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Blending science, art and history into a broad palette of impact
profile image of Elise Etrheim

Emory College senior Elise Etrheim blends chemistry, art and leadership into a broad palette of impact for peers and professors and discovers new opportunities along the way.

— Kay Hinton, Emory Photo/Video

As a first-year student at Emory College of Arts and Sciences, Elise Etrheim studied chemistry in a dorm room decorated with her own paintings.

That was when she figured she’d tap into her interest in chemistry to go into biomedical research. Even her choice for a first-year seminar that spring — Emory historian Sharon Strocchia’s prescient “Epidemics in History” — spoke to Etrheim’s desire to ensure a scientific component in a historical examination of how people dealt with disease.

The seminar became one of the most influential of her four years at Emory. It led her to more history courses, and then to the art history courses that revealed how an art conservation career would meld her passion for both the art tacked to her walls and the compounds in her textbooks.

Etrheim graduates this spring having juggled the coursework for a chemistry major and art history minor — including hundreds of hours in chem labs and art studios — with two on-campus jobs offering hands-on conservation and preservation work, various retail jobs and serving as a student leader with Volunteer Emory.

“Elise is a wonderful model of what an Emory student can do while here,” says Renée Stein, the director of conservation at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum and associate teaching professor who first met Etrheim in her “Issues in Conservation” course.

“She absolutely gets the science, the art and the history, and she sees how they intersect,” Stein adds. “She makes it seem effortless because you would have no idea the load she is carrying to so fully engage in every opportunity.” 

Pursuit of diverse ideas

Growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Etrheim had limited exposure to art museums, much less to what happened behind the scenes to create and support exhibits.

She came to Emory ready for a diversity of ideas. Still, she intended for the class on ancient Egyptian art to be a fun break in a course load weighed with advanced math and science courses. That was until she spotted the organic chemistry at work when safekeeping pieces from 2,000 years ago.

“That just clicked with me,” Etrheim says. “I was excited by the opportunities, to see what had been conserved and how it was done. Once I realized there is a chemistry aspect to art history, I wanted to find ways to pursue those ideas in my major.”

Enter Douglas Mulford, the teaching professor of chemistry who launched a new course to explain more advanced concepts.

Students in Mulford’s “Chemistry of Color” course learned about conjugated pi systems (where enough multiple bonds turn a colorless compound vibrant and we see reds and oranges) and how to synthesize the blue pigments Vincent Van Gogh used in “Starry Night.”

They also got side notes from Etrheim, who shared what she had learned in Stein’s course, about how artists and conservators use chemicals as varnish and different binding materials.

Students in Mulford’s class later visited the Carlos Museum for elemental analysis of several paint samples. He has since added some of her information about the creation and use of specific pigments into the course.

“I want my students to take science out of the lab and experience it in the world,” Mulford says. “Elise had done that and helped make connections to art with what we were studying, to increase the context and depth of the course. I learned a lot from her.”

Melding chemistry and art

This year, Etrheim focused on further uniting her interests. In her experimental physical chemistry course, for instance, she described the use of titanium dioxide nanoparticles in preserving wooden heritage objects.

She also applied ultraviolet-induced visible luminescence (UVL) and x-ray radiography to study a nine-inch ancient Egyptian bronze statuette of the god Horus as a falcon. Her contribution to the investigation of the bird her team nicknamed “Stanley,” is included in an online map of his 2,700-year migration to a new Carlos Museum exhibit this spring.

“I just took my mom to the Carlos to see Stanley, and it was so cool to share it with her,” says Cosette Drook, a senior human health major who became best friends with Etrheim through Volunteer Emory.

“Every time I tell people about my friend who is into art conservation, I realize I learned a lot from her excitement about it,” Drook adds. “She makes such a big impact on people. It’s just who she is.”

Etrheim has led Volunteer Emory since the start of the pandemic, organizing weekly service trips to nonprofits throughout metro Atlanta. In addition, she works as a conservation intern at the Carlos Museum’s Parsons Conservation Laboratory and as a student conservator for Emory Libraries, mending paper and fixing hinges for the circulating collection and building protective enclosures for rare books.

“Elise has the skills of a humanist and the insights of a scientist,” says art history professor Elizabeth Pastan. “She is exceptional in every way. I can’t think of any other way to say it.”

Etrheim will get more hands-on experience this summer during an internship at the Boston Museum of Fine Art, where she will treat outdoor sculptures and conduct an independent research project from the collection.

In the fall, Etrheim will help another museum set up a colorimetry and microfadometry program to monitor how paint pigments and colors change over time as a way to inform their care and display. All the hands-on work, in addition to her classes at Emory, will help Etrheim become a top candidate for one of the four highly competitive and in-depth graduate programs in art conservation in the U.S.

“The moment I realized I can take my original love of chemistry into a field like art conservation, it made me love it more,” Etrheim says. “Emory opened the door to the possibilities for me, and I’m not sure I want to narrow any options yet.”

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