Guest Column - Tim Clark
This is not your grandpa’s cutting edge
By Tim Clark
It’s common knowledge in academic circles that most undergraduate students in general and organic chemistry classes have no intention of staying in chemistry. Most of them either want to go to medical school or into biochemistry, biology or medical sciences. Why do so few science students actively choose to go into chemistry?
Many academics believe that it is because students don’t see the relevance of chemistry anymore — to them it’s archaic and staid — at a time when chemistry has never been a more dynamic, diverse and critical field!
I was one of those students who saw chemistry as a course-hurdle in the same vein as calculus and social science options. I started off majoring in biology which I felt was a more fascinating and relevant field. But the more chemistry classes I took, the more intuitive it seemed and because of some really insightful, passionate instructors, I began to realize that chemistry isn’t confined to bubbling coloured potions in the lab, dry Lewis diagrams and mass balances, but that it is universal and is absolutely everywhere — in our medicines, batteries, detergents, electronics and in biological systems. The discrete worlds of biology, chemistry and physics started melding together with chemistry at the heart of it and that’s when I knew I wanted to be a chemist.
During my graduate studies I was able to work with a professor whose research program resides at the interface of organometallic and polymer chemistry, materials science and engineering. This exposure to a wide range of fields helped me to become a much more versatile scientist, a critical skill these days in the job market. It emphasized for me the breadth of chemistry in emerging fields such as nanotechnology and biotechnology. I was conducting research with hydrogen storage materials as well as photonic crystals for biometrics: chemistry for me was far from stale and archaic. The field encompasses so many areas within science, established and cutting edge, even if they do not have “chemistry” in the name or don’t have dedicated chapters in undergraduate textbooks.
An increasingly acute awareness of our sensitive environment led me to postdoctoral work in “green” chemistry with a polymer chemist studying fuel cell membrane assemblies. Now at GreenCentre Canada, I develop numerous early-stage green technologies from academic labs across the country. These innovations can be a more sustainable replacement for products or processes currently manufactured or used in industry. The field of green chemistry is the ultimate example of how pertinent chemistry is today.
Alongside green chemistry are fields like nanotechnology, energy, materials, and the theme of this special magazine issue, biotechnology. Each of the burgeoning fields is firmly rooted in chemistry.
Unfortunately, chemists have our work cut out for us to reverse the notion that our field has fallen off the leading edge. The recent State of Science Report by the Council of Canadian Academies (CCA) confirmed that science in Canada is continuing to flourish and be recognized around the world, but in the same stroke pigeon-holed chemistry by defining it by classic (dare I say archaic) divisions such as inorganic, organic and analytical. The classification system used for the report exacerbates the idea that chemistry is antiquated and bumped chemistry from among the top six performing fields in Canada, leaving it lagging behind emerging areas such as nanotechnology, materials, and energy, all of which are borne of chemistry. In fact there are entire sub-disciplines in chemistry departments across the country dedicated to these top-performing fields. You wouldn’t know it from the CCA report, but there has never been a better time to become a chemist and actively contribute to these critical disciplines which will enhance the world in which we live.
Tim Clark is a Senior Product Development Scientist with GreenCentre Canada in Kingston, Ont.
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