Heroes of the 21st Century

In the Lab

In the lab, focused eyes, furled brow, and steady hands.

She measures the clear viscous liquid. Holds the flask to the light to see its contents, then holds her breath as she carefully, slowly, pours this treasure into the solution that’s already stirring in the larger pot before her.

A lone figure no one knows, working on a new material few have ever heard of, or ever will.

And yet, the echoes of her efforts, when the mixture finally meets with her approval, will ripple out far beyond that lab, far beyond her town, and far beyond her lifetime.

In years to come, a crop will grow, the harvest carried to a bin, green stalks and leaves churned in a swirl with the liquid she created, drawing from those crops the foundations of a new plastic.

A plastic that never knows a drop of oil. A plastic bottle that delivers to a baby nothing but the milk inside. A plastic wrapper that, should it wash out to sea, will melt away before any curious creature might ever think to notice it, the disintegrated bits falling to the seafloor as harmless as sand. 

Thousands of other plastics, passed from store to buyer to compost pile, churned with eggshells and carrot greens, then spread over fields to enrich the dirt from which the crop will grow anew.

And with this vision in her head, the young woman in the lab smiles. 

 The batch before her may fall short, and the one after, and the one after that, too. But she knows these molecules. She knows their potential, and her own potential, too. And so the smile grows.

One day soon it’ll work, and in days that follow her vision will grow into reality. And so she presses on, her tired eyes and sore shoulders seeming an easy price to pay for this, her opportunity to change the world.



Author’s note:

The character in this essay and the description of her work were inspired by the many brilliant young scientists I’ve met who are working in the field of “Green Chemistry.” There are many web resources to learn more about the tremendous promise of green chemistry research. We include many of those in the Green Chemistry collection on our Resources page.


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