illustration by Owen Gatley

The New Faces of Chemistry

Brief videos by student chemists hit their mark.

It began with the white guys in beards. Teaching freshman chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cathy Drennan noticed that the textbooks taught the basics—but from a dusty, historical perspective.

“A lot of students would look at the pictures and think, ‘Chemistry is something that is done by dead white men,’” she says. “Students didn't see why it is useful now.”

So Drennan, an HHMI investigator and HHMI professor, launched a project. Rather than resurrect Dmitri Mendeleev or Amedeo Avogadro from the pages of chemistry’s history, Drennan enlisted young chemists to talk about what they do today. And she kept the conversations short—less than three minutes.

Backed by HHMI, Drennan created a series of short videos to help educators make chemistry accessible, desirable, and relatable. The result was success—the students fell in love with the chemists along with their chemistry.

The project began with a search for the right chemists. They had to be engaging on camera, diverse, and doing research that illustrates a fundamental chemical principle. With the help of chemistry instructor Beth Vogel Taylor, Drennan queried, cornered, and cajoled the best candidates at MIT. In that search, the two happened upon George Zaidan, a former undergraduate chemistry major at MIT with a knack for video production. They also found PhD chemist Mary O’Reilly, who has a gift for illustration, particularly molecular abstractions for video. The two became crucial to the production team.

During the interviews, Drennan added a throwaway question: how the budding chem-actors first got interested in science. The answers opened doors to much more than pure science.

“When I was younger I read a lot of comic books,” said postdoc Nozomi Ando in her video. “I read a classic series on ninjas. I really wanted to become one.” Ando explained how she modeled her scientific education after ninja training—a long apprenticeship, a mentor, and discipline as an art form. She also described the principle of chemical equilibrium as it plays out in understanding chemotherapeutic drug targets.

Samuel Thompson, now a graduate student, talked about growing up as an artistic, intellectual, and gay teen in a small town in Texas. He also explained how understanding acids and bases is critical for probing living cells. Postdoc (now assistant professor) Hector Hernandez, born in Honduras, shared how he first studied chemistry as a community college student at the almost ancient age of 29. Then, he got into solubility as it relates to manipulating microbes to counteract climate change. Former graduate student Lourdes Alemán connected chemical bonding and structure to treating disease, and revealed that her inspiration was her father, a scientist in Cuba who was banned from practicing science because he was Catholic.

The videos made their mark, first on budding MIT students and then on a broader audience of university and high school students, some of whom were surveyed after watching.

“It wasn’t like this is some godly researcher that we will never be close to,” said one viewer in a follow-up interview. “It was like, ‘Okay. This is a person. I could probably talk to this person if we met in real life.’ ”

Measuring Motivation

Drennan’s team measured impact through experiment. The team showed a series of six videos to MIT undergraduate chemistry students over the course of half a semester. During the other half, the students saw no videos. Drennan’s team then compared student responses to questionnaires during both halves. They did this three times, for two different semester classes.

The students ranked their motivation on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). The videos appeared to significantly boost drive and interest in chemistry. The results also turned up a surprise. While Drennan had made a conscious effort to showcase diversity, minority and non-minority students showed equal enthusiasm for the videos.

The main difference occurred between genders. After viewing the videos, female students’ motivation jumped 1.3 points (from an average 3.8 to 5.1), while motivation among males rose 0.7 points (from 4.2 to 4.9).

Why the gender difference? Although her team didn’t explore this question experimentally, Drennan has observed that more female students than males need to feel the subject is of real world value to want to continue. Basically, Drennan explains, chemistry, like other scientific subjects, is a demanding, lengthy investment. Women are willing to pursue it—and possibly delay starting a family, for instance—if they believe a specific pursuit will make the world a better place—for example, by improving medicine or the environment.

“Some of the culturalization is that women, if they want to have a career, have to justify why that is a useful thing to do,” Drennan, herself a mother, sums up. “Whereas, a lot of the men are just like, chemistry was hard, and I did it. Yes!”

The passion can—and should—start much earlier than college, Drennan asserts. She and her team are showing the videos to high school and middle school teachers to encourage use in science classes and spark that passion earlier. It’s an easy sell, because the videos are unique: short, easily inserted into a class, and full of diverse and youthful characters, says Anique Olivier-Mason, a technical instructor at MIT who is heading Drennan’s outreach effort. Some teachers, she says, are handpicking certain videos for specific students—for example, showing the Hector Hernandez video to a young Hispanic man who is thinking of community college.

“Even in high school, not every student is ready for all the science,” says Olivier-Mason. “But the personal videos are approachable to students of all levels.”

“Together, the 12 videos present a picture of who contemporary chemists are,” says Beth Vogel Taylor. “Inspiring people students can relate to.”