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Comment: We are family!

by Preston MacDougall, chair, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications
February 24, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 7


An image of Preston MacDougall and Helen Free.
Credit: Courtesy of Preston MacDougall
Preston MacDougall and Helen Free at the 2014 ChemLuminary Awards celebration in San Francisco

To a chemist, the proverb “Blood is thicker than water” implies that the intermolecular forces in blood are stronger than those among water molecules. Water is notorious in nature for having strong intermolecular forces despite having a low molecular mass. The proverb, of course, does not refer to chemical bonds but bonds of humanity.

There are other bonds that involve chemists but aren’t about DNA. For instance, chemists share the bond of loving the field of chemistry. We can even measure our degrees of separation using tools of scientific genealogy. Check out the website, and you may be surprised to find out who is part of your chemical kin. Chemists are like a family.

Like any family, we may not be proud of every member of the extended family, but we are all proud of the family name. We like to support one another and to educate those who are skeptical of all things chemical. A common bond among chemists is to turn skepticism of chemistry into interest in chemistry, and many in the family do that by engaging in public outreach.

Chemists share the bond of loving the field of chemistry.

Since 1995, the American Chemical Society Committee on Public Relations and Communications has annually awarded someone for their outstanding public outreach in chemistry. The Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach is named after its first recipient, Helen Free, who was a successful innovator in chemical diagnostics and in 1993 became the third woman to be elected president of ACS.

Subsequent winners of the award include illustrious ambassadors of chemistry, such as Bassam Shakhashiri, Diane Bunce, and Al Hazari. A complete list of past winners is available at To nominate yourself or another incredible ACS (family) member with a wonderful and effective track record of public outreach in chemistry, visit

If you’re going to be at this year’s family reunion—by that I mean ACS Spring 2023, in Indianapolis—please come to the “Memories of Helen Free: Innovator, Leader, Humanitarian” symposium, sponsored by the ACS Division of the History of Chemistry. Among the speakers will be two former ACS presidents, Ned Heindel and Elizabeth Nalley. Others will speak about the inspiration that Free provided for their own signature style of sharing their love of chemistry with the public. The event will take place on Sunday, March 26, at 2:00 p.m. (EDT). I hope to see you there.

If you come to the Helen Free memorial symposium, I guarantee you will meet chemists with whom you share a strong bond of engaging the public in chemistry. Maybe you’ll meet family members with whom you share a common academic ancestor on your chemistry tree. It might be me! (My great-great-great-doctor father was Harvard University chemist and president James Bryant Conant.) You will hear about innovative ways to engage all types of audiences in hands-on chemistry activities. If you enjoy social media, you’ll see for yourself why the 2022 Helen Free award recipient, Kimberly Hilton, has over 1 million followers on TikTok. You can find her at @chemicalkim.

If you’re of my age, the phrase “We are family” immediately brings up memories of the 1979 disco hit by Sister Sledge, the four singing sisters from Philadelphia. It might also remind you of the uproariously funny movie The Birdcage, in which an initially strongly “antibonding” pairing of families overcomes prejudice and skepticism to form a beautiful extended family when they realize that what they love the most is the same two people who love each other.

Unlike in The Birdcage, the Helen Free symposium is unlikely to end with drag queens leading a conga line. But if that does happen, I’ll join it and proudly sing “We are family!” I hope to see you in Indianapolis.

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


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