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ACS Comment: We are in the transformational age of chemistry

by Angela K. Wilson, president, ACS
July 14, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 25


Angela K. Wilson
Credit: Harley J. Seely
Angela K. Wilson

The evolution of the chemical sciences, and more broadly, science and technology, has been marked by ages: the Stone Age, the Iron Age, the Bronze Age, and there have been many references to different Gold or Golden Ages occurring at different points between the 8th century and today. The chemical sciences have evolved substantially over the ages and recent advances promise to accelerate discovery and innovation rapidly. Industry advances equip us better to take on global challenges such as the United Nations sustainable development goals and address fundamental questions in the chemical sciences, leading to new, even unimagined discoveries and products. We have entered a transformational age for chemistry.

When I look at the exciting possibilities ahead, I am concerned about how we will gain the chemical workforce needed for the future. All of us will need to engage to ensure the chemical sciences have the talent and skills they need to succeed in this new age.

Today’s students are increasingly choosing other fields that they may perceive to be more lucrative, transparent, and impactful career pathways. And, while the majority of students who earn degrees in the chemical sciences pursue careers outside of academia, a remarkably large percentage of students have never encountered a chemical scientist from our largest employment sectors—industry and government—until far into their education and often not until their first job interview.

What is needed? Broadly, we need to acknowledge that many of today’s students want to make a difference in the world. How often do we, chemistry professionals, convey the reach and impact of our work—such as developing new products and innovations, improving health and the environment, and contributing substantially to the global economy? The chemical enterprise touches everything, and the opportunity to make a difference in the world is enormous.

All of us will need to engage to build and ensure that we have the chemical workforce of the future.

Greater engagement with chemical scientists from outside academia is important to introduce career pathways to students. Coursework should not only include foundational aspects in our field but also reflect new discoveries and innovations and link to industry as well. Internships at the undergraduate and graduate levels are important.

Industry and government sectors are vital to building the future workforce. Your presence and engagement with students and younger chemical scientists is vital to attracting our future workforce and providing them with insight about career pathways. If more students were exposed to your career fields, more chemical scientists would surely emerge.

The American Chemical Society provides the important bridge to build our future workforce. Throughout my career, engaging in local sections has opened up doors to job opportunities, previously unimagined research collaborations, and intriguing research questions from across the chemical sectors for both me and my students. I attended seminars with industry leaders and led an internship program that took students to visit chemical companies. Program participants said that the interaction with chemists from industry was a highlight of their summer, and more than 95% of participants over the 14-year span of the program noted that this was their first visit to a company and first interaction with a chemical scientist outside of academia.

ACS divisions provide connectivity as well, and I have been able to form many collaborations over the years thanks to connections provided through divisions. I have also benefited in my day job from insight gained from divisions (such as the Division of Small Chemical Businesses) typically outside of my wheelhouse. Through ACS Get Experience, students can learn, and organizations can provide internship opportunities. Currently only undergraduate student options are offered, but graduate student opportunities will soon be provided.

The challenge? During a recent university visit, I asked the audience if there were ACS members. Of the approximately 150 students in attendance, there were two members. This was surprising to me, as nearly every career opportunity I have had is linked to my ACS network and, now, students can join for no cost. I also learned that some companies do not encourage ACS involvement and many of their colleagues do not join as they do not see the value.

The value of being an ACS member is immense—being a part of ACS is investing in the future of the chemical sciences. You could offer motivating and inspiring jobs through undergraduate and graduate student internships; have key conversations that inspire and motivate students, enabling them to see new career paths; or perhaps provide life-changing career discussions. Your impact can be local, national, and global. Indeed, there is a great need for us to work across the chemical enterprise and across sectors to build our future chemistry workforce. Being a part of the bridge is essential.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.



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