musings on music and life

March 29, 2012

thoughts about ACS

Filed under: Chemistry — sankirnam @ 3:34 pm

I just returned from the national ACS meeting in San Diego, and wanted to get my thoughts down before I forgot.

The American Chemical Society has national meetings twice a year, and from what I can see, it gives chemists a chance to drop whatever they’re doing, head to a random city in the country, and relax/chill by listening to lectures during the day, and attending poster sessions at night.

It’s a decent experience; it allows graduate students an opportunity to escape the cocoons of their own department/labs, see fresh viewpoints on chemistry (hopefully the bigger picture), see what is hot in science right now, and get different perspectives on research. The main goal, however, and the major reason why your boss or company is usually willing to sponsor your trip, is that you should get new, (hopefully original) ideas by being in such an atmosphere.

In my case, however, I didn’t gain much. This is probably because I put a lot more effort into learning chemistry and reading the literature compared to my peers (I’m not trying to show off here). The result was that I was already familiar with the work of all the speakers I planned on hearing. The benefit I got from the experience was that I got to see these people live, and hear how they talked about chemistry and presented their work.

Talking about science and making presentations is very different from actually doing science. Chemistry presentations are increasingly becoming like sales pitches, with each person trying to sell their methodologies or syntheses as “new”, “efficient”, “novel”, “atom-economical”, “step-economical”, or “green”. In the case of new reaction methodologies, the scientists often try to sell the utility of the reaction by applying it toward the synthesis of existing natural products or pharmaceutical compounds. Safety is often highlighted, with the overall ease of carrying out the process being emphasized. Since “green”, or environmentally friendly chemistry is a major concern now, another selling point of new reactions is often how efficient they are (determined by the use of solvent, ease of isolation and purification of product, waste generated, etc.).

There were a few talks that did get under my skin though. I won’t mention the names of the professors, for obvious reasons. One of them is a hotshot in the field of organic chemistry, and almost every paper of his is publised in a very high impact factor journal (JACS, Science, Nature, etc.). This professor mentioned how he had developed a reaction that had low selectivity. He then mentioned that apparently such a process is fine in pharma research, because it generates several compounds which can then be separated and isolated. This goes against the whole grain of reaction methodology development; the whole idea of developing a new reaction is to come up with a process or transformation for making one product selectively! The latest trend is to now make one enantiomer (mirror image) of a molecule selectively, since molecules found in nature (such as carbohydrates and proteins) are inherently chiral. His statements go against such established notions. Now, I am usually supportive of people who buck established trends and question establish ideas, but this is just ridiculous. From now on, whenever I get a messy reaction, I can just report it as a good thing and claim that I am making a “library”! Hooray! Instead of trying to make a reaction stereospecific, I can just let it be racemic, and say that I have generated multiple isomers of the molecule. Such statements are dangerous, because, as a “hotshot professor” he has a responsibility to be a good role model to the thousands of graduate students and postdocs aspiring to be like him, and this is doing exactly the opposite.

The professor then continued onto his next topic, “accelerated serendipity”. This had been previously published in Science late last year. The gist was that in order to come up with new ideas serendipitously, one must carry out a lot of reactions or read lots of papers. In other words, serendipity is a function of events, not time. The professor then implemented this strategy by having an automated machine carry out over 3500 reactions. When the data was analyzed by the students, they were able to find a few positive results, optimize them, and thereby come up with a new reaction methodology. Now, allow me to tear this apart (grins maniacally).

The fact that the professor had to resort to this approach to come up with a new reaction means he is running out of ideas. This is an extraordinarily brute-force approach to discovery, and is not what is associated with intelligence or genius. This is also extremely poor training for the students involved in the project. They are not learning how to think about chemistry and come up with new ideas. This will stunt their intellectual growth in the long term. The students could be replaced with monkeys, robots, undergrads (or whatever suits your fancy), and the same results could still be achieved. If this is the future of the chemical research enterprise, then I am at a loss for words.

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