A group of middle-school students recently got their first taste of college-level science during a visit hosted by Prof. Marisa Buzzeo ’01 to Barnard’s chemistry department. The seventh- and eighth-graders came from the East Harlem School at Exodus House, an independent school for students from low-income Harlem families.

Prof. Buzzeo gave the visiting students an introductory lecture on nanotechnology, a field that investigates how matter behaves differently on the nanometer (one-billionth of a meter) scale. They heard from some Barnard chemistry majors, and also learned about the wide range of careers available in the sciences.

They then had the opportunity to experiment with two different types of chemicals, both of which display unique physical traits due to properties on the nanoscale. First, they compared regular beach sand with “magic sand,” a substance that stays dry even when immersed in water. “It’s called “magic” because it is coated with hydrophobic molecules that cause the sand grains to repel water,” explained Buzzeo.

The second demonstration allowed students to explore ferrofluids, which are liquids with extremely cooperative magnetic properties. These interesting liquids, according to the professor, contain iron nanoparticles suspended in solution and form highly ordered structures in the presence of a magnet.  

“These are both great examples of the beauty and power of chemistry,” said Buzzeo, who spent a year as a visiting scientist at Columbia’s NSF Nanoscale Science and Engineering Center before joining Barnard’s faculty. During that time, she was (and still remains) involved with the center’s Outreach, Education, and Diversity Committee, which aims to bring science education and awareness to local students. “I feel very strongly about the importance of exposing students to science at a young age, to get them interested and excited.”

“For most of our students, a career in science meant a career in medicine or other traditional fields. This trip opened up their minds to the many opportunities that a career in chemistry or another science can provide,” said Jennifer Feierman ’09, Buzzeo’s cousin and a development associate at the East Harlem School who, along with science teacher Ryan Whithall SEAS ’10, collaborated to make the visit happen.  

“This kind of experience exposes them to a collegiate setting, which is particularly important as many of them are already making critical decisions about high school that will impact their eventual college and career choices,” said Feierman. “This kind of experience can be incredibly transformative for a middle-school student.”