Light and magnification turn science to artwork

The image looks like something from the plant world. Instead, this is a microscopic view of an organic molecule that's used industrially to produce dyes -- blown up to billboard size.

Scott Aldrich's work captured on various billboards across the region brings together his science background and his artistic sensibilities.

This is photomicrography on a scale rarely seen. Using a polarized light microscope and images captured with high-resolution digital cameras, Aldrich lets us peek into vibrant, colorful world rarely seen except by chemists.

Aldrich is one of 10 local artists whose work takes on larger-than-life proportions. In a Kalamazoo Institute of Arts contest earlier this year, 60 artists competed to have their work seen on billboards across the region. A jury narrowed the field to 20 and the public voted on its favorites -- 2,000 clicked on the work they liked best on the KIA website.

The winners' artwork is seen on a rotating basis among 1,300 billboards across the region. Adams Outdoors moves the art as billboards become available. The billboards will remain up until May 2012.

The Kalamazoo Institute of Art's Caroline DeNooyer says the contest was developed to promote the work of local artists and demonstrate the thriving nature of the Kalamazoo art community. "We wanted to build our relationships with our artists," DeNooyer says.

For Aldrich, the art is an outgrowth of the work he has done for 37 years and also in his most recent venture, Ultramikro, a Richland consultant firm that helps pharmaceutical and food industries investigate contamination control. He's an expert in compliance in the highly regulated world of pharmaceuticals.

The company he started in 2006 has experienced 25 percent growth each year. Since this is a second career for the onetime Upjohn, Pharmacia, then Pfizer scientist, and one that he does not intend to let develop into a business that would require him to be in the lab 100 percent of the time, he may have to rethink his growth strategy.

Aldrich helps companies work out mircoanalytical methods and conducts process reviews. He will evaluate lab design and equipment. He also offers microscopy training and can help companies sort out issues with product stability and with detection of particulate matter detection.

He describes his work as the CSI of the pharmaceutical world. The difference is while the crime scene investigator typically is investigating some one's death, Aldrich's investigations are designed to keep drugs pure so people stay alive (and keep drug companies in compliance with FDA regulations).

He says he "turns the light on" with various materials and through visual observations can determine the properties that identify them based on how the light passes through them or is blocked.  

It's a fairly rare specialty. Aldrich estimates there are probably only 500 specialists doing similar work in the country.

His expertise has led him to volunteer with the United States Pharmacopeia. He serves on the expert committee that proposes and revises standards for pharmaceutical products and his work is focused on standards for drugs that are injected.

In the early years of Ultramikro, he attended a number of conferences and professional meetings to make sure people knew of his business, but since then word of mouth referrals have kept him as busy as he wants to be.

Aldrich explains if he accepted more work he would need his own wet lab. With business at its current level he can use laboratory space at the Southwest Michigan Innovation Center as needed.

Primarily, he goes to companies where his skills are needed and uses their equipment.

He's also learned a big part of being a consultant is bringing people together. "It may have nothing to do with science." Aldrich says it's not uncommon to walk into a workplace where the people he is dealing with are at odds with one another. Since they both may have pieces of the answer he is looking for, his job is to "look and figure out the best answer."

Not satisfied to build a businesses and volunteer as an industry expert on a national level advisory committee, this past team leader of the Center for Excellence is active with a number of other local volunteer efforts including the Tuesday Toolmen, a group that assists seniors with repairs to their homes.

The artwork that locals decide they wanted to see on billboards started by simply playing around with the images he was seeing. Bringing the microscopic world into view is a "great outlet," he says, and when he shows it he has a chance to teach the curious a tiny bit of chemistry, which after all is what it's all about.

He calls his art business Crossed Polars, a photomicrographic art enterprise. "It's a hobby that you make money at," he says with a smile.

He has found he likes taking the pieces to art shows and talking to children who are fascinated by it about what they are seeing -- organic chemistry in a microscope. "I can explain it so they can get it. I enjoy that."

Kathy Jennings is the editor of Southwest Michigan Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor living in Kalamazoo.

Photos by Erik Holladay.

Scott Aldrich is surround by canvas photo prints of his microscopic views of organic materials.

Scott Aldrich peers through one of the microscopes he uses to photograph organic materials.

An example of Scott Aldrichs work called "Watermelon Mesa (sodium_nitrite)".

An example of Scott Aldrichs work called "Gaia Flag (DSA20001)."

An example of Scott Aldrichs work called "Spherulitic Acicular Mambo (anthraquinone)."

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