Fireworks obsession sparks chemistry passion for UNI student

Fireworks obsession sparks chemistry passion for UNI student

When the average person looks at a fireworks display, they probably aren’t thinking of the chemistry concepts behind the fiery spectacle. But that’s exactly what UNI senior chemistry major Kate Mostek does. Since her parents run a fireworks business, she has extensive knowledge of what it takes to put on an impressive show.

“Even the colors of fireworks are really chemistry dependent,” she explained. “Each color is made out of a different metal salt, and then you can brighten and dull the colors with different combinations.”

Mostek’s great-grandpa started working with fireworks as a hobby. Then her grandpa decided to take what he’d started and turn it into a business. Mostek’s dad recently took over the business. Now, both her parents, grandparents, siblings, fiancé and numerous aunts, uncles and cousins are all involved.

“We always joke that if you’re hanging out with us, you kind of get roped into it,” she said. 

The Mitchell, Iowa-based business Flashing Thunder has been going strong since 1981. It’s common for the dinner conversation in the Mostek house to revolve around the fireworks business.

Even before transferring to UNI, she couldn’t quite shake fireworks. In fact, one of the very first labs in general chemistry which she took as a freshman at Kirkwood Community College was making black powder, the chemical explosive used in fireworks. 

Kate Mostek holding a firework in a store

“It was kind of funny because my professor was like, ‘Wow, you made it almost perfect the first time,’” said Mostek. “It’s almost like I've been doing it for 18 years.”

“I was going over the project with Anne Marie Gruber [UNI’s science librarian], and she was like, ‘Man, I wish I had somebody who knew a little more about black powder,’” Mostek explained. “I told her, ‘Well, that’s kind of my thing.’”

Mostek is also working on two other undergraduate research projects this semester. Under the guidance of Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Joshua Sebree, Mostek is looking at the Virgin Mary, a formation at Coldwater Cave in northeast Iowa that is starting to dissolve. By taking UV spectra of the formation, she is helping figure out what rock it’s made out of and why it’s dissolving.

After she graduates in December, Mostek will be continuing on the family tradition, working for Flashing Thunder and utilizing her chemistry degree to take the fireworks business to the next level. 

“My parents are more business-minded, so I feel like my chemistry degree will bring in something new and help us improve some things with some of our products.” 

Even though Mostek came to UNI with a baseline of chemistry knowledge, her classes have built on that knowledge and helped her grow.

“Lecture’s given me a lot of theory knowledge,” she said. “I knew things happened, but I didn't necessarily know why. Now I have a lot of background information on why reactions happen the way they do and why some of these things turn the colors they do.”