February 25, 2021

Art, Science, and Jellyfish

A striking image by UMass Amherst chemical engineering students wins a prize

UMass Amherst roommates Nicholas Sbalbi ’22 and Kyle Schoenberg ’22, both chemical engineering students, never expected to win an art show. But the two recently took first place in the annual Science as Art competition run by the Materials Research Society. Their winning entry was a digitally enhanced scanning electron microscope (SEM) micrograph titled “Jellyfish Janus Particle.”

Nicholas, from West Springfield, Mass., has worked in the polymer science and engineering lab of Professor Laura Bradley since developing an interest in materials science in his first semester at UMass. “I’m fascinated by how nanoscale structure can change the properties of materials on a larger scale,” he says, citing their practical uses, which include drug delivery and micromotors.

As part of his nanoparticle synthesis research, Nicholas accidentally developed a particle in an interesting shape. When doctoral student Heather Hamilton of the polymer science and engineering department took a SEM photograph of the particle, she noted its resemblance to a jellyfish, and the particle was dubbed “Janus Jellyfish.”

Janus particles, named for the two-faced Roman god, have two distinct sides but this particle’s asymmetry was unusual. Nicholas says, “When I first saw the image, I was struck by how distinct the two halves of the particle are. It was exciting to see.”

Janus particles are named for the two-faced Roman god.

Chemical Engineering Associate Professor Sarah Perry encouraged Nicholas to enhance the micrograph for the Materials Research Society’s competition. And Sbalbi knew the perfect person for the job—his roommate, Kyle Schoenberg, a chemical engineering major from Harvard, Mass., who works in the research group of Professor James J. Watkins of polymer science and engineering

Kyle applied his considerable Photoshop skills to the micrograph, transforming the gray scale image of the 1.5-micron diameter particle into the winning picture of a violet jellyfish floating in a deep blue sea. “Nick has always filled me in on things he’s developing in the lab,” says Kyle. “He’s quite the scholar.”

Perry submitted the micrograph to the competition on behalf of the students, who went on to split a $400 prize.

Nicholas continues to research the Jellyfish Janus particle for his Commonwealth Honors College thesis, which he intends to publish. He’s now back in the lab, increasing his understanding of the material and investigating a practical application for this remarkable particle.