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September 6, 2006


Molecular Frontiers Foundation Tackles Chemistry's Image Problem

New organization aims to stimulate young people's interest in molecular science

Michael Freemantle

An international group of eminent scientists has launched a worldwide virtual institute known as Molecular Frontiers that seeks to enhance the public's understanding and appreciation of molecular science.

The nonprofit institute, which plans to open an office in Boston, was unveiled by Bengt Nordén, professor of physical chemistry at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, at the 1st European Chemistry Congress, held last week in Budapest. Nord??n is chairman of the foundation's board of directors and president of the Chemistry Class of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the Nobel Prize in Chemistry each year.


EMINENT CHEMISTS Nordén (left) talks with Molecular Frontiers scientific advisory board member and chemistry Nobel Laureate Jean-Marie Lehn at the Budapest congress

"Chemistry has an identity and communication problem," Nordén observed. It is dispersed into many fields where it is not labeled as chemistry, and it also suffers from society's 'chemophobia,' " he added.

"Molecular Frontiers aims to promote the understanding and appreciation of molecular science in society by stimulating young people, especially those who are usually not interested in science, to scientific thinking and to show them how the principles of molecular science govern the world we live in," he said.

"The institute will center on the molecular perspective but will include a wider scope than is normally associated with chemistry," Nordén continued. It will span topics such as nanotechnology, ultrafast processes, new materials, synthesis and catalysis, chemistry in sustainability, environment and pollution, biotechnology and medicine, the molecular basis of biology, and computational chemistry.

The institute's scientific advisory board includes 23 top-ranking scientists, several of whom are Nobel Prize winners. Its chairman is Ahmed H. Zewail, professor of chemistry and physics at California Institute of Technology. Zewail won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1999 for his work on the use of ultrashort laser flashes to observe fundamental chemical reactions on the femtosecond timescale. Stanford University chemistry professor Richard N. Zare is president of the foundation's executive board.

The institute's activities will have three central components. First, scientific forums and workshops will bring together experts from various scientific fields to discuss and exchange information on key scientific developments and address global scientific issues. The findings will be disseminated on the Internet in a way that is attractive to young people.

The second component, the Molecular Frontiers website (www.molecularfrontiers.org), will have interactive features that provide young people with an opportunity to explore the molecular sciences and engage with the global science community.

And third, the institute will also conduct an annual Molecular Frontiers contest for youngsters 12 to 18 years old. Prizes will be awarded to the 20 boys and 20 girls who submit the best questions about molecular science.

"The website is still very tentative and under construction," Nordén told C&EN. "I estimate that the prize contest will be announced in a month or so, but it will take up to a year before the first crop of prizes is harvested."

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