Materials Scientist Ainissa Ramirez Explores How Technology Has Changed Us

by Beverly Aarons

No one in Seattle is meeting in large groups, but Town Hall Seattle is up and running again — virtually. And materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez informed, awed, and amused an audience of about 40 people on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. The author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another, Ramirez describes herself as a science evangelist on a mission to make science approachable, tangible, and relatable to the average person. I didn’t know quite what to expect in the digital format but I was not disappointed. Ramirez delivered little-known historical facts and discussed the impacts of scientific innovation on the human mind, body, and behavior — all with wit and humor. 

The event was moderated by the Town Hall event manager, Shane Unger, and the online platform, Crowdcast, was aesthetically pleasing and easy to use. Once registered for the event, I received a single link that I clicked, and it put me right into the event. It even had a countdown timer to let me know just how much time I had before the lecture commenced. No dropped lines and no lag. And when there are no dropped lines or lag, I’m a happy event attendee. As for Ramirez’s part, she was completely engaging. She began her lecture with a brief and clever description of materials science. 

“I liken materials science to my home state of New Jersey,” Ramirez said. “Both materials science and New Jersey have been wedged between two more familiar entities. For New Jersey, that’s Philadelphia and New York. And for materials science, that’s chemistry and physics. You see, materials science is interested in how atoms bond, so that’s the chemistry part. And it’s also interested in how materials behave in different situations, and so that’s the physics part.”

Ramirez initially had no interest in materials science other than taking a class in it as a prerequisite for her engineering undergraduate degree. But then something happened that shifted her thinking. On the first day of class, her professor explained that it was materials science that prevented us from falling through the floor and it’s what keeps the lights working. And if a person could understand materials science, they could also figure out how to get atoms (the things that all life is made of) to do new things. For Ramirez, that understanding ignited her passion for the field. 

Ramirez began to see the world in a new light. She realized that it was materials science that made her shoes comfortable and it was why she could see through her glasses. 

“And it was that moment that I decided that I wanted to be a materials scientist,” Ramirez said. 

Becoming a scientist was something Ramirez always dreamed of since she was a little girl. But that moment in her materials science class was the first step on a road that would deliver her to another life-changing moment when she was a student in a glassblowing class. 

For the many weeks in the glassblowing class, Ramirez approached her hobby with much caution. Before signing up, she was warned that she needed to be careful of where she stepped, as stray shards of glass could burn a hole in her shoe. Knowing that she “comes from a long line of clumsy people,” Ramirez was extra cautious, always making tiny vases and always working with the smallest amount of hot glass. But one day, Ramirez had a particularly hard day at work. There were mass layoffs, so when she arrived at her glassblowing class she was in a foul mood. That day she was less cautious. She shoved her tool into the vat, deeper than she had ever pushed it and she pulled out more glass than ever before. She blew hard into it, she turned it, she spun it, and she threw herself fully into molding the glass. Soon she found her spirit lifted. She had shaped the glass into something more extraordinary than anything she had made before. She had shaped the glass but it had also shaped her. She had gone from anger and frustration to calm and satisfaction at a job well done. 

And that’s where the idea for The Alchemy of Us was born. Ramirez began to explore the ways in which materials and technology have shaped human behavior — and even biology. Clocks changed human sleep patterns. The telegraph changed how humans use language. And artificial lights changed how much growth hormone humans produce. And there are so many more surprising examples of how materials have shaped humanity, all outlined in her book. 

I had the opportunity to speak to Ramirez during a phone interview a few days after her event. I needed to know more about Ramirez the scientist, but also the person. Born and raised in Jersey City, NJ, Ramirez has working-class and immigrant roots and a sense of self-determination that is inspiring.

There’s a calm and settled sense of confidence infused in Ramirez’s answers during our interview. It’s clear that she has a long career in materials science and that she’s sure of her place in the science field. But there’s something else that is quite striking: her commitment to bringing out the inner scientist in everyone around her. 

“I do think that everyone should have the mind of a scientist,” Ramirez said. “The mind of a scientist is a person who’s a creative problem solver and a person who asks a lot of questions. That’s what a scientist is. And you can apply that to all of your work, whether you’re working in an office or if you’re working on a telephone pole. All of us need that kind of thinking. We need to be able to think for ourselves. We’re not robots where we just take orders. We need to make decisions. And those decisions must be informed by the questions that we ask.”

Ramirez had a lot of support growing up. She had skilled teachers and encouraging mentors, and she attended a high school summer program that encouraged PoC youth to enter STEM fields by teaching them calculus, electrical engineering, chemistry, writing, and how to prep for college. But even if youth aren’t afforded the same level of opportunity and support during their high school years, Ramirez says that they can still succeed and thrive in a college science program if they are willing to seek out like-minded people who share their interests and who are supportive of their goals. 

“Let that be your tribe and let them be your running buddies to encourage you,” Ramirez said. “ … when you get to the university, don’t be afraid to work really, really hard. Because that’s what I had to do. I was one of the top students when I was in my high school, back in Jersey City. And when I got to Brown, I learned that I was not one of the top students.”

She was used to being at the top of the academic hierarchy but the collegiate course work was so rigorous that it was in college that she received her first “C.” But she wasn’t discouraged. She said she “swallowed her pride” and reached out for help. She signed up for Chem21T, a self-paced, self-directed tutorial for a chemistry class. 

“If she didn’t have that class, I would have failed it,” Ramirez said fondly of her former professor. “I wouldn’t have done well in chemistry. I probably wouldn’t have passed. And if you don’t pass chemistry, that’s sort of like the gatekeeper. You can’t do anything else. You can’t be a medical doctor. You can’t be an engineer. You can’t do anything. So her class was instrumental.”

Years later, that professor would witness Ramirez’s ascent in the world of science as a testament to the value of the work she did for her students years earlier. A real success story. But Ainissa Ramirez thinks that there is one thing that every young person entering science or any other field should keep in mind at all times. 

“Your brain is so precious and it’s important that you don’t let anybody convince you that it isn’t,” Ramirez said. “You have this magnificent machine between your ears that can create, and it can do things uniquely compared to other people. You have to be brave and be willing to nurture it and cultivate it so you can come up with your own ideas. … Don’t let any junk go in. Don’t let any bad ideas about you go in. You have to protect it. Just like if you have jewelry and you put it in a special place, you have to protect your brain.”

Beverly Aarons is a writer and game developer. She works across disciplines as a copywriter, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and short-story writer. She explores futuristic worlds in fiction but also enjoys discovering the stories of modern-day unsung heroes. She’s currently working on a series of nonfiction stories about ordinary people doing extraordinary things in their local communities and the world. In August 2018 she produced a live-action game and event where community members worked together to envision an economic future they truly desired to leave future generations. She’s currently writing an immersive play about the themes of migration.

Featured image is a collage made up of the following: U.S. Postal Service workers overrun with Christmas packages, which became commercialized in the 19th century with steel rails (Image: Library of Congress Prints & Photographs LB-B2-2215-5); An early light bulb created by Thomas Edison (Image: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Thomas Edison Historical Park); A magnetic cassette tape. These made it possible to curate music with the mixtape — the early “playlist” (Image: A. Ramirez); Glass is often overlooked but it is central to scientific discoveries as those made possible by microscopes (Image: A. Ramirez); An announcement of Alexander Graham Bell’s demonstration of his telephone in the New Haven Evening Register in 1877 (Image: A. Ramirez).