Rico is a researcher and lecturer of physical chemistry who is introducing a new curriculum to first-year students – with the odd unexpected result.
“We actually have demonstrations in the lecture theatre, not just in the lab. We do chemical reactions and blow things up. We’ve been lucky so far with just one minor unintended explosion that didn’t cause too much of a problem…” he jokes.
His favourite experiment to perform for a theatre of 250 eager students involves the creation of liquid oxygen and to demonstrate its magnetic properties. “We condense it out of the air and make this amazing cool, blue liquid. It’s about minus 150 degrees and if you put a magnet near it, you can push it around.
“Some of the more vigorous, dangerous, exciting reactions are filmed in the lab rather than conducted in the lecture theatre,” he sighs.
He loves conducting a lecture knowing he’s conveying a concept that, at the beginning, no one understands. “There’s just a sea of blank faces. I’ll ask them why should two atoms come together? And then somewhere, about half way through the lecture, you get this light bulb moment when they go ‘Ahhhh. I get it. This makes sense!’. There’s a visual moment of recognition across the room.”
Rico reckons there is always something going on at Monash due to the dynamic student cohort.
“There’s real energy. Students are here because they want to learn, to better themselves. In chemistry, we’re really moving. We have great retention in second year and we’re about to get a brand new building during 2014 where first-year students will be taught.
“I love discovery. I can go into a lab and know that I am the first human being on Earth to try an experiment. There’s the possibility I’ll uncover something amazing and that I’m incrementally closer to a major discovery.”
And this is where bubbles come into the story.
“A breakthrough for me was to find the role of carbon dioxide in bubbles. Carbon dioxide is a kind of naughty gas. It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do. It provides stability for bubbles and is implicated in so many other ways…in the ocean and all the way down to the bubbles in your glass of champagne, Coke or beer.”
In the future, Rico hopes to have a significant impact on the world. “I have this cool idea where I can use colloid chemistry to manipulate emulsions, foams and particles. I think surface chemistry will improve electronic devices because we can subtly control forces to make them assemble. Particles or droplets, rather than pixels, would use less energy and would improve image quality.”
I love discovery. I can go into a lab and know that I am the first human being on Earth to try an experiment. There’s the possibility I’ll uncover something amazing and that I’m incrementally closer to a major discovery.