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Cultivating chemistry’s tomorrow

by Lauren K. Wolf , Lisa M. Jarvis
August 21, 2016 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 94, Issue 33

The following is a guest editorial by C&EN Senior Correspondent Lisa Jarvis and Assistant Managing Editor Lauren Wolf.

For the second year in a row, C&EN is calling out a dozen early-career chemists with our Talented 12 feature. These are rising stars who are beginning to establish themselves in their fields. They are forward thinkers fighting to get their ideas heard. We hope that showcasing them alerts the community to their innovative research while also inspiring other, even younger chemists to follow in their footsteps.

But last year, some readers—over social media, by e-mail, and in person—told us that our inaugural list was not an accurate reflection of the diverse chemical enterprise. To put it bluntly: Our list was too white and too male.

We agree.

One need only look at the role models chosen by this and last year’s Talented 12 to see why highlighting a diverse group matters. Women tend to include other women as their mentors or scientific heroes, and minorities tend to cite other minorities. A goal of this project is to inspire young chemists; that inspiration often comes from people who look like us and whose experiences are similar to our own.

For this year’s list, we vowed to look deeper and further for nominees. We relied on the expertise of our writers, our editorial board, and last year’s Talented 12. We assembled a panel of advisers with deep insights into specific areas of industrial and academic chemistry. And we turned to you, our readers, for suggestions through an open nomination form.

We did extensive research and weighed all of those recommendations to arrive at the list of outstanding young scientists you see today. We feel we’ve made a lot of progress in capturing scientific excellence while also reflecting the breadth and global nature of the chemical enterprise. We think each chemist on this list is amazing.

We also know we need to continue to do better. Each year we strive to bring you a collection of chemists who represent the future of chemistry. That means assembling a group that displays the interdisciplinary, collaborative, and global nature of science. These extraordinary researchers should look like the diverse population of eager students that each fall walks into a college chemistry lab for the first time—a diversity we sadly see deteriorate as chemists mount each rung of the educational and career ladder.

We were dismayed, but not surprised, to find that the responses from our nomination form did not reflect the rich tapestry of the chemical enterprise. Women represented less than 20% of the nominees captured by our open call; nearly all were nominated by other women. Even more disheartening: Not a single African American chemist was nominated through the form. None.

This problem is hardly unique to C&EN. The chemistry community has struggled with it over and over again. Earlier this year, the ACS national awards were appropriately criticized as rewarding a monolith of white, male chemists. A subsequent ACS Comment by the ACS Board Committee On Grants & Awards noted the dearth of women and minorities in the nominee pool (C&EN, Feb. 22, page 40). In all of these cases, the trend was clear: When there was the opportunity to elevate a colleague’s career, the instinct was to choose someone who is most like the elite ranks of chemistry today rather than the chemical enterprise of tomorrow.

That instinct has been shown time and again to hold back the careers of women and underrepresented minorities. It’s just one piece of a large, complex, and systemic problem that has made it difficult for our field to move the needle on diversity. Underrepresented minorities hold just 4% of chemistry professorships in leading academic institutions—a level that has not budged much for decades. Women have not fared well either.

Let us not equivocate: The responsibility of finding young chemists worthy of the Talented 12 is ours and ours alone. We raise this issue as a reminder that these gestures—be they as small as filling out a nomination form or as large as reviewing a job applicant—matter. We hope it prompts you to think more broadly the next time you are given the chance to help shape someone’s career.

As you read about the dozen young chemical scientists featured in this issue, we hope you are as inspired as we are. They are paving a path to a better world, powered by chemistry. 

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


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