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November/December 2019


Storytelling brings people closer together. Conceived by the RACI in recognition of the International Year of the Periodic Table, Stories from the Periodic Table collects, publishes and celebrates the personal connections we have to the periodic table and its elements.

At the age of 23, I received a life-changing diagnosis of chronic kidney disease and was told that my kidney function had been reduced to about 20% within a five-year time frame. The level of potassium in my body was high. The kidneys maintain regulation of your body’s ion concentration levels. As the disease progresses to an advanced stage, the kidneys lose the ability to do this, and you need to keep your eye on those ions.  I can recall looking over results from blood tests and seeing all different names of elements and compounds, with measured numbers, wondering to myself ‘what does all this mean?’ Interested in gaining a better understanding, I embarked on researching the many functions of those two cherished ‘beans’ we call kidneys, and six months later found myself sitting outside of a classroom, about to plunge into an undergraduate chemistry bridging course.

Little did I know that the element potassium in its cationic form would be the source of fuel that was about to ignite like a combustion reaction, releasing a large amount of heat that could not be extinguished, kindling a passion for scientific curiosity that would be of great assistance to both my kidney and my academic journey. That consisted of a total of three years until I was blessed by the ultimate heroic act of human kindness someone can give – the gift of life!

I looked down at the periodic table of elements for the very first time, my eyes scanning the physical arrangement and all the different elements on it. A few captured my attention – phosphorus, sodium and calcium – before I observed one that stood out above the rest. There it was, in all its magnificence – potassium, with its elemental symbol K, located in group 1, the alkali metals, atomic number 19 and mass number 39.098 g/mol. I was in absolute astonishment; the connection between chemistry and the vital role it plays in the human body had been established. All my answers to the unanswered questions I had were sitting right in front of me, hidden under the surface waiting to be discovered. To examine all the mysterious secrets that lie within, deciphering the trends of periodicity and how they interrelate to the chemical concepts determining the structure of chemical compounds and their reactivity.

The monument that Dmitri Mendeleev has gifted us, and the scientific knowledge passed down from teacher to student, has led to the synthesis of modern medicines that allow me a quality of life that cannot be described with words. When you have a transplant, you must take medicines to ‘trick’ the immune system. Not all superheroes wear capes; mine wear lab coats.

Jessica McCourt was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease in 2015 and received a kidney transplant in 2018. By day, she majors in organic and medicinal chemistry at the University of Newcastle. By night, she raises awareness of organ donation. Inspired by her experience, Jessica hopes to pay it forward by one day developing drugs that make transplantation possible.

Fred Duncan

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