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KU finalist in competition for art of engineering

Tue, 02/05/2013

LAWRENCE — An image from a research project from the University of Kansas School of Engineering is on display at a competition designed to showcase the artistic side of engineering. 

KU is one of 10 finalists in the Biophysical Society’s Art of Science Image Contest, which bases its selections on the scientific significance, originality, artistic value and visual impact of each image. The top three images will be announced at the Biophysical Society’s annual meeting today in Philadelphia. 

KU’s entry is from the work of Ashleigh Steckly, a master’s student in bioengineering from Manhattan, and Ming Li Tan, a senior in chemical and petroleum engineering from Malaysia, in the lab of Prajna Dhar, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering. 

“I’ve always been proud of my group’s images, and I always tell my students that it’s really beautiful work, but it’s nice to have formal recognition from someone outside my group acknowledging the beauty of this research,” Dhar said.

The image — a striking collection of intricately interwoven, black heart-shaped images on a white background — is the product of Dhar’s research on nanoparticles, tiny particles not much larger than atoms, and their potential short-term and long-term impact on the human body. A likely gateway for nanoparticles into the body is through the lungs, so Dhar’s research centers on how these particles interact with a material, known as surfactant, in the lungs designed to reduce the amount of energy required during respiration.

“What we see in this image is not a healthy surfactant. Under normal circumstances, it’s a bean-shaped structure. As the nanoparticle is introduced, traces of the original bean shape are still visible, but it’s all stretched out,” Dhar said. 

Dhar said her research on interaction of nanoparticles with lung surfactants is still in its early stages, but it appears that in the short term, the presence of nanoparticles does not have much of an impact. Over time, however, Dhar said the nanoparticles appear to cause differences in the packing of molecules in the lung surfactant, which could lead to changes in the surfactant’s behavior and performance.  

She and collaborator Assistant Professor Laird Forrest in pharmaceutical chemistry are seeking additional grant money to expand this work.

“It’s great that these images are judged not just on artistic sense, but from a scientific significance,” Dhar said. “This aspect imaging and microscopic configurations has always fascinated me.  I have hundreds of images like this on file, ones that interest me personally, but I’ve never had an opportunity to send one of them in for a competition.  I always joked that if nothing else, we’d have a lot of great T-shirt designs.”

The top three finishers in the Biophysical Society’s Art of Science Image Contest are eligible for up to $500 in cash awards.



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