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Town Hall Meeting Predicts Chemistry's Future

by Amanda T. Yarnell
March 8, 2010 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 88, ISSUE 10

Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
Francisco (third from left) addresses an audience question as panelists Adams (from left); Austin; and Jordan Swift, coordinator of Northeastern University’s chemistry co-op program, look on.
Credit: Amanda Yarnell/C&EN
Francisco (third from left) addresses an audience question as panelists Adams (from left); Austin; and Jordan Swift, coordinator of Northeastern University’s chemistry co-op program, look on.

Members of the Northeastern Section of the American Chemical Society gathered late last month to discuss the role that chemistry will play in the U.S. economy in coming years. Hosted and sponsored by Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, in Cambridge, Mass., the event drew more than 100 chemical scientists, consultants, and entrepreneurs from around the region, as well as ACS President Joseph S. Francisco.

In his opening remarks, Francisco echoed the concerns of many in the audience by charting the disheartening trends in chemical employment and salary data of the past few years. In particular, although unemployment among ACS members—just under 4% in 2009, according to ACS employment surveys—remains substantially less than the U.S. average, it has been on the rise, Francisco noted.

“We’re going through the most challenging time, at least in the pharmaceutical sector, that I’ve seen,” said Scott Biller, vice president of global discovery chemistry at Novartis. The ongoing economic tumult requires that chemists of all ages think carefully about planning future career steps, noted John McKew, the section’s chair. The town hall meeting was organized to give such scientists an idea of where chemical opportunities are likely to be found in the years ahead, Biller noted.

Despite the challenges currently facing the pharmaceutical sector, panel member Julian Adams told attendees that he still sees rich opportunities for chemists in the future of medicine. Adams, president of research and development and chief scientific officer at Cambridge-based Infinity Pharmaceuticals, pointed specifically to natural-product-inspired drugs, biologics, and nanotechnology-based drug formulation technologies as future areas of growth. Another panel member, serial entrepreneur Robert S. Langer, described the commercialization of several such nanotech drug delivery designs invented in his Massachusetts Institute of Technology lab. And Christopher P. Austin, director of the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center, predicted that there will be a larger role for chemists to play as NIH continues to push its biomedical discoveries from bench to bedside.

Beyond medicine, chemists are sure to play key roles as the U.S. and other countries attempt to deal with climate change and hunt for new, renewable sources of energy, commented attendee Jeffrey I. Steinfeld, an emeritus professor of chemistry at MIT.

The town hall meeting fulfilled its mission in educating Northeastern Section members about where chemistry is headed in the future, said Leland Johnson, business development manager at CreaGen Biosciences and organizer of the event. Chemists who know that “ ‘change’ is coming will be better prepared” to manage their careers, he added.

The evening made it clear that “being creative and being able to connect the dots across multiple fields, related and even not so related, better prepare you to solve tomorrow’s problems,” McKew concluded. “This is a message that resonates for newcomers to the market and even more so for older folks looking to reposition themselves or start a new chapter in their career.”



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