Chemistry lessons for a non-chemist

While working at EuCheMS there were two questions people always asked me. “So, you represent chemicals, is that it?”, a question to which I promptly replied, “We represent chemists and chemistry, not chemicals”. The other common question was “Are you learning a lot about chemistry?”, to which I simply answered, “Not really”.

Even though many brave chemists made great efforts to teach me the basics of the periodic table, covalent bonds, chromatography, or redox, the only things I managed to properly learn were the different fields of chemistry and the fact that chemistry is everywhere. When I first started at EuCheMS and people told me this, I thought it was an exaggeration but after spending just a few minutes with chemists it was clear that they were right.

Nonetheless, looking back at my time with EuCheMS, I have now come to realise that I have learned much more than this from observing chemists and their work.

Teamwork is essential. Researchers always rely on the work of teams, many of them multidisciplinary, this being the only way to properly solve the challenges we face as individuals and as a society. In order to work together, we must be open and transparent to others and their ideas and we have to communicate in a clear and precise manner.

With knowledge comes responsibility. Following several discussions on the issue of ethics in chemistry I have learned that the applications of science must be bound by the limits of ethics. Also, those who have the knowledge within a specific field have the duty to control its quality (e.g. peer-review) and its dissemination, namely through teaching.

Know how to mix things together. There are several agents in the field of the chemical sciences, from academia to industry, chemists from different geographical areas, policy makers with divergent interests, and so on. The secret to mixing all of these together is to learn how it can be done, just like when mixing sulphuric acid with water (this reminds of my chemistry limitations as I do not recall which way I should mix these two solutions together).

Prioritising efforts. We cannot do everything at the same time, just like basic science must precede applied science.

Face uncertainty. Just like in metrology we must know the limits of what we take as certain and be ready for those percentage points that can change everything.

Be passionate. Even though science is something rational, it stems from a passion for knowledge

I believe that it was at EuCheMS that I first met people who were truly passionate for their work. At first, I found it strange how people could both work in a lab for so many hours and then even volunteer to use their free time for EuCheMS Professional Networks or its Executive Board. I promptly learnt that their secret was enjoying chemistry.

Finally, to have a vision. This is one of the most important lessons I have learned at EuCheMS. Just like with research, there will always be limitations (financial, human resources, etc) as well as unexpected setbacks – but with a concrete, coherent vision of what to do, results are to be expected. Such is the case for EuCheMS, an organisation whose impact has been constantly growing over the years as I have witnessed myself. Its scientific conferences, congresses, policy inputs, awards, and communication strategy are underpinned by a very simple message – chemistry is everywhere and the solutions to our global challenges lie within chemistry. The work of EuCheMS is to make sure that the voice of European chemistry is heard. Thank you all for allowing me to take a part in implementing this vision.

Bruno Vilela
Former EuCheMS Public Affairs Officer


EuCheMS awards

First European Chemistry Gold Medal awarded to Professor Ben Feringa

The very first European Chemistry Gold Medal has been awarded to Professor Ben Feringa for exceptional achievements in the field of chemistry in Europe. Professor Feringa, a Dutch chemist who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on the development of molecular machines together with Sir James Fraser Stoddart and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, will be presented with the Gold Medal during the 7th EuCheMS Chemistry Congress in Liverpool this year, where he will also give a plenary lecture.