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A Royal Encounter in Thailand

A Royal Encounter in Thailand

Chemists from 10 countries gathered on Jan. 11-13 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to participate in Pure & Applied Chemistry International Conference 2012 (PACCON 2012). Organized by Chiang Mai University and the Chemical Society of Thailand, PACCON 2012 attracted about 1,400 participants and featured a keynote lecture by Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol and three plenary lectures (including one by yours truly).

Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol formally opening PACCON 2012

Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol formally opens PACCON 2012. Courtesy of Chiang Mai University.


The organizers structured the conference around the theme “Chemistry Beyond Boundaries” to highlight chemistry’s interface with other disciplines and how the combinations are expanding scientific horizons.  Consistent with the theme, 36 invited talks and dozens of oral presentations were delivered in multidisciplinary sessions such as Chemistry for Global Warming, Green Energy & Environment; Chemistry for Health Science & Technology; Chemistry for Engineering & Industry; Chemistry for Materials & Nanotechnology; and Chemistry for Spa & Cosmetics.  Four poster sessions accommodated scores of poster presentations.

Princess Chulabhorn set a high bar for the scientific talks by giving the audience a flavor of the work at the natural products institute she founded, the Chulabhorn Research Institute, in Bangkok. First she gave a detailed account of CRI’s work, spanning almost a decade, on a group of bioactive natural products called lamellarins. According to the princess, the contributions of CRI to the body of knowledge about lamellarins include synthesis, profiling of biological activity, and structure-activity relationships. Then she also discussed CRI’s work on natural products from food plants, marine organisms, and microorganisms.

Surprisingly, at the end of her lecture, the princess apologized for taking off her shoes for the lecture, which I and others didn’t notice and wouldn’t have known otherwise.

It seems that taking off one’s shoes in front of others is considered impolite in Thailand. She explained that she has an injured femur that is taking long to heal. She left the conference on a wheel chair. Later, I found that she came to the conference door also on a wheel chair but came to her feet to enter the conference hall.

The presence of Thai royalty made the first morning of the conference highly unusual. Everyone who wanted to attend the opening ceremony needed to be in the conference hall by 8 AM and were “advised to complete their personal business” before entering the hall as “opportunities to leave after 8 AM will be restricted.” Participants also were asked to “sit politely and refrain from talking off your shoes or sitting cross-legged” and refrain from asking questions after the princess’s lecture. Photography was banned; only the entourage of official photographers could take photos. While everyone waited, those of us who were to receive plaques from the princess were rehearsed on the proper way to curtsy or bow, to extend the hand to receive the plaque, and to exit.

After the princess had delivered the lecture and left the hall, participants were still unable to leave the conference hall. We were asked to wait until the princess’s party had left the premises, about an hour’s worth of waiting because the princess was to have lunch first.

No one complained; everyone took the inconvenience in stride. Thailand after all is a kingdom, and the princess is a member of the royal family. Plus this crowd of chemists seems genuinely pleased that Thailand has a princess who is an accomplished chemist. What other royal family can claim that distinction?

C&EN's Rouhi accepts a plaque from Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol. Courtesy of Chiang Mai University.

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