Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist and the author of The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another. Before speaking at a Zócalo/Issues in Science and Technology event, “Do Inventors Bear Responsibility for the Effects Of Their Inventions?,” Ramirez spoke in the green room about the inventor of the ice cream scoop, Louis Armstrong and Albert Einstein, and how her mom recently won a science fair.
What is your favorite invention?
Ice cream. From the materials point of view, it's fascinating because it has a whole bunch of different things coexisting at the same time—and also, it's very, very tasty.
What is your favorite ice cream flavor?
Growing up, it was always strawberry. So whenever we had Neapolitan—I had two younger brothers—that was mine. But I’m actually not supposed to be eating ice cream right now, so if I tell you then I’m admitting I’m eating ice cream.
But what I just found out, in the last two years or so, was that the ice cream scoop was actually invented by an African American inventor [Alfred L. Cralle]. And so while ice cream is always part of everyone's youth, I think that I would have had a deeper connection to it if I had known that the scoop that I was using was made by someone who looked like me.
When did you first know you wanted to be a scientist?
From a very young age, since I was like four, my mom reports that I said I wanted to be a scientist. I was one of those kids that took stuff apart. My dad repaired computers, and when he would come home, I was eager to see him, but I was really eager to see his huge suitcase, which had all these tools. I would take things out and use them.
What TV shows did you watch growing up?
The Bionic Woman, The Six Million Dollar Man, Star Trek—the original with Spock. And then there was this program on Channel 13, which was our PBS [affiliate] in New Jersey, called 3-2-1 Contact. There was one repeating segment called “The Bloodhound Gang,” where there was this African American girl who was a little older than I—she was a teenager, and I was probably in the single digits still—and she had a bunch of friends and they would solve problems. In the ’70s and ’80s, there weren't too many images of African American people, and there weren't many that were positive. So this really resonated, because I just never saw characters that look like me, and then it was also striking because she was solving problems. When I learned that that's what scientists do, I saw my reflection, and I said, well, this is what I want to do. So 3-2-1 Contact really put me on my path.
What do you do to decompress?
I swim. I really love swimming, I take walks in the morning, I love that. I have a little bicycle downstairs. I’m on that. Exercise is important. I didn’t always do that but now that I'm a little older, I realize how important that is. I used to read a lot more, but COVID has worn me out a little bit, so audio books and a little bit of reading help. And then, right now, it's just reaching out to friends.
You have been using Twitter lately to share the stories of materials. How did that begin?
It was kind of a fluke. I used to teach materials science courses, and when I taught, I was trying to make them feel relatable to the students. So I would anthropomorphize things or I would be a little bit more lyrical, or I would use analogies. That's how I look at the world, anyway—everything in my house kind of has a personality. So I like giving elements personalities. And so I said, well, let me do this with a tweet. A tweet is no big deal. It's non-committal, you know, it's not a book. I would just explain things that are around people. I also didn't want to just tweet a fact. What I wanted to do is give these materials some action, or see if there's some kind of lesson in that.
The other day, [I explained that rubies are] red by chromium. But chromium is actually an impurity. It wasn't supposed to really be there; this material should have been clear, but because of the chromium it's now red. And so my lesson for that is sometimes something that's unwanted can make something beautiful. What I'm hoping that you learn is that the chromium is what made the color, but because it's got this context, that lesson resonates with people a little bit more. So I'm having fun with these tweets. One person he tweeted me back, he says he's reading them to his classroom. So, I'm like, well, I guess I have to continue now.
What is the last thing that inspired you?
I just gave a talk today for this jazz continuum at Columbia. Now, I'm not a jazz person, I'm a scientist. We were discussing Armstrong, and Einstein, which is in my book. So there are all these jazz musicians and myself and we are riffing, we are having a good time. That was inspiring. I wish there was more time where people from different disciplines could chat. And it doesn't have to be deep. And it's OK if you're wrong. It's play. I think musicians get that.
Your mom recently won a senior science fair. Tell us about that.
My mom is trained as a nurse. What’s so exciting to me is that I love when people get another chance at science. Most people feel like once they reach a certain point, they're like, science is not for me, or it's over my head. But it ends up that there's this science fair that happens in Florida for seniors where they get to do what kids used to do, which is like, do science fair stuff, and my mom told me about it, and I was so excited, because this is another way for her to engage and learn and present and be confident and something that she hasn't done before. And I think she knew about it for months. She practiced a lot–a lot. And she would call me, ‘What do you think about this?’ I would just encourage her. And then one day, she calls, she's like, I won. It's a second chance at science. And not only that, she's a science fair winner. I mean it doesn't get better than that. We kind of write folks off. But you know that people want to learn, they want to make things with their hands, they want to form a community, they want to nerd out together. And I am so for that.