Photographs by Michael Miriello ('09)
Engaged Learning

A bonding experience

Matthew Gurniak combines chemistry and theater to create his chemical comedy Bonded: The Musical

Honors student Matthew Gurniak came to JMU with a passion for chemistry and theater. “I knew I wanted to double major, and I liked the flexibility I would have at JMU. And I was attracted to Madison’s program because it was competitive and audition-based,” he says.

‘My goal was to explore how antithetical fields can inform each other in new, exciting, unexpected and potentially beneficial ways.’
Matthew Gurniak

Faced with the need to choose a subject for his Honors thesis, Gurniak was unwilling to forsake one interest in favor of the other. His solution? Combine the two seemingly disparate subjects into a single project that would allow him to explore both disciplines in a new, engaging way.

The dissimilarity in the subject matter intrigued Gurniak. “I decided to write, compose and direct an educational chemistry musical,” he says. “My goal was to explore how antithetical fields can inform each other in new, exciting, unexpected and potentially beneficial ways. I wanted to communicate fundamental topics in chemistry to both chemistry-literate and [chemistry]-illiterate audiences through creative music and storytelling.”

Bonded: The Musical was born.

Gurniak developed his idea, researched how to write a play and how to teach chemistry, and figured out a plot and music. His application for a College of Visual and Performing Arts Undergraduate Student Research Grant was approved. “I was able to get music writing and playwriting software, which really helped,” he says.

He faced the challenge of devising a plot that would appeal to audiences and keep the material accessible. “Audiences don’t want to be preached to,” he says. Gurniak’s solution was to focus the plot on faculty members. He says, “What better way to write an educational play on chemistry than to focus on professors?”

Gurniak describes Bonded: The Musical as a short chemical comedy. “It tells the story of Dr. Newt Adams, an established university chemistry professor, and Dr. Ann Iona, a new hire in the department. Things go awry when Dr. Constance Planck, the department head, assigns the two to co-teach Chemistry 101. The two eventually form an unlikely bond over their mutual love of chemistry.”

A scene from Bonded: The Musical

Gurniak says his Honors thesis reflected Madison’s engaged learning focus. “The project brought multiple people together to create a single product,” he says. The collaboration went beyond the staged reading. “My friend Rachel Jones used the production as the basis for her media arts and design film project,” he says. The short film, directed, produced and edited by Jones ('16), Nicole Goldstein ('16) and JMU media arts and design major Chris Strunk, was recently shown at the Global Impact Film Festival in Washington.

‘At JMU we’re exposed to all aspects of theater and have the opportunity to explore them in depth — lighting, scenery, costuming, playwriting, directing.’

Gurniak, a recipient of the Mary Latimer Cordner Scholarship for demonstrated excellence in academic and practical theater work, says his entire academic career informed his endeavor. “At JMU we’re exposed to all aspects of theater and have the opportunity to explore them in depth — lighting, scenery, costuming, playwriting, directing,” he says. “And classes outside of your major inform your work in so many ways. Psychology and sociology are hugely important in acting.”

Those familiar with JMU's campus will recognize the Bioscience Building mural as the backdrop in this scene. The mural "Life," created by Alison Stephen ('99) in collaboration with professor Jon Monroe, depicts 16 species of organisms around a surface view of base pairs of DNA.

His post-graduation life is looming on the near horizon, and Gurniak will bring his Honors thesis along on the journey. “There’s been some interest in expanding the film to feature length, so I’m working on expanding the script in the near future,” he says. “I’m assistant director for the mainstage Serpentine Pink production in October. I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with the guest director, Ricky J. Martinez, and get his guidance on expanding my play.”

Stay tuned, the bonding experience may not be over.

 

Chemically illiterate?

Gurniak provided some insight into the name selections for the characters in his musical

A scene from Bonded: The Musical
  • Newt Adams — atoms are the building blocks of nature; Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist and mathematician.
  • Ann Iona — anions are atoms that have gained electrons; Ann wants to give all her love to Adams.
  • Constance Planck — the Planck Constant is an important quantity in quantum physics.
  • Student Laura Hess — Hess' Law of Constant Heat Summation is named for Russian chemist Germain Hess.
  • Student Charles Boyle — Boyle’s law describes the relationship between pressure and volume of a gas.
  • Student Addie van der Waal — van der Waals forces are weak attractive forces between electrically neutral atoms and molecules.
  • Kelvin the waiter — Kelvin is a scale of thermodynamic temperature measured from absolute zero.

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