Is that Paint or is it Poop?

the-scream Yes, we seriously just asked that question — and, yes, we asked for a good reason.

Have you ever seen Edvard Munch’s famous painting, The Scream? If not, this is a good time of year (being close to Halloween) to check it out. This painting is a haunting depiction of a ghost-faced person standing on a walkway, screaming. It is one of the most recognizable paintings in the world and — having been appraised at nearly $100M — also one of the most expensive.

This masterpiece happens to be at the center of a hot debate within the art community. If you examine the painting closely, you can detect a small white spot on the screamer’s right arm. Believe it or not, this tiny spot has been the topic of much controversy throughout the years. Some have speculated that the spot is in fact bird poop. Many others think that Munch accidentally spilled a bit of white paint on the finished canvas.

chocolate-or-poopFortunately for us, a cultural heritage scientist at the University of Antwerp, Geert Van der Snickt, was unsatisfied going on through life without a definitive answer to the question: paint or poop? With the help of a team of forensic scientists, Van der Snickt began the process of identifying the imperfection. The team started by testing the sample for trace elements commonly found in white pigment. To accomplish this, they used X-ray fluorescence to identify any elements that could positively confirm that the spot was actual paint — but the results were negative.

Next, the team collected a small sample to determine whether or not the spot was instead a bird dropping. Despite previous analysis that concluded that the mysterious blob was not fecal matter, the team sent their sample to a lab in Hamburg, Germany. This lab used the DESY particle accelerator to conduct an X-ray scattering study on the stain. Much to the surprise of the team, a young PhD student, Frederik Vanmeert, identified the crystal structure of the sample. It turns out that sometime after the painting was completed, someone, possibly the artist or just an admirer, spilled candle wax on the painting. Thanks to forensic chemistry, the mystery was solved!

Hey, that’s a fake!

Forensic scientists have been invaluable detectives in the art world for centuries, helping collectors authenticate pieces of art. Sniffing out forgeries is incredibly important, as many of our society’s most famous and priceless cultural artifacts are pieces of art.

One of the ways that scientists identify forgeries is through the study of pigment, and one example of how this discipline has helped to identify art forgeries can be found right here in the United States. The Indianapolis Museum of Art was loaned an Egyptian artifact for one of its exhibits. This artifact’s authenticity was questioned by many observers due to several inconsistencies when compared to similar artifacts from the same time period. Most notably, the hieroglyphs used on the piece were incorrect. To put the controversy to rest, the museum assembled a team of scientists to authenticate the age of the artifact.

This team started by examining the blue pigment found on the headpiece. Egyptians used azurite to create a color known as Egyptian blue, a color that has been found on various Egyptian artifacts dating back to 3000 BC. In the 1800s, French industrial chemist Jean-Baptiste Guimet discovered a way to synthesize a blue pigment that was similar to Egyptian blue, and his synthesized pigment became known as French ultramarine. The investigators’ chemical and microscopic analysis of the sample taken from the headpiece revealed that the pigment used was actually French ultramarine — and not Egyptian blue. Because the scientists knew that French ultramarine was created in the 1800s, they were able to conclude that the artifact was a fake.

Identifying art forgeries is not only incredibly important for collectors, but it helps all of us preserve our shared cultural heritage. The scientists involved in these investigations are heroes for humanity.

Archaeological Forensics and Forensic Chemistry

What do an Egyptian “god,” an early hominid, and a British king have in common? It’s not just that two-thirds of the list is royalty; it’s that the mysteries surrounding their deaths have been solved using forensics!

(Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)What do an Egyptian “god,” an early hominid, and a British king have in common? It’s not just that two-thirds of the list is royalty; it’s that the mysteries surrounding their deaths have been solved using forensics! We’ve all heard of Lucy, the ~3M year-old skeletal remains of an Australopithecus found in 1974 in northern Ethiopia. This discovery was one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, as it helped us map our own development as a species. You might be asking yourself how this relates to chemistry — a valid question! Dating fossilized samples is typically done using a technique called carbon dating, which measures the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample. Although this method is only used for dating samples up to about 50,000 years old, other methods of radiometric dating, such as uranium-lead and potassium-argon, are much more accurate and have been used to help us date the age of the earth. While Lucy’s remains weren’t dated using these methods, the process researchers used to date her help to expand our knowledge of how chemistry has advanced archaeologists’ tools for uncovering the truths of the past. Various other methods of forensic science have been used to identify remains as well. Such is the case of England’s King Richard III, a British monarch who reigned from 1483 until his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The king’s death was significant because he was the last king of the House of York, and ushered in the reign of the House of Tudor. In September 2012, archaeologists from the University of Leicester, in England, uncovered a skeleton buried under a parking lot that they believed to be that of Richard III. While the physical damage to the skeleton helped matched the accounts of what happened to the monarch, the university sought further proof that these were indeed his remains. A year later, scientists who had previously traced maternal lineage and identified a 16th generation descendant of Anne of York, the king’s sister, used DNA mapping to prove that both the living descendant and the skeleton were among haplogroup J. Researchers were able to identify shared maternal mitochondrial DNA in both samples to identify the shared haplogroup. With this evidence, researchers concluded that the two were related — and finally laid to rest the search for King Richard III. Related Outreach Ideas A fun activity for outreach to students in your community can be found on page 11 of the 2016 ACS National Chemistry Week Booklet. This activity, described by Dr. Al Hazari, uses licorice, toothpicks, and marshmallows to create a double helix — and is a great, tasty way to introduce students to DNA. One of the most iconic figures in history is King Tutankhamun, or King Tut. This individual, believed by his subjects to be god-like, ruled over Egypt for nine years from 1332 to 1323 BC. Like all pharaohs, King Tut was mummified upon his death. Mummification is a topic for another blog post — but today, let’s zero in on how DNA helped to solve the mystery of Tut’s death. It has long been thought that the famous king was killed in a chariot accident. Examinations of Tut’s mummified remains revealed that there was significant damage to one of his legs. Additional analysis, however, has identified another potential killer: malaria. While studying Tut’s skeleton, scientists were able to identify multiple strains of DNA consistent with the parasite that carries and spreads malaria. The discovery of these strains indicates that the king contracted several malaria infections in his lifetime. Complications from these infections, paired with an injury to his femur, most likely lead to his death in 1323 BC. As you can see, forensic chemistry plays an important role in archaeological discoveries. Whether we’re using radioactive dating methods to identify the age of a sample, or using DNA mapping to establish the approximate years in which ancient rulers died, chemistry is essential to telling our story and uncovering the mysteries of the past. References NCW Homepage http://www.acs.org/ncw Celebrating Chemistry Publication- English https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/outreach/celebrating-chemistry-editions.html National Geographic Magazine http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/02/100216-king-tut-malaria-bones-inbred-tutankhamun/ Smithsonian Museums http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/human-fossils/species/australopithecus-afarensis University of Leicester http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/archaeology/research/projects/discovering-richard-iii Ashdown-Hill, John; David Johnson; Wendy Johnson; Pippa Langley (2014). Carson, Annette, ed. Finding Richard III: The Official Account of Research by the Retrieval & Reburial Project. Horstead: Imprimis Imprimatur. ISBN 978-0-9576840-2-7.

(Photo by Dave Einsel/Getty Images)

We’ve all heard of Lucy, the ~3M year-old skeletal remains of an Australopithecus found in 1974 in northern Ethiopia. This discovery was one of the most important archaeological finds of the 20th century, as it helped us map our own development as a species.

You might be asking yourself how this relates to chemistry — a valid question! Dating fossilized samples is typically done using a technique called carbon dating, which measures the amount of carbon-14 remaining in a sample. Although this method is only used for dating samples up to about 50,000 years old, other methods of radiometric dating, such as uranium-lead and potassium-argon, are much more accurate and have been used to help us date the age of the earth. While Lucy’s remains weren’t dated using these methods, the process researchers used to date her help to expand our knowledge of how chemistry has advanced archaeologists’ tools for uncovering the truths of the past.

king_richard_iii

(Photo Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Various other methods of forensic science have been used to identify remains as well. Such is the case of England’s King Richard III, a British monarch who reigned from 1483 until his death in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. The king’s death was significant because he was the last king of the House of York, and ushered in the reign of the House of Tudor.

In September 2012, archaeologists from the University of Leicester, in England, uncovered a skeleton buried under a parking lot that they believed to be that of Richard III. While the physical damage to the skeleton helped matched the accounts of what happened to the monarch, the university sought further proof that these were indeed his remains.

A year later, scientists who had previously traced maternal lineage and identified a 16th generation descendant of Anne of York, the king’s sister, used DNA mapping to prove that both the living descendant and the skeleton were among haplogroup J. Researchers were able to identify shared maternal mitochondrial DNA in both samples to identify the shared haplogroup. With this evidence, researchers concluded that the two were related — and finally laid to rest the search for King Richard III.

Related Outreach Activity

A fun activity for outreach to students in your community can be found on page 11 of the 2016 ACS National Chemistry Week Booklet. This activity, described by Dr. Al Hazari, uses licorice, toothpicks, and marshmallows to create a double helix — and is a great, tasty way to introduce students to DNA.

 

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King Tut’s Burial Mask

One of the most iconic figures in history is King Tutankhamun, or King Tut. This individual, believed by his subjects to be god-like, ruled over Egypt for nine years from 1332 to 1323 BC. Like all pharaohs, King Tut was mummified upon his death. Mummification is a topic for another blog post — but today, let’s zero in on how DNA helped to solve the mystery of Tut’s death.

It has long been thought that the famous king was killed in a chariot accident. Examinations of Tut’s mummified remains revealed that there was significant damage to one of his legs. Additional analysis, however, has identified another potential killer: malaria. While studying Tut’s skeleton, scientists were able to identify multiple strains of DNA consistent with the parasite that carries and spreads malaria. The discovery of these strains indicates that the king contracted several malaria infections in his lifetime. Complications from these infections, paired with an injury to his femur, most likely lead to his death in 1323 BC.

As you can see, forensic chemistry plays an important role in archaeological discoveries. Whether we’re using radioactive dating methods to identify the age of a sample, or using DNA mapping to establish the approximate years in which ancient rulers died, chemistry is essential to telling our story and uncovering the mysteries of the past.

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Forensic Science and Pop Culture

You know the sound. It’s that familiar ‘dun-dun’ sound that comes after a dramatic discovery, signifying a scene change in NBC’s famous crime drama, ‘Law & Order.’ Television shows like it, such as ‘CSI,’ ‘Bones,’ and ‘Dexter’ have all romanticized the work that forensic chemists do — and have helped elevate the field of forensic chemistry among younger chemists. This kind of promotion is great for the field of forensic science, but it begs the question: is the science being used on TV accurate?

The above is not forensic technology... yet. (Photo Credit: CBS CSI Cyber)

The above is not forensic technology… yet. (Photo Credit: CBS CSI Cyber)

So, let’s get down to it. Is the science real? Well, we did a lot of research, and it seems that the majority of the science used on crime drama television shows is an “extension” of the truth. Meaning, that at least some portion of the science is accurate … but for dramatic effect, the producers and writers stretch the truth. They do so in various ways.

One of the most common ways for a show to bend the truth is to complete, seemingly in just a few hours, a test that might take days or weeks to complete in real life. Another way is for a show to omit a step or two in a procedure, typically in the name of expediency. For example, one of the articles we read identified an inconsistency between real science and the way it’s depicted on TV. In one episode of NCIS, the crime scene investigator is sent to examine a skating rink where someone was killed. The investigators note that the rink has ultraviolet lights which, once they’re turned on, reveal a blood stain. What the show missed is that blood is not bioluminescent on its own, and that a chemical must first be applied to the surface to reveal blood stains under UV light. While these might prove that the science being used on the shows is absurd, it brings us a little hope that there are fact checkers out there making sure that at least some of the principles being used have some basis in reality.

In our search, we found an excellent documentary from our friends at National Geographic entitled ‘The Real CSI: Crime Autopsy.’ This documentary takes a close look at what being a crime scene investigator (CSI) means. We suggest you take a look!

Forensic science isn’t found only on TV. If you’ve ever downloaded the podcast ‘Serial,’ you’re familiar with the story of Adnan Syed and Hae Min Lee. Hae Min Lee was a teenager living in the Baltimore area who was murdered, and found a month after her disappearance. Throughout the series, the podcast’s author identifies the lack of forensic evidence in the case. As a result of her investigation, Syed, who was found guilty of murdering Hae and sentenced to life in prison, was granted a second trial. To listen and learn more, you can visit the Serial podcast’s website.

Whether the science being portrayed in popular culture is factual or not, it’s great to see the field of forensic science being so widely promoted on national TV and on radio. We have forensic scientists to thank for solving many crime scene mysteries.

If you’re looking for a chapter activity that could tie in with this year’s NCW theme, you might try what we’re calling the “Serial Cereal Party.”  Once a week, your chapter members meet for breakfast (or lunch or dinner, for that matter) and discuss what they

learned last week listening to the Serial podcast. It’s a fun way to bond as a group and to talk about the science behind one of the most captivating stories we’ve ever heard.

Using Chemistry to Solve Mysteries: A Look into the Field of Forensic Chemistry

We hear all the time about the work forensic chemists do. For example, it might be reported on the news that a medical examiner’s office ruled that a victim’s cause of death was foul play, or that investigators with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have identified new synthetic drugs. Whether it occurs to a viewer or not, in each of these cases, a team of forensic scientists collected samples, ran a series of tests, and analyzed the results to make their determinations.

Before I go further, let me take a step back and answer the question: what exactly is forensic chemistry? Simply put, forensic chemistry is a sub-discipline of the forensic sciences that uses methods of chemical analysis to examine physical evidence to help solve crimes or mysteries. A forensic chemist will use their skillsets to identify substances found within, on, or near bodies during investigations of crime scenes.

Elle Woods: definitely NOT a forensic chemist, but, somehow, still correct!

Elle Woods: definitely NOT a forensic chemist, but, somehow, still correct!

As you can imagine, this field of science has an incredibly important place in our society. These chemists play a vital role in our criminal justice system, but their potential is not limited to crime scenes or crime labs, despite what the creators of ‘CSI’ might want you to believe. Our world is full of mysteries, and forensic chemists can help us solve many of them. For example, a forensic chemist might analyze fossil remains to help determine where a species originated, or they might study the chemical composition of paint to determine the authenticity of a piece of art.

If you’re asking yourself how you can become a “modern day Sherlock,” we’re here to help! Whether you’re working in a crime lab analyzing gunshot residue or you are taking samples of paint from the Mona Lisa, you’re applying many of the same concepts you learned in your undergraduate studies. Forensic scientists working in the field typically have a background in chemistry and biology, with an emphasis on instrumental analysis. Many receive on-the-job training to help them specialize within their offices. Most forensic chemists spend their careers working in federal, state, or county labs. Some have a close association with the medical examiner’s office. Some move on to become lab directors or lead investigators.

Finding a job as a forensic chemist might be more difficult these days, because the portrayal of the forensic sciences in the media has increased interest in the field. With that being said, the demand for forensic chemists is on the rise. If this is a career that interests you, I would recommend using ACS’ Get Experience database to find opportunities in forensic chemistry that might be a good fit for you.

ctc-logo-SMNTo learn more about forensic chemistry and what it means to be a forensic chemist, visit the ACS College-to-Career website. We’ve gathered additional career data, salary and hiring prospects, and posted profiles of professional forensic chemists.

 

National Chemistry Week: Solving Mysteries through Chemistry

1471292544430Happy National Chemistry Week!

Every year, chemists around the United States (and in certain other countries as well) celebrate National Chemistry Week (NCW) and the field of chemistry. Whether we’re diving into the “sweet side of chemistry” or taking a closer look at how chemistry colors our world, participating in NCW celebrations help us to understand how chemistry shapes the world we live in.

By promoting and building awareness at the local level, NCW encourages chemists of all ages to get involved. Through ACS local sections, ACS student chapters, universities, and businesses, ACS hopes to expand the awareness of the many facets of chemistry, and invites individuals to host events for their own communities.

Starting on October 16, the ACS Undergraduate Programs office will celebrate the theme, ‘Solving Mysteries through Chemistry,’ with a week-long look into ways chemistry has helped us ‘crack the case.’ We’ll post a new topic each day and share activities for you to complete with your chapters and communities.

Our NCW posts will include such titles as:

  • What is Forensic Chemistry?
  • Forensic Chemistry in Pop Culture
  • Historical and Archaeological Forensics
  • Art Forgeries
  • Chemistry of Modern Mass Extinctions
  • Epidemiology: Chasing Diseases

Keep an eye on the #ReactionsBlog all week and let us know how you plan to join in the celebration!

Remember to share your photos and stories with us on Instagram and Twitter.

Bonding in the City of Brotherly Love- Thanks, Philly!

Hey Undergrads!

My name is Alex Goranov, and I am the Student Liaison to the Undergraduate Programs Advisory Board—the committee responsible for the incredible undergraduate events at the 252nd American Chemical Society National Meeting and Exposition in Philly. I loved the conference and would like to briefly recap my experiences.

Independence Hall National Historic Park Philadelphia

Independence Hall National Historic Park Philadelphia

I began my day at the Undergraduate Hospitality Center. While fueling myself with coffee, I met with the student volunteers for the Undergraduate Program, whose tremendous contributions were much appreciated.

A number of sessions on the first day of the undergraduate program were designed to help students interested in attending graduate school. My favorite speaker, Dr. Sam Pazicni, gave an amazing talk during the Graduate School Reality Check sessions. I was inspired by the stories of the panelists our program chair, Dr. Michelle Boucher, had invited.

In the afternoon, I attended the Networking Social with Graduate School Recruiters event, which is a not-to-miss event if you are looking to apply for a graduate program. Don’t worry if you missed it, as it will be included again at the next ACS National Meeting!

The second day of the program was even more exciting! The two workshops in the morning were a lot of fun. I really enjoyed the discussion and liked that the audience participated actively with the panelists. Hearing stories from all the different students and professionals was definitely view-broadening.

Instead of having lunch off-site, I went to the Eminent Scientist Lecture and Luncheon. The lecture was given by Dr. Tobin Marks, who was recently honored with ACS`s highest award—the Priestley Medal. His talk on “How to Make Plastic Transistors and Solar Cells” was quite impressive! He explained his research in depth and showed us how fast materials science advances. I am eager to see what the world will look like in 10 years if we employ his plastics!

After lunch, I was able to view everyone’s undergraduate research work at the undergraduate research poster session. Everyone has done such a great job with their research over the past year, and I am looking forward to hearing more talks about published papers during the upcoming ACS National Meetings.

Our program ended with the Student Speed Networking with Chemistry Professionals event. I have participated in this event before, and it is probably my favorite one! My friends said it was a great experience learning how to professionally introduce themselves, and they received useful advice from professionals in the academic, government, and industry sectors.

I am already looking forward to the next ACS National Meeting, which will be in San Francisco from April 2 to 6, 2017. If you missed any of these amazing events, or have a piece of research you would like to present in sunny California, be sure to apply for the travel grants given by the ACS Undergraduate Programs Office. I hope to see you all there next year!

Best wishes,

Alex Goranov
Student Liaison, ACS Undergraduate Programs Advisory Board

 

 

 

 

 

 

A How to Guide for Speed Networking at the Philly National Meeting!

While at the 252nd ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia, you’ll have a chance to participate in the “Student Speed Networking with Chemistry Professionals” event, which will give you the rare opportunity to meet tons of chemists and peers in a short amount of time. Join us on Monday, August 22 from 4-5:30 PM in the Pennsylvania Convention Center Hall G to take advantage of this great opportunity!

To help prepare you, we’ve put together some tips that will help you navigate the event and maximize the time spent in each short networking round.

HOW IT WORKS

  • Choose a seat at any table where a chemistry professional is sitting.
  • Look for color coded tent cards at each table to help you to identify chemists.

Industrial: Green  ٠ Government: Blue  ٠ Academia: Yellow  ∙ Nonprofit: White

  • Each networking round will last approximately 6 minutes.
  • When prompted, students will switch tables and talk to a different chemistry professional.
  • Feel free to take a break between sessions. Free snacks, drinks, and career resources are provided.
  • A 30 minute free networking session will take place at the conclusion of the speed networking rounds so you can continue discussions or talk to people you hadn’t had the chance to meet yet.

NETWORKING TIPS FOR UNDERGRADUATES

  • Prepare your “elevator speech” – You’ll need to give a 30-second introduction of yourself.
    -Your name
    -Your school and level of education
    -What you are studying
    Your educational and career goals (long and short term)
  • Know what you want to get from the conversations and be ready to tell the professionals what that is.
  • Be an active listener. Be curious and ask open-ended questions. For example:
  1. How they obtained their first job in chemistry
  2. How they became interested in their fields
  3. If they went to graduate school
  4. What they like best about their job
  5. If they have any advice to share
  • Talk to as many professionals as time allows – each will have different personal experiences and perspectives.
  • Exchange business cards (if you have them). Ask for a business card when closing the conversation.
  • Follow up! When you get home, send a “thank you” e-mail or a question if you have one. If you have a LinkedIn account, connect with the professionals on LinkedIn. Stay in touch. This will help you to build your professional network.
  • Take note of helpful advice and tips you receive. Share this information with others you know when you return to school and home. Network and seek more information from others you meet.

We look forward to seeing you there!