The Olympic Games are filled with chemistry. Metaphorically speaking, chemistry is felt both on and off the playing field, while literally the chemicals used in different medicines help athletes overcome pain and injury. And let’s not forget the inorganic, metal-based chemistry displayed during the award ceremonies. Medallions of gold, silver and bronze (a copper-tin alloy) are draped around the necks of Olympic champions, recognizing their achievement on a global stage.
Chemistry, figuratively and literally, plays a significant role in the Olympic Games. However, “the goal of Olympism is to place sports at the service of the harmonious development of humankind.” The XXX Olympiad — which began on July 27 — exemplifies this mission statement as athletes from 205 countries unite for 17 days of global competition.
I didn’t have to wait until the Opening Ceremony in London to feel this sense of unity. Since June, I’ve been spending my time in a different sort of international community: the chemistry laboratory. Under Chemistry Prof. Melanie Sanford, I’ve been working on my honors thesis. Together the undergraduates, graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who conduct research in Sanford’s lab represent nine nations and three of the five continents depicted by the Olympic rings.
United by our curiosity in the chemical sciences, my lab-mates and I speak two mutual languages, English and chemistry. English is the second, or even third, language spoken by half my lab-mates, but by drawing out reaction mechanisms, we have the ability to transcend language barriers. Nonetheless, it’s still not uncommon to walk into my lab and not always understand the conversation at hand.
While my German is limited to a few phrases, my fluency in the language of chemistry has flourished during my research experience. Working in a multi-cultural environment has allowed me to view chemistry from many different perspectives. We all approach our research from diverse educational and personal backgrounds. The exchange of ideas from these distinct viewpoints enrich and broaden the path toward the overall solution. In the case of my thesis, these questions deal with the development of reactions used to change carbon-hydrogen bonds into carbon-carbon bonds using palladium as a catalyst.
Working in this lab has not only increased my knowledge in the field of chemistry, but provided me with the opportunity to learn about a diverse range of cultures. Taking advantage of my past Spanish classes, I’ve been able to get to know my Guatemalan lab-mate through speaking all three of the languages we share. Different aspects of our personalities and past knowledge flourish depending on the language we’re using. Nine years of studying Spanish, including a semester abroad in Seville, Spain, have provided me with a solid understanding of the language. My fluency and comfort level, however, continue to improve during these shared conversations.
Though the 2012 Summer Olympic Games come to a close on Aug. 12, the sense of international unity promoted by the Games will continue in my everyday life. While I don’t compete for gold on a daily basis, my research in palladium-based chemistry allows me to work with chemists from around the globe. Chemistry, like the Olympics, unites people from all over the world and acts as a catalyst for multicultural exchange.
Cydney Seigerman is a LSA senior.