Don’t PANIC: Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility microphotography contest names 2023 winners

When UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering student Anchita Addhya looked through the scanning electron microscope at the Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility, she saw that the photonic cavities she was fabricating – tiny, bullseye-shaped sensors that improve the collection of light from qubits – were defective.

Instead of being offset by 10-20 microns, they were overlaid, creating a fascinating pattern of circles only visible by a very powerful microscope.

The scientist had to refabricate the cavities, but the photographer knew she had her shot.

Aside from a one-year break during the height of COVID, the PNF Annual Nanofabrication Image Contest (PANIC) has been a yearly tradition at PME since 2017. In the contest, researchers turn their science into art, submitting beautiful microscopic photography under titles like “Mist Heist,” “Queen of Thorns” and “Biometropolis.”

The Pritzker Nanofabrication Facility is a major research facility at UChicago focused on supporting basic science, applied research, research and development, and prototype production using micro and nanofabrication. The facility is composed primarily of a 10,000 square foot, ISO class 5 cleanroom, maintaining less than 100 particles larger than 0.5 microns in each cubic foot of air space.

Each year, an anonymous panel of former PME faculty and current staff - people who can appreciate both the art and the science - pick three winners.

“It’s a way to celebrate their work and a light-hearted opportunity to showcase what they're doing,” PNF Business Administrator Michelle Dassinger said.

Addhya enters the competition every year, but this was her first win.

“Anchita is a cleanroom expert with deep expertise in diamond nanofabrication, where she routinely crafts beautiful structures out of the hardest material on earth,” said Pritzker Molecular Engineering Prof. Alex High, Addhya’s principal investigator. “Sometimes, she produces unexpected beauty as well, as seen in the SEM.”

Dassinger said the contest is an opportunity to create community in the cleanroom.

“Our users are all doing unique and specialized research,” she said. “PANIC allows them to share a glimpse of what they’re working on.”

For this year’s contest, the judges selected three photos from 28 submissions: “Electrophysiology-on-a-chip” by Pengju Li; “Vertebrae optomechanical resonator” by Rhys Povey; and Addhya’s “Kaleidoscope.”

Although it was his first win, Povey also enters the contest every year, showing off the work he’s doing in the Cleland Lab.

“It's a fun sort of event for all the people who use the cleanroom and create all sorts of weird things,” said Povey. “It's fun to see the different things people have come up with and what they've made and appreciate some of the more interesting aesthetic aspects as well.”

Art is part of the process for Li, who posts his microscope photography on his website and as @nanoscale_ on Instagram. Just this year, Li’s photography took second place in the 2023 UChicago Science as Art competition and first place in the 2023 James Franck Institute Image Contest.

Li said he typically photographs his work to document his research, but occasionally is struck by an image. For his PANIC entry, he was captured by the interplay of pink and gold in a cell culture chamber equipped with multielectrode arrays.

“A photograph needs to have some meaning. It cannot be just that it looks beautiful. It has to link to some big problem in the research,” Li said.

Li’s principal investigator, Chemistry Prof. Bozhi Tian, said he has come to expect this level of excellence.

“Pengju Li exemplifies a level of brilliance and talent that is truly exceptional, emerging perhaps only once in a decade,” said Tian. “Pengju is not only an individual of exceptional kindness but also demonstrates remarkable strength in research, evidenced by receiving the Harper Dissertation Fellowship in his third year at Pritzker Molecular Engineering.”

For the participants, PANIC is a chance to show the union of art and science in unexpected, beautiful ways.

“This is the perfect platform for me where both my day job and my love for arts comes together,” Addhya said. “That's why I think I like PANIC so much.”

—Check out current and past winners