300 Words


Notes from a Davidson Classroom

By John Syme

On the steps of Martin Chemical Laboratory, it is late spring, sunny, a fresh breeze. Inside, the aroma of experiments past permeates the still air. Down the stairs, trod now for seven decades, a basement lecture hall lies waiting, lowceilinged, windowless. Honeycomb fluorescent light fixtures buzz overhead, suspended like giant, disembodied Drosophila eyes. Students sit in sloping rows of seats screwed to the floor. Soon the lights flicker and die. The projected image of a decomposing corpse is now the chamber’s lone illumination. Welcome to Chemistry of Archaeology.

Really, it’s not so spooky, even for nonmajors. No, really. Professor of Chemistry Ruth Beeston is known for making her subject matter—solid, liquid, or gas—accessible to all. In an academic adaptation volume of knowledge for optimal teaching and learning.

Beeston demonstrates principles of chemistry with real-world examples likely to resonate with her students. Today she hoists a baggie of cochineal beetle bits as she passes a signup sheet for dyeing silk scarves with a solution of same. Yes, beetle juice. Awesome, right?

In her pedagogy, Beeston is collaborative, interactive. She reads aloud the names of today’s student evaluators, who will offer peer review of their fellow students’ presentations.

Starting with the putrefacting corpse, we learn the inner chemical doings of Egyptian mummies, ice persons, bog bodies. Similarly, the perspective is from the inside out for the following students’ exposition of ancient cosmetics, perfume, and incense. During Q & A, Beeston asks about the British scientist they mentioned, the one marketing recreated perfumes of Cleopatra: Just how did his gas-layer chromatography result in a reproducible aroma print? Beeston would like to try that on the Daphne odora lowers growing beside the Sloan Music Center, across the lawn from the Martin Chemical Laboratory. Maybe next spring.


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