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Imaging contest salutes unusual, artistic views of materials, from gold to mother-of-pearl

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To better her understanding of nacre, the iridescent substance found in seashells, Cornell engineering graduate student Ellen Keene used a scanning electron microscope to study crystals of calcium carbonate, the nacre's fundamental material.

By capturing an image of two strikingly different polymorphs, or crystalline patterns, of calcium carbonate on the edge of a broken silicon wafer, Keene also won herself a first-place award in the National Science Foundation-funded Cornell Center for Materials Research (CCMR) fourth microscopy imaging contest. Held periodically throughout the academic year, the contests solicit often stunning and always interesting images taken on CCMR equipment, including electron and optical microscopes.

Other first-place winners were Wenlong Cheng, for an image of gold nanoparticles manipulated with DNA; James Loudon, who captured a lattice-like pattern in manganite (MnO3); and Matthew Lloyd, for his image of thin films of organic molecules following exposure to a solvent vapor.

Choosing from 25 submissions, faculty judges also picked a handful of honorable mention winners in such categories as "most unusual," "most artistic" and "best caption."

The idea for the competition came about two years ago, when Mick Thomas, a facility manager at CCMR who runs one of the microscopy labs, noticed that students were taking remarkable microscopic images, but many were never published.

"I thought it would be good if we could create a venue where students could showcase their work, which might not get into print because it's a steppingstone toward a final step in their research," Thomas said. "Or maybe it's a brilliant image, but there just wasn't room in the journal."

The response to the contest so far has been positive, according to CCMR Associate Director Helene Schember. For the first time, this latest round of submissions included unsolicited videos, such as honorable-mention recipient Thiti Taychatanapat's capture of disappearing gold particles on gold wires. Because the judges were unprepared for videos, they likely will form a new category for future contests.

"We were very pleased -- the students are ahead of us," Schember said.

Winners and advisers were treated to pizza at an awards ceremony Feb. 27. They received certificates from CCMR Director Melissa Hines, and first-place winners also took home cash prizes.


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