Imaginary Hazards and a Career in Chemistry

For my inaugural post as the Community Chemist, I’d like to talk about why I became so passionate about science outreach. I am currently a chemistry graduate student, but if I had to pick one moment in my professional career that stands out it would be the summer of 2010. I had just finished my first year as an undergraduate student and was volunteering at a fair for a chemistry-related student organization. One of the group members started a discussion with a concerned student. “Why anyone would major in chemistry when chemicals were destroying the earth with pollution?” “How do you eliminate chemicals from your daily life?” “Why do we make synthetic chemicals if they’re not as good as natural chemicals?” “How can sodium chloride be harmless if metals are known to be toxic?”

For someone with a basic understanding of science principles, those questions seem ignorant and their answers seem obvious. However, I listened to this conversation for over 20 minutes as different members of the group got involved to try and calmly explain different scientific concepts. I was inspired at this moment to see a group of people learn from each other with such different world views, but at the same time I was also disheartened to see how widespread misconceptions about science have become. This was the first time I witnessed the fear that can develop from scientific misunderstandings.

The world bristles with real and imaginary hazards, and distinguishing the former from the latter can be challenging. The biggest contributing factor I see in the community today is the absence of open and judgement-free conversations to address the concerns of others. It is a critical time to discuss difficult issues, teach each other about opposing viewpoints, and engage across ideological lines. It is a critical time to have conversation about education, race, gender, marriage, nationality, and credibility of science. It is a critical time to speak about yourself softly, facts confidently, religion respectfully, and politics politely.

It is our responsibility to be leaders in advocating for the scientific method and for scientific facts. This could mean advocacy, a career in politics, starting a blog, volunteering locally, or simply having friends outside of the science communities. As long as scientists continue to be involved, we will continue to make progress. Most journalists and reporters and politicians will never be able to have the same investment and understanding. If there is going to be any change in the way the general population views science, it will be due to the incremental and collective effort of many scientists.

-The Community Chemist