As I write this, we are wrapping up the American Chemical Society Spring 2019 National Meeting (see page 3). The theme this year is “Chemistry for New Frontiers” in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Indeed, there were many sessions that pushed the boundaries in areas of the chemical enterprise as varied as food, environmental, computational, and medicinal chemistry.
There were plenty of activities on space chemistry too. The most high profile was a 2-day symposium titled “Chemistry for Humanity’s Next Giant Leap” organized by the Chemical Marketing and Economics Group of the ACS New York Section.
I had the opportunity to participate in that symposium and do a live Q&A with James Green, NASA’s chief scientist, who delivered a keynote entitled “Chemistry for the Age of Space Exploration.” During his talk he explained that NASA has been challenged to deploy “boots on the surface of the moon in the next 5 years” and spoke about how the chemical sciences will be crucial to realizing that ambition.
He explained that analytical, nuclear and isotope, physical and theoretical, and organic chemistry will play an increasing role in future space discoveries in, for example, understanding the role that gravity plays in basic chemical processes, elucidating how materials will need to be optimized for use in space, or unraveling how air and water recycling systems may be improved. He also referred to this decade as the “decade of sample return” and commented on how robotic systems on lunar, martian, and asteroid missions will need to perform real-time in situ chemical analysis of samples to determine which are scientifically interesting for return to Earth for cosmochemical lab analysis.
Green’s keynote was followed by lectures by Nobel laureates Eric Betzig and Frances Arnold. Betzig talked about his most recent work in the field of superresolution fluorescence microscopy and shared incredible images of the brain of a fly and the spinal chord of zebrafish. Perhaps of interest for those considering a career in this area, Betzig made a plea for more data scientists in the chemistry field, which is something that I heard several times during the symposium and also at other presentations during the meeting. He explained that teams from other parts of the world travel to use the instrumentation in his lab and leave with huge amounts of data only to be frustrated later because they don’t know how to handle so much information. Arnold delighted the audience with a masterful and elegant presentation about the latest on protein evolution and by patiently posing for photographs with the scores of students that were waiting for her offstage. The 2-day symposium concluded with a guided visit—NASA’s Green did the honors—to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral.
One of the most moving moments of the meeting was Barry Sharpless’s delivery of his Priestley Medal address. It was clear from the second I met him that he is a one-of-a-kind person. During his address he briefly mentioned how mental and mood disorders had not hindered but helped his career, which is a fascinating and inspirational admission. He describes himself as a nonlinear thinker and is charmingly shy but, despite this, agreed to participate in a live Q&A before the awards dinner to give those who could not attend his address an opportunity to listen to him, ask questions, and have a copy of C&EN autographed. The Q&A is a great watch, but what you will not see is that the queue for the magazine signing was so long it took Sharpless an hour and a half to get through. It’s not so often that one gets to meet one of the living legends in the world of chemistry, and he drew a huge crowd.
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