Being single is cool, if you’re an electron!

Explaining what your research is about in a clear and concise way isn’t easy, especially if your audience has little or no prior knowledge of the subject. That’s why UAntwerp organises PRESS>SPEAK, an annual writing and presenting competition for young researchers taking their first steps in science communication. Every year, the winners of the writing contest are featured on the Pintra blog.

For the PRESS>SPEAK writing competition, researchers were instructed to explain their research in a text of three paragraphs of max. 150 words. They also had to come up with a pithy title, a striking subtitle, and a picture illustrating the difference their research aims to make in society. The second winning text, written by Ilenia Serra (Faculty of Science), is about electrons.

Being single is cool, if you’re an electron!

Do physics and chemistry seem just a bunch of nerdy mathematical gibberish? What if I tell you that after reading this, you’ll know a bit of both without seeing a single number? First, take an onion: if the nucleus of an atom is its central core, the electrons occupy its layers. How they do it, is a bit more complicated.

Imagine electrons as passengers boarding a train. The first person finds a comfortable place to sit, the second person chooses the furthest seat, the third one the same and so on until no seats are left. Eventually, the latecomers will sit close to strangers even if they feel a bit uncomfortable. In a similar manner, even if they don’t really like to stay close to each other, electrons find a compromise and roam around the nucleus in pairs. Simple, right?

Yet some electrons, just as with us, cannot give up a solitary life, and remain unpaired. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t active! Sometimes, so desperate to find a companion, they kidnap electrons from other molecules that come their way, becoming very dangerous! You’ve probably heard about the free radicals; their bad reputation precedes their name. But did you know that the same unpaired electrons which form these free radicals can also be useful, if not essential, for our health and everyday life, when they are placed in the right spot?

Small but mighty

In the chemistry of life, enzymes are the tiny machines which keep all living organisms functioning properly. Because they’re often way more efficient than any man-designed process, we want to use them for novel purposes which go beyond their biological role. Enzymes are already employed in household goods, food processing and production of pharmaceuticals, to cite a few. In my research, I study an exciting enzyme, called chlorite dismutase, which degrades toxic compounds and produces oxygen. Guess what? This enzyme won’t do its job without unpaired electrons, but there’s more. With the right techniques, we can use these unpaired electrons as little spies to better understand how this enzyme works and develop sustainable technologies for the future. Surprised? I hope so. Believe it or not, without a single line of math, you’ve just learnt how cool physics and chemistry can shape the world around you. Bravo!

Ilenia Serra – Faculty of Sciences

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement N° 813209 (PARACAT project).