Diving deeper into the science that affects our everyday lives

Woman preparing chutney

Source: © M-H Jeeves

Finding inspiration from the chemistry behind many everyday items and processes

Only a few people figure out their field of interest early in life, and I was not one of them. But the world around me constantly aroused my curiosity, and I found delight in having my questions answered. Always wanting to learn more, I tried to dive into as many subjects as possible when I was in school, but nothing ever piqued my curiosity or sparked my interest to the point where I became passionate about it. When I had to select between mathematics and chemistry as a 14-year-old, I ultimately chose chemistry, simply because I was more amused by the colourful reactions in the chemistry lab than by calculus and trigonometry.

As I went deeper into the subject, my fascination increased and I came to see how closely everything is tied to chemistry. Even now, the more I learn, the more I am able to make my own inferences and interpretations about the various natural and artificial processes that we encounter day-to-day. From my grandma’s use of vinegar as a preservative in chutneys and pickles to the role of citric acid in oranges, I could not help but be amazed by the many applications of chemistry in everyday life. It surprised me to learn that a wine’s distinctive flavour, colour, fragrance and personality are all due to a small percentage of its constituents. This type of outsized effect is where chemistry really shines. Realising that what I learned in textbooks has an impact on my everyday life gave me a genuine sense of pride.

It feels like I am uncovering a whole new world

But after one dramatic event, I began to take it more seriously.

One fine Sunday morning a decade back, an 18-year-old me was singing in the choir for the Easter liturgy. I vividly recall how, when I fixed my gaze on the altar, everything in front of me gradually drifted away. It was as if I was in a trance. I cannot recollect what happened during the next couple of hours. The next few days felt like I was stuck in a loop. I was diagnosed with epilepsy.

From then on, my whole existence centred around medicines and doctors. At first, I could not make peace with the fact that I had to rely on medication for the rest of my life. I wanted to shut myself off from reality. But eventually, I had no choice but to follow my doctor’s advice: to learn more about my medical condition and treat it as practically as possible.

It still took a lot convincing before I finally decided to give that research a shot. But when I did, I went through all the information that I could find. There were times when I even found myself researching the constituents of the medicines I took. I found it rather surprising that a few ingredients brought together in the right proportion could make such a huge difference. The consequences that may occur as a result of skipping the medicine even once made me realise how important each of these constituents are.

This mirrors my experience with my curly hair; from childhood, I always had a love-hate relationship with my curly hair. My hair and the resulting frizz were too much for me to handle. One day I decided to learn all that was there to know about curls, from how to manage them to why they form. I found that my curls are a result of the sulfur atoms in the keratin protein in my hair forming bonds that lead to the development of disulfide bonds. It was enlightening to understand the role of each ingredient on the labels for the sulfate-free shampoo and conditioners that I used to manage my curls.

Today, when I work with chemicals under the fume hood, it feels like I am uncovering a whole new and unknown world. From the creation of drugs to fight pandemics like Covid-19 to the toothpaste that we use day in and day out, the applicability of chemistry is huge and is still evolving. I am more than happy about the most trivial contributions that I make toward this field every day.

From the colourful reactions in the lab as a 14-year-old, to my personal experiences with epilepsy and managing my curly hair, I have now fully fallen for chemistry. But it doesn’t end here, because chemistry becomes more and more mesmerising as I delve deeper into it.