Nobel Role Models: Heroes and Heroines?

President Barack Obama wasn’t the only one to receive a Nobel Prize last week.  On Thursday, December 10, the Nobel Prizes in science and literature were awarded in Stockholm, Sweden.  (The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo, Norway.)

I blogged last week about the value of these individuals as role models and heroes for those of us involved in science. (See “Life Lessons from Laureates “ at the American Chemical Society’s “ACS Careers” blog.)  Over my years as a science writer, I’ve had the opportunity to interview a number of Nobel Laureates, and I’ve found them to be both gracious and smart.

In addition to Nobel Laureate Dudley Herschbach, whom I mentioned in the ACS Careers blog post as an interviewee and a former teacher of mine, I came across recent information online about two other Nobel Laureates–information that further confirms these two scientists as worthy role models.

First, one of this year’s Nobel Laureates in Medicine, Carol Greider, says, “I live a pretty normal life.” As a single parent with two children (ages 10 and 13), she is a role model for all of us seeking to maintain the ever-elusive “work-family balance.”   In fact, she was folding laundry at 5 a.m. on October 5 when she received the telephone call from the Nobel Committee informing her of the news. An article on provides more details about this heroine (see “A Day in the ‘Normal’ Life of a Nobel Prize Winner”.}

The second scientist who can serve as a good role model for scientists is Bill Lipscomb.   He received the 1976 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and he’s been a professor at Harvard University since 1959 .  Prior to moving to Harvard, he was on the faculty at the University of Minnesota.

He celebrated his 90th birthday on December 9, with a big celebration given by his “scientific family” (former students, students of students, and students of students of students–his scientific children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren).

When I was a grad student at Harvard, Lipscomb had already received his Nobel Prize, so there was a certain mystique to his research group.  The thing that I remember most about him (in addition to the string tie that he always wore) was his sense of humor, as demonstrated by his leadership role in establishing the Ig Nobel Awards.   If you appreciate good scientific humor (no, that’s not an oxymoron), you’ll want to check out the Ig Nobel website.

Published in: on December 14, 2009 at 11:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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What Mowing the Lawn Can Teach

Here’s a link to my guest blog article, published today in the New York Times‘ “Motherlode” blog.

I’d write more, but I have to go outside and quickly mow my lawn so that it looks halfway decent.

Published in: on June 11, 2009 at 10:55 am  Leave a Comment  
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Kindergarten Chemistry

In his inaugural address, President Obama thrilled scientists across the country by simply uttering the following phrase:  “We will restore science to its rightful place.”

What a relief! The last eight years have been bleak for many scientists, as the Bush administration seemed to place ideology over scientific fact all too often. A good overview of scientists’ attitude can be found in this January 21st New York Times article, Scientists Welcome Obama’s Words.”

Science will clearly play a more important role in the Obama administration. It’s about time. Science and technology have a great deal to offer on policy issues such as climate change, energy, and health care. Encouraging scientists and engineers to help on these issues is certainly one of the things that Obama meant when he referred to science’s “rightful place.”

But that’s not the only “rightful place” where science must return.

I did my small part last week, when I helped restore science to one of its most important rightful places–the Kindergarten classroom.

As a Christmas gift to my godchild, a bright and curious five-year-old girl, I offered to visit her class to do some hands-on science activities. When my sons were in elementary school, I enjoyed doing this once or twice every year at their school. However, it’s been more than five years since I stepped into a classroom. It’s definitely time to restore science to its rightful place…

I was just as excited as the students were when we began our activity last week. We did an activity that uses red cabbage as an acid-base indicator. You just rub the red cabbage leaf on an index card to leave a big reddish-purplish smudge. Then, you can dip a Q-Tip in a common household acid, such as vinegar (acetic acid) or lemon juice (citric acid). Swiping the moistened Q-Tip across the smudge will reveal a color change. You can also dip a Q-Tip in a common household base (a mixture of water and baking soda or Alka-Seltzer works well) and repeat the experiment to get a different color change.

We experimented with other plant materials–from carrots to radishes to hydrangea petals. Some gave us wonderful color changes, and others gave us no change.  We talked about making observations, making guesses, and doing experiments–the scientific method.

At the end of the class, I asked all scientists in the room to raise their hand. With a little prodding, every Kindergartner (and the teacher and I) raised a hand.

Science was restored to its rightful place.


Want to try the experiment yourself? Here’s a copy of the information I sent home with the students that evening. (I printed the handout on goldenrod-colored paper, which also undergoes some fascinating color changes when you try the same experiment.)


“Science is Fun”

In Mrs. A’s class today, we did some hands-on science experiments involving chemistry and color changes. We learned about some household acids (lemon juice, vinegar, soda pop) and bases (baking soda, Milk of Magnesia). We used red cabbage to make an acid-base indicator that can be used to test pH, a measure of acidity.

pH measurement can be important in many areas of life. If you watch your favorite TV show or movie carefully, you just might start seeing acid-base chemistry in action:

  • Medicine — Blood pH is a routine medical test. It’s part of the “blood gas” test the ER doctors always seem to want on their patients.
  • Cosmetics — Watch those ads carefully. Is your shampoo “pH-balanced?”
  • Food – Acid indigestion? Eat too much of that rich food? You might want to use “Tums” (a base) to take care of that extra stomach acid.
  • Forensic science – Those CSI investigators can tell you all about acids, bases, and pH.
  • Recreation — Swimming pools and hot tubs must be maintained at a constant pH. In those movies set in Southern California, the cute guy that takes care of those pools seems to always be kneeling by the side of the pool testing its pH.

Today’s activity is just one of dozens of fun “kitchen chemistry” experiments that you can do with safe materials that are readily available at your grocery store. If you want to try some of these experiments in your own home, there are many resources available. Here are some to get you started.

Resources on the Internet

One of the handiest sources for wonderful experiments is the World Wide Web. Here are two sites that I highly recommend.
This site, from the Exploratorium (San Francisco’s science museum), is perennially voted one of the best science sites on the web.
The website of the American Chemical Society (ACS) is a rich resource of information about chemistry. The webpage listed here will point you towards dozens of science activities for children (and their adult helpers). The red cabbage experiment that we did today is adapted from the activity called “Lose the Indicator Blues.” To go directly to the page for this activity, use this address:

Published in: on February 5, 2009 at 11:25 am  Comments (11)  
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January 22 is “Thank Your Mentor Day”

Here’s a link to one of my blog articles on the ACS Careers blog:

Out of my high school graduating class of 400 students, three of us went on to get Ph.D. degrees in chemistry—an amazing proportion that’s a factor of 10 greater than expected. Was it something in the water?

No. It was Mr. Sturtevant, our chemistry teacher. He was enthusiastic, creative, and passionate about chemistry. He treated all his students (he called us his “little chemists”) with a respect that let us know we were on the cusp of young adulthood. more

Published in: on January 22, 2009 at 10:31 am  Comments (3)  
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