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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.

3 Comments

  • Jan 25th 201410:01
    by john minukas

    Reply

    Good start. Perhaps ongoing features could address everyday science that most people take for granted, but would be interested to learn about: how yeast makes sourdough, or beer; introduce healthy ‘chemistry based’ treats like home made sauerkraut or kombucha; what’s the difference between baking soda and baking powder?- why both are used; etc.

  • Jan 25th 201419:01
    by Gaythia Weis

    Reply

    I think my thoughts are running in the same direction as John Minukas. You are off to a great start, and now we want to turn you into a regular columnist!
    In addition to the everyday chemistry suggestions he gives above, I think that news items like the West Virginia (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol release need to be acknowledged by chemists and discussed with the public. Perhaps reflecting my bias as an analytical chemist, I believe that it is important for the public to understand the roles that chemists play in detecting, containing or eliminating harmful chemicals from our environment. In addition to not making fun of members of the public who may not be well versed in chemistry, I think that it builds trust to acknowledge that feeling of concern may be legitimate. And then to go on to explain in more detail scientifically appropriate ways that that those concerns can be focused and expressed.

  • Jan 30th 201408:01
    by qvxb

    Reply

    Your level of writing is perfect. The backgrounds of people reading your articles are going to vary from never having had a chemistry course to having a PhD in chemistry. I think you should suggest that readers view your articles on-line and have Wikipedia open in another tab so that they can look up unfamiliar terms. I did this to see the structure of indole and found in the article that it has an intense fecal odor but smells flowery at low concentrations.

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