Beauty is all around
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then scientists at Ohio State studying animal, vegetable and mineral at the closest and farthest ranges are some of the most fortunate people on Earth.
My dad dunked a wiggly piece of yellow rubber tubing into a liquid, then put it on the floor and stepped on it with his wingtip shoe. It gave a loud pop and shattered into pieces that clinked across the concrete floor. What an instant rush of joy and wonder! The experiment my 5-year-old eyes witnessed, a demonstration of the transfer of thermal energy, convinced me that the world is an amazing place — one worthy of close observation.
I did not follow my dad’s path into science as a research chemist, but I enjoyed numerous science classes throughout college. The biochemistry of food fascinated me, as did courses in physiology, kinesiology and anatomy. I am grateful for the many people who choose a career in science. When I stop to think about the degree to which scientific innovations have improved or even saved my life, I am in awe.
Discoveries in agriculture, astronomy, biology, engineering, earth science, medicine, physics and more have informed crucial solutions benefiting people around the globe. Rigorous research can dispel ignorance and superstition by putting forth facts that allow for a more humane comprehension of our world. It all begins with asking questions.
As a longtime staff photographer for Ohio State, I have had the distinct pleasure of photographing researchers from a wide range of disciplines. Their work is the result of their immense curiosity for discovery and reminds me of a favorite quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”
Ranging from sub-atomic particles to galaxies many light years away, scientists use electron microscopes, X-rays, PET scans, cameras, drones, satellites and telescopes to record and create images that reveal valuable new intellectual knowledge. These images also can be remarkably abstract, surprisingly illuminative and stunningly beautiful. Please enjoy a view of this intersection of art and science from a few of our esteemed scientists and researchers. — Jo McCulty
Novel nanotechnology is helping researchers in the Department of Biomedical Engineering develop therapies for metabolic disorders such as diabetes. In a person with type 1 diabetes, pancreatic islets that normally carry out the endocrine function of the pancreas are compromised or damaged. This image, captured by Lilibeth Ortega-Pineda, a doctoral student in the Higuita-Castro lab, depicts an engineered, or lab-produced, islet. “Our goal is to develop approaches to engineer islets to address such deficiencies,” says Natalia Higuita-Castro, assistant professor in biomedical engineering and surgery. In the image, the colors red and green represent positive expression of hormones normally produced by the pancreas to regulate glucose metabolism. Blue represents the cell nuclei. “The beauty lies in the fact that these microscopic structures are fundamental to maintain proper pancreatic function and to sustain vital functions of organs and systems in the human body,” Higuita-Castro says.
In her role as director of the Coral Bleaching Research Coordination Network, Andréa Grottoli and a team of researchers study coral reefs’ physiological responses to stress, including rising temperatures that can cause them to expel their colorful algae. One way corals — like these tiny polyps on the coral Orbicella faveolata growing on the reef near Puerto Morelos, Mexico — cope with stress is to increase feeding with their tentacles by capturing plankton and putting it in their mouths. “This is a good photo showing tentacle extension during the day,” says Grottoli, a professor in the School of Earth Sciences. Knowing how much coral feed is a strong indicator of their ability to survive rising seawater temperatures and climate change. “As we work to reduce threats to coral reefs globally, this research can help scientists, students, public policy makers, and environmental and government managers.”
Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Nope, it’s not heavy metal album cover art. It’s a microscopic image of Buckeye Gold, a dandelion bioengineered to serve as a sustainable source of natural rubber. Katrina Cornish, endowed chair and professor in the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and global authority on the production of alternative natural rubber, aims to establish Buckeye Gold in Ohio to reduce our dependence on tropical rubber trees. Cornish is working to make the fragile plant more vigorous and to produce a dandelion without parachutes that carry seeds where they’re unwanted. The shimmering vertical strands you see in this image are the seed parachutes. “A stronger dandelion without wind-dispersed seed will help make domestic rubber production a reality,” she says. “This can lead to productive alternate systems that farmers will adopt to help us diversify the supply of rubber, which is desperately needed.”
Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering
Having evolved over 3.8 billion years, nature is a powerful tool for researchers pursuing novel commercial applications. This image of a water droplet on a lotus leaf, captured with an optical microscope, allows Bharat Bhushan, professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, to view the formation of an air pocket, which demonstrated that the leaf repelled water. The discovery will assist in the development of repellants and self-cleaning surfaces that can be commercialized for use in water collection or the mitigation of oil spills. “We were happy with what we saw. Now we understand how nature does what it does; that amazes us,” Bhushan says. Modeling natural surfaces with multiple scales of roughness that repel water, researchers can develop optimal designs and use smart materials and manufacturing to create new structures. In this case, Bhushan says, the impact on the environment “cannot be measured in dollars.”
In the Central Andes of Peru, melting glaciers threaten the lives and livelihood of roughly 1 million people who live in the valleys below them. Forrest Schoessow, a doctoral candidate in geography conducting research in the Glacier Environmental Change Laboratory at Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, studies the life and death of glaciers. His aim is to better understand not only the causes of a rapidly changing climate but also the effects: depleted water resources and increased potential for landslides and flooding. Schoessow uses high-altitude images like this one to monitor rapid changes in glaciers in high-mountain environments such as the Andes. “These images describe a point in time and provide a fleeting glimpse of what was and what no longer will be,” Schoessow says. “It’s imperative that we, as Earth’s data detectives, piece together the clues within these images to figure out the rate of the change. The past can help us understand the present and better prepare for the future.”
Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology
Relax: That gaping maw is attached to an insect the size of a ballpoint pen tip. It also is a defining characteristic of the genus Pulchrisolia, a group of parasitic wasps from Africa. Since their discovery in the early 1900s, only about 150 specimens have been collected. “The photo was taken to show the peculiar mouth parts that these insects have,” says Zachary Lahey, a doctoral student in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology. Lahey works in the lab of Norman Johnson, the Martha N. and John C. Moser Chair in Arthropod Systematics and Biological Diversity. “These images allow me to see characteristics that are useful in differentiating between species. They show the intricate sculpturing of these insects, which really details their beauty.” The ultimate goal is to describe new species and document their distribution, information that can be used by conservationists to protect the habitats of Lahey’s “fantastic creatures.”
Jacob Repicky, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Physics, studies the behavior of matter on the smallest scales. What you see here is a chromium surface that is the width of one one-hundredth of a strand of human hair. This research, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is built around an instrument called a scanning tunneling microscope that allows him to view images such as this one. “We were particularly interested in chromium surfaces because they are known to be magnetic, and we were hoping to visualize this magnetism using this microscope,” he says. “Preparation of the chromium surface for the microscope requires heating the metal to 1,100 degrees Celsius, which is near the evaporation point. As the metal is heated up and cooled down, these chromium wires had spontaneously assembled, much to our surprise.”
Graduate student Seth Shields’ research toward removing carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere and converting it into fuel occurs on a film of copper dioxide so thin it cannot be seen with the naked eye. Ideally, the film would be a model for a catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide back into hydrocarbon fuels. What we see here is an imperfect attempt. Shields, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Physics, takes it in stride. “We produce these photos because we need to know how it’s growing and whether the films are extremely atomically flat so I can perform my main measurement technique of scanning tunneling microscopy on them,” he says. “Humanity is pumping CO2 into the air like nobody’s business. Even though this growth wasn’t flat enough to be successful, it can be a small piece that can help guide others who are working to solve this problem.”
Ozlem Doğan Ekici
Chemistry and Biochemistry
This tangle of loops that resembles an electrical project gone wrong is a precise experiment. The image was obtained by Craig McElroy, research assistant professor in the College of Pharmacy. It depicts the atomic-level interaction between enzymes and a compound designed to stop them from wreaking havoc on the human brain. The compound is the work of Ozlem Doğan Ekici, associate professor of chemistry and biochemistry at Ohio State Newark, where she develops novel protease inhibitors — potential drug candidates designed to treat a variety of diseases. Proteases are enzymes that accelerate the breakdown of peptide bonds in proteins, a process called proteolysis. Uncontrolled, excessive proteolysis can lead to diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, ALS and Huntington’s. Ekici hunts for compounds that will slow or stop that phenomenon. “This is just a small piece of what I’m trying to achieve,” she says. “My goal is to be able to come up with a molecule that can be a potential drug against a certain disease. This is the first baby step in that very big process of drug development.”
Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering
Where a gardener might get on hands and knees to examine a tomato plant for signs of health, Andrew Klopfenstein evaluates his growing crops from above — high above. Klopfenstein, a senior research associate engineer in the Department of Food, Agricultural and Biological Engineering, is developing ways to help farmers increase their crop yields. One method he’s testing employs robotics to plant corn and soybeans together, which makes the nutrients more efficient and results in a yield increase of up to 50%. Throughout the mid-April to October growing season, Klopfenstein takes overhead photographs every seven to 10 days to evaluate crop health at the Molly Caren Ag Center 30 minutes west of Columbus. “Everyone benefits if yields increase,” he says. “Farmers will be able to produce more food on the same amount of acreage. As farmland declines, this allows farmers to be more efficient as their resources dwindle.”
“People have been staring at pollen grains for close to 300 years, ever since the early microscopes were invented. Yet we still know little about how these walls and patterns develop,” says Anna Dobritsa, associate professor in the Department of Molecular Genetics. “You take a species of a plant that you don’t know much about and put its pollen under a microscope to see the diversity of patterns and to record effects of mutations.” This psychedelic image depicts the stamen — the purple portion — of Arabidopsis thaliana, or thale cress, a plant convenient for research because it grows quickly, stays small and produces ample seeds. The green structures are developing pollen grains, tucked into four chambers on top of the stamen. “If you look closely,” Dobritsa says, “you can notice that cells in the left-most chamber look smaller than in other chambers. Cells in this chamber have already undergone a specific type of cell division that puts them on the path of becoming mature pollen grains and started producing one of the proteins that we study, visible in these cells as bright green dots.”
It’s ironic that the most malign objects also can be beautiful. “This is a human breast tumor from a patient with invasive lobular carcinoma that was positive for estrogen and progesterone receptors and negative for a protein involved in normal cell growth,” says Brooke Benner, a student in biomedical sciences who completed her doctoral research earlier this year. Her work focused on a protein called Bruton’s Tyrosine Kinase, or BTK, a protein that plays a role in the generation and function of tumor cells. In the simplest terms, Benner seeks to disarm BTK. Images like this one can help her move toward that goal. “I see various structures and cell types found within human breast tissue,” she says. “We stained the tissue for BTK in red. The nucleus is marked in blue. The bright green cells represent macrophages and, when overlaid, we also see these cells express BTK. This means that we can use therapies that inhibit BTK to target these cells.”