The art of chemistry

Published August 17, 2020, 4:18 AM

by Rica Arevalo

Bro. Martin Sellner FSC weaves the periodic table of elements into his 20-year-old cross stitch design

SEW UP Turning 83 years old this August and going strong!

Growing up in a family with 120 hectares of land and farm animals in quiet Sleepy Eye in Minnesota, Robert Walter Sellner had a destiny—to be a farmer!  

THE ART-CHEMIST Bro Martin Sellner FSC

Born on Aug. 29, 1937,the fifth child of nine in the family, Brother Martin Sellner FSC had a different plan.  (During pre-Vatican II, all the religious had to change their names).

He recently trended on social media after he posted the completion of his 20-year-old Periodic Table cross stitch.

Recalling his younger days, he tells Manila Bulletin Lifestyle via chat, “My mother begged me to go to high school, which was not required in those years, and I refused repeatedly.”

He started school at the outbreak of the Korean War, thinking he would quit in a month if he did not like it.

When his brother was drafted into the Army, his mother Sophie Sellner then pleaded with Martin to quit school to help in the farm.

“By that time I so loved school that I refused. I look upon that decision as God’s way of guiding me to become a Christian brother,” he muses. It was in his third year that he fell in love with chemistry.  “Then and there, I knew that farming for me was out, teaching chemistry was in,” he quips.

WOVEN ELEMENTS Bro Martin in action, meticulous in each stitch

He took a small job, cleaning the classrooms after school where a nun asked him what he wanted to do. “I wanted to be a teacher just like her,” he recounts, adding that, in response, she told him to join the Christian Brothers. “I will never forget her words:  ‘These brothers know how to teach and they know how to run schools.”

For close to 65 years as a Christian brother, teaching chemistry for him has been about teaching life lessons.  “Atom interactions are so similar to human interactions,” he reminds us. “It is almost astounding, and it makes learning chemistry so much simpler.”

For seven summers he was able to work with Dr. Hubert Alyea, a professor from Princeton University and a personal friend of the famous physicist Dr. Albert Einstein. “Dr. Alyea was an amazing teacher, and his demonstrations were something to behold,” says the high school valedictorian.  “I incorporated his way of teaching and used his many demonstrations in my classes, having a demonstration almost every day of the year.” A lot of “explosions” triggered his students’ interest in science.

In 1999, he developed serious back problems and surgery was never an option. Teaching became impossible. His lady friends (mother of his students) suggested sewing, knitting, and needlepoint on a plastic grid. He enjoyed making covers for tissue boxes.  Since he mastered the “boxes,” why not try with 118 boxes of the Periodic Table?

IN STITCH High school graduation of Bro Martin Sellner FSC

He walks around the De La Salle University campus, shooting his TikTok videos, giving pats on the back, offering hugs, and lifting up the spirits of many.

Bro. Martin designed it and little did he realize that it would take two decades to finish! “During those 20 years, I did get tired of the same project, so I started other designs just for some variety,” he confesses. “I ended up doing 20 or 30 other cross stitch projects, giving them away to family, relatives, and friends. And continuing stitching the Periodic Table until it finally got finished a few days ago.”

The lockdown gave him time to finish the 20-year-old project. “The last nine elements had not been named. In fact, three of them had not even been made yet. All the elements from 94 on are man-made,” he says. “As time went on, those final three were made, IUPAC, the organization, which oversees so much of what goes on in science, finally accepted the results and then allowed the scientists, who were involved in making these elements, to come up with a name that they wanted,” reveals the 82-year-old TikToker. “That came about a few years ago, but I just did not have the time to finish the table until the lockdown came. I decided now was the time to do so. And so it got done.”

IT’S A SIGN Periodic table with Bro Martin’s signature and date

Bro. Martin’s positive outlook inspires a lot of people.  He started exercising at the age of 43 and he has never looked back since.  “This morning, for instance, I walked for two hours. The walk consists of walking and climbing various buildings on this university campus, and climbing these buildings several times.”

Climbing 67 flights a day and adding two or so flights every week are his morning ritual.  He gave up teaching 20 years ago but he never gave up on being with the kids and cheering up teachers. 

“Throughout my career, I believe I never, or at least seldom, worried about anything. Why worry? It never solves anything and it never will,” beams Bro. Martin.