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Introduction (to the purpose of chemistry)

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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.