How To Reach C&ENACS Membership Number


July 22, 2002
Volume 80, Number 29
CENEAR 80 29 p. 75
ISSN 0009-2347




Tell someone you're a chemist and what do you get in response? A blank look. A polite, "Oh." Horror stories of high school chemistry.

The irony is that the power of the chemical sciences is a function of what they create as a whole: an enabling infrastructure that delivers the foods, fuels, medicines, and materials that are the hallmarks of modern life.

But the public sees us more positively than we tend to think. In 2000, the society surveyed a random sample of U.S. adults representative of the population as a whole: 56% of the respondents viewed chemistry favorably, 25% were neutral, and just 14% were negative. The leadership traits the respondents most often associated with chemists were being visionary, innovative, and results-oriented.

In 2001, the society conducted a series of focus groups, some with teenagers aged 10 to 14 and some with their parents. Both groups agreed that today's teenagers value teamwork and achievement, and look to personal experience and the media for role models. As a result, they perceive chemists as Hollywood portrays them--working alone in a laboratory--and express concern that a career in chemistry would mean working alone rather than as part of a team.

Those of us who work in industry, as I do, know that Hollywood isn't portraying today's chemists accurately. Why not? I suggest that we consider--as Shakespeare so eloquently put it--that "the fault is not in our stars ... but in ourselves."

Chemists lose sight of the forest for the trees. We tend to focus on our own niche rather than the big picture. That's entirely understandable, maybe unavoidable, given how we're educated. Chemistry is traditionally taught stovepipe-fashion--each discipline walled off and a world unto itself. The irony is that the power of the chemical sciences is a function of what they create as a whole: an enabling infrastructure that delivers the foods, fuels, medicines, and materials that are the hallmarks of modern life.

Those involved in technology-related research and development soon learn that the stovepipe structure that shaped our education isn't conducive to developing and disseminating new technologies. We discover that the key to success in that arena is collaboration and cooperation unfettered by traditional roles and disciplines.

Developing a pharmaceutical, for example, involves chemistry, biology, the biomedical community, computer modeling, and dealing with government regulatory agencies. Working with a biologist doesn't require an education in biology: What is needed is respect for the discipline's value. For specialists in these varied fields to work together toward a common goal, we need to appreciate one another's contributions and to understand the process as a whole.

Chemists also work with materials scientists, engineers, and business partners to create other kinds of practical applications. And the story is much the same. If a product concept specifies a material the chemist cannot possibly make--or that cannot be manufactured at an affordable cost--the entire project may flounder. But when there is mutual respect and each learns enough about the other's area to communicate effectively--to know when to ask questions or raise the occasional red flag--the endeavor can succeed even in the face of repeated setbacks.

Several ACS initiatives reflect the realities of interdisciplinary teams solving critical problems facing our society today. The Journal of Proteome Research, for example, seeks to integrate the fields of chemistry, mathematics, applied physics, biology, and medicine to gain greater understanding of the function of proteins in biological systems. And at the ACS national meeting in Orlando, Fla., the Society Committee on Education took on ACS President Eli M. Pearce's challenge of drafting a white paper on what the chemistry curriculum might look like if it were developed from scratch today.

Talking about such things among ourselves is preaching to the choir. To broaden public appreciation of our profession and our endeavors, we must do more. We must update our image and present our message differently. Each ACS president "adopts" an issue, and I've decided to make mine communication: with the public, with the government, and with other scientists and engineers (something you'll be hearing more about from other board members).

Americans of widely varying political persuasions would agree that investing public funds in endeavors that improve the quality of human life is a sound course--especially when the investment yields products and materials that are widely appreciated and enjoyed. At the same time, they may fail to recognize that advanced technology is the fruit of basic research. We need to hammer home, as Louis Pasteur said, that science and its application are "bound together as the fruit to the tree which bears it."

But that is not enough. We must also challenge the stereotypes and personify our profession in new ways--not with tired images of beakers and lab coats.

Like the Corps of Discovery led by the famed explorers Lewis and Clark, today's chemists are heroes and pioneers charting the frontiers of the unknown. They're also mothers, fathers, and all the rest. Let's show ourselves in the fullness of our humanity and portray chemists as they work today: on interdisciplinary teams striving to create products and materials to enhance and prolong life for all humankind.

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of the ACS Board.


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Copyright © 2002 American Chemical Society

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