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Discovering Periodic Table Elements Throughout Penn Yan

Keuka College Associate Professor of Chemistry Andrew Robak has used fine art and photography to educate others about the intricacies of science, and his latest student collaboration showcases another new perspective.

In 2012, Robak collaborated with Kat Andonucci ’13 to produce “The Art of Chemistry,” a unique exhibit featuring chemical experiments often photographed by Andonucci at slow speeds or in low light to highlight the array of colors, shapes and textures within a variety of chemical solutions, reactions and even optical illusions. This time, Robak’s collaboration with biology major Phil Longyear ’14, a Rushville resident, explores the variety of natural elements from the Periodic Table found in and around the Penn Yan area.

Dr. Robak, left and Phil Longyear '14, right, on Main Street, Penn Yan.

Together, the duo visited manufacturing plants like Abtex and Ferro, artisan studios and even retail shops such as Pinckney’s Ace Hardware to document in photographs the elements in their natural or manufactured forms. The resulting images —with each name, two-letter scientific abbreviation, and a brief description of its characteristics and uses —are now on display in many storefront windows along Main Street, Penn Yan, effectively turning Main Street itself into an art gallery for “Elements of the Finger Lakes.”

Nearly 60 elements of the Periodic Table’s full 118 elements were found; the full collection of images can also be viewed at the Lightner Gallery at Lightner Library on the campus of Keuka College. An opening reception will be held from 4 – 5:30 p.m. at Milly’s Pantry, 19 Main Street on Wednesday, June 10. Milly’s is one of many local shops featuring works from the “Elements of the Finger Lakes.” The exhibit will continue through July on Main Street and through August on campus.

A welder at Coach and Equipment works with special tools, producing plasma from the reaction of (O) oxygen with the fuel in the tool (most likely acetylene gas).

“The project really helps people understand what chemical elements are, where they come from, how we use them and where they are [found],” Longyear said. “I like the fact that it will bring science to the masses in a way that they can understand.”

According to Longyear, the “field trips” he and Robak took last fall to companies like Ferro or Coach and Equipment proved how common many of the elements truly are. Ferro, the former Transition Element Company (TransElCo), manufactures an array of pigments, powders used to make computing materials, polishing applications for lenses, polymers, plastics and more. Coach and Equipment produces small to mid-size transit buses using elements including lead (Pb), Fluorine (F), lithium (Li) and argon (Ar) in its engineering process.

At Ferro, workers take basic elements like carbon (C), titanium, (Ti) and tungsten (W), and refine them for an industrial use. So the up-close-and-personal views offered at Ferro for the exhibit educate participants beyond just a logo or company tagline, Longyear said.

“This is more than the sign on the front and [the product] that comes out the door. This is what’s in-between and that was really interesting,” he described.

According to Robak, a project such as this serves to merge science with the community. Not only will participants learn a little more about chemistry, but they’ll learn more about the community where they live and work too.

“The Periodic Table can be hard to relate to … but in its simplest sense, it’s a list of the essence of every material that we can touch, see or interact with in our daily lives,” Robak said, adding that many people may not realize just how many elements could be in their own homes, too.

A classic Periodic Table wall chart, found at Ferro.

“This project would not have happened without those willing to let us ask questions, give tours or shoot photography inside their businesses,” Robak said, noting that many company staffers actively tried to find elements in use or suggest others for Robak and Longyear to document. Community participation for the exhibit has also been high, Robak added, thanking the numerous business owners along Main Street who agreed to display the poster-size images in storefront windows or indoor displays. A trifold brochure will also be available at many participating businesses so pedestrians can learn about the project as they stroll Main Street.

Dr. Robak examines a brick near the kiln at Peter Knickerbocker's Spider's Nest Pottery Studio.

Artisans such as Pete Knickerbocker of Spider’s Nest Pottery or Keuka College Professor Emeritus Dexter Benedict of Fireworks Foundry were also part of the exploration. Benedict sculpts works of bronze, using oxygen (O), aluminum (Al) and lots of copper (Cu) in the process. Meanwhile, Knickerbocker makes use of elements including cobalt (Co), iron (Fe), chromium (Cr), and also copper (Cu) in his pottery.

“I had no idea that a potter could tailor and design not only his or her own glazes, but the clay itself, and (Pete) was able to manipulate those elements in order to set himself apart in his field,” Longyear described.

While Longyear served as primary photographer, a few elements, such as hydrogen, posed a challenge to shoot because they can only be seen when reacting with another element, he said. In those cases, it was a challenge to “tell the story,” he said.

But Mother Nature also offered a few elements as well, which the duo incorporated into the project, including images of bones for calcium, the night sky (space) for hydrogen, and a sunset at Montezuma Wildlife Refuge to represent helium, Longyear explained.

“Every day we use elements from the earth. You can look at the Periodic Table and see a number and a name, but if you really dig into it, it’s really cool,” Longyear said.

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 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, 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.