Today I spent my afternoon at Perth’s Chemfest 2011, an event held to celebrate the International Year of Chemistry in the city I live in. It was also fortunate that I was in town which meant that I was able to attend. Yesterday I received an email from Murdoch University’s STAR Peer Tutoring Programme calling for volunteers to help out for a few hours at their stall with chemistry demonstrations. Without thinking I put my hand up for it. It was where I began my science communication activities when I was an undergraduate student.
Upon arriving I saw people gathered around stalls and tables with chemistry displays and demonstrations. The Chem Centre‘s Emergency Response Vehicle was also out on show. I could not believe the number of analytical instruments in the one van. The description of it being a mobile laboratory was not an exaggeration.
I think I arrived during the peak time. I had trouble getting to the stall I was supposed to be at. Though what warmed the cockles of my heart was seeing the absence of explosions and flashes of colour from exhibitions. And to be honest, it was a relief. Chemistry is so much more than explosions and colour, and maybe it’s just me but those sorts of shows are boring. They also do a disservice to chemistry. Chemists are not pyrotechnicians, well some are, but not most of them.
Available on display included careers in mining, biomedical research, forensics, and environmental sciences. In addition to the careers, I was blown away by the exhibitions that brought out the chemistry used to make money. Who would have thought, chemistry can turn a profit. One in particular was the National Centre of Excellence in Desalination where people were invited to taste test five samples of water, desalinated water, natural spring water, tap water, distilled water, and salty water and identify them. It was brilliant. It demonstrated how desalinated water tastes like tap water and not something to be feared. I found that the natural spring water provided second worst, only the salty water sample tasted worse.
When I made it to the Murdoch University tables, I popped on my Chemfest 2011 lanyard and set to work. What was really lovely about the demonstrations from the three different areas of the university was that I was able to swap in between them seamlessly. The three areas on display were Extractive Metallurgy, (if I couldn’t help out here, I may as well hand back my degree), demonstrations used by the STAR Peer Tutoring Programme, and a simulated distillation set up involved with creating biodiesel from algae in a partnership with the University of Adelaide.
Inadvertently, I was also able to show people that despite all the expertise you may have and with all the equipment at hand that experiments don’t always go as expected, or in my case, not at all. Welcome to science. I continued on with the rest of the demonstrations in front of me and they went according to plan. The people who came by were forgiving. I think it was because I was honest and I didn’t let one failed demonstration fluster me.
I also had students of all ages ask me about working in chemistry. There were six year olds, high school students and even a few professionals wanting a change in career. I was able to talk about not just my journey in chemistry and where I am but also highlight the wealth of opportunity it provided. We were surrounded by so many different areas of science that either relied on chemistry or had chemistry as a cornerstone of the field.
By the end of Chemfest 2011, my voice was hoarse, evidence that it’s been a while since I’ve manned a stall at a science event. I didn’t even notice the time go by with the constant flow of people. My assumption that there would be a slow down of people visiting stalls during Scitech’s Ignite Your Chemistry show promising fire, explosions and colour was wrong. I didn’t get to rest my voice like I thought I would. I found that people were wanting to know about the chemistry, especially the chemistry in their every day lives.
I was able to catch up with some of the committee members of the Western Australian branch of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. We were all kept busy with our stalls and all agreed that it was a good turn out. There was a really good atmosphere around the place and we had all been able to discuss chemistry with people outside of our fields of expertise. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.