Field of Science

Enthusiasm and promise at the ACS Dallas National Meeting

I am writing from the Dallas airport from where I am heading out back home after a fantastic national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). This meeting was definitely the best of its kind I have attended until now, mainly because I had a generous invitation to give an invited talk on the impact of information technology on chemistry and related disciplines. The topic is of course quite vast and general so I was spending all my free time this month preparing for it (that explains the hiatus here).

The day-long session and subsequent panel discussion along with an excellent lunch and dinner were part of the ACS Graduate Student Symposium and organized by graduate students from the University of Texas at Austin. These young men and women really did a phenomenal job, both in picking a remarkably diversity of topics for discussion and in the warm reception that we got at the session. Although I have not been out of graduate school for that long myself, I was really impressed by their enthusiasm and organizational skills. The entire program was put together with care and good sense. I think my own talk went well but what I really enjoyed were talks by the other speakers and panelists. A big thanks once again to the organizers for giving me this memorable opportunity; I hope they got as much out of my contribution as I got from the day's events.

Gautam Bhattacharya from Clemson University gave a talk about ethical and professional development of graduate students and professors; he made me realize how much more sensitive professors need to be about the personal and professional development of their students and how much students themselves need to ask the right questions concerning their progress. One of the most important messages that he drove home was that "learning by doing" is really a misleading proposition; what really enables you to learn is reflection, and this is something that's not stressed enough in college and grad school. Gautam's work is really important for the psychological advancement of graduate students and it should be widely appreciated.

Paula Stephan followed up with a fantastic talk on trends in science hiring, the changing nature of science careers and the state of the job market. Paula's tool is hard data, culled from 40 years of surveys by the NSF and other agencies; something about her presentation reminded me of the old saying about slaying a beautiful and fond belief by hard facts. There was enough in her talk to warrant a separate post but the gist was that postdocs and grad students need to be exposed much more to alternative careers and that we really need to focus on quality instead of quantity when training our students. A lot of postdocs seem to appreciate the state of the job market but often think of themselves as being good enough to surmount its difficulties. Postdocs need to thus get a much better idea of how long they want to continue their gigs and what they should expect in their near future. Stephan had actually led a panel that made these recommendations; not surprisingly almost all of them were ignored. I completely agree with her points, but I find it hard to shake off my depressing cynicism regarding the ossified structure of the government-academic funding system and the fundamental psychological changes that we would need to bring about to change the minds of people with entrenched opinions. But let's carry on.

Sonja Krane who is a managing editor of the Journal of American Chemical Society gave a nice talk about submitting and preparing articles. As much as I respect formal publications like JACS, the successful rise of blogging as a valid second tier for peer review in the last decade or so makes me increasingly think of the formal publication system in rather quaint terms. Bruce Gibb from Tulane University was the last speaker. He gave a funny, entertaining and inspiring talk about the value of basic R&D and the futility of "picking winners" when funding science, especially based on the fact that winners often appear out of the blue and from unexpected quarters and therefore cannot be predicted. Bruce also had a valid analysis of the increasing encroachment of administrative personnel on universities who sap resources away from research and the students.

In my own talk I gave a bird's eye view of how computers have affected chemistry by referring to mainly four areas - data, simulation and analysis, what I call "sociology, namely the culture of chemistry research communication and future challenges. I started out by pointing out the exponential growth in chemical data and its rapid (although not necessarily cheap) accessibility. This data has completely changed the way both theoretical and experimental chemists visualize chemical structures, analyze trends in chemical information and relate structure to properties using the tools of cheminformatics. Along with data, simulation also now has a seat at the table, propped up by phenomenal advances in hardware and software over the last two decades. Important advances like molecular dynamics, harnessing the wisdom of crowds and using knowledge from chemical and biological databases to predict the properties and uses of new materials, drugs and food products are definitely shaping the landscape of chemistry. As far as I am concerned the future shines with promise and knowledge.

The final part of my talk addressed the role of blogs and social media  in serving as a valid source of peer-review and in performing a variety of non-research functions (analyzing academic culture, the job market etc) that are often not part of formal trade journals. I have been lucky to witness the rise of chemistry blogging (and science blogging in general for that matter) from a limited milieu inhabited by a few enthusiasts to a serious, mainstream source of enlightenment and criticism. I focused on two case studies - the hexacyclinol controversy and the Breslow "spacedinos" brouhaha - as examples of how blogging and social media can serve not only as legitimate means of research analysis, but sometimes as the only ones.

The acknowledgment of blogs as an increasing valuable mode of communicating research and improving communication skills was affirmed in the stimulating panel discussion after the talks. Most of the audience seemed to concur that it might be a good idea for graduate students and professors to start writing about their research. This is especially valuable for graduate students since most of them are going to end up in non-academic jobs where softer skills like science communication might be even more important. I was very gratified to see enthusiasm for blogging both among young and old members of the audience. The younger graduate students and undergraduates had some anxiety about their careers, but my perception of that anxiety was more than compensated by the clear enthusiasm for science in all its forms that rippled across the room. Leaving the symposium I could not help but get the feeling that in spite of the problems and challenges all is well with the future of science, at least as reflected through the eyes of its young practitioners.


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