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Entropy and Elves: Sarah Roh '12 Illustrates Chemical Concepts With a Manga Flair

Sarah Roh '12

Sarah Roh '12

Roh's illustration for the Journal of Organic Chemistry's Table of Contents page

Roh's illustration for the Journal of Organic Chemistry's Table of Contents page

Roh's illustration for the Journal of Organic Chemistry's cover

Roh's illustration for the Journal of Organic Chemistry's cover

Elves and entropy—they seem an unlikely duo, but Sarah Roh ‘12 and Chemistry Professor Dan O’Leary brought the ideas together for a unique spin on illustrating chemistry concepts for the Journal of Organic Chemistry.

O’Leary, with his coauthors, had their paper accepted by the journal but the editors requested a better image for the magazine’s table of contents. O’Leary’s student Roh, who has drawn manga-style artwork as a hobby since middle school, stepped in with Entropy and Enthalpy, elves wearing the Pomona colors who are mischievously playing with molecular models. O’Leary and Roh had such a good time working on the graphic that they decided to pitch an expanded version to the editors as commissioned artwork for the journal’s cover.

When first confronted with the illustration problem, O’Leary recalled Roh’s interest in drawing manga. O’Leary always asks his students what motivates them to study science, and Roh mentioned that while she wanted to be a rocket scientist in fourth grade, she later spent her middle school years drawing manga. She also provided sample sketches. “One look at Sarah’s sketches convinced me that my TOC graphics problems were solved,” says O’Leary.

“When I came into his office, he just asked me ‘How lovable can you draw your elves?’ Then it just spiraled from there,” says Roh, a classics major who is originally from San Antonio, Texas. Their brainstorming led to the idea of manga-style elves representing entropy and enthalpy.

These concepts are key to the paper’s findings. O’Leary and his students have been investigating spectroscopic methods for detecting the presence of hydrogen bonds in model compounds which are designed to mimic molecules like carbohydrates and nucleic acids. Their experimental method replaces certain hydrogen atoms with a heavier isotope, deuterium.

One student, Dan Hickstein ’07, determined very accurate experimental estimates of the preference of deuterium in hydrogen bonds designed to model carbohydrates, and everyone wondered what caused the isotope to prefer certain sites. After a few months of running quantum calculations and computer stimulations, they discovered the reason.

“[It] could be traced to an interplay of the thermodynamic properties of entropy and enthalpy,” says O’Leary, who coauthored the paper with Hickstein (a Churchill Scholar who is now a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at University of Colorado, Boulder) and Poul-Erik Hansen and Bjarke K.V. Hansen of Roskilde University in Denmark.

Roh’s drawings offer a perfect, light-hearted approach to the topic. “In the table of contents graphic, each are depicted—correctly, I might add—trying to control the position of the heavy hydrogen isotope in a hydrogen bond,” says O’Leary. “I really laughed when I saw what she did with entropy, a little boy with unkempt hair and knee patches—the embodiment of entropic disorder!”

Roh expanded the concept for the commissioned cover. On the cover, several elves, including Entropy and Enthalpy, are goofing around with their molecular models rather than listening to a lesson taught by Professor Gibbs. “Students of high school or general chemistry will recognize the relationship of ‘Professor Gibbs’ to the enthalpy and entropy elves with the well-known equation ΔG = ΔH – TΔS,” explains O’Leary.

“The [editors] called the cover ‘whimsical’ and they told us they liked it a lot when we finally sent it in,” says Roh, who says this is the first time her art has been officially published. The artwork and the paper, “Theoretical and NMR Studies of Deuterium Isotopic Perturbation of Hydrogen Bonding in Symmetrical Dihydroxy Compounds” were published in the March 5 issue (75:5).

“I don’t know if this is the first cartoon-based journal cover for the Journal of Organic Chemistry, but I’ll bet it’s the first manga-inspired journal cover,” says O’Leary. “It’s certainly a cover that should put a smile on the faces of a few chemists around the world! I’m happy that the field of organic chemistry is able to benefit from Sarah’s creativity.”