Lights, Camera, Reactions

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Understanding polymer chemistry through the popping of a balloon.

Teaching atmospheric chemistry and the use of approximations through Caesar’s last breath.

Chemistry is coming alive thanks to exciting and engaging videos from the American Chemical Society and PBS Digital Studios, and one of the brains behind the scenes of these videos making sure that the science is correct is none other than Utica College Professor of Chemistry Dr. Michelle Boucher.



Active with undergraduate programming within the American Chemical Society (ACS), including serving on the ACS Undergraduate Programming Advisory Board and serving on the advisory board for the ACS undergraduate magazine, along with writing articles for inChemistry, Dr. Boucher was a natural fit for the role of Scientific Consultant to the web video series, Reactions.

Reactions is a series of short videos produced by ACS and PBS Digital Studios that examine the use of chemistry in everyday life.

“I’m not saying that chemists have the answer to everything, or that everything artificial is good, or that the major is easy. What I do want to have people know is that chemistry is the science that deals with molecules, how to count them, how to make them, how to predict and control their properties. The more that you know about the chemicals that make up everything around you, from the chemicals in your apple, because Mother Nature makes chemicals better than any chemist can, to the chemicals in your medicine cabinet to the chemicals that make up the polymers on your iPhone case, the better you can make informed decisions about what to surround yourself with and ingest. Chemistry knowledge is fun and powerful and easier to understand than people think.”

As a consultant, Dr. Boucher comes into the process two times during the development of a video, typically looking at 1-2 scripts and 1-2 videos per week. The ACS Reactions staff puts together the script for each video in conjunction with either a scientific expert who joins the team for work on that one particular video project or the staff works with a few broader-based experts. She herself has served as the expert for some Reactions videos dealing with polymers.

“This script is modified multiple times before it comes to me for fact checking and clarity. I see the script and have 24 hours or so to make comments and corrections. I am expected to fact check every statement they make, which is not as hard as it sounds, check any reactions or math, and also make comments in terms of clarity. I typically do more clarity corrections or suggestions at this stage - sometimes I think that the way something is said could be said more clearly.”

The Reactions staff then produces the video, typically 3-6 minutes in length, and Dr. Boucher checks each version of the video for accuracy and clarity. As the video staff’s art department are not chemists, each chemical structure needs checking and sometimes changing. At times, Dr. Boucher may make suggestions in regards to any animations that are used to illustrate a chemical concept and how it can be conveyed better to the audience.

“This part is tons of fun, because it really forced me to question why I look at things a certain way. They are approaching the animation as artists trying to understand chemistry, and I can see clearly what their thought processes are...and if there is a misunderstanding, that teachers me how better to communicate the concept.”

The process has given Dr. Boucher the opportunity to look at science not just in a way of facts and processes, but the communication of that knowledge to a brand new audience that may lack the background of her fellow scientists or students.

It’s a process that has proved both challenging in the need to catch all mistakes and typos, but rewarding in the fact that her knowledge and expertise is so well sought-after, even if she admits it was a little scary when first approached for the consultant role.

“Honestly, terrifying! I am supposed to say flattering or something, and it was exciting, but it was also scary, since while I’m used to being the expert in the classroom, it is entirely different to work with a group of artists, correct their work, and also be the final voice responsible for facts when it goes live on the internet and with the permanence that it means. Once it is out there, for everyone to see and potentially comment and such, it made me initially feel very exposed. I’ve gotten a great deal more comfortable in my ability to catch mistakes and am much less nervous each time something goes live.”

You can find many of the videos that Dr. Boucher has consulted on at the Reactions channel on YouTube.

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