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Business & Education Professional Development, Education

The Positivity Problem

Credit: UI News Bureau: L. Brian Stauffer photo

My motivation for writing this article is to share my thoughts on whether the field of analytical chemistry should be renamed. For me, changing the name to something like “measurement science,” as others have suggested, may have little effect. Even if you think people may more easily understand what we’re fundamentally about, keeping our connection to chemistry helps to define our field. We may never get the terminology perfect, and so I propose we work on our messaging instead.

Ever since I joined the field, there have been many comments centered on the respect (or lack thereof) we receive in analytical chemistry. These views go back to the 1950s and 1960s, when chemistry departments saw an explosion of new ideas in organic synthesis, physical chemistry, and other subfields of chemistry. These areas were perceived to be advancing quickly, whereas analytical chemistry was focused on existing measurements and thus, considered slower to move ahead. As a consequence, Berkely, Stanford, Yale, and other prestigious coastal institutions responded by not hiring analytical faculty, eventually having the field disappear from their chemistry departments. This changed in the 1970s and 1980s, as computer-controlled instrumentation greatly increased our abilities to perform measurement science, alongside significant advances in spectroscopy, separations, electrochemistry, and more. These advances have kept coming!

Yet despite these enhanced analytical measurement capabilities having increasing impact across many scientific disciplines, analytical chemistry is often viewed as a less vibrant area by some academic institutions. This view reduces our ability to recruit the best students, staff, and faculty. This incomplete understanding of the contributions of our field may be due in part to its application across disparate scientific disciplines. As one example, mass spectrometry technologies are constantly improving and being applied to an ever-greater range of fields outside chemistry. Our cross disciplinary impact convinces me that analytical chemistry is a growing, vibrant, and highly successful field, but it also makes it harder to track our impact.

As a related issue, many practitioners of analytical chemistry don’t identify as analytical chemists, especially if they are in academic departments such as bioengineering and in medical schools. At my institution, our bioengineering department has hired multiple successful analytical chemists. In fact, the number of faculty who publish in analytical journals at the University of Illinois is much higher than those officially affiliated with the chemistry department. Our analytical graduates are hired for all sorts of academic and scientific positions in a broad range of fields. However, these scientists often identify with whatever field they’re working in – as a bioengineer or a pharmaceutical chemist – not first and foremost as an “analytical chemist.” We need to convince them it is in their best interest to do so!

It’s worth noting that analytical chemists are not alone in defending their field; a lack of respect is something that scientists of all stripes suffer from. Some organic chemists complain that the organic chemists working in chemical biology don’t recognize themselves as organic chemists. More interestingly, some of my colleagues outside of analytical chemistry have been envious of the large funding priorities over the last few decades that have involved measurement science. These include the national human genome, microbiome, and brain initiatives, with large components related to tool development and analytical chemistry interwoven throughout these efforts to highlight our growing impact.

All that said, perhaps we’d be even more successful, attract more talented students, and generate more interdisciplinary collaborations if more people were aware of what we do. There is more that we can do outside of top-down PR. Of course, our field does get great PR when we have researchers analyzing letters from Dracula (1) and extracting protein from a dinosaur bone and applying mass spec to discover dinosaur protein fragments (2) are closely related to chicken proteins. This is a case of analytical chemistry solving one of humanity’s most long standing unanswered questions – what a dinosaur tasted like!

More seriously, there’s a danger if we expose our students to too many negative opinions – we don’t want negatives to be what they most remember about our field. If the overwhelming consensus and topics of our conversations are that we’re not getting enough recognition and respect, what impact will that have on prospective students when choosing a field of study? We need to generate interest in analytical chemistry by sharing what we’re working on with students and get them as excited as we are about our discoveries. This enthusiasm also applies to elementary, high school, and undergraduate students. Besides growing our field, analytical science education can lead students toward careers in pharma, bioengineering, biotechnology, environmental science, forensics, and so on. There are so many different ways for analytical chemists to thrive – we need to shout about that!

We also have to be careful that our own setbacks don’t generate negative attitudes that students absorb and then redirect towards the entire field. We should acknowledge that setbacks, such as funding and publication rejections, are part of the life of a scientist. One way I’ve tried to combat obstacles is by bringing everything back to my students. Even after some setbacks, with feedback and reflection, they have been able to come up with amazing ideas, refine them, and, ultimately, succeed. These early career successes ensure we attract more talent to our field.

There’s one student I’ll never forget who came to see me a couple of weeks after they had their first first-author paper accepted – saying that they didn’t think they were going to make it as an analytical chemistry grad student and should not get a PhD. They had all sorts of reasons as to why they didn’t believe in themselves or analytical chemistry as a good career choice. This is the key moment to become a cheerleader – a role all mentors should take. After trying to convince them that they could do it, I finally told them: “You’ve got your first-author paper accepted and you’re not allowed to complain for two months.” They ended up leaving my office in high spirits, joking that they’d be back after two months. You know what? Their first success was enough, and they never returned to report that they were leaving our field; they now have a great career in analytical chemistry.

Thus, my final thought is that perhaps we should be looking inwards rather than spending our efforts on rebranding the entire field – especially when there are so many different opinions about how we can “raise the profile of the field.” Perhaps if we put similar efforts into lifting our own morale and that of our students, we will raise the profile of the field to new and exciting heights.

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  1. MGG Pittalà et al., Anal Chem, 95, 34 (2023). DOI: 10.1021/acs.analchem.3c01461.
  2. MH Schweitzer et al., Science, 316, 5822 (2007). DOI: 10.1126/science.1138709.
About the Author
Jonathan Sweedler

Editor-in-Chief, Analytical Chemistry, and Director, School of Chemical Sciences, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

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