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OneChemistry in the Marketplace of Ideas

by Rigoberto Hernandez, District IV Director
April 24, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 17

Credit: Peter Cutts Photography
A photo of Rigoberto Hernandez.
Credit: Peter Cutts Photography

Disciplinary science and subdisciplinary chemistry are alive and well. Yet most of the grand challenges confronting us—in energy, the environment, and human health—are best tackled by a broad set of tools and skills.

This drive toward multidisciplinary science is visible in the increasing number of research centers, such as the National Science Foundation’s Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, of which I am a member.

In opposition to the use of chemistry to divisively silo research projects, I propose that we now need the retronym, OneChemistry, to make it clear that we are intentionally inclusive of the broad nature of our science. In this spirit, the chemistry department at Johns Hopkins University hosted the inaugural OneChemistry Symposium on March 28.

Through this annual series, we hope to engage the chemistry community in thinking broadly about fundamental scientific challenges in which chemistry can play a significant role. These challenges will invariably span well beyond chemistry, presenting us the opportunity to include scientists from other disciplines as well.

The OneChemistry Symposium is deliberately constructed to create dialogue between leaders in disparate fields who would not otherwise have interacted within their disciplinary silos.

The OneChemistry Symposium is deliberately constructed to create dialogue between leaders in disparate fields who would not otherwise have interacted outside their disciplinary silos. At least half of the speakers hold appointments outside Johns Hopkins. More important, our speakers are spread across the subdisciplines of chemistry and beyond. The common thread is the grand challenge whose solution lies well beyond attack from a narrow approach.

The one-day symposium, including talks and a panel discussion on future directions, is open to the public. It leads to a closed session the next morning to discuss possible collaborations and specific research approaches to advance the field through a partnership between chemists and other subject matter experts. In this way, we hope to deliberately launch new OneChemistry collaborations.

The subject of the first OneChemistry Symposium was “Chemistry’s Role in the BRAIN Initiative.” The brain is at once a complex and emergent macroscale living structure and a large assembly of molecules. It is strongly affected by chemical stimuli. So chemistry has to play a role, but many kinds of chemistry are needed to make, measure, and model the molecular scale of the brain. Therein lies the need for OneChemistry approaches to work with other disciplines.

The presentations spanned a dizzying range of tools and approaches, and yet common challenges emerged. A spatial taxonomy that is somehow sensitive to the molecular scale would be useful but not sufficient because the brain is a living, time-dependent structure.

Nondestructive tools that are sensitive to the molecular scale are needed for full characterization, and theoretical and computational models are needed to connect the disparate scales from one molecule to one neuron to the assembly of the many billions of neurons that compose our brains.

Speakers included Anne Andrews of the University of California, Los Angeles; Ed Boyden of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Patricia Janak, Tom Kempa, and Michael Miller of Johns Hopkins University; and Tom O’Halloran of Northwestern University.

Indeed, by the end of the OneChemistry Symposium, the question was not what role chemistry could play in the BRAIN Initiative, but rather, what is the central role that we can play in concert with our colleagues in neuroscience, engineering, and medicine.

Important as it would be to fully understand the brain, there are many other grand challenges facing us. Next year’s theme is “Designing Environmentally Sustainable Nanoparticles.” This is perhaps not a surprising choice given my interest in nanotechnology, but the challenge of designing devices with nanoparticles that are benign by design is one that requires a OneChemistry perspective nevertheless. To address it, we need nanoscale fabrication and characterization, materials science of the assemblies, biomolecular and analytic characterization in vitro, environmental toxicology, theoretical and computational chemistry and design, and so much more.

In future years, we will explore unrelated grand challenges that I am equally excited to learn about. Indeed, I do not go to the symphony to be exposed to a new piece of music that I intend to play. I couldn’t do so even if I wanted to, as I don’t know how to play an instrument. But I do enjoy listening to it, and it stimulates me to think about using the tools I know to make related art within science.

In the same way, I hope you will attend future OneChemistry symposia, or others like it, to broaden your thoughts about what chemistry is and what chemistry does.

Finally, this novel way of stimulating new research directions has caught the attention of several partners. Special thanks to the American Chemical Society and the Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation for being early investors. For more information on the OneChemistry Symposium, visit

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of C&EN or ACS.


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