Friday, January 20, 2012

Reflections on Shakhashiri's Address to Graduate Students

It is not sufficient that we be skilled in doing scientific research. We must always exercise good judgment. As scientist–citizens we have an obligation to use our skills and our knowledge for the benefit of all.”Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, ACS President 2012, ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Bulletin, January 2012

I often wonder why there are so many television shows about doctors and only a handful about chemists. Also, when television shows have chemists, they are generally creating illegal drugs (Breaking Bad), WMDs (24) or trying to solve a murder (CSI) – there is certainly nothing wrong with the latter but it seems rather marginalizing when you consider all the things chemists actually do. Among other things, the world obviously depends on chemists to fight disease and save lives.

The Power of Chemistry
Nine year old - Kaylie McFerrin demonstrated her understanding of the power of a good chemist with her finalist entry in a national Google doodle contest. In response to the question “If I could do anything, I would...” she answered that she would be a chemist curing kidney cancer (the disease her sister had fought). Yes, chemists have the capability to do incredible and powerful things and to make the world a safer and healthier place.

The ‘Good’ Chemist
However, these days it is not enough to say that if you are a ‘good’ chemist you are benefiting society. Someone could be particularly efficient at synthesizing crystal meth to sell on the streets. Someone else could develop a method to produce a nerve agent that they provide to a terrorist group. Or, much less dramatically, someone could operate their laboratory in a manner that is environmentally irresponsible. It is certainly clear that there are roles for chemists that are either unhelpful or downright harmful to others. Science fiction author (and biochemist by training) Isaac Asimov wrote that “the saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” You don’t have to be a Faust or a Frankenstein to know that the pursuit of knowledge is not synonymous with the pursuit of the good. While you may find these to be an extreme examples of good chemists not necessarily benefiting society, I wager that chemists’ using their ‘ability and skill to benefit all’ (as Shakhashiri urged) challenges us to go beyond doing good chemistry in the lab, in the classroom or whatever the scope of our current jobs.

Going Beyond
Finding examples of chemists that exemplify what it means to go beyond is pretty easy. These examples range from something as simple as volunteering to tutor students in science at a local school to founding the Lilly Endowment (one of the world’s largest philanthropic endowments). Adam Braunschweig and Mark Olson, Professors at NYU and Texas A&M, respectively, teamed up to create a network of volunteers to help understand and deal with the aftermath of the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Bego Gerber and Steve Chambreau founded Chemists Without Borders, an organization that works to bring clean water, medicine, energy and education to economically underdeveloped areas of the world. These are just a couple examples of chemists who are helping to change the world for the better (see the ChemLuminary awardees for more examples), effectively personifying Shakhashiri’s charge and making me wonder, how can I plan to contribute?

Maybe someday there will be more television shows demonstrating all the powerful, world changing and responsible things that chemists can and do accomplish. Maybe even there will be reality television show competitions like Top Chef and Project Runway where chemists compete to design the best drug synthesis or purification…‘you have 50 minutes to isolate this [2+2] fullerene…go!’ But even without the media glorification, the truth is undeniable, chemists are powerful. And as Uncle Ben once said “with great power comes great responsibility”.

These views do not necessarily reflect that of ACS or the ACS Graduate & Postdoctoral Scholars Bulletin.