Chemists: Tell us your story

Sileshi (left) and Dawit with the apparatus they've built. Photo by Peter Mahaffy.

Dawit Tibebu has a way with trash. Visit his bench at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa University and you’ll find him crafting distilling flasks from discarded heat-tempered light bulbs and condensers made from hoses snaked through discarded and conjoined water bottles. With lab set ups built from discarded materials such as these, the chemistry student and his mentor Sileshi Yitbarek hope to help bring simple, hands-on chemistry experiments to regional and rural schools in Africa that can’t afford traditional lab equipment. I heard Dawit’s story from Peter Mahaffy, a chemistry professor at King’s University College in Edmonton and chair of the IUPAC committee that helped make 2011 the International Year of Chemistry. The International Year of Chemistry’s “success will be measured by how we engage the public,” Mahaffy told me over lunch last week. He had just landed in Boston to speak about the year-long celebration at the invitation of the American Chemical Society’s Northeastern section. To capture the public’s attention, he argued, chemists need to tell more stories like Dawit’s. “Human stories--not stories of chemicals or substances--are what drive interest in the subject of chemistry,” he explained. “Those are the stories we need to be telling.” I couldn’t agree more. Those are exactly the kind of the stories we’re trying to tell at C&EN. If you've got an inspiring human story of chemistry like Dawit's, please share it below.

Author: Amanda Yarnell

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  1. Whoop whoop! Dr. Mahaffy was my first-year professor at King’s! Also my second year organic. And my third year p-chem. King’s is really tiny but really great, especially for chemistry. It’s great to hear he’s still doing such awesome things there!

  2. People have been doing this for years at home in first world countries, because draconian regulations often prevent non business or academia affiliated individuals from purchasing lab equipment and chemicals.

    Where is the story on the marginalized home chemist making flasks out of light bulbs, designing castner cells, or finding methods of making sulfur trioxide at home?

    a few examples of human stories of chemistry:

  3. I go to King’s University and have taken organic chemistry with him. Mahaffey is a fantastic professor!!! I am so grateful for that man..he is amazing!

  4. Rexford Hale Bradt was a paper chemist with Fox River Paper Appleton, WI,
    before he was commissioned by the Manhattan Project and sent to Decatur,IL, to work for what was the Corn Products Co. while the Chicago Univ. site was being set up… Said to be the only colloidal chemist with the Chicago staff, Rex told later that storage boxes functioned as furniture for nearly the first year, and that their work time was used for important research rather than inventory; so it was at the end of that year that he learned that his seat by his writing surface was a box of uranium. (He requested a post-mortem autopsy to assess the effects of that radiation exposure…)
    Upon the return of the soldiers at the end of WW II, he moved his family to make room for the landlord’s son, and the closest (affordable) location was 50 miles away. He was registered in Illinois both as a Chemist and as an Engineer and commuted the round trip from West Gary,IN, to his Chicago consulting jobs every day. In 1949 the home was vandalized and torn up – but the only items taken were his M. project research notes…
    The interim years found Rex exploring the worlds of thermosetting resins (esp. Bakelite) and various styrenes in his search for an unbreakable plastic toy… He took his ideas to
    DuPont De Ne-moures,E.I,% Co., but they said they’d been trying for 25 yrs. with no success…
    Rex began to formulate plans for production with such confidence that he and his wife (with 5 children) chose Warsaw, IN, as a permanent home… He pioneered the field of fiber-reinforced injection molding compounds by starting his company, “Fiberfil, Inc.” there in 1950… He financed the start-up with funds from his Hale Mfg. Co. which supplied a mildew-proofing formula/treatment for military webbings. An additional Chemist’s challenge took him to Cuyahoga Falls,OH,in 1954 to help formulate a de-waxing process for reclaiming paper…
    Note further that at the 57th SPE Conference in 1999, the SPE Int’l. Awards Luncheon presenters gave Rex Bradt the Fred O. Conley Award for outstanding achievements in Plastics Engineering/Technology with his Material Research Innovations Corp. Then, in 2001 Rex was named to the National Plastics Hall of Fame in Leominster,MA. * * * *
    Quite a stretch for a Chemist blowing glass during THE Depression to be remembered with the Year of the Chemist!