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The Art of Chemistry

Kat Andonucci and Dr. Andy Robak, associate professor of chemistry (Photo by Erik Holmes '13)

Start with a science lab. Add one chemistry professor with self-described “wacky interests.” Introduce a visual and verbal art major with a passion for photography and painting. Mix together a variety of chemistry experiments and have the student capture them on camera or canvas. What do you get?

The Art of Chemistry, an exploration into the beauty and form caused by a variety of chemical reactions.

Robak's hand pours a luminol solution into a narrow glass tube over a 15-second exposure (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

Student photographer Kat Andonucci completed a year-long independent study under the guidance of Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry. With Robak casting the vision and directing her in each experiment, Andonucci crafted the compositions, often using a tripod, a remote shutter and a long exposure to create the images.

“We wanted to treat it as a course, the chemistry of things that are neat to look at, to have a clue what they were,” Robak said, pointing out how many science textbooks use photography to illustrate experiments. The two received a $500 grant from Keuka College’s Division of Academic Affairs to help cover costs of printing and framing the images.

Glycerol makes glass objects dipped into it appear to disappear. (Photo by Kat Andonucci '13)

When Robak went in search of a student who could help illustrate experiments that would show “the fun side of chemistry,” he contacted Melissa Newcomb, assistant professor of art. Newcomb referred him to Andonucci, sparking the creative collaboration.

“I’ve always been interested in chemistry as art or science as art. You can see from the pictures that a lot of stuff I work with is really cool,” said Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry. He rattled off a variety of compounds, from mercury, with its shiny metallic texture that is “really fun to play with,” to flourescein, which turns neon-green when in contact with water, to glycerol, which refracts light in a way that seems to make objects submersed in it disappear.

The hand of Erik Holmes '13, holding methane gas bubbles, a quick-second experiment shot by Andonucci '13.

Andonucci had to be sure to take several shots of each experiment, capturing images on camera as experiments were conducted several times in a row. She brought fellow visual and verbal art major Erik Holmes ’13 into the process, putting him to work as a hand model in some of the images.

Robak managed to convince Holmes to paint a graffiti mural on a concrete wall.  The mural illustrated the chemical structure of concrete itself, and gave Robak an idea for a second creative collaboration with Andonucci.  The two teamed up again on a project to create the letter code of select elements of the Periodic Table with paint created from each of the scientific elements themselves. Another Academic Excellence Initiatives grant funded this second project.

Andonucci paints the symbol for Lead.

According to Robak, all of the pigments Andonucci used to paint the periodic table symbols contain the elements.

Egyptian blue in solid form, before baking to convert it to powder form to then mix into a paint.

Using stand-alone 12×12 canvas squares painted with each element, Andonucci arranged them to hang so that some of the squares appear to be raised and some depressed, creating a more dynamic artwork. As such, the oversize work, she described as “an abstract kind of 3-D Periodic Table” could serve as a permanent reference source in a classroom or lab. In fact, the piece served as the backdrop for a National Pi Day event. Meanwhile, several of Andonucci’s images are now gracing the walls within the science center as permanent installations.

“I’ve got too many ideas and not enough artists,” Robak said. “I’m totally looking for more people to rope into these kinds of things.”

 

Light, Computers, Science!

Talk to Dr. Tom Carroll for just a few minutes about the new high-tech instruments in the third-floor analysis lab in Jephson Science Center and you get the sense the 30-year professor of chemistry at Keuka College is more excited than a kid on Christmas morning.

To the untrained eye, the four new Perkin-Elmer laboratory machines resemble something akin to desktop printer-copiers. But the machines are capable of the kind of data analysis a researcher can use when an unknown substance is handed over with the instructions “find out what this is and report back to me.” With one test on any of these machines, a student researcher could identify in minutes what used to take hours on paper. Carroll is thrilled students – and faculty – can now make regular use of the new equipment.

To biology major Rebecca Evanicki ’14, the new machines enable students to analyze unknown compounds in such a way that it’s like “solving a mystery,” she said.

The HPLC may look like a stack of drawers on a desktop printer, but it can analyze liquids in multiple ways.

Indeed, Associate Professor of Chemistry Andrew Robak is already planning to stage a fake crime scene in the organic chemistry lab next door later this spring. He’ll give the students in his organic chemistry class one day to collect evidence and they’ll spend the last few weeks of the semester in the analysis lab using the new machines to identify every substance, “like a CSI practice version,” he said, referring to the popular TV crime show.

It’s the kind of innovation that brings the student research at Jephson Science Center into a new era of digital learning, which is part of the College’s Long-Range Strategic Plan. Thanks to a $137,000 grant from Jephson Educational Trusts, the new machines were purchased and installed between semesters. They represent significant technology improvements that will enhance science coursework and research for students and faculty.

To formally recognize the new lab capabilities, the College will host its first-ever Innovation Celebration, set for 2-4 p.m., Friday, March 14, which is National Pi Day. In mathematics, Pi (represented by the Greek letter π) begins with the numbers 3.14159 and represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Pi is infinite and has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point; contests to recite a portion of those digits are often part of the worldwide celebration. Keuka College will host its own Pi recitation contest, and guests can also take part in an unveiling ceremony, enjoy science-themed refreshments, and browse student work on display. Guided tours through the instrument lab will also be offered, and President Jorge L. Díaz-Herrera will give a videotaped message of congratulations.

Check out a unique digital timeline of stories and photos, marking moments of achievement in the College’s science history since the former Millspaugh Science Center was renamed the Jephson Science Center.

The HP-LC with its bottles and tubes.

One machine, the High-Pressure Liquid Chromatograph (HPLC), carries liquids from glass bottles through thin plastic tubes, passing through several compartments for analysis. According to Robak, different compartments contain an oven, vacuum pump, solution tray, and detectors, respectively.

On the tabletop directly across from it sits another machine, the Gas Chromatograph-Mass Spectrometer (GC/MS or “GC – Mass Spec”). To put it simply, the GC separates mixtures into individual components, while the “mass spec” identifies separate fragments, so the scientist can determine what the molecules are, Carroll said. In scientific terms, this process is known as ionizing. The GC/MS features a rotating unit that can extract samples from a tray of up to 108 small vials at one time, conducting analysis as programmed by a small touch screen at the side.

A computer connected to the GC/MS, running high-performance software, analyzes in minutes what used to take hours.

Connected to the CG/MS is a new computer running high-performance software that converts the data readings of molecular ions into a bevy of colorful charts and graphs. Based on the peaks and plunges of a fragment’s chart, the computer searches a large digital library to find the closest match – all in a matter of seconds, Evanicki said. Without it, a student would have to calculate results by hand to narrow down what fragments might be present and then cross-check his or her shortlist of possibilities against a book to determine the answer, she said.

On another table against the wall, a smaller machine, the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer (FTIR), contains an oval plate with a small diamond reflective element through which infrared light can pass. Connected to another computer running high-speed software, the FTIR is able to provide information about the identity of liquid or solid compounds, Carroll said.

The fourth machine, a Lambda-35, is a newer model of a UV spectrometer already in the lab. It uses visible and ultraviolet light to determine the absorption spectrum of a solution, which will show how much light it absorbs across a range of wavelengths, from visible to UV rays.

Evanicki '14 examines the tray of the GC/MS, which can hold up to 108 vials of solution or compound for analysis.

The GC/MS is Evanicki’s favorite because various tests on multiple samples can be run in one sitting without switching vials in the tray, she said. In addition, a student can run a series of different tests on just one sample.

“There are just so many different things you can do with it,” Evanicki said.

She should know. Evanicki spent the bulk of January alongside biochemistry major Brian DelPino ’14, setting up the new machines, conducting test runs and writing equipment usage manuals, all as part of their senior Field Periods™. Carroll defers to the duo with pride, dubbing their user guides “equipment manuals for dummies.”

“Step One: Turn the machine on,” he read aloud from a sheaf of typewritten instructions, before continuing tongue-in-cheek. “Step Two: If you have any questions or problems, contact Rebecca or Brian.”

On Wednesday, sophomores in Robak’s organic chemistry class took a sneak peek at the new equipment they were due to try out in their Thursday lab. About a dozen other students in Carroll’s Analytical Chemistry course will also run utilize the instrument lab this spring. Enthusiasm is running high, not just for the chance to use the machines this semester, but for the rest of their undergraduate studies.

“We’re all very excited about the new equipment and excited to learn how to use it – science is fun!” said biology major Heidi VanBuskirk ’16.

For more information on the Innovation Celebration, please contact spevents@keuka.edu or call (315) 279-5238.

“Hot” Science Discovery Lands Chem Prof in Fashion Mag

Turn the pages of Tipsy Magazine’s Summer 2013 edition and you’ll find the latest trends in high-fashion nail and manicure art.

The Summer 2013 cover of Tipsy Magazine (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

Tipsy caters to salon owners, manicure artists and nail divas nationwide who turn to the 9×12 glossy for up-to-the-minute articles and photos on polish products, fingertip designs and the edgy nail jewelry that celebs like Lady Gaga have catapulted to fame. Its touted trends take the traditional acrylic manicure (Only one shade of polish? Puh-lease!) to a color-and-jewel-crazed, punk rock-level.

Which is why it should come as no surprise that Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry, has landed in the pages of a Tipsy article. Robak, who holds a Ph.D. in organic chemistry, has self-described “wacky interests” in chemistry or science as art. His expertise was sought by writer Erin Hart, who started her own design business, Nail Pop LLC, just over a year ago, working on location doing photo shoots, nail parties and fashion shows. Hart endured a nasty chemical burn after she tried to mix fake gold leaf, a decorative metallic, with nail glue to create her own quick-dry polish.

“The gold leaf is so popular right now because it just looks so decadent and when you’re having your nails done, you want to go all out,” said Hart, noting the element comes in either sheets or flake form and can be found at craft or art stores. Hart said she was at home with a friend, experimenting with the fake gold leaf by gluing a big piece to the tip of her finger when “decadent” turned into “drama.”

Tipsy illustration by Jennyfer Maria for the original article. (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

“The burning started immediately and as I was trying to peel away the [gold] leaf, my skin blistered and came off. I didn’t lose too much skin, about the size of an eraser head, but boy did it hurt!” Hart said, adding it reminded her of burning her finger on a marshmallow stick when she was a kid.

“It took about a week for it to heal using your standard first aid burn care.”

Hart’s article, “Burn, Baby, Burn” was illustrated with this image by Jennyfer Maria. (Courtesy: Tipsy Magazine)

According to Hart, staying ahead of the trends in nail art happens most often by experimenting with different materials, so to best inform other nail artists of any potentially dangerous combinations, she packed up the gold leaf and glue and shipped them to Robak for a thorough chemical analysis and explanation. The two are cousins and Hart had no problem asking for a family favor, she said.

“He was the first person I thought to call after I burned myself and I knew he’d be able to figure it out, which he did immediately after receiving the samples I sent,” Hart said. “I was really impressed with how quickly he was able to compose an explanation that I could actually understand.”

It turns out the fake gold leaf flakes are essentially a combination of tin, zinc and shiny copper. The tin and zinc prevent the copper from tarnishing, Robak informed Hart. The nail glue, known as ethyl cyanoacrylate, is a polymer that will cure, or dry rapidly, once exposed to small amounts of moisture in the air or on surfaces. What non-scientists like Hart think of as “glue drying” is really the substance changing from liquid to solid form, Robak said.

Dr. Robak

Ordinarily, a tiny, almost imperceptible amount of heat is released as the glue hardens, but when mixed with the fake gold leaf, the tin and zinc become catalysts, speeding up the process such that there is an excess of heat energy, Hart learned. The gold-glue mixture can’t hold as much heat energy as the liquid glue alone, and not only causes chemical burns but can even produce small tufts of smoke, Robak informed Hart.

So what’s a nail artist to do?

Well, one solution would be to use real gold, Robak suggested, noting the pure element is one of the least reactive substances and won’t require tin to protect it from tarnish. According to the New York Mercantile reported on CNNMoney.com, real gold is currently retailing for about $1,391 an ounce.

If you can’t afford that option but seeing a shiny, metallic gleam at the end of your fingertips is still a must-have, then switching to a simple, clear polish and mixing that with the fake gold leaf will produce the same ritzy look without the Ritz-Carlton price tag. The clear nail polish won’t dry as fast as the glue, but it won’t create an exothermic reaction either, Robak advised.

And that was the advice Hart chose to share with fellow Tipsy readers after she came across a call for submissions for upcoming issues. As it turns out, her unexpected science revelation became her first “big” article for a magazine.

“I’m hoping to do more writing in the future, but I think this first attempt went pretty well,” Hart said, noting she called her cousin for permission to include him in the article. “Most of what you mix with nail glue won’t create an exothermic reaction, but I’ve also experienced heat from nail glue when it comes in contact with cotton fibers. It’s something I’ll need Dr. Robak’s expertise to explain further.”

Hart's hand, all-out bedazzled in current nail art trends. (Courtesy: Nail Pop LLC)

 

Painting with the (Periodic) Elements

Junior Kat Andonucci helped put Keuka on the scientific map last fall after her year-long independent study, a photographic portfolio of various chemical elements and experiments, became an art show in Lightner Gallery, was presented to regional chemists, and landed in a national scientific magazine.

Andonucci paints the symbol for lead.

Now, Andonucci has reteamed with Dr. Andrew Robak, associate professor of chemistry, to conduct a new artistic study of some 11 elements of the Periodic Table, creating the letter code for each scientific element with a paint created from the element itself.

Lead in powder form, which Andonucci used to make the paint for the symbol (Pb).

“The overall image is an abstract kind of 3-D Periodic Table and we want it to serve as a permanent reference source in a classroom or lab—it will be a huge art piece,” said the junior visual and verbal art major from Chestertown (near Lake George).

They symbol for carbon, painted with ... carbon.

Using stand-alone 12×12 canvas squares painted with each element, Andonucci will arrange them to hang so that some of the squares appear to be raised and some depressed, creating a more dynamic artwork.

Carbon in particle form.

While some elements, such as arsenic or mercury, would be dangerous to paint with, others, such as barium sulfate, iron oxide, and cadmium have been created already and painted, she said. For example, titanium has been mixed with linseed oil to create the scientific code letters (Ti) for that element  on the table.

According to Robak, all of the pigments Andonucci used to paint the periodic table symbols contain the elements, but are not made from the pure elements. For example, the cadmium pigment utilized a cadmium compound, while the titanium pigment was made from titanium oxide, which is used to make all modern white paints

Egyptian blue in solid form.

Granted, Andonucci has run into a few challenges, such as the three attempts to create the synthetic pigment Egyptian blue, which will be used to represent copper in the table. Historically, pigments were derived from naturally occurring minerals and/or plants. While Egyptian blue was one of the first synthetic pigments made in history, the age of the product and process made it hard to track down anything resembling a specific recipe over the Internet.

“It was on Wikipedia and it wasn’t exact measurements, just percentages, so it was hard to get it exactly right,” she explained. Directions suggested a mixture of sand, natron and copper oxide be baked in an 800 to 900-degree kiln over three to four days. “The first time we [tried,] the oven got above 900 degrees and fried it and it came out black and actually charred. It was a lot of trial and error. We’re up to our third try, but I may try again because it’s not as blue as I wanted it to be.”

Egyptian blue in powder form.

To support her creative work, Andonucci received a $500 Academic Excellence Initiatives grant from the Office of Academic Affairs. Last year, her Art of Chemistry project was also funded $560 from the same competitive grant process.

In September, the Art of Chemistry exhibit was formally presented to members of the Corning Section of the American Chemical Society (ACS) by Robak, who commissioned Andonucci for the project. In addition to the American Chemical Society, Andonucci and Robak’s work drew the attention of Chemical & Engineering News in Washington, D.C., which published a story on the exhibit in its Oct. 1 issue and website.

 

Three Faculty Promoted, Granted Tenure

Three faculty members were promoted and granted tenure by the Board of Trustees at its recent winter meeting.

Promoted from assistant to associate professor (effective August 2013) and granted tenure (effective August 2014) were Dr. Patricia Mattingly, Jennifer Mealey, and Dr. Andrew Robak.

Patricia Mattingly

Mattingly, a resident of Aurora, also serves as curriculum coordinator in the baccalaureate nursing program. She is a member of the Faculty Liaison Committee, College Advisory Council, and chairs the Sigma Theta Tau, Upsilon Upsilon Governance Committee. She served on the Nursing Faculty Search Committee, Presidential Inauguration Committee, and Diversity Task Force.

She came to Keuka in 2007 after serving as a pediatric nurse practitioner and lactation consultant at Northeast Pediatrics in Ithaca.

Mattingly is a member of the Onondaga Community College and Cayuga Community College School of Nursing advisory boards, and the Cayuga County Department of Health’s Utilization Review Board. She is certified as a pediatric nurse practitioner and is a member of the New York State Association of Nurse Practitioners, National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and Sigma Theta Tau National Nursing Honor Society.

A consultant in homeopathy, Mattingly delivered a presentation last March at Driving the Future 12: Kent State University Annual Nursing Conference. She also presented at the September 2011 Sigma Theta Tau Consortium Research Event, and the October 2010 National League for Nursing Education Summit.

She holds a Doctor of Nursing Practice from Robert Morris University, Master of Science in nursing from the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and Bachelor of Science in nursing from George Mason University.

Jennifer Mealey

Mealey, field director for the social work program, served as an adjunct instructor of social work before joining the full-time faculty in 2007. She is also a therapist for Educational Resource Associates.

Formerly a clinical supervisor at Hillside Children’s Center, Mealey was a clinical supervisor and diagnostic clinical social worker at KidsPeace, Seneca Woods Campus, and a shelter/hotline domestic violence counselor at Alternatives for Battered Women.

In addition to her teaching duties, Mealey is a member of the Curriculum Committee, Spiritual Life Advisory Board, serves as a faculty coach, leads the College’s Veterans Initiative, and advises the Association of Future Social Workers club. A member of the Middle States Working Group from 2010-12, she was a member and team leader of the Native American Traditions Ad-Hoc Committee.

She earned a Master of Social Work from the Greater Rochester Collaborative MSW Program and a Bachelor of Science in social work from Keuka College.

Mealey resides in Farmington with her husband, Geoff, and daughter, Saige.

Andy Robak

Robak, who resides in Penn Yan, joined the Keuka faculty in 2007.  He teaches Organic Chemistry and lab sections, is the General Chemistry lab instructor, teaches the eight-week experiential learning course, and Science in Popular Culture.

Chair of the Faculty Development Committee in 2009-10, he serves as Chemistry Club adviser, pre-health adviser, and research adviser in the Division of Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Physical Education.

In September 2011, Robak presented on The Art of Chemistry—an independent study by Kat Andonucci ’14 that he directed—at the Corning Section of the American Chemical Society meeting. Showcasing spectacular photographs of chemistry experiments, the project garnered coverage in Chemical and Engineering News, a national publication, and was featured in a Lightner Gallery exhibit.

Robak also developed green chemistry experiments for home-schooled high school students.

He holds a Ph.D. and Master of Science in chemistry from the University of Oregon, and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry/environmental chemistry from RIT.