Changing the chemical world

Christian Schwantes ('10) sees improving communication as a way to make science more accessible
Condensed from the article in Fall 2010 Madison by Martha Bell Graham

Chemistry and math double major Christian Schwantes ('10) wants to make science more accessible.

Chemistry and math double major Christian Schwantes ('10) wants to make science more accessible.

Advocating ways to strengthen American competitiveness in the 21st century global economy, the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science and Technology has put improving science, technology, engineering and math education at the top of its list. It's a recurring refrain — students need knowledge and training in STEM subjects for the highly technical and high-paying jobs of the future.

JMU grad Christian Schwantes ('10) of Falls Church, Va., is certainly a STEM advocate. The double major in chemistry and math once wanted a Nobel Prize, but now he's focusing on a higher goal. Schwantes believes that making science more accessible will increase its appeal to the general population and attract students to train in the fields so critical to a prosperous future.

After graduating in May as the top JMU student in chemistry and mathematics, and the top senior in biochemistry, Schwantes began Stanford University's Ph.D. program in computational chemistry this fall.

He wants to change the world of chemistry. "I hope that in moving on to become a professor in a field — whose mention generally brings scowls from the audience — I can change how people regard chemistry," he explains. "I love everything about chemistry, and I want to share that with the world."

Key to his goal is improving communication. "Science is becoming more interdisciplinary," he says. "Labs now hire biologists, chemists and physicists to work on the same problem." And each uses a different language. "In chemistry we decant solutions instead of pouring. In medicine, we perform phlebotomies instead of testing blood. The language drives the gap between scientists and everyone else. We need to communicate."

Schwantes wants to do this in a classroom, as a research Ph.D. "Chemistry is becoming more and more mainstream, but it's still an esoteric subject. Chemical imbalances in the brain are being linked to disorders like Alzheimer's and Huntington's and to personality issues, like being more prone to violence or addictions. I'd like to see chemistry be in everyone's mind when going on with their lives, but a huge obstacle is the esoteric language that we scientists love to use. The language is just driving the gap between scientists and everyone else further and further apart. We need to bridge that gap and the first and easiest way to do that is to communicate. We need to be able to communicate our research with people who have not studied it for years."

At JMU, he worked with chemistry professor Kevin Minbiole investigating the role of chemistry in a symbiotic relationship between bacteria and amphibians where the bacteria were able to protect amphibians from a fungal pathogen by secreting antifungal metabolites.

Schwantes co-authored papers with Minbiole and published them in the Journal of Chemical Ecology and International Society for Microbial Ecology. He also presented at the International Society for Chemical Ecology conference in Switzerland and the American Chemical Society conference. "At more well-known research schools, I would only be a graduate researcher's assistant. At JMU, I've led the research team. JMU changed me."

And, Schwantes hopes, he'll have the chance to change the future, at least in a small way, making science more accessible to the public and more appealing to the students of tomorrow.