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Mall Nano

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By Alice Short '77

Published Jul 1, 2016 8:00 AM


At nanoscience demonstrations, L.A. shoppers see the impact of science on their daily lives.


CNSI's Jia Ming Chen demonstrates a scientific experiment at the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center. Photo by Elijah Hurwitz.

On a Saturday afternoon in April, something miraculous was happening on the second floor of the Westfield Culver City mall. A small crowd was gathered around a long table near a jewelry repair shop. On the table were nasturtium leaves, vials of colored liquid and squirt bottles.

At one end of the table, Sarah Tolbert, UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry, was squirting water on a bright green leaf, pointing out how the liquid beaded up and rolled off. She explained that the leaves are hydrophobic — they repel water and dirt, allowing photosynthesis to take place efficiently. The water beads up because the surface of the leaf is covered with a combination of nano-sized and micron-sized bumps.

The observers were invited to squirt two different paper towels with water. One towel became saturated almost instantly; the other repelled the liquid. “We coated the paper towel with a substance that mimics the structural and chemical properties found on the leaf, making it hydrophobic,” Tolbert says.

So how might the leaf demonstration find practical application for shoppers? “It’s similar to how Gore-Tex works,” Tolbert says, adding, “That’s a connection between science and a jacket.”

What’s going on is a demonstration of nanoscience — the study of structures and materials so small that most of us never think about them.

But that’s not the case for the academics, researchers and students at the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI) at UCLA. Jia Ming Chen, the institute’s education director, is the architect of the “Nanoscience at the Mall” program. Tolbert, who is faculty director of CNSI Outreach, and a group of graduate students and postdocs hope this community outreach will inspire interest not only in children, but also in the adults who accompany them. The April 2 event in Culver City was the third of five scheduled during the 2015-16 academic year.

CNSI began its outreach program — which includes training for middle and high school science teachers and a summer program for high school students — 13 years ago. But Chen and Tolbert wanted to do more to promote interest in nanoscience and its impact on our daily lives. When Chen learned that the average American spends four hours a week at the mall, he says, they knew they’d found their newest venue. “If you can make science available and accessible to people ... you should,” Tolbert says, adding that the program is sponsored by the American Physical Society. The scientists are delighted at the enthusiastic response to their demonstrations and hope to continue the program in the fall.

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