Although it is now nearly 20 years since I gave up working in the lab and moved into the world of scientific, technical and medical (STM) publishing, I still consider myself to be first and foremost a scientist – a chemist in fact. I had wanted to be a chemist pretty much from the time that I did my first chemistry experiment at secondary school. The experiment was the purification of rock salt: we did it over three lessons and it consisted of grinding the rock salt in a pestle and mortar, dissolving it in water, filtering it through filter paper and then concentrating the solution over a Bunsen burner until the purified salt recrystallised. To my shame, I can’t remember the name of the teacher who took those lessons, but I owe her my career.
I went on to read biological chemistry at university, focussing on the chemical processes that drive metabolism, response to infections, movement and sensory mechanisms, growth and reproduction. By contrast, my first job (with SmithKlineFrench – now GSK) involved large-scale chemistry – at the largest scale I was involved in making hundreds of kilos of ingredients for drugs, which also involved swapping my lab coat and glassware for a boiler suit, heavy boots and a hard hat and working with the big kit! I loved it!
The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have proclaimed 2011 to be the International Year of Chemistry (IYC). The year is an opportunity to celebrate the successes and achievements of chemists past and present and to ponder how they will continue to make their mark in the future. An important goal of IYC is to engender more interest in chemistry among young people. I get the impression from my family and friends that not many felt like I did about their first chemistry experiment – so how can we get school kids fired up?
For students, chemistry is often an intensely theoretical subject, lots of theorums, laws and equations to learn and data to memorise. But in real life, chemistry is essentially a practical subject – it’s about making things, be that through biochemical processes or processes initiated and controlled by humans. Looking around me now I can see chemistry in everything in my office: the paint on the walls; the plastic that makes up the window frames and the glass within them; the wood of my desk; and the dyed wool in the carpet. As I save the latest version of this blog, I’m reminded of the special properties of silicon and germanium atoms without which the electronics industry wouldn’t exist. And as I watch my fingers moving across the keyboard and listen to my breath sounds, I can’t help thinking about the very complex chemistry – chemistry that we are still getting to grips with – that is going on inside me all of the time.
In the UK, the food and farming industries have made a huge effort in recent years to help children to understand the relationship between the animals and crops they see in the fields and the food on their plates. I think that the chemical industry, in all its guises, needs to undertake a similar exercise to help people understand the universality of chemistry. That it’s not just about artificial building materials and fabrics, food additives, pharmaceuticals and pesticides, that natural colourings, building materials and medicines come about by chemical processes too. Perhaps we can convince them that chemistry is not something that other people do in huge plants belching steam and smells but something that we all have a vested interest in.
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