During the confinement due to COVID-19, EuChemS has continued to be very active. We have held several online Executive Board and Task Group meetings, more so since we had to move our 8th EuChemS Chemistra Congress in Lisbon to 2022, and to substitute our 50th anniversary event in Prague to an online celebration, which turned out to be a great success.
However, if personally I have to choose an experience which was particularly different, I would mention my participation, for the first time, in an online PhD thesis defense. I was chairing a committee to evaluate a PhD thesis dealing with Computer-aided Drug Design (CADD), which would normally imply spending one morning in the university, including chairing a public session to examine the candidate, and afterwards, a private meeting with the jury to award the mark.
We did it all in a webinar, but it turned out to be more complicated, with two closed sessions of the committee, a public one with the candidate presenting his results and answering questions, and secret voting by mail to decide on the mark. In addition to all this, we had to have a previous rehearsal making sure the communications software was going to work, so not only it took more time, but we lost the atmosphere and the whole university’s experience when its number of doctors is enlarged, which is always considered a reason for joy.
Probably the COVID-19 experience has shown us how meetings, otherwise presential, can be held online but in my opinion, this is not a good option for a PhD thesis defense act, which should be one of the most important memories of the life of a researcher.
Working From Home (WFH): no antennas
Since I became Professor, I stopped doing experiments in the lab, therefore working from home in principle is fine for me. However. that means that on a longer run, a lot of informal communication is missing, especially as an addition to the formal Zoom meetings from nine ‘till five. No quick chat in between the meetings, no small talk in the corridor and no glimpse of PhD-students walking past my office – I can often see from the smile on a face that a reaction has worked. That is what I miss when working from home, it is like having no antennas…
The changes in my personal and work life during the beginning of the pandemic were initially accompanied by some fear and uncertainty: when will I become infected and how can I avoid this? This initially blocked some of my productivity, especially after the labs were closed and it became clear that there will be no regular teaching for the next year. Urgent needs to get familiar with the video production and the routine use of software for taping six hours of lectures every week were the next steps in this evolution. Multiple video conferences every day for research, teaching, review panels, and group meetings became soon my routine and showed me that many activities in daily life can be easily abandoned and replaced by electronic communication. The gain in freedom, time, and saving resources was substantial: no frequent trips for meetings were required, while the quality of teaching was even increased. Certainly, the lack of personal contacts was the biggest loss. Other positive aspects were thatstaying together at home strengthened my social life. Joining scientific seminars all over the world was delightful and the world-wide scientific community gained a new meaning. I hope that some of these positive changes will last for some time.
The EuChemS Secretariat with its seat in Brussels interacts with members of the European Chemical Society and other stakeholders from all around Europe and beyond mostly online since many years. Still, COVID-19 restrictions requested some urgent change of working practices. Since March, we have thus made just a remaining step forward in online direction and have fully converted to online meetings, webinars, trainings and even online celebrations. By doing so, we are by now an entirely and fully online managed organisation. During these COVID-19 weeks, we have learnt many new things, which made these times very exciting and left no time for complaining about the unfortunate situation we all found ourselves in. Surely, some of the solutions we have implemented so far which encompass online collaborations will also remain in the future when face-to-face meetings hopefully get back into place. A balanced combination of both online and physical meetings is the future of successful European scientific collaboration.
No matter how foolish it sounds, we’ve learned to expect the unexpected.
We were happy with the technology development and all those gadgets we use to make our lives easier. We were spending more time inside than outside. Then the official decision came: “You must stay at home for 12 hours every day, and spend your weekends indoors” Our way of living was not good news anymore!
However, we have adjusted very fast. My lectures on Analytical Chemistry on Webex platform were well accepted and there were vast possibilities for interaction with students. I am enthusiastic about learning new things, but my “cyber” classroom is only a fair replacement for the real one, it’s not an excellent solution. I enjoy the direct contact with students and my colleagues, no matter how much fun I had with “cyber” things. Labs and experiments were behind the stage during this time. Still, we finally had enough time to focus on scientific writings and readings, but also on the social networks, jokes, music, and good vibrations (not only in spectroscopy) which helped when we were comforting ourselves because of cancelled trips and meetings with colleagues and friends in Europe. The meeting of the EuChemS Division of Analytical Chemistry in the Netherlands was cancelled, we are “Zoom-ing” instead, always happy to see each other, work together and plan to meet soon.
And when we can finally go out again normally, that will be really good news!
Chair of the EuChemS Division of Analytical Chemistry
The COVID-19 pandemic started amidst my transition to a postdoctoral research stay in the United States. The uncertainty about the impact on the health system abroad as well as restrictions in travel and hiring made this a challenging endeavour. Fortunately, I am still working at the institute where I completed my PhD to continue research and to perform computational studies. While I enjoy travelling to new places and countries for conferences, I believe that particularly shorter meetings should enable online participation for people from further away to save cost, be sustainable and avoid the stress of travelling in the future.
Postdoctoral Researcher, Leibniz Institute of Surface Engineering (IOM), Leipzig, Germany
I am working in analytical chemistry for bioactive molecules and small molecules with mass spectrometry. Over the last few months, my life has changed signiﬁcantly and I had to adapt my way of working in my lab due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This included minimizing time for experiments in the lab and to do all other work from home. Also, I had to adjust time dedicated to EYCN activities and had to prepare myself for a new-born at the end of March. It was fantastic that I could enjoy time with my wife and son and use all that positive energy to help me achieve goals in my private and professional life.
Mass Spectrometry Specialist, York University, Toronto, Canada
Imagine starting your PhD in the home office. This became my challenge during the COVID-19 outbreak when I moved to Darmstadt to start my PhD! Although this wasn’t my first move to a new country, it was the strangest. Trying to build your life when social contact is prohibited has been a big challenge. Luckily, I’ve started in a very social group that has been taking excellent care of me and I am looking forward to establishing my new life in Darmstadt once the health crisis is over. But for now, it’s great to have colleagues that are already making me feel at home.
Lieke van Gijzel
PhD Student, Technical University Darmstadt, Darmstadt, Germany
As a last-year PhD student, I was forced to work remotely more-or-less around the time when I intended to write my thesis full-time anyway. Therefore, I could fully concentrate on writing it, and planning my future career. Having had more time to focus on exploring Postdoc applications was definitely beneficial. Nevertheless, due to travel restrictions, I was unfortunately not able to conduct the summer research internship, that I had planned. Coming back to the lab after two months, I felt a bit rusty, but it was a welcomed change of environment.
Final-year PhD Student, Comenius University, Bratislava, Slovak Republic
The year 2020 will always be marked by the pandemic, and how forced remote learning changed the teaching/learning landscape and left research activities on standby. In Portugal, the quarantine period overlapped with the call for project proposals, so I was able to dedicate myself only to writing the application instead of alternating between experimental work and writing. The biggest challenge was converting the Organic Chemistry course into remote learning on such a short notice. Teaching stereochemistry, which is very abstract in nature, was a nightmare and only by the use of open-source online tools it was possible to increase student spatial cognitive abilities.
Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Instituto Superior Técnico, Lisbon, Portugal
This has been an extraordinary time, both professionally and personally. While the overall uncertainty has been particularly challenging, it was also encouraging to witness the community coming together in support, which we have experienced at the university, as well as through online conferences. Moreover, for me as a commuter, this period has brought more evidence in favour of not having to commute daily to the office since most of the work could be effectively performed remotely. In addition, we have collectively become more thoughtful about research planning and meetings, which is something that I hope persists after this crisis is overcome.
Jovana V. Milić
Scientist, Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Lausanne, Switzerland
EuChemS turns 50!
On Friday, 3 July 2020, at 10:00 CEST, chemists and friends of chemistry from all around the world gathered to celebrate the 50th birthday of EuChemS, an online event which was a great success.
EuChemS, the European Chemical Society, previously the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences EuCheMS, started in Prague as the Federation of European Chemical Societies (FECS) on 3 July 1970. Therefore, 2020 is the year of our 50th anniversary and we had planned a great ceremony at the University of Chemistry and Technology, in Prague, where it all started 50 years ago. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this celebration event had to be cancelled and substituted by an online event, for which we strived to prepare a diverse and entertaining programme.
We were delighted to welcome many live speakers: Nobel Laureates Jean-Marie Lehn, and Ben Feringa, EuChemS Executive Board members Eckart Rühl, Floris Rutjes and Marco Arlorio, Chair of one of EuChems Professional Networks, Brigitte Van Tiggelen, Presidents of EuChemS affiliates Gregori Ujaque (SCQ), Anu Airaksinen (SKS), Peter R. Schreiner (GDCh), Livia Simon Sarkadi (MKE), Yves Auberson (EFMC), and Council Member Cristina Todaşcă (SChR), covering small and large societies belonging to the North and the South, Eastern and Western European countries. We had the pleasure of receiving live the greetings of the President of IUPAC, Christopher Brett, and Presidents of FACS, Federation of Asian Chemical Societies, Reuben Jih-Ru Hwu, and FLAQ, Federation of Latin American Chemical Societies, Daniel Garcia Rivera, and a video from the President of ACS, American Chemical Society, Luis Echegoyen.
In addition, there were some photos and memories from the past, and two videos, one recorded for the event by the EYCN, European Young Chemists’ Network, and a promotional video of EuChemS that was released for the first time on this occasion. Of course, there is no real birthday celebration without greeting cards, in fact we received many original ones from chemical societies and friends, and we had a birthday cake with candles that were blown, albeit virtually.
In summary, a very exceptional anniversary, which was attended by around 200 people from all over the world and which could not have been possible without the dedication and enthusiasm of our Secretariat led by Nineta Hrastelj, Secretary-General, and our two Science Communication and Policy Officers, Jelena Lazić and Laura Jousset, who coordinated the live stream. It was a big challenge for them, indeed for all of us, but it turned out a great achievement, as inferred from the many congratulations we received from the attendees.
Finally, let me thank all the speakers and participants, who enthusiastically accepted to engage in this adventure of commemorating 50 years of European Chemistry, 50 years of EuChemS; it was all of you who made this event a great success.
Interview with EuChemS EUCYS 2019 winner, Zeyad Bady
Zeyad Bady has been awarded the special EuChemS prize for his project “High particulate matter filtration efficiency Nano-fibrous membrane” which was selected as the best Chemistry project at the 2019 edition of the EU Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS).
Zeyad’s project looks at how particulate pollution has led to catastrophic health and environmental consequences. As a result, new approaches have been examined to increase the efficiency of the air filtration equipment. A novel nanofibrous air filter made via electrospinning process has attractive attributes of high filtering efficiency and low resistance to air flow. The filter could be manufactured with a transparency of 90% and an efficiency of >85% under intense smoke exposure. Consequently, the filter could be applied as a muzzle, an alternative for catalytic converters of car exhausts or fabric filters used in the treatment of factories’ emissions. Additionally, the filter is made from hydrophobic polyacrylonitrile which makes it recyclable and efficient in humid circumstances.
First of all, congratulations for winning the EUCYS EuChemS Award. When did you start having interest in chemistry? And when did your interest for this field start?
My passion for Chemistry started when I joined secondary school, Assiut STEM school. Unlike traditional schools, this school is unique because it introduces project-based learning. I started making chemical experiments in the framework of our Chemistry curriculum, and from then onwards, I fell in love with Chemistry. Moreover, in every semester, we were asked to make a capstone project which addresses one of Egypt’s grand challenges. Chemistry appeared to me as the perfect tool for tackling these challenges.
Could you tell us more about how your winning project began? Did the initiative to compete come from you? How did you learn about this competition?
The project mainly came from my personal experience. The city where I live in Egypt suffers from urban congestion and high-level PM (Particulate Matter) pollution. Besides, the burning of agricultural wastes in Egypt represents another major source of air pollution. I am allergic to smoke and I wished I could open the window in my room and enjoy a breeze of fresh air. Therefore, I envisaged an air filter that could be almost transparent and applicable for window-screening. From there, I started researching into nanofibers.
Now let me say where the initiative to compete came from. For starters, I must thank my school colleagues. Every year, a decent number of my school colleagues undertake scientific projects and compete on a national and international scales. They were the main inspiration that helped me in completing my project, despite the fact there were many obstacles. Some of them had already participated in the EUCYS competition and when they heard of my project idea, they advised me to apply, too.
Besides my colleagues, I wanted to spread my idea further and to seek more opportunities for developing it. I thought that science fairs would provide a fertile soil to pursue my goals.
What were the main obstacles you have encountered during your research?
The resources and mentorship were the main obstacles that I encountered during my research. As I mentioned in the description of my project, I used electrospinning, a technique in nanotechnology, to create my prototypes and run my experiments. Although the idea behind the electrospinning is quite simple, there was only one electro-spinner device in the whole country of Egypt! What made things even harder for me was that the only university that owns this device is in the North of Egypt. Therefore, I had to travel for over 8 hours, cross more than 650 kilometres and stay in a remote city, Alexandria, to pursue my research. In addition to the distance obstacle, getting permission to conduct research is complicated, because it is not something usual to do for high school students in Egypt. This is why it has been difficult for me to get the permission to conduct my research in that specific university and to use the rare electro-spinner.
What were the scientific outcomes of the project?
It was concluded that electro spun PAN (Polyacrylonitrile) nanofibers can be a highly effective PM filter because of their small fibre diameter and surface chemistry, as well as their chemical composition This opened the door to the use of novel electro-spun PAN fibres as an alternative for conventional fibres used for air filtration, such as polystyrene and polyvinyl alcohol. Moreover, the results showing high tolerance of PAN fibres to humidity can lead to the investigation of its usage with other secondary air treatment processes, such as FGD (flue-gas desulphurisation), which could enhance the quality of air filtration systems.
Have you published these findings? Have you thought about applying for a commercial patent?
This year is my senior year of Highschool, and I am completely focused on my studies and extracurricular activities in order to graduate with the highest degree possible and be able to enrol in a university that can help me further develop and publish these findings. However, I am a part of a Chemistry project that is applied on a medium scale by NWRC (National Water Research Centre) which investigates the usage of cactus species Opuntia ficus-indica as a bio-coagulant for wastewater treatment and the project was presented in the 2nd international Cairo Water Week (CWW 2019).
Do you see any future applications of your research to our everyday life?
Of course! What is interesting about this project is its high applicability. As I mentioned before, the nanofibrous product could be used as a transparent window-screen in highly polluted areas. However, it could also be used as a muzzle by increasing the thickness of the nanofibrous membrane. Moreover, the material of this membrane (Polyacrylonitrile) is hydrophobic, making it insoluble and resilient to humid conditions. This could lead to the use of these fibres as an alternative to conventional fabric filters, currently used in factories as air filtration systems. In the industries, the FGD (Flue gas desulphurization) is used for the removal of acidic gases and at the same time, the humidity of the outlet air is increased, resulting in the degradation of the commercial fabric filters. However, this novel nanofiber showed higher efficiency in the removal of particulate matter with increased humidity, thus making it an excellent alternative.
In addition to the removal of particulate matter, this nanofiber could easily be functionalized, and by doing so it may be possible to also remove other harmful gases. In the future, I would like to work on functionalising the nanofibers with silicate nanoparticles with the idea to create a membrane able to remove excess CO2 from contaminated air.
Another interesting aspect regarding nanofibrous membranes is they are currently being investigated as muzzles for the removal of viruses. For example, the membranes made of chitosan are currently being assessed for the removal of water-borne viruses, and the results are promising. Also, the manufacturing costs are considerably lower than production of conventional masks, which makes the novel membrane more applicable. This last point is relevant, especially considering the current pandemic crisis we are facing.
Finally, on behalf of EuChemS we would like to wish you great success with the continuation of your research in Chemistry. Is there any message you would like to leave to younger people who are reading this interview?
From my modest experience through this and other projects I had the opportunity to be a part of, I can say that the most important thing is to never give up. Maybe you do not have enough resources, maybe you do not have enough experience… The most important thing is to seize every opportunity and try your best.
Interview of Zeyad Bady
Conducted by Laura Jousset
EuChemS Science Communication and Policy Officer
Webinar Collaboration: COVID-19, Job Hunting and Awards
During the pandemic, the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN), had to find new and exciting ways of reaching our audience. Thus, the EYCN, in cooperation with the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN), organised a series of webinars on COVID-19 and related topics.
Session 1 (2 April 2020) of the first webinar specifically on COVID-19, was opened by Professor Javier García-Martínez, President-Elect of IUPAC, with an introduction on the vital role of chemistry for general wellbeing. Dr Angela Zhou from the Chemical Abstracts Services (USA), followed up by providing insights into development strategies for drugs and vaccines. Other speakers were Dr Emmanuel Balogun from Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), Dr Jadel Kratz from the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (Brazil), and Julia Klüpfel from the Pandemic Important Research Allocation Tool (Germany). Session 2 (3 April 2020) was opened by Dr João Borges and Dr Antonio Rodríguez García, who briefly introduced the IYCN and the EYCN. Talks on tools and strategies for education and divulgation of chemistry under the new conditions were given by Dr Fun Man Fung, from the National University of Singapore, Dr Emma Pewsey from Chemistry World (UK), Dr Fernando Gomollón Bel from the Graphene Flagship (UK). The session included a panel discussion, involving the three speakers, as well as Professor Alisa Lincoln and Professor Jen Heemstra (both USA). The panellists highlighted the importance of staying healthy during this period and shared some advice on what they are doing during this time to cope with the circumstances.
The next webinar was hosted on 4 May 2020 and was focused on job hunting during COVID-19. This webinar was opened by Bayley Mourant, Chair-Elect of the IYCN. The session included talks by ChemJobber on the insecurities of the US chemistry market, Dr Paulette Vincent-Ruz, from the University of Michigan (USA), Michelle Lucas from Sibelco (Belgium), and Dr Robert Bowles from the Royal Society of Chemistry (UK).
The latest webinar took place on 4 June 2020 and focused on different European awards and fellowships. Firstly, Professor Pilar Goya reminded young chemist about various awards, like the EuChemS Lecture Award and the European Young Chemists’ Award (EYCA). Then, Dr. Alice Soldà, advisor of the EYCN, presented the initiative of moving the ECC8 young chemists’ symposium and the EYCA online (e-YCN@ECC8, 25-26 August). Furthermore, Margarida Santos, National Contact Point for the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions (MSCA), discussed the general concept of the fellowships and Dr Claudia Bonfio, MSCA Fellow at the University of Cambridge (UK), shared some tips on preparing the fellowship application.
The events were a great success and were attended live by more than 1400 participants, while the recordings were viewed more than 2500 times. For the future, the EYCN and the IYCN intend to host more joint webinars, and we would like to thank all speakers and attendees for making this such a great event! Recordings of all events can be found online (Session 1, Session 2, Session 3, Session 4).
Antonio M. Rodríguez García
CatalysisTalks – Bringing Research to the World during the COVID-19 Pandemic
Organising a scientific conference requires a strong team, lots of time and needs to be done well in advance of the event date or in short: blood, sweat and tears. Only shortly after the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, conference organisers around the globe lived up to their responsibility and cancelled or postponed their scheduled events. This is unfortunate for all organisers that had put in their hard work and had to cancel their scientific programmes, but it is also a significant setback for many PhD students, postdoctoral researchers and early-career researchers that might be hunting for one of the heavily contested faculty positions.
The European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN) and the Young European Catalysis Network (YEuCat) teamed up to start an online seminar series on catalysis research named CatalysisTalks. Each session of the series, which launched in Mid-May, hosts three speakers from various positions, countries, and career stages with a particular focus on enabling a special presentation experience for early-career chemists. Across the five sessions, we’ve enabled 15 researchers to present their work in the past months. These included six PhD students, two postdoctoral researchers and four early-career group leaders. Furthermore, to make the experience more memorable for the young presenters, we’ve sometimes invited established renowned catalysis Professors. These included David Cole-Hamilton (former EuChemS President), Frances H. Arnold (2018 Nobel Prize in Chemistry) and Robert H. Grubbs (2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry). With this approach, the series gained quite a lot of attention, and more than 750 researchers from over 50 different countries around the world signed up to receive updates and registration links and dozens of abstracts were received. While most registrants are PhD students and postdoctoral researchers (65%), the series has also reached many Professors, industrial chemists, and others.
Finally, our contribution is complemented by multiple other online events from various chemical societies and companies, e.g. the Phosphorus Chemistry Series by the German Chemical Society, the Main Group Chemistry Talks by the Royal Society of Chemistry or the Global Inorganic Discussion Weekend by the Chemical Institute of Canada. With all these combined efforts, we believe that this is an important step towards dealing with the current situation and, possibly, also towards a new research and conference culture.
Follow @CatalysisTalks on Twitter!
This pandemic hit me right at the finish of the experimental work for my PhD thesis. From one day to another, I was tied to my desk instead of doing the lab experiments, which I had planned to do like many other students. So, I started writing my thesis earlier than planned. Nevertheless, this gave me the chance to reflect about what I did for the last few years more profoundly and ahead of time, as I probably would do this later in the year all the while stressing out to meet numerous deadlines. Also, I could plan experimental work for the upcoming months more deliberately.
PhD Student, Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria
COVID-19 arrived like “a bull in a china shop” to Spain, breaking every limit we have ever imagined. The first week or March everything was under control; it was going to be “a bit more than the typical flu”. The week after I was rushing to the faculty on a Friday afternoon to switch off some experiments I had left running overnight. We were sent home for a couple of weeks, which changed to months. Still I consider myself lucky: I had my health, my job and the EYCN to keep me busy. Only now, speaking to other people who have suffered first-hand, I realised everything we’ve been through.
Antonio M. Rodríguez García
Postdoctoral Researcher, Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, Ciudad Real, Spain
It has been an unusual time to be a researcher. As a PhD student of chemistry, my experience has been no different. I have gone from being in the lab every day, to only gaining access when the university is in posession of sufficient amount of hand sanitisers. It seemed impossible to find ways to fill my time that would still be beneficial to my research; you can’t spend all your time reading. The numerous webinars available made a huge difference, offering invaluable experiences and opportunities, and I have learnt much more in this time than I would have thought possible.
PhD Student, University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK
As a student of chemistry, I have had my fair share of difficulties as I was finishing my Master’s studies. This meant having my defense being held online.Although convenient, it has shown that possible technological issues can hinder the success of the presentation and the lack of direct social interaction after the defence does not create the same atmosphere as when done in the university classroom. Overall, the management of the institution I am working at has temporarily adjusted working hours, and implemented stricter sanitation policies.
Student, Centrul de Chimie Organica, Bucharest, Romania