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Make Analytical Chemistry Cool (Again)

Does analytical science have a reputation problem? Are we struggling to attract talent to the field? If so, what can we do about it? We’re exploring these questions with a series of articles (you can read episode one featuring Victoria Samanidou here). 

Here, we ask the opinions of three early-career researchers – Simona Felletti, Research Fellow at University of Ferrara, Italy; Mimi den Uijl, Analytical Chemist at University of Amsterdam, Netherlands; and Ina Varfaj, PhD Research Student at University of Perugia, Italy. Not coincidentally, our trio were all winners of the 2023 Separation Science Slam – a competition held at HPLC and organized by The Analytical Scientist and Knauer.

Does analytical science struggle to attract young researchers?

Felletti: Yes – somewhat. It’s always been difficult to find young researchers that are interested in analytical science. But what I can say is, although we may be few, we are highly motivated!

Varfaj: I agree with Simona – those of us in the analytical community are really motivated and strongly believe in research for future needs. This passionate environment is encouraging for young scientists and should be advertised more broadly. Additionally, there needs to be a strong connection between academia and industry. It’s important for early-career researchers to be able see a clear path to a career in industry as well.

What do you think is the root of the problem?

den Uijl: A lot of the issues lie within education itself. In the Dutch school system, you spend six years at high school and, after the first three, you choose which direction you want to go in. This means that it’s only three years in when you start to learn the basics of chemistry – and that’s where we’re going wrong. We approach subjects as though you have to learn everything before doing something with it, but this gives the public the impression that chemistry is really difficult. By overcomplicating our field, we’re scaring away talented scientists. This also gives the stereotype that people have to be incredibly smart to do chemistry, but if you do a PhD in any subject, you have to be very clever. So it has nothing to do with the field at all – just our presentation of it.

Felletti: Yes, the poor reputation of chemistry amongst all scientific subjects and students is scaring them from exploring the field – and it’s even worse for analytical chemistry! There’s also a lack of information about what analytical science researchers do. And the uncertainties around future job prospects (especially in academia) further tarnishes the view of the field. We should be dedicated to removing the initial prejudice young students have towards our field.

What actions can we take to overcome these challenges?

Varfaj: We need to promote awareness of analytical science through career fairs, school visits, extracurricular programs, summer camps, and online resources. If professionals in the field share their experiences with students and provide accessible introductory courses, mentorship programs, and tutoring, we can build the confidence and skills of the next generation. Of course, collaboration with industry professionals to update the curriculum and incorporate real-world applications would greatly improve students’ learning outcomes. A broad multidisciplinary approach that combines awareness, diversity, mentorship, and engagement would help in attracting young students to analytical science and prepare them for successful careers in this rapidly evolving field. 

den Uijl: Yes, it seems that, as a field, we agreed not to share much with the public about the work that we do. This obviously makes it very difficult for us to excite the next generation of analytical scientists. If young scientists see the exciting research projects that analytical scientists partake in – and if we remove the stereotype that you have to be super smart to work in our field – we’re sure to see more interest.

Felletti: The activities of scientific dissemination are pivotal here. It’s crucial to show students the role of researchers and analytical scientists. Even events such as the Separation Science Slam would push this narrative and give students a perfect window into the field.

What would you say to young students to encourage them to pursue an analytical career?

den Uijl: Anyone interested in analytical science or another STEM subject needs to let go of the stereotypes and inform themselves of what happens within the field. There’s obviously a lot that needs to change within the education system to reflect this, but to students I’d say: be patient and do your own research. Science is fun and there’s plenty within analytical science to keep curious minds engaged.

Varfaj: I strongly believe that it’s good to not receive the results you expected. By making mistakes, especially as a young scientist, you’re able to learn more about the process by finding out what went wrong and what you can do to fix it. For these reasons, it’s important to keep believing in yourself. My professor (quoting Albert Einstein) once told me: “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new,” which resonates with all scientists, but especially those of us in analytical science.

Felletti: Exactly – sometimes things don’t go to plan, but these changes lead you in the right direction. I didn’t plan to go to university after high school, yet here I am approaching my fourth year as a postdoc! I think my curiosity and love for science helped me decide where to go, and this is key for young students. With science, you never get bored – there’s always something new to learn and discover.

Image Credit: The Analytical Scientist

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About the Author
Jessica Allerton

Associate Editor, The Analytical Scientist

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