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Chemistry in a virtual and digitized world

by H. N. Cheng, ACS president
November 7, 2021 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 99, Issue 41


A photo of H. N. Cheng.
Credit: Courtesy of H. N. Cheng

Since March 2020, we have all been trying to cope with the pandemic as best as we can by staying healthy, following the safety guidelines, and getting our work done. Being on a Zoom call from home now appears to be the accepted mode of communication. In-person communication is still preferred in many cases, but the prevalence and popularity of virtual connection poses new possibilities for the future.

At the same time, there is a growing trend of digitization in chemistry. Simply stated, digitization involves converting nondigital to digital signals and deriving useful information via appropriate computational and analytical techniques. In recent years, many data science methods, coupled with greater computational capabilities and automation hardware, have permitted rapid collection, processing, and analysis of chemical data. Other methodologies have also been developed to produce improved data interpretations and correlations, generate new models and predictions, and discover new catalysts and materials.

As we look ahead, various virtual and digitized approaches have the potential of revolutionizing the way chemists communicate, collaborate, open up new research areas, and optimize cost and efficiency. These approaches can create new growth opportunities for the chemistry enterprise of the future. Some examples of these developments are described below.

Connections and networking. A key part of today’s professional and social engagement is to exchange scientific information, obtain professional advice, explore new business relationships, and develop collaborative projects. Whereas personal contact is still desirable, virtual technologies (such as email, chat, social media, and videoconferencing apps) have become versatile and practical alternatives. Moreover, collaborative cloud-based software tools can facilitate storing and sharing contact information and provide a repository to keep notes and track interactions for new contacts.

The chemistry enterprise is in the midst of this transformation.

Meetings. In the past 20 months, many meetings have become either virtual or hybrid. The benefit of virtual meetings is that they can easily reach people regardless of location without travel, hotels, or international visas, thereby saving time, money, and paperwork. As we know, American Chemical Society meetings went virtual in August 2020 and April 2021 and hybrid in August 2021. The widespread use of virtual and hybrid meetings has greatly facilitated new ways of building teams without geographic restriction.

Education. The pandemic has forced many schools to shift from in-person to online remote learning. Thus, class instruction is now often based on digital platforms and digital communication. The teaching of chemistry requires special efforts with respect to chemical demonstrations and experiments. Many teachers have devised clever and creative experiments that students can do at home. Computational chemistry and animation can also be helpful tools. Of course, digital education is not confined to schools. For quite a while, massive open online courses (MOOCs) have provided an affordable and flexible way of learning new skills, advancing careers, and delivering a quality educational experience. Additionally, many virtual and hybrid scientific conferences provide convenient opportunities for furthering education within a current or new field.

Business. Most chemical companies’ business practices are information based, involving manufacturing, finance, marketing, sales, and R&D data. With greater digitization, key performance indicators can be calculated more accurately and efficiently to facilitate business decisions. Data science can also be used to reveal more insight, for example, to improve forecasting or uncover inefficiencies in production or operations. The techniques can also be applied to marketing and “the voice of the customer” that help anticipate future customer needs. Taken together, data digitization and data science can significantly impact business performance and planning.

Research and development. As chemical instrumentation and automated measurements become more sophisticated, increasingly large amounts of digitized data are being generated. Various artificial intelligence (AI) and data science techniques are needed to maximize the information content that can be gleaned. In this way, the labor needed for analysis can be reduced, the scope of studies enhanced, and the accessible chemical space broadened. Advanced analytics and machine learning can also be used to simulate experiments, optimize commercial formulations for performance and cost, and mine data for general trends or specific information.

According to CAS, a division of ACS, between 2015 and 2020, the number of AI-related publications and patents increased sixfold. The areas showing the greatest increase are analytical chemistry, biochemistry, industrial chemistry, and chemical engineering, whereas the areas with opportunities for AI adoption include natural products and organic chemistry.

A 2021 special issue of Accounts of Chemical Research, “Data Science Meets Chemistry,” reviewed several different applications that amply demonstrated the utility of data science in solving problems.

The world is becoming increasingly virtual and digitized, and the chemistry enterprise is in the midst of this transformation. Let’s take advantage of this trend and make the most out of it. If you have thoughts on this topic, please write to

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



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