Interpreting Science

Kelsey Boes, poised to receive her Ph.D. in Fiber and Polymer Science, was studying textile printing during a semester abroad in Florence, Italy, when two of her passions collided. On a tour of a local textile museum, she came across a textile sample made from casein, a protein derived from milk.

“That was the culmination of my interests,” she said. “They took chemistry and they made a really soft fabric! After that trip, I started researching textile chemistry programs and that’s what led me here.”

After graduating from Wheaton College in 2014 with a B.S. in Chemistry and a B.A. in Studio Art, Boes began working toward her Ph.D. in the Fiber and Polymer Science program at NC State’s College of Textiles. She joined Dr. Nelson Vinueza’s research group, Vinueza Labs, and dove into research using the lab’s mass spectrometer.

“A mass spectrometer is like a high-tech scale that weighs molecules,” she said. “Each molecule is launched down a long tube, and it is possible to tell how much the molecule weighs by how fast it flies down the tube. Heavier molecules travel more slowly and lighter molecules travel more quickly. What’s special about mass spectrometry is that it can provide information about each molecule in a mixture, whereas other analytical techniques often provide bulk information about the mixture as a whole.”

Vinueza Labs specializes in mass spectrometry research in four areas: forensics, including the analysis of trace amounts of dye on fibers and the differentiation of real and counterfeit drugs; dyes, including the pursuit of more economical dye production and the study of antimicrobial properties found in naturally occurring biomaterials; carbohydrates, specifically cyclodextrin inclusion complexes, in their use with flame retardants to prevent the toxic leakage of those chemicals from garments; and biofuels, including optimizing the biofuel pretreatment process in order to make biofuels more economically and environmentally viable.

Her dissertation, “High Efficiency Mass Spectrometry Characterization of Biomaterials,” is in the latter area, and focuses on “researching factories that make transportation fuels and other fossil fuel replacements out of plants.” But her interest in biofuels has been a long-burning one; in fact, she has been dreaming of renewable energy since she was in fourth grade, when she and a classmate designed an electric car they believed would be able to charge itself.

“Growing up in Ann Arbor (Michigan), which is a really liberal and green city, I’ve enjoyed thinking about and being creative about renewable energy,” she said. “Coming to the College of Textiles and getting to work unexpectedly on renewable materials has been really fun.”

She recently successfully defended her dissertation in front of her committee, composed of Dr. Stephen Michielsen, Dr. Harold S. Freeman, Dr. Nelson Vinueza and Dr. Michael Bereman, as well as friends, family and her fiance. She will finish out the semester working on research projects using the mass spectrometer.

Her next move will not be linear. She plans to flex her creative muscles on top of her analytical bones with a career in science communication.

“I’ve been finding, throughout the last four years, that I’m more passionate about figuring out how to share science than actually doing it myself on the bench,” said Boes. “So, with a background in graphic design, I would like to pivot and move into science communication with a marketing focus. I’m really passionate about successful visual science communication, because I think it can break down some language barriers and share science in a more visual and easily approachable way.”

3 of the 30 Elements (Nickel, Potassium, Sulfur) posters hang on a wall
Posters from the 30 Elements series by Kelsey Boes

Boes has already built a foundation for a career in science communication, through her work on scientific illustrations like the “30 Elements” chemistry art print and t-shirt, facilitated by a Kickstarter campaign, and a pair of periodic table-themed socks for the American Chemical Society. She also established the web presence for Vinueza Labs, including designing the website and logo and creating a series of research graphics to elucidate complex concepts.

In the spring of 2016, she attended ComSciCon-Triangle, a Raleigh-area workshop for STEM graduate students about communicating science.

“Attending that — on a whim — opened up my eyes to how science and communication really do intersect,” said Boes.

She helped organize the next workshop in 2017, bringing in a science filmmaker, a graphic designer and a visualization and digital media librarian to expand beyond the workshop’s usual focus on writing.

“It was neat to be able to bring visual science communication to ComSciCon, and to learn from all these experts and be inspired by the students in the Triangle area that attended,” she said.

Boes has been practicing visual communication of a different kind for some time now, through her blog, “Lovely and Enough,” where she displays her handmade modern quilts and fabric designs.

“I started my blog my junior year of college,” she said. “I wanted to get into the blogging scene mostly to record what I was doing…Writing hasn’t always been my favorite, and so it was an easy way to practice every week that felt non-intimidating.” She has also kept up her Etsy store of the same name since before graduate school.

Deconstructed quilt in shades of green, pink and blue by Kelsey Boes
Deconstructed quilt by Kelsey Boes

Her design aesthetic is mid-century modern, “with strong, clean lines and lots of negative space.” She carries that through to her illustrations, creating simple, memorable images that pack a lot of information into a few pixels. Her creativity, as well as her drive, analytical mindset and curiosity, has been encouraged by a family that values science and art in equal measure.

“As one of two grandkids of people who are world travelers and engineers and musicians and computer engineers, I was encouraged to explore and be creative and make things from a young age,” she said. “My mom has her Ph.D. in computer engineering, but is also an artist and a musician, so I’ve had that double act of left-brained and right-brained set as an example for me from a young age.”   

When Boes first enrolled in graduate school, her mother sent her two books on science writing. She constantly referenced the books during her studies, but they also helped her realize how opaque science writing can be to the layperson.

“The books helped me realize that the way we write science is often really difficult to understand, even for someone who is in your field, and I think that’s something that we could be better at,” she said. “Because if science was easier to read, it wouldn’t feel so intimidating.”

Boes has been networking with several industry-related organizations and publications, and is excited about a career interpreting science and helping the public understand new research and its implications.   

“I’m looking forward to not only getting experience and being surrounded by other people and learning from them, but also working for a company and being able to help them push their goals forward in a more focused way,” she said.

But before then, she has a more immediate goal: marrying her longtime, long-distance fiance, Brent. The groom, director of exhibitions at Michigan’s Calvin College, has been planning their wedding, set for this June.

Group of 7 people in a line, wearing khaki 30 Elements t-shirts
30 Elements t-shirt designed by Kelsey Boes

This post was originally published in College of Textiles News.

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