like an abstract painting done by Jackson Pollock, but really is a specific type of compound that is used to stabilize proteins in a solution. The research showed that these pSB chains in a solution can interact with proteins directly and affect their stability.

Elizabeth Murphy

Meanwhile, in the Harley Research Lab that focuses on molecular engineering, a feathery looking image takes shape that turns out to be crystals that are composite materials containing collagen, calcium and phosphate that are mineralized and used to create bone replacements. Andrey Nosatov used an environmental scanning electron microscope to capture the beauty of the material.

A second year Ph.D. student in bioengineering working at the Biophotonics Imaging Laboratory and Mayo Clinic, Jaena Park, created an image of a human pancreatic adenocarcinoma growing inside a mouse. The colorful picture was captured via autoflorescence multi-harmonic microscopy with pink and yellow objects being the cells in the tumor tissue and blue being the collagen.

Jaena Park

A black and white image of what seems to be distorted eggs in a carton turns out to be a micrograph of epoxy microbeads embedded in a thermoplastic-rich region of a self-healing material. According to micro-scale artist and third-year Ph.D. student Kelly Chang this material has applications in aerospace – such as self-healing airplanes. Chang is a student in materials science and engineering working with the Autonomous Materials Research Group.

Kelly Chang

Sudipta Mukherjee is a postdoctoral research working in chemical imaging and created a vibrant image of a co-culture of colon cancer cells and fibroblasts embedded in hydrogel matrix. The process reveals the nuclei and was studied as a simulation of the tumor microenvironment in an effort to understand the signaling between the fibroblasts and cancer cells and its impact on the progression of cancer.

Sudipta Mukherjee

Within the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Group, post-doc student Giuseppe Licari created a molecular model of a novel compound that inhibits the formation of a substance that plays a fundamental role in the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

Giuseppe Licari

Photos provided by the Beckman Institute

Susan Barreto

Written by Susan Barreto

Susan is an award-winning journalist who has worked for a number of regional and global publications. Much of her career has been covering the global finance industry for publications published by Crains, Reuters and Euromoney/Institutional Investor. She also interned and later freelanced for Rockford Magazine as well as the Northwestern Illinois Farmer newspaper.

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