musings on music and life

November 2, 2015

My thoughts on the broad state of chemistry (2015 edition)

Filed under: Chemistry — Tags: , — sankirnam @ 12:34 am

I had to fill out a questionnaire regarding my thoughts on the broad state of chemistry as part of the 2nd round of a job application; I feel like some of what I’ve written is worth sharing. Of course, I’ve omitted anything that explicitly references the position.

2) Please identify three chemistry papers that have been published in other journals within the last year (excluding Nature and Science) that, in your view, would have been of the standard required for consideration in a chemistry journal being launched by [journal company]? Why have you selected these papers and who would you recommend as potential reviewers for each?

I think it is also worthwhile to demonstrate what would not be worth publishing, so I will include one example of an inferior quality manuscript here, as well as 2 examples of good papers.

  1. Synthesis and Characterization of 1,2,3,4,5-Pentafluoroferrocene – Karlheinz Sünkel, Stefan Weigand, Alexander Hoffmann, Sebastian Blomeyer, Christian G. Reuter, Yury V. Vishnevskiy, and Norbert W. Mitzel, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2015, 137, 126. This paper describes the first successful preparation of pentafluoroferrocene, and while this may not have immediate practical applications, this is still worth publishing, especially since it represented a synthetic challenge, which is why it was not synthesized until now. Potential reviewers for this include Heinrich Lang, Ian Manners, and Janusz Zakrzewski.
  2. Experimental Limiting Oxygen Concentrations for Nine Organic Solvents at Temperatures and Pressures Relevant to Aerobic Oxidations in the Pharmaceutical Industry – Paul M. Osterberg, Jeffry K. Niemeier, Christopher J. Welch, Joel M. Hawkins, Joseph R. Martinelli, Thomas E. Johnson, Thatcher W. Root, and Shannon S. Stahl, Organic Process Research and Development, article ASAP. Work in process chemistry is also very important, but since this mainly happens in industry, a lot of work in this area goes unpublished. Publications like these should be published not only because they afford outsiders a look at industry processes, but also because it is important to promote safety and good practices, which is what this article is about. This features general, non-protected work that is relevant to all who do (or are considering doing) aerobic oxidation chemistry. Reviewers include Chris Senanyake (Boehringer Ingelheim), and anyone else working on process chemistry in industry.
  3. Simple Amine-Directed Meta-Selective C−H Arylation via Pd/Norbornene Catalysis – Zhe Dong, Jianchun Wang, and Guangbin Dong, Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2015, 137, 5887. This manuscript is an example of what should not be published. The experimental work is rather sloppy; when optimizing the reaction conditions, the authors do not state how they first came up with the “acetate cocktail” in the first place. That issue aside, this reaction is also highly impractical; nobody will use it not only because it involves an unusual ligand (AsPh3) as opposed to the more common phosphine or NHC ligands, but also because it requires super-stoichiometric amounts of other metal reagents (e.g. 4.5 equiv. AgOAc and 3.0 equiv. CsOAc). The consequence is that this reaction will never be scaled up. This reaction is not that original either, as Gaunt was the first to publish on directed meta-arylation back in 2009.

3) Can you list three research areas that are generating a lot of interest in chemistry at present? Which investigators are actively involved in pursuing these areas? (Ideally, one suggestion should come from your own area of expertise and the others from different aspects of chemistry.

  1. Organofluorine chemistry is generating immense interest in the chemistry community at present, so much so that practitioners talk of a “bubble”. Research that is not very novel or incremental at best is published in very high impact factor journals simply due to the involvement of fluorine. On the other hand, these statements should not imply that the field is not important; it is, which is why it is receiving so much attention lately. Several people are publishing in this area, including my Ph.D. advisor, Prof. G. K. Surya Prakash. Others include Veronique Gouverneur (Oxford), Tobias Ritter (Harvard), John Welch (SUNY-Albany), Jinbo Hu (SIOC), and Stephen DiMagno (UN-Lincoln).
  2. Organocatalysis is also a very active area of research in modern organic chemistry, and has really only developed over the last 15 years, even though the seeds can be found in publications from the 90’s, 80’s and 70’s. It continues to receive attention from the organic chemistry community and was prominently featured in the National Organic Symposium this year. Key investigators in this area include D. W. C. MacMillan (Princeton), Benjamin List (Max Planck Institute), Karl Anker Jørgensen (Aarhus), and Yujiro Hayashi (Science University of Tokyo).
  3. Cliché as it may seem, palladium catalysis is still a topic of current interest in chemistry. While reactions such as the Heck, Suzuki, and Negishi reactions are now well established in the chemists’ toolkit now (as exemplified by the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2010), there are still many orthogonal modes of reactivity that are being uncovered in this area. Melanie Sanford bought to attention the scope of oxidative Pd catalysis and the potential of Pd(II)-Pd(IV) catalytic cycles for organic and organometallic chemistry. Similarly, Jin-Quan Yu and Matthew Gaunt are also continuing to demonstrate new applications of Pd catalysis to solving problems in organic synthesis based on new ligand motifs and catalytic cycles.

4) Can you look through a recent copy of a top tier general chemistry journal and identify research topics that are currently not well represented. Please explain your thoughts on the importance of these fields (if any). How would you go about avoiding similar omissions in [chemistry journal]? Do you think that such omissions are important?

One example of a topic that is not well represented today is origin-of-life chemistry. The origin of life on this planet is a puzzle that is purely chemical in nature, and so chemists are uniquely poised to solve it. One way to remedy this is to seek out chemists doing research in this area and invite them to publish in this journal. However, the number of potential topics in chemistry in practically infinite, and so this is not really a long-term solution. On the other hand, this is what is beautiful about chemistry. A journal will therefore always have topics that are omitted or poorly covered if its issues are to be considered truly representative of research in the field.

Lanthanide and actinide chemistry is also poorly represented at the moment. Some of the lanthanides have found use in organic synthesis (such as cerium (CeCl3) and samarium (SmI2)) as reagents or Lewis Acids. Their organometallic chemistry remains relatively unexplored, with only a handful of people doing research in this area, such as William Evans (UC Irvine).

5) Please identify three areas or topics appropriate for a minireview or review in [chemistry journal] and make suggestions for potential authors. On what basis did you choose the three topics?

  1. CO2 capture technologies and alternative energy derived from recycling CO2. This is an incredibly important topic, as it relates to global warming, which affects everyone on this planet. Potential authors include Prof. George A. Olah (USC), Robert Zubrin, Anne Korin, and R. James Woolsey, Jr.
  2. “Asymmetric olefin difunctionalization reactions”. These reactions are epitomized by the 3 Sharpless reactions, AA (Asymmetric Aminohydroxylation), AD (Asymmetric Dihydroxylation), and AE (Asymmetric Epoxidation). However, since then, there has been very little work done on developing other types of reactions in this class. Potential authors for a minireview on this topic include K. C. Nicolaou (Rice University), Scott Denmark (UIUC), and Noah Z. Burns (Stanford).
  3. “Hypervalent Bromine chemistry”. The chemistry of bromine in higher oxidation states (such as +3 or +5) or with multiple ligands has not been explored in depth. This area was pioneered by the late Prof. J. C. Martin (UIUC), and is now continued by Prof. Masahito Ochiai (University of Tokushima). Although the practical uses of this chemistry may be limited due to the necessity of using aggressive oxidizing agents (such as BrF3), it is nonetheless a fascinating academic topic.

5) In your opinion do you feel that chemistry is well represented in leading journals such as Nature or Science? Please give some explanation about how and why you came to this conclusion?

In general, whenever I look through an issue of Nature or Science, I am usually disappointed that there are usually 0-1 chemistry articles present. This is partly due to the interdisciplinary nature of the journals; pure chemistry articles are not perceived as “sexy” when compared to other, more applied fields. But there is also a self-selection bias present. Most of the chemists I know generally have an idea of the kind of work they would like to submit to Nature and Science, and so do not frequently submit manuscripts to these journals.

6) A key feature of [chemistry journal] will be the publication of unique discussion-type formats. An example would be differing perspectives written by experts, with the opportunity for online commenting by the community. Can you provide three potential topics/questions that would be of interest to chemistry academics and also non-chemistry experts such as economists, philosophers, government, funders etc? In each case, potential author candidates should be provided.

  1. “The current state of Organic Synthesis”. Many people have written on this topic over the decades, but this is something needs to be continually addressed by the organic chemistry community at large. What is the motivation for academic research in organic chemistry? What are the challenges that lie in this field? Potential author candidates include: Prof. Dieter Seebach (ETH), Prof. George Whitesides (Harvard), Prof. D. W. C. MacMillan (Princeton), and Prof. L. E. Overman (UC Irvine).
  2. “The current state of chemical education”. This is an important topic as it affects every student graduating with a degree in chemistry. In various courses, it will be worthwhile to examine what is relevant in school curricula and what has become outmoded. For example, in most general chemistry courses, why is the syllabus structured the way it is, with an overemphasis on analytical chemistry, and a lack of emphasis on qualitative methods? Also, one can discuss the mismatch between the academic production of chemistry graduates and the number of positions available in industry and academia; this is most clearly evident when looking at the employment statistics of PhD graduates. The contributing authors can literally be anyone who works in education (or academia) or has gone through it (which is basically anyone with a degree).
  3. “The current model of chemical research”. There are a lot of people who believe that advances in chemistry (or research in general) are made in small, incremental steps, and that is one of the justifications for having such a large research industry in the United States (consisting of thousands of undergraduates, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and university faculty in hundreds of universities and institutes). However, in my opinion, most major advances in science are quantum leaps, discoveries that significantly advance their field and cannot be predicted beforehand. These breakthroughs are usually not the result of incremental research. Examples are: Kary Mullis’ discovery of PCR, the “scotch tape” synthesis of graphene, and F. Sherwood Rowland’s observation of the ozone-depleting effects of CFCs. In this light, chemistry research would be observed to be hugely inefficient, and is it worth justifying on such a large scale? Potential author candidates could include: Nassim Taleb (author of The Black Swan), ACS (American Chemical Society) executives, as well as economists working in the US government.

8) What was your opinion on the recent Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded on the 7th October 2015?

I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the topic that the prize was awarded for is tremendously important; understanding the mechanism of DNA repair allows us to better understand the aging process, as well as the proliferation, growth, and treatment of cancer. On the other hand, this topic is not really “pure” chemistry, and is more of a biology topic. One can say that it is a biochemistry topic, and that it lies in the intersection of the two fields. However, the result is that the contributions of practicing chemists to science and the welfare of humanity is overlooked each time the prize is awarded in this manner; this also affects the public perception of chemistry and chemists, and will result in the public thinking that chemists do not do anything of importance. On the other hand, this is where the future of chemistry is headed. Now that chemistry has matured, the next generation of research will be interdisciplinary.

I’m pleased to share that thanks to these answers, I was selected to the next round of interviews for this position! So hopefully that means I have written something of value of here. Readers, feel free to let me know what you think as well.

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