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Guest Post: “Why I Am Blogging on amphoteros.com” by Andrei Yudin

Today’s guest post is by Andrei Yudin, Professor of Chemistry at the University of Toronto. His research group aims to build new bridges between basic chemistry research and drug discovery. During a sabbatical, Yudin launched a blog, and soon discovered that blogging brings several tangible benefits to his group as well as his research program. You can read his blog at www.amphoteros.com.

I have always been intrigued by science blogging, but the barrier to give it a shot of my own has been steep. When I started my sabbatical in July of 2013, I realized that I would have some extra time, making it the best moment for me to begin blogging. The idea of connecting with a target audience of fellow researchers using a new means was especially attractive to me. In addition, as I was running experiments during my sabbatical, my graduate students and faculty colleagues were curious about what it was I was cooking in the lab. I did not want them to think that I was “breaking bad”, so I decided to put it all out there – my successes, my failures, and a good dose of self-ridicule. This is how www.amphoteros.com saw its first post on July 20, 2013.

I quickly realized that there were relatively few research-oriented chemistry blogs, which stands in contrast to other disciplines such as biology. While the culture of chemistry is different and chemists do not often feel the need to collaborate with one another, our craft is becoming more interdisciplinary and new ways of communicating scientific findings and/or sharing opinions are only going to help.

At the moment, amphoteros is driven by my keen interest in science advances both basic and applied. People ask me how I find time for writing and coming up with original subject matter on a daily basis. I somehow do not feel challenged by this: there is always something “bloggable” I can come up with during my train ride back home. I cover a range of subjects and I always look forward to the feedback I get from the readers. The usual way I conceive my posts is by thinking about one of the dominant thoughts that has been consuming me on a given day. Typically, these musings are related to a particular publication, although I do not make a distinction between what’s current and what’s old. To me, something that is important, yet published 50 years ago, is current. In terms of content, I like to have a lot of graphics on my posts. This gives me a chance to practice ideas for my future lecture presentations. In academia, we always think about new ways of presenting our research in lectures, yet it is tough to sit down and implement them. I partially address this problem using my blog posts: many of them serve their purpose in lectures.

While I blog, I find it encouraging to communicate with like-minded individuals who provide interesting comments. People often contact me by email and say that they enjoy the content I offer. I also like receiving requests to cover certain topics. I am keen to see which subjects on the blog are particularly popular. Straightforward tracking mechanisms enable me to dig deeper into those areas.

My blogging activities have led to other tangible outcomes as well. For instance, I find it easier to recruit students as many of them find the material I write about both educational and interesting. I have gotten both graduate and postdoctoral applications as a direct result of my writings. I also find that, by following my blog posts, students who take my classes are better engaged with the material I teach. Blogging is also turning into a great mechanism to keep in touch with my former students.

One of the emerging trends I see is my lab engagement in writing blog posts. I already had several students guest-post interesting material and anticipate that these offerings will expand in the future. It is 2014 now, my sabbatical is over. Yet the blog is in good shape, I find time to write, and the readership is growing.

Guest Post: “Recent Gender Ruckus Reminds Us To Be Vigilant” by Maureen Rouhi

Today’s post is by Maureen Rouhi, C&EN’s Editor-in-chief.

Suspicions of sexism roiled the theoretical chemistry community last month when organizers of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) posted a partial list of speakers. The all-male list prompted theoretical chemists Emily A. Carter of Princeton University; Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California to urge a boycott of the conference for its “gender-biased discriminatory practices.”

Gender inequity continues to persist in science. Until it disappears, we all must remain ready to expose it, because exposure leads to awareness, which improves fairness.

The 15th ICQC will be held in China in June 2015. It is being organized by chemistry professor Zhigang Shuai of Tsinghua University, under the sponsorship of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science. The academy’s president is Josef Michl, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The boycott call, he says, could be pivotal “in the long and difficult struggle that women have faced in science in general.” In a letter to academy members, he thanked Carter, Gagliardi, and Krylov for “raising a well-justified objection.” He also apologized for the “premature public release of a partial speaker list.”

“It is really terrible that this happened,” says Kendall N. Houk about the events that led to the boycott call. Houk is a chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an invited speaker. “But at least it has catalyzed a visible uproar and vivid reminder that chemists need to keep vigilant to avoid lapsing into old, bad habits that continue to disadvantage women scientists.” Houk says female members usually make up at least 25% of his research group. “They are becoming excellent computational chemists, and I look forward to their being speakers at future ICQC meetings.”

“The majority of the theoretical chemistry community is welcoming to female scientists,” says Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an invited speaker. However, she adds, certain pockets “have cultures that are less welcoming to female scientists,” and people must speak up and point out unfairness when it is apparent, as in the case of the 15th ICQC’s all-male partial speaker list.

“Despite increasing awareness, biases are still prevalent in certain situations,” Hammes-Schiffer says. The boycott petition and the ensuing discussions will force people to examine their subconscious biases and to behave and make decisions in a manner that will lead to change, she adds. “As more women move into leadership positions and as the gender ratio continues to become more balanced, the culture will shift. Until then, we need to remain vigilant and to train our students and postdocs in a way that ensures that future generations will create a culture that is equally welcoming to both genders.”

In the meantime, the list of speakers for the 15th ICQC has evolved. To date, of 33 invited speakers, seven are women, a larger share than in previous ICQCs. Whether the boycott call caused this spike, I can’t tell. I give the organizers the benefit of the doubt that they had planned to invite this many women all along.

Whether this representation fairly reflects women’s participation in the field is another question. Michl says one has to look at those who lead research groups because they would be the pool of potential speakers. An educated guess could come from examining the corresponding authors in journals that publish only theoretical chemistry. In the 2013 issues of the Journal of Chemical Theory & Computation, the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, Theoretical Chemistry Accounts, and the Journal of Computation Chemistry, women represented 11.49% of corresponding authors, for a 1:9 ratio of women to men, according to Michl. “The numbers clearly provide only a partial view, since much theory is published in journals that also publish articles from other subdisciplines; for example, the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Chemical Physics,” he says.

Whatever is the true representation of women in the field, “it is low, and we need to continue to bring more women into theoretical chemistry,” Michl says. He notes that about 40% of graduate students in theory today are women. “This generation will run the show in a decade or two,” he says. “And the ratio of 1:9 will then be nothing but a bad memory.”

Guest Post: “Perception is Power: How the Supplement Industry Bought Deregulation” by Tien Nguyen

Today’s guest post is from Tien Nguyen, an organic chemistry grad student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Tien is passionate about science outreach through the printed word, social media, and multimedia. On Twitter @mustlovescience and at her blog Must Love Science, she posts about timely chemistry topics and showcases the educational videos about chemistry that she helps create, including “The Fresh Bread of Bel-Air”. She is also a regular contributor to the RSC Catalysis Science & Technology Blog. Here she discusses a chapter of a new book that’s galvanized her views on science communication. Take it away, Tien!

In 2008, more than 200 people were poisoned by massive doses of selenium in liquid multivitamin supplements, Total Body Formula and Total Body Mega Formula. One of the victims was a telephone repairman named John Adams. As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Adams experienced severe loss of hair, fingernails and toenails and fatigue. He eventually became too exhausted to work and was forced to retire.

Other symptoms of selenium poisoning include diarrhea, joint pain, cramps and blistering skin. The FDA found that on average each Total Body serving contained 40,800 micrograms instead of 200 micrograms as planned. Nearly 50,000 supplement related adverse health effects are reported each year. Most supplements, like the Total Body Formula multivitamins, have not undergone any safety testing nor were they required to by law.

That’s because almost 20 years ago, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994, establishing that dietary supplements—vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, organ tissues, glandulars (materials from animal organs, glands or tissues) and metabolites—do not have to submit to FDA safety testing before being available to the public.

Referring to the Act’s passage, author Dan Hurley wrote, “So began an unprecedented experiment to test whether the unbridled use of vitamins and other supplements would help or hinder health, with the American public as the guinea pig.”

As long as a supplement is labelled as such and includes a disclaimer stating the lack of approval from the FDA, the bottle is cleared for supermarket shelves. If, after wide circulation, the supplement causes adverse health effects, like organ failure or death, the FDA can step in and pull it off the market.

Say what? Oh, you didn’t know supplements were totally exempt from pre-market safety regulations? Neither did 68 percent of Americans, according to a 2002 Harris poll.

Nor did I, until earlier this year when I reviewed Paul Offit’s new book, “Do you Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine.” He dedicates a chapter to the DSHEA, setting the stage with a quote from prominent philosopher Isaiah Berlin: “Liberty for the wolves is death for the lambs.” He illustrates how a carefully crafted marketing scheme, rooted in manipulation and backed by millions of dollars, could effectively harness public opinion. This kind of branding would make even Mad Men’s advertising king Don Draper wish he had thought of it.

Launched by vitamin industry executives, Offit explains how the campaign took a multi-pronged approach. First, Congress was inundated with letters. Vitamin industry interests sent in pre-printed letters and offered consumers discounts at thousands of health food stores in exchange for writing letters backing the Act. The letters had a unifying message, which was people wanted freedom to choose when it came to their supplements.  The messaging was designed to stoke individualistic pride and incite distrust of government regulation.

The book recounts how supplement makers argued that deregulation would give the public access to the widest range of supplements, allowing the American people to decide for ourselves and our families if a supplement was worthy. But, as Offit points out, the Act ensures that supplement makers would not have to provide any safety or efficacy data for us to base that decision on.

According to Offit’s book, the vitamin industry also perpetuated the false dogma that their products are natural, and by default safe, while drugs are man-made and unsafe. This is a fallacy because many drugs are derived from natural sources and either way, any product’s safety can only be determined through testing.

The campaign’s most powerful line, “you have a right to your supplements and the FDA is trying to take one of your basic rights away,” was parroted by highly recognizable celebrities like Mel Gibson and Sissy Spacek in television commercials, gaining widespread traction with the public. Offit describes how opponents of the Act, like Congressman Henry Waxman of California, were dealt with head-on, with hecklers paid to shout over him at public speaking events.

Supporters of the Act believed the FDA was uninterested in safety and just wanted to clear a path for the pharmaceutical industry to profit. Offit suggests that it was actually the vitamin industry that put aside public safety and had the most to gain financially from the legislation. Having successfully rebuffed regulation, the supplement industry pulled in $28 billion in 2007, up from $4 billion in 1994, a tidy return on investment. Since then, about 51,000 new supplements have flooded the market. Only about 170 of those have any documented safety tests.

After reading Offit’s book and many articles supporting his points, I believe the campaign to enact the DSHEA is a stark example of using misinformation to mold public opinion and ultimately influence legislation. Supplement makers realized this goal by investing serious amounts time, money and effort. The scientific community needs to counter these movements with investments of our own.

From translating studies that evaluate the safety and efficacy of certain supplements to clarifying legislative acts like this one, we have to make this information accessible to as many people as possible. Improving science literacy and public opinions of science can feel like an uphill battle, but with human lives at stake, it is one worth fighting.

Editor’s Note: If you’d like to read a full review of “Do You Believe in Magic? The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine”, please see the review from C&EN’s Nader Heidari in our Sept. 2 issue.

Guest Repost: “A Chemical Imbalance- Gender and Chemistry in Academia” by Biochem Belle

I’m pleased to bring you another guest re-post from Biochem Belle. She’s previously shared her writings about letting up on the pressures we place on ourselves in science professions. This time, her post is about A Chemical Imbalance, a new 15-minute documentary that looks at gender parity in academe through the lens of one university. This post originally appeared at Biochem Belle’s blog, Ever On & On.

As an undergrad preparing for med school, I fell in love with chemistry, thanks in large part to a quirky gen chem professor. He convinced me that a biochem major would be great for pre-med. That department became my home for 3 years. It was fantastic, and I found my true interest in science. And I never felt that there was anything unusual about being a woman pursuing chemistry. In grad school, that changed.

I’ve often wondered what flipped the switch. Perhaps the first clue was the fellowship offer that had the goal of increasing representation of women and minorities in the field. That initiated higher awareness of the disparities in my field, which expanded as I talked to peers and just took a look around. There were several women in my grad school class (going through the group in my head, 10 years later, I think we were pushing 40%). But at the time, there was one woman on tenure-track in the department. Another joined the department after my first year. Scanning through the faculty listings today, my undergrad department (undergrad focus with M.S. and small Ph.D. programs) is more than 25% women; my grad program looks to be around 10-15%.

My Ph.D. department is fairly representative of the faculty breakdown in physical sciences, according to the most recent NSF data. Life sciences perform better, with about 30% female faculty. Across disciplines, it’s not just that there are far fewer female faculty, but they earn less than their male colleagues. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US. A Chemical Imbalance is a short documentary and e-book looking at the history of female chemists at the University of Edinburgh. In the UK, less than 10% of STEM faculty are women. The Department of Chemistry at Edinburgh boasts 25%.

The film, less than 15 minutes long, looks at the milestones of the department’s female faculty. It also takes a brief look at the two big questions: Why do numbers of women in the faculty ranks remain low (and drop off further at upper levels), and what should be done to change the landscape? The creators provide four action points for a start. Here’s why I think they matter.

Monitor our numbers.

Paying attention to the numbers is not about establishing quotas. It’s about removing a perception bias. The issue of gender parity in STEM receives a great deal of attention. Many institutions respond, in part, by saying, “Hey, look at all these great female faculty we have here!” I think this gives many individuals the idea that there are far more female faculty than there actually are.

Periodically, for one reason or another, my boss and I will end up on the topic of gender bias in science. My boss is very supportive of women in science, but inevitably he asks the question, “Do you really think that gender bias is still a problem?” I always respond with an unequivocal “yes”. Recently he responded, “But what about department at [Top Research U]? And I’m sure that our [molecular department] must be getting close to 50%.” I crunched the numbers. The department is almost perfectly average: 28% female faculty.

We are making progress, but it is slow and incremental. It is not proceeding in the leaps and bounds that we perceive from our institutions’ press and from our own inherent biases. We are scientists. We consider data before making claims in our research. Let’s do the same elsewhere.

Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying.

In biochemistry, women are selecting out at the faculty application phase. The factors most often cited are family and work-life balance issues. I don’t doubt these are real concerns, but I think there are much deeper issues. We know that there is gender bias. We keep hearing that, as women, we have to work harder, publish more, win more grants, etc. to compete with men – and then we’ll likely get less money for it. Some of us have run up against either implicit or explicit bias, which can make the environment feel hostile. Owing in part to socialization, women negotiate differently – and less – and I suspect that this extends seeking out mentoring. Oh, and then, there’s impostor syndrome. Mix all this together, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that women are stepping off the tenure track. Maybe this should be a wake-up call to mentoring.

But it’s not just prospective applicants that need mentoring. Hiring and promotions committees could use some guidance too. Every one of us, regardless of gender, carry some form of bias. Studies in multiple fields consistently show gender bias in hiring decisions, and the sciences are no exception. It’s important to be aware of our biases so that we can combat them. Departments need to make sure that they are giving equal consideration regardless of gender.

Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility.

This doesn’t focus on family or on women, and I think it’s all the more important for that reason. Shockingly scientists are people, complete with all the messy, complicated lives of people. Health, family, mental wellness… we all have things that aren’t science that command time and attention. Science is a long, slow process. Allowing flexibility to deal with the rest of life might just keep scientists more engaged and make their science better.

Reclaim the meaning of feminism.

For a long time, I never considered myself a feminist. It wasn’t that the word carried a negative connotation. It just wasn’t exactly part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t until I delved in the blogosphere and Twitterverse that I began to understand what feminism means. And why it matters so much. Feminism is not about quotas and misandry. It’s about equal rights and opportunities. We still have to talk about this because, despite our sense of enlightenment, we simply do not view the same work by a man and woman equally. This needs to change.

And there are even larger disparities to address with regard to underrepresented minorities, who account for less than 5% of full professors at research universities. Some of the issues are different, some may be similar. But if we’re going to address parity, we need to work towards parity for all.

A final note

The documentary focuses on gender parity in chemistry in academia. But the issues extend to other fields and sectors. Without serious consideration to these issues, the sciences will continue to lose talent and a major investment of time and money. Institutions should take steps to make their processes and departments more balanced and supportive. Mentors contribute to the environment and should be invested in making sure their best trainees are applying. However, it’s important that mentors don’t overcompensate and (unintentionally) leave women feeling guilty for leaving academia, if that is their ultimate choice. The goal is for scientists, both male and female, to apply for the best position for them and to be given equal consideration, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Like much of science, the process is slow and long, but we just need to keep chipping away at it.

Don’t forget to check out the documentary A Chemical Imbalance.

Guest Post: “Google Glass and Twitter for Chemistry Education” by Arash Soheili

Today’s guest post is from Arash Soheili, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center. As curator of the Twitter account @Total_Synthesis, which is turning 2 this month, no new total synthesis in the journals escapes his watchful eye. He’s passionate about teaching chemistry. And we’re jealous of him because he got to visit Google’s NYC offices to pick up his very own Google Glass. Check out his tech musings at Android Cowboy.

Arash Soheili wearing Google Glass

He has Google Glass. Do you?
(Courtesy Arash Soheili)

I love organic chemistry and have been practicing it in academia and industry for over a decade. I’m also a huge fan of technology and strongly believe that there is a place for it in chemistry education. In fact, I would even say that in the next decade it will become a necessity to incorporate technology as part of the formal teaching toolkit. That process is already happening informally with so many educational videos on YouTube from enthusiasts and educators. But so many technology tools are constantly changing and it will take a strong effort on educators to find the methods that work best. Just like running an experiment in the lab, it will take planning, as well as some trial and error, to get the best results.

My personal experience with chemistry and education started about two years ago. I wanted to find a way to reach more people and introduce new and interesting topics in chemistry using existing social networks. My passion for natural product synthesis led me to start a total synthesis Twitter feed. I check all the major organic chemistry journals daily and tweet any completed total synthesis of a natural product that I find. If you are interested in natural product synthesis then you can easily follow the Twitter feed and be up to date. You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #totalsynthesis. The idea was very simple, but it had yet to be executed. Now in two years there are close to 1000 followers and it serves as an archive of over 400 natural product syntheses in all the major journals. This information would be hard to collect and very laborious using the typical search methods like Google, ACS, SciFinder, etc. It is an idea that can be duplicated for any other topic of interest in science and can be even tried in a formal class setting. Similar ideas include the online Twitter #chemclub by Andrew Bissette.

Social media tools are far from the only game in town. Hardware tools have huge potential for application in chemistry education. One example is Google Glass which is basically a head mounted computer with the ability to take pictures, videos, and more. One of the great features of Glass is the ability to video chat (Hangouts) with a first person point of view. This was used very effectively by Andrew Vanden Heuvel when he took Google Glass to the CERN Hadron Collider and taught his students from his point of view. It was an experience that his students will probably never forget and was a unique way to inspire them. As a Glass owner myself, I’m thinking about the potential applications to teach chemistry. One unique way of teaching chemistry using Glass can be by giving students a first-person vantage point of a live experiment. This will also give students access to reactions that explain difficult concepts that they themselves may not be able to complete by seeing them through the eyes of a trained professional. Another example would be to record lectures from the educators point of view. This can be made available for students to and can also be used to help train young educators in effective teaching. I think the potential for Glass and chemistry education is huge and it will only take our imagination to make it happen.

It’s clear many people think social media and technology is just a fad and has no place in education. But go anywhere in public, and you’ll see how every kid or young person is on their phone or tablet browsing social media. Technology is the new language that young people speak and to reach them we need to teach in their language. It will take a concerted effort by all educators but I’m very hopeful and very excited to see what comes next.

Guest Post: “#Chemclub” by Andrew Bissette

Last month’s guest re-post from Andrew Bissette generated quite the great conversation. So we’re excited to share an original post from Andrew today. We asked him to talk about #chemclub, the online community he co-founded, how it complements other communities like #RealTimeChem, and about what’s in store for #chemclub next.

What’s it like to be a chemist?

Regular C&EN readers hopefully got a good idea from Carmen Drahl’s great article about #RealTimeChem. This growing project, led primarily by Jason Woolford, encourages chemists to share their lives, whether by blogging about it, or taking photos, or even remixing it with some dubstep.

#RealTimeChem Week took place in the last week of April. For one week, chemists from across the world blogged and tweeted intensively about their work and lives. This was a great chance to meet other chemists and hopefully to show the human face of chemistry to the outside world. Perhaps in the popular imagination we all wear labcoats and handle beakers of dry ice, but in reality we are diverse. Even within a particular field, two chemists will have very different labs and lives. #RealTimeChem is a fantastic way to showcase that diversity.

However, diversity has a downside. It is so easy to get absorbed in the details of your own narrow field that keeping up with even closely-related areas can be challenging. What’s worse is that this can be a vicious cycle: the less you know about a subject, the harder it is to keep abreast of things and to identify the really promising new findings.

Since reading as widely and thoughtfully as possible will always be essential, several aids for this purpose have appeared. For example, some reference managers suggest new papers, and journals regularly highlight important publications. My preferred solution is to ask a friend.

That’s why I started #chemclub.

We chemists are lucky to have a strong and enthusiastic online community, as #RealTimeChem week demonstrated. We’re a diverse lot, including everyone from undergraduates to professors, from a range of specialities. Being chemists, naturally every single one of these people is a shining beacon of genius.

#chemclub aims to draw on that collective wisdom. First and foremost we ask people to highlight the papers they’re reading. It’s very simple: anyone can post papers to Twitter with the hashtag #chemclub for public discussion, and every week I round up a selection on my blog, Behind NMR Lines.

The idea of #chemclub is to complement your reading with some papers you might otherwise have skipped, giving you an appreciation for new developments in other fields. Hopefully this will make it that little bit easier to build up a broad knowledge from across chemistry.

To this end we’re expanding #chemclub beyond just the hashtag. The first baby step is to include blogs in the regular round-up; there are plenty of great chemistry blogs out there, and many discuss recent papers in some detail. We’ll be focusing on those that offer context which the casual reader might miss.

Long-term, we’re looking at other ways to help chemists. Our next big thing will be #chemclub reviews: short, coffee-break reviews aimed at giving the reader a quick overview of a subject. Naturally these will lack the gory detail of an academic review, but hopefully will benefit your own reading by providing easily-digestible context and from someone who knows the subject intimately.

Ultimately, #chemclub is much like #RealTimeChem: it’s about community. We’re slowly building an online, ongoing literature meeting that users can dip in and out of, helping chemists to stay current with the literature, meet others from across the world, and broaden their knowledge.

Get involved by posting to the #chemclub hashtag on Twitter.

Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette

Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.

#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.

One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.

Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:

Chemphobia is reactive

Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.

Material does not equal chemical

As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.

Anyway.

Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.

What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.

Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.

Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.

Guest Post: “Screw anonymous—Maybe? Reclaim synthesis—Definitely!” by Fredrik von Kieseritzky

Today’s guest poster is Fredrik von Kieseritzky, whose sense of humor is evident in his posts at Synthetic Remarks. You may recall his open letter to a certain Scripps Research Institute organic chemist. Today, Fredrik writes about anonymity on blogs. It’s a familiar discussion point to followers of the chemistry blogosphere, but it takes on new dimensions given current events.

Right before turning off the computer and getting ready to hit the sack last night, in the middle of brushing my teeth, I got sucked in reading Anonymous Science and the Survival of Blog Syn over at Rich Apodaca’s blog Depth-First—and it got me thinking. In fact, it left me sleepless for most the night. Thank you very much, Rich.

For those of you who haven’t read it yet or know what Blog Syn is all about in the first place, allow me to start off with a recap of the action: For a considerable amount of time, chemists have been complaining on social media and elsewhere that many published syntheses are difficult to reproduce, and that we are seeing a worrying decline in quality of the experimental details. This is partly attributed to the fact that experimentals tend to be buried in the supporting information of the articles. This goes for almost all of today’s foremost chemistry journals. Not good!

Another important factor: How likely is it that an editor, reviewer or referee will scrutinize 50 or so pages of supporting information as vividly as the jam-packed 3-4 pages that make up the main act? Rhetorical question.

These unfortunate developments are indisputable facts, and the onus is on all of us to fix it. As everyone is painfully aware, organic synthesis has taken a couple of serious blows over the past decade, and we could all benefit from positive news in our field for a change.

I say: Reclaim synthesis! Put the experimental details back where they belong. Nature Publishing Group, Wiley, Elsevier, RSC and ACS—do you read me? Does everybody understand how important this is? And of course, we authors must become much better at reporting exactly how we performed our reactions. We may never ever do the same reaction again, but if what we write is good and true, then of course others will want to apply our new and awesome methodologies. That’s a no-brainer.

To tackle the main issue—reproducibility, a cornerstone of science—a team of already well-established chemistry bloggers decided to finally do something about it, and a couple of months ago they came up with and executed the most brilliant plan. They would take recently reported reactions from pristine journals, especially demanding ones with (suspiciously) high yields, and try to reproduce these in their own hands. They would post their findings online for everyone to see and comment on, not the least the authors themselves. The result is a blog named Blog Syn, if it has escaped anyone’s attention.

So far, so very good, I thought. Apparently, so did Derek Lowe and Nature Chemistry too. I had few if any objections until I read Rich’s post. Since I have been in close contact with the guys behind the scenes for a long time, it just never occurred to me that three out of four Blog Synners (sinners?) are using pen names.

Now, herein lies the huge problem, and I agree with parts of what Rich says. Anonymous witnesses are for good reasons not allowed in courts of law (in civilized countries). Authors are never anonymous, obviously, so why should they have to respond to accusations put forth by nameless plaintiffs?

If only things were that simple, though. There exists many a good reason for not using your own name when blogging. Instead of turning this into another list thread, I will name just one, speaking from own experience: Corporate oppression and excessively restrictive non-disclosure agreements are the main culprits. The typical big company today is scared out of its mind of what their employees say or do on their own time, on the verge of clinical paranoia, if I may say so.

Moreover, I am sure academic researchers have equally good reasons for not wanting to go full disclosure online. There are probably as many reasons as there are anonymous blogs and bloggers. As long as you don’t break the law, everyone has the right to free speech, anonymous or not.

But—science is different from most other things we humans do. Science reaches its full potential only in an open and fully transparent environment. If you want to engage in science, in a blog or anywhere, believe me, you will get so much more cred and attention if you take off your masks. Think about it. I mean, already in the third post, Blog Syn got action from the Big Kahuna, Phil Baran. I must say I admire his courage and desire to set things right, even when he can’t be perfectly sure who he is talking to.

I said I agreed with parts of Rich’s post. I totally get the take-home message, but it came out a little harsh, didn’t it? It is easy for you and I to say everybody should use their real names when engaging in scientific discussion, be it on- or off-line, because, you and I had already decided to have it that way when we ventured out into the unknown. But please, show some respect to others who might not enjoy the same liberty and still wish to contribute.

This is my main message: I have personally never had to regret blogging under my real name. It was a little scary at first, but for me it has worked out just fine. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

To wrap up:

* Hey Phil, write better experimentals in the first place.

* Anonymous science writers, at least consider going public. It’s probably worth it.

* Corporate America, you need to relax. Seriously.

* Everybody, insist on having your experimentals included in the main part of the next article you submit. Supporting information is for spectra. Synthesis is core.