Photographer has front-row seat for big scientific discoveries

Frankel often gives demonstrations to students. In a free online course starting Monday, she'll address thousands more. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Frankel often gives demonstrations to students. In a free online course starting Monday, she'll address thousands more. (Photo: Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

Ansel Adams earned renown for his landscape photography. Annie Leibovitz became famous with her portraits of the rich and famous. Felice Frankel has staked out her own small corner of the photography world: science.

For two decades, Frankel has claimed a front-row seat to some of the biggest discoveries emerging from both sides of the Charles, photographing experiments from within the labs that created them.

When top chemists and engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard are preparing to reveal new research in the world’s premier journals, they call Frankel. Her subjects have included yeast colonies shaped like daisies, rainbow-colored quantum dots, and soft flexible electronics that can be tattooed onto the skin.

“That one shot can be so compelling that it gets people to not only recognize what’s going on, but excited about it,” said Paula Hammond, an MIT professor who has collaborated with Frankel on several projects.

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Nanocrystals called “quantum dots” glow brilliantly when bathed in ultraviolet light. The size of the crystal determines the color. Frankel photographed this for MIT professor Moungi Bawendi. (Photo: Felice Frankel)

For Frankel, each shoot is an opportunity to encourage her collaborators to approach their science with fresh eyes, and make the case that data can be more than a flat, black-and-white graph.

In a hyperconnected world where a powerful image can trigger a viral response, researchers are realizing that one great photograph can draw considerably more attention to their new work.

Frankel’s goal is to capture scientifically honest photographs that, in her words, “frankly, makes you want to look at it.” Since her first image ran on the cover of Science in 1992, her images have landed on some 30 journal covers.

“Certainly if you look back 30 years ago . . . it’s just night and day and I think she’s played a significant role in that transformation,” said John Rogers, a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who designs stick-on sensors for the human body and has worked with Frankel.

Over the last two decades, Frankel’s photos have made some 30 journal covers. (Photo: Felice Frankel)

This summer, she will co-teach a six-week online course through edX for scientists as well as photographers who are curious about science. Ahead of its kickoff on Monday, about 6,000 people have already enrolled.

It all began when Frankel’s husband returned from Vietnam in 1968 and brought her a Nikkormat SLR as a gift. It steered Frankel, once a biology major in college, into a career in landscape photography.

Decades later, when Frankel won a design fellowship at Harvard University, her science interests prompted her to take a class with George Whitesides, one of the university’s most prolific engineers, and to request a visit to his lab. A Whitesides study was due to be published in the prestigious journal Science and Frankel took a look at the accompanying art.

“She had unkind things to say about the way we did our pictures,” Whitesides remembered.

“They were really lousy,” Frankel said. “And I said let me see what I could do.”

The lab created a way to take material that repelled water and print it as a grid on a flat surface. When water was splashed on it, the liquid collected within its boundaries. It was a key result, but water on a transparent slide did not make anyone look twice.

Frankel had the idea to add a fluorescent dye to each water block. The result: a checkerboard pattern of blue and green pools — glossy gems held crisply in shape by invisible forces. When the paper was published in Science that year, Frankel’s image made the cover.

Imacon Color Scanner

Frankel’s first photograph for Whitesides illustrated a key technique called soft lithography. It was her first image for the lab. (Photo: Felice Frankel)

It marked the beginning of a decades-long partnership between engineer and photographer, including a collaboration on a science photography book.

“There’s a lot of science that’s as engagingly told as two or three pages from the telephone directory,” Whitesides said. Frankel, he added, makes one stop and ask “what am I looking at?”

Over the years, Frankel’s collaborators have included electrical engineers making circuits, doctors developing cancer vaccines, and lots and lots of students. She has shuttled between MIT and Harvard as a visiting researcher and photographer, and her current position as a research scientist is backed by four different departments at MIT. Her schedule is frantic and typically involves some photography, some teaching, and some mentoring.

Rogers, of the University of Illinois, was a postdoctoral fellow in Whitesides’ lab when he first met Frankel. Over the years, some of her techniques have become standard practice at his lab.

“We only send our difficult stuff to Felice,” Rogers said.

Recently, the Rogers group was preparing to reveal a new kind of electronic sensor that sticks to skin like a tattoo, and can measure biological activity.

Soft electronics sandwiched between layers. (Photo: Felice Frankel) 

The paper had been accepted by Science, but the device itself — a filmy, delicate layer of electronics sandwiched between two flexible plates and suspended in solution — posed a challenge to photograph.

So they sent it to Frankel, who slapped it on a flatbed scanner and hit the button. The result included a bubble of air to suggest the liquid layer with the sandwich, and was, according to Rogers, “ten times better” than the lab’s own efforts.

Frankel said she hopes her work will empower scientists to make their work accessible to curious nonscientists.

Beyond sharing the thrill of discovery, Whitesides said, Frankel’s images make average people understand the importance of federally funded science.

“They help citizens who pay the bills understand what they’re paying for and understand it’s not a bad thing to do,” he said.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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