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Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative

by Amy M. Balija, Chair, ACS Committee on Women Chemists
March 12, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 9


Amy M. Balija.
Credit: Garret Buckley

As I begin my third and final year as chair of the American Chemical Society Women Chemists Committee (WCC), I want to share some thoughts about navigating the past and future. The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges and opportunities during my term. Vaccines and variants became part of our everyday vocabulary. The term zooming morphed to refer to virtual meetings instead of describing traffic on the highway. For many, working from home and hybrid work became the new reality. Masked people entered stores, not as thieves, but to search for mostly unavailable products. The usual sources of solace became muddled by uncertainty.

Wanting to leave you with an uplifting message, I pondered the words of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer in their hit jazz tune “Accentuate the Positive.” Released after World War II and sung by generations of entertainers, the song has lyrics that provide encouragement:
You’ve got to accentuate the positive.
Eliminate the negative.
Latch on to the affirmative.

You’ve got to accentuate the positive. During events to celebrate the WCC’s 95th anniversary in 2022, enthusiastic and creative ACS members worked to promote women’s confidence. Throughout its history, WCC members have focused on coming together to empower women in chemistry. WCC’s strength is not found in documents archived under glass, handed over to unyielding government representatives, or masked by false claims and disinformation. The committee’s strength is action.

Through advocacy and engagement, the WCC addresses issues such as the need to increase the diversity of ACS’s membership and programs. Working with members from across ACS in 2022, we successfully created a new strategic plan for the committee. Refocusing our efforts to become more inclusive allowed me, as chair, to promote a broader, more diverse committee membership.

Eliminate the negative. Part of my vision for WCC included promoting women ACS members by supporting grassroots efforts. I encouraged local sections to think bigger and not just do the same thing as before. The reason the WCC came into existence was to challenge the status quo. Demanding equal rights and access, previous WCC members boldly rejected arbitrary limitations that hindered women’s ability to dream, wonder, and accomplish. New recognitions such as the Merck Research Award, the Rising Star Award, and the Eli Lilly Travel Award were developed to elevate women. WCC initiated conversations on taboo topics such as harassment in the workplace and at scientific meetings. Programming and social events were developed to empower women of all backgrounds.

Each WCC member has a unique and interesting story. Listen to each other. Be astounded by what you can accomplish despite limited resources. For example, I had the opportunity to attend the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Puerto Rico and speak with students, faculty, and ACS members. Despite living through hurricanes and economic hardships, the Puerto Rico Local Section has risen like a phoenix from the ashes to create a successful program to support and enable women chemists.

Programs sponsored by the WCC and ACS during my tenure as WCC chair focused on issues pertinent to women chemists, such as self care. Other issues, such as the availability of caregivers during meetings, must still be addressed.

Being comfortable is a trap of negativity. “We’ve always done it this way” must yield to “look what we can do and be.”

Latch on to the affirmative. WCC works to affirm women chemists and that requires action. Being comfortable is a trap of negativity. “We’ve always done it this way” must yield to “look what we can do and be.” During my time as WCC chair, instead of accepting how it had always been, we tried to become better through intentional programming, connecting with local and regional WCC sections, and collaborating with other ACS committees.

Pandemic necessities such as online meetings, remote-working technology, and COVID-19 safety protocols became opportunities to listen and forge new, inclusive realities. I was encouraged by the efforts of ACS staff (especially Semora Smith), membership, and leadership to try adventurous things. Pre-2020, who would have thought that an ACS meeting would be held virtually? Talk about risk taking! Achieving this required re-engineering the entire meeting, listening to a variety of perspectives, and considering how to become more inclusive. Participation also meant thinking outside the box. The successful virtual meetings were an example of how affirmative actions can result in positive outcomes.

The truth is life is tough: always has been, always will be. WCC is following the words Arlen and Mercer suggested: accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. But, what can you, as an ACS member, do? In their song, Arlen and Mercer provided a suggestion: You got to spread joy up to the maximum; Bring gloom down to the minimum; Otherwise pandemonium; Liable to walk upon the scene.

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


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