Science. Art. Combined: Karen Quinto and why rapping can get the message across

Interview between Charlie Avis, Public Information Officer for the Secretariat of the Basel, Rotterdam, and Stockholm Conventions, and Ms. Karen Yves Quinto, a scientist/musician/artist from Toronto, Canada.

Charlie Avis (CA): Good morning Karen, thank you for time in sharing with us your work and first of all can I say how much I and many of my colleagues enjoyed your rap about persistent organic pollutants, or POPs. Congratulations!

Karen Yves Quinto (KYQ): Thank you, Charlie, for the opportunity to get my work out there and it’s great to know you enjoyed the song, it was certainly fun writing it!

CA: Firstly, please tell us a little bit about yourself. From what age did you feel interested in science and in chemistry and the environment?

KYQ: Well, I went to a progressive elementary school where we had Botany and Zoology as early as grade 1 and I fell in love with microscopes in grade 4 because it was like another world for me. I kind of forgot about science during high school, because I was too busy fitting in and science was not a popular subject, so I got into art and music instead up until I decided to pursue a career in science in the end. As for chemistry and the environment, those interests developed at Ryerson University where I did my undergrad. I was really into Microbial Fuel Cells, so I studied the topic for my Directed Studies in Chemistry course in my final year. We also had a very prominent, environmentally focused science programs and I held leadership positions in many environmentally focused projects, from making vertical gardens to petitioning to save the Experimental Lakes Area here in Canada.

CA: Why rap music, why not singer/song-writer guitar, for example?

KYQ: I do sing and write songs in other music projects. In my {Mandelbrot} & {Julia}: Boundaries Dissolve album, I focused more on my jazz lounge repertoire. I chose to delve into science rap recently because first of all, it's amusing in the context of science and I like to perform during my presentations. But I think rap also has a way of communicating quite plainly and honestly about any topic. Rapping is a good medium for communicating science because scientific terms are easier to rhyme. It also has a huge "wow" factor and has been my strategic go-to for seminars and presentations at school. It makes people laugh and it's never boring, so I keep doing it. I initially wrote "Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)" for Environment Canada's "Take Our Kids to Work Day", Canada's annual initiative to bring high school students to their parent/guardian's workplace. I went to my dad's workplace when I was a teen but he was in a manufacturing setting so there were lots for students to see because it was very visual. However, at Environment Canada, it was harder to show what scientists and policy makers actually do in a concrete and tangible way. So, I volunteered to co-host the event in 2015 and I used my POPs rap as an introduction to our work at the Hazardous Air Pollution Laboratory.

CA: How did the students react to your rap?

KYQ: When I first performed the rap, they looked very embarrassed for me. And I get it, it's unusual to be rapping about science but I know they acknowledged the skill that went into that. Some of them secretly told me later that initially they thought it was going to be lame, but they found it was "actually good". After the day was over, some parents emailed me afterwards saying that their children couldn't stop talking about the science rap that they had seen. And believe me, these teens are hard to impress! So in the end, I think it was successful in reaching the younger demographic.

CA: I’m curious, do you have other science raps you’ve written before POPs? And do you have any recordings of them?

KYQ: I've rapped about Lysteria in second year undergrad for Cellular Biology, then I wrote "Microbial Fuel Cells" and "Climate Change" for my Masters of Environmental Science presentations. If anyone wants to hear my music, they can go to or where they can stream my recorded music. The other rap songs are still in the process of being recorded. I barely record, to be honest, I much prefer performing in front of an audience!

CA: I’m sure you’ll get some additional visitors, after this interview. The only “criticism” I’ve heard about your POPs rap is that it is too short, and it’d be great to be able to enjoy it for longer! Is it difficult to write and perform for longer than a minute or so?

KYQ: I wrote POPs as an intro to a presentation of our work at Environment Canada, so initially the one-minute mark was because of its original use. Rap is fast-paced, so there’s a lot of work and longevity that goes into writing and performing one. You have to be concise and find ways for all the words to fit and rhyme in your own style. Then you have to memorize the whole thing, which requires a seriously intense amount of repetition until it is recorded in the muscle memory of your mouth. I suppose I could write a few more verses!

CA: Let’s talk about environment awareness. How would you describe the awareness of young adults and teenagers, for example in your city, concerning the environment, concerning chemicals, everyday pollution, waste, recycling, themes like that?

KYQ: I can’t really speak about statistics or anything concrete like that, but from what I have observed, it really depends on many factors: their geography, their upbringing at home, their school, and other sources like the shows that they watch. Some cities like Toronto have a fairly good recycling culture, but other cities don’t. If you’re eating home cooked meals, you’re less likely to produce trash than if you were always on the go. If your school has a clean-up day, it becomes part of your habit. If you live in a condo without a recycling program, you’re not going to think about recycling as much as if you lived in a house. I think that young adults in general are becoming more aware of the “big picture” environmental issues, but practicing environmentalism is dependent upon the local community of that teen.

CA: Tell me what are your current projects, anything else POPs-related?

KYQ: Right now, I am more into the painting side of things. I perform sometimes and have collaborations on the side, really slow-burning stuff. I’m not a full-time musician, so everything is happening on a different timescale. Nothing POPs-related, although I’m sure something interesting is bound to come along and help me continue that path. I have been bouncing around ideas and thinking about ways to communicate that area of science. I’m very much project-driven when it comes to my art. I like finding opportunities to create something for both science and art’s sake.

CA: Last question from me: the international community has its two-yearly “COPs” - or meetings of the conference of parties – coming up in Geneva next April, when new chemicals will be added to the Stockholm Convention and other decisions will be taken through the Basel and Rotterdam Conventions to protect human health and the environment. Do you think you could write a song about that?

KYQ: Is that an offer? Yeah for sure, I’d welcome any invitation to write and even perform; the sky’s the limit. Why not? That’s a very exciting proposition. When I wrote POPs, I was having lunch in the cafeteria of Environment Canada and planning what to do for an education event. That’s how my ideas thrive and come to fruition.

CA: Not an offer, no, but maybe the germ of an idea! Let’s see. Karen, thank you so much for your time, for your answers, and especially for your music. Good luck with your inspiring work, please let’s keep in touch!

ANAG: Thanks Charlie, we definitely will! And let me just add that if anyone wants to connect with me about science, art, and/or music, they can add me on or email me at