Profile: Molecular Jewelry Design

Our profile subject this time around is perhaps a bit unusual, even for the alternative career crowd. She’s designer and artist Raven Hanna, owner of Made With Molecules, an online shop that sells chemically decorated jewelry and clothing. Now, for those of you getting your knickers all kinds of Gordian knotted because you think jewelry design isn’t a viable career path, hang on a minute. It's true that being a molecular jewelry designer isn't something you can just plug yourself into and go. Regardless, I’m using Hanna as an example of someone who got a PhD in biochemistry, decided the lab wasn’t for her, then thought creatively about what she wanted to do instead. Then she did it. She carved out a niche for herself. Now people pay her to do something she really loves. And if that’s not a good example of a success story, then feel free to feed me a spatula full of trimethyltin chloride, okay? Okay. Moving on. Hanna says she thinks of herself more of a creative science educator, but “my main gig is making jewelry based on the shape of favorite molecules, like neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine) and from favorite foods (caffeine, theobromine, capsaicin).” For anyone who’s ever stared at a Chem Draw of a molecule and thought “pretty!”, this is quite easy to understand. There is a delicate beauty to molecular structures. Hanna really brings it out by casting them in sterling silver. Just look at this endorphin necklace!

Endorphin choker, from Hanna's molecular muse etsy shop

WANT. Both her etsy shop and Made With Molecules site are complete nerdgasms. Hanna got her PhD in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale in 2000, then went on to postdoc for Carlos Bustamante and Nacho Tinoco at UC Berkeley. In 2005, she got a certificate in science writing at UC Santa Cruz. And while she does do some writing and other projects (she’s currently working on developing a Science Tarot deck), Hanna decided that her main goal was to communicate science through art. “I wanted to find ways to share what I find so captivating about science and so awe-inspiring about nature with adults who don’t necessarily know how cool science is,” she said. But figuring out what she wanted to do was only half of it, Hanna said. (See? G.I. Joe was right.) “While I knew this is where I wanted to be, I had no idea how to get there. I needed to take a big breath and do some trail-blazing. Honestly, leaving behind the standard paths of academia and industry was a bit daunting.”

Base pair earrings, likewise from the molecular muse etsy shop

Even though it was hard to leave, she didn’t feel like these typical paths for a PhD were really her cauldron of kippers. “I realized that lab work wasn’t for me. I didn’t like have to repeat experiments so many times or focusing in on such a small corner of the universe,” Hanna said. “Plus, while I was training in science, my artistic side was getting itchy.” Ignoring those itchies for a bit, Hanna did postdoc after finishing her PhD. But she says both were very useful to her jewelry-making career. “Having rigorous scientific training allows me to read and interpret scientific findings. It’s important to understand things deeply in order to explain them simply.” Plus postdoc-ing gave her a little time to think about what she really wanted to do, a necessary “incubation” period. And her training at UC Santa Cruz also helped her out a lot. “The training I received there on how to translate and communicate science – and the confidence I built - was critical to the success of my work,” she said. Confidence is probably the word of the day if you want to start your own small business like Hanna has. She also suggests these: patient, passionate, and inwardly motivated. And, probably most importantly, “ need to be willing to figure it out as you go along.” Kinda sounds like grad school to me. But then I think, depending on your lab environment, if you can finish your PhD, you can do just about anything. For more backstory about how Hanna got her business started, here's a 2006 article from C&EN about her. And speaking of other things, here are some more artistically rendered molecules. The artist who paints them, Alexander Kobulnicky, isn't a chemist, but he has an appreciation, apparently. Look, chlorophyll! Neat.

Author: Leigh Krietsch Boerner

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  1. These are lovely in real life, too.

  2. Our daughter, Anne, is definitely on the humanities side of the Great (Two Cultures) Divide. But she adores her chocolate molecule earrings! Great to see what chemists can do outside the lab!