December 07, 2023

NanoPoetry, a Creative Approach to Chemistry

In Nanomaterials Chemistry, a 300-level course, students’ microscopic musings become poster-worthy poetry and art.

Black and white microscopic image with a haiku: Find me in the sea,/or deep within the mountains,/even on your fries. As part of L&C's Nanomaterials Chemistry course, Elizabeth Saltonstall BA '24 used an electron mircroscope to capture this up-close look at salt crystals.

Haiku, a centuries-old poetic form in which a writer conveys expansive meaning in only 17 syllables, might seem like an unusual topic for a Nanomaterials Chemistry assignment. But students in CHEM 361—which draws both chemistry majors and nonmajors—find the smallest of poems the perfect way to describe what they discovered through electron microscopy.

The opportunity to view everyday materials at the nano level can be awe-inspiring, as students discovered when they examined a variety of organic and inorganic samples under Lewis & Clark’s electron microscope. While conventional microscopes rely on visible light focused with lenses to magnify samples, the electron microscope aims a beam of electrons, focused with magnets, at a sample, creating images from the electrons that bounce back.

“Seeing so many things up close through the scanning electron microscope gave me more perspective on how much surface area can be on something that appears smooth,” noted chemistry major Owen Beale BA ’24. Beale explained that those surfaces have important implications, because “reaction rates in chemistry can be greatly affected by surface area.” Even “something that appeared pretty smooth, like a black tea leaf, could have so many fibers, nooks, and crannies on the surface.”

Regardless of major, the students agreed that organic matter, which has less uniform surfaces than inorganic matter, was visually stunning as well as scientifically interesting to examine at the nano level. Each student chose a particularly compelling image and crafted a haiku inspired by what they observed.

For Makena Andersen BA ’24, a chemistry and physics double major, inspiration came from an artificial plant in the science building lounge: a spider had died in the plant, providing an organic sample to examine. Working with the microscope, Andersen focused on the hair along the spider’s legs. Andersen isn’t the first L&C student to study the importance of arachnid’s hirsute limbs, but their poem celebrating the power of this spider’s leg hair offered a new way to share scientific findings with the broader community.

Anne Bentley, Dr. Robert B. Pamplin Jr. Associate Professor of Science, designed the assignment so that students could share their explorations of electron microscopy and nanomaterials with other members of the L&C community. She always welcomes students from a variety of majors to enroll in the course. The posters combining students’ poems with the microscope images that inspired them, on view in the Olin Center for Physics and Chemistry, provide an artistic way to inspire other undergraduates to explore nanomaterials chemistry.