Alumnus conducts unique chemistry experiment

Andrew Robak takes a closer look at a popular nail art trend

Andrew Robak

When Andrew Robak ’02 (chemistry) started receiving chemistry-related text messages from an unknown number, he wasn’t quite sure what to think. After a few exchanges he realized it was his cousin, Erin Hart, who needed his expertise with a nail art project gone wrong.

Hart had found herself with a chemical burn on her finger as a result of trying out a new nail art trend that involved using nail glue to apply fake gold leaf to her fingernails. As soon as the gold leaf came in contact with the glue, enough heat was produced to leave Hart with the burn on her finger.

Since Robak, who works as an associate chemistry professor at Keuka College, has become the go-to within his family when it comes to any science-related question, Hart shipped him the nail glue and gold leaf she had used to see if he could figure out what went wrong.

“I had no idea if I was going to be able to figure it out,” says Robak. “I didn’t know a lot about nail stuff but the chemistry behind it turned out to be similar to something else I had already done.”

Robak concluded that the tin found in the gold leaf acted as a catalyst when it came in contact with the nail glue. Typically, nail glue reacts and dries when it comes in contact with water vapor in the air. This drying process is the nail glue changing from liquid form to solid form. When almost equal amounts of gold leaf and nail glue come in contact, the drying process is sped up greatly, causing excess heat and often smoke as a result.

The experiment was featured in the summer 2013 issue of Tipsy, a nail fashion magazine.

“It’s pretty cool to be featured in the magazine,” says Robak. “It makes me want to do more to bring attention to science and chemistry in non-science fields.”

After graduating from RIT, Robak went on to get his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Oregon before beginning his career as a professor at Keuka in 2007. He has done work with creating lab experiments for home-schooled high school students and a photography project that documented different lab experiments. Currently, Robak is working with his students to paint the periodic table on big sheets of plywood using the elements themselves as paint.

Robak notes that his experiences at RIT have helped him throughout his career.

“There is always something I have taken away from every class I took at RIT,” says Robak. “It took me a long time to see the value in some of the non-chemistry classes I had to take but now I see how much influence they have on the classes I teach.”


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