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Celebrating 25 years of the Helen M. Free Award

by Amber Charlebois, Chair, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications
January 8, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 2


Photo of Amber Charlebois.
Credit: Christine Brennan Schmidt
Amber Charlebois

In 1993, Helen Free became the third woman elected president of the American Chemical Society. Her top priority was to raise public awareness of the positive role chemistry plays in everyday life. In 1995, she became the inaugural recipient of the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, which was established in her honor by the ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications.

At the virtual ChemLuminary celebration in December 2020, the annual Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach was presented to Lydia E. M. Hines for her outstanding achievements in volunteer public outreach. According to her award citation, “Lydia has encouraged, taught and inspired generations of young people through activities including Kalamazoo’s annual Chemistry Day at the Museum, which draws 1,000 attendees each year. She wears chemistry-themed t-shirts as a way to start conversations with the public. And she carries science activity information and simple materials with her for the occasional impromptu opportunity to do an experiment on the fly with children and their parents.”

As we celebrate more than 25 years of the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach, chemistry outreach and science communication are more important than ever. Many people do not trust science and research and are on the fence about issues like climate change and vaccinations. Maybe this questioning is a good thing, as it gives chemists an opportunity to have conversations with the public about chemistry.

Our role as science communicators is not only to provide facts but also to describe and explain the chemistry in a straightforward and clear manner. I challenge you to step up your game in the many ways you reach out and share your love of chemistry with those around you. And ACS is here to help. The society offers numerous resources to make it easy for you to gain a deeper understanding of the issues and share that knowledge with your colleagues, friends, and the community. Here are some examples of the various resources that the society offers:

C&EN. ACS’s weekly magazine provides the latest news about the chemical enterprise and features regular columns, such as Periodic Graphics and What’s That Stuff, that explain the science behind everyday products and phenomena. C&EN’s Stereo Chemistry podcast seeks to surprise, inform, and inspire everyone who loves the central science.

Reactions. Subscribe to the Reactions YouTube channel and start sharing these short, informative, and fun videos on social media. The episodes cover topics such as the effectiveness of cloth masks in protecting against the coronavirus, the Moderna vaccine, and how a margarita can cause burns.

Orbitals. This relatively new podcast delivers content in a quick, informative, and timely manner. The episode “Preventing COVID-19: The Science and Scientists behind Protective Equipment” is one of many available on iTunes.

I challenge you to step up your game in the many ways you reach out and share your love of chemistry with those around you.

ACS News Room. This web resource offers the latest videos, podcasts, science news, and press releases from ACS all in one place.

ACS Experts. This program connects reporters to reliable sources of scientific information. If a journalist with your local media needs a source, ACS experts can connect them.

Reactions Infographics. These topical summaries of science offer some of the content from the Reactions videos in an infographic.

It is possible that someone you know is already volunteering and is amazing at chemistry outreach. Maybe that person writes a weekly column in a local newspaper describing and explaining something chemistry related, wears a periodic table T-shirt everywhere to help initiate conversations with the public about chemistry, or has little prepared baggies with chemistry experiments ready to go with instructions and safety protocols to share with anyone who expresses interest. If you know people like this and would be interested in helping recognize their efforts, consider nominating them for the 2021 Helen M. Free Award. Nominations are due Feb. 15.

Helen is now in her 90s, and we contacted her last month to congratulate her on the 25th anniversary of her award. In that conversation, she summed it up nicely, saying, “Keep the outreach going strong because it has made a big difference in making people aware of chemistry!” Thank you, Helen, for everything.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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