Meet Monique Wilhelm, a Chemical Hygiene Officer working to keep scientists safe in the lab, passionate about scicomm!

When I was growing up, I read articles about the amazing things going on inside the body and how we were still discovering new things about how the body works. One of the articles I read while in elementary school in Scientific American was about a molecule that scientists were very interested in understanding at the time. I couldn’t even pronounce the name of the molecule, but what I read about it made it sound like it was magic. It was deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA!  I really wanted to know more about that magical molecule.  News shows would show scientists who were working on problems and they would all be called doctors. This lead me to think that I wanted to be a medical doctor and from that point on I always planned to go to college so that I could then go to medical school.

I am really lucky to have found a career that matches my interest and skills while not being impacted by my Attention Deficit Disorder.

I work in a role that varies greatly by the day. I am in charge of all lab activities in my department, including education and research. I make sure that the instructors and scientists have everything that they need to do safe and successful work in the labs. I spend some time purchasing the chemicals, instruments, and other supplies that they need for each experiment while keeping track of how much money each lab has left to spend. I talk to the faculty about their experiments and determine if there are any hazards that they need to know about and consult them on things they can do to make each procedure as safe as possible for the people and the environment. Writing operating procedures and other documents to support this work is the part that I like least because I don’t like to write.

Occasionally, I go into the labs to check that everyone is following the procedures and things are working so that everyone stays safe. If an experiment is not working properly, I help the person doing the experiment figure out if it is because they are using a piece of equipment incorrectly, using the wrong equipment for what they are trying to achieve, or if there is something wrong with the chemicals or microbes that they are using, or if a piece of equipment is not working properly. If equipment is not working properly, including safety equipment like fume hoods or instrumentation for analysis of a sample, it is my job to determine what is wrong with it and either fix it myself or find the proper person to do so.

The scientists that I work with are all different types of chemists. 

One of them is designing new ways to make molecules so that we can use less energy and starting materials to get more of the products we want at the end and have less waste. Another is trying to make a drug that is used to cure many types of cancer but can only currently be obtained from a 300-year-old tree that only grows in a specific region so that we do not run out of the drug and can make it more affordable for patients. Computers are used by one of the scientists to better predict through energy calculations what reactions will work to make new molecules so that others can focus their time on those instead of having to go through many experiments before finding the one that works best. Stem cells are used by another to determine whether certain chemicals are toxic to humans and how. An instrument very similar to an MRI called an NMR is used by another scientist to test the molecules that he makes as he tries to develop a new molecule that will bind to DNA that has been changed and allow doctors to detect cancer when there is just a tiny bit of cells in the body to detect. Another is trying to determine if she can make chemotherapy drugs used in treating breast cancer not make people so sick by using partner chemicals like vitamin D to help the drugs be more effective and require less to kill the cancer.

The great work that all of them do sometimes makes me feel that because I do not have a PhD I am smart enough to be called a scientist.

At those times I have to remember that none of us is expected to know everything and that is why we have each other to rely on. I work with all of them to make sure that they have what they need and no one gets sick or hurt from doing the experiments, and the knowledge that I do have is a very important part to this team.

I love science a lot and want to make sure that other people like science too so that new science is always being developed.

When I was in school, I did not think that I liked science very much. It was boring to me to learn all the definitions and do math all the time. I thought that scientists read textbooks, wrote reports, and did lots of math. I didn’t know that scientists worked a lot with their hands to do physical experiments and take measurements. I didn’t know that the information and math learned in science class were only a tool for deciding what physical things to do to solve the problem the scientist was working on and to understand the results they got in the end.

So, I am now very passionate about showing people that science is fun and accessible for everyone.

Monique sharing her passion for chemistry/ Monique Wilhelm

I try to instill in my students a passion for safety and for communicating chemistry to the general public in a way to eliminates the misconception that chemistry is bad, scary, or difficult to understand like I feared it was. I also encourage my students to work with elementary and middle school teachers to help them feel more comfortable with hands-on science. I have assisted and/or organized over eighty outreach programs in my community in the past thirteen years. With the many recent safety incidents occurring during school demonstrations, my most notable program is the Teachers’ Demo Academy: a program that brings K-12 teachers together with University faculty and students to learn how to do safe, engaging activities and demos in their classrooms to keep kids interested in science while providing them with the much needed supplies so that students get to know that science is about doing and thinking and not just about knowing facts and doing math.

To make sure that other girls don’t get bored with science early in school, I am also the founder and co-director of Curiosity Academy, a 30-week weekly STEM club for middle school girls from multiple schools in my community.

Now in its fourth year, this program is community-based and bridges resources from three local colleges and the local cultural center to expose the girls to a variety of scientists and engage them in a variety of STEM activities in order to encourage each cohort of girls to become confident STEM learners.  The program continues to grow with many participants returning from one year to the next and new experiences, speakers, and science locations each year. I am always looking for new ideas for my classroom, lab safety, and reaching out to others in both formal and informal settings.  And, I do not shy away from the task of making things happen on my own. As a female in science, this grit is necessary to stand out in the male-dominated crowd. 

I credit my interactions with previous American Chemical Society presidents Tom Lane and E. Ann Nalley for encouraging me to not be afraid to seek out opportunities and ask for what I need to make them happen.  I have formed partnerships between my University and many other schools, museums, and organizations in my community.  These partnerships serve to strengthen the community by sharing resources to achieve greater impact in STEM advocacy.

I have recently combined a tragedy in my community with my passion for getting the public more enthusiastic about science by sharing the story of the Flint Water Crisis through the eyes of a chemist.  It started with trying to eliminate the misconceptions to the children I interact with in my outreach programs through a simple, yet safe, hands-on activity with pennies.  It has turned into a full presentation to general audiences with the intent of showing others why a basic science understanding for everyone is so important to society.