Amanda Preske: Science Artist

Amanda Preske is an artist from Rochester, NY. She combines her science background with jewelry making skills to create science-inspired wearable art. 

What do you do?

In graduate school, I worked on making semiconductor nanocrystals. They're really tiny; 37,500 of them could fit across the width of a human hair. Semiconductors are known for their use in solar cells. Like metals, they can conduct electricity, but only when energy, like photons from the sun, have been put into them. What makes semiconductor nanocrystals different from the silicon semiconductor in a solar panel is the size of the crystal. The nanocrystals I made were so tiny that they started to have properties, like color, that depended on their size. That's like cutting a piece of red paper in half and getting two smaller pieces of blue paper! 

Now, I seek to engage audiences with science-based wearable art. There's a lot of mystery behind what a scientist is or does, and I hope to share a bit about that while also sharing my art.  

Why is your area of study important? 

Nanoparticles have technically been around for hundreds of years; red and yellow glass in stained glass panels from the 1500s appeared that way because of lead and silver nanoparticles embedded in the glass (read about it here). The field has come a long way since with advances in techniques for making them and studying their unique physical characteristics. Semiconductor nanocrystals shaped like little balls are called quantum dots. Due to how simple they are to make and how precise you can make their color, they have been incorporated into televisions (QLED TVs).

Perhaps more impactful than stained glass and television is that semiconductor nanocrystals can be used to help cure disease. It's difficult to image the body because your tissues emit light in a broad range, spanning from visible light to the infrared. There are a few "windows" where we don't emit interfering light and where you can use a dye to see what's happening. However, most carbon-based dyes (kind of like food coloring) don't work well in those windows and they fade quickly. Semiconductor nanocrystals are perfect for this since they don't fade and you can make them to fit in the window. When researchers are able to image the body, they can better determine the mechanism of a disease and develop a strategy to cure it. 

What's the coolest thing you've done as a chemist? 

I think the coolest thing about being in grad school was my trip to Ghana. We traveled to technical schools across southern Ghana and held workshops to teach students how to make and install solar panels. Since these schools are technical schools, students were learning about things like plumbing, construction, electrical installation, and welding with little in the way of natural science or the scientific method.

We held additional workshops to introduce them to topics in physics and chemistry and had them apply the scientific method when conducting experiments. We also presented our individual research projects at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. It was incredibly enriching for both us and the students to learn about each other's scientific research. 

What is your favorite STEM fact? 

I think it's really neat that single elements can take on different forms. This is most recognizable in carbon, which can exist as graphene, a repeating sheet of carbon arranged in hexagons (stacked, they become graphite, used in "pencil lead"), and as diamond, which has a cubic crystal structure. Diamond, which is typically considered an insulator, can be turned into a semiconductor! If you inject diamond with atoms of boron for example, it becomes a semiconductor with crazy good properties for electronics. They can even become a superconductor when cooled near absolute zero. 

What do you wish to share about your field?

Science and art are not mutually exclusive! I loved my work as a chemist not only because it required creative thinking, but I also was able to create something with my *gloved* hands. To share your research, you need to be able to create visuals to convey data and results. 

Working in a lab is like working in a kitchen where you can't eat or shouldn't smell anything. It's just so fascinating to me to read about how a reaction should work, and then set it up and make it happen.

Grad school was always about pushing to the edge of what is known to break just beyond that. It's just mindblowing to me that there is so much to discover and that with the right knowledge set and tools, you can discover something that no one else knows.

Conversely, there are many days in the lab where instruments are broken, seals break, and water lines leak. I think it would be pretty funny for a TV to show what a lab actually looks like, with computers that only export data on floppy discs and the agony of an instrument that refuses to turn on. 

I receive a lot of kickback from people when they find out I "gave up" a science career and traded it for art. The starving artist stigma is damaging and public perception of the arts makes it difficult to succeed. While I fully support the expansion of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, it should never be at the expense of art. I think if people learned to recognize art in its many forms (the design of your candy wrapper, the curve of a bridge, and a fireworks display), artists wouldn't get berated for charging "too much" for a painting or for not having a "real job." 

If you’d like to nominate a STEM friend (or yourself), fill out the AweSTEM people form. You’ll also receive jewelry from Circuit Breaker Labs.