Campus News

New year, new sparkle! National crystal contest judged at UB

By CHARLOTTE HSU

Published January 24, 2019

“I think it’s a great opportunity for students to get involved in chemistry, to get excited and see how fun chemistry can be.”
Nicole Vanagas, Georgetown University PhD student and judge
U.S. Crystal Growing Competition

In the UB chemistry department, the sparkle of the holiday season continued well into the new year.

On Jan. 9, scientists from UB and three other U.S. universities met in the Natural Sciences Complex on the North Campus to judge the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition.

Their task: to inspect and rate more than 150 gleaming crystals mailed or hand-delivered to UB as part of the contest, which challenges children and K-12 teachers across the country to grow big, beautiful crystals using aluminum potassium sulfate (alum), a nontoxic chemical used in water purification.

Entries included crystals large and small. Some were clear (high-scoring) and others murky (lower-scoring). Some had sharp, well ­defined edges; others looked like rock candy.

A crystal submitted for the “coolest crystal” category was decked out with mini sunglasses and flip flops.

An entry in the "coolest crystal" category. Check out the sunglasses and flip flops. Photo: Douglas Levere

Crystals submitted for the “coolest crystal” category ranged from an elegant, orchid purple-hued jewel to a colorless crystal decked out with mini sunglasses and flip flops.

All brought a bit of dazzle and shine to a long Western New York winter.

“We had over 150 crystals sent in from across the country,” said Jason Benedict, UB associate professor of chemistry who founded the contest in 2014. “The submissions for the ‘coolest crystal’ category seem cooler than ever before. Kids are really starting to blend some amazing creativity into the contest.”

Winners were announced on Jan. 11, with prizes going to participants in states that ranged from Connecticut and New York to South Carolina, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

Judges had fun but took their job seriously. One of them — Timothy Cook, UB assistant professor of chemistry — brought a miniature flashlight to shine on the crystals. “I’m a photochemist,” he said. “All things are made better with light.”

Nicole Vanagas, a Georgetown University chemistry PhD student who served as a judge, commented on the contest, saying, “I think it’s a great opportunity for students to get involved in chemistry, to get excited and see how fun chemistry can be.”

“I just love it,” said Andrea Markelz, UB professor of physics, who has been on the judging panel every year since the contest’s inception. “It makes me so happy that people are doing this. It’s such an easy, hands-on activity. Any (student) can participate in this, and they can make something beautiful.”

This year’s judges included faculty members from UB and PhD students from the University of Central Florida, Georgetown University and Texas A&M University. Researchers at these latter three institutions serve as regional coordinators for the contest, which continues to be organized by Benedict.

Sponsors of the U.S. Crystal Growing Competition include the American Crystallographic Association, the UB Department of Chemistry in the College of Arts and Sciences, the Western New York section of the American Chemical Society, Bruker, The Cambridge Crystallographic Data Centre, Krackeler Scientific, the National Science Foundation, VWR and Ward’s Science, along with individuals who have made donations.