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SCIENCE EXPOSED: These 2 Concordia students won NSERC photo awards!

Alicia McTaggart takes home the Jury Prize, while Arthi Ramachandran landed the People's Choice Award. PLUS: Check out the finalists' photos
October 30, 2017
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By J. Latimer

Images courtesy of Arthi Ramachandran and Alicia McTaggart


For the second year in a row, Concordians triumphed in the Science Exposed photo competition, with two students from the Faculty of Arts and Science taking home prizes.

Organized by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the national contest is devoted exclusively to photos of scientific research, in all fields of study. Each winner receives $2,000.

Concordia postdoc Ehsan Rezabeigi won the first-ever competition in 2016.

This year, Alicia McTaggart, a master’s student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, won one of the contests' three jury prizes. Arthi Ramachandran (BSc 14), a PhD student in the Department of Biology, took home the People's Choice Award, decided via online voting.

The two winning images are striking yet very different. McTaggart’s depicts a lily-like bouquet of barium carbonate crystals, while Ramachandran's evokes Arctic climate change with a vast aerial shot of cracking ice.

“It’s rewarding to know that my research is of interest to others and that I got to show them a glimpse of the current state of the Western Arctic Ocean,” says Ramachandran, who just got back a couple of weeks ago from another field season up north.

“Knowing that people are interested in my research definitely motivates me to do more.”

Back in May, when Ramachandran and McTaggart were nominated among 20 finalists, we asked them why and how they took their images. Read on for those stories...


ON CAMPUS: 
See the work of finalists from both Science Exposed and La preuve par l’image — a similar competition held by the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas) — on the main floor of Concordia's Richard J. Renaud Science Pavilion on November 6 and 7, and in the atrium of the EV Building on November 8, 9 and 10.
 


Arthi Ramachandran: “The Arctic sea ice extent and depth is lower than ever.” | Photo: Arthi Ramachandran The Science Exposed image submitted by Arthi Ramachandran


‘It made me realize the precarious state of Arctic sea ice’

Arthi Ramachandran

Concordia alumna (BSc 14) and PhD student, Department of Biology

How does this image [above] illustrate your research at Concordia?

Arthi Ramachandran: My research focuses on studying bacterial communities in the Arctic Ocean. Part of my PhD thesis is to analyze archival Arctic time-series data to look at changes in the bacterial communities over decades. This will give us insight into how global warming is affecting the Arctic Ocean.

This image shows how the environment is changing. The sea ice extent and depth is lower than ever seen before and that’s illustrated by the amount of cracks.

It's hard for people to fully comprehend how severe the sea ice melt is because they’re not able to see those changes with their own eyes. My image illustrates the dire situation by showing cracks and the consequences that accompany them in the Arctic.

Arthi Ramachandran Arthi Ramachandran

What specific effects on marine ecosystems most interest you?

AR: I’m most interested in seeing how global warming will change environmental factors, such as temperature and nutrient availability, and how this will affect the marine microbial food web — and in turn, biogeochemical cycles.

How did you photograph the CCGS Louis S. St-Laurent?

AR: I was in a helicopter on the way back to the ship after collecting ice cores and was able to capture this photo. I glanced out the window and caught a glimpse of the vessel surrounded by fractured ice and it made me realize the precarious state of the Arctic sea ice.

What’s it like aboard a ship in the Arctic?

AR: It’s quite different from anything else I’ve experienced. Our connection to the outside world was pretty sparse. The internet access was on and off so it’s one of the few places where you don’t see everyone’s faces focused on their phones and social media.

We worked around the clock but it was one of the most interesting and exciting experiences of my life. I met amazing scientists who had been working in the Arctic for decades. It was great to be able to interact with and learn from them.

Where are you at with your studies at Concordia and what are your plans after graduating?

AR: I’m currently doing my PhD with David Walsh in the Walsh Laboratory. I should be finished in a couple of years.

I would like to pursue a career as a research scientist for the Canadian government so I can continue monitoring changes in the Arctic Ocean. I would also like to be involved in Canadian science policy because I think it’s really important to include scientists in decisions concerning conservation and biodiversity.

Why did you choose to do your NSERC-funded research at Concordia?

AR: I chose Concordia, specifically the Walsh Laboratory, because we are at the forefront of microbial research. We have state-of-the-art facilities that allow us to generate high throughput data and answer questions about how climate change is affecting northern aquatic ecosystems. 


Alicia McTaggart's photo: 'The goal is to be able to better understand how nature works.' The Science Exposed image submitted by Alicia McTaggart


‘Chemistry is essential for designing innovative solutions to the challenges of our daily lives’


Alicia McTaggart

Master's student, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry

How does this image [above] illustrate your research at Concordia?

Alicia McTaggart: My research has been centred around creating a variety of hollow microstructures using simple science and easily accessible ingredients: strontium or barium chloride and sodium metasilicate.

The “chemical calla lilies,” shown in the photo, represent one of the limitless possibilities of very complex hierarchically structured shapes that can be made from these materials.

Moreover, the image illustrates that the end product of one’s science does not have to be something conventional. It can be aesthetically appealing as well. It also evokes a surprising feeling of déjà vu — one may have seen these structures before, only growing in a garden on a very different scale.

Alicia McTaggart Alicia McTaggart

Why do you think is it important to be able to recreate bioinspired materials with the same control and perfection as is done by nature?

AM: Years of scientific studies and everyday observations have taught us that nature is able to build materials with unprecedented levels of precision, efficiency and complexity. It does so from the most basic of starting materials, typically one molecule at a time. 

By creating bioinspired materials, the goal is to be able to better understand how nature works in order to efficiently build ever more complex materials with novel functions geared toward meeting current and future needs.

An additional benefit to this technique is the surprising speed at which these flowers grow! In only a few hours we have the ability to grow objects that biomimic, where nature often takes days, weeks, months or even years.

How did you photograph the barium carbonate crystals?

AM: They are smaller than the width of a human hair, which is about 100 microns in diameter. So, in order to capture the image of the crystals, I used a scanning electron microscope.

Why are the structures shaped like that? 

AM: This is a function of the dynamic interplay that exists between silica and barium carbonate, which form the flowers, and their response to solution pH and carbon dioxide concentration. The influx of carbon dioxide into the system by simple diffusion causes the precipitation of barium carbonate, leading to the reduction of the pH (i.e. increased acidity) where growth occurs.

At the same time, the formation of silica consumes this acid, thus allowing for the barium carbonate to crystallize again. So, the sizes and shapes of these crystals are regulated by this cyclic feedback mechanism that exists between these two components.

Deeper in the solution, where the carbon dioxide concentration is lower, the nucleation density also tends to be lower. Thus, the microstructures are able to unfurl into flower-like shapes. This is a process that we can guide deterministically by allowing more carbon dioxide into the system at specific times or by changing the initial pH such that shapes can be hierarchically assembled.

Where are you at with your studies at Concordia and what are your plans after graduating?

MT: I am doing my MSc degree in chemistry at Concordia with Louis Cuccia, through the Cuccia Research Group.

I suspect my life after graduation will involve sending out countless job applications. The good thing is that chemistry is essential for designing innovative solutions to the challenges of our daily lives. More specifically, my studies have given me invaluable experience in the use of various microscopy instrumentations, crystallization techniques and material chemistry.

Why did you choose to do your NSERC-funded research at Concordia?

MT: To be a student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry here is to belong to a community that not only fosters curiosity and excellence in science but one that also nurtures and takes care of its student researchers. It is precisely this sort of positive environment that made me choose to do my research at Concordia.
 

See more images from NSERC's 2017 Science Exposed photo contest.


ON CAMPUS: 
See the work of finalists from both Science Exposed and La preuve par l’image — a similar competition held by the Association francophone pour le savoir (Acfas) — on the main floor of Concordia's Richard J. Renaud Science Pavilion on November 6 and 7, and in the atrium of the EV Building on November 8, 9 and 10.
 



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