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First Chemistry Champion Crowned

Graduate student Jennifer Novotney is science communication contest’s inaugural winner

by Rachel Sheremeta Pepling
October 20, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 42

Credit: Noel Waghorn
The five finalists await the voting results. From left: Nguyen, Shusterman, Dubrow, Robison, and Novotney.
From left: Tien Nguyen, Alexis Shusterman, Geoff Dubrow, Ashlee Robison, and Jennifer Novotney compete in the ACS Chemistry Champions contest.
Credit: Noel Waghorn
The five finalists await the voting results. From left: Nguyen, Shusterman, Dubrow, Robison, and Novotney.

It all started in March with a Twitter challenge for chemists to describe their research in no more than six words. That challenge kicked off the American Chemical Society’s pilot Chemistry Champions contest, developed by the ACS Office of Public Affairs to help train promising science communicators.

As part of the program this past summer, ACS invited undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and pretenure faculty to create a YouTube video explaining their research in two to three minutes to a nonscientific audience (C&EN, May 19, page 35). Ten semifinalists competed for one of five slots in the finals held at the ACS national meeting in San Francisco in August.

The finals took place on Aug. 10 before a live audience at the Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum and were also broadcast live via video stream. The contestants spoke about topics as diverse as whiskey flavor chemistry, organic synthesis, and saving bees. Lydia Franco-Hodges of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science, “This Week in Science” host Kiki Sanford, and author Sam Kean judged each of the three-minute talks. The audience cast more than 400 votes by text and Twitter for the best communicator.

Jennifer Novotney, a graduate student in chemistry at Cornell University, emerged as the inaugural champion with her talk on explosives-detecting polymers. “I think I’m shaking more than when I got off stage the first time,” she said when she was named champion. Novotney won against Geoff Dubrow, Tien Nguyen, Ashlee Robison, and Alexis Shusterman.

Shusterman, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and daughter of two chemists, was voted runner-up for her talk on making inexpensive monitors to more accurately measure CO2 emissions. Dubrow is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota Flavor Research & Education Center; Nguyen is a science writer at Princeton University; and Robison is an undergraduate chemistry major at Fort Lewis College, in Colorado.

Each finalist received a signed copy of Kean’s book “The Disappearing Spoon” and will appear on Sanford’s “This Week in Science” radio show. Shusterman and Novotney will each host an ACS webinar. And as part of her grand prize, Novotney visited ACS headquarters last month to meet with staff members, attend a congressional briefing, and record an ACS “Reactions” video. She’ll also be a featured speaker at an upcoming Science & Entertainment Exchange event, a National Academy of Sciences program that connects entertainment industry professionals and scientists.

After she completes her Ph.D. next spring, Novotney intends to continue her passion of science communication and hopes to work at a science museum.

The entire ChemChamps 2014 finals can be viewed online at



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