The Rookie Researcher

Over the 8 weeks of summer, I will be researching the ‘blanching of varnish’ of fine art pieces. The paintings you see in galleries are basically visual expressions made with soft matter – the paint on the canvas and the varnish top layer. Varnish is the protective layer of paintings from dust and dirt, which also enhances the appearance of paint depending on the finish.

Did you know varnish retains pores just like the ones on your skin? They also react to their environment! If the pores are exposed to water or moisture for a long time, they begin to grow and scatter light further (through Mie scattering), creating a white cast on the varnish.

Undamaged VarnishBlanched Varnish

The varnish samples I will be examining have already been submerged in water to simulate the damage, so I get to check them out under scanning electron microscopy (SEM). Each sample is unique for the amount of time they’ve been exposed to water.

What I do is extract varnish samples from their source, usually varnish on glass, which are scraped off and onto a stud. I then stick these samples into the SEM for imaging.

It is cool that we can see the micro world from the macro world, huh?

Once all samples are imaged, I analyse them with ImageJ (╯•ᗣ•╰) to find out the pore sizes.

It has been two weeks since I started the 8-week-long research scheme called PURS (Physics Undergraduate Research Scholarship) and I have realised how much there is to learn. It is a transition from ‘student’ to a full-time ‘researcher’. Labs tend to be small intense bursts with time-sensitive tasks and closing deadlines. My small bachelor’s dissertation did not require me to stay in the lab as it was all simulated in code.  Now it is a marathon with no lab script to guide you. You need people to help you, and that’s okay. The work I’m doing is not graded, all I need to worry about is how much progress is done. As a student for most of my life – that feels unusual.

Despite the challenges of transitioning from student to a rookie researcher the discipline and habits I’ll learn from these 8 weeks will be very good for my master’s year starting this September. And my future career.

As a person who also loves fine art (Botticelli is my favourite), it is awesome that I can contribute to art conservation and pieces of human history even as a rookie in the lab.

By the way, my partner is also doing research with printed droplet arrays and he printed out this cat with the help of some coding. Isn’t that amazing? I’m naming her Meowlette (from Droplet).

Until next time and back to data analysis,

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