Nhu Nguyen
Nhu Nguyen in the UC Davis Arboretum

Parallel Projects Bring Chemistry to the Arboretum

Nhu Nguyen (B.S., chemistry, ’12), an artist and doctoral student in chemistry, is the mastermind behind a recent exhibit in the UC Davis Arboretum called Walking in the Woods with Chemistry.

Among the extraordinary array of plants in the arboretum are species whose chemical compounds have been adapted for a wide variety of purposes, including medicines, perfumes and dyes. Installed from October 2015 through September 2016, the exhibit highlighted some of the molecules produced by plants and how they are used in our daily life.

The idea for the exhibit emerged from a chance meeting between Nguyen and Elaine Fingerett, academic coordinator for the arboretum, at a campus art/science fusion event where Nguyen had a painting on display. The conversation turned to trees and plants, inspiring Nguyen to suggest an installation exploring plants and their chemistry. Working with her advisor, chemistry professor Dean Tantillo, and plant biology professor Philipp Zerbe, Nguyen created displays featuring how and why plants use certain molecules, as well as related UC Davis research. Nguyen also printed 3-D models of each molecule, which were mounted next to the displays in several areas of the arboretum.

“I hope this project illustrated a place where art meets science, as well as offering a glimpse into the many connections between science and nature,” Nguyen said.

While Nhu Nguyen was preparing an interdisciplinary overview of plant uses, chemistry professor Jared Shaw was partnering with high school students on a similar project for the arboretum. Shaw has National Science Foundation funding (through a prestigious CAREER award) to create a permanent installation with five displays describing medicinal uses of arboretum plants. “The arboretum is an ideal setting for educating the public on the origin of chemical compounds used in medicines and inspiring enthusiasm in further study of natural compounds,” Shaw said.

— Becky Oskin, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science

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