A bonding experience

Honors student Matthew Gurniak combines his love for chemistry and theater to create a musical

Arts and Culture

by Jan Gillis ('07)

JMU Honors student Matthew Gurniak

SUMMARY: When it came time to choose a subject for his Honors thesis, Matthew Gurniak combined his passion for chemistry and theater and created "Bonded: The Musical."

from the November 2016 digital issue of Madison

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.

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 - illiterate audiences through creative music and storytelling."

Bonded: The Musical was born.

Photo of scene from Bonded: The Musical

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 then 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."

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.

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."

Photo of scene from Bonded: The Musical
Those familiar with JMU's campus will recognize the mural "Life" in the Bioscience Building as the backdrop in this scene.

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.

Stay tuned, the bonding experience may not be over.

Photo of scene from Bonded: The Musical

Chemically illiterate?
Gurniak provided some insight into the name selections for the characters in his 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's 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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Published: Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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