Say it with molecules

Biobaubles charm scientists and the people who love them

Feb 9, 2007
Anne Harding
Raven Hanna would much rather get earrings shaped like theobromine, the alkaloid that gives chocolate its mood-lifting kick, than flowers or real candy for Valentine's Day. Which isn't surprising; she invented those earrings.
The jewelry this biophysicist-biochemist makes out of molecules has found a much wider audience, from people on antidepressants interested in serotonin, to menopausal women wanting an estrogen memento, to scientists who have made a molecule their life's work.Hanna's company, Made With Molecules, has 1,000-plus customers, most of them scientists. Many Email her to say "thanks" for the work she does, she said. "They really wanted some nice things to represent the stuff that they love, and there's really not much out there."Still, Hanna's not the only game in town: Dopamine Jewelry sells pieces made from microscopic photos of "behavior-altering chemicals" like acetylcholine and Chablis; The DNA Store offers gold double helix earrings and an enamel X chromosome pin; and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory-affiliated DNA Stuff features $12 double helix bracelets and $105 gold helix tie-tacks. But Hanna is unique in turning ball-and-stick molecule models into adornment. Along with sterling silver serotonin necklaces for $85 -- her best-seller -- she offers neurotransmitter earrings for $40, a $130 bracelet with six detachable neurotransmitter charms, black boxer shorts emblazoned with lime-green testosterone molecules, and much more.
Early last year, Hanna spent a couple of months at CERN, coming up with ideas for products to sell in their gift shop, including a proton ring studded with gluons and quarks.But it all started with serotonin. Taking a break from her postdoc work at Carlos Bustamante's Berkeley lab, Hanna did light reading on neurotransmitters, and was "astonished" by their beauty. She decided she had to have a serotonin necklace, and after learning there was no such thing, made her own. Friends asked where they could get one, and word spread. Made With Molecules has been Hanna's full time job since 2006, after deciding life as a traditional scientist wasn't for her. "It's a really neat little product," said Laura Mariani, who works in a cellular neuroscience lab at Harvard Medical School and got a pair of Hanna's earrings (one serotonin, one dopamine) from her boyfriend for Christmas. "Sometimes you don't really trust men to pick out things you'll want to wear -- I was very pleasantly surprised. People comment on them all the time.""Science can be beautiful. This is just one way for it to be beautiful," said Stephanie W. Watts, a professor of pharmacology at Michigan State University in East Lansing and the owner of a pair of Hanna's serotonin earrings. Watts investigates the role of serotonin in hypertension, and said she "flipped out" when she came across the earrings in a catalog. She said she uses them as teaching aids to describe her work to non-scientists, and likes to have scientist friends play guess the molecule.
At Yale, while she was getting her PhD in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, Hanna worked for Jennifer Doudna, who had just published her crystal structure of a region of the Group 1 Intron ribozyme. "She wanted something fun to wear for the RNA Society conference, so I bent copper wire in the shape of her structure to make earrings for her," said Hanna. "Looking back, that's heavy foreshadowing, but at the time it was just one of many fun projects."Anne Harding mail@the-scientist.comImages: Serotonin necklace, Neuro charm bracelet, and Caffeine necklace, provided by Made with Molecules. Image of Hanna working (on homepage) by Jeremy Lutes.Made With Molecules http://www.madewithmolecules.comCQ Choi, "Last minute life-scientist gift," The Scientist, December 20, 2002 Jewelry Heyman, "Sparkling spirals: A romantic twist on DNA," The Scientist, February 16, 2004. Lab W. Watts A. Doudna O'Neill, "Electron microscopy on the runway," The Scientist, February 1, 2006. RNA Society