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Get the Microphone

October 4, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 40


It has become an article of faith and matter of some concern among chemists that the public has a negative perception of us and what we do. And yet opinion research tells us that the public knows it is uninformed about chemistry, and, in fact, is curious and would like to know more. To the public, "chemistry" is a positive word; so is "chemist." On the other hand, "chemicals" carries a negative tone. Knowing this, we have a wonderful opportunity to help people understand the benefits of chemistry.

THE SERVICE MODEL. Psychological research shows that when people receive a gift, they feel obligated to the giver at least in some small way. When we, as local sections, student affiliates, or other groups, organize a service project related to chemistry and give it as a gift to the community, we earn the opportunity to tell our story. If persuaded creatively, the media will let us use their microphone. For example, a blood drive might only be a blood drive, but it can be marketed to attract media attention: "Why are chemists bleeding? Because blood is in short supply, and our blood is a gift we can give to our community. But there's a bigger gift from chemists here than you might have realized. The plastic bags increase the blood's shelf life by 100% over glass bottles, and the tubing doesn't kink even if tied in knots. Testing and analysis keep tainted blood from the general supply. And all of these--the bags, the tubing, and the testing--are made possible by the science of transformation called chemistry. And we hope you see that as a greater gift."

Whether it's a blood drive, building houses with Habitat for Humanity, painting a homeless shelter, or collecting money for police or fire personnel, there's an opportunity to talk about the blood bags, the building products, the paint, and the protective equipment that are impossible without chemists and chemistry.

So if a regular local section or student affiliate meeting isn't energizing members the way it used to, try service. Befriend the media. Better yet, partner with them or other civic organizations on a needed and interesting project. When you get the microphone, talk about the benefits and relate them directly to the project. Opinions change one by one, and we can be an agent of change.

When a curious public meets a creative chemist, opportunity happens. Be that creative chemist. Get the microphone. Make the most of the opportunity.

EXTREME OUTREACH. National Chemistry Week (NCW) events are fun and designed for media appeal. But every year it gets harder to stand out from the crowd. So this year, I'm suggesting we kick it up a notch to what I call Extreme Outreach. I'm inspired by my sons' interest in the X-Games. For those of you who've never seen them, the X-Games consist of events on skateboards, bicycles, and other devices in the air and upside down that will never make the traditional Olympics. They are, in a word, eXtreme.

In order to foster a bit more eXpansive thinking for NCW, as president next year I will give Extreme Outreach awards in honor of truly unique events held this year. Now, these are not meant to take away from the ChemLuminary Awards, which honor achievement in a number of categories, including NCW. Extreme Outreach awards are my quasi-diabolical way of getting us to go places we've never ventured before.

What about "Best Event Involving a Jumbotron?" Or "Best Event at a Fast-Food Restaurant?" Consider: "Most Unobvious Use of a Science Museum" and "Most Unusual Event Involving a Mole Suit." Events have to be both safe and fun--after all, the NCW theme this year is "Health and Wellness"--but more important, if they are also eXtreme, these unique events could earn us a chance at the microphone and a chance to deliver the benefits message. Who's up to the challenge?

The awards won't be huge: a plush ACS Avogadro the Mole wearing his "Free Radicals" jacket, perhaps customized and punked out a bit to make him more eXtreme. Maybe even a visit from the ACS president to deliver the award with his sincere thanks for pushing the limits.


And by the way--for NCW next year, I'm personally planning an Extreme Outreach presidential tour unlike any done before, but more about that later.


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