Like most 90s kids, I grew up watching Bill Nye the Science Guy with my dad and liked dinosaurs because of Jurassic Park. This interest in science stagnated as I progressed through school. To be fair, Bill Nye and Jurassic Park are pretty engaging; bit of a tough act to follow. Luckily for me, I had more than one interest with art and music being a big part of my life. I played the piano, was in musicals, orchestra groups and choirs, and always had some kind of art project or craft on the go. I liked the freedom of playing and creating and lost virtually all interest in science, until about halfway through high school when I stumbled on a paperback copy of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park in the library. I had never realized there was a book before the movie. Motivated by a mixture of nostalgia, and not wanting to be found out for being such a poser, I read it immediately. I was captivated. I wanted to be Ellie Sattler and have exciting stories from the field. Science was adventure and I wanted back in. I started paying attention in class and recognized that I liked working to understand the world around me. Because of my usual pastimes my parents always thought I would become some sort of artist and were a bit shocked that I wanted to study science suddenly. I figured that I could always keep doing creative things on the side, not realizing at the time how integral creativity is to the way that I do science now.
Inspired by adventure, I decided to go to university to become a paleontologist. But during my first year, interests shifted (as they do). It wasn’t that I fell out of love with geology and the idea of studying dinosaur fossils. My love for geology was in fact alive and well. All through grad school, amongst the garage sale assortment of crap on my desk was a rock collection, and for some time, a roll of dinosaur stickers that I would add to lab reports after grading them. It was more that I fell in love with chemistry. I couldn’t put my finger on why I would drop my dream of fieldwork so easily. It wasn’t until I was troubleshooting my research, knee deep in my PhD, that I realized it was because of how much fun I was having playing and creating in the lab. Chemistry was my medium. It was still a bit sad to me to have given up on a dream, but I was having fun, so I put that thought on the backburner.
The goal of my PhD research was to incorporate metals into polymers with the intention of using them as precursors for patterned metal-containing ceramics, materials that are relevant to the information technology industry. I spent most of my time figuring out how to make and characterize the polymers, the idea of real-world applications in the distant future. In the last year of my degree, there was enough time left to prove the principle that the polymers that I had created could be used to make the targeted patterned ceramics, at least prototypical ones. The idea was to cast the polymer into a thin film, apply a pattern by selectively destroying the film using an electron beam, add the metals in the way that I had already figured out, then throw it in a furnace to burn off the organic material and leave an imprint of the pattern now composed of metal-containing ceramics. Since my work was a fundamental proof of principle, I didn’t necessarily need to use a specific pattern. I could choose any image, put it through these torturous steps and see if it held its shape. Fossils can preserve the form of extinct creatures for millions of years, making them the paradigm of shape retention in my mind. As much as I like this poetry, my ChemiSTEAM Tyrannosaur represents the thing that got me interested in science for the first and second time, and still fascinates me today. I have to give a big shoutout to my supervisor, Paul Ragogna. When I pitched this to him, not only did he support my weird dinosaur idea, but he also encouraged me to try and pattern an album cover too (which is a story about friendship, lab music, and rock bands for another day)! Also, a big credit is due to Todd Simpson from Western Nanofabrication Facility for helping me with the patterning and microscopy necessary to achieve this image. After a bit of tinkering with conditions and a few laughs at the absurdity of troubleshooting dinosaur and album cover images, we were able to get the polymer film to hold its shape after all the processing steps and get the image that you see here. The fossil pattern is approximately 600 micrometers across (roughly the diameter of a human hair) and is a replica of the T. rex specimen “Black Beauty” which you can visit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. The rainbow colouration is due to slight variations in the film thickness.
Having the freedom to be creative on this project reminded me what inspired me to become a scientist in the first place and made me want to explore the path that I had skipped out on all those years ago. After sending some cold call emails to paleontologists around the world, I got in contact with Diego Pol, a paleontologist at the Egidio Feruglio Paleontological Museum in Trelew, Argentina, who said that I could come along on a field trip in Patagonia. In November 2019, after defending my PhD, I went on the trip of a lifetime where I met the greatest people, forged best friendships, had amazing food, lived my own exciting field stories and even found a dinosaur bone. Even though I love chemistry, it doesn’t have to be the only thing that I do. I plan on going on more field trips when I can, and who knows, maybe one day find a way to make my interests meet again.
I would like to extend a big thank you to Louise Dawe, Brian Wagner and Vance Williams for organizing ChemiSTEAM, and to Claire Duncan and Allison Kerns for facilitating this series of blog posts. I am so excited to be a part of this and to read about all the submissions!