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The life of a chemist - from university to teaching and back again

Interview by Birk Grüling

Amitabh Banerji loves chemistry, and has a passion for experiments that took him on a path away from university and to teaching in schools. academics spoke with Banerji, who holds a doctorate in chemistry education, about chemistry-related clichés, working as a teacher, and his bomb-making skills.

The life of a chemist - from university to teaching and back again© Nicolas Loran - iStockphoto.comChemists have a choice - between teaching at a school or a career in academia
academics: Before we begin, I have to make a confession: I stopped taking chemistry at 15. How many times have you heard that before?

Amitabh Banerji: It feels like a hundred thousand times. In fact, it's the usual response when I tell people that I'm a chemist.

academics: What prejudices do chemists face?

Amitabh Banerji: Two things seem to keep coming up: people think chemists know how to build bombs and make their own drugs. A somewhat more positive aspect is that people have a certain respect for the lab coat. Like physicians, we chemists are believed to be particularly intelligent.

academics: And can you build bombs and make drugs?

Amitabh Banerji: (laughs) Chemistry is of course a significant aspect of both. That doesn't mean that every chemist knows how they work. I couldn't make a single drug for you, and building a bomb would also be something of a challenge. At university, you are only shown a few experiments that make a really loud bang. The best example is the detonating gas experiment in school, where you explode a balloon filled with oxygen and hydrogen.

academics: How much truth is in the legend of the chemical "demi-gods" in lab coats?

Amitabh Banerji: Chemistry is undeniably a complex and demanding subject. It requires a high level of abstraction to find one's way around in the world of chemistry. So the respect is at least to some small extent justified.

academics: What are the best ways for chemists to impress people?

Amitabh Banerji: Of course you could talk about how problems such as climate change can only be solved when you have a detailed knowledge of the natural sciences. But I personally find claims like that too overbearing. I prefer to pull a little experiment out of my sleeve. For example, you can build a small fire extinguisher using vinegar and a little baking powder, or make your own lava lamp with oil and ink. Little gimmicks like that can really impress people and perhaps also make them more curious about chemistry.

academics: Was there a particular moment when you realised that you had to become a chemist?

Amitabh Banerji: No, quite the opposite. When I finished school, I had almost lost pleasure in chemistry, not out of frustration but due to overexposure. I simply did too much chemistry in school. After all, I was totally involved in the lessons from the very first day. (laughs)

academics: When did you return to your passion?

Amitabh Banerji: I actually enrolled in computer science at university, but I quickly came to my senses and switched to chemistry, specialising in pharmacy, in the very same semester. After my basic studies I changed direction again, towards a teaching qualification. I left university as a secondary school teacher for chemistry and computer science.

academics: Why teacher training?

Amitabh Banerji: I simply liked the idea of the job. I couldn't imagine just doing my own thing in the lab. Personal contact is very important to me. At the time I was also unhappy studying pure chemistry, and my then girlfriend was always raving about teaching. My decision to take this route developed over time, and in the end I was a school teacher. I've never regretted that decision. Instilling a passion for chemistry in someone is a worthwhile endeavour.

academics: My chemistry lessons were actually rather off-putting. Why is it that chemistry is taught so badly? If I'm to believe you, the subject itself is after all pretty exciting.

The life of a chemist - from university to teaching and back again Amitabh Banerji talks about his route into chemistry and the path his career took
Amitabh Banerji: I think your feelings about it are partly due to the complexity of the subject. That does also entail a certain difficulty in teaching it adequately. Chemistry is the most fun if it can be taught in a structured and highly contextual way. To do that, you have to be really well versed in your subject. In my opinion, a good teacher is a real expert with a huge amount of passion. But an unwillingness to conduct experiments or a badly equipped school can also lead to less than thrilling teaching. So there are many factors that can affect how you feel about it.

academics: Would you have enough passion for your subjects?

Amitabh Banerji: For chemistry, definitely; I wouldn't be quite so sure about computer science. I would probably be more happy teaching chemistry than computer science at a school. I'm simply passionate about chemistry. That's not to say that I have no idea of computer science. But if I had the choice, I would probably prefer an advanced class in chemistry to one in computer science.

academics: So why did you switch to academia?

Amitabh Banerji: It wasn't a decision specifically against school. I'm still in contact with pupils from my teacher traineeship and would have liked to stay at that school back then, but unfortunately they couldn't offer me a place. In 2002, Berlin also stopped appointing teachers as tenured civil servants, and many of my colleagues were kept on hold with fixed-term contracts. So the situation for young teachers was not particularly attractive at the time. On the other hand, a doctorate had always been a dream of mine, and so I decided to do a PhD in didactics of chemistry despite having a job offer from Hamburg. The research here in Wuppertal also immediately appealed to me.

academics: What exactly was the subject of your doctorate?

Amitabh Banerji: My question was: how can conjugated polymers be covered in teaching using organic LEDs as an example? - both experimentally and theoretically. I designed various experiments and learning materials, and developed several didactic concepts such as a lesson series.

academics: Can you explain conjugated polymers and organic LEDs to me in a few sentences?

Amitabh Banerji: Conjugated polymers are a new class of materials that combine the properties of plastics (such as low weight, easy and low cost synthesis, high diversity etc.) with the optoelectronic properties of metalloids (particularly their semi-conductivity). Organic LEDs are LEDs that use conjugated polymers instead of the traditional semiconductor materials (such as gallium arsenide or silicon carbide) to generate light.

Biography of Amitabh Banerji

Dr. Amitabh Banerji was born in India, and has lived in Germany since he was four. After studying chemistry and computer science and passing the first state examination (Studienrat) at Freie Universität Berlin he completed his teacher training at the Herder-Gymnasium in Berlin.

In July 2012, Amitabh Banerji gained his doctorate as Dr. rer. nat. on the research team of Prof. M. Tausch at Bergische Universität Wuppertal. His doctorate dealt with conjugated polymers for curricular innovation using OLEDs as an example. Since August 2012, he has been working part-time as a research assistant for Prof. Tausch, and holds a further part-time post as a teacher and subject coordinator at Junior Uni Wuppertal.
academics: Could you imagine going back to working at a school?

Amitabh Banerji: Nowadays I'm so active and caught up in academia that I would find it difficult to go back. I enjoy research just a tiny bit more than teaching. Here at the source I can inspire future teachers and perhaps convince more young people of the joys of chemistry that way than if I were to stand in front of a class myself.

academics: Who is easier to teach - pupils or trainee teachers?

Amitabh Banerji: I can only give a partial answer to that, I don't have all that many possibilities to compare. But I would say that university students are easier to teach. Most of them have specifically chosen chemistry as their subject and are accordingly motivated. Particularly when dealing with social issues takes up more of your time than actual teaching, a school is almost certainly the tougher place to work.

academics: How much of an entertainer should a teacher be?

Amitabh Banerji: Entertainer is the wrong word. A teacher should always be able to put him- or herself in pupils' shoes. This ability is what brings teaching to life. If you can provide competent entertainment while you're at it, that's no bad thing. But even entertainment gets boring in the long run.

academics: When did you realise that you had a talent for entertaining?

Amitabh Banerji: I quite like being the centre of attention. I get that from my father, he's also happiest when he's on a stage and is the clown of the family. I only started really enjoying it when I was a student and was doing small job on top of my studies. I was selling ice cream in a cinema just before the show. In order to overcome the audience's lack of interest, I had to turn my selling into a little performance.

academics: You took part in the Science Slam in Hamburg last year and immediately won. How do you turn a complex PhD topic into a ten-minute programme?

Amitabh Banerji: Of course it was clear that I would only be able to present a small part of my topic. And I really wanted to include an experiment, partly in order to set myself apart from the other participants. But normally I need a good 20 minutes for this experiment. For my performance I had to compress it into five minutes, and that left me with only very little time to convey any background knowledge. These aspects all had to be taken into account.

academics: How often did you rehearse your performance beforehand?

Amitabh Banerji: I must have run through my programme at least ten or twenty times, always in my darkened lab. Including the dance numbers, by the way.

academics: How often does this particular experiment go wrong?

Amitabh Banerji: Luckily, almost never. But I also have a pre-prepared replacement OLED with me, just in case. As a teacher that's extremely important, by the way. In chemistry you always have to be prepared for the possibility that an experiment won't work.

academics: The Science Slam is a good way for academia to give laypersons an insight into the ivory tower of academia. How important is communication between science and society, in your opinion?

Amitabh Banerji: I think it's right that science is communicated to the public. At the same time, it should be more acceptable in society to be interested in research. In this respect I believe that highlighting the societal context of research results is more important than presenting some formula. What is that good for? How can it change my life? Those are the questions that interest people the most and can't get enough of trying to answer.

academics: Have people come up to you after your performances and said, "Now I've finally understood chemistry"?

Amitabh Banerji: One thing I've heard a few times is "If I'd had a chemistry teacher like that, I would have enjoyed chemistry too." I can use that experience to disprove the clichés we spoke about at the start, and perhaps that also puts chemistry in a somewhat better light.

See also Victorious science slammer: Amitabh Banerji

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academics :: March 2013