“What are you working on?” It’s a question every chemist has addressed, typically in the corridor or at a conference. With the advent of smartphones and the social network Twitter, a growing band of chemists is addressing it in a different way—publicly, online, and in real time.
The phenomenon is called #RealTimeChem, after the label, or hashtag, that participants use. To join in, chemists need only sign up for Twitter, then use the service to share or “tweet” what they’re up to—whether meeting a client or setting up a distillation. Researchers on every continent except Antarctica have taken part.
“This is a low-cost, low-barrier way to network,” says Adam Azman, a chemistry lecturer at Butler University. For a chemist who can’t travel or is learning how to build professional relationships, #RealTimeChem is a virtual watercooler. Mixed in with a typical day’s real-time tweets are messages about journal articles or reaction troubleshooting. And of course, oohing and aahing over pretty pictures of crystals or lasers, a smattering of which are shown here. Azman, who tweets under the name @azmanam, inspired the movement. His live-tweeted attempts to determine the proprietary composition of a cleanser attracted advice from chemists in multiple countries.
Many chemists tweet about what they do, says Jason Woolford (@doctor_galactic), who launched the community by holding an official “#RealTimeChem Day” on Marie Curie’s birthday, last Nov. 7. The label is an umbrella to bring those individuals or small communities together, he says.
“It has really taken off, more than I thought it would,” says University of Leeds postdoc Jessica Breen (@JessTheChemist), who coined the #RealTimeChem name. Daily tweets don’t match the all-time high from Nov. 7, but conversation levels among a smaller group have stayed consistent since then. Woolford, who just joined the Royal Society of Chemistry as a publishing editor, is planning a #RealTimeChem week for April.
Real-time tweeting isn’t for everyone. “I was slightly concerned with intellectual property issues,” wrote Marvinthefish, a chemist based in Cambridge, England, on his blog. He ended up participating but tweeted only “fairly generic” images. Some workplaces, including his, block Twitter for productivity reasons.
But chemists who can participate relish the camaraderie they find online. One group’s #RealTimeChem chatter has led to an independent project, a website called Blog Syn. The project aims to complement established journals and websites that verify published synthetic procedures. Blog Syn team member Matthew Katcher (@katmatcher), a Princeton University chemistry graduate student, says he’s glad he’s taking part in #RealTimeChem. “It makes you feel like part of a community.”