Nfld. & Labrador

Striking photo by MUN chemist in national contest that celebrates the art of science

Stephanie Gallant's colourful, abstract picture of tiny crystals is in the running for a national contest of scientific images.
Stephanie Gallant's image of cobalt ferrite crystals, taken using an scanning electron microscope, is in the running for a contest through Natural Sciences and Engineering Council of Canada. (Submitted by Stephanie Gallant)

To the untrained eye, the photograph looks like a riot of colours and shapes, in the vein of abstract art.

It is art — and it's also science, a literal snapshot of Stephanie Gallant's chemistry research at Memorial University, that's now on digital display and up for public voting as part of a national contest of scientific research images.

But what exactly is the jumble?

"You're looking at crystals, and it might not seem like crystals like we think, because they're on a very different size scale, but they are crystals," said Gallant.

The crystals, made of cobalt, iron and oxygen, are almost unimaginably small, ranging between 60 to 500 nanometres — a poppyseed is 10,000 times the size of the largest of them.

Gallant made the tiny, magnetic nanoparticles in a lab, as part of her research work in materials chemistry, and even she grapples with their size.

"I can barely visualize it, because it's something we wouldn't be able to see with our naked eye on that scale," she said.

Stephanie Gallant of Mount Pearl is a PhD researcher at Memorial University. (Submitted by Stephanie Gallant)

Lucky for her, and the wider world of science, there is an instrument that can visualize it: a scanning electron microscope. Gallant used one to capture the image, and then she took some artistic licence to make the particles visually pop with teal, pink and mustard hues.

"It's falsely coloured. The images that come from the scanning electron microscope are black and white," she told CBC Radio's Weekend AM

"That's kind of the artistic part of what I've done, is that I've digitally coloured it afterwards, trying to highlight the different shapes that you see."

The colours help her and other scientists distinguish between the different forms of the crystals. Those shapes form part of Gallant's research, as she delves into why the crystals, which all have the same chemical composition, take on different shapes.

Regardless of size, they all serve a purpose — as a material chemist, Gallant works to find practical uses for various creations.

"Believe it or not these beautiful little crystals can actually be used for sensing of pollutants," she said.

The esthetics of science

Gallant had long hoped to submit an image to the Science Exposed contest, run by the federal Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

"I've been following this contest for years, just out of interest. I love art, I love science, and it's the perfect in-between of the two," she said.

The contest aims to showcase scientific research across Canada, and doubles as an artistic exhibition for biologists, physicists, chemists and anyone working in the field.

"There's something visually interesting in every science, I personally think, and you can see that in the contest entries," said Gallant.

This is a scanning electron microscope, the instrument Gallant used to capture her image. (Submitted by Stephanie Gallant)

Images from 2020 include a closeup look at a bee's compound eye, a fluorescent ovarian tumour biopsy sample, and the spiky balls within a lithium ion battery.

"It gives a little glimpse into what we do every day," said Gallant.

"As a chemist, I know not everyone knows what people in chemistry do every day, so it's a nice little piece of that to explain, this is what I spend my time doing, and this is what it could be used for."

Voting for the contest, which runs until Sept. 13, takes place on the Science Exposed website.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Weekend AM

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