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Does analytical science have a reputation problem?

It does and it doesn’t. In industry, analytical science is quite well respected. Every major pharmaceutical company has an analytical science division with their own mass spec or NMR units, for example. The biologists, the material scientists, and others who work in industry constantly rely on their analytical colleagues – who are always in high demand. And you do see plenty of industry scientists attending conferences like ASMS and HUPO. They understand the power of analytical measurements and respect analytical scientists as people who they really can’t live without. I was recently talking to some people at a big pharma company about how industry hiring had slowed down after the pandemic – but not if you’re an analytical chemist! If analytical skills are seemingly always in demand, how can we have a reputation problem?

On the academic side, things are a little different. There are historical reasons that result in analytical scientists being overlooked or viewed as simply a tool or technique we use to characterize organic molecules. Indeed, many institutions – especially in the US – don’t have analytical chemistry divisions. Most chemistry departments have physical chemistry and organic chemistry divisions, and analytical chemistry is seen historically as a tool for these other chemistries. And that’s reflected in how we teach undergraduates in the US. Students are often first introduced to analytical chemistry as a tool to figure out whether you have the right product following an organic chemistry reaction. The student will need to know that they should use mass spec to get the molecular weight, IR spectroscopy to see what functional groups are present on the molecule, then NMR to define all the different proton groups, and so on. So even for second year chemistry students, analytical chemistry is introduced as a series of techniques to supplement other fields.

Do you have any personal anecdotes related to the “reputation problem?”

Sometimes “technologists” aren’t seen as full scientists. Early in my career, I had some people say it’s great that you have this technology but you’re never going to get grants if you’re only focusing on the technology. And that’s partly true – you need a good problem to which you can apply your technology. But when I first got hired at Penn there was some talk – perhaps even concern – that I wasn’t working on deep biological problems, as a biologist might, and that I was just advancing the methodology, as though that wasn’t proper science. And there were some (well meaning) colleagues who came up to me a few years later and said things like, “I didn’t expect a technology person to do so well in the School of Medicine...”

In short, we have some work to do on the academic side.

Could the way we teach analytical science be putting some students off?

It could be contributing to a failure to attract talented and potentially analytically-inclined students, for sure. Most undergraduates don’t know exactly what they want to do – nobody walks in on day one wanting to be a physical chemist or an analytical chemist (or at least most don’t). We expose them to research of various types and they might hear about something in a lecture or in a lab that piques their interest. But if analytical chemistry isn’t taught as an important field in its own right, if techniques in lectures or instruments in labs are introduced as supporting tools, and if there isn’t an analytical chemistry department at the university, these data points paint a negative picture for a student. With so many potential career avenues available, a student might dismiss analytical science out of hand.

Therefore, we need to do a better job of introducing analytical chemistry a little earlier in the curriculum – at least in the US – to showcase what the field is really about before students have already decided they’re interested in organic or physical chemistry. In fact, introducing analytical chemistry as a field in high school would be great.

How would you pitch analytical science to an undergraduate?

Let’s take my field of mass spectrometry as representative of analytical science as a whole for a moment – I would talk about the universal nature of these techniques. Of course, mass spectrometers can be applied to biomedical research or to applied chemical research. But there are mass spectrometers that make it to space shuttle missions or Mars rovers; there are mass spectrometers that are in the operating room so that surgeons can cut extremely precisely when removing tumors. Mass spectrometry is used at the Olympics to find out if people are doping, and to fight counterfeiting in cosmetics, food, pharma, and even money. Mass spectrometry is being used to understand art and culture – to figure out how certain paintings or sculptures were created, or the meaning of archaeological or historical artifacts. So that would be my starting pitch – that, once you have the foundations, you can apply mass spectrometry to so many different areas.

Who has the power to change the approach to analytical chemistry education?

Most chemistry departments have a curriculum committee and people with overall responsibility. We need more champions and advocates for analytical chemistry at that level. I think it could be combined with data analysis as well; chemistry students would understand analytical measurements and how to apply different techniques in various branches of chemistry, but also need to understand the data – its distribution, statistical tests, and so on. This approach would be beneficial for students through the rest of their undergrad career – regardless of where they go.

Does analytical science need a rebrand? What about “measurement science”?

I’m not so sure. Introducing something new at this point and getting a foothold to overtake analytical chemistry/science would be tough. There is a journal of measurement science. And the American Chemical Society does have some awards that are branded as measurement science awards. If everybody started using it, who knows, perhaps it would catch on. Personally, I favor fighting for analytical chemistry. It’s what most people are familiar with and I think we can turn things around.

Is there anything else we can do to address the reputation problem?

Facilitating interdisciplinary collaboration between analytical scientists and scientists in other fields should help to raise awareness of what analytical science can offer. There’s scope for societies to do more here – which I know they’re working on. I have sat in governing executive committee meetings of a few different societies and one of the things we discuss is how to infiltrate other more traditional clinical or biology conferences to show them the power of mass spectrometry. But we also want to welcome them to our meetings so that they’ll see the latest developments in analytical science and potentially get inspired to work with us.

It’d be great if we could work with different organizations to put together different sessions with participants from different fields, or perhaps a technology-focused session that is focused on potential applications to a particular field. I’m hoping we can figure out ways to find strategic partners for these collaborative efforts, who might then promote our field at their universities or elsewhere.

I’d also like to see some analytical scientists being recognized for their contributions to science. We need some of our biological collaborators who know the power and importance of these techniques to champion their analytical colleagues. And the more we continue working with people from outside our field, the more this should happen.

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About the Author
Benjamin Garcia

Presidential Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics and Director of Quantitative Proteomics, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.

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