The Art of Chemistry

Graduate student analyzes the chemical properties of a Russian icon fragment.Senior Alexis Gonzales and 2013 graduate Jimmy Karnezis spent their summer working at the intersection of chemistry and art. Their summer research project, under the tutelage of Professor Michelle Shulman, was to analyze the chemical properties of a Russian icon fragment and develop a research protocol that could help future SMC students and, perhaps, students at other universities, as well. The three hope to publish a paper in the Journal of Chemical Education.

Shulman teaches a chemical instrumentation class in which her students analyze the icon for components that would reveal where it was made and roughly how old it is. “I give them this painting to examine, but I don’t tell them how to do it,” Shulman said. “They have to study the literature and settle on a method and design for their experiment before they can begin.” They often run out of time.

The biggest challenge Gonzales and Karnezis faced was the depth of existing knowledge they had to plumb. “It took a lot to condense what was out there and put it into something that is cost-effective and approachable for a lab setting,” said Karnezis, who was off to the University of Athens at the end of summer as a Fulbright Scholar, studying imaging techniques for cancer. “And since it was an art conservation project there is a historical aspect that goes along with the scientific procedure, so blending those two ways of thinking was difficult,” said Gonzales, who plans to go to medical school.

Both students felt challenged and rewarded by the independence they were given during the summer, and, with keys to the laboratory, felt completely trusted. “It’s nice that the professors trust us with these instruments,” Karnezis said. “We’re really fortunate.”

Read more about the Chemistry of an Icon.