Spreading the love of chemistry

Paul Zelisko in a Brock chemistry lab

Chemistry is "in every breath we take," says senior demonstrator Paul Zelisko in a Brock chemistry lab.

Typically, there are two types of kids who get chemistry sets.

The first type look at it, play with it for a while and move on to something else. The second type take to it like a fish to water, going around the house mixing household items, trying to see what will explode.

Paul Zelisko was always the second type of kid.

Growing up in his native Oshawa, one of his favourite childhood gifts was his chemistry set.

“Back then, they were real chemistry sets with real chemicals in them,” he said. “These were kits you could actually do damage with.”

He recalls setting off a few fire alarms. He liked growing crystals, or dissolving sugar crystals on pie plates. “I liked being able to watch things happen.”

These days, as a senior demonstrator in Brock’s Chemistry department, Zelisko still feels the joy of chemistry. He makes several presentations a year at schools spreading the love of chemistry. He is also on the national committee celebrating 2011 — the International Year of Chemistry.

Chemistry is everywhere, Zelisko said. Even the breaths we take are a chemical reaction. But when chemistry is in the news, it’s usually being vilified, such as the case of the British Petroleum oil spill.

“Chemistry rarely gets to play the hero, so the International Year of Chemistry is a time to celebrate what we do,” he said.

An instructor in organic chemistry, Zelisko’s research interests include silicon chemistry, silicone/protein interactions and chemical education. His undergraduate degree is in anatomy, but he was drawn to chemistry when a fourth-year professor was involved with breast implant research. He came to Brock in 2004.

Each year, he attends the annual conference of the Science Teachers Association of Ontario, often giving workshops to teachers whose backgrounds are not in chemistry. He has travelled across Ontario making presentations in schools.

His in-school demonstrations range from “kitchen chemistry” – how to boil an egg, how Jell-O is made – to dehydrating sugar. (“That’s something you can do at home if you’re willing to ruin your parents’ good pots,” he said.) Common questions include what jobs they can get with a chemistry degree, why chemistry is important and what tricks they can do on their own.

“Some of the younger students want to know how old I am,” he said. “Their vision of a chemist looks like Einstein, with crazy hair and an overcoat.”

We need the upcoming generation to be knowledgeable in chemistry, Zelisko said. Not only does it advance civilization, but we need youth who can cut through the glut of misinformation brought on by the internet.

“It’s so easy to put something on the web,” he said. “I could put up a website that says the sky is purple, and if you’re not well versed in science, you’d believe me. Misinformation breeds misinformation.”

The International Year of Chemistry is a worldwide celebration. The theme is “Chemistry – our life, our future.”

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