Earlier this semester, I was invited to speak about my research at The Purdue Lecture Hall Series (TPLHS). TPLHS is an evening seminar series for high school students, teachers, and parents from the Greater Lafayette community organized by the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease (PI4D) in partnership with Mr. Joseph (Joe) Ruhl from Lafayette Jefferson High School. The series celebrates the work of a wide variety of the life scientists that represent the different areas of research within PI4D and it is meant to inspire high school students to consider life sciences as a career choice.
I began my talk by delving into my background in STEM — from high school and undergraduation to my Master’s research experience and starting my doctoral research at Purdue. I spoke about the brain and drug discovery for neurological disorders. I introduced the students to brain immunity and the role of microglial cells in phagocytosis and inflammation during Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of the talk, I also introduced the two undergraduate students who work closely with me in the lab since I was informed that many high schoolers in the audience were interested in pursuing undergraduate research while in college. This was a great opportunity to talk about how different labs on campus function and how one should go about getting involved in research early on during their undergraduate studies. Overall, this was a great experience since it made me step out of my comfort zone (which involves very little interaction with the general public) and also hopefully inspired a few students to be curious about science and research!
Today in the chemistry lab, you asked me a question that every teacher dreads facing the most: “How is this relevant to my life?” I thought it was an excellent question but did not have an appropriate answer that could convince you. After all, why is knowing the use of phenolphthalein indicator in an acid-base titration any important to your life? As a student myself, I completely understand how you feel and have also wondered about the ‘big purpose of it all’ many times.
First, I told you how this particular concept could help you in the higher-level chemistry courses you may take in the future. You said that you were merely fulfilling a credit requirement and had no intention of taking any other chemistry course ever. This is why I am motivated to write to you today. Not to make you sign up for all the science classes, but to make you understand how any of this may add to your growth as a student, and most importantly, as a learner.
The way I see it, nothing we learn in our lives ever goes waste. The key is to stop looking for specific answers for every question and to start enjoying the learning process! To be blunt and brutally honest, no, not everything we learn is applicable to the modern world that we live in today. As you mentioned in our conversation, we can look up almost everything on the internet within seconds. What’s the point of memorising the elements in a periodic table or remembering their atomic masses? With the increasing use of technology and its easy accessibility, our brain cells are on their way to a vacation forever. This does not mean we should become robots for the rest of the years at school. What I am saying is that we need to be able to connect the dots and ask the right questions in order to make sense of everything. The point of science is to have practical approach towards things and cultivate critical thinking in everyday life.
Let me give you an example. Today you said, “What I learnt was simply to turn some solution pink and that’s it.” Well, I wanted you to ask, “Why did the acid turn pink in the presence of base and indicator? What happened to the molecules in the solution? Why didn’t this reaction work with other indicators?” You see, the point is not to know the answer to all these questions, but to simply ask these questions in the first place.
Learning science gives us a new perspective into the world we live in. Learning science may not directly affect our day-to-day activities, but it influences the way we approach and handle different situations. Science clears the emotional sensitive cloud that surrounds the vulnerable human mind and makes room for rational thinking. It is said that as humans grow older, we lose the will to learn new things and maintain a curious mind. Learning science ensures that a part of us never ceases to be a child ever again.
I hope this made sense to you and encouraged you to open up to learning science, even if that includes learning how to balance chemical equations.