Elisa Calimano: Building Community through Science Outreach

As a young girl attending Catholic school in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Elisa Calimano developed a love for learning about the world around her.  Her early “curiosity for the way the world works” gave her a strong interest in learning about everything from gravity to dinosaurs.  She also discovered she was good at science in school. Elisa continued to excel at science through high school, where she developed a particular interest and talent in chemistry. 
 
Elisa’s science journey brought her to the mainland, where she attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study chemistry.  There, she immersed herself in research opportunities, studying the synthesis of zinc dialkyl and ruthenium complexes with Professors Joseph Sadighi and Richard Schrock.  Elisa then came to UC Berkeley to earn her PhD in Chemistry, as a member of the Tilly Lab Group, studying exploratory synthetic, structural, and reactivity studies on inorganic and organometallic systems.
 
Elisa’s early love of science led her to look for opportunities to in turn inspire young students, which led her to the CRS Bay Area Scientists in Schools program.  She eagerly joined the Tilly Lab’s BASIS team, bringing their “Mysterious Liquids” lesson to 1st grade students in the East Bay. First graders get to be chemists as they conduct an investigation to determine the differences between unknown liquids.  Elisa knew she was having an impact when one student told her that she “likes science more than recess.”
 
Elisa brought her dedication to science education outreach with her as she completed her doctorate at UC Berkeley and went on to work in the research lab of The Clorox Company. At Clorox, Elisa works on the wipes team, developing new products. She enjoys that her job “combines science and business,” providing the opportunity to work on products that have a practical application of helping people.  Elisa says that “it’s cool to see your work on the shelf!” She also enjoys knowing that she is one of very few people who “knows every step” of the development process of such a ubiquitous product.
 
Reflecting on the transition from academia to private sector research, Elisa notes, “inventing a product is a different set of skills…where you have to balance value vs. figuring out if this if this is even possible.”  The “practical” aspect of working in industry presents a satisfying alternative to the theoretical nature of working in a lab where you might not see your results for years or even decades.
 
Elisa now is one of the leaders for science outreach at Clorox, where she is delighted to find a company culture that supports community engagement and outreach.   She now leads a team of Clorox employees who volunteer through BASIS with a 3rd grade lesson called “Dry Ice Explosions.”  Students learn about the states of matter: solids, liquids, and gasses.  Sometimes, along with her colleagues, she gets to teach the lesson in her native Spanish. 
 
“Science outreach is great for personal growth,” says Elisa, noting the benefits from public speaking, learning to simplify concepts, gather attention in a group, and organize a team.  
 
Elisa is motivated to do science outreach because she believes “making science accessible is not hard.”  She wants to show others that making a difference with skilled volunteering can have a huge impact on the lives of local students.  She also finds outreach an effective strategy for building community amongst her colleagues at Clorox. 
 
Each year, Elisa’s outreach team at Clorox hosts an onsite “Lab Day” for employees, highlighting the fun, engaging demonstrations available for outreach presentations and inviting more employees to participate. They day even includes an auction and bake sale to support the work of CRS and other community partners. 
 
Elisa’s early interest in science must run in the family because her sister grew up to become a doctor. They remain close to their parents, and their roots in Puerto Rico.