What are you for Halloween? …um, a chemist

When you think of a chemist, what comes to mind?

This is what the general public thinks chemists do all day. Photo credit: flickr user gnotalex.

It’s Halloween, and you may see a mad scientist or two roaming the streets.

It reminds me of how when I tell people I’m a chemist, I can often see the wheels turning in their head as they wonder if I play with oozing chemicals all day long, mixing them and seeing what explodes.

Then I tell them what I actually do. Here’s how it goes:

So, what have you been doing in the lab for the past four years?

That’s a good question! I use chemistry to make photoactive glass surfaces and then shine a laser on the surface to attach proteins that are involved in inflammation. Then I flow white blood cells (ya-know, the cells of your immune system) over the protein-coated surface and study how they interact with the proteins.

Huh, interesting…. So, are you curing a disease?

Well, no. But my research will lead to a better understanding of how inflammation works, which could one day lead to the development of better anti-inflammatory drugs.

Hmmm… that’s cool.

Speaking of Halloween and dressing up…

…sometimes I feel like I’m dressing up every day. Here’s what I mean:

As a grad student by day and blogger/freelancer by night, I often feel like I’m a researcher masquerading as a science writer, or vice versa.

I’m doing experiments, analyzing my data, writing it up for my dissertation… then I’m blogging, interviewing scientists and writing stories about their research. I’m happy to be involved in such a diversity of activities, but I’m looking forward to graduating, moving on from the bench chemistry phase of my life– and not having an identity crisis anymore!

Now back to the topic of the public perception of chemists…

While some chemists play with oozing chemicals, I’d say the majority of chemists do things that are less flashy day to day, and consequently, they’re not portrayed in the media.

What chemists actually do

The xkcd comic I’ve included shows why the public’s perception of scientists is so different from reality. It just wouldn’t be beneficial to a TV program to have the scenario on the right play out. Science in real life is slow moving. Science on TV has to be fast-paced and full of discoveries at every turn.

Hilarious and sad at the same time... Credit: http://xkcd.com/683/

The majority of the time in research is spent doing the laborious, often tedious, work that’s needed to increase your chances of having that breakthrough moment.

Before doing an experiment, chemists are reading papers to see what others have done, making a plan, talking it over with colleagues, and finally executing the experiment, which yields lots of data that takes days or weeks to sift through to figure out what happened.

It’s Halloween, and instead of agonizing over the fact that the general public perceives chemists as people with crazy hair who mix things together and make explosions, here’s a few ideas for how you can show people that yes, chemistry is really cool.

Halloween Chemistry

I found some websites with all kinds of Halloween chemistry tricks that you can bring to your next party:

Cool Jack-O-Lanterns, complete with glow-in-the-dark paint, dry ice fog, or even cooler, green fire made with boric acid and methanol. Here are some other suggested ways to make colored fire. Neat!

Recipes for fake blood, made with corn syrup and food coloring.

Recipes for fake flesh, also from corn starch, water and food coloring.

Change water into blood: This trick was recently blogged about by CENtral Science’s Sidechain Bob—check it out here!

How to make a dry ice “smoke machine”.

Any other suggestions for cool Halloween chemistry tricks?

Stay safe and have a Happy Halloween, everyone!

Author: Christine Herman

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1 Comment

  1. I think that the common view of scientists are perpetuated by the reputation of a handful of very famous scientists. For example, Einstein had wild hair, wore the same clothing day in and day out, and had so many holes in his pants that he used safety pins to hold his pants together.