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Science & Technology

July 17, 2006
Volume 84, Number 29
p. 41

C&EN TALKS WITH

Raven Hanna

A molecular biophysicist gives up the lab bench to follow another molecular muse

By Ivan Amato

It was her various row-mates during a spate of cross-country flights several years ago that helped Raven Hanna seal her decision to defect from the lab bench and pursue quite another method of scientific expression.

Photo By Kathie Hanna

"I had wanted to become a professor for many years," says Hanna, who earned a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics at Yale University before taking on a postdoctoral position in the laboratory of Carlos Bustamante at the University of California, Berkeley. During that transition, she recalls, "I took a lot of plane flights and it was a challenge to communicate the excitement of what I was doing to the people I sat next to on the plane," says Hanna, who years ago traded in her given name, Rebecca, for Raven, because she was tired of being called Becky.

In the first years of the millennium, as she was mastering the arcane practice of grabbing onto individual ribosomes—the cellular organelles where proteins are made—with "laser tweezers" to investigate ribosomes' mechanical properties, Hanna had her mind on another audacious goal. "I thought it would be fun to try to communicate science in a way that people would think at the end, 'This is cool,' " she says.

This wasn't a mere daydream. Hanna, who is 33 and was born and raised in California, quit her postdoc in 2004, enrolled in the top-flight science writing program at UC Santa Cruz, and was still searching toward the end of that yearlong program for a unique means of scientific expression, when she had an Aha! moment. It happened while she was admiring a drawing of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in a book.

"It was beautiful and I thought it would make a lovely necklace," Hanna recalls. "A quick Internet search suggested that such a thing didn't exist, so if I wanted one, I'd have to make it myself."

In the summer of 2004, Hanna began what she now can describe as her own combination of research, development, and marketing research. She bought a spool of silver wire and a torch and spent some time with a jewelry artist in San Francisco to learn some techniques. It didn't take long before Hanna had fashioned a shining silver version of the fused-ring indole structure of serotonin, one of her all-time favorite molecules. When she wore the necklace in public, Hanna notes, "people would say, 'I want one of those,' " and they would also get inquisitive about molecules and neurotransmitters. That was a sign to her that she was onto something novel that could draw nonscientists toward science.

Photos By Brandon MacInnis

ACCESSORIZE Estrogen earrings, a serotonin necklace (on Hanna), and a neurotransmitter charm bracelet are among Hanna's creations.

At first, she traded serotonin necklaces for the wares of her circle of Bay Area friends, mostly artists. But she decided to bushwhack a bit further by starting a company named "Made With Molecules," its acronym, MWM, deliberately suggestive of a carbon chain with a pair of double bonds where the Ms meet the W. The front-end of her business is nothing more than an online catalog site that now offers a line of molecularly themed silver necklaces, charm bracelets, earrings, and key chains; boxer shorts with testosterone structures printed all over and infants' one-piece suits with oxytocin or glucose themes; and a selection of holiday cards. One of these, the "DNA Transcription Tree Card," features an electron micrograph depicting the treelike structure of a stretch of DNA caught in the act of being transcribed into RNA by RNA polymerase enzymes. Another card, the "PEACE Peptide Card" shows a string of five amino acids-proline, glutamic acid, alanine, cysteine, and glutamic acid again-whose conventional single-letter aliases spell out the word peace.

Sales quickly became brisk enough that Hanna realized she could never make her business work by hand-making her jewelry. Another artist whom she had met in Santa Cruz, a maker of math-inspired sculptures, turned her on to a higher tech method. Now she uses computer-aided design software to generate electronic files of her jewelry designs. Then she sends these via the Internet to a firm that relies on an "instant manufacturing" process that cures resin powder, speck by speck, into three-dimensional molds corresponding to her molecular designs. Finally, she contracts with another artisan to pour molten silver into the molds to produce jewelry depicting a slowly growing roster of structures. The list now includes serotonin, acetylcholine, dopamine, norepinephrine, γ-aminobutyric acid, and glutamate. "I just added an estrogen line of jewelry," Hanna says.

Since she went into business one year ago, she has sold hundreds of items, ranging in price from about $40 to $130. She packs each one in a box with an informational tag that tells buyers about the molecule they will be wearing as a fashion accessory.

"Science art, in its best incarnation, will inspire awe," says Hanna, who also writes articles, mostly on the cusp of science and art; makes animated documentaries about such topics as the origin of life; and curates exhibits, the most recent one titled "Art Meets Science" at the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley.

"I am only making a part-time living at this," Hanna concedes, but she's also not that worried. "I am having so much fun not knowing where all of this will lead." Spoken like a true scientist.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society