Late last year, I wrote two editorials, one entitled "Disturbing Trends," in which I discussed developments that had come to my attention that seemed to bode ill for the future of the chemical enterprise, and one entitled "A Radical Notion," in which I suggested that it might be time to consider changing the name of the American Chemical Society. Both editorials generated many thoughtful letters from readers (C&EN, Oct. 11, 2004, page 5; Nov. 8, 2004, pages 5 and 6; Dec. 20, 2004, page 6).
Shortly after the second editorial appeared, I received a phone call from Mostafa A. El-Sayed, a chemistry professor at Georgia Institute of Technology. El-Sayed, whom I have known for many years, said to me: "The points you made in your editorials about chemistry are exactly right. There are many problems with the traditional ways of conducting research and educating students. I think you should come visit us at Georgia Tech, because the way we have structured chemistry here overcomes many of those problems. I think we're doing things right."
El-Sayed and I talked for 20 or 30 minutes. The gist of our conversation was this: The dean of the College of Sciences at Georgia Tech, Gary B. Schuster, arrived 10 years ago with a vision of how chemistry, in particular, and science, in general, should be practiced in the 21st century. Schuster is a chemist who, prior to moving to Georgia Tech, served as the head of the chemistry department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
To Schuster, chemistry is both a core scientific discipline and, increasingly, a key enabling science for many other scientific disciplines, including biology, materials science, biological engineering, and environmental sciences, El-Sayed said. In building a new infrastructure for Georgia Tech's College of Sciences, not only would chemists be encouraged to collaborate with colleagues in other disciplines, but many chemistry faculty members would be physically dispersed among faculty from other science and engineering disciplines in a series of buildings designed to enhance multidisciplinarity.
"When I first heard about this plan," El-Sayed said to me over the phone, "I thought that all this plan would do would be to destroy chemistry and that we would get nothing in return. Now I see that wasn't the case at all. We now have three new buildings and have broken ground on a fourth, and it is working beautifully. You should come down to Atlanta to see it in practice."
In February, I traveled to Atlanta to spend a day at Georgia Tech. I met with Provost Jean-Lou A. Chameau (a civil engineer), Vice Provost Charles L. Liotta (a chemist), Schuster, El-Sayed, School of Chemistry & Biochemistry chairman Thom Orlando, the chairs of several other science and engineering schools, and a number of faculty members. What I saw and heard during my visit convinced me that Georgia Tech's science and engineering community is onto something.
Georgia Tech is spending $300 million over seven years on new science and engineeering buildings and infrastructure. On a tour of the three buildings that have been completed, Schuster told me: "You can't build a strong interdisciplinary research effort between weak disciplines. The chemists at Georgia Tech are doing real chemistry, but every member of the department has at least one collaboration outside of the department. Those collaborations are driven by where the science is taking them."
Chameau echoed Schuster. "The disciplines need to be strong. We promote the core disciplines by hiring people who are strong in their own discipline and, at the same time, are pulled toward emerging areas."
Walking across campus, El-Sayed said: "We haven't lost our identity as a department in any way. We've established many mechanisms to strengthen the chemistry department's coherence."
Several of the chemistry faculty I talked to at Georgia Tech that day emphasized that the proximity of their labs to the labs of collaborators in other disciplines facilitated cross-fertilization among graduate students. "A lot of learning goes on outside of classes, in the labs," Schuster said. "The way the buildings have been put together fosters a multidisciplinary learning environment."
I often hear about the challenges facing chemistry today. It was exciting to spend a day seeing how one top-flight university is creatively addressing those challenges.
Thanks for reading.