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“Chemical” Is Not a Dirty Word

What does an organic chemistry professor do when his kids hate chemicals? Dr. Garg’s colorful solution shows them a new way to look at the world.

Mmmm … bacon. Blueberries. Maple syrup. What do these things all have in common? Organic chemistry, of course.

Problem is, when most people think of chemicals, they think of chemical spills, toxins, side effects, and other negative images. “Most people don’t even understand the basic definition of organic chemistry. They don’t know that organic chemistry is about chemicals that include carbon, let alone how many things are made up of these chemicals,” says Neil Garg, PhD, a professor of chemistry at UCLA.

Chemistry’s negative approval rating hit home for Garg — literally — two years ago when his wife was pregnant with twins and placed on bed rest. Her absence left Garg with some extra wrangling of schedules for himself and their two daughters, Elaina and Kaylie (then 8 and 4), as well as dinner prep. The switch-up in afterschool routine was a challenge for everyone, especially their youngest. “I gave Kaylie whatever we were eating, and she just stared at me and raised her nose and said, ‘Does this have chemicals in it!?'” Garg was taken aback. “I was like, ‘Where did you get this? You’re 4! Yes, of course it has chemicals. Everything we eat has chemicals in it!'”

As an educator, Garg had plenty of experience explaining the finer points of organic chemistry — but to college students. To make the “Chemistry isn’t the enemy” message clearer to his own kids, Garg was tasked with taking a more tactile and, later, more colorful approach. Kaylie’s misplaced disdain for chemicals further inspired Garg to get the word out to other kids who might find beauty in a chemical structure and (who knows) one day land in his OC introductory course.

Educator

Neil K. Garg, PhD

Professor of Chemistry, UCLA

National Institutes of Health (NIH) Postdoctoral Fellow, PhD in Organic Chemistry, BS in Chemistry, minor in Mathematics

How to teach organic chem to kids? Start with dessert

Kaylie’s query prompted Garg to begin teaching his girls about the specific chemicals in some of their favorite things. To grab their attention immediately, he began with dessert. “I explained that they like it because of the chemicals that are in it,” he says. Specifically, sucrose (C12H22O11) — a disaccharide found in table sugar — is composed of two simpler sugars, glucose and fructose, and (of course) that’s what makes desserts, candy, and other treats sweet.

After that, the girls never had a shortage of questions about what foods and household items contain chemicals and how those chemicals work. “It became a little bit of a game,” says Garg. Why are blueberries blue? What chemical makes bacon smell so good? What chemical causes soap to make bubbles? “Elaina had an easier time with understanding the concepts,” says Garg, who began sketching the molecules on paper to show the girls how these compounds looked. The visuals particularly helped 4-year-old Kaylie put it into perspective a bit. From there, the idea grew into The Organic Coloring Book: A Coloring Book to Help Kids Discover the Awesomeness of Organic Chemistry, by Elaina Garg, Kaylie Garg, and Neil K. Garg.

To bring the book to life, Garg enlisted some help with computer formatting, graphic arts and illustrations, and editing from his longtime friend Daniel Caspi (Element TwentySix) and two UCLA graduate students, Joyann Barber and Emma Baker-Tripp. He then produced the book using CreateSpace, an Amazon company that provides the tools and services to help people self-publish books and distribute them via Amazon. The book was first printed by the Garg and Family Publishing Company in 2017.

“The message I’d like to share with educators,” says Garg, “is that people in our field are especially active in research, but we don’t often spend our time doing this type of activity. But it is so easy to do. And it can have a really high impact. That would be my challenge to other educators: to think about activities that are relatively easy to do that can have a really high impact on society’s impression of our field.”

How did chemistry become a dirty word? Here’s a brief history

It wasn’t always this way. In 1935, chemicals were held in such esteem that DuPont’s tagline was “Better things for better living through chemistry.” According to AdAge, this was “perhaps the most enduring tagline in business-to-business marketing history.” But as early as 1981, they dropped the last two words, and in 1999, the company replaced the entire tagline with “The miracles of science.” At the time, DuPont’s CEO, Charles Holliday, Jr., explained, “Clearly, we don’t want to be seen as a chemical company. It’s really limiting, and it doesn’t describe who we are.”

DuPont said they were leaving the petroleum business and bringing biological sciences on board. But it’s no secret that the word chemical has been gaining notoriety for years as referring to carcinogens, pollutants, and explosives, infiltrating nearly every aspect of our world. The anti-chem press has ramped up over time, creeping into the news in new ways each year. Case in point: In 2014, a nonprofit took up a widely reported lawsuit against coffee kingpins such as Starbucks to require them to warn java drinkers of acrylamide — an organic chemical (C3H5N0) found in coffee beans and some plastics, among other things. Why? Research shows that this chemical may be carcinogenic. “The fact is,” says Garg, “that chemical may have a big effect … but it’s all about how much of it you ingest.” Other scientists have noted that you’d need to down 100 cups or more in a day to reach toxic levels — a fact that gets buried, if it’s ever included in the sensational stories at all.

Suffice it to say, there’s big news in calling out chemicals as evildoers. Which leaves those who love chemistry with a big responsibility: to turn the tables, or at least help the public have a more balanced and accurate opinion of chemicals. After all, according to the American Chemical Society, all living organisms, including humans, are made of carbon-containing compounds and are, therefore, part of organic chemistry. Over the years, OC has expanded to include human-made substances, including ones that truly do make our lives better — such as food and pharmaceuticals.

As a result of this, Garg worries that the number of college students pursuing organic chemistry may not be what it could be, were it not for this field’s pervasive PR problem. “People who want to help people, for example, may decide to become a doctor. That’s a perfectly valid career path,” says Garg. “But they don’t realize that the people making all the medicines they use are chemists!

“For me, it’s important to raise the overall awareness of the impact of this field,” says Garg, who feels that it’s up to him and others in organic chemistry to do a better job of making sure that the public sees the positive impact of carbon-based compounds. With enough scientists spreading the word, a new generation of lovers of organic chemistry could be born, resulting in more great minds working to solve thorny problems that face our world today, including cancer, pollution, and food shortages.

How can educators change OC’s bad rap? Start with children

Creating the coloring book began as a way to bond with and educate his own daughters, but Garg quickly realized that this work had the potential to impact more than two little girls. “If I wanted to make a fortune, I’d have written an organic chemistry textbook,” jokes Garg. “This coloring book has never been about the money.” Even if kids who grow up coloring in chemical structures don’t become organic chemists, Garg hopes that their awareness may change the overall perception of chemistry and encourage more students to pursue its various branches in college and careers. As Stanford University professor Paul Wender is quoted on the book’s back cover:

“This coloring book brings the unbridled curiosity of a young mind together with the wonders of our molecular world in ways that will surely inspire discovery, fun, and perhaps a lifelong appreciation of the ubiquity and impact of chemistry.”

As an OC enthusiast, Garg knows that small things have a tendency to add up to larger things (or compound, if you will). Which is why Garg has made appearances in local preschools and elementary schools to share the family’s book and their message. Recently, his grad students printed out massive posters of some of the pages to spread on the floor of Kaylie’s classroom for coloring. “We also brought in a lemon and a bottle of soap and talked about the chemicals in them,” says Garg. Linking the word “chemicals” to familiar substances and a fun pastime is a great way to start breaking down the barriers that caused Kaylie to turn up her nose at chemicals in the first place. Elaina, too, has brought the book to her elementary school’s Science Day, sitting at a table with her mom, handing out free copies, and signing autographs upon request.

“If we can give 500 copies of our coloring book to kids and that has an impact, that’s cool,” says Garg. “I hope that the book will make children want to know what organic chemistry is. I hope they’ll say, ‘I had this coloring book I used to love!’ I think my 10-year-old will get a big kick out of taking what she knows about organic chemistry to the next level.”

Garg, too, is planning to take his mission to the next level — and to other generations: Currently, he’s working with some of his UCLA lab students to create a coloring book for adults to make the concepts more accessible to adult audiences. The team hopes to finish this iteration sometime in 2018.

Oh, and for those of you who’ve been thinking about bacon this whole time: 2,5-dimethylpyrazine (C6H8N2) is a chemical that helps to make it smell so good. According to Cheesy the Mouse, who narrates The Organic Coloring Book, it’s one of 150 chemicals found in this popular breakfast food. To learn more about soap, sugar, and blueberries, you’ll just have to check out the Garg family’s book on Amazon.

Now, where are my markers?

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