Growing crystals viewed through a microscopeWhen my ChemiSTEAM submission entitled ‘They grow up so fast!’ received an honorable mention and I was asked to write a short piece about it, I knew I was going to have to explain why the title relates to children.

I became obsessed with crystals and crystallography during my undergraduate chemistry degree at Memorial University. Sparkly morsels of science and X-rays – what’s not to love? I treasured doing research and I always took extreme care of my reactions and crystallizations. To be blunt, I was overly protective of my chemistry, and to be honest, I still am. When I grew crystals of a new compound during my honours research, I called them crystal babies. I got some weird looks from the other students and some professors but to me, that was the best thing to call them. I made them with my hands, I cared for them, and in some sense, I was their mother, so they were my babies. I remember being so excited to talk about my crystal babies at conferences, but I was also very cautious to make sure I did not actually say the words ‘crystal babies’ out loud because I thought that people would think I was unprofessional or even worse, unscientific. As I made my way through my Ph.D. studies always trying to say the right thing, I found that I was losing who I was while trying to fit into a mold.  When in reality, I am that person that whispers ‘goodnight’ and ‘grow big’ to my crystallizations when I leave the lab at the end of the day. I am Jennifer, mother of crystals. My mold no longer exists.

Currently, I am a post doctoral fellow in the Vukotic group at the University of Windsor. The area of research my work is focused on is the incorporation of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) into metal-organic frameworks and coordination polymers so that we can tune the release of the API to be faster or slower, depending on the limitations of the API to begin with. When I first started, I was trying many different reaction conditions and solvents, and to make life easier I used a pipetting robot called OT-2. I could never see what was really going on because my vials were neatly arranged in a tray that fit in the robot, my view of the solution was obstructed by the tray. Using the robot was a great success, I had numerous crystals and decided I needed to start scaling up the synthesis of my materials for characterization and dissolution purposes. I decided to do one hundred times the original scale – go big or go home. This is when I saw the magic happen for the first time. I set my dark royal blue solution to crystallize on the bench, and I went about my day. About ten minutes later I glanced over at the beaker; the solution was colourless, and I had a beaker full of massive royal purple crystals. Scale-up success.

Naturally, I was curious. Crystals this large have no right to grow so quickly. It really put me in mind of an organic chemistry lab where you must crystallize your product and isolate it but there is only twenty minutes left in your lab slot. You know, the ultimate hustle where you grab the ice because you get marks for yield, so it must be good. In this case, my crystals were purple and large not beige and wispy. I did it again and this time I watched the crystals grow under the microscope. I told my boss, who then transformed into a child right before my eyes – he was more excited than me! Prof. Vukotic was so thrilled he showed up to the lab a couple of days later with a camera to connect to our microscope and we took videos of crystals growing for hours trying to get the perfect video. The result of this session is my ChemiSTEAM submission, a series of snapshots from a time lapse video of crystal babies with an unusually short gestation time. It turns out, I hit the sweet spot for the conditions to make these materials. I have used several API and linker combinations with quite a few metals, and they all grow super fast! Since getting this camera, I have many high-quality pictures of crystals. It is a great educational tool for teaching students what a good crystal looks like and how to identify twinning. In real time it is also useful to show students how-to pick-up crystals on a loop to mount on the diffractometer. I plan on keeping all these images and videos so that I can use them for teaching purposes beyond my post doctoral research.

I would like to thank Louise Dawe, Vance Williams and Brian Wagner, organizers of ChemiSTEAM, for allowing me to have this platform to show my love and enthusiasm for crystals in the form of art! A special thank you to Claire Duncan from the CIC for working with the participants to get their work highlighted in CIC NEWS.