The IPCM is committed to bringing scientific culture to the general public

What if science and scientists went beyond the walls of the laboratory to meet the public? Demystifying the world of research, opening the doors of our laboratories to show science in the making is one of the missions of public research organisations. To contribute to this mission, but also to meet the needs of a wide and ever-curious public whose appetite for science is well known to those involved in scientific outreach, the IPCM is working to disseminate scientific culture.

Lydia Sosa-Vargas and her group of doctoral and post-doctoral mediators at the Fête de la science 2023 on the Pierre et Marie Curie campus / Sorbonne University. © Lydia Sosa-Vargas

This is reflected in the many initiatives taken by IPCM colleagues, both individually and collectively, to help build the knowledge society. But that’s not all! For members of the institute, it’s also an opportunity to explain the chemistry professions and raise the profile of molecular chemistry.
Scientific workshops for events such as the Fête de la Science (but not only!), talks in schools from primary to secondary level, visits to laboratories, scientific conferences… There’s no shortage of opportunities to engage in dialogue with the public. And for all these events, the IPCM is there.
The Chemistry Village, an event aimed at schoolchildren and the general public, will bring together academic and industrial players from the world of chemistry on 1-2 March 2024 in Montreuil. The IPCM is joining the CNRS in offering workshops to raise awareness of the chemical sciences.
The colleagues involved in this event tell us what motivates their commitment to disseminating scientific culture. Could this be an opportunity for them to inspire their colleagues? Interview!

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) presented to a group of schoolchildren. © IPCM

What kind of initiatives are you proposing to raise awareness among non-specialists, for what audiences and in what contexts?

Alexandre Pradal : For the Chemistry Village 2024, the year of the Paris Olympics, we will be looking at some of the most important organic molecules in our bodies and how they are produced during physical effort. It’s a relatively simple experiment in which anyone can find the right conclusion simply by using their common sense. This experiment will also provide an opportunity to learn about the scientific approach and the way in which scientists devise experiments to test a hypothesis.

Valérie Marvaud :  The aim of the stand is to present the profession of chemist to the general public, highlighting the different stages in the manufacture of a product: synthesis, purification, characterisation and properties. To illustrate this, we use Chemopoly, games on the periodic classification of elements and fun experiments such as magic ink. In 2024, the year of the Olympic Games, particular attention will be paid to metals and gold in particular (brass production)! An opportunity to talk about the recent discoveries that led to the creation of the start-up Auressens !

Lydia Sosa-Vargas : For this Chemistry Village, we are concentrating on polymer materials. Along with other doctoral students, our aim is to raise public awareness of this type of material, which in recent years has come under heavy criticism for its negative impact on the environment. I want to ensure that the public has a better understanding of the chemistry behind them, their usefulness in our daily lives and what we scientists are developing in this field. There’s no age limit to learning; chemistry is fascinating and I want to share my passion with everyone. Our main job is to ensure that it is accessible to everyone, regardless of age, level of education or language!

Jeremy Forté : Thanks to the “Diffraction to see into crystals” workshop, we can introduce the public to crystallography, a relatively unknown discipline that nevertheless lies at the interface of different scientific fields: chemistry, biology, physics, ….. We tell an interactive story based on what the public knows best! Their everyday lives! Where do we find crystals? Sugar is the source of energy for sportsmen and women (and the not-so-sportsmen and women), but what does the inside of a sugar cube look like? How can we “see” the sucrose molecule? Using simple definitions, everyday objects, humour, images, anecdotes and experiments, we show the public that crystals can be found in unsuspected places. And we reveal how, in the world of the infinitely small, X-ray diffraction allows us to see the arrangement of atoms in these ordered structures.

Régina Maruchenko : In collaboration with the NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance) platform at Sorbonne University, I take part in various annual events for the general public, such as the Village de la chimie and the Fête de la science, as well as events for a more targeted audience, such as the Profs en Fac theme days. The aim remains the same: to help people discover the jobs that support research, the challenges they face and all the science behind them. Once a compound has been synthesised, structural analysis is essential to confirm that the desired product has been obtained. NMR is a complex but very powerful technique for achieving this goal. In the form of a presentation, workshop or stand, using simple examples of application, I try to explain how this technique works and what is involved in characterising a chemical product.

Workshop for schoolchildren. © Valérie Marvaud

How do you choose the topics you cover in your speeches?

VM : I take my inspiration from the talks I usually give to young people (schoolchildren) during school events, and I choose experiments that are both fun and spectacular! The idea is to build a story that is adapted to the audience and that gives chemistry a positive image. The message also focuses on the importance of the researcher in societal issues (new materials, health, energy, etc.) and the fact that chemistry combines both experience and reflection.

LSV : Realising how many misconceptions people have about chemistry and science in general motivates me to find ways of dispelling them. I generally choose subjects that are close to my areas of expertise, but the main thing is to try and put them into a broader context linked to current global issues.

AP : It all depends on the type of event. For the Fête de la science, for example, we generally try to stay close to our areas of expertise and research themes while respecting the national theme. For other events, such as the Chemistry Village, the idea is to interest or captivate visitors. What better way of doing that than with a spectacular experience?

JF : The aim of this workshop is to promote crystallography to an adult audience using accessible language. To increase interest, I try to regularly introduce new examples from current affairs, history or everyday life. The day I’m talking to a younger audience, I’ll set up another workshop on crystallography.

RM : The choice of subject is made after a collaborative brainstorming session based on everyone’s suggestions. What are the current issues? Who is the target audience? What innovative/new ideas can we share? What information do we want our audience to remember? The more the subjects are linked to their everyday lives, the more their curiosity will be stimulated, enabling them to realise that science is omnipresent and much more accessible than they imagine..

Alexandre Pradal at the 2023 Chemistry Village © Droits réservés

Is it difficult to combine research, mediation and, for some of you, teaching? What are your objectives and what motivates your involvement in these mediation activities?

LSV : This is sometimes difficult, especially when this type of activity is not well valued by our peers; fortunately, this seems to be changing. In any case, I feel that we have a responsibility to share the results of our work and how they contribute to the benefit of society with the public who fund our research. Taking part in science popularisation/mediation activities is also very rewarding. We have an important role to play in motivating younger generations to take an interest in chemistry and satisfy their curiosity at the same time..

AP : It can sometimes be difficult, but it’s all a question of organisation. The aim of these science outreach activities is to show a bit of science to the general public. Through fun experiments, we can then talk in simple terms about our research projects and explain how they can have an impact on everyday life. Our main motivation for getting involved in science outreach is to be able to talk about science with as many people as possible. What’s more, it’s part of our public service mission. As it is the taxpayers who fund most of our research work, it is only natural that they should know how and what we use this money for.

VM : My motivation stems from the fact that general scientific knowledge is often neglected! Yet the history of science and discovery is fascinating for everyone if you take the time to explain it in the right words. All children are sensitive to experiments, and nothing can replace the wonder on their faces when they put on their little white lab coats and proudly take home the product they have made, explaining to their parents what they have understood about chemistry. What’s true for the little ones is also true for the older ones. These activities are also an opportunity to explain to children that science is open to everyone, girls and boys alike, and at all levels of qualification! The CNRS encourages us to carry out these outreach activities, which I’m always happy to do, even if a lack of time or support means that other priorities are sometimes sacrificed!

JF : Running science outreach events and working in the laboratory at the same time is perfectly feasible as long as there are not too many of these events. This is the case and will remain so if more and more of us take part. These moments of exchange with the public are essential for sharing the science that is being carried out, showing its benefits but also its weaknesses… Although this activity of scientific outreach is still under-valued by our supervisory bodies, my love of science, including crystallography, my pleasure at seeing the eyes of the audience light up, and my commitment to the missions that are ours as civil servants encourage me to continue and develop this activity further.

RM : For me, science outreach is a way of making science accessible to the general public in a simple, interactive way. When I was young, I was very quickly attracted to science and more particularly to research. It’s a world that is still very unfamiliar to the general public. Explaining what our work involves, understanding how it works, the current themes, issues and applications is particularly important to me. Taking part in activities to popularise science also helps to arouse the curiosity of younger generations and helps them to discover a world they know little or nothing about. Perhaps this will help them find the best career path and/or inspire some of them to take up a career in science!

Jérémy FORTÉ

assistant CNRS engineer in X-ray diffraction

Valérie MARVAUD

CNRS researcher in molecular inorganic chemistry

Lydia SOSA-VARGAS

researcher in polymer chemistry

Régina MARUCHENKO

nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) research engineer

Alexandre PRADAL

CNRS researcher in organic chemistry