Rico Del Sesto talks importance of scientific literacy, accuracy of science in media

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This article is one of a series, which provides media recommendations relevant to the interviewed faculty member’s field, as well as their thoughts on pursuing a similar career path.

Rico Del Sesto, department chair and professor of chemistry, has been at Dixie State University for over six years. He attended University of Utah for graduate school and then travelled the southwest for a few years before returning to Utah. He loves to read Stephen King novels because of their imaginative and unpredictable plots. Sesto’s is passionate about chemistry and helping students to explore and innovate their surroundings.

Q: What science or science-fiction or any other books, movies or documentaries would you like to recommend and why?

A: “Two of my favorite books are ‘Hyperspace’ by Michio Kaku and ‘What if?’ by Randall Munroe. I recommend them to anyone because they explain some really complex theories and consequences of science where it meets our imagination, and the books are written for a general audience – you don’t need to be a scientist to understand the books, or to realize how amazing the universe truly is and how little of it we have experienced or understand.”

Q: How important is it that people become scientifically literate?

A: “I think it is important that everyone take science classes at some point during their education. I think more importantly, people should be able to question things they read and know how to find resources to answer those questions. There is a lot of misinformation out there that anyone can access. If someone doesn’t realize that it’s misinformation, it could cost them in terms of time, money, or in some cases can be deadly.

Students ask me all the time about some ‘cure-all’ product they hear about or some latest statement about organic foods – the most exciting part about that is they knew enough to investigate the claim further rather than just accept as is. A scientist doesn’t have to be someone who knows everything about science.

Anyone that questions a claim or theory and investigates the different perspectives using established sources (literature, people, etc) and coming up with a supported conclusion is doing science.

A scientifically literate person knows what questions to ask, how to find resources and determine the validity of those resources, and use logic and data to support a conclusion. That being said, the resources and references are often the weak point in that process. There is a fairly effective movement in marketing products that capitalizes on people’s lack of knowledge in the chemistry field. Examples include the ‘chemical free,’ ‘non-GMO,’ and ‘organic’ labeling of foods or other healthcare products.

People should know that everything is made from chemicals – there is no such thing as ‘chemical free.’ You need chemicals to live. There are indeed chemicals that are toxic, either through acute or chronic exposure, but you need most of the chemicals in food and in water to live.”

Q: In your opinion, what is something that many T.V. shows/movies/books get wrong?

A: “There are a number of things that they get wrong about science, and it’s usually the science. The labs use horrendous techniques in most of the shows, and their tests are likely contaminated during sample processing! The biggest issue is that they take the science out of the science.

If you watch an investigative drama show, there is a lot of investigation and analysis into who did what in a crime and how, but then they put a forensic sample on an instrument and it tells them exactly what it is and where it came from. In reality, that one test on an instrument is just one piece of the puzzle, and there is so much more analysis and investigation that goes into determining the details of that sample – that’s the puzzle that makes it ‘science.’

One exception where the science is correct is ‘The Big Bang Theory,’ especially the earlier seasons – they generally covered about real scientific concepts, theories, and experiments. Also, parts of Breaking Bad did have proper chemistry techniques, but they underplayed the significant health and safety issues of doing any type chemistry outside of a laboratory setting – working with chemicals poses a significant hazard, regardless of what the application is.”

Q: What is an often misunderstood facet of your field?

A: “People often envision a chemist as being a person in a lab coat and goggles, pipetting chemicals in a lab. That is one area of chemistry, but you can do almost anything with a background in chemistry.

Chemists go on to develop new therapeutic drugs and pharmaceuticals; they can become forensic scientists that analyze samples and/or help create policy in areas that impact the local or global environment; chemists are often at the forefront of the energy industry, whether it is in fossil fuel processing and refining, designing new materials for solar photovoltaics, or developing battery technology for energy storage; computational chemistry is a significant and growing field where computers are used to help understand chemical processes that occurs at the atomic level up to organismal level; chemists can go on to law school or into government positions, since chemistry plays a role in so many policies and laws.

The knowledge gained in chemistry is often just a springboard to build a career that meets your interests and goals while applying your knowledge. Chemistry, and chemicals, are intertwined with everything in the universe, so a person’s knowledge in chemistry can be applied to almost any other field.”

Q: How do you correct the misunderstanding people have of your field?

A: “At the college level, we often introduce how chemistry is applied across many different disciplines, to make sure students understand what opportunities are there. We also offer different research experiences for our students so they can engage in and experience the life of a chemist, even if for only a couple of hours per week.

At the pre-college level, our department is engaged in a number of outreach activities to let kids experience different areas of chemistry. We also have visited several schools in the area to talk about our chemistry degrees and what to expect from life as a chemist.

Q: Would you say science is your biggest passion? Are you following your dream?

A: “Science is one of my passions, and especially chemistry. I have always been excited about chemistry – I thrive on the “why” questions – the understanding why things are or why they happen, the puzzle of solving complex problems, and the opportunity to use that information to create and advance modern technology.

Even since I was in college, I wanted to teach someday at an undergraduate institution, to share knowledge of chemistry, and to engage students in research projects that would develop their own sense of wonder and a passion in the process of exploring and innovating.”

Q: What advice would you give students? Is there anything students should know wanting to go into Chemistry or other sciences?

A:  “Chemistry and other science degrees can be challenging, but they provide students with much more than just the knowledge. The critical and analytical thought processes that they develop are just as important as the knowledge itself – that is why students that major in chemistry can pursue so many different careers.

Having knowledge of chemistry is also important, and most students are amazed at how complex things really are – the oceans, the atmosphere, life itself – that they realize the more they learn, the more there still is to learn. The amazement in discovering and understanding more and more about the world around you will keep you engaged for the rest of your life.”

The answers are super long. I looked at the big block of text and got, for the lack of a better word, scared. Just because he said it all at once doesn’t mean you can’t break it up to make it easier to read. I gave you some example in the first big chunk. Do this will all of them.