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Chemical Characters, Dead Mouse Trap

by Sophia L. Cai
March 4, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 9


Illustration of indium’s character.
Credit: Courtesy of Kaycie Dunlap

Shockingly enough, not everyone is enthralled by high school chemistry class. Thanks to one imaginative educational tool, however, Kaycie Dunlap, now a technical artist at a gaming studio in California, got hooked.

Illustration of manganese’s character.
Credit: Courtesy of Kaycie Dunlap

“I didn’t have an innate interest in chemistry,” Dunlap recalls. “But I remember sitting in class and watching a video about the periodic table.” In it, she says, the narrator took on the persona of each element, “doing voices and imagining what they’d be like as people.” The elemental personification inspired Dunlap to start illustrating elements as characters.

Illustration of tungsten’s character.
Credit: Courtesy of Kaycie Dunlap

Fast-forward a few years to 2011, when Dunlap decided to create a full periodic table of elemental characters as her culminating thesis project at Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design.

Illustration of mercury’s character.
Credit: Courtesy of Kaycie Dunlap

“I got books about elements, researched online, and wrote up a profile of each element,” she says. “Then I said, ‘Okay, this element has these properties, so that could translate to these human characteristics.’ ”

For instance, Dunlap’s tungsten is a young man wearing a wolf skin and carrying swords. That’s because the element was once called wolfram and is used in cutting materials. A screaming woman with blue hair and a blue dress embodies indium, a soft metal that gives off a loud shrieking noise when bent rapidly. Dunlap also used her college friends—and even Freddie Mercury from the band Queen—as inspiration for other characters.

Although she displayed her 112 characters, hydrogen through copernicium, on her website ( more than a year ago, they caught the attention of the public only recently. “I’m not sure what happened,” Dunlap explains. “One day I just started getting e-mails from people, and it hasn’t stopped. It’s been really thrilling to get them out to so many people.”

Most of the responses have been from teachers, principals, and chemists. “It’s really nice to see that I’m connecting with science people even though I’m not really a science person myself,” Dunlap adds. “I like that I’m bridging the gap between art and science because that’s really the goal of an artist, to reach out to a bunch of different people.”

Stowaway brown tree snakes arrived in Guam on U.S. military ships shortly after World War II, and they’ve been wreaking havoc ever since.

Now numbering around 2 million, the island’s snakes have terrorized residents, knocked down power lines, and driven most native birds to extinction. They are even beginning to infringe upon Guam’s Anderson Air Force Base, a fact that’s made officials in Hawaii worried about a literal island-to-island “snakes on a plane” invasion.

To combat the slithery infestation, researchers turned to an unconventional savior: dead mice. The scientists plan to lace dead rodents with acetaminophen, attach each mouse to a flotation device with streamers, and then drop them from a helicopter over the foliage where the snakes live.

The advantages of the strategy are that acetaminophen is harmless to humans but highly toxic to snakes, and that the miniparachutes should keep the mice high in the trees, away from ground-based native species. The major flaw had been that the booby-trapped lifeless prey would be an easy meal for the island’s native crow population, which was struggling to survive the invading serpents.

Recently, though, Guam’s crows have been driven to extinction as well, allowing the mouse-drop operation to move forward in April or May, according to the Associated Press. So Newscripts readers should be sure to keep tabs on the scientific battle being waged this spring, when “mice on a helicopter” take on “snakes in a tree.”

Sophia Cai wrote this week’s column. Please send comments and suggestions to


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