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Visualizing the Unseeable

A collaborative project between chemistry and art hopes to envision nanomaterials and explore their unique features.
April 3, 2023
By Tracy Seipel
Images of silver nanoparticles from Korin Wheeler's lab taken with a transmission electron microscope and modified by Takeshi Moro.
| Images of silver nanoparticles from Korin Wheeler's lab taken with a transmission electron microscope and modified by Takeshi Moro.

Consider the plight of chemistry professors everywhere as they try to explain the rearrangement of atoms during chemical reactions.

For many students, it’s a challenge to visualize the basic building blocks for all matter in the universe, since atoms are impossible to see with the naked eye, or even a light microscope. 

“Trying to jump into thinking at that level of molecules, atoms, and especially subatomic particles isn’t easy ,” says chemistry Professor Korin Wheeler, whose added expertise in nanoparticles, which are larger than atoms but often smaller than the wavelength of light, only deepens her quandary. 

Now, thanks to a new endowment that supports cross-disciplinary collaborations with SCU students, faculty, and schools on campus—with a preference to projects including the arts—Wheeler and associate professor of photography Takeshi Moro are taking up that challenge.

Starting July 1, through the next year, the two faculty members and a handful of students from their departments will aim to create images of nanoparticles to help SCU students, and the rest of us, try to “visualize the unseeable.”

“It will allow them to explore something they never would have been able to explore in the past,” says Eric Tillman, chemistry professor and associate vice provost for research, who is intrigued by the possibilities. “It’s going to be really interesting for them to work together and see how an artist thinks about something versus how chemists think about something, and for the students to get to see that interplay and participate.”

Established last summer through a $3.8 million gift from Jacqueline Whitham ’21 and her family’s foundation, the Whitham Family Collaborative Research Awards Fund will annually fund three SCU faculty and student teams in multi-disciplinary projects that rely on some form of art. 

Whitham’s own SCU undergrad experience inspired the idea after she initially struggled to pursue all her passions at SCU—science, engineering, and art. Minoring in art, she realized, improved her ability to communicate across disciplines, and to visualize scientific concepts.

Each of the three award-winning projects, chosen by Tillman, Whitham and Kathy Aoki, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of studio art, comes with a grant between $30,000 and $60,000. The teams are expected to produce tangible outcomes that will benefit students, such as published research papers, books or book chapters, performances or exhibitions, or multi-year research grants.

“It’s exciting to see the connections being made between individuals in arts and others in the sciences who probably wouldn’t have had this opportunity to come together,” says Whitham of nine proposals submitted last fall.

An unlikely partnership

It was Moro who approached Wheeler about applying for the grant, based on a chance collaboration they had in 2015. That’s when he was making cyanotypes, a photographic printmaking method that produces blue prints using coated paper and light.

The chemical process involves metal complexes that Wheeler frequently uses in her lab. Moro had been reading about a new way of making chemicals for the blue prints, and a colleague suggested he reach out to Wheeler for help.

The outcome, Moro says, “was that we worked together and we liked working with each other.”

Wheeler, who tapped one of her students to assist her on Moro’s query, was delighted by the teacher/student opportunity to collaborate and learn alongside the photographer and artist. “This is exactly why you come to a school like Santa Clara, as far as I’m concerned,” she says.

Fast forward to last fall, when the application for proposals went out, and they began discussing possible ideas, starting with Wheeler's nano research, and Moro's pre-academia life in marketing and design.

“I was thinking, ‘What is something that a lay person would find interesting?’ We’ve heard about nanomaterials before, but you really don’t understand what the scale of those things are,” Moro says. “Even now, I can’t fathom it.”

While some nanomaterials occur naturally, such as proteins in blood, engineered nanomaterials  for commercial uses, such as sports equipment, cosmetics, smartphones, and pharmaceuticals, need to be designed carefully to ensure human health benefits and benign environmental impacts. Wheeler’s academic work focuses on enhancing nanomaterials‘ abilities to improve both.

This new project is meant to not only highlight and communicate the science of nanoparticles through artistic representation, but also pose the risks and rewards of these emerging technologies to their audience. 

Exciting and tangible outcome

Moro recognizes the irony behind the challenge of creating photographic art of something that’s not seeable. “It’s exciting,” he says, “and complicated.” 

In fact, nanoparticles can be viewed by students through a scanning electron microscope inside the Center for Nanostructures in the Daly Science Center. But even then, the microscope isn’t powerful enough to visualize the smaller nanoparticles from Wheeler’s lab. 

“It’s a bit of an irony that in order to see these incredibly small particles,” says Wheeler, “you have to use a very large and incredibly powerful instrument.” 

Although informative to a chemist, these black and white images do not convey the dynamic reactivity that the particles can undergo, she explains.  The images can also dull the beauty of the nanoparticles. “Gold and silver nanoparticles, for example, can be brightly colored—red, blue, green, and purple!” Wheeler says. “This is a result of the dynamic interactions of the particles with light. It is those dynamics that make nanoparticles exciting, and that we’d like to highlight with this work.”

For now, the two faculty members are discussing how their “tangible outcome” might take shape, whether on paper, canvas, or perhaps in a video. Moro has experimented with a few initial nano images from Wheeler that he calls “impressionistic interpretations of the nanomaterial forms.” 

“There’s a bravery to doing both science and art and a need to collaborate in both fields—we’ll see if we can get there," says Wheeler. "My students and I can do the science. The artists will be able to guide us.”