Chemistry just ‘part of life’
By Hannah Spicher, HSPICHER@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-9086
Ask Hélène Maire-Afeli how she got interested in chemistry, and her whole face will light up.
“I have always been interested in science,” says Maire-Afeli, a chemistry instructor and lab manager at USC Union. “As a little girl, I would scratch the soil looking for worms, wondering, ‘What does it eat? Where does it live?’ It was fun to me.”
Maire-Afeli first came to the U.S. in 2002 as an exchange student at Kansas State University. Originally from France, she was introduced to science at an early age and in tandem with other subjects, like history, geography, poetry and drawing.
“We would pick up an apple and ask how it worked from the seed to the tree. We’d cut it open, draw it, and label the parts. Everything seemed connected to me,” she says. “I always thought of science as just part of life.”
Now — having finished a doctorate in chemistry, married and started a family of her own — she is working on a national security project that uses biosensors to “smell” explosive gases.
“I and some of my colleagues at USC Columbia are actually building the device that will detect dangerous gasses,” she says.
It may sound complicated, but to Maire-Afeli the building blocks—the foundations of what make it science — are not. And she has devoted time to making sure her students understand this.
“If I only knew how talk about biosensors, sure, I could only talk to about 10 people and wouldn’t have any friends,” she says with a laugh. “But I want people to realize that science is normal, and no more complicated than anything else.”
She points around the room to illustrate.
“Everything is chemistry-related. The varnish on your desk, the electricity in your room, the dye in your clothes, your computer—all of it is chemistry-based,” she says.
In the classroom, Maire-Afeli illustrates this same point by asking students to bring their own polymers from around the house — things like water bottles, food containers and ink cartridges. Studying compounds that students are already surrounded with helps demystify chemistry and gets the students more involved, she says.
“Students won’t major in the hard sciences if they aren’t first comfortable and familiar with it,” says Maire-Afeli.
That is why, when not overseeing the lab or developing her own research, Maire-Afeli works with Bill Moore, at the USC Union Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) summer camp for kids and with local second graders during National Chemistry Week.
At the CSI camp, participants learn how to extract DNA, how to look at bones to determine gender and species, how to make a mold out of tire tracks, and how to secure a crime scene.
“It’s a great way to get them involved in something that touches every part of science, from writing all the way to math,“ she says.
And for the younger kids, the National Chemistry Week celebration has its own set of benefits.
“The kids get really excited. By practicing cool experiments at home, they expose their siblings and neighbors to what they are doing with science,” she says. “They are the ones that make it happen. The kids just soak it up.”
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