What is Color and How Can It Help Kill Cancer Cells?

Spring is officially here and I don’t know about you, but I’m excited to welcome back COLOR: the bright rays of sunshine, the baby blue sky, the lively green grass, and of course, the plethora of vibrantly colored flowers.   But have you ever wondered what is colorTo understand the marvels of color and how it can be used to help nanomaterials kill cancer cells, let’s first connect color to the concepts of light and waves together!

Let’s first go to the beach and talk about waves!  You and I are about to go for a swim when we decide to put my water-loving cat, Totoro, into a lifesaver and watch him catch some waves.

Totoro catching a full wave (going from peak to peak) every 4 seconds.  Courtesy of Lina Hang.

Totoro catching a full wave (going from peak to peak) every 4 seconds. Courtesy of Lina Hang.  

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Scientific Lessons from Bread Baking

Every day chemists enter their laboratories, intent on making or studying something. For me, my daily task is to think about nanoparticles. At the end of the day the thinking process is no different than a chef working in the kitchen. Small changes in your recipe can make a huge difference. The ingredients, types, amounts, and manners in which they are combined—they all matter. Even when using the exact same ingredients, the slight differences in processing can produce drastically different results! Much like a good chef, a good scientist must be able to control these differences, and make the right observations to troubleshoot problems when things go wrong.

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Space Elevator: A Lasting Dream for a Sky-reaching Tree

Ever since the first human being looked up to the starry night, the dream of chasing the stars and space has never stopped. A long way back, in ancient Northern European mythology, the world tree, Yggdrasil, was a holy tree in the center of the universe, connecting the heavens and the earth. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the young English lad climbs all the way into the sky through a gigantic beanstalk. The everlasting dream of sky-reaching trees, from the Tower of Babel in the Bible to the Jian Mu Tree in the Chinese classic Shanhaijing, has indeed inspired people from generation to generation to explore the sky. In time, numerous unimaginable technologies have been brought to the world: rockets, satellites, spaceships. And now, science has given the dream of the sky-reaching tree a new name: the space elevator.

A space elevator, as is implied by the name, is an elevator-like transportation system connecting the surface of earth to space. People want it because it provides a means of shipping cargo into space with lower cost and pollution. The concept of the space elevator was first conceived in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian rocket scientist. Inspired by the Eiffel Tower in Paris, his conceptual tower, just like a sky-reaching tree, has the height of a geostationary orbit, a circular orbit 35,786 kilometers above the earth’s equator.

Two Potential Designs

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The Mysterious Inspiration of Future Scientists

Anyone who has watched CSI, Bones, or Breaking Bad on television has had the opportunity to see how chemistry can be important in solving (or committing) a crime. The popularity of forensics drama inspired scientists within our Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology to develop a set of outreach activities where middle school students can use chemistry to solve a mystery.


Whodunit? Note: all of our mysteries are less tragic than this one :-) image source

At the very least, the participants should have fun, while, at the best, they will hone their deductive reasoning skills and realize how exciting chemistry can be.

2 - children excited science fingerprint forensics

This activity was recently published in the Journal of Chemical Education, and we would love to hear feedback from anyone who uses or would like to use the activity in their own education or outreach community.

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Fungus Amongus – the Nanoparticle Producers

1 - fungi to nanoparticles

Recent discoveries continue to highlight the many uses of that wonderful kingdom of life, fungus.  Penicillin, a group of antibiotics that changed medicine forever, is derived from the Penicillium fungi (taken from a moldy cantaloupe in an Illinois market). These antibiotics have saved countless lives since WWII and are still in use today. Yeast, perhaps the most well-known member of the fungus kingdom, is best known for its uses in fermentation and alcohol production; a great addition to any celebration.  Cheese production relies heavily on the use of various types of filamentous fungi that produce cheese’s distinct flavors and textures. For example, a fungus puts the blue in blue cheese and makes other cheeses tasty or gooey such as Brie and Gorgonzola (a few of my personal favorites!). And believe it or not, scientists have recently learned to harness fungi to make useful nanoparticles—in a manner that offers many benefits over conventional techniques! Continue reading

Turning Plastic Bags into Carbon Nanotubes

I was surprised to learn recently that plastic bags can be turned into a new material called carbon nanotubes. Prior to this, all I had heard about plastic bags was about the environmental threat that they potentially pose, either by accumulating in wildlife or clogging landfills with slow-to-break-down waste. Many recycling techniques have been developed to reduce plastic bag waste, but there were very few ways to convert it into a new technologies–until a recent study on carbon nanotubes came on the scene.

1 - plastic bag pile

As I write these words, thousands of plastic bags are being used around the world. And unfortunately, only a small fraction of those are recycled. The rest is piling up in the environment. From a pile of plastic bags to new technologies… WHAT?!

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Exhortations for Responsible Action*

Bassam Z. Shakhashiri
Professor of Chemistry

The William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea
Director, Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy
Department of Chemistry

University of Wisconsin-Madison

It was a privilege and a great honor to serve as president of the American Chemical Society in 2012. Only two other UW-Madison faculty members have served as ACS president—Farrington Daniels in 1953 and Charles Casey in 2004. Perhaps one day soon, one or more of the readers of this essay will become ACS president and lead the world’s largest scientific organization. I am proud to be a 50-year ACS member, and am grateful for all that the ACS continues to offer to its members, to the chemical enterprise, and to society. The success of the ACS depends on the creativity and dedication of members who are eager to enhance its offerings and accomplishments.

Science and society face grand global challenges, and it is through research, education, and innovation that progress can be made to achieve good solutions. ACS and its members can make significant contributions in advancing science and communicating science to benefit the human condition and to protect the Planet. However, proficiency or technical skill alone does not ensure responsibility and stewardship. We must ensure that the next generation of chemical scientists is both highly skilled technically and properly educated to carry on their scientific and educational work for the common good of society. In a free and civil society, people must be virtuous as well as skilled. Continue reading