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No Mere Applicationist!

Credit: Yannis Tsouflidis

Analytical chemistry was once, in the words of C.R. Fresenius, what “made chemistry a science” and “a main pier on which the whole building of science is grounded.” This view was echoed by several of analytical chemistry’s founding fathers, including Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, Karl Friedrich Mohr, Izaak Maurits Kolthoff, and Justus von Liebig. Unfortunately, few outside of the analytical science world would agree today. In fact, analytical scientists are sometimes considered mere “applicationists” – a step down from core chemistry. I see many brilliant young scientists attracted to organic chemistry synthesis or biochemistry, where you’ll be working on fundamental processes at a cellular and molecular level. Indeed, the professors in these fields often have higher profiles. And that’s part of the reason why we struggle to attract enough great minds to analytical science – minds that could make big scientific advances. So what happened and what can we do about it?   

Things changed for analytical chemistry when instruments were introduced. Of course, instrumental analysis opened new horizons and offered a plethora of opportunities for interdisciplinary research. However, as the discipline became broader, fundamental research became shallower. Despite the fact that wet analytical chemistry – both qualitative and quantitative – was considered a core science, the use of instruments changed attitudes. Samples could be analyzed by technicians without strong technical backgrounds, so people began to associate analytical chemistry with routine analysis, which led to a widespread perception of the field as second class science. 

The sad thing? This wasn’t actually the case – even back then. In separation science, fundamental knowledge is mandatory, otherwise a method cannot be generated or repeated. Imagine the transfer of a gradient HPLC program that separates a number of analytes to a system with different dwell volume; or imagine the science that is hidden in all sample preparation approaches. Nonetheless, a notion had spread: chemical analysis now simply involves “pressing buttons.”

This, I would argue, has also disorientated analytical scientists themselves. Today, the field seems to be split into two separate disciplines: “analytical chemistry/science” and “chemical analysis.” The latter is related mostly to applications, serving as a tool and providing data to other disciplines, while the former relates to fundamental core science. 

Routine chemical analysis of similar samples using standard protocols usually developed by others or made mandatory by regulatory agencies is certainly a valuable service for many fields, but it is not the same thing as developing or improving techniques and tools to solve new problems, which requires deep fundamental understanding. The proliferation of chemical analysis and its association with the analytical science field as a whole has not done the reputation of the field any good. 

But we also need to recognize our own part in the problem. We are guilty of failing to make this distinction between analytical chemistry and chemical analysis clear. We often consider both groups as part of the same “community,” which has led scientists in other fields to see all analytical scientists as mere applicationists involved in routine analysis. 

We seem to be stuck in a vicious cycle where we don’t get the recognition we deserve, which leads to a lack of self-esteem, which then contributes to how others view the value of the field. We need to change this feeling to establish ourselves, once again, as highly appreciated in the community of chemists. 

Interdisciplinary limits 

We do often talk about the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration – this is mandatory in analytical chemistry, by definition. Indeed, there is no reason to develop a method unless it has application to any kind of field: medicine, pharmaceutical chemistry, environmental chemistry, organic synthesis, food chemistry – you name it. But we should set the limits. The analytical chemists’ task is to develop and validate the necessary method to solve the problem, check and prove the applicability with a number of real samples. Next, the recipient of the method has to apply it to their own terms and conditions. The role of the analytical scientist should be distinguishable and clear. 

It is not a taboo to do chemical analyses, but analytical chemists should mainly work on the promotion of their field. Or at least they should face the truth and be aware of the level of science they are doing. 

I also think we need to stick to the fundamentals in our analytical chemistry curriculums. The most fascinating part of analytical science has always been (at least to me) qualitative and quantitative analysis based on chemical reactions. A good theoretical background is a prerequisite to progress. Students must deeply understand what is happening in the tube. All experiments of precipitation, dissolution, and so on are “magic!” But, more recently, due to the fact that reagents are expensive and potentially toxic or harmful for the environment, lab practice has been all but eliminated. Students now have less contact with basic knowledge in practice.

At the same time, instruments, for students (and unfortunately for some scientists as well), are black boxes. They may know the principle of operation, they may know the software to operate the instrument and collect data – but then what? I have many times come face to face with the fact that they don’t actually know what they are measuring or how to calculate the results and express the data as useful information. The more this continues, the more others will see the field as lacking depth – because that will become the case! 

Students also require good training on instruments so that they have deep knowledge of what is taking place during operation. Very often a lack of good training is related to the age or condition of the instruments, which may be not in full operation mode. (The high cost of operation is evidently a drawback.) Students should also be taught how to repair the instrument.

Having said all this, we do often see students who, after finishing their master’s degree or even PhD thesis in other fields – dazzled by the lights of pure scientists – come to analytical chemistry for a further degree, so they have the practical experience that is necessary for their future employment. We might have a reputation problem – sometimes struggling to attract students – but the value of the analytical science field often shines in other ways. Just look at the number of Nobel laureates from our field! 

Emphasis on the fundamental

Generally speaking, all chemical unions/societies and their divisions of analytical chemistry make efforts to promote the field. But the field is its people – it’s up to analytical scientists to distinguish themselves and persuade their peers. If our research deals with fundamentals, it will be published in highly esteemed journals. It will take time, but other scientists and students will get the message.

We should also focus on our own field. Interdisciplinary collaborations can continue once the necessary analytical tools have been developed and checked for applicability; we must pass the baton of routine analysis and data processing to those who need the application data for their own research demands. Again, we must differentiate ourselves.

If we emphasize our fundamental role, change gears, and get rid of our “applicationist” label, I believe we will be accepted by peers – as we once were – and also inspire young chemists to join our wonderful field. 

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About the Author
Victoria Samanidou

Victoria Samanidou is based at the Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry, Department of Chemistry, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Thessaloniki, Greece.

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