At first glance, you may see a serene lake at sunset or delicate petals on a winter-blooming tree. But look closer at UChicago professor of chemistry Bozhi Tian’s artwork and you might notice these images don’t quite capture the world as it is. They meld scenes of nature with hints of technology, much as his research merges biological and synthetic systems.
A materials scientist who works with semiconductors for biomedical applications, Tian designs devices to stimulate or modulate parts of the anatomy, such as the heart and neurons. One project his lab has been working on for almost eight years is a solar powered pacemaker. The team is also exploring technology to influence microbes, including an edible material that could modulate the gut microbiome, potentially helping to treat gastrointestinal ailments like inflammatory bowel disease.
Tian’s research is inspired by the natural world: its shapes and textures and patterns. And that influence suffuses his artwork, often created in conjunction with his science: a riverscape with a nanowire forest, a neural cell framed as a snowcapped mountain. These are created digitally, but Tian has been painting and drawing since childhood.
Encouraged by his father, Tian started practicing calligraphy when he was 3. He branched out to painting at 6 and started experimenting with design software at 15 or 16, when his father bought him his first computer. (Around that time, he was falling in love with chemistry and devoting more attention to science.) He still enjoys making analog art but finds it time-consuming.
At Shanghai’s Fudan University, where Tian earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry, his devotion to art and to science began to coalesce. He joined a research lab that designed and synthesized porous materials—orderly and geometrically structured with nanoscale pore size. Such structures exist in nature but not at the same scale, Tian says. The 2D and 3D arrangements fascinated him. “It’s essentially an art piece,” he thought.
Both scientists and artists must be innovative and imaginative, says Tian, inspired in how they re-create their vision of the world. This multidimensional creativity is particularly evident in one of his lab’s new research directions, what he calls “synthetic reality.” The team is focusing on designing tissue-like materials, but not in the traditional tissue engineering sense (such as growing artificial organs or materials for direct medical use). “We’re thinking more broadly,” he says.
Imagine incorporating organic tissue into your surroundings—an idea that struck Tian on a recent visit to the intensive care unit of Comer Children’s Hospital to meet with a collaborator. There it occurred to him that premature babies have physical and emotional needs that would have been met by their mothers’ bodies, but they are treated inside what is basically a batting-lined box. Perhaps the team could create an environment like a womb.
“We don’t really need reality, as long as it feels like reality,” he says. “That should be enough.” Likewise, some stringed instruments traditionally use gut string, made from animal intestines, which produces a warmer sound than steel. But a synthetic gut-like tissue might produce an equally beautiful tone. Reality: inspired by nature but made in a lab.
Tian believes that combining science and design is good business—it sells innovation through communication. “It helps motivate people,” he says, “bringing us together through storytelling.” But he admits that creating art is also a sort of compromise. He finds illustration relaxing but sometimes feels guilty for neglecting his research. This way, he doesn’t have to choose.