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Researcher Creates ‘Nancy Nano’ as a Cartoon Ambassador for Nanoscience Education

Photo - "Nancy Nano" creator Tracy Mattox. (Courtesy: Tracy Mattox)

“Nancy Nano” creator Tracy Mattox. (Courtesy: Tracy Mattox)

Tracy Mattox, a researcher in the Molecular Foundry’s Inorganic Nanostructures Facility at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), is an expert in colloidal inorganic syntheses. If you’re not sure what that is, you may want to check out one of Mattox’s side projects — she’s authored an e-book series featuring “Nancy Nano,” a cartoon nanoparticle who lives at the Molecular Foundry and educates readers about scientific concepts through creative storytelling and illustrations.

Mattox starts the series off with a fun and engaging description of nanoparticles and the type of microscopes needed to see them, the most powerful of which (the transmission electron microscope TEAM 0.5) lives at the Foundry. The next five books cover topics ranging from polymers to photovoltaics. Mattox is now working on a seventh book that will focus on the Foundry proposal and user experience.

Mattox was inspired to create the Nancy Nano series through her involvement with the Berkeley Lab BLAZES (Berkeley Lab Adventure Zone for Elementary Science) program, a structured education program for local fifth graders that brings school groups to the Lab throughout the year. Mattox has been working with BLAZES since 2012, helping run hands-on activities for kids. She’s also helped develop a Foundry nanoscience kit to be used in classroom workshops through the Lab’s BLISS (Berkeley Lab in School Settings) program, and she’s hosted undergraduate student interns through the DOE’s SULI (Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internships) program.

“I have my own 7- and 9-year-old kids, and Nancy Nano was also definitely inspired by them and their friends constantly asking me ‘what do you do at work?’ which of course is often followed by the statement: ‘I don’t understand,’” says Mattox.

Nancy Nano seeks to help kids understand both basic scientific concepts and some of the more advanced and fascinating science that’s happening at the Foundry. Mattox’s books are geared toward kids 5th grade and up, though younger kids and even some adults find them useful.

Nancy Nano

“By fith grade, most kids are really excited about science and have learned about the periodic table and electrons,” says Mattox. “That’s about all you need to understand to appreciate Nancy Nano.”

Nancy Nano is undoubtedly a reflection of Mattox’s passion for the Molecular Foundry, where she’s worked for the past 11 years. She’s spent the last seven years of her career studying lanthanum hexaboride, a material she calls “misunderstood” – she’s sought to deepen the scientific understanding of it and has made huge strides in that effort.

“There are so many incredible people at the Foundry and being able to interact with them and to teach a little bit of what I’ve learned makes the job all the more fun,” she says. “We are such a unique institution and this job definitely has an educational aspect to it; so maybe writing Nancy Nano was a natural next-step.”

Mattox says her boss – the Foundry’s Inorganic Facility Director, Jeff Urban – has been really supportive of her outreach and educational work, including the e-book series. Mattox carves out small chunks of free time to work on the books whenever she’s able. Nancy Nano is currently published online and Mattox encourages anyone interested to share the link. She’s shared it with public school science teachers, students, friends, and on social media – she was amazed when it received 1,400 views on her LinkedIn page.

“A coworker mentioned to me how shocked she was when her 8-year-old explained thermoelectrics to her, and when asked about it he said simply that Nancy Nano taught him,” Mattox says. “I’ve heard several similar stories and am really happy to know that the books are reaching kids interested in STEM and in what we do in the Foundry.”

The Molecular Foundry is a DOE Office of Science User Facility.