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ACS President On Facebook, Networks With Younger Chemists

by Corinne Marasco
February 16, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 7

IN HIS PRESIDENT'S MESSAGE last month, ACS President Thomas H. Lane issued a call for members to create new relationships to help put a public face on chemistry (C&EN, Jan. 5, page 2). He said, "It's our science, and it's our collective responsibility to nurture and promote its centrality."

Lane has been conducting his own experiment to nurture and promote chemistry. For the past year, he has been using Facebook, an online social networking tool, to engage other chemists, particularly younger chemists, by inviting them to link to his page and then tell him what they need from ACS. He uses the status update feature to ask questions, such as "What do you think the world's largest scientific society can do for K???12 STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics] education?"

Lane marvels at people's willingness to exchange information even though they don't know him well. "There is value in the ACS brand. Part of its value and credibility is the trust, the relationship that really means something to our members," he says.

He first ventured onto Facebook about 18 months ago. Lane's daughter is a biology teacher on Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic, and he has two sons, one who is currently a Ph.D. student in economics at Duke University, the other a junior in high school. He learned that they were communicating among themselves through Facebook, so he set up his own page. As he became more familiar with Facebook and saw how his children used it, he began to wonder how it could be used to benefit ACS.

"We are a complicated organization," Lane points out. "We have five or six generations of members—Generations X, Y, Z, traditionalists, baby boomers—and I'm all about the students. I want to make sure that we leave the society in a condition that the next generation will pick it up and keep it moving forward. So that means really learning more about how to communicate."

About a year ago, Lane's Facebook page had connections to some 30 "friends." At an ACS leadership conference last year, he was talking with a group of students and invited them to link to his page to keep the conversation going. Those students who did link to him are still in touch. Lane says that at various times he's a father figure, a mentor, or a friend, but no matter what people need, they're not afraid to ask. As of Feb. 5, his page was linked to 1,199 friends.

Students from around the world have contacted him using Facebook's instant-messaging feature, asking everything from which classes they should take to questions about their English-language skills and whether they're good enough to compete in U.S. graduate programs. "They want to learn and are ready to listen," Lane says, adding that someone invariably finds him every time he's online, which can lead to some pretty late nights.

Lane further learned the power of the network after he placed a small ad on Facebook that asked people over 18 who were interested in a career in chemistry to "click here." Over a three-day period, the ad was seen by 43,000 people, and 11 clicked on the link to go to the ACS Careers website. "Imagine if we had run that ad with an ACS logo how many would have clicked in?" Lane wonders.

In the meantime, Lane sees further potential in using Facebook. "You really have to experience Facebook, such as having an impromptu discussion with some kid in India about why I would study chemistry, to understand its reach," he says. "I think using it as a facilitated mentoring tool would be tremendously helpful."

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