You Are a Walking, Talking Mass of Chemicals

U of G chemists want you to get enthused by the International Year of Chemistry

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"Chemistry involves everything," says lab co-ordinator Robert Reed.

It’s all about chemistry this year ─ and you can thank U of G chemist Bryan Henry. The emeritus professor has been a driving force behind the designation of 2011 by the United Nations as the International Year of Chemistry (IYC).

Now he’s working with international scientific groups and with Guelph chemists on projects intended to make their subject fun and relevant for the masses. U of G will hold several chemistry-themed events, including a planned speakers’ series, to promote the discipline on campus and in the community.

Worldwide, school kids and teachers will take part in a global water experiment to learn about water sampling and drinking water treatment. “Chlorination has saved more lives than many other things,” says Henry, who has focused on IYC promotion since retiring from the University in 2004. Referring to children, he says, “We’ve got to get them enthused, involved, doing things, comparing results with kids all over the world.”

“Chemistry: Our Life, Our Future” is the theme of this year’s celebration. The IYC is sponsored by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Bonnie Lasby, recruitment officer for the College of Physical and Engineering Science, says chemists face a challenge in promoting a field often blamed for pollution, environmental damage and health threats. But chemistry is a part of living, says this U of G chemistry grad. “You are a walking, talking mass of chemicals; everything you touch, see, feel, hear is a chemical reaction. Don’t pooh-pooh chemistry just because you didn’t like chemistry in high school.”

Think of cancer-fighting drugs and biodegradable plastics, says Robert Reed, U of G chemistry lab co-ordinator and a two-time Guelph graduate. “Chemistry involves everything.”

Lasby and Reed will help lead events at Guelph and nearby this year. They plan to stress chemistry at the U of G Interaction conference for high school students in April and at Science Rendezvous, an annual science festival held across Canada in May.

Lasby will talk up chemistry at science fairs; she and Reed are also planning a poster contest for area high school students. The Department of Chemistry also hopes to sponsor a campus lecture series by visiting chemists beginning this spring.

Besides encouraging interest in chemistry among young people, Henry says the IYC is intended to increase general appreciation of chemistry and celebrate the role of women in the discipline.

This year marks the centennial of the founding of the International Association of Chemistry Societies, the predecessor to IUPAC. Also 100 years ago, chemist Marie Curie received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

As IUPAC president in 2006, Henry proposed the idea of an International Year of Chemistry to the IUPAC executive and helped to ultimately persuade the United Nations General Assembly to designate 2011.

The Guelph professor now belongs to the IYC management committee, formed in 2008 and made up of representatives of major international chemical federations along with industry and UNESCO members. Henry has served as president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry and as an executive member of the International Council for Science, and has chaired the Chemical Institute of Canada (CIC).

“The UN declaration emphasized the role of chemistry in helping to achieve environmental sustainability,” says Henry. “We hope to show that chemistry is vital if we are to meet the UN millennium development goals.”

He says chemists help ensure clean drinking water, medicines, fuels, materials and safe food.  Far from producing pollutants, chemistry is being used to help manage waste, reduce pollution and improve sustainability, such as developing alternative fuels.

On campus, those kinds of applications appear in research in the Department of Chemistry, including the Electrochemical Technology Centre. U of G’s chemistry program includes the Guelph-Waterloo Centre for Graduate Studies in Chemistry and Biochemistry, one of Canada’s largest and most successful graduate schools.

National Chemistry Week, run by CIC, will take place across Canada in October; Canada Post will issue a commemorative stamp. The chemical institute will also run a YouTube video contest for middle and high school students.

For more information, visit www.chemistry2011.org.