Hidden Secrets & Wonders of Science at UNSW


How it all began …

Me (Yvonne) along the University Mall  It all started 3 days before 15th April. My 21 year old sister came home and asked me if I’m was interested in shadowing her around her uni, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) for a day, and report to all the other high school students around the world of what being a scientist is like for the World Wide Day in Science. And since I was on my Easter break, this was excellent opportunity. Of course, along the road, I’ve always been interested in science because of various reasons. Reasons such as how my Dad does engineering and excels in Physics. And while my sister chose to do a degree in Chemistry because, ‘my family has always been pursuing occupations that are more practical, & Chemistry is definitely one!’’ So with all that, I’ve pretty much have my life planned out. And to be what, you might ask? For me, I want to become a successful doctor!

My uni student host and sister Isa, is an Honours student doing the degree of Bachelor of Advance Science, majoring in Chemistry and now mainly focusing on pure Chemistry. Her project for this year, it’s all to do with crystals! She has to grow lots and lots of crystals for her research! How exciting! With her brief talk in explaining the purpose of them, I found out that her research on crystal arrangements have some useful applications. Apparently, molecules and atoms in crystals can be structured differently in the way they are formed, which then provides different properties and effects. Recent studies have shown that using different solvents may control the way that crystals form, hence its arrangements. At the moment, Isa is also synthesising new host molecules that may trap solvents in forming crystal structures and experimenting with different solvents.

Why Chemistry?

‘I didn’t start off with wanting to do Chem., but during my 1st year at uni, I got more interested in it as I started to look at it in depth,’ she told me. And I wondered why she chose to do science! ‘I’ve always been a more moving-around person, don’t really like sitting down and I’ve also always been a person who is curious about everything, like how and why a particular thing works. So science is obviously my kind of subject!’




Isa at the chemicals cupboard right   

My Day of SCIENCE…

It was 10am, and Isa just finished her Honours organic lecture from 8:30am. Our first stop was the uni library. Isa was searching for reference books for her coursework component. When we got out of the elevator, I couldn't believe the scene before my eyes, 'scary', I can say. Imagine yourself looking at huge, tall, rows-and-rows of books, all thick and large, and the same for floor-after-floor. That was nothing like high school or public libraries. When we finally found our books, you should see how thick one of them is! It's about 6.5 cm thick! Not to mention it has 1267 pages in it!

Isa at the Library right       

UNSW is like a little town in my opinion, it involves a lot of walking from one building to another, but each building has its own speciality, a bit like specialised shops. It took us 10 mins down a flight of long stairs to the Chemistry building (Heffron Building). Isa works in one of those organic research labs on the 3rd floor. No doubt Chemistry labs have its own chemical odours!

Isa's daily active routine not only includes growing crystals and monitoring their formation, but also to solve the underlying mystery as to why crystals form in a particular arrangement - all to do with weak intermolecular attractions in molecules. Sadly, crystal growing is not an easy task, which makes the research challenging, 'I’ve done over 600 samples, and only 6 or 7 were qualified for X-ray crystallographic analysis.' I wondered, isn't this boring when you do monitoring of crystals everyday? 'I'm very happy with my progress so far...,' she said, 'every qualified sample gave me new results and were all significant. The theory behind all this phenomena is the exciting bit, and it's the driving force that keeps me on!'

Isa monitoring crystal growth in the laboratory 

Isa's research does not only involve growing crystals, but at the same time, she synthesises new compounds that may be used to grow crystals. One of the ways that these compounds may be characterised is using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) technique.

By noon, we were at the tea room for the last activity of the 3 hours. It was Isa's special day, it was time for Isa's Honours introductory seminar - her chance to be in the spotlight, to introduce her research project to other  Chemists. One-after-another, academics and professional researchers in the Chemistry field have gathered in the room. The atmosphere was extraordinary, not something that I would have imagined. It was a memorable experience to be part of the audience, and was definitely the highlight of the day! And there, Isa did an excellent presentation! Overall, I have really enjoyed it, what more can I say?

A Scientist through my Eyes…

After those 3 fascinating hours, I’ve seen a university life through a scientist. It’s definitely a rare experience for a 13 year old like me. I was able to pick up the similarities and differences of what it is really like to be a scientist in practice, comparing to what it seems like in school books (boring solid ones...). ‘Uni life has to be all planned out. You have to be organised and no one can guide you through it.' And with what she told me, I thought I can sum that up with two words, being independent!

Not only has my views about uni life changed, but also what I thought about Chemistry. it's not just the mixing and pouring of dangerous chemicals, but also the paperwork that comes with it, involving challenging problem solving skills. But the question that came to my mind was, other than graduation, what other things do you like about uni that you get to achieve? ‘...it's all about the process of learning to be more independent, but also knowing how important it is to work as a team. I’ve worked to the best of my ability in the last 3 years academically, although it's lots of hard work, but yet, it's very rewarding. For now, my goals at the moment would be working towards on achieving a PhD scholarship.          

The definition for science is ‘the observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena’*. But for me, it's also about discovering new things that have not been discovered before. My participation on World Wide Day in Science has allowed me to realise what science really is in practice. It was a wonderful experience for me to participate this and I think it's a "one in a lifetime chance" to be part of this. So my take-home message for all of you out there? Go for it and discover it yourself!

Me having a go at looking at crystals right  

But the most important of all, science really makes a huge influence to the way we live in our society. Science is a great way to open up brand new paths for you to explore, discover and 'making a difference to the world for you, a 13 year old like me, and our future generations.'


Me (Yvonne) left and Isa right

                                         *Reference from http://www.dictionary.com - The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.


Copyright © 2005 Yvonne Chan
Email: etoile.songeur@gmail.com