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Chemists Who Rock

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
April 13, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 15

I had the pleasure of attending my first “Rock Stars of Chemistry” event at the ACS national meeting in Denver. The ACS Division of Membership & Scientific Advancement hosts these occasions—and this was only the second—to facilitate networking between first-year members at the meeting and the most eminent members of the society and, one could argue, of the chemical sciences community. All ACS members who joined in the previous year are invited to attend this event, and the list of rock stars invited reflects the crème de la crème of our profession, including past and present Priestley Medalists, ACS presidents, Heroes of Chemistry (industrial scientists who have been so deemed by ACS), ACS journal editors, and foreign dignitaries. The objective of the event is for the rock stars to share their experiences with these new members and for the new members to have an opportunity to network, ask questions, and hopefully be inspired by the accomplishments the rock stars have achieved in their field and prestige they’ve garnered.

It was great to see a number of Nobel Prize winners mingling in the crowd. I was very impressed by how knowledgeable and confident many of the new members were. Most of those I spoke with had not yet finished their studies but had a very clear idea of where they wanted to go and what they were hoping to do. Interestingly, most had made their decision in terms of whether they were going to pursue a career in academia or industry. I wonder, if they wrote these aspirations or plans on a piece of paper and we met again in 10 years’ time, what percentage would have adhered to their initial choice?

While searching the Web for information about the Denver event, I stumbled upon a “top 10” rock stars of chemistry, which drew from from 1700 until 2011. The list was part of a presentation given during the opening ceremony of the International Year of Chemistry (2011) by the president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation. Now, this is a different “league” of rock stars, the Premier league, the David Bowies or Bob Dylans or Aretha Franklins of the chemical sciences. Before you read it, I should explain that the order does not reflect preference or accomplishments; it is simply a matter of ladies first followed by the gentlemen ordered by date of birth. Let’s see what you think:

1. Marie Curie (1867–1934)
2. Antoine Lavoisier (1743–94)
3. Joseph Priestley (1733–1804)
4. John Dalton (1766–1844)
5. Justus Liebig (1803–1873)
6. Friedrich Wöhler (1800–82)
7. Dmitri Mendeleev (1834–1907)
8. Emil Fischer (1852–1919)
9. Robert B. Woodward (1917–79)
10. Linus Pauling (1901–94)

In my view it is at least missing Frederick Sanger, who, like Curie and Pauling, is one of the very few to ever receive two Nobels. But my main criticism would be that, unlike Bowie, Dylan, or Franklin, who are still very much with us, there are no living chemists in the list.

So here’s a question for you: Who’s your living rock star of chemistry? And what makes a chemist a “rock star”?

For me, besides the quality of individuals’ scientific records and the impact of their published work (arguably both measurable), when looking for that rock-star quality, we need to consider two very subjective qualities: passion and charisma. When I think about the people who have motivated or inspired me, it’s been individuals with enormous presence and who are amazingly passionate about their work, living and breathing science.

So who will it be? Will it be h-index topper George Whitesides, nanotech king Chad Mirkin, sultan of synthesis Phil Baran, molecular machinist Ben Feringa? Will it be Priestley Medalist Jacqueline Barton, MacArthur “genius” awardee Carolyn Bertozzi, materials queen Tina Chowdhury?

Who tops your list of rock stars, and why? Tell us on Facebook ( or on Twitter with the hashtag #chemrockstar, or send us an e-mail or letter ( or see top of masthead).

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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