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When art and science intertwine, winning images result

collage of winning entries


Winning entries: Psychedelic Urea, upper left; Fractal Sakura, upper right; Color Concoction on a Convex Canvas, middle left; Tree of Life, lower right; The Night When They Talked About Coronavirus, lower left.

How could urea -- a colorless crystalline compound and the main component of urine – be turned into prize-winning art?

Alexandria Raab ’21, an environmental health major at the University of Rochester, melted urea crystals on a microscope slide with a hot plate, then transferred the slide to a microscope with polarizing filters.

As the urea compound recrystallized at room temperature, she used her iPhone to capture her striking image, titled “Psychedelic Urea,” through the eyepiece of the microscope.

The image is this year’s first place winner in the annual Art of Science competition. Raab will receive $1,000.  Her image will be placed on permanent display in the Carlson Science and Engineering Library along with past winners, and these four other images that took prizes or received special recognition this year:

  • Second place ($500): “Fractal Sakura,” by Ziqiu Wu, a computer science master’s student. The image shows how natural systems, previously thought off limits to mathematicians, can now be explained in terms of fractals -- complex, never-ending patterns created by repeating mathematical equations.
  • Third place ($250): “Color Concoction on a Convex Canvas,” by Sophea Urbi Biswas ’23 of biomedical engineering. This image shows brightly colored patterns that form when light of different wavelengths is reflected off the outer and inner surfaces of soap bubbles.
  • People’s choice award ($250): “Tree of Life,” by Leonor Teles ’21 of biomedical engineering. Teles used computational fluid dynamics to depict blood flow in a carotid artery “much as the branching trees of the world sustain the oxygen needed for life.” Different colors show the blood flow changing as it reaches smaller vessels.
  • Honorable mention: “The Night When They Talked About Coronavirus,” by Yang Li, a PhD student in electrical engineering, who visualized a network of 22,513 Twitter users who mentioned “coronavirus” during a three-minute period on March 10. The network resembled a constellation, prompting Li to use the night sky as background.

“These are all striking images, and there was clear agreement among the judges about the top winners,” says Wendi Heinzelman, dean of the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. The school sponsors the competition in collaboration with River Campus Libraries. There were 72 entries in all. Prize money is provided by a donation from Edmund Hajim ’58, chair emeritus of the University’s Board of Trustees and the school’s chief benefactor and namesake.

A welcome respite from COVID-19

Judging and the announcement of awards was done remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic. Heinzelman said several people contacted her saying it was “really nice they could have something non-COVID to focus on. Even though it might seem minor compared to everything else that is going on, I think the competition had a positive impact on the University community.”

464 members of the University community cast ballots to determine the People’s Choice Award.

Organizer Brian McIntrye, lecturer in optics and director of operations at URNano, says the competition is an opportunity for students “to think about their research, why they do it, and how they want to present it. It’s an important process to go through, because they eventually have to be able to communicate what they are doing.”

Raab took her photo during a visit to the lab of Alexander Shtukenberg, a research professor at the New York University Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, during Raab’s  internship with BioBus, a New York City non-profit STEM education organization. Shtukenberg studies crystallization processes and mechanisms, defects in crystals, polymorphism, and phase transformations.

“My submission represents the beauty of science from an artistic perspective combined with how scientific principles and techniques can bring art to fruition,” Raab says. “Urea consists of white crystals as a solid and is a clear liquid when melted, if viewed with human eyes only. Without the aid of a polarized light microscope, the beautiful kaleidoscope of vibrant color would not be seen. The shapes of the crystals, that make up the kaleidoscopic image as they recrystallize, demonstrate the crystalline structure of urea, which is what crystal chemists observe during their research.”

“Therefore, my submission portrays how art and science are intertwined to the viewer.”

And that intertwining is what the Art of Science competition is all about.