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Science Communication


Chemistry lessons from kids’ books and sneakers

by Prachi Patel
April 18, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 12


Chemistry adventures

Woman holding children's picture books in her hands with rocks in the background.
Credit: Erin Joy Araneta
On a quest: Erin Joy Araneta wants to promote curiosity and diversity with her children’s book series.

Aside from the laboratory, the outdoors is Erin Joy Araneta’s favorite place to be. When the pandemic hit, she found herself with more time to hike, paddle, and rock climb . . . and to reflect. Chemistry was at work all around her— in the water, air, and rocks. How could she foster children’s natural curiosity about it?

“I wanted to help kids see how cool chemistry is,” says Araneta, a chemistry graduate student at the University of Southern California.

As the idea of a book aimed at her 6-year-old cousin—who she describes as “a very spicy girl”—took shape in her mind, she knew the nerdy male stereotype of chemists needed to go. “I wanted a fun, bubbly character who’s relatable,” she tells Newscripts.

And so, Chemist Clara was born. Think Dora the Explorer but with a backpack and brain full of chemistry tools and tricks to explain the world around her and solve problems.

In 2021, Araneta self-published Chemist Clara Paints the Lake, her first book in the Adventures of Chemist Clara series. The story begins: “Chemist Clara is a creative and curious scientist. She loves painting and chemical reactions!” It sold well, and with the help of money from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) through the Student Startup Fund and some funds raised on Kickstarter, she has now authored and published four more. In one book, Clara goes to Mars and converts carbon dioxide to oxygen. In another, she discovers how the body processes sugar. Two upcoming books will dive into the chemistry of rock colors and neural circuits.

Chemist Clara’s namesake is Filipina chemist Clara Lim-Sylianco, who studied mutagens and bioorganic mechanisms. When Araneta was growing up in the Philippines, she found chemistry “fascinating and fun” but did not understand its applications. After her family moved to the US, she tried nursing school before switching to a bachelor’s degree program in chemistry at UCI. She now studies carbon dioxide conversion and writes books.

As a reader, she enjoys self-help books, adventure books, and memoirs. No science fiction for her, she says. “I read enough science for work.” Her recent fave? Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, a memoir about the author’s 1,100-mile hike as a journey of self-discovery.

In future books, Araneta wants to dive deeper into lessons about “being honest with yourself, finding what you truly love, and facing your fears.”


Sneaking in a chemistry lesson

Woman in laboratory protective clothing standing and talking behind a table that holds lab equipment and sneakers.
Credit: Lauren Wilson
Full STEAM ahead: Connecting chemistry with sneaker and hip-hop culture comes naturally to Jakyra Simpson.

Speaking of nerdy scientist stereotypes, Bill Nye the Science Guy was Jakyra Simpson’s favorite show as a kid growing up in the small Pennsylvania city of York. Her first chemistry class in high school “just made sense—all the dots connected,” she says.

But she struggled during her bachelor’s and master’s studies in chemistry at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Indiana University Bloomington, respectively. As a Black woman of Filipino descent, not much in her classrooms represented her or her culture. She felt unmoored, an imposter.

So she took matters into her own hands—or feet, as it may be. “I’ve always loved sneakers,” she tells Newscripts. Through STEAM Sneakerheadz, an education business Simpson launched last year, she now teaches chemistry using hip-hop and sneaker cultures with a dash of art.

In her hands-on workshops, kids learn about the materials chemistry of sneakers—their rubber soles, foam midsoles, leather uppers, and natural and synthetic dyes. Attendees also get to toy with polyurethane foams or create their own dyes to make sneaker art.

Through the chemistry workshops, Simpson encourages people to be their authentic selves. After a recent high school workshop, two girls ran up to her crying and gave her a hug, sharing that they had never seen or met a Black chemist. “Me being true to myself, being who I am, really inspired them,” she says. “If you would’ve told me years ago that I was going to be the Black female Bill Nye, I would’ve laughed in your face.”


This story was updated on April 24, 2024, to correct where Jakyra Simpson worked on her master's degree. It was Indiana University Bloomington, not Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

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