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Everyday chemistry

UC Irvine PhD candidate Kellen Kartub shares her fascination with Chemistry and explains how you can find it in everyday items, if you just ask the right questions.

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Everyone loves rockets. I think it is safe to say that if rockets are involved, you know it’s going to be a good day. From your backyard bottle rocket to the impressive technological feats we send into space, rockets are a visually pleasing and an exciting crowd pleaser.

So, it makes sense that many of the people who engage public audiences in science use rockets to draw people in. Educators, communicators, presenters, they love using rockets to capture interest in lessons about physics, engineering, and space.

But where most people see the cool design, powerful jets, and exploration of the final frontier, I see something beneath all that.

Chemistry.

Chemistry converts fuel into energy through combustion reactions. Chemistry creates the bonds and interactions that make material strong but lightweight. And yes, chemistry even powers your Alka-Seltzer fueled bottle rocket through a simple acid/base reaction that generates gas pressure.

I didn’t always see it. Actually, up until a few years ago, all I saw was the physics and engineering behind the rocket as well.

As I studied chemistry, first as an undergraduate and now a graduate student, I realized that my favorite lessons were the ones that demonstrated how integral chemistry is to other sciences.

But, unless I sought out those examples myself, for the most part these connections between chemistry and other “cool sciences” were usually only brought up during the final class as we eased into a school holiday.

Why weren’t all our lessons like this?

To me, bookending lessons with direct applications of what you are learning is a powerful method to engage audiences. It makes chemistry relatable, accessible, and all around more enjoyable to think about.

And the best part is, you don’t have to talk about fancy rockets. You can look to far simpler examples found in our everyday lives. Despite how abstract chemistry can be, it is as integral to our everyday as it is to sending a rocket into space, and I would argue that makes chemistry even more relatable. What is more relatable than experiences everyone can identify? And that is the rationale behind about my Instagram account, @chem.with.kellen.

At least five times a week I look around, snap a picture, and ask a question about what I observe. Then, I try to answer it using chemistry and write up my explanation on instagram. I ask questions like:

Kellen Kartub - Everyday Chemistry - Rice noodles
How do rice noodles stick together without gluten chains? Turns out the starches amylose and amylopectin can create long chains.
  • Why do roses smell so sweet?
  • What makes coffee acidic?
  • How can rice noodles stick together if they don’t have gluten?

You would be surprised how some of my simplest questions have produced hours of reading, research, and even some testing in that lab.

Clearly, I’m learning from these exercises in science communication. But is my audience, that is is the key question.

Honestly, I think they are. I see consistent growth in my account. I get good questions from scientists and nonscientists alike. And every now and then, I get that golden ticket where someone messages me saying my account encourages them to keep studying chemistry.

Obviously the questions I ask won’t capture everyone’s interest 100% of the time, but that isn’t the point. The point is for my audience to pause every now and then and realize that they engage in chemistry, or science in general, every day. And hopefully, to empower them to start asking more questions and searching for answers themselves whether through reading, or experimentation regardless of age or experience.

I don’t want science, and especially chemistry, to be this big, scary club that only certain people have access to. Science is everywhere and it’s for everyone. My hope is to dispel the myth that science is only for trained scientists and to encourage people to discover the scientist within themselves.

Not everyone has access to the flashy stuff, and not all chemistry is flashy. Actually a lot of it isn’t. But I think the everyday experience is fascinating and I know it is cramjammed full of chemistry if we just take the time to think about it and appreciate it.

I hope my account gets people to start appreciating and thinking about chemistry that exists in their lives.

So hopefully, the next time you see a rocket, or a rose, or drink some coffee, you stop and think “what kind of chemistry is going on here?”

 

About Kellen

Kellen Kartub is a Ph.D. candidate in chemistry at UC, Irvine. Though her research focuses on using nanoparticles to aid analytical techniques such a biosensors, her interests in chemistry and science are wide and varied. This is reflected in her Instagram, which aims to give simple explanations of everyday interactions with science. Follow Chem with Kellen on Instagram and feel free to ask questions!

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Kellen Kartub in the lab.

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