Xiaolin Liu captures the beauty and artistry in chemistry

Xiaolin Liu with the winning "Rose in the flask" image during the SCS Science Image Challenge award ceremony in Noyes Lab.

An organic chemist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Xiaolin Liu enjoys capturing the beauty in chemistry research.

Liu has had four images featured in C&EN’s Chemistry in Pictures, and two of the images were selected in the School of Chemical Sciences Science Image Challenge. Her image titled "Golden Necklace" was a finalist, and "Rose in the Flask" won the Main Category.

Liu said "Rose in the Flask" holds a special place in her heart, perhaps for its romantic essence. She said it reminds her of a line from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's ‘The Little Prince,’ which says: “It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”

“As an organic chemist, I find that chemistry is my rose, a testament to the dedication and passion that I pour into my work,” Liu said.

A postdoc in Prof. Jeff Moore’s research group, Liu's work focuses on understanding the charge transport properties within individual organic molecule, which is crucial for advancing molecular electronics. She said their projects are highly collaborative, especially with chemical and engineering Prof. Charles M. Schroeder's group.

“Together, we're addressing some of the toughest questions in this field,” Liu explained. “For example, we design molecules to ensure that molecular junctions can transmit a stable signal, regardless of the nanogap width between the electrodes. We're also experimenting with ways to boost electron transport in nano-bioelectronics by designing peptide sequences.”

A rose colored and rose shaped pattern as if looking down on the top of a rose
"Rose in the Flask"

Capturing the "Rose in the Flask" and "Golden Necklace" photos was more about serendipity than difficulty, explained Liu, who used an iPhone X to take the photos.

“The rose pattern emerged from a solvent evaporation process using rotary evaporation, which usually results in disordered powders rather than distinct patterns. These patterns emerged unexpectedly, instead of by design, so I was surprised and excited when I saw them. I think this is the inherent beauty of science,” she said.

Liu obtained her PhD in chemistry in 2021 under the advisement of Ben Zhong Tang at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and a B.S. in chemistry at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in China.

Liu said she chose to come to Illinois for postdoctoral experience, partly because she was driven by a “deep respect for the School of Chemical Sciences outstanding contributions to chemistry and its vibrant academic culture.” And, she said, she had followed the research of Prof. Moore, who has been a significant source of inspiration for her.

Glass tube filled with liquid that is golden in color and has many vertical strands that appear like small beads of a necklace
"Golden Necklace"

“The opportunities for interdisciplinary research have been incredibly enriching, allowing me to collaborate with experts from different areas and grow as a scientist. Prof. Moore, with his dedication, intellect, and forward-thinking approach, serves as an exceptional mentor and leader. This journey at Illinois has been profoundly rewarding — learning, exploring, and contributing to a domain I'm passionate about, all under the guidance of someone I greatly respect and admire,” said Liu, who plans to pursue a career in academia. “My goal is not only to explore the frontiers of chemistry and material science but also to instill a sense of wonder and appreciation for the intricacies and beauty of scientific discovery in young minds.”

Liu said her interest in capturing chemistry research through photography is inspired by the dual nature of science.

“On one hand, it's a rigorous and serious discipline; on the other, it embodies moments of captivating, romantic artistry,” she said.

In the midst of her experiments, she said she often encounters visually striking phenomena. Initially, she would share her photos only with close friends or research group members.

Moore encouraged Liu to share her photography more broadly, so she first submitted photos to C&EN.

“I owe a huge thanks to Prof. Moore for suggesting sharing my photograph with a broader audience and to the School of Chemical Sciences for the image challenge that provided me with a platform to highlight the aesthetic side of scientific research. The positive feedback that followed was both surprising and deeply rewarding, strengthening my belief in the beauty and artistry of scientific exploration,” she said.