Another successful Halloween Spooktacular!

Last night, SMAACS hosted its annual Halloween Science Spooktacular in the Science Hall. We had 145 kids from the community join us to do hands-on chemistry experiments and view some fun demos. We love seeing the excitement and curiosity in these young kids and hope to encourage their interest in all things science!

Huge thanks to the faculty and staff who brought their kids and grandkids and the amazing SMAACS members who volunteered their time to make this event great, especially SMAACS President, Kyra Dvorak who took charge! 

Our Scary Future: Antibiotic Resistance

There have been a lot of recent news articles (like this one from PBS, or this one from NBC News, and ABC News, and Forbes, and CNN, and…you get my point, it’s big news) about a woman in Nevada who died last Spring from a “superbug” – a bacterial infection that cannot easily (or at all) be cured with antibiotics. In her case, none of the 26 approved antibiotics in the US could cure her infection.

These infections survive antibiotics because the bacteria have become resistant to the antibiotics. Unfortunately, this is not a new phenomenon. Bacteria have been showing resistance to antibiotics since the first antibiotic – penicillin – was introduced. There have been outbreaks since then: MRSA infections in hospitals and communities and Salmonella from ground turkey, to name only a few. The scariest thus far have definitely been the outbreaks of CRE: carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae. Enterobacteriaceae are a family of bacteria, including Escherichia coli (E. coli), Salmonella, and the current “big bad” Klebsiella.

The bacteria have been able to resist antibiotics because they evolved to produce enzymes called beta-lactamases that chew up the antibiotics into an inactive form.

Inactivating the antibiotic renders it useless and the bacteria continues to do damage. The problem now is that we are running out of antibiotics that do work and we’re seeing more and more bacteria develop resistant to those few.

The return on investment for antibiotics is low, so not many pharmaceutical companies are putting money into developing new antibiotics. The widespread use of antibacterial products, antibiotic use in farm animals, and unnecessary over-prescribing of antibiotics all contribute to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and it doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.





SMAACS Halloween Spooktacular!

On October 26th, Saint Mary’s Affiliate of the American Chemical Society (SMAACS), hosted a Halloween Spooktacular for kids of faculty and staff, and the community. This is a free event that is held almost every year and is always a great success. This year was no different!

We had five hands-on stations for kids where they played with “ghoulish goo”, made “milk fireworks”, wrote a secret message in invisible ink, took their fingerprints, made dry ice bubble, and learned about carbon dioxide production by mixing household items like vinegar and baking soda. All of these stations were run by students who had as good of a time as the kids did!

SMAACS students also did demonstrations for all of the kids every twenty minutes.

What a great event with so much hard work done by these awesome students! After the kids left, they wanted to run some more experiments and put the goo they made into dry ice: it wasn’t as exciting as they had hoped it would be, but we had fun anyway!

IMG_1343Thanks so much for all of your hard work!


Crime Scene: The Verdict is In!

After collecting and analyzing the evidence from the crime scene, our detectives presented their evidence to a jury who in the end deliberated and settled on a guilty verdict. Who was convicted? Read through the detectives’ arguments and see if you agree with the jury!

Crime Scene Sketch

Before they began collecting evidence from the crime scene, each group made a rough sketch of the area. This is one of the first steps taken at a crime scene and must include every piece of evidence. As the case progresses, a final sketch is made and often presented in court. To be admissible, the finalized sketch may not contain any evidence that was not in the initial rough sketch done at the scene. Below you can see rough and finalized sketches from the group that analyzed blood and DNA:

Salgado-rough sketch

Rough Sketch


Finalized sketch

Chemical Analysis

powderThe Chemical Analysis group (Sally, Adrienne, Katy G, and Natalie) had the task of analyzing the white powder that was left on the benchtop at the crime scene. To figure out the components of this white powder, they used paper analytical devices, or PADs. While these PADs are designed to be used to identify counterfeit medicines, they can also be used to run pretty much any chemical test.

They were given a list of possible substances: ampicillin (an antibiotic), potassium clavulanate (an antibiotic mimic), salicylic acid (starting material in the production of aspirin), starch, chalk, sodium phosphate, sucrose, and glucose.

Using a variety of tests, they were able to eliminate starch, salicylic acid, and sodium phosphate right off the bat due to some negative results.

Negative tests

They started to narrow things down with the Folin-Ciocalteu test, which indicates the presence of phenols or reducing groups. The positive result they saw meant the powder contained ampicillin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), vitamin C, or chalk (calcium carbonate).

They also got a positive test with the biuret reagent – this chemical changes color in the presence of an amide bond. This is the chemical bond that makes up the backbone of all proteins and is also present in beta-lactam antibiotics such as penicillin and ampicillin.

From this information, they concluded that the mixture contained ampicillin and chalk and decided their lead suspect was me (!!) because I work with ampicillin as a biochemist and, of course, I have pretty good access to chalk.

Blood Typing

The group in charge of DNA and blood analysis collected two blood samples at the scene: one on a drawer handle and the second on the floor near the Pepsi can.

crime scene - blood evidence

Blood evidence at the crime scene

Their task was to collect both of these samples, determine if they were from the same source, and if possible, use this information to name a suspect.

More than 35 human blood groups have been identified, but the A-B-O and Rh systems are the most well-known. Blood is made up of red blood cells, white blood cells, and platelets which all float around in plasma – the fluid portion of blood. On the surface of the red blood cells are antigens, which look different for each blood type.

blood types-ABO

There are different antigens present on the red blood cells of each blood group. The four most well known groups are A, B, AB, and O. Image: InvictaHOG/Wikicommons

A fourth antigen, known as the D antigen or the Rh factor, may also be present on the red blood cells. This antigen is what gives your blood type the negative or positive connotation.

blood types - Rh

Rh positive blood contains a fourth antigen, shown here in yellow. Image: InvictaHOG/Wikicommons

Each of these antigens is recognized by specific antibodies and the body uses this specificity to fight against foreign antigens. This is the theory behind immunity and organ rejection. For example, if your blood type is A+, your body produces antibodies that will only bind to B antigens, not A antigens. This is because when an antibody binds to a red blood cell by attaching to the antigen, coagulation – or a clumping together of blood cells – occurs, which is not desirable in your arteries and vessels!

This group used a kit containing A, B, and Rh antibodies to determine the blood types of the crime scene samples. The mixed the blood samples from the crime scene and the samples they collected from possible suspects with a little bit of the antibody and looked for coagulation.

blood test - drawer-Haas

The sample of blood on the drawer matched Dr. Haas’s blood sample. The blood coagulated in the presence of A and Rh antibodies, indicating an A+ blood type. Other possible suspects with this blood type are Barstis, Bentley, Dunlap, and Fishovitz.

blood test - floor-Miller-Feigl

The blood sample on the floor tested as O-, indicating this blood did not come from the victim, Dr. Haas. Possible suspects that also had this blood type are Dr. Feigl and Mrs. Miller.

Based on the blood analysis, the group was able to determine that there was blood from two sources at the crime scene – one being Dr. Haas and the other, presumably the perpetrator. At this point, they narrowed it down to two possible suspects: Dr. Feigl and Mrs. Miller.

DNA Analysis

Along with blood analysis, this group was also responsible for collecting and analyzing any DNA evidence found at the scene. While DNA can be extracted from white blood cells, we didn’t have this option, so they had to look for other sources. Luckily, the perpetrator left a pop can which contained DNA from saliva on the top! The group collected this sample and samples from possible suspects. They then added an enzymes (restriction enzyme) which would cut the DNA up into smaller pieces. Restriction enzymes recognize specific short sequences of DNA, which are present in different amounts and at different places in everybody. Because these enzymes are so specific, they should be able to clearly match the DNA from the pop can to a suspect (or the victim). Your fragmentation pattern of your DNA is as unique as your fingerprints. In fact, this method is commonly called “DNA Fingerprinting”.

One restriction enzyme can cut DNA from two different people in different places. Here, the DNA from individual 1 gets cut at three places, resulting in four fragments of different sizes. DNA from individual 2 gets cut at two places, resulting in three fragments of different sizes. These fragments are in a mixture until they are run on a DNA gel, which separates each fragment by size which the largest fragments at the top of the gel and the smaller fragments at the bottom.

When analyzes the DNA evidence, this group was looking for a DNA sample from the possible suspects that matched the fragmentation pattern of the DNA from the crime scene.

DNA gel - labeled

The DNA gel of the crime scene and suspect samples. The ladder is a DNA sample that contains fragments of known size which can be used to approximate the sizes of fragments in other samples. This gel clearly shows that the DNA from the crime scene matches the DNA sample from Dr. Feigl.

DNA analysis is so specific that the odds of Dr. Feigl not being the source of the crime scene DNA are very slim (something like 1 in 13 billion!). Only if Dr. Feigl had an identical twin would someone else have the same pattern. From this analysis, the group was able to conclude that the DNA at the crime scene did not belong to Dr. Haas, the victim, but did belong to Dr. Feigl. While this doesn’t necessarily mean that she was the perpetrator, it does place her at the scene of the crime.

Between the results of the blood typing and DNA analysis, this group is pretty certain Dr. Feigl is the perpetrator of the crime!

Document Analysis: Ink and Handwriting

Because there were pieces of a handwritten note found at the crime scene, one group was focused on naming a perpetrator from this evidence.

document- evidence

A portion of a handwritten note was found in the overturned garbage can at the crime scene, written in cursive, in black ink.

The group collected pen and handwriting samples from all of the possible suspects:

Document - Becker sample

Pen and handwriting sample from Dr. Becker. All of the evidence that was collected in Ziploc bags with an evidence tag. Note the chain of custody: it’s important in evidence collection to keep track of everyone who has access to the evidence.

The analyzed the handwriting by eye:

document - handwriting

In the analysis of handwriting, the group decided to focus on the letter “a” found on the note at the crime scene (bottom right sample).

They saw that unlike the other suspects, only Dr. Feigl started her “a” with an extra stroke.

They next set out to determine if they could match the collected pen samples to the ink used on the note. To do this, they used a method called thin-layer chromatography (TLC). This method uses chemicals to separate the various components of ink, which includes dyes and additives. The theory behind this is similar to the theory of DNA fingerprinting, but not nearly as accurate.

document - ink tlc

The document analysis group used TLC to separate the components of different pen samples collected from the crime scene and suspects. They made a dot of ink at the bottom of the TLC plate (on the horizontal line), then set the bottom of the plate in a chemical solvent, in this case, a mixture of methanol and water. The TLC plate acts as a wick to draw the liquid to the top of the plate. As the liquid moves us, different components move with it in a distinctive pattern.

While many of the black pen samples that were collected from the suspects contained a yellow dye that easily separated, the crime scene sample and suspect sample #5 did not have this yellow component. Suspect #5 was Dr. Feigl.


The final group was tasked with collecting and analyzing fingerprints from the crime scene. This is often very difficult and proved to be so for our crime scene investigators as well. They were able to pull prints from the pop can and from a door window, but many of these prints were only partial. They found the prints, which are left by the oils in our skin, by dusting with a carbon-based black powder. The powder sticks to the fingerprint and can be transferred to paper for record-keeping and analysis.

fingerprints-crime scene can thumb pinky

The best fingerprints collected were from the pop can, but are only partial and it’s hard to distinguish the features (especially on a computer screen!). Based on the placement on the can, the group suggested these were prints from the right thumb and little finger.

Modern fingerprint analysis is done with powerful computer programs, but our scientists had only their own eyes to use. Fingerprints are unique – not only to each person, but to each finger. It is impossible to remove your fingerprints, though some criminals have tried! Notorious gangster John Dillinger once tried to remove his fingerprints by putting acid on them which resulted in scars. However, scars also show up in fingerprints and are just another characteristic that can be used to identify the prints!

Fingerprints are unique because they are composed of different patterns like loops, arches, and whorls, but also each fingerprints contains up to 150 ridge characteristics like bifurcations, endings, enclosures, and dots.

fingerprints - patterns

Source: Saferstein, Richard. Forensic Science: From the crime scene to the crime lab, 3rd ed.; Pearson: Hoboken, New Jersey, 2014.

fingerprints - minutae

Source: Saferstein, Richard. Forensic Science: From the crime scene to the crime lab, 3rd ed.; Pearson: Hoboken, New Jersey, 2014.

By finding these patterns and characteristics in the fingerprints from the crime scene and the suspects, this group was able to find some matches to one person: Dr. Feigl.

fingerprints - feigl samples

The fingerprint analysis group was able to use the scars and ridge patterns and characteristics to match the crime scene fingerprints to Dr. Feigl.

Closing Statement

Based on the evidence collected at the crime scene, three out of the four groups put forward Dr. Feigl as the perpetrator. Her DNA fragmentation pattern matched the DNA found on the pop can at the crime scene, she has the same blood type as one of the crime scene blood samples, and her handwriting and preferred pen are similar to what was found on the torn note at the crime scene. While the chemical analysis of the white powder found at the scene doesn’t necessarily point to her, the class was confident in presenting Dr. Feigl as the perpetrator to a jury of her peers: Dr. Farmer (music), Dr. Kloepper (Biology), Dr. Ralston (Biology), and Dr. West (Modern Languages). The jury’s verdict?

Feigl - guilty

Disclaimer: No Chemistry professors were harmed in the staging of this crime scene. Dr. Feigl wouldn’t hurt a fly, let alone Dr. Haas! All blood and DNA samples were simulated and proper lab safety protocols were followed during analysis.




Congrats Class of 2016!


Class of 2016 and Faculty May 1, 2016

Yesterday, the Department of Chemistry and Physics held the hooding ceremony for the Class of 2016 who will be graduating in less than two weeks. At this ceremony, we give out some departmental awards for excellence in coursework and service, but the main focus of the ceremony is the faculty hooding each senior.

The hood is an addition to the traditional cap and gown. It is black and trimmed in velvet in a color specific to the degree conferred. For the majority of our Chemistry majors, they have earned a Bachelor of Science and have gold hoods.


Hooded and ready to go!

Bachelors of Art have white hoods and PhDs (aka the faculty) have blue hoods. Inside these hoods are the colors of the school conferring the degree. For the graduating seniors, Saint Mary’s has a light blue interior with a white chevron. The inside of the faculty hoods are all different, based on which institution they received their doctoral degree from. Mine is the grey and blue of Case Western Reserve.


Another portion of this ceremony is the pinning of the Junior class with a Saint Mary’s name tag. This symbolizes their transition into seniors.


Chemistry and Physics Class of 2017!


As they have all year, these ladies managed to make the building construction work for them!

After the hooding ceremony, we processed over to O’Laughlin Auditorium for Honors Convocation. At this college-wide event, each department distributed awards and there were two faculty awards given. Also at this ceremony was the presentation of the Valedictorian medals. There are three valedictorians this year and two of them are Chemistry majors! Congrats Paige and Annie!

This week is finals week, followed by Senior week and then commencement on the 14th. Congratulations to our junior and senior class! Best of luck to the graduating seniors in their future endeavors!

Crime Scene Day 2: Scientists at work!

Miss Day 1? Check it out here

Since Monday, our student detectives have collected blood, DNA, handwriting, and ink samples from all of our suspects.

usual-suspectsThey all look so innocent!

Wednesday in class they analyzed their crime scene and suspect evidence to see if they would determine the culprit!

Blood typing was done to determine if all of the blood at the crime scene (two locations) was from the victim or if someone else’s blood was present. In this method, the20160413_152734660_iOS20160413_152027807_iOS blood samples are mixed with antibodies that bind to chemical signals on our red blood cells that determine our blood type (A, B, O, AB; Rh negative or positive). Changes in the color and clotting indicate the blood type.


Raquel loading the agarose gel

The same group also used a method called Restriction Fragment Length Polymorphism (RFLP) to individualize the DNA left at the crime scene on the pop can. Each human shares about 99.9% of their DNA with other humans – this is the DNA that’s used to make proteins that we all have. But 0.1% of our DNA is unique. While this may

Loaded and ready to run!

seem like a tiny difference, it comes out to about 3 million(!!) different bases – the building blocks of DNA. RFLP exploits these differences by using enzymes (restriction enzymes) that cut up DNA into smaller pieces. Everyone’s DNA will produce fragments of different lengths, which can be visualized on an agarose gel and compared to the evidence (polymorphism just means different forms – which these fragments are among a group of people). Tune in next Wednesday to see what the gel looked like when it was finished!




One group of detectives got a lesson in how weird it is to take someone’s fingerprints! And how hard it is to compare suspect fingerprints to partial prints found at a crime scene. They were diligent and are close to catching the perpetrator!

20160413_152040623_iOSThe document analysis group set out first to compare handwriting samples to the note they found at the crime scene. Distinctive handwriting can be a dead giveaway in some cases – what about in this case?

TLC of ink samples

TLC of ink samples


They also compared ink from the note to the pen samples they collected from suspects using a method called thin-layer chromatography (TLC). This method uses solvents like methanol (mixed here 2:1 with water) to separate components of a substance like ink which is composed of dyes or pigments. Even pens that all use black ink can look different when separated by TLC due to different formulations used by manufacturers.


Sally applying the powder to the chemical-loaded PADs

Our last group was trying to figure out the identity of the white powder left at the scene. To do this, they use a combination of solution tests and chemical tests utilizing paper analytical devices (PADs), which is research that Dr. Barstis does in collaboration with the University of Notre Dame (PADs project). After putting drops of chemicals on the PADs in the white lanes, they scrape the powder across the whole PAD and then stand the PAD in a little bit of water.


Developed PAD

The paper wicks up the water, which carries the powder to the chemical and the reaction and possible color change takes place. Color changes can indicate the makeup of the powder – for example, the dark purple spot in the middle lane of the PAD on the right tells the group one major component of the white powder.




So what were the results of all of these analyses? Tune in next Wednesday to see if we have identified a single perpetrator from our evidence. During class on Wednesday, each group will present their findings to a jury of the possible suspect’s peers (a team of science and humanities profs) who will vote on whether they can convict based on the evidence.


Crime Scene Day 1: Whodunit?


Authorized Personnel Only!


Today, on her way back from teaching class in Spes Unica, Dr. Haas took a shortcut through SC 113 (Biochemistry lab) in the dark and ran into an unknown assailant who knocked her down and rushed out of the room. She suffered from a bleeding head wound* and could not identify the assailant. The task of the students of CHEM 424 (Advanced Biochemistry) this week and next is to identify this unknown perpetrator and bring him or her to justice using the evidence left at the crime scene.


The crime scene from different angles


Dr. Fishovitz was the first officer to arrive and secured the scene and established a perimeter before the other detectives arrived. Before entering the room, everyone had be logged in and photographs of the soles of their shoes were taken (to rule out any shoeprints they might leave on the dusty floor, thanks renovations!).

The detectives first took a survey of the crime scene and pointed out any obvious evidence they could find:

1. A white salt-like powder on the bench-top and an open glass vial with a plastic lid

1. A white salt-like powder on the bench-top and an open glass vial with a plastic lid

2. A knocked-over garbage can with torn paper spilling out

2. A knocked-over garbage can with torn paper spilling out

3. A torn piece of white paper with something written in blank ink on it "like a"

3. A torn piece of white paper with something written in black ink on it “like a”

4. An empty Pepsi can on its side 5. Blood drops (4)

4. An empty Pepsi can on its side
5. Blood drops (4)

6. Blood drop on a drawer handle

6. Blood drop on a drawer handle

The next thing we did was brainstorm about some trace evidence that may be around that we couldn’t see – like DNA, fingerprints, hairs or fibers. It was decided that the Pepsi can could have fingerprints on it and DNA from saliva around the opening. It would be tested for both later. Other possible sources of fingerprints included the benchtop, the glass vial, the paper from the garbage can, and the exit door.

The class split itself up into groups of 4. Each group would collect and analyze specific evidence. Group 1 (Sally, Natalie, Katy G, and Adrienne) would be working on the unknown white powder.

Natalie and Sally collecting the white powder. After transferring it to a glass vial, they put the vial into a zip-top bag and filled out the evidence tag.

Natalie and Sally collecting the white powder. After transferring it to a glass vial, they put the vial into a zip-top bag and filled out the evidence tag.

Detectives bagged and tagged the evidence they collected and filled out the chain of custody each time the evidence changed hands

Detectives bagged and tagged the evidence they collected and filled out the chain of custody each time the evidence changed hands

Group 2 (Jenna D, Katy H, Cara, and Raquel) are analyzing the DNA and blood samples.

Katy very carefully resuspending dried DNA from the mouth of the pop can. After collecting the liquid, she transferred it to a microcentrifuge tube and bagged and tagged it

Katy very carefully resuspending dried DNA from the mouth of the pop can. After collecting the liquid, she transferred it to a microcentrifuge tube and bagged and tagged it

Annie collecting the dried blood with a swab. She would later pass this evidence off to Cara, Katy, Jenna, and Raquel for analysis

Annie collecting the dried blood with a swab. She would later pass this evidence off to Cara, Katy, Jenna, and Raquel for analysis

Group 3 (Annie, Marie, Cinthya, Carrie) are in charge of document analysis, including analyzing the handwriting and ink makeup.

Annie collecting the torn paper from the garbage can. Her group would keep and analyze the piece with writing on it, but pass off the blank pieces to the fingerprint group to check for latent prints

Annie collecting the torn paper from the garbage can. Her group would keep and analyze the piece with writing on it, but pass off the blank pieces to the fingerprint group to check for latent prints

Group 4 (Liz, Claire, Emma, Jenna B) are the fingerprinting gurus! They had the hardest job by far when it came to collecting evidence from the crime scene. If fingerprints are left by transferring things like paint or blood, or if they’re left by impressions in dust or soft substances like putty or gum, they’re pretty easy to spot, but most fingerprints are latent (invisible) prints. This means they are not easily visible to the naked eye and take some work to find! This group used fingerprint powder to dust for prints on the glass vial, the pop can, the bench-top, and the glass window in the door. After a lot of dusting – they were successful! They also used a chemical test – the ninhydrin test. This is a chemical spray that will adhere to fingerprints on porous surfaces such as paper and leave and purple or brown print. They tested the torn paper using this method but no prints were found on the paper.

Liz dusting for prints on the pop can. A couple showed up but they were hard to transfer!

Liz dusting for prints on the pop can. A couple showed up but they were hard to transfer!

Jenna dusting the bench-top for prints - again, a couple of prints showed up but were very hard to transfer cleanly!

Jenna dusting the bench-top for prints – again, a couple of prints showed up but were very hard to transfer cleanly!

They got a few good prints from the crime scene!

They got a few good prints from the crime scene!

After collecting all of the evidence from the crime scene, the detectives set out to collect samples from the suspects (the faculty and staff of the Chemistry/Physics department). They would collect blood samples, DNA samples, handwriting samples, pens, and fingerprints from each suspect. If they were lucky, the suspect didn’t refuse to submit DNA or a pen!

On Wednesday, they’ll work on comparing the crime scene evidence to samples from suspects and narrow down the list of possible perpetrators so that next week they can present one possibility to the class and jury.

*Disclaimer: No faculty, staff, or students were hurt in the staging of this crime scene. All blood and DNA samples are simulated.

To be continued on Wednesday… (Day 2 up now!)


Whorl goes there?

Today in CHEM 424 we focused on fingerprint identification and had some fun while learning about the ridge patterns and minutiae that forensic investigators use to identify suspects based on their fingerprints!

Fingerprints are useful in forensic investigations because each one is unique, they never change throughout your lifetime, and they have common patterns that can be used to classify them.

The three major classes are loops, whorls, and arches. Today the students took their own fingerprints and identified what class each belongs to.


Katy’s got arches!


Jenna, Katy, Liz, and Claire show off their prints


Cara looks like a (really excited) criminal!

After they took all of their own prints, they picked on print to put on a balloon before blowing it up and handing it off to a partner. Using the ridge patterns and minutiae we discussed in class, the partner tried to guess which finger the print came from. These guys are fingerprint experts – they all deduced the correct answer before having more fun with the balloons.

Adrienne inking up (check out that ring!)

Adrienne inking up (check out that ring!)


Printing the balloon


Carrie identified minutiae like ridge endings and bifurcations that makes her print unique from everyone else’s.


Cara is asserting her Fifth Amendment right!