Field of Science

On chemistry's multiple cultures

As an organic-turned-computational chemist, I once went to a drug discovery conference where conversation during the coffee break turned to our respective backgrounds in chemistry. Computational chemists traditionally fill a niche in drug discovery and hence are not as abundant as traditional organic chemists. When I mentioned I was a modeler, the medicinal chemist I was talking to said in mock disapproval, "Oh, you are one of those chemists!". It reminded me a little of a moment in the 2008 presidential debate when, in reference to an apparently wasteful spending bill, John McCain dismissively referred to Barack Obama as "That one".

While the remark was made in jest, it was not the first time I had encountered such a reaction. The remark is unfair not only because many computational chemists have a sound background in and appreciation for organic, physical or biological chemistry but because computational chemistry as a field is a much newer endeavor than synthesis; virgin territory where the real peaks are yet to be scaled. The general problem of synthesizing an arbitrary complex molecule has been largely solved but the general problem of calculating the free energy of binding for an arbitrary protein-ligand complex is one that we are far from surmounting. Computational chemistry has yet to see its full share of its Woodwards, Coreys, Fischers and Robinsons.

But I digress.

Much has been made of C P Snow's famous "two cultures" signifying a fundamental divide between science and the humanities. It is undoubtedly important that we remedy this rift since humanity as a whole needs both. But what is less discussed is the proliferation of multiple cultures within a field. These cultures can sometimes be as divisive as the overarching cultures of science and the humanities.

This phenomenon is as true in chemistry as it is anywhere else. If we as a community want to pitch the merits of our discipline to the public, we must first make sure that our own house is in order. Sadly I don't find this to be the case, especially within academic chemistry. Computational chemistry is considered flippant by experimentalists, biochemistry is considered too hyped by materials chemists and inorganic chemistry is just plain boring for many biochemists.

This is in spite of the fact that every discipline of chemistry has its own strengths and uses and draws on all others. A biological chemist can gain little insight unless he or she knows the basics of organic chemistry. A synthetic organic chemist must know about metallic oxidation states to get the most out of the power of organometallic chemistry. Many fields of chemistry can be enriched by computational models that can constrain the choice of compounds to be made, pathways to be investigated, enzymes to be crystallized. You cannot study mechanisms in either inorganic, organic or biological chemistry without knowing about thermodynamics and kinetics, and a materials chemist without an understanding of solid-state chemistry and physics may just be limiting his or her chance to gain deep insight into organic electronics. Thus it's obvious that every field of chemistry feeds off every other. Especially in today's age when most important problems are complex and inherently interdisciplinary, one cannot afford to rely only on one's own speciality. A team of experts in different branches of chemistry approaching a complicated problem is piecewise no more competent to judge the whole than is the team of blind men who each approach one part of the famed elephant.

In spite of this obvious utility of every subfield of chemistry and its reliance on every other, chemistry departments are rife with turf wars. Sometimes the rivalry is healthy and the multiple cultures can foster a productive tension between different camps that leads to the rigorous testing and perfection of certain approaches. Often it is not. Sometimes it borders on the comical. I heard of a heterocyclic chemist who in his classes would eschew almost any structure that had more than two chiral centers, relegating the study of such unruly sp3-rich compounds to those lowly polyketide chemists. A total synthetic chemist was quick to condemn an elegant quantum chemical calculation on a particularly complex molecule, no matter that experiment actually supported the calculations. Medicinal chemists often put down the utility of computational models, in spite of the fact that prudent modelers themselves consider their models as more of constraining guidelines than accurate depictions of "reality". Now, in many cases the real problem is not the science but the scientists who have oversold the power of their approach, but that in no way forgives those who would condemn the discipline wholesale instead of rebuking its overenthusiastic practitioners.

If we are to make the most of a complex problem, we need to pick the strengths of each discipline and utilize it as well as we can. This fact is probably recognized more by scientists working in inherently multidisciplinary fields like energy, drug discovery and nanotechnology. These scientists know for a fact that the problems in their field are too complex to be addressed by only one approach, instrument, field or school of thought. Drug discovery scientists for instance recognize (or at least should recognize) the essential utility of synthesists, biologists, formulators, crystallographers and modelers in the discovery of a new drug. Yet you find turf wars even among such interdisciplinary scientists who are often convinced that their latest brainwave is the answer to life, the universe and everything else.

If multiple cultures are sporadic among more applied chemists, they are virtually endemic in academia. How many times have you come across a total synthesis chemist who believes that all of organic chemistry essentially exists to serve the science and art of total synthesis? The materials scientist who believes that organic electronics is the only field worth working in for the next fifty years? And how about that computational chemist who believes that the time when computation is so pitch-perfect that you don't even need to make the molecule is already here? Academic chemists who have dedicated their careers to one single technique, methodology, class of molecule or paradigm are unfortunately among the biggest contributors to the proliferation of multiple cultures. They are quicker to pick favorites and to condemn other modes of thinking, and their very strengths that make them unique experts in their area also constrain them into a local minimum of narrow thought.

This will not do. If we want to hold up the discipline of chemistry as a shining contributor to the welfare of society, we must first make sure that the infighting is kept to a minimum. On a practical level, this would mean giving greater publicity to interdisciplinary chemical fields that automatically feature the participation of a wide variety of chemical scientists. We cannot represent a united front if those from our own ranks remain squabbling and divisive. Ultimately there is one kind of chemistry, the one that applies itself to and solves society's most pressing problems. We need every kind of chemistry to make a contribution to this enormously challenging goal.

If we want to reform the culture of chemistry, we first need to ensure that there is a united culture in the first place.


  1. Oh, truer words, my friend, have ne'er been spoken.

    When I was visiting grad schools, one prestigious department had students divided into disciplines at basically all events. Welcome party? Different locations for different divisions. Dinner? Cards on tables designating disciplines.

    I chose a department that was more integrative. Sure, there were those who still wanted to fight those turf wars. One grad student told a lab mate she wasn't "really a chemist" - and this was mainly because she was doing biochemistry in addition to synthesis.

    And as far as these ridiculous lines... There was a fantastic computational chemist in my department - he trained as a medicinal chemist. New avenues do not spring from nothing; they are born from other lines.

  2. If you were a real, hardworking chemist, you'd be too busy working on the bunch to write this post. EJ Corey would have fired your ass so hard by now.

    Chemistry factions exist because chemistry graduate students have no self-esteem and have to make up for their lack of identity with unnecessary bravado for the things they do. It's an product of the system and society, and oh by the way it breeds mediocre chemists. That's why nothing new has happened in chemistry in the past ten years.

  3. Oh, this post resonates with me. Clearly, I can think of numerous confirming events in my life, but I can also think of many times where people at least presented the idea that they were open-minded and interested. Perhaps some of this is that many of them were non-biological chemists who were interested in getting some of that NIH money for themselves.

    Although I am compelled to note that if I could just focus on a single type of methodology, I could finally get some work done that could benefit a wide range of applications in due time. I suppose that is my one cautionary thought about all of the chatter about aligning chemistry with "big picture questions" - we're still going to need to carve out space for scientists to pursue the narrow but technically demanding work that can eventually be applied (but first needs to be discovered, understood, and validated).

  4. biochembelle: How patently absurd. Your story seems to virtually define the ridiculous nature of the turf wars and brings up another important point; not only do the overlords breed multiple cultures but they make sure that their proteges are steeped in their philosophy from day one. Way to indoctrinate the next generation.

    excimer: -EJ Corey would have fired your ass so hard by now.
    Not if I had bumped myself off first

    MJ: I think it's kind of sad that it takes the lure of NIH funding to get non-biological chemists to make appropriate noises about biology. Still far better than them not appreciating it at all. I think you make a good point about being really focused on one methodology to bring it to fruition; sometimes obsession can result in great leaps. But at some point you also need to realize the limitations of your pet protocol, no matter how dear it may be to you.

  5. One problem that computational chemists have in pharmaceutical research is that their field has been repeatedly hyped. Pharmaceutical computational chemists need to have a strong foundation in physical-organic chemistry and a good appreciation of the limitations of the computational models that they use. Often the physical-organic chemistry is the common ground shated with the medicinal chemists. When working with medicinal chemists it's a good idea to draw on experimental data (e.g. CSD to illustrate conformational preferences as opposed to just running a molecular mechanics energy minimisations) when available. Building a more unified culture ultimately involves some mutual education.

  6. Peter, I couldn't have said it better myself. Computational chemistry has often been hyped in pharmaceutical research but it's also true that many practicing experimentalists seem to locate the utility of computational methods at two extremes; either they are overly skeptical or they put too much faith into it. Not surprisingly, a computational chemist who demonstrates an understanding of basic physical organic chemistry and synthesis is more appreciated by the medicinal chemists. You are absolutely right that comparing computational results to experiments as much as possible is the way to go. This is definitely a topic for another post.

  7. I think that the main problem is simply human nature, you spend x number of years living and breathing a particular field of chemistry so your naturally biased as to the importance of that discipline. No one wants to think that they've just spent that long of time studying something that wasn't important. Personally I find that the most interesting things happen when you reach out from your original training, I got a PhD in organic synthesis, moved onto computational chemistry of inorganic complexes for medical imaging, and now am working in microfluidics. Each experience has been important and provides a different way of providing insight into the problem at hand.

  8. "If you were a real, hardworking chemist, you'd be too busy working on the bunch to write this post. EJ Corey would have fired your ass so hard by now."

    One of the primary reasons I'm not a chemist anymore: The attitude that if you aren't at the bench right this moment then you're not committed enough. Sorry -- chemistry's great, but there are other things too.


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