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From science to superhero

And now a special treat:  A conversation with three of the winners of the Generation Nano contest, a comics competition for high school students sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI).

Participants created novel superheroes who use the power of nanotechnology to solve crimes or tackle a societal challenge.

Brother and sister team Hannah and Daniel Kim took home first place for their hero Dilatant. Ramona Park won the People's Choice award for her comic Agent X.

Hannah and Daniel Kim

How did you hear about the contest?

Hannah: A friend participated last year. When we found out that we could submit an entry as a team for this year’s competition, my brother and I decided to enter as a sibling duo.

Strong suit. Conceived by a brother and sister team, Dilatant is a superhero who uses a suit designed with the power of nanotechnology to fight off ne'er-do-wells. The comic won first place in the Generation Nano contest. Courtesy Hannah Kim and Daniel Kim.

How did you work together to make the comic?

Hannah: We both did equal research into the technology behind Dilatant’s supersuit. I worked on the character designs and comic, while my brother provided feedback.

Daniel: I mainly worked on the video that went along with the comic. My sister did most of the art. We haven’t worked together like this before, and this was a great opportunity to do what I loved while learning about nanotechnology.

Were you interested in nanotechnology before the contest?

Hannah: I had already heard of several kinds of nanotechnology: superhydrophobic sprays, cancer treatment, and carbon nanotubes. However, I wanted to do something people were less likely to be familiar with. Liquid body armor, what we ultimately chose, was something I never thought could be made with nanotechnology – it’s crazy to think that you can stop a knife stab using nanoparticles!

Daniel: Using nanostructures to provide robust protection from knife stabs is really incredible, and made me more aware of how nanotechnology isn’t just tiny electronics doing precise tasks, but tiny structures that come together to accomplish a larger feat.

How much did you research the dilatant technology?

Hannah: We researched what developments are necessary for dilatant armor to be effective in real-world situations. Although I had never heard about liquid armor before, little did I know I was already familiar with shear-thickening fluids! In elementary school, our teachers had shown off “oobleck,” a mix of cornstarch and water, which is also a dilatant – though not quite as effective in stopping bullets.

<strong>Dilatant. </strong> How will he use his nanotechnology-enhanced super-suit to stop hooligans from wreaking havoc? Courtesy Hannah Kim and Daniel Kim.

Daniel: I knew about “oobleck” and its non-newtonian properties, but it was a surprise to find that there were nanotechnologies built around this concept!

What was the inspiration for Dilatant’s outfit?

Hannah: Dilatant’s supersuit is essentially a bag filled with shear-thickening fluid — something simple that a teenager could put together. I used Disney’s Aladdin and Marvel’s Moon Knight as references. The physics-defying purple scarf was added to make the “liquid armor” more obvious, while also giving our hero something to cover his face if the hood wasn’t enough.

What’s next for both of you?

Hannah: This fall I’ll be studying at the University of Virginia. While my major is physics, this may change before I graduate – but I’ll definitely stick with something in the hard sciences! I hope to be able to conduct research, ideally interdisciplinary work that involves lots of time either in the lab or the field.

Daniel: While I’m not going to college anytime soon, I am interested in computer engineering. But what I’ve learned working on this project has made me more interested in the applications and mechanisms behind engineering on the microscopic level.

Ramona Park

How did you hear about the contest?

My biology teacher had some flyers about the competition and encouraged me to enter. He thought I would be a good fit.

What other comics have you drawn?

I publish my webcomic Truth Be Told on my blog. My comics are also published in my local newspaper and school newspaper, but they’re completely different from what I did for Generation Nano. 

X marks the spot. Agent X won the People's Choice Award in the Generation Nano contest. It features a superhero using nanotechnology to combat cancer. Courtesy Ramona Park.

Favorite superhero?

Definitely Beast Boy. We have a lot in common in terms of always being the comic relief, and despite his inferiority complex and the scars of his past, Beast Boy cherishes his teammates and friends. Plus, the ability to metamorph into any animal is pretty cool — shape-shifting would definitely be my ideal superpower. 

Were you interested in nanotechnology before you entered the contest?

I wasn't really exposed to it. Through the contest, I learned that developments currently being researched in nanotechnology are the key to the next scientific breakthrough, and it's not as futuristic as I initially thought. 

How did you choose the type of nanotech in your comic?

<strong>Agent X. </strong> A superhero who uses nanosensors and nanobots to fight Leukos Leukemia. Can she eliminate corrupt cells while keeping the healthy ones safe? Courtesy Ramona Park.In my freshman biology class, my teacher posed the question: "How do you cure cancer?" I thought it was ridiculous. But the following year at the New Mexico Supercomputing Challenge, the winners presented a program which simulated the utilization of nanotechnology and nanobots to target certain cells and theoretically cure cancer. It stuck with me because it not only proposed nanotechnology but computer science as well.

What’s your dream career?

I want to do something with creative content—whether that's blogging for entertainment like BuzzFeed or Cosmo, writing or designing games, becoming a journalist, or working overseas in Korea. In college, I will likely double major in computer science and digital media. 

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