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At the intersection of art and science: laser spectroscopy + illustration

November 20, 2020

Combining two loves, a chemistry graduate student honors a mentor

By Cody Musselman

Many graduate students at Yale strive to balance their passion for research with their outside hobbies and interests, but few manage to fully integrate the two. This is not the case for Sarah Ostresh, a 4th-year doctoral candidate in Chemistry, who routinely combines her love of science with her love of art.

I’ve always loved doing art. I’ve been recently thinking about how I can more incorporate my art into my science,” Sarah shares. Initially, Sarah began including more hand drawn graphics in her slide presentations for group meetings. Then she began to make table-of-contents graphics for her labmates’ publications. Most recently, her group published a paper in The Journal of Physical Chemistry and Sarah’s illustrations were the featured cover art. “It was very exciting and this was my first cover to be accepted,” said Sarah.

The paper, which members of the Schuttenmaer Research Group collectively wrote, offered a perspective of how terahertz spectroscopy, an ultrafast spectroscopic technique using a frequency of light in the terahertz region, can be used to study emerging materials more closely. For the cover, Sarah made a collage of Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) images that show close up pictures of the materials her group was studying. On top of this collage she drew a cartoon of what terahertz spectroscopy looks like.

This article, beyond its prominence on the journal’s cover, was also significant because it was the last paper the Schuttenmaer group worked on together before Charles Schuttenmaer suddenly passed away on July 26, 2020. “We were invited to write this perspective in March or April and Charlie said yes. The whole lab wrote and revised it and right before it came out, Charlie died,” Sarah recalls. “It was really meaningful, very special.”

The news of Schuttenmaer’s passing was devastating for Sarah and her lab mates, but above all Sarah will remember her late advisor as a great mentor. “He recognized and cared about my other interests.” This included arranging time for Sarah to meet with science photographer Felice Frankel of MIT to discuss art in the sciences. “She is just so wonderful and the fact that Charlie went out of his way to set up something like that meant a lot to me. He was mentoring me as a chemist but he also cared about me as a person,” Sarah recounts. “He was a great person.”

Sarah came to Yale from the University of Southern California specifically to work with Schuttenmaer. At USC she also nurtured her twin passions of art and science by taking several art classes, majoring in chemistry, and working in the lab of Jahan Dawlaty. “I had a great experience working with him and in that lab,” she shares. While in Dawlaty’s lab Sarah met graduate students who were doing laser spectroscopy and soon Sarah knew that this was what she wanted to do. “From early on I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school and that I wanted to join a laser lab and do ultrafast spectroscopy. I was very much inspired by the graduate students at USC.” This desire brought her to Yale and to the Schuttenmaer group.

Sarah remembers meeting Charlie during her visiting day at Yale and was struck by his presence, as someone inviting, not intimidating, interested, and interesting. He was both a scientist she admired and someone she could connect with over other topics. “I really appreciated that about him because I wanted to work with someone I liked, in addition to someone I could learn from.”

Going forward, Sarah is eager to keep practicing her art, refining her research skills, and blending the two whenever she can. “I have now been telling a bunch of my friends that if they are publishing, that I would love to try to help them to create art of any kind as practice for myself, but also to build a CV of this kind of work, because it’s something I’d love to continue working on in the future,” she shares. Sarah relishes the challenge of rendering the abstract concepts and she imagines a future in which she can keep illustrating the processes of scientific research. “I want to keep working on this. I don’t think there’s a clear path to do art in science as a career, but I want to do as many things as I can to work towards that, whatever it may be.”