#ManicureMonday–A Lesson in Targeted Science Communication

This post was originally published at my Scientific American blog.

I only recently came on the so-called science hijacking of Seventeen Magazine’s#ManicureMonday scene thanks to a heads-up by David Wescott and some accidental internet meanderings.

I was asked if I had a science themed manicure or nail polish video, which I do!

A few years ago, while I was still teaching an upper level university cell and molecular biology lab course, I was surprised to learn that nail polish contained nitrocellulose, a substance I used in lab for “western blots” which help identify proteins that had recently been separated on a gel using an electric current (SDS-PAGE for those familiar with such techniques), and then blotted onto the nitrocellulose paper to make these proteins easier to handle for antibody probing. I wondered what nitrocellulose’s role in nail polish was, so I did some research. I already knew that nitrocellulose paper was quite flammable, and would do limited demos for my students of the paper “flashing” in flame, and thought I would demonstrate just how flammable nail polish was, not only for the solvents (which have low boiling/flash points) but also for the presence of nitrocellulose.

In nail polish, nitrocellulose is used as a film forming agent and a flow modifier. We want our nail polish to spread out evenly but not be too thick or too thin. Adjusting the amount of nitrocellulose powder accomplishes this. I discuss this more in my video and also address what nail polish and pregnancy tests have in common.

An explanation of what your nail polish has in common with a pregnancy test begins at 2:00. Setting fires begins at 3:15. You can also see evaporation of solvents in action at 4:50. (And for some reason, I do a mighty fine impression of a rabbit in the thumbnail–and yes, I’m not wearing goggles, I know.)

I created this video out of curiosity about what comprises nail polish, since it is a product I use. I’ve filmed videos about mascara and botox as well (To be clear, I’ve never used botox!) I’ve many more ideas in my head for similar videos, they just are not filmed yet. After publishing these videos, my youtube subscribers have included young ladies who do make-up application demonstrations. I admire their creativity and precision, as I have with make-up artists I’ve worked with during my pre-science-modeling-career. I am pleased to see these young ladies are curious to learn more about the products they use, too, from a scientific standpoint.

When I first heard about Hope Jaren’s initiative to “hijack” #manicuremonday, I thought, “This could be an effective outreach mechanism.” What scientists have posted in response have been a mixed bag. One standout example is Sarah Horst’s astronomy themed manicure (pictured here creatively including a poem by fellow astronomer Alex Parker).

I thought I might see more creative science-themed manicures such as Sarah’s Astronomy nails or even past creations such as Nucleotide Skittles by Jayne over at her blog Cosmetic Proof. (Be sure to check out her amazing science inspired nail art. Her ideas are quite inspiring!)

Mostly, the science images for Manicure Monday show unpolished nails, usually properly manicured in the sense of trimmed, cleaned nails and soft smooth cuticles, in the process of doing science, whether it is field work, lab work, or data entry. Some show off tiny creatures the size of fingernails, which are indeed lovely accessories! For better or worse, some nails look downright unruly.

Here are a few comments about the unpolished nails from MetaFilter today:

“Maybe so, but does anyone want to look at this? What’s the hook? It’s annoying that the premise seems to be cool nails but includes bare nails too. It’s clumsy as hell.
I’m all for giving a shout out to women in science and men who wear nail poish (sic), as both are awesome. But this I don’t get.”
posted by agregoli at 12:49 PM on November 25

“I think it’s nice that there’s an assortment of both pretty painted nails and completely neglected nails. Girls can look at the whole assortment and realize that (a) you can be feminine and artsy WHILE showing off your smarts and doing valuable work, and (b) your work is every bit as important and valuable even when you choose not to spend hours on your appearance and do not prefer to emphasize your femininity.”
posted by AbbyNormal at 12:16 PM on November 25

With respect to scientists and bare nails, this unpolished look is quite common. My video mentions straight out (1:28) that I generally do not polish my nails, as much as I would love to (however, I almost always sport polish on my toes!). In the lab, it is often not practical as no one has created a perfectly non-chipping polish, and it’s tricky to keep them looking nice. it is much easier to maintain a natural look. In addition, while I may have won the keratin lottery for my hair, the keratin in my nails seems to be defective (Science note–nearly 90 types of keratin are documented, different types are expressed in different areas of the body). My nails tear, split and break with the slightest provocation which looks much worse with nail polish on them when that happens and disappoints me after the time and effort (and money) I may have put into them.

Reactions from the intended Seventeen audience to this invasion have varied. It seems many would prefer to see a creatively polished nail, but have been enamored by the adorable tiny creatures. Some have been offended by the invasion, which may not be surprising because Hope’s original post contained some language that could be misconstrued as critical of nail art, as these comments encapsulate:

“I don’t know. It rather feels judgmental of women/girls that do nail art for its own sake.”
posted by Windigo at 12:15 PM on November 25

“Yeah, okay, after reading Hope Jahren’s blog post, I’m a little less thrilled about the origins of this. I had thought it was a bit more joyful/joining than condescension. But like Metroid Baby, I do really like the pics of the science people who have cool nails and are doing cool things. (I’m rocking black and pink houndstooth nails right now while I’m analyzing data.)”
posted by synapse at 1:45 PM on November 25

Luckily, some seemed to understand the purpose of the “invasion”:

“What’s the hook?

I think, by hijacking Seventeen’s hashtag, they’re hoping to hook teenage girls who would otherwise think of science as incompatible with fashion. I’m down with that.”
posted by Dashy at 2:16 PM on November 25

I suppose I have many “platforms” in social media, but one, and the reason I even bother to mention that I used to model, and to create the videos I have about make-up, is to remind people, especially girls, that science can be compatible with fashion or make-up or art or anything else for that matter, and that science can inform us about these seemingly disparate concepts in quite remarkable ways.

As I read through these comments at MetaFilter, I see that there is still a potentially interested audience, one that can embrace a bit of science here and there as long as they feel their creative hobbies are valued, and sense that we, as scientists (aka fellow humans), are providing them something of value that can also be appreciated by them.

Sarah Horst’s image with Alex Parker‘s quote used with permission
Jayne’s Nucleotide Skittles from her website Cosmetic Proof
Ponceau S stained nitrocellulose from Wikipedia
Image of hummingbird in hand from NSF twitter feed