Photo courtesy of Delta College
Interview with Jeanne Lesinski
May 27, 2010
When I called out a "hey" through the window of the chem-lab supply office at Delta College, Michael Garlick, a.k.a. Dr. Slime, quickly called back in his resonant, jovial baritone. He welcomed me in, and as I set off to find a quiet place in the lab where the exhaust fans wouldn't prevent a recording, he went to wash his hands of some chemical substance. A couple minutes later after a vigorous handshake, we got down to some gooey questions.
Jeanne Lesinski: Where did your enthusiasm for science come from?
Michael Garlick: Originally, I got a degree in secondary science education because I wanted to be a high school science teacher like some of my heroes, teachers at Arthur Hill. I had two great teachers but for different reasons. One was a published author, a breeder of fine orchids and botanicals. The other was an astronomer and was a real people person. He helped kids in a totally non-academic dimension. He was like a fixer, and there were lots of us kids who needed fixing [laughs]. . . . When I went to college, I had my heart pretty much set on being a secondary educator, but when I graduated there weren't a lot of teaching jobs around. I did the substitute thing for awhile, but that gets old pretty fast.
JL: How did you get from substitute teaching to doing science presentations?
MG: I backed into it. I got my job here at Delta as the chemistry lab manager, so I was responsible for setting up the material for all experiments that go on here. A few years ago, a couple of teachers were involved in community shows—they'd do presentations for people visiting the college, and I'd set up the materials because that was my job.
Then one day, we had a problem. We had a busload of kids, and the teacher who was supposed to do the show had car trouble. I'd seen these shows a million times, and I had all the chemicals because I'd prepared everything. People looked at me and said, 'Isn't there something you can do?' So I said, 'Sure, I'll do the show myself,' and halfway through the show, the teacher arrived and sat down and watched it. Afterward she said, 'Mike, you've got a knack for it. You're good at it. You should do this.'
So, I started doing little things. I went to my kids' schools and did presentations there. Then somewhere along the line, I started making slime, and the kids love slime.
JL: What is slime exactly?
MG: Slime is one of the simplest water-based polymers. It's essentially two chemicals: polyvinyl alcohol in water and borax in water. When you mix the two, they form a network, or net if you would, that captures all of the water molecules that are around them and acts like a fisherman's net. All of a sudden, these two free-flowing liquids are forced together to make a big, gummy, sticky, drippy, boogery mass. When I add my favorite dye to it, which is a fluorescent, bright green UV reactive dye, it'll glow in the dark and jumps out at you with that bright green slimy color. Kids absolutely love it, and it's a really neat chemical reaction because it shows the chemistry of polymerization, or plastic chemistry. Today virtually everything in the world is made up of a polymer—this chair, this tabletop, those outlets over tire. We can't live without plastics anymore.
JL: Borax isn't safe to ingest. Are children actually able to play with slime?
MG: Borax is used as a laundry detergent booster . . . being a soap-like compound, you wouldn't want to ingest it. I wouldn't want to eat a bar of soap. Every demonstration I do is age appropriate. If the children are likely to put things in their mouths, I have to do food chemistry. Whatever group I go to, I adjust the show and scale the experiments to fit the group.
JL: I'm sure that slime is one of the favorites. Is that why you became Dr. Slime?
MG: One day when I was doing the slime thing in a school for a bunch of fifth graders, one kid thought I was a doctor, one wanted to ask me about slime, and a third kid mixed both of the sentences together and called me Dr. Slime. By the end of the day everyone was calling me Dr. Slime. I thought, 'Aaah, that sounds really cool.' And so it stuck. Like slime, it got on me. [laughs] I haven't been able to shake that nickname since. It's kind of a funny nickname because when some people hear kids call me Dr. Slime or Slimey or Slime, they think it's a negative in its connotation.
JL: Those are the adults thinking that.
MG: I've been out at malls and had kids spontaneously run up to me and hug me, and their parents look at me in horror. I'll say something like, 'Oh, I did a science show at your kids' school.They're great kids.' [laughs] You have to be careful . . . but the kids really get excited.
JL: When you stepped in for the absent teacher, it wasn't a big deal because you were already used to it from being a substitute teacher.
MG: It was just a natural outgrowth. I found that it really reached that part of me that I wanted to get to. I get to do fun stuff, get kids really excited, and see them have that ah-ha moment—it really fulfilled that part that was missing while I was doing my day job. It still does.
JL: How many shows per year do you put on?
MG: It varies from year to year—between 24 and 56 in any given year. I might have one a week. Sometimes when we [Delta College] is on break, I might have 5 in a given week. When I'm working here, it's usually no more than 1-5 per month. Right now things are really depressed. School districts don't have any extra cash at all to pay for buses or supplies, or even take their kids to a planetarium show, and so the Dr. Slime thing has really tailed off. Parent-teacher groups and concerned parent groups are really the only way shows happen right now.
JL: You have certain ingredients and equipment that you need to do a show, as well as travel expenses. Are you getting any organization or corporate support?
MG: People don't really understand what it costs. Some of my equipment costs $200-$300 a piece and are made of glass. Every once in awhile I break something, so I've a budget for that. I have to buy supplies and chemicals for what I consume at every show, and so all of those things add up. Liquid nitrogen is expensive. Fortunately, Michigan Airgas has donated almost all of the liquid nitrogen I need.
JL: You said you have several favorites among your experiments?
MG: Another favorite is the disembodied hand reaction. It's a Halloween favorite of mine. I have a little ghost story I tell as I create this disembodied hand out of nothingness. I start out with a jar full of swamp water, and then I add a bit of universal indicator so that the students can see what the atoms and molecules are doing—what the chemistry is. Then I add a little dash of baking soda to neutralize the whole thing.
Then we add some sour yak belly juices. The kids always say, 'What's sour yak belly juices?' I try to relate real life to chemistry, so instead of just calling it hydrochloric acid, I call it sour yak belly juices because it's the acid found in your stomach. I tell a story about having to chase your goat or cow around after feeding it sweet grass until he got sick, and then you'd have to mop all that up and strain it through cheese cloth [motions with hands wringing out cheese cloth] to gather up the stomach acid. Then we'd add that and the liquid changes to a cherry red color and starts to fizz up to the top of the jar, By then I've got a stopper in the jar, and then the stopper blows off and goes about 10-20 feet in the air. Kids love kinesthetics. It looks pretty impressive. After ten years of practice, I've gotten pretty adept at catching that stopper in the air. I know when it's going to pop and where it's going to go.
Then we put a glove in the jar and add one more chemical, which is reprocessed soda lime. I've taken to having the kids put their hands over the jar, one on the top and one on the bottom. They shake the jar, and if they hold it just right, the gas that we produce—the carbon dioxide— is absorbed by the water, creating a vacuum. When they take their gloved hand off the top of the jar, air will rush in to fill the vacuum, and it'll squeal. It inflates the glove instantly, right before their very eyes. They think that's the cat's pajamas.
JL: On your website, I once saw an interesting photo of a train car that looked like it has been crushed.
MG: Yes, I had a picture of an imploded railroad car, and last year about this time the Time Warp people flew me out to Boston because of it. They called me up and asked me, 'Do you understand what's going on here?'
I told them I do a little demonstration about this imploded rail car using pop cans because you can simulate what happened inside that rail car and make it cave in with a pop can.
They said, 'Oh. We want you.'
I said, 'Who are we?' [laughs]
The gentleman introduced himself and said, 'I'm the host of the Time Warp show on the Discovery Channel, and we're going to be shooting this out here in Boston, and we'd like you to come out and be one of our guest hosts.'
I thought, 'Wow. This is cool.'
So I said, 'Are we just going to crush pop cans?'
He said, 'We've got a little bigger budget than that.'
'Are we going to crush oil drums?'
He said, 'We've got a little bigger budget than that.'
'Are we going to crush a rail car?'
He said, 'I think we're going to be able to get our hands on a 4,700 gallon stainless steal dairy tank.'
I said, 'That's awesome! That'll be an experiment that might be visible from outer space.'
So they flew me out there, and on season number two of Time Warp, episode 212, I got at least 10 minutes of the show, where we're doing the demonstration. It turned out awesome on HD.
JL: You're pretty dedicated to this Dr. Slime persona.
MG: It's taken on a life of its own. It really has. One time it took me out to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle, Washington for a week. I did ten shows and tried to sightsee—a morning show and afternoon show and Dr. Slime would run out the door and get on a scooter and ride back to the hotel. Then I'd take time to see what I could see.
JL: When and how did Dr. Slime's green hair come into the picture?
MG: After kids started calling me Dr. Slime, I had noticed around Halloween that there was this really neat green hair color—hair spray. I thought on a lark that would be cool because it matches the color of the slime. I had a show out here at the college that I was going to do for the Possible Dream Program kids. That's the program we have where we bring kids in from community schools and promise to take them on trips and introduce them to culture and have special classes for them if they promise to stay in school and get good grades and graduate. We've made counter-promises to help them find finances in order to go to college. Every year as the kickoff to that, they call Dr. Slime up.
I thought about the green hair and I hadn't done green hair before, and this was going to be my next event. I thought, 'I can't just show up with green hair. That might upset somebody.' So, I went to the college president and said, 'What do you think?'
He sat back in his chair. He didn't say anything for like a minute and a half, and finally he said, 'You know, I think the kids would really like that. You go ahead and do that.' He was open-minded and encouraged me to do that.
Ever since then it really allows the kids to focus. It breaks down a lot of the barriers. Well, you've seen the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and how the [economics] teacher, Ben Stein, talks in a perfectly flat monotone—just so dreadfully boring. He could talk about volcanoes and you'd fall asleep. This bright green hair is such a total 180 to the typical science teacher, that the kids just bite into it. They know as soon as they see the green hair and the green mustache that the normal rules don't apply anymore. They're going to see some wild and crazy stuff that they're excited about. . . It helps make science cool again.
Learning science can be hard work, but when you get the element of fun in there, it smooths over the work, and lets it disappear. You've got to do your research, you've got to read, you've got to work your way to that fun point. It's like going tobogganing; you've got to slog up that hill so that you can go 'wooooooo' all the way down.
For more information on Dr. Slime, visit http://www.doctorslime.com/ .
© Jeanne Lesinski, 2010