When a talented young chemist at a major research institution scores his first million, he is most likely to spend the first dollars on:
a) a study of time-resolved infrared studies of organic reactive intermediatesFor John Toscano, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins, the choice was easy. He takes Hopkins students into local elementary schools to spread the good news about chemistry.
Everyone is pleased with the investment.
"What the kids really love is when we break stuff," says Toscano, a recent recipient of a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development Award. "We take liquid hydrogen, freeze a banana and crack it on the floor. Or take a racquetball, freeze it and then make it shatter. They think this is the best thing ever."
In the past six months, Toscano has won $377,500 from the NSF and a grant worth $848,741 from the National Institutes of Health. His research about photochemistry and the photo-release of nitric oxide will likely have theoretical as well as practical applications. But the recent foray into elementary education, he hopes, will also have long-term ramifications.
"The unduly pessimistic view of chemistry often begins at an early age," Toscano observes. "One way to promote hands-on learning at schools with limited resources is through demonstrations that show chemistry is interesting, useful and, most important, fun."
The project to train Hopkins students to share the mysteries of science with grade-school children developed over the last two years, as Toscano applied for research funding and simultaneously revived a dormant undergraduate chemistry club on the Homewood campus.
The chemistry club, Student Affiliates of the American Chemical Society, had dwindled to five members when Toscano took charge. As he recruited new members last year, Toscano suggested that the students conduct science demonstrations at local schools.
At the same time, he applied for the NSF grant, which stipulated that the money be used to foster research and teaching. A happy confluence of terms, the award perfectly suited Toscano's interest in the problems of photochemical processes and his desire to stimulate growth in the chemistry club.
News that he had been chosen for the grant came last spring, just as he and members of the chemistry club made inaugural visits to three fifth-grade classes--at Riderwood, Mount Washington and Margaret Brent elementary schools--performing science tricks.
"We light a spark in these kids," Toscano says. "We do simple things with liquid nitrogen and with acid/base reactions with carbon dioxide where the solution changes color. In very simple ways, we teach a little chemistry and try to convey science in ways that are much more personal than textbooks. The impression we've gotten, generally, is, ŚWow, we didn't realize chemistry was so cool.' "
Today, as the chemistry club has grown to more than 20 and Toscano's students make plans for this semester's ventures into local schools, the professor now finds that he also has enough funding to hire two postdocs and advance his spectroscopic studies of unstable intermediates--how light effects chemical processes at the molecular level.
The NIH grant, geared to similar spectroscopic studies, will assist in his collaborations with the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Md. Researchers at the institute hope Toscano can help them create new medical agents that can be directed to a specific site in the body and, when exposed to light, cause the agents to release nitric oxide. Nitric oxide can be of particular benefit in blood-pressure control, clotting mechanisms and neuro-transmissions.
This fall, the question arises, will Toscano and members of Hopkins' chemistry club begin teaching Baltimore fifth-graders the finer points of reactive intermediates and photochemical reactions?
"Actually," Toscano says, "a new member of the chemistry club had a high school teacher who appeared on David Letterman doing amazing science tricks. So we'll have some of those demos to use now. But what I'm mainly trying to do is establish this kind of activity as a permanent program for our undergraduates. They're enthusiastic now. I don't want to look back in a couple of years and see that it faded away."