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Category → Chem Ed

Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image

D'ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

D’ohh, no eye protection. Credit: David R. Carroll, Creative Commons

I had an opportunity earlier this month to write a short “Inside Science” piece for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer newspapers. These two publications are among those under the McClatchy Company umbrella of 30 U.S. newspapers with a history dating back to 1857 and the founding of what is now The Sacramento Bee.

I was offered great latitude in writing a piece that was to run between 401 and 426 words. Our chemblogging community has been debating how best to address public chemophobia – or whether to even use the term “chemophobia” – in emphasizing to general audiences that not all chemicals are toxic at levels to which one is normally exposed.

I decided to write about the most central and, if you will, magical chemistry that happens around us everyday and sustains our very existence: photosynthesis. You can read, “Chemistry? It’s a Natural” here in the Charlotte paper, or “Life depends on the chemical reactions of plants, algae and microbes,” in the Raleigh paper.

Just look up and around you. Virtually all life on Earth depends on plants, algae and specialized microbes performing chemical reactions – photosynthesis – that capture the light energy from the sun to produce life-giving chemicals – the unlocking of oxygen from water and the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air to create glucose and other carbohydrates. In most cases, this light-capturing conversion begins with a green pigment in chloroplasts called chlorophyll, itself a magnesium-containing chemical with similarities to heme in our hemoglobin.

I go on to speak, of course, about the massive amount of photosynthesis carried out by phytoplankton and the estimation that about half of the planet’s oxygen results from marine photosynthetic reactions.

And your dear natural products pharmacologist couldn’t resist the urge to speak about secondary metabolites such as indigo and the opiates.

I didn’t count at the time, but the words “chemical” or “chemistry” appeared 16 times in the articles, approximately 4% of the word count.

Writing with a short word limit is very challenging, unlike writing blogposts. Including my self-quote above, this piece runs 463 words without even trying.

Unfortunately for my efforts, these articles received far less attention than I had hoped owing to the West Virginia (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol release a few days later.

But I’d like for these articles to represent how I’m going to approach chemistry education this year. I’ve taken to heart last June’s post by Janet Stemwedel – someone I’ve been learning from since 2005 – that making fun of people who are not well-versed in chemistry or risk assessment is not the best way for us scientists to build trust and promote education.

What do you think? Were my pieces too simple for a regional newspaper audience? And how are you, as a chemistry ambassador, going to reach out to the public in 2014.

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

Admit it. You have a Periodic Table of the Elements shower curtain. Don’t you?

Dmitri Mendeleev (and Julius Lothar Meyer, 1870) might have never predicted that his 1869 scientific tool would give rise not only to consumer products for the chemistry enthusiast but also a graphic visual adopted for all manner of non-scientific purposes:

The Periodic Table of Beer Styles

The Periodic Table of Drupal Modules

The Periodic Table of Typefaces

The Periodic Table of Islam

…and, for balance, The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists

(yes, please add your own favorites in the comments below)

Well, my morning coffee Twitter feed brought me a new version that’s 1) about actual chemistry and 2) useful for educational purposes.

A story in this week’s Smithsonian.com Smart News displays the periodic table of the country of element discovery as constructed by Glaswegian chemistry PhD student, science communicator and dancer, Jaime B Gallagher (Twitter @JamieBGall). I’m reminded that the stories behind each element not only tell us history, but also how early chemists differentiated between the elements.

While Gallagher tries to give credit to multiple countries for some of the discoveries, debate will undoubtedly ensue. This is is good thing. It’ll get folks talking about chemistry.

Lithium, for example, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson who liberated it from petalite ore, discovered by Brazilian Jose Bonifacio de Andrade de Silva while visiting the Swedish countryside. Swede Jans Jacob Berzelius named it lithos (for stone – think lithotrypsy). But it wasn’t isolated until the independent work of Sir Humphrey Davy in England and William Brande in Sweden. So while Gallagher is probably right to fully credit Sweden for lithium, one could make an argument that the UK flag should partially be at position 3.

The story might also get us talking about modern uses of the elements. For example, a large deposit of lithium has just been discovered in Wyoming, a find that’s likely to put the States in a better spot as international demand for lithium grows rapidly.

And while chest-thumping U.S. citizens might want to boast international superiority, we’re only tied for third (or fourth…with France!) for the discovery of 17 elements. The UK is tops with 23 followed by Sweden and Germany with 19 each.

Have fun looking at this table and consider using it in your science and public education efforts. There’s something here for everyone.

And before my graphic designer relatives chime in, yes, Jaime should have enlisted the help of a professional illustrator for color and typeface choices. But, hey, he’s already done the content legwork.

 

 

Saturday Morning Natural Products PharmChem Radio!

Listen to me live today at 8-10 AM, EDT, on wknc.org

If you’re up on this lovely Saturday morning and looking for something fun and educational to pass the time, dial up wknc.org for the “Mystery Roach” radio show from 8 am until 10 am Eastern time.

There, I’ll be discussing the discovery of drugs from nature and the differences between herbal remedies and medicines.

The show, hosted by forestry and natural resources doctoral student Damian Maddalena, will be interspersed with psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s.

I’ll be monitoring my Twitter account @davidkroll for questions and comments and you can also post at the Mystery Roach Facebook page.

Maddalena is an experienced scientist-communicator whose show, named after a Frank Zappa song, celebrated five years last November. The Research Triangle’s independent weekly, INDY Week, recognized Maddalena last year as runner-up for both top radio show and radio host, a tremendous accomplishment for a science and music show in a highly-competitive media market.

 

Livestream at this wknc.org page

“Food That Doesn’t Contain Any Chemicals” – Guardian Science

Win these, if you can. Credit: Royal Society via Guardian Science

[See addendum at end of post]

The Guardian?

Say it ain’t so!

Ever wonder why the public has an irrational fear of anything labeled, “chemical”?

Well. . .

The book section of Guardian Science has been running a contest since 19th November to win six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2012.

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
The Information by James Gleick
My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe

Lofty books, though I must admit to not having gotten to any yet (I’m currently stuck on Sid Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning tome, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).

To enter the contest, one need only answer four “science” questions (and, sadly, be a UK resident.).

Let’s take a lookie-see at one of those questions:

Umm. . . Credit: Guardian Science book section (Click image for source)

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Colorado College seeks inorganic chemistry prof

Looking for a tenure-track faculty position at a visionary learning institution in one of the most beautiful places in the United States? Do you prefer non-carbon chemistry?

Well, here’s a position for you in Colorado Springs. From The Chronicle of Higher Education:


 

OPEN TENURE-TRACK POSITIONS

Colorado College, a highly selective liberal arts college with an enrollment of approximately 1900 students, seeks to fill five tenure-track positions for Fall 2013 in:

Inorganic Chemistry
Biological Anthropology
Dance Study
Global Christianity/ies
South Asian History I

Information about Colorado College is available at http://www.ColoradoCollege.edu.

Interested applicants should refer to the full job descriptions for each position found on the Faculty Positions page under Employment Opportunities, as they become available. Check the website for job closing date. Ph.D. must be complete or very nearly complete before starting date. Colorado College is distinctive for its modular “Block Plan” calendar. The academic year is divided into eight 3 week blocks. During each block, students take and faculty teach one course at a time, with a maximum enrollment of 25 students per class. Faculty teach six blocks per year.

The college’s unique academic calendar supports experiential learning opportunities such as field trips and service learning and lends itself to other innovative teaching and learning strategies. The college is committed to increasing the diversity of the college community. Candidates who can contribute to that goal are particularly encouraged to apply and to identify the ways in which they would bring diversity to our community.

As an Equal Opportunity Employer, Colorado College welcomes members of all groups and reaffirms its commitment not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, age, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, national origin or disability in its educational programs, activities, and employment practices.

 


 

I love Colorado Springs and have had the honor of guest lecturing at CC. Several of my colleagues have sent their kids to CC and they have done splendidly. It’s a tremendous learning environment.

 

Kitchen Chemistry: Rose Jelly. Sweet!

hand washed petals used to make rose jelly


Today, we bring you a fun, educational guest post from our friend and colleague, DrRubidium, a chemist researching and teaching on the Pacific Northwest. You can follow her on Twitter at @DrRubidium – DJK.

This summer, I began experimenting with jams and jellies, whipping up sweet and savory spreads in my kitchen laboratory. Blackberry, strawberry, grape, pineapple, tomato herb… rose?

After tasting rose jelly at a local farmer’s market, I decided make it at home.

The selected rose jelly recipe was easy:

  1. Steep hand-washed rose petals in water
  2. Filter out and discard solids, retain liquid (rose extract)
  3. Add sugar to rose extract
  4. Reach rolling boil
  5. Add pectin (read about the science of pectin here)
  6. Return to rolling boil
  7. Bottle and seal jars.

This recipe doesn’t just yield jelly, it also provides a great example of acid-base chemistry.

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