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Katie Hurley


Posted by Katie Hurley Aug 31, 2012

While my other blog posts have been far afield from chemistry, I did actually learn some things about science at the EuCheMS chemistry congress!  As a reference for myself and any interested parties, I have listed a few exceptional talks I went to, along with links to representative papers.  I also learned of a number of books that I want to investigate.  If you have read any of them, let me know what you think!


Cool Science:


Gerhard Ertl - Nobel Laureate who uses scanning tunneling microscopy to see individual atoms moving on surfaces! See a transcript from a lecture of his here.


Han Zuilhof - a researcher from the Netherlands at Wageningen University who uses photochemistry to bind organic monolayers to various substrates.  Very beautiful work.  I need to read this paper of his.


Andreas Stein – a professor from my own institution, the University of Minnesota.  He gave an amazing lecture summarizing his work in hierarchical porous structures.  See here for a review.


Peter Heseman – a researcher from the Institut Charles Gerhardt, Montpellier, France.  His gave a very clear and interesting talk about incorporating organic groups into silica precursors for functionalized silicas. One of his papers can be found here.


Helmut Schwartz – a distinguished chemist from Technische Universitat Berlin who gave what I think was the best talk of the congress.  He spoke on his research in methane chemistry using hand-written slides that probably came from a transparency.  I loved his lecture style and really got interested in the chemistry, even though I am not an organic chemist.  Here is an author profile on him from Angew. Chem.


To Read:


“The Responsibilities of Scientists, a European View” by Richard Ernst (paper)


Selections from the “Living Ethics” books by Nicholas and Helena Roerich.  See here for a full list of titles.


“Scientists Behaving Badly” by Martinson et al. (paper)


“2000 Tips for Lecturers” by Phil Race (book)


“What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter (book recommended by Madeleine Jacobs)


Overall I am incredibly grateful for the knowledge (scientific and otherwise) I have gained on this trip to EuCheMS.  If you are interested in keeping up with me, check out my individual blog!

Although I have seen a plethora of scientific results in the last few days, I am choosing to write about the less quantitative results of an international experience such as attending this EuCheMS chemistry congress. Steve Meyers gave a great talk today on ACS’s GREET program, in which he mentioned several benefits of international collaboration.  In particular, he showed that students who had been a part of an international collaboration developed more confidence in unfamiliar situations, gained a global perspective, and displayed an increased desire for more international collaborations. These were the results of 6-8 week collaborations with lots of face-time with international colleagues.  My own observations come from brief visits to other countries, including this 5-day (so far!) visit to Prague.


Being in an unfamiliar situation has a number of advantages.  The first and perhaps most obvious is that the traveler is exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking.  I experienced this by observing the culture of Prague in general but also by listening to the scientific talks.  Many presenters offered opinions on chemistry, the role of a chemist, and the state of the world in addition to their specific results (this was particularly prevalent in the “Ethics in Chemistry” section I attended).  The next advantage of unfamiliar situations is a fun one – it brings people together.  I am fairly introverted by nature and have a hard time meeting new people, but it did not take long to make friends with the other winners of this ACS travel award to EuCheMS.  Not knowing the language or the layout of the city gave us a reason to stick together and made socializing (and exploring) easier. 


The biggest ‘unfamiliar situation’ benefit I have found is an enhanced awareness and attentiveness to almost everything I experience.  For instance, not knowing the language encourages me to pay close attention to landmarks, pictures, and repeated words and characters, and listening to talks given by presenters with accents requires me to focus while they speak.  This language barrier has another interesting effect: it makes me shut up.  Instead of talking about what I think or what I want, I listen and I observe.  These quiet activities develop humility and help to combat arrogant or judgmental assumptions I might have made previously.


I am fortunate to be able to spend several more days in Prague, and I hope this humility and attentiveness will develop even further.  Once I go home, I want to keep this attitude of constant learning.  I suspect that my science and my life in general will improve as a result.

Over the last several days, I have been paying close attention to how chemists at every stage of their career communicate during presentations and poster sessions.  A few insights that I have gathered are discussed below.  I have to give the caveat that I am a teacher at heart and prefer educational talks.  I realize that other people have different presentation styles, and I would appreciate it if anyone wants to leave comments about the benefits of other styles.


What doesn't work:

  • Reading long lists from slides (especially if you don’t add any information to what is written)
  • Providing a summary of a vast amount of work with little experimental details or data
  • Saying “Due to time constraints, this must be simplified” or a similar comment often. I attended one talk in which the presenter took about two minutes from the allotted presentation time by making multiple comments similar to this.


In addition, I would like to comment that although a chronological presentation of your experimental journey is sometimes useful, it is not guaranteed to be the best way to make your point.


I have been fortunate to observe a number of techniques which do work!  These can be grouped into two areas: context and engagement.  I believe providing context should start even before your research introduction.  This applies more to a poster presentation than a talk, but introducing yourself and giving a one-sentence summary of the type of work you do will help to orient unfamiliar audience members before you launch into the science. During the presentation, provide some background for the work, keeping in mind that acronyms, molecules, processes, and techniques that are very familiar to you might not be familiar to your audience.  Be careful, however, to only include the pieces of context that are important for the talk.  It might be true that there are another three processes that lead to this one, but if they are not relevant to the data you present, it will only serve to distract your audience.


The last category I would like to discuss is engagement.  Thus far I have seen some great examples of this.  Those presenters who engaged their audience the most displayed a good balance between looking and talking at the audience and looking at the screen.  When presenting data, it isn’t realistic to say ‘never look at the screen,’ but that does not give one license to never look at the audience!  I have seen a few people balance this incredibly well.  I have also noticed that I am more engaged as an audience member when the presenter moves (a little!), gestures when appropriate, and varies their voice inflection as they tell their research story.


As I have reflected on this engagement piece, it occurs to me that there are many who might not agree with me.  My advice here is given as though the primary responsibility for engaging the audience lies with the researcher.  Some might contend that a presenter is not an entertainer and that it is up to the audience to keep up with the presentation.  I would appreciate hearing others’ thoughts on this balance in the comments below.

My organic chemistry professor in college used to tell his students, “Use your chemistry knowledge for good, not evil.”  It was something I always smiled at, thinking it to be just catchy line to say while showing students how one might use electrophilic aromatic substitution reactions to make TNT.  In truth, I don’t always associate ‘good’ and ‘evil’ with chemistry.  Although I desire to enrich the lives of people around me with everything I do, I admit that on very good days, the study of chemistry is its own reward.  I love learning about the beauty and complexity of the matter around me, and I often assume that other chemists share this motivation as their primary reason for continuing in science.  That assumption is why I was surprised today to hear a recurring theme throughout conversations, scientific talks, and celebratory receptions: “Chemist, do good.”


ACS calls us to do good in its vision: “Improving people’s lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”  Madeleine Jacobs spoke about it at breakfast this morning, saying that none of the world’s pressing problems (energy, food, disease, etc.) would be solved without the involvement of chemistry.  ACS publishing contacts like Peter Stang and Sonja Krane demonstrated it during the question and answer section of the JACS publishing seminar. They addressed audience concerns thoughtfully and explained the reasoning behind publication access choices (electronic and print).


The most poignant example of “Chemist, do good” that I saw today was in a talk on ethics in chemistry given by Hartmut Frank.  He spoke about the inherent responsibilities of chemists, noting that “we make or mobilize chemicals, so we are responsible for them” (although we aren’t the only ones!) As he made a case for European chemistry societies to move towards accountability in sustainable practices, he commented that “academic education trains the mind, but we forget that humans have at least two sides.  We neglect the training of the heart.”


I am glad that my assumptions were wrong.  Chemists may study their science for the pure joy of discovery and the wonder of matter (I do!), but we also study for the benefit of the world.  Out of context, such a statement might sound corny to the point of being insincere, but I know this is not the case.  Each event I have attended today and reflection on my past experiences shows that chemists really want to do good.  Even better, we have the skills and tools to do so.

Katie Hurley


Posted by Katie Hurley Aug 26, 2012

As I prepared my poster presentation for the 4th EuCheMS Chemistry Congress in Prague, Czech Republic, I was struck by the large size of my “acknowledgements” section. It contains references to collaborators and instrumental experts without whom I would have had a very difficult time collecting and analyzing my data.  It also mentions infrastructure which supports my work – grants, characterization facilities, and chemical societies.  I spent a fair amount of the plane ride to Prague reflecting on the fact that my research was made possible by the interconnectedness of the field of chemistry.


Later, at the opening ceremony and first plenary talk of the congress, I was reminded again of the network which exists within chemistry.  Several distinguished chemists were given awards for a lifetime of achievements.  As these achievements were listed, I thought of all the chemical principles which were discovered or refined by these people, and how much I owed to them – despite not having heard some of their names previously.  I suddenly became aware of the relative smallness of my knowledge of the history of chemistry.  Truly, I stand on the shoulders of giants, even if I don’t realize it all the time.


After the opening ceremony, I was fortunate to spend some time with Madeleine Jacobs, the Executive Director of the American Chemical Society, and some of her colleagues whose work relates to the publication of chemistry journals.  As we talked about alternative careers for chemists, she said that she greatly values those who work in chemistry publishing and journalism.  She contended that those employees were chemists, just not at the bench.  “They still support the mission of ACS, to improve the quality of human life through the transforming power of chemistry.” I thought about how my research and my career as a chemist are supported by infrastructure and societies such as ACS.


During my undergraduate career, I sometimes felt like I was learning chemistry in a vacuum.  I was just one person among thousands, maybe even millions of chemists around the globe learning a very well-established, immobile field.  As I grow, however, I am learning about the active and evolving nature of chemistry – how I as a student can impact the science with my research, and how that impact could not be made without the extensive network that I am now a part of.  I gratefully acknowledge that my discoveries and successes are only possible because of the people around me: the founders and teachers who came before me, the collaborators who move alongside me, and the societies and infrastructure which support us all.