Page 6 - UD Research Magazine Vol5-No1
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Student art detective helps find
hidden man in Picasso painting
UD students have made some surprising findings in their senior thesis research, but none like Alyssa Hull's. She worked with the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., to unveil a bearded man with a bowtie peering out from under Pablo Picasso's
1901 masterpiece The Blue Room. Hull received her Honors Degree with Distinction in Chemistry and a second Honors Degree in Art Conservation last May.
She shares her detective work and what she’s working on now.
Alyssa Hull
Q. How did you find him?
We started our analysis by using a non-invasive technique called X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, which gives infor- mation about the chemical ele- ments present on a small area of the painting. From this, we were able to get a sense of what pig- ments Picasso was using on both The Blue Room and the hidden painting beneath. We also took microgram-sized samples from the painting so we could look at the layers of paint hidden under the surface and run more analy- ses to get additional elemental
and molecular information on the pigments. These samples are about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.
The next step was to take
the painting to the Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source (CHESS), so we could actually “look” through the upper
layers to the painting below. A synchrotron produces intensely powerful X-rays. We used a special detector at CHESS called Maia to map elements present
in the painting—data we then used to generate an image of the underlying painting.
Q. What was your reaction when you first saw him?
I had the same question as everyone else: Who is he? It was rewarding when the synchro- tron data gave us clues as to what pigments Picasso used for the sitter, because that's going to allow us to better visualize the hidden painting going forward.
Q. How did it feel to work with a priceless masterpiece?
It was truly exhilarating for me. I’ve always appreciated the vibrancy of Picasso’s works. It's special to see a painting like The
Blue Room up close, because with an image that iconic it's easy to forget that the painting is a real, tangible object as well.
Q. Was it a lengthy process?
I spent several weeks in the summer of 2012 at Winterthur analyzing paint samples that my thesis adviser, Jennifer Mass, removed from the painting. When we took the painting to the synchrotron that October,
Worms may reveal effects of space travel
With apologies to the late Neil Arm- strong, whose boots were the first to step onto the surface of the moon, you might describe Chandran Sabanayagam's research at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute (DBI) as one small freefall for a worm, one giant leap for biogenetics.
With support from NASA, Sabanayagam
is studying the effect of zero gravity on the worm's genes, work that could produce new insights into the effect of long periods in space on the likes of Capt. Scott Kelly, who will spend a year in space starting this spring—a trip that will help prepare the way for a mission to Mars.
Sabanayagam's worms may go to Mars someday but first they continue their pioneering freefalls at DBI, preparing for a trip to the International Space Station.
Sabanayagam's team employs the tiny worm Caenorhabdtis elegans, and while it has none of the credentials of an astronaut, it does have many genetic similarities. More than 70 percent of this roundworm's genes are found within the human genome, he says.
Among its traits, C. elegans reproduces rapidly and has a lifespan of only about two weeks—a quick turnaround giving scientists the opportunity to see generational effects.
To put the worms into an environment approaching zero gravity, Sabanayagam's team places them in a small amount of water, encased between two round glass slides. The "worm chip," as he and his colleagues call it, is placed in a new-age version of an instrument called a clinostat, where it rotates at a speed slow enough to protect the worm from col- liding with the frame of the device and fast enough to keep the worm suspended in the liquid and free of gravitational pull.
"The orbital motion is like freefalling," he says, "or like a satellite going around the Earth."
A camera mounted to the clinostat pro- duces images that have no blur. With those images and DBI's DNA sequencing capacities, the research team now can collect enormous amounts of data and provide analysis never before possible.
Researchers can look more closely at specific genes, narrowing down 10's of thou- sands to 100 or 20, Sabanayagam says.
Epigenetics is chemical change that can be passed along to subsequent generations, giving organisms a way to adapt to and sur- vive in conditions that change dramatically or suddenly, he says. A famine this year could affect genetic traits in babies born next year,
Chandran Sabanayagam is studying the effects of zero gravity on a roundworm’s genes. The work may shed light on space travel’s impact on humans.
and those changes can be passed along to future generations.
The genetic impact of space travel on astronauts is uncharted territory, he says. They don't return from space with three eyes or other obvious mutations, but more subtle changes may be occurring.
The freefalling worms at DBI might be the first to know.—Beth Miller

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