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Editorial: Trying to make sense of a loss

C&EN reckons with the untimely death of its editor in chief, Mohammed Yahia

by Michael McCoy
August 19, 2023 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 101, Issue 27


I’m writing this editorial at 35,000 ft in the air as I fly home from the American Chemical Society’s fall meeting in San Francisco and try to make sense of the past several days.

C&EN’s staff learned on Friday, Aug. 11, that our new editor in chief, Mohammed Yahia, had died on the way to the meeting (see page 5). He is survived by his wife and two children. We know he died on a flight from London but not how it happened.

Just a day or two later, many of us were on planes ourselves, bound for the event, where we would be recognizing the 100th anniversary of C&EN. The juxtaposition of tragedy and celebration has been almost impossible to absorb. Everyone is still trying to process it all.

I was on the hiring committee that chose Mohammed as our new head editor. After he started the job on Aug. 1, I stepped down as interim editor in chief and went back to focusing on the magazine’s business and policy coverage. I was happy to be doing so.

In the days that followed, I met with Mohammed on video calls several times, both one on one and in group meetings. We also communicated over email and the Slack messaging app.

In all our interactions, I was impressed by his thoughtfulness and his understanding of C&EN’s unique role as an independent journalistic outlet published by ACS, a professional society with business interests of its own.

I know that my colleagues felt likewise, and we were eager to meet him in person for the first time. Mohammed had a packed schedule for San Francisco. He was planning to meet many members of his new staff and other folks at ACS. He was going to speak at multiple events, including our centennial celebration on Monday evening. And he intended to write the editorial for this issue of C&EN.

So much is different now. I can’t imagine what it is like for his wife, Ola Al-Ghazawy, a journalist herself, and other members of his extended family.

At C&EN, we have had to quickly regroup, suppressing our emotions to do our jobs of covering the world of chemistry. Our website and this week’s issue are full of stories from ACS Fall 2023. Other editors and I kept the meeting we were going to have with Mohammed and used the time to start charting a revised path forward for the magazine. I agreed to resume my role as interim editor in chief, and we have started anew the process of finding a permanent editor in chief.

We will now make many of the decisions that we had put off while waiting for Mohammed to take the helm. For example, C&EN will make some interim roles permanent and hire several new reporters and editors. We will put the finishing touches on our 2024 editorial calendar. We will go ahead with our annual staff meeting in October. Of course, we will also keep putting out a great magazine.

While in San Francisco, I was reminded that life goes on, whether you are ready for it or not. C&EN’s Talented 12 symposium on Monday morning was an inspiring event full of talks that conveyed the power of chemistry to help solve many of our planet’s problems. The centennial event that evening, although tinged with sadness, was a fine celebration of C&EN and the journalists that create it.

Most of the thousands of people in San Francisco for the ACS meeting didn’t know Mohammed or what had transpired. I found myself stopping in the open spaces of the Moscone Center and watching them go about their business. It was a surprisingly diverse crowd of all ages, races, and nationalities. Folks were hustling to talks, preparing for talks of their own, visiting the exposition floor, or catching up with old friends. The sense of forward movement was strong.

I think Mohammed would have enjoyed it.

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


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