Hobart and William Smith Colleges - The Intersection of Art and Chemistry
The HWS Update
Shaw Sophie and Natoli Julia Headshot

The Intersection of Art and Chemistry

Through an interdisciplinary research project that combines art history and chemistry, Sophia Shaw ’21 and Julia Natoli ’21 are studying the chemistry of pigments and dyes. By conducting experiments on ochres — natural iron oxides that are yellow, brown or red — the pair are retracing the evolution of prehistoric paints. Their summer research is being conducted under the direction of Professor of Chemistry Walter Bowyer.

In the lab, Shaw and Natoli extract dye from different natural resources to make and analyze the various properties of pigment. So far, they have used spectroscopic analysis to analyze pigments which they created from bugs and plants. Through “trial and error,” Natoli says they have learned “the starting material doesn’t always yield the color you think it does” and “bugs yield surprisingly beautiful colors.” Their findings will provide insight on how geological materials produced vivid colors in ancient cave paintings.

Shaw, a chemistry and environmental studies double major, has found the intersection of art and chemistry to be the most rewarding part of her summer research — especially when it reveals meaning and depth behind people’s behavior. “This project shows people that chemistry is more abstract than just cells, and how interdisciplinary it can be,” she says.

Shaw and Natoli plan to grow their summer research project into an independent study. A component of their summer work also involves creating a pigment and dye study for the “Introduction to Chemistry” course.

Natoli, a biochemistry major and sociology minor who plans on attending medical school, says lab experience alongside Bowyer has been invaluable. “STEM research can seem intimidating, but as long as you have the dedication and passion, you learn so much and get comfortable in a lab setting which is super important if this is something you want to do,” she says.

On campus, Shaw is involved in the Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring program, is a Reunion Red Shirt, a student representative for the Bozzuto Center for Entrepreneurship and a house manager for the sustainability theme house. Natoli is a member of the Koshare Dance Collective, the HWS Judicial Board, a writer for HER campus and the secretary for the pre-health club.

Preparing Students to Lead Lives of Consequence.