This is an interesting question. Let's start by
defining some terms to help us think about this
problem! A solution is a chemical mixture that is
comprised of a solute and a solvent. A solute
is a substance that can be dissolved or
dissociated in a solution, and a solvent is
a substance that does the dissolving. I
realize this is kind of abstract, so maybe we can
use an example. Table salt is mostly sodium
chloride, which chemically is written as "NaCl"
(Na = sodium and Cl = chlorine). In its solid
form, sodium atoms partially transfer some of
their negative charge to chlorine atoms, which
results in an "ionic bond." When you put sodium
chloride in water, the Na and the Cl will
dissociate, meaning they will separate into
distinct ions Na+ and Cl-, and individually become
surrounded by water molecules. Thus, in this
picture, NaCl is the solute, which is getting
dissolved in water, which is the solvent.
So now that we've defined these terms, let's
think about your question: how do crystals form
in water? Crystals can form from a solution
when the solution is completely saturated and
there is an excess of solutes. What does
that mean? Let's look at our example of NaCl
again. There is an extent to which NaCl will
dissociate and be surrounded by water molecules.
After a certain point, the solution becomes
saturated. That means the solvent can't
dissolve any solutes anymore. What results is the
formation of crystals at the bottom of the
As for your other question about what we do in
my research group: I am working on a computer
algorithm that will hopefully accelerate the
discovery of a certain class of materials called
block copolymers. Block copolymers are used
in all kinds of applications. They are used in
everything from household products, to tough or
rubbery materials, to more advanced uses like drug
delivery (getting medicine to particular parts of
the body), and even possibly nanolithography
(making computer chips) in the future!
Crystals grow when solutes (molecules dissolved in
water) come out of the solution into regular
structures. An example of this would be sugar in
water. You can mix a lot more sugar into hot water
than cold water. If you mix lots of sugar into hot
water and let it cool, the sugar will slowly start
to crystallize as it comes out of the solution.
You can actually use this to make rock candy.
Here's a recipe:
I do computational biology research in my lab.
This means that much of my work is on a computer
and I don't actually run any experiments in the
normal sense. When you picture a lab (like on CSI)
mine is very different. I have a desk and a good
computer, but no lab coat or chemicals. I work to
figure out the math that drives biological
processes. Literally everything is a result of the
math behind it, and my work is to figure out how
biology works using math.
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