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Guest editorial: Where chemists work

by Laura Howes
September 29, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 32


This is a guest editorial by Laura Howes, C&EN’s executive editor for life sciences.

Welcome to this special issue dedicated to chemistry laboratories around the world. While many C&EN staffers have lab experience, these days we mostly sit at desks, whether that’s in the American Chemical Society headquarters in Washington, DC, or in home offices and small office spaces around the US and overseas. But writers do get to visit labs during reporting.

Many of the spaces we visit can look similar at first glance: lab benches in rows, fume hoods at the sides, eye washes, and safety showers where appropriate. But a great deal of thought goes into the design of new laboratory buildings and spaces to make them safe and sustainable while also hubs of creativity and innovation.

On page 14, Benjamin Plackett reports about how architects and researchers can best collaborate to create productive, safe, and inclusive spaces for science.

We were reminded that science isn’t a thing; it is a practice. And it is done by people. By you.

As we put this issue together, we also realized how much the modern chemistry laboratory owes to a small group of 19th-century chemists. When modern chemistry emerged from the alchemical sphere, chemists began to build and optimize what would become the standard layout for the next 100-plus years of chemical innovation (page 22).

I knew of the groundbreaking scientific work of scientists such as Gustav Kirchhoff and Robert Bunsen in my adopted town of Heidelberg, Germany. But the role that their workspaces played in laboratory design was unknown to me until now. I will be even more appreciative of those links as I cycle past Bunsen’s old laboratory and home in the future, even if the tourists focus on the more well-known historical sights.

While I might not have known about Bunsen’s role in lab design, what I and the rest of the C&EN staff have known is that we can find chemists in a wide variety of spaces.

Not all chemists work in the lab. But many do. And even with all the standardization and similarities from one lab to the next, signs of individuality cannot help but emerge. Each sign can provide insight into the work being done and the chemists doing it.

Recently, we asked whether our readers would share snapshots of their labs. We have been delighted that so many of you answered our call. Over the past several weeks, chemists have sent in photos of their scientific homes, their colleagues, and what makes those spaces special to them (page 26). As people who work up to (and sometimes past) deadlines, we were pleased to see a final flurry arriving down to the wire.

One common thread that emerged was the emotion that accompanied those images. In addition to sharing selfies of themselves and their colleagues, chemists told us about the teams they work with and how they build a sense of community and place.

We are greatly indebted to everyone who trusted us with those images. Apologies if we could not find space for yours.

Looking through all the submissions, we were reminded that science isn’t a thing; it is a practice. And it is done by people. By you.

As C&EN wrapped up this issue, the newsroom was also readying itself for Nobel Prize week. By the time this magazine arrives on your doormat or in your email inbox, the prize announcements will be beginning.

Over the years, a great many individuals have been awarded the honor of becoming a Nobel laureate. But no scientist works alone, especially today. Teams of researchers, technicians, and support staff make scientific work possible.

Architects can design buildings that stimulate creativity and innovation. But the people in those buildings and the culture that they foster are arguably more important. The legacy of a great lab can, after all, be measured in many ways.

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


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