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Andrew Koltonow

At the microscopic level, graphene oxide looks cosmic. The first-place  image in Science in Society's 2012 competition is by materials science Ph.D. student Andrew Koltonow. The 12 winning images go on exhibit Saturday at the Harold Washington Library    

Exhibit visualizes the frontiers of science at the boundaries of art

by Rebecca Halleck
May 2, 2013


Mark McClendon

The art of acid. Materials science Ph.D. student Mark McClendon captures polylactic acid in this image in the exhibit.

An annual science imaging contest has sparked a heated but creative three-year rivalry between two materials science Ph.D. students at Northwestern University.

The first place trophy has passed between Andrew Koltonow and Mark McClendon since the competition’s inception by Northwestern's Science in Society in 2010. McClendon won the first contest in 2010, a trophy quickly swiped by Koltonow in 2011 and 2012.

The pair, along with more than 40 other Northwestern researchers, submitted images for the "Capturing the Beaty of Science" contest in 2012. Captured in the course of their lab work, their entries were judged as art by fellow scientists, community leaders and artists.

The 12 winning images go on exhibit at the Harold Washington Library Center this Saturday. Koltonow’s first place image of graphene oxide (above) looks like an eerie sky out of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” McClendon’s third place image of polylactic acid (right) resembles orange balloons floating over a rocky mountainside.

The pair are already planning to submit works for the 2013 SiS competition, with a submissions deadline of June 30.

“Me and Andrew are always competing,” McClendon said. The two also face off in weekly Halo video game matches.

In one corner, we have McClendon, who has always known he wanted to be a scientist. At the age of seven he would ask his mom if he could “make poisons” out of her cooking ingredients. He’d mix them with seeds and plant them to see if his concoctions could grow into some new life form.

Now his creations are being used to develop new materials that behave like human tissue. He studies and manipulates peptide amphiphiles, a syrup-like artificial substance that can mimic smooth muscle cells in arteries. If perfected, the technology could mean creating artificial blood vessels for implantation during bypass heart surgeries instead of removing an artery from elsewhere in the body.

McClendon’s 2012 image on exhibit shows polylactic acid scattered over a salt crystal surface. His research uses polylactic acid (the orange circles) as an egg-shell-thin outer layer protecting a soft, weak peptide amphiphiles inner layer.

“To me, it’s the same as Christopher Columbus wanting to venture out and see something new,” McClendon said about why he loves science. “We get to discover something new every day. Understanding things that haven’t been understood by anyone before me, that’s exciting to me.”

In the other corner, is now two-time winner, Andrew Koltonow, also a materials scientist.

Koltonow entered the 2010 contest on a whim. “It was sort of a spur of the moment thing the first time around,” he said. “I kind of stumbled across the image as I was researching and it wasn’t clear enough to cut it in a technical journal but I thought it looked cool.”

So he enhanced the colors in Photoshop and sent it in, “I didn’t give it a second thought until they told me I won,” he said. “I took it a bit more seriously after that.”

Koltonow’s winning 2012 image depicts light being scattered off graphene oxide, a foam-like substance, that he studies. Graphene oxide is extremely thin but has a wide surface area (picture a bed sheet). Even though it’s foamy, it’s actually stronger than steel and currently the best thermal conductor in the world.

Graphene oxide’s most promising applications are for solar cells, catalytic converters and batteries. “Ideally, it will make alternative energy sources a bit less expensive and lighter,” Koltonow said. 

Science in Society launched the contest in 2010 as a bridge connecting non-scientists and researchers. SiS coordinates a variety of outreach initiatives that connect science to the community, including a science news online magazine.

“There are very few opportunities for scientists to present their research to the average person on the street,” said Bethany Hubbard, publications editor for SiS. The contest allows them “to get to talk to the people who will someday benefit from their work." Hubbard coordinates the contest with SiS founder and director Michael Kennedy.

Both Koltonow and McClendon said they want non-scientists to know that their work isn’t boring and it isn’t always cut and dry.

“What I wish people understood about my work is that it’s a discovery-based process,” Koltonow said. “I get the sense people think we’re putting things together atom-by-atom, that everything is precise and orderly. But with our materials the most efficient way to work is to just try everything you can think of and look for an unusual response.”

Like art, it's a creative endeavor.

“I don’t know what I’ll submit yet [for 2013] but I’m definitely working on it. When you look at things on a microscopic level they just become beautiful,” he said.