Ice cream: the inside story

Nandita Ganesh

As fascinating a science as it is, chemistry can be formidable at the school level. My own experience with it was quite contentious, positive at the beginning and rife with conflict as we reached the intricate details. When I left school though, it had become my favourite subject. After having finished my Master’s degree (not in Chemistry) and reflecting on my journey, I find that I’ve had my fair share of chemistry encounters, none of which I shied away from.

The evolution of chemistry from dreadful to interesting is all thanks to my high school chemistry teacher, who inspired in me an enduring affection for the subject. When she taught, you sat up and paid attention. She would work her magic with a piece of chalk and the blackboard while the textbook lay unopened on her desk. Sharp as a knife, she would shake sleeping students from their slumber with a quick question catching them unawares. Her methods leaned toward inquiry rather than fact. Imparting free information was not her style. A single question would set in motion a collective thought process leading to the class understanding the idea, feeling quite happy at their discovery. Of course, the information stuck in our heads longer this way.

The world of inorganic chemistry was thrown open with laboratory sessions where we learnt the techniques of observation and inference. The colourless chemicals exploding into colourful residues when heated, giving off odorous or combustible gases fascinated me. The action of bases on metal solutions causing vibrant precipitates to appear and disappear intrigued me. Witnessing in real time the material described in the textbook helped make strong associations between theory and practice.

Nearly every student has struggled with chemical valencies and balancing equations. Having mastered them now, I understand the difficulty of communicating such ideas successfully as a teacher. The very core of most of chemistry, they are abstract notions to teach. The easiest way to learn these topics was with a lot of hard work and practice, which our teacher patiently and tirelessly ensured that we did, re-explaining the concepts as many times as required.

Organic chemistry was a sore spot. The different classes of hydrocarbons boggled my mind and left me overwhelmed. My teacher helped demystify hydrocarbons by suggesting flash cards and flow charts among other methods. Colour coded index cards worked for me. I never gave it much thought then, but this way of organizing information proved valuable while doing polymer chemistry in graduate school.

My brushes with chemistry did not end with school. My undergraduate internship project was also chemistry based. We deposited zinc oxide from a solution of zinc salts on to roughened glass surfaces and treated them with organic acids to render them hydrophobic (water repellent). With strong concepts in inorganic chemistry, I tackled the project efficiently, and our team successfully generated a highly water repellent coating, resulting in my work being greatly appreciated. The project consolidated my resolve to pursue research in graduate school.

During graduate school, I was part of a biomaterials lab for my thesis, which, incidentally dealt with chemistry. We had to fabricate a synthetic equivalent for a native component of the intervertebral disc in the spine that degrades through enzyme action. We identified a synthetic polymer mimicking the natural material, containing suitable chemical groups to facilitate a reaction to bind it with a second component to form a new biopolymer whose properties were characterized to determine its similarity to the original molecule. Research is underway to further develop the project.

Looking back, I’m certain my choices during my education would not have changed. I realize that had I not been as competent as I was in chemistry, I probably would not have enjoyed getting the education I did. I might have perceived it as a chore, avoided it, or worse, given up at some point. My undergraduate project exposed the horizons of research and my thesis work accrued good references towards my first real job. My personal journey for me emphasizes that a good teacher goes a long way to make a positive impact on her students.

Teachers face the challenging task of incorporating the constantly changing landscape of science into the framework of the subject to emphasize its relevance in the present day. The current generation of students has the world at their fingertips and keeping them engaged and motivated calls upon a teacher’s skills at innovating to enhance the classroom experience and taking it to the next level. Today’s teachers have a plethora of resources in books and on the Internet to draw on for this purpose.

When I was in school, the Internet was just blooming, and my teacher had to reinvent her approach to teaching on her own. Had she stuck to the tried-and-tested textbook approach, I’m sure chemistry would have been a sore subject through school, and through life. It did become a struggle at the undergraduate level, where teachers are not concerned with keeping the students’ interest levels high. I’m grateful to my teacher for going the extra mile and making chemistry worthwhile, fun and most important, seem easy to learn. In her own words, “You have to make learning chemistry as fun as eating ice cream.” For me, she most certainly did do that!

The author is a biomedical engineer, currently enjoying some free time between jobs after recently relocating to California. This article was written at the request of her chemistry teacher, and is in part a small tribute to her for being such an inspiration. She can be reached at