Honing the central science | January 1, 2018 Issue - Vol. 96 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 96 Issue 1 | pp. 29-31
Issue Date: January 1, 2018

Cover Story

Honing the central science

Enhancing chemists’ adaptability and promoting safety and diversity will strengthen our field
By Peter K. Dorhout, ACS President
Department: ACS News
Keywords: ACS News, Peter Dorhout
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Dorhout
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN
Peter Dorhout.
 
Dorhout
Credit: Linda Wang/C&EN

More than 140 years ago, 35 chemists met in New York City to establish the American Chemical Society. Since that time, we have become the world’s largest scientific society, with more than 150,000 members. We have much to be proud of in our professional member society, and I am honored to be your new president.

During the three decades that I’ve been involved with ACS, I’ve grown to appreciate the member focus of our organization and the networking and service opportunities it offers. My affiliation with the society has given me a chance to translate what I do in ACS into my day job and to bring what I do in my day job and my volunteer work with Scouting back to ACS. It has also helped form my perspectives about leadership.

Those seeds were sown when I was a boy in the Cub Scouts and first learned about being prepared and being a leader. Having grown up with the Scouts’ philosophy of cheerful service, I believe that being a “servant leader” is important. To me, that expression means guiding people where they want to go, whether on a hiking trail or in a professional organization.

Although I’ve honed my volunteer leadership skills over the years, taking the reins of ACS is a daunting task. So I sought guidance from those who have filled this role before me. What’s the best advice I received? First, to sharpen my focus. Second, to recognize that an ACS president has just a short time in leadership in the society and that she or he cannot steer the ship too sharply or without a good crew. Fortunately, the role comes with a great crew: you—the volunteer members—and the professional staff. Working together, we can make progress toward improving the lives and careers of our members and the people of the world through the transforming power of chemistry.

Our profession is in a tough situation, however. As a faculty member and academic leader for many years, I have witnessed universities struggling to obtain grant funding and other financial support. Cuts to both K–12 and higher education institutions are eroding the quality of classroom and laboratory experiences. Industry continues to be threatened and changed by global forces that are impacting jobs across the U.S., and chemistry has an image problem, which greatly handicaps education, employment, and industry.

Collectively, these are serious challenges that require dedication to resolve. This brings me back to the first piece of advice I was given: Focus. With that in mind, I will concentrate in the year ahead on engaging industry to enhance education and improve the face of chemistry.



Meet Peter Dorhout


Peter K. Dorhout is vice president for research and a professor of chemistry at Kansas State University. He earned a B.S. in chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, in 1985 and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1989.

Dorhout with his wife, Carolyn, climbing glaciers in Alaska.
Courtesy of Peter Dorhout

After postdoctoral work at Iowa State University, Dorhout joined the chemistry faculty at Colorado State University as an assistant professor. He rose through the ranks to become professor of chemistry, vice provost for graduate affairs, and assistant vice president for research. After a brief term in 2011 as interim provost at CSU’s Pueblo campus, he moved to Kansas State University the following year to become dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. Dorhout took up his current position as vice president in 2016.

In addition, he served as a collaborator at Los Alamos National Laboratory in the chemistry and nuclear materials groups in 1988–2006 and spent a sabbatical leave there. He also was a visiting lecturer with the Seaborg Institute.

Author of more than 110 peer-reviewed articles, edited books, and book chapters, Dorhout focuses his research on solid-state and nuclear materials science and environmental chemistry. Over the years, his projects have touched on such sectors as heavy metal detection and remediation in aqueous environments, ferroelectric nanomaterials, actinide and rare-earth metal solid-state chemistry, and nuclear nonproliferation.

A member of ACS since 1985 and an ACS Fellow, Dorhout has served the society in a number of roles, including as a member of the board of directors, chair and councilor of the ACS Colorado Section, and councilor for the Division of Inorganic Chemistry. He serves on the board of directors of Research Corporation for Science Advancement and is a life member of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos & Native Americans in Science. Outside the scientific realm, Dorhout is on the executive board of the Coronado Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America and is an Eagle Scout.

He and his wife, Carolyn, live in Manhattan, Kan. Their older daughter, Jacquelyn, is an ACS member and radiochemist in nuclear forensics and is starting a postdoc at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Their younger daughter, Kathryn, has a master’s degree in physiology and works at an eye bank in Norfolk, Va.



Preparation: Ramping up

Last year, while I was ACS president-elect, I had the opportunity to blend my passions for chemistry, the duties of the presidential succession, and Scouting by going to West Virginia for the National Scout Jamboree along with a number of other ACS members. We taught chemistry to almost 700 young people, who took classes for the chemistry merit badge sequence. We also engaged several thousand people who visited our STEM Quest activity site to talk with us about chemistry and how it manifests itself in the real world.

In other official duties, I presented the Willard Gibbs Medal Award in Chicago and participated in the designation of a National Historic Chemical Landmark at the University of California, Berkeley. I represented ACS at a Federation of African Societies of Chemistry meeting in Tanzania and at the LabTech conference in Bahrain.

In addition, I had the privilege of attending a number of regional ACS meetings. During these visits, I spent time with members, particularly younger chemists who were giving presentations. Regional meetings are a great place for undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs to hone their presentation skills in a safe, professional environment. I encourage you to attend a regional ACS meeting and network with fellow chemists in your area; it’s those networks that help each of us develop the professional connections we need in order to keep up-to-date on the latest developments in our field.

I also learn at these meetings: They give me a chance to hear from members about local challenges and opportunities that are unique in each region. For example, industry may be shifting out of one region and moving into another. Funding for public higher education is also changing, and that change is impacting regions differently. These trends in industry and education funding are linked because the public’s perceptions of the value of a degree affects their willingness to invest in higher education. Their opinion is often based on anecdotal evidence: If people know someone who received a degree at great expense yet cannot get a job, they will question the utility of a degree.

Adaptability: An essential trait for career success

We need to better prepare chemistry students to be successful in their chosen careers, regardless of their eventual jobs. Let’s face it: All our students are going to be challenged upon entering the workforce, so we need to have a frank conversation with them, long before they graduate, about broadening their skill sets, keeping their tools sharp, and preparing for lifelong learning. ACS can and should help ready future chemists for changing career paths.

First, we should do more to encourage students to take advantage of every opportunity, including undergraduate research, co-ops, internships, and when possible, summer jobs related to their majors.

That said, I know from my own college years that people sometimes have to take a higher-paying semester or summer job that’s not related to chemistry in order to cover tuition, room, and board the following year. For example, when I was putting myself through school, I was a co-op student with DuPont, but I also managed an apartment building and renovated homes, which is how I developed my love for woodworking (see sidebar online). Even though I wasn’t developing chemistry skills in those jobs, I acquired leadership skills that served me later in my career. As a building manager, I learned about working with people from different backgrounds and living styles and solving problems in real time.

We should also emphasize to our students as well as midcareer chemists that their chemistry-related education and training is giving them a foundation of critical thinking and communication skills but that they are responsible for building on that foundation to develop additional skills to match the opportunities that arise, no matter what form those opportunities take. We can do more to teach our chemistry majors about the diverse career paths in which they can apply their scientific training.

In addition, for our members, promoting lifelong learning, whether through journals, meetings, webinars, or short courses, is critical to continued professional growth. This training will enable members to prepare for a dynamic employment environment and will motivate industry to employ our members because they are well equipped to help advance the company’s goals.

To be ready for future careers in chemistry, students and practitioners alike will need to operate in a global environment. That will require us to recognize and embrace different perspectives to solve increasingly complex problems. As ACS members, we should expand our horizons and enhance our international perspectives by building teams around the globe, seeking collaborations and shared experiences, and connecting with our members in international chapters (visit global.acs.org for resources).

Like teaching, woodworking can shape raw material into something beautiful


In addition to Scouting, my other passion during my downtime is woodworking. I love making furniture and other functional and art objects using local woods. In Kansas, those are walnut, oak, hackberry, fruitwood, and maple. People in Manhattan, Kan., know that if an ice storm is coming, I’ve got my chain saw sharpened and ready to go. I’ll help them take down branches or cut up a tree that’s fallen over, as long as I can scavenge some of the wood.

Dorhout turns a wooden bowl in his shop.
Credit: David Mayes Photography

A group of us woodworkers, the Flint Hills Woodturners, do a lot of outreach at maker fairs and other public gatherings. We’ll set up a couple of lathes and turn some wood into bowls or wooden tops and hand them out to kids to decorate. We like to share the passion of taking a chunk of wood and turning it into something functional or beautiful or, we hope, both.

When I’m at home, the chemist in me enjoys safely experimenting with different finishes to see how they enhance the beauty of wood. I like to read about the original historic finishes for wood that involved natural oils, shellac, and lacquer. There’s nothing quite like understanding the grain structure and porosity of the wood and being able to transform that into a finish that builds depth and texture from the grain, reflecting the beauty of the wood for the observer.



Like teaching, woodworking can shape raw material into something beautiful


In addition to Scouting, my other passion during my downtime is woodworking. I love making furniture and other functional and art objects using local woods. In Kansas, those are walnut, oak, hackberry, fruitwood, and maple. People in Manhattan, Kan., know that if an ice storm is coming, I’ve got my chain saw sharpened and ready to go. I’ll help them take down branches or cut up a tree that’s fallen over, as long as I can scavenge some of the wood.


Dorhout turns a wooden bowl in his shop.
Credit: David Mayes Photography

A group of us woodworkers, the Flint Hills Woodturners, do a lot of outreach at maker fairs and other public gatherings. We’ll set up a couple of lathes and turn some wood into bowls or wooden tops and hand them out to kids to decorate. We like to share the passion of taking a chunk of wood and turning it into something functional or beautiful or, we hope, both.

When I’m at home, the chemist in me enjoys safely experimenting with different finishes to see how they enhance the beauty of wood. I like to read about the original historic finishes for wood that involved natural oils, shellac, and lacquer. There’s nothing quite like understanding the grain structure and porosity of the wood and being able to transform that into a finish that builds depth and texture from the grain, reflecting the beauty of the wood for the observer.




Safety: A crucial skill for chemists

An essential element of chemical education and training is safety. In the coming year, I want to continue to build on the momentum that Immediate Past-President Allison A. Campbell and our members have created on this vital issue.

Safety shouldn’t just be a box that gets checked when preparing for an experiment or starting a new class. It needs to be a continuous thought process that people in the lab and their leaders always consider. We’re making progress on this front, but we must work together to change the ethos of our students and practitioners.

ACS has a committee and a division dedicated to chemical health and safety, and we have subject matter experts who have created a tremendous amount of content. Another powerful ally in this effort is our Committee on Professional Training. Members of Corporation Associates have joined forces with our committees and divisions to take the lead in creating an online safety training program that we hope to launch in 2018.

For those in academia, it’s important to realize that when teaching lab skills, conveying the culture and philosophy of safety to students is just as important as showing them how to manipulate gases in a Schlenk line or run an NMR spectrometer. We need to model the behavior that we want students to adopt.

Further, we need to follow the industry standard in academic labs. Everyone graduating from a college or university should understand the industry safety expectations. That means having a depth of knowledge about processes in the laboratory so that people can complete them in a safe way that protects them and their colleagues. It also means managing waste in a safe and environmentally thoughtful manner and understanding waste management policies relevant to each project.

Industry is interested in being partners in helping make this safety culture happen. We need to respect what our colleagues in industry are confronted with and know their expectations for a newly minted degree holder so we can help prepare new graduates to be even more marketable and competitive for jobs.

Diversity: A goal for our profession

In addition to safety and employment, I intend to continue to champion our diversity efforts during my presidential tenure. To be successful in any career requires working with teams of diverse members and engaging in dialogue that engenders viewpoints from many perspectives. Diversity of thought builds stronger solutions to our global problems.

One highly successful program to build a diverse community of chemists that I have been promoting is the ACS Scholars Program, which awards renewable scholarships worth as much as $5,000 per year, along with professional mentoring, to underrepresented minority students. African American, Hispanic, or American Indian high school seniors and college freshmen, sophomores, and juniors who are pursuing a college degree in the chemical sciences or chemical technology are eligible to apply.

Through 23 years of the Scholars program, corporate sponsorships and personal contributions from ACS members have ensured success for several thousand young people. I’m delighted to say that the 300th ACS Scholar will earn a Ph.D. sometime this year or next. That’s a big deal.

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Dorhout, fifth from left in top row, with the chemistry group at the National Scout Jamboree in July 2017.
Credit: Courtesy of Peter Dorhout
A group of people at the Boy Scouts jamboree.
 
Dorhout, fifth from left in top row, with the chemistry group at the National Scout Jamboree in July 2017.
Credit: Courtesy of Peter Dorhout

This program is accomplishing what it was designed to do, which is to help identify, mentor, and nurture excellent students and to have them become leaders in ACS, in industry, and in academia. Not every chemist with a bachelor’s degree goes on to become a bench chemist or earn a Ph.D., but our scholars have a fantastic foundation for many great careers. I want to celebrate that and strengthen the endowment to continue to support the ACS Scholars Program.

In addition, this year, the society will be marking the 50th anniversary of Project SEED. This summer research program introduces economically disadvantaged students to the beauty of chemistry and what chemists do. Students entering their junior or senior year in high school work alongside scientist-mentors on research projects in industrial, academic, and federal laboratories.

During their first summer in the program, students receive a fellowship award of $2,500. If they take part in a second summer, they can continue working on the original project or begin a new one. They receive a $3,000 fellowship award and may be eligible for a travel grant to present their research at an ACS national meeting or other scientific conference.

As the name implies, this program has been seeding the pipeline of outstanding high school students, who are often the first in their families to go to college. Thanks to the donors to SEED, participants are eligible to compete for Project SEED college scholarships. Intended for students who will major in a chemical science, the funds assist former SEED participants in their transition from high school to college. I look forward to celebrating the program’s anniversary with you.

I invite you to share your ideas on how we can continue to improve the profession for our members. I welcome suggestions for how to support chemists in their career development; promote a culture of safety among all our members, particularly students; and enhance diversity in chemistry. You can reach me at p.dorhout@acs.org.

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Jan. 3, 2018, to correctly describe the image of Dorhout woodworking.

 

 
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