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Two-Faced: Self-Portrait of a Chemist

Apr 29, 2019

I was inspired to paint a different kind of self-portrait during my study of organic chemistry at King’s. One of the compounds we discuss in class is the drug thalidomide. One form of this drug alleviates symptoms of morning sickness in pregnant women. Another form causes severe birth defects. In chemistry, we call molecules like these “two-faced.”

While learning about the “two-facedness” of certain molecules, the use of chemical weapons in Syria was making headlines. This inspired me to think about what it means to be a chemist and have insight into a world not everyone is privy to: the molecular one.

How could we, as people who study chemistry—who know the incredible good we can do with that knowledge—also use it in such horrible ways?

One man who epitomized this dichotomy was Fritz Haber. He saved millions of people from starvation with the Haber-Bosch process—generating nitrogen fertilizer to increase crop production, therefore keeping up with the demands of an exploding population. Yet he also designed chemical weapons in WWI that had absolutely devastating consequences.

In this painting, the left half of the face is of a gas mask from WWI, representing the capacity a chemist has to do wrong by the world. The right side is a brightly colored face of a human, representing the capacity a chemist has to contribute to good. If you look very closely in the background you can see left hand prints on the gas mask side and right hand-prints on the human side.

The impressionist style of art breaks the colors into distinct components, denoting how a chemist can visualize the world in terms of the atoms and molecules that make it up. This “self-portrait” illustrates some aspects of what it means to study chemistry, both in terms of the privileges we have to look at the world in a unique way and the decisions and responsibilities that follow from that.


McKenzie is a fourth year Chemistry student from Red Deer, AB. She was drawn to studying chemistry because of its challenge and problem solving nature. She says studying chemistry at King’s allows her to better understand her faith, the creativity of chemistry, and the responsibilities she has to see the world in a unique way.

After graduation McKenzie hopes to pursue her passion of environmental health.

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