• Lori N Willhite

A Hidden GEM (Girl Experimenting with Math and Science)

I’m at my parents’ house in California to ride out the COVID-19 quarantine with my family. My dad found an old CD labelled “Lori’s first digital camera 2004-2005”, with a little dog paw print drawn on it in sharpie. You can only imagine the GOLD that I found on this CD. As expected, it is comprised of about 90% photos and videos of my childhood dog, Oreo. You can see that he was not very amused by my constant photo taking.

In such uncertain and uncomfortable times due to the novel corona virus, it was so lovely to unexpectedly find such heart-warming memories. I am SO happy to have some new embarrassing photos of my brother. But there were a few photos that I stumbled upon the real hidden gems that made me really proud and excited.

I remember finding these little science experiments in my fifth-grade science textbook. We never did these in class, but I asked my parents if I could try some at home. I have vague memories of doing a few of these. One experiment was to replicate how the human lung works using two balloons and a cut-up water bottle. Another experiment was to examine how acid effects different surfaces. I put pennies and a paper clip in a cup of vinegar with some salt. Photos of this experiment are the hidden gems that I uncovered some photos of in my CD from my first digital camera.

First, I documented the pennies in the vinegar and their color before the experiment. I still have a fairly large penny collection today, and I specifically remember that I used some of my older pennies for this experiment because they have a higher copper content.

I then added the paper clip and salt, and noted the paper clip’s color as well. I marked down some observations at various time intervals. I noted the bubbles forming on the paperclip, and eventually the darkening color of the paperclip. I especially like my selfie with my experiment, which exposes my lack of proper of PPE.

Today, I am on the uptight side of the spectrum in the laboratory. I am VERY strict with myself and my colleagues about proper PPE. This is partially because of my cautious, slightly perfectionist personality, but it also stems from my experience working in a clean lab for high precision isotope geochemistry. Isotope geochemistry can involve some very dangerous chemicals. One example is hydrogen fluoride, or HF, that a lot of geochemists have to work with. We use it in rock digestion (to dissolve the rocks), and we use it in column chromatography (to separate out specific elements from the rocks), and we use it to clean our beakers and other laboratory items that need to be super duper clean.

I think I can forgive my 10-year-old self for not wearing eye protection, but only because she did take diligent lab notes.

This is another aspect of lab work in which I am very strict. I am slow in the lab sometimes because I spend time taking very thorough notes. I NEVER want to be unsure of my procedures or my data! I owe this attention to detail to my master’s advisor. I’m so grateful he instilled in us the important of detailed personal lab notes. I hope someday when I mentor students in the lab, I will pass on this important habit as well.

So here is how the penny + paperclip experiment turned out.

How this works: the acid in vinegar (acetic acid) dissolves iron from the paper clip and dissolves copper from the pennies. Copper will replace some of the iron on the paperclip and coat the paperclip. So which metal do you think is more reactive? Copper or iron?

I distinctly remember being confused about this when I did the experiment. The more reactive metal will stay in solution and the less reactive metal will precipitate out. In this experiment, you can figure out which is more reactive by testing whether the pennies become coated in iron (in this case copper is more reactive and stays in solution, while iron precipitates out) or if the paperclip becomes coated in copper (in this case iron in the more reactive metal and stays in solution while copper precipitates out). As you can see from my photo that I took in 2005, iron is the more reactive metal as the paperclip became coated in copper!

I don’t think I desperately wanted to be a chemist when I was 10. I did love science my entire childhood. I wanted to be a geologist at one point and I would hike around the desert-varnished granite hills that I lived on searching for “fool’s gold” (aka pyrite) and geodes. I never found those two particular things, but I did collect some cool rocks anyways. I also wanted to be an astronomer because I grew up in the Mojave desert of CA where you can actually see the stars. I’m proud of the fact that I have always felt the curiosity and drive to study the world around me. I do feel like I was destined to be scientist. But I also want to be very clear about this: we are all scientists. Many of my scientist friends feel imposter syndrome because they did not explicitly and purposefully do science experiments as a child. I should take this opportunity to mention that I was very privileged as a child. My privilege that I experienced almost certainly helped me get where I am today. My father is a scientist, and always made science seem cool and fun. Both of my parents are college educated, and they raised me to believe that formal education is very important. I always knew that I would go to college. I have memories of me swinging on a swing set with my friends in third grade and talking about college. One of my friends said “why would you want to go to more school if its optional?” I thought to myself, “because I love learning.”

Not every young scientist had the same privilege as me. Some young scientists explored the world around them but did not have parents who encouraged “science experiments” or preached about the importance of formal education. Some parents may have been very encouraging and supportive of these endeavors but were not as experienced or equipped as mine. I like to think I am using my privilege to give back. I volunteer at elementary schools and middle schools to put on science programming and serve as role model for students who may not be as privileged as I was. I may not look like all of the students, but I still hope I can serve as a role model in some way. I make sure to listen to the students who are quiet, the students who are loud, the students who are focused, and the students who are just messing around with their friends. All of these students need someone who believes in them, and someone who makes science, and by extension scientists, seem cool and fun. It may sounds lame to say that I really, really want these young pre-teens to think I am cool… but I do! I want them to think of me as somewhere they would want to be like.

So I want to be very clear when I say that even though I am proud and excited to have found these nerdy photos that I took as a child, I DO NOT want to give off the impression that I think you have to have photos like these to be a “real” scientist. I truly and fundamentally believe that every single one of us is a real scientist. We are curious about our world and beyond. We explore our world from the very movements we can make as infants. Not all of us will do well in science in school, or enjoy science in school, but those are actually very different skills from the skillset used in doing scientific research. So ANYONE can be a professional scientist, they just need someone to believe in them. Even those who do not follow a career path in science will continue to be curious and explore the world around them, making us all scientists if you think about it really.


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