Up Close … with chemistry whizz Steve Gonsalves |01 December 2020
‘Chemistry stands out as being the most powerful subject in modern times’
By Laura Pillay
Steve Gonsalves has been recognised as an outstanding student throughout most of his academic life, having scooped up numerous prestigious awards and published several research papers in England. Although qualified as an Industrial Research Chemist, as an enthusiastic learner himself, it is no surprise therefore that Steve ended up, although somewhat haphazardly, in a teaching career.
Since his return to Seychelles last year, the chemistry whizz has established a Chemistry Tuition Centre located at Espace Building, where he offers one-on-one and group sessions to chemistry students who are undergoing GCSE and A level programmes.
Seychelles NATION sat down with Steve for a chat about his own personal academic accolades, his passion for chemistry and his vision to inspire the next generations of scientists.
Early life and education
Steve was born and raised in Seychelles and went through the formal education system starting off at La Rosière primary school. From early on, he discovered his passion for the sciences, prompting him to after the two-year National Youth Service (NYS) programme, join the School of Humanities and Science at the Seychelles Polytechnic where his passion for chemistry developed further, through the help and devotion of A-level teacher Malini Vijeyanake.
“Chemistry is the study of the properties of matter, the stuff we touch, feel, taste and smell every day, but most of which we passively interact with. I was actively inquisitive and was always trying to understand why matter has the properties it has, and equally, how these properties change through chemical reactions. Despite being a notoriously difficult subject, chemistry remains the most interesting branch of science which is interwoven into the fine tapestry of life. From the fertilisers and pesticides we use, the food we eat, the medicines we consume, the creams we wear, the colours of pigments we see, the ingredients list on the back of food label, to the clothes that we wear, all of which sits on the principles of chemistry. It is the bedrock for many subjects such as biology, biochemistry, pharmaceutical science, medicine, food chemistry, drugs, soil chemistry, atmospheric chemistry, and synthetic chemistry just to name a few. So in my opinion, chemistry stands out as being the most powerful subject in modern times,” Steve says.
“I guess the passion was always there but there were many stimuli along the way that led me to study this subject. With the benefit of hindsight, I believe it all started during my days at the National Youth Service. I chose to study the sciences in the first year and I was allocated in the SC channel, as it was called then. This was where it started and my marks in chemistry were always higher than in biology and physics. My teacher then brought chemistry to life and I started to appreciate and enjoy the everyday chemistry around me. From seeing the changes when an egg fries, different coloured pigments in leaves and vegetables, to the chemical composition of detergents and precipitation reactions etc. I took a keen interest in the ingredients list on packaged food items and tried to decipher the role of the active ingredient and my curiosity expanded from there,” he explains.
Equipped with the enthusiasm and drive to go further, Steve was lucky to in 1994 be awarded the Guinness-funded Chevening Scholarship which led him to the University of Wales, Bangor, where he pursued a degree in chemistry.
Over the three-year programme, he impressed lecturers with his outstanding academic performance, his hardworking nature, and high standard of work, emerging from the institution in 1997 with a First Class Honours and numerous prizes under his belt. During the course, he was also recognised and awarded Best First Year student, the Evan Roberts Prize as Best second year student and as Best Third Year student. The devoted student also impressed with his research project for which he was bestowed with the Peboc Medaland the Muriel Edwards Prize.
“My research was aimed at developing new organometallic compounds with anti-cancer and polymerising properties. Take one molecule, you polymerise it and it becomes a long chain. For instance, plastic starts off as a small molecule, you add a catalyst and the catalyst weaves it and produces a chain. My lecturer was particularly interested in this field, and I was one of the few undergraduate students in the chemistry department who was interested to pursue my research in this field. We made a number of new compounds and published two papers in the process,” Steve says.
Professional career path
Upon completing his degree programme, Steve returned to Seychelles, taking up employment with Seychelles Breweries Ltd as a Technical Management Trainee. Shortly after, he left to work for the Seychelles Bureau of Standards (SBS) as head of instrumental analysis lab whereby he was engaged with analysis of pesticides in food, vegetables and assisting the food lab and other laboratories, until one fateful day when he was offered an immediate position at the Seychelles Polytechnic as a chemistry lecturer, by then Minister for Education Danny Faure.
“And I found myself standing in front of a laboratory with A-level students standing outside waiting for me. Anne Lafortune, director of the School, informed me that I could start then and there, and that was the beginning of my teaching journey,” Steve recalls cheerfully.
Following a couple of years at the institution as head of chemistry, Steve had to once again pack his bags and head to England for job interviews with three colleges. In England, he sat for two of the three interviews and managed to secure both jobs, but opted for the position at Brentwood School, where he started off humbly as a lecturer, before progressing on to A-level course leader and lead international baccalaureate teacher.
In total, Steve’s stay in England lasted for 15 years, where he remained employed for the same school. During that timeframe, he attended numerous training and development programmes, in London and Berlin, including with the Royal Society of Chemistry, International Baccalaureate programme (IB) and Salters Advanced Chemistry courses in London and York University. Steve has taught in London colleges (Davies Lang & Dick College, Marylebone, London) and Shebbear College in Devon on Easter revision programmes.
He has been involved with formulating exam papers for differing examining bodies at GCSE, and A-Levels, and was involved in training other teachers, despite not having any formal teaching qualifications for the most part.
Impressively, the chemistry whizz managed to complete the two-year teacher training in 6 months as opposed to two years, when he did eventually sought to gain teaching qualifications.He was then approached by the school to mentor for PGCE student teachers.
Chemistry Tuition Centre
Steve attributes his successes to his educators who have been instrumental in inspiring him to pursue further studies and a career related to chemistry. As such, he is a firm believer that teachers, with the right resources and teaching style, can positively impact on students, especially if teachers are passionate about their subject and is determined to make the subject fun, instilling in their students an infectious desire to aim higher and pursue higher-level studies.
Having himself discovered his passion through educators, Steve has adopted similar teaching and learning principles aimed at making the topic or subject matter more digestible to students, through interactive learning modes, and empowering students.
Having returned to Seychelles recently, Steve has established a Chemistry Tuition Centre, located at Espace Building. A comfortable air-conditioned room, conducive for learning, whereby he puts his expertise and experience to work with students, who he hopes to inspire to be the next generations of Seychellois scientists and home-grown chemistry teachers. As he specialises in higher level education, tuition is available for students undertaking IGCSE or higher level studies.
To ensure that his students excel, he brings chemistry to life he says, and adopts teaching methods to suit the needs of each learner.
“There seems to be an inherent fear of chemistry among students, but my approach is to deliver the concepts in a more easy-to-understand approach. I instil confidence and make them feel like they can do it.I challenge them to demonstrate their understanding by imagining that they are teaching me and in the process I address any misconceptions. I teach through student-led learning and consider myself as more of the guide on the side than the sage on the stage. I turn the fear of not knowing into talking openly about it, and this tackles the fear-factor, thus removing the barrier for learning and at the same time builds a bridge towards knowledge acquisition and self-confidence. I teach learning and application techniques alongside each other, and I also do tests as well. I identify individual weaknesses and help them address it. Sometimes a weakness is specific to one student and most of the time it is more general,” he added.
Despite having moved oceans away from his former students in England, Steve also takes the time to help any who are seeking advice or clarifications. On the local front however, increased participation by our local students in science sectors is what he envisions for the future. He often sees past students from when he taught at the Polytechnic college, all of whom have gone on to become professionals in their own rights such as medical doctors, dentists, pharmacists, biochemists, vets, engineers, pilots, lawyers, chief executives, just to name a few, all of whom remain indebted to him and remembers him fondly.
Persons who are interested in finding out more about the services offered at the Centre can please get in touch with Steve through: