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Science Communication


A groundhog surprise and creative out-of-office replies

by Kerri Jansen
August 8, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 27


Hood hog

Photo of a groundhog in a closed fume hood.
Credit: Olivia Heinen
Not a mouse: A fume hood at the College of Wooster briefly housed a groundhog.

On a Friday before a holiday weekend in July, students working in basement labs at the College of Wooster began to hear worrying sounds—scratching and scurrying coming from somewhere above.

“The first thing that came to mind was the scene from the movie Aliens, where the aliens are moving in through the ceiling,” says Paul Bonvallet, a chemistry professor to whom students reported the mysterious noises. “You can hear them, but you can’t see them.”

Animal intruders are not unheard of at the northeastern Ohio campus, but this visitor was elusive. Critter catchers from the school’s facilities team speculated that a mouse had slipped into the building.

“It sounded a lot bigger than a mouse,” Bonvallet says.

Undergraduate Olivia Heinen was worried about her experiment. A student at Minnesota’s St. Olaf College, Heinen had come to Wooster for a summer research program focused on granular materials. The experiment, scheduled to proceed over the course of about 7 days, involved dropping steel beads one by one onto a conical pile and observing any avalanching or reshaping behavior. It was the kind of experiment that could be very thoroughly derailed by a falling, flailing critter.

Knowing she’d have to check the experiment a few times over the weekend, Heinen developed an exit plan. “I figured, if something were to drop out of the ceiling, just give it a good punt and run,” she tells Newscripts.

But it wasn’t until after the weekend that the intruder revealed itself. On Tuesday, Heinen was talking with her adviser, Susan Lehman, when she spotted movement inside an unused fume hood.

“It was just enough movement to be like, ‘Oh, there’s something there,’ ” Heinen recalls. “And my adviser, Dr. Lehman, looks over, and she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a groundhog!’ ”

Indeed, a rotund rodent had somehow found its way inside the lab’s fume hood and was quietly observing the two scientists from behind the glass. Fortunately for all involved, the fume hood was both devoid of any hazardous materials and closed, and the animal was securely behind the sash. Heinen did not have to exercise her punting move, after all.

Facilities staff returned to pick up the critter, which the students named Rufus. The tale inspired an animated discussion on Twitter and a suggestion that the lab would now face 6 more weeks of experiments.

Bonvallet confided to Newscripts his own takeaway. He notes, “That’s yet another reason to keep your fume-hood sash closed when you’re not using it.”


Horsing around

Photo of a brown and white Icelandic horse walking on a giant keyboard.
Credit: Horses of Iceland
Hoofin’ it: An Icelandic horse types an email message.

While some creatures seek summer refuge inside the lab, many chemists are seeking a summer escape. For vacationing workers who struggle to unplug, Iceland’s official tourism website now offers a solution:

The free service provides custom out-of-office email replies composed by a group of Icelandic horses. The messages are typed by hoof on a specially made giant keyboard stationed on the island.

“Your boss will never know the difference,” a promotional video insists.

Another video shows how the horses learned their new skill. First, builders crafted the oversize keyboard, complete with punctuation keys and numbers. Then, trainers led the horses across the keyboard to help them get used to the unusual terrain. After some practice runs, the horses were freed to compose their messages—every step, stomp, and nudge recorded on a nearby laptop.

Traveling chemists can choose from three equine email scribes, their bios listing qualities such as “Assertive. Efficient. Shiny hair.” and “Types fast, but might take a nap.”

To test the system, this Newscriptster selected a horse named Hekla frá Þorkellshóli, who is described as being “trained in corporate buzzwords.” The test revealed that the buzzword is Qfiuoq4uhhæ.

Aspiring travelers need not spring for a Nordic adventure to use the service; although the website helpfully suggests several things to do in Iceland while having one’s emails answered by a horse, the hoof-crafted messages are available to all.

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