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Who Knew Catalysis Could Be So Much Fun?

Story by
Nancy Joseph

A lab notebook. Safety goggles. Teflon tape. A jar of peanut butter.  All of these can be found in graduate student Karena Smoll’s office in the UW Chemistry Building — and in an exhibit at Pacific Science Center (PSC) featuring the work of Smoll and colleague Zuzana Culakova.

UW Chemistry graduate students Karena Smoll and Zuzana Culakova.

UW Chemistry graduate students Karena Smoll (left) and Zuzana Culakova are featured in an exhibit at Seattle's Pacific Science Center.

Smoll and Culakova are part of the Center for Enabling New Technologies through Catalysis (CENTC), a research center that seeks new ways to make useful chemicals from abundant materials. Pacific Science Center’s exhibit highlights CENTC’s research and focuses on Smoll and Culakova, NSF Graduate Research Fellows in the UW Department of Chemistry, to stress the human side of laboratory science. 

CENTC’s work addresses an increasingly pressing problem — our dependence on oil as the raw material for many everyday items, from fuel to clothing to medicine. “When folks think about how oil impacts their lives, they mostly think about transportation fuel, which is indeed where most oil is used,” says Karen Goldberg, director of CENTC and Nicole A. Boand Endowed Professor of Chemistry at the UW. “But all the chemicals that make up most of the things we use every day, including plastics, pharmaceuticals, shampoos, detergents, paints, and more are also currently obtained from the same oil, using chemistry that was developed in the middle of the last century. We’re working on new ways to make these same chemicals, but starting with other sources like carbon dioxide or methane.”

A facsimile of the glove boxes used in chemistry labs.

"It's like wearing mittens," Karena Smoll says of the glove boxes used in chemistry research. The exhibit allows visitors to try out a glove box similar to the ones scientists use.

The chemistry is anything but simple — processes like alkane dehydrogenation and ester hydrogenation are involved — but after touring CENTC’s labs and talking with Smoll and Culakova, PSC’s exhibit staff was able to translate the work for a lay audience. “It was crazy to see how much they were able to simplify our research, turning it into something the public could understand,” says Smoll, who is featured in videos in the exhibit along with fellow grad student Travis Lekich and alumna Sophia Cherry (PhD, Chemistry, 2016).

PSC created kid-friendly interactive displays, most notably a glove box similar to the ones scientists use to work with chemicals in an oxygen-free and water-free environment.  The apparatus gets its name from the built-in gloves used for handling materials in the box. PSC visitors quickly learn what chemists already know: the gloves are challenging to use.  “It’s like wearing mittens all the time,” says Smoll. “Your dexterity is completely gone.”

Items from the students' lab spaces are included in the exhibit.

Items from the students' lab spaces — from the safety goggles they wear to the peanut butter they eat — are included in the exhibit.

Exhibit visitors can also create — virtually — chemicals used in common materials, thanks to a touch-screen game developed by a team that included former CENTC graduate student David Laviska and former postdoctoral fellow Abby O’Connor.  At the side of the game are outlines of elements, each with a distinct shape. When a corresponding element scrolls past on the screen, the player drags it into the outline. Once all the outlines are filled, the screen reveals the chemical that has been created and how it is used, from clothing to plastic bottles.  

And the lab notebook and peanut butter? Those are in displays showing the contents of the grad students’ work spaces, from their research tools to their afternoon snacks. Culakova was amused to learn that her lab notebook was open to a page with scribbled notes and a hand-drawn diagram. “It’s like someone reading your to-do list,” she says. “My notebook reveals the untidy human side of research, which is the day-to-day reality.”

Culakova and Smoll have participated in previous science outreach at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School and at annual PSC Paws on Science events featuring UW research. They are pleased to share their work — even their notebooks — if that will inspire others to learn more about chemistry.

“This exhibit shows that chemistry can be used to do some pretty cool things and that anyone can do research,” says Culakova. “The most important thing is to be excited and ask question after question. You don’t have to be ‘super smart’ to be a scientist — just super interested.”

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The PSC exhibit, “Chemists: Catalysts for Change,” will be on display at the Pacific Science Center through September 5, 2016.  It is located in PSC’s Portal to Current Research space, which features short-term exhibits about current research being conducted in the Puget Sound area. For more information, contact the Pacific Science Center.