Iowa Alumni Magazine | August 2013 | In Class

The Central Science

By Shelbi Thomas
Students discover chemistry's potential to solve the world's biggest problems—from saving the environment to curing cancer.

Surrounded by a handful of elementary school students at a UI-sponsored science fair, Ned Bowden dunks a pair of gloves into a jar of boiling liquid nitrogen. A cloud of white gas permeates the air as the clothing reacts to a brutally cold temperature of negative 200 degrees Celsius. When Bowden removes the gloves, they shatter into tiny brittle pieces. Now, the air fills with excited voices clamoring for answers: "Why did that happen? Can I try? What if I put a pencil in there?"

Though Bowden hopes such curiosity and enthusiasm for science follow kids throughout their lives, the UI associate chemistry professor is dismayed to see fewer American college students opting for graduate degrees in science. "I'm not sure when their eyes stop lighting up," he says, "but somewhere along the line, the fire diminishes in their eyes."

To help non-science majors reignite their interest in science, Bowden teaches "Chemistry in Industry and the Economy," a new UI course that explores the science's vital role in our everyday lives—and the ways scientists use the principles of chemistry to help address the most critical issues society faces today, from fighting pollution to finding treatments for illnesses. "I am constantly amazed at the beauty of chemistry," Bowden says in his course syllabus, "and I hope you will be, too."

Chemistry explores the composition, properties, and behavior of matter, starting at its most basic unit—the atom. As atoms interact, their electrons may rearrange to bond and cause chemical reactions that form new solid, liquid, or gaseous substances. Scientists use these principles to combine chemicals and create a vast range of products.

Bowden marvels at chemistry's logic and complexity, which continually lead to discoveries in fields such as food, medicine, energy, materials, and agriculture. In fact, chemistry has become so central to worldwide commerce and industry that economists can predict a country's gross national product based on the chemicals it buys. Industrialized nations are more likely to use higher amounts of sulfuric acid—a common catalyst for chemical reactions, including those involved in the production of plastics, clothes, and shampoos.

Responsible for nearly 6 million jobs in the United States, the chemical industry has been the cornerstone of American manufacturing since World War II, with companies like Bayer, DuPont, and Johnson & Johnson now household names. Even so, most consumers don't realize the prominence of chemicals in their daily lives until they read the dense labels noting all the mystifying, scientific-sounding ingredients that lurk in products such as sunscreens, toothpastes, and trash bags.

The U.S. makes 27 trillion pounds of chemicals each year, surpassing every other country in production. Worldwide, the amount of chemicals produced and consumed is expected to more than triple by 2050, as developing countries industrialize and need nitrogen or fertilizers, polyethylene for packaging, and sodium hydroxide for paper, soaps, detergents, and drain cleaners. "We still make things, unlike other industries," says Bowden. "That's our bread and butter."

Bowden begins his "Chemistry in Industry and the Economy" course with the bread and butter of the periodic table—a chart of the chemical elements arranged by increasing atomic number, from hydrogen to ununoctium. Students also receive a general overview of atomic structures and chemical reactions.

They learn that chemistry is known as the central science for the connections it makes among other natural sciences such as biology, physics, and geology, while its principles also inform disciplines as varied as meteorology, electronics, engineering, and archaeology. Meteorologists may specialize in atmospheric chemistry to study acid rain, ozone depletion, and photochemical smog. Archaeologists using radiocarbon dating to determine the approximate age of certain artifacts are actually relying on carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that begins to decay in organisms upon their death.

"Chemistry in Industry and the Economy" doesn't take place in a lab filled with beakers, goggles, and microscopes, because it's less about hard-core math and science than about a broader perspective on chemistry's central place in our lives. "Too often, people are afraid of the word 'chemistry,'" says Bowden, "but everything's made of chemicals, including water."

Students read about and discuss the latest advancements in the chemical industry—from solar panels to gene therapy. "You can tell Professor Bowden has a personal passion about this, especially when he talks about the pharmaceutical and energy industries," says UI business freshman Andrew Snyder. "When he discusses the chemistry behind innovations, he ties it in well with current issues."

In one lesson that follows products from farm fields to grocery stores, Bowden explores issues relating to food supply safety. As a scientist, he recognizes that much remains unknown about the long-term health effects of pesticides and genetically modified foods. "Certainly, science has helped a lot in our ability to feed the whole world," he says. "But now we're doing things nature never intended, and I'm not sure what the impact is going to be. I'm not sure if we let the genie out of the bottle, we can contain it again."

Rather than leave it up to politicians to debate, Bowden believes that chemists should lead the way in finding answers to such questions. Already, chemistry has produced one of the most effective tools for treating cancer, using chemotherapy—the controlled use of chemicals—to kill fast-growing tumors. Researchers are now working to eliminate the treatment's harsh side effects through virotherapy, which involves genetically engineering viruses so they target offending cells without hurting healthy tissues.

"Too often, people are afraid of the word 'chemistry,' but everything's made of chemicals, including water."

As Bowden explains how medicines go from research and development to real-life applications, students are surprised by the money and time involved. Companies invest millions of dollars into testing in hopes of discovering the next big treatment with a payout in the billions of dollars. Yet even if they succeed in combating disease in a Petri dish, there's no guarantee the process will work in animal testing—let alone in humans. Students learn that trial and error are a natural part of the scientific process.

Chemists also stand at the forefront of research into environmental sustainability, helping find cheaper, abundant, and more environmentally friendly materials to reduce reliance on non-renewable resources such as coal and natural gas. One day, products like plastics and synthetic fibers may be developed from renewable biomass rather than petrochemicals. And, as developing countries overcome poverty and seek a modern lifestyle, complete with cars, bigger homes, heat and air-conditioning, televisions, and mass-produced goods, it's more important than ever to develop renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.

With this exploration of chemistry at work in the real world, Bowden encourages his students to consider the vast career opportunities available—options not limited to conducting test tube experiments in a lab. Today's chemistry major might become an entrepreneur or a patent lawyer, an art conservationist or a teacher.

Already, Bowden's students have seen the benefits of understanding chemistry in their chosen fields. Mathematics and economics junior Helen Jiang says the class has helped her understand how the science can inform policymaking—valuable for her future as an energy policy advisor or consultant. Snyder has become more familiar with the ingredients and processes involved in making the home cleaning, health and nutrition, and cosmetic products he sells through his own small business.

Regardless of their career paths, Bowden hopes his students react positively to the class, developing a strong bond with science that can shed light on any discipline. After all, whether applied to atoms or college students, chemistry has the power to transform.