Remembering Stephanie Kwolek, the Woman Behind Kevlar

As I sat on my couch reading my weekly Chemical and Engineering News magazine that I receive as a member of American Chemical Society, I turned a page to find an obituary for Stephanie Kwolek. Somehow I had missed the news from regular sources. I have never met her in my life but I felt a connection with her; I saw her as a role model for me, considering I am following a career path she mastered. She was a great woman of science who invented one of the most important polymers created in the last century. And she did it when there were very few women working in the field of polymers, let alone science in general.

Many of us may not know what Kevlar is or why it is so important; But all of us have used, touched, felt or at least heard about something made from it. Kevlar is the trade name of a liquid crystalline polymer, aramid to be specific, with extremely high strength and stiffness (yes, they are distinct terms!) and thermal stability, manufactured by DuPont. It is used for numerous applications requiring high performance materials like tire cords, parachutes, electronics, automobiles, even fibre optic cable to name a few; but it is probably most recognized for use in body armor or bullet proof vests for the military. While she wasn’t directly involved in the development of applications for her invention, she gave the world a material that in some way changed it for the better. She had not known that her invention would one day manifest as a protective guard for our troops in the form of body armor and save their lives. The applications of this exceptional polymer are constantly being further developed even today, as others try to come up with new polymers with competing properties. For her invention of Kevlar, Stephanie was honored with numerous awards, some of which she became the first woman to receive.

Any aspiring young woman scientist can learn a lot from Stephanie’s career graph. One thing I admire about her is that she loved what she did and she came in and conquered a male dominated field. Even today, as I look around, there aren’t as many women in engineering and material science when compared to the number of their male counterparts. I can only imagine that to work in a field that has historically been known to be a male domain, a woman must have felt like a fish out of water. But to take on such a job and to be extremely good at it is something to be proud of and what can aspire many others to venture in similar direction. But something else that I think, everyone can take a lesson from is her attention to detail. Kevlar was discovered because Stephanie decided to analyze the polymer’s sudden drop in viscosity with increasing concentration in solution, a point where others might have discarded that solution deeming it useless. Sometimes while experimenting, seeing something ‘weird’ is not the end but the start of a project, you just have to be attentive enough to recognize it; and Stephanie surely mastered that quality.

I have no information about her personal life but from what I hear, Stephanie was a fun-loving and enthusiastic person. I am sure she had fun doing what she did for her day job and it was probably her passion for her work that infused  a zeal in her life outside of work. All young scientists can learn  a lesson about dedication and passion for your chosen scientific field from the life of Stephanie Kwolek. Girls in particular can find a role model in Stephanie, the woman who invented Kevlar and unknowingly saved the precious lives of numerous soldiers around the globe.

The Day the Sun Stands Still

Earth, the mysterious planet that harbors life and what we call home, relentlessly revolves around the sun. And during this journey, depending upon which pole is tilted towards the sun we have summer or winter in the northern or southern hemispehere. The two distinct times when the earth is positioned such that either the north or the south pole is most inclined towards the sun marks the solstices. The word solstice comes form the latin word solsitium which roughly translates to sun standing still.

The observance of summer solstice as a special day dates back centuries, to a time before any of the known religions existed and probably the time we still don’t know much about. The proof of this is numerous monuments that have been built over time to align with the summer solstice. From the peculiar arrangement of rocks at stonehenge, to the pyramids at Chichen Itza, to the ones in Giza and many more such marvelous structures have been erected over time to somehow align with the position of the sun during a solstice. This was a time when there were no satellites to pan the earth from above to position objects accordingly. It was all done by people dedicating their lives to star gazing and recording the movements of the constellations. And yet, they were able to achieve feats like arranging extremely heavy rocks in a formation that is quite difficult even by today’s technological standards. This makes me think that the science at the time was extremely advanced in a sense that we don’t completely understand. Did we really progress from that point in the understanding of science or did  we regress or are we just going in a circle till we get to that point again and start over? The more we dig into the past, the more we realize that our ancestors were not as ignorant about the workings of the universe as we may have believed and we still have a lot to learn.

As the time passed, various cultures originated and declined, knowledge was gained and forgotten and somewhere somehow things got twisted and a fantastical element came about in the observance of solstices. While it is not clear why the monuments that are built to align with the solstice were built that way or what these cultures did on days like this but with time they have become places for astronomical observations and mystical meetings alike. Almost every part of the world has structures built to create an effect as the earth and other celestial objects move in the sky, with a great emphasis on the solstices. Many cultures around the globe have special days dedicated to this event, whether it is St. John’s day or midsummer ‘s eve or kupala night or anything else as such. Whether you are fascinated by history of this day for the reasons spanning religion, paganism, mysticism or science, it surely packed brings excitement and realization that there is still a lot unknown about the history of humans on earth. But until we completely understand how our ancestors had the knowledge of the universe and science that we still don’t and why has this day been observed over the years by so many cultures, we can continue to follow the tradition and toast to a wonderful summer that follows.

Scientists and Forgotten Safety Protocols

Reading through the numerous news articles about the accidental exposure of about 75 scientists, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to anthrax reminded me of the lab safety trainings I sat in not so long ago (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/20/health/up-to-75-cdc-scientists-may-have-been-exposed-to-anthrax.html?hp).All of us, who work in the field of science are well aware of the atrocious safety training sessions we have to attend repeatedly over the course of our careers. But it is only on occasions like this one that we truly understand their value.

The department seems to be saying that the risk of exposure is “extremely low” and the bacteria were presumed  inactive before they were transferred to these new labs where their spores happened to get aerosolized. But why has this risk, however small or large, been brought upon the center or people at all? How, in this age of advanced scientific environment, was it wrongly concluded that the culture had been inactivated? And something that is the most bothersome is that why were the scientist handling anthrax, active or inactive, not using personal protective equipment that is meant to be used when dealing with a high risk level agent? This, to me, seems like a classic case of oopsie daisy, where someone or some people dropped the ball and now its is costing a fortune to get everything back in order. It is certainly not a cake walk to quarantine a large area and decontaminate it, not to mention watching these scientist and probably their close contacts for the possible onset of infection symptoms for weeks or even months.

There are a lot of accidents, both big and small, that can be prevented in the laboratory environment if the workers pay attention to details and follow the safety protocol. Yes, it is cumbersome to walk around the lab to fetch a specific pair of gloves required for a job and you probably can just do it very quickly with your bare hands since you have done it a million times and its relatively safe. But it can as easily go wrong and you may end up hurting yourself, others and probably wasting quite a bit of money to fix the situation created by your laziness and carelessness. There is always some incident that comes up in the news about lab accidents every so often and becomes the talk of the scientific community but is soon forgotten and we all go back to our old ways.

I don’t have all the details about how exactly this case of anthrax exposure went from start to end but it sure wreaks of negligence on the part of people working there. Why the bacteria were ineffectively inactivated or the tests to confirm their inactivation weren’t done properly or the scientists were not working with them with proper safety equipment is unknown. But this incident should be taken as a wake up call by the scientific community to follow safety regulations rigorously and pay attention to every single detail when performing an experiment. As a scientist, your negligence can lead you to not just  endangering yourself but also those around you and cost your institution a lot of money!