Why Pittcon Stands for Philanthropy and Collaborative Science
The Pittsburgh Conference went virtual in 2021 (for obvious reasons), but it will be back to its full glory for Atlanta 2022. But what makes Pittcon different? And what lies in its future? We spoke with its organizing committee to find out.
Lauren Robertson, Frank van Geel | | Longer Read
Most (if not all) of you reading this will be aware of the allure of the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy – almost universally referred to simply as “Pittcon.” Every year, the best and brightest in our field attend to talk and hear about the latest advances in analytical research and instrumentation, as well as to network and take part in a wide range of activities to bolster their careers.
But perhaps fewer of you will be aware that over 90 percent of the net profit generated by Pittcon goes to funding primary and secondary education, scholarships, lab improvements, and outreach activities that fund the future of analytical science.
Put simply, the real Pittcon difference is philanthropy, and The Analytical Scientist team decided that an exploration of the Pittcon mission was long overdue. Here, key organization committee members – Neal Dando, Helen Boylan, Eli Absey, Penny Gardner, Jonell Kerkhoff, and Melinda Stephens – tell us all about Pittcon’s education and outreach activities, the lessons they’ve learned, and why Pittcon continues to stand out from the crowd.
Meet the Pittcon Organizing Committee
Helen: Hi! My name is Helen Boylan, and I’m Co-chair of the Marketing Committee for Pittcon. I have a BS in environmental science from Westminster College and a PhD in analytical/environmental chemistry from Duquesne University. I am a Professor of chemistry and environmental science and Director of the Center for the Environment at Westminster College. On top of this, I am currently the PI on a National Science Foundation Improving Undergraduate STEM Education grant, where I get to focus on my passion for hands-on, experiential learning and providing innovative learning experiences for students. This initiative brings together STEM students and business, giving them the opportunity to learn environmental science, project management, and leadership skills and then apply those to real-world problems at the intersection of environmental science and business.
Neal: My name is Neal Dando, and I am the Pittcon 2021 President. I have an MS and PhD from the University of Delaware in analytical chemistry. My industry career spans 33 years, during which I worked for DuPont, PPG and Alcoa. I have 15 patents to my name and was recognized with Alcoa’s highest corporate award for team accomplishment three times – something I’m very proud of. My major career focus was the deployment and use of sensor technologies to reduce manufacturing process losses and improve process recovery. I have been a member of the Pittcon organizing committee since 1987 and a member of the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP) and the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP) since 1984.
Melinda: I’m Melinda Stephens, and I am the President-Elect for Pittcon 2024 in San Diego. I earned my BS in chemistry from Geneva College and my PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Pittsburgh. In 1998, I was appointed to Geneva College as a faculty member in the chemistry department, primarily teaching analytical and organic chemistry. Almost 10 years later, I transitioned into administrative work – first serving as Faculty Development Coordinator, then as Academic Dean. In 2015, I assumed the role of Chief Academic Officer, and I am currently serving as the Provost – although I still occasionally get to teach as a Professor of chemistry! Outside of Geneva, I like to stay active in my discipline by participating in the SACP and the SSP. I’ve been a volunteer of the organizing committee for Pittcon since 2000.
Jonell: My name is Jonell Kerkhoff, and will be the President for Pittcon 2023 in Philadelphia. I received my PhD in analytical chemistry from the University of Florida. My industry career spans 32 years with Alcoa and Arconic, and I have held a number of roles during this time, from Worldwide Supply Chain Manager (Alcoa Chemicals), to Site Director and Program Director (Alcoa Technical Center). A highlight of my career was working as Program Director for a breakthrough technology materials program with the goal of dramatically reducing carbon emissions in the smelting process.
Penny: My name is Penny Gardner, and I am currently Co-chair of Committee Arrangements for Pittcon 2023. I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a BS in chemistry. My entire career has been in environmental chemistry, and I started off in the local county health department preparing and testing samples of various matrices for pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and herbicides. From there, I moved to a contract laboratory and worked in the organics department analyzing samples for pesticides and PCBs under the Contract Laboratory Program for EPA Superfund sites. I left there to set up a contract laboratory program at another laboratory where, at the age of 30, I became the first female manager in the company when I was promoted to Laboratory Director. I eventually “retired” from the laboratory in 1992 when my son was born, but I continued to participate in the SACP, SSP and Pittcon. In 2016, I went back to work part-time as a Senior Quality Assurance Chemist for Environmental Data Quality, Inc. (EDQI). At EDQI, my responsibilities include review and validation of inorganic and organic data using EPA Guidelines, database management, data entry tabulation, and report writing.
Eli: I’m Eli Absey, and I am looking forward to representing Pittcon 2022 as President. I received my BA in biology/chemistry from Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, USA. I retired from Waters Corporation as a Senior Account Manager in 2019. Before Waters, I was an Account Manager for Dionex and Brinkmann Corporations, and a Laboratory Manager with Von Roll Corporation. At Von Roll I was responsible for developing an Analytical Testing Laboratory for a new Hazardous Waste Facility in East Liverpool, Ohio. I worked closely with the Ohio and US EPAs. I enjoyed my years with these companies and was fortunate to meet some great people. Since the 1980s, I have been involved with the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP) and the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP). I was also an active member and past President of the Laboratory Information Management System Institute (LIMS).
What drives you to dedicate your time and talent to Pittcon as a volunteer?
Helen: I enjoy my role as Co-chair of the Marketing Committee for many reasons. We (the volunteers) get to work closely with the marketing team in the office; we get to brainstorm and be creative. Pittcon 2021 was certainly a challenge for the marketing team in the transition to a virtual show. We wanted to offer our attendees some engaging opportunities in the virtual platform, and I think we did a good job of that. Now, as we move back to an in-person show, we need to think about new ways to engage our participants. I personally enjoy the challenge that my role at Pittcon brings.
Neal: I enjoy working on the Pittcon organizing committee because it offers a range of opportunities for personal growth – I have the chance to get involved in leading scientific conference/event management activities that are different from and complement actual work experiences.
Melinda: I agreed to serve as President-Elect for 2024 in San Diego because I am excited about being able to launch Pittcon on the West Coast in a beautiful city. I have been involved with Pittcon since 1994, serving as a student aide while a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh and transitioning through several leadership roles to this point. I believe in the mission of the Pittsburgh Conference and see the fruit of the use of the funds received through Pittcon in science outreach initiatives at all levels of education – elementary through higher education.
Jonell: I first became a member of the Pittcon organizing committee in 1986 and a member of the SACP and SSP in 1984. Because of Alcoa work commitments and family, I took a leave of absence in 1991 but have now been active in Pittcon since 2015. Being a part of SACP, SSP, and Pittcon has been a wonderful opportunity to give back to the scientific community, as well as to students and teachers at all levels. Pittcon offers a range of opportunities to network with equipment vendors, educators, and researchers while at the same time generating funds to support the education and outreach efforts of the SACP and SSP. It is thrilling to be a part of an effort of this scale.
Penny: In my current position as Co-chairman of Committee Arrangements, my responsibility is to “take care of the needs” of the volunteer committee. I have done this particular job before and enjoy the creativity and fun it brings. I decided to do this job again because Jonell asked me to work with her on creating a fun and enjoyable environment for the Pittcon 2023 organizing committee. As volunteers, many with full-time jobs, we spend hours and hours helping to organize Pittcon every year. Committee Arrangements provides food, relaxation, and an opportunity for team building within the committee. Also, having been the President of Pittcon in 2011, I feel it is my responsibility to help future Pittcon Presidents wherever they may need me. I believe in mentoring and teaching new committee members about the organization and helping them understand its history.
Eli: In the early 1980s I became involved with the SACP and SSP. Their contributions to promote scientific outreach has always intrigued me. I especially enjoy working with children, from kindergarten to high school level, to teach them about the wonders of science. My philosophy is we need to expose children to science at an early age. After all, they are our future scientists.
What first inspired you to take up a role in the Pittcon organization?
Helen: My inspiration to get involved in the SSP/SACP and then Pittcon was the late Edward Ladner. I got to work with Ed at the National Energy Technology Lab (NETL) when I was an undergraduate student doing an internship there. Ed became a mentor and friend to me, encouraging me to get involved in the SSP, to take leadership positions within the SSP, and ultimately inviting me to get involved with the Pittcon committee.
Neal: For me, it’s a chance to give back to our community. Pittcon, as the sole funding source of the SACP and SSP, offers an amazing opportunity to “pay back” for the wealth of positive experiences and scientific contributions I’ve enjoyed by pursuing a career in science.
Jonell: As Neal says, Pittcon has been the sole funding source enabling the SACP and SSP to support and promote science awareness and science education locally, nationally, and internationally. It is extremely gratifying to be able to devote my time and energy to this science-based, non-profit organization.
Penny: I attended my first Pittcon in 1986 in Atlantic City with my husband, and I’ve been involved in every Pittcon since 1988. I remember walking into the convention center and feeling like a kid in a candy store. I had never seen so many exhibitors, instruments, and equipment in my career! Attending the meetings was a wonderful way to learn about what was happening in the industry through the technical program speakers and a great way to network with fellow chemists. It was my husband who was first involved in the organizing committee, but as his spouse I was also asked to participate in some aspects. In 1991, I was asked to become a committee member myself. Participating in the societies and Pittcon is something we enjoy as a couple.
What is it about Pittcon in particular that appeals to you?
Helen: The mission of science education is what appeals to me the most. I’ve had the chance to see the benefits of this first-hand – when I got to attend Pittcon as a student aide, and now when I get to take my own students. They are always blown away by the experience, just like I was. For most students, this is their first professional conference, and the experience is such a positive one for them. It makes me proud to be part of the committee. For some students, attending Pittcon is even life-changing. Many of my students have gotten their first jobs through Pittcon’s Employment Bureau – a somewhat under-appreciated aspect of the conference.
Secondary to the education mission is the people of Pittcon. The relationships that exist among the committee members, the office staff, and the Pittcon attendees are what makes it so special. We get to work together and have fun together, in working toward the goal of supporting science education. It’s like a big family.
Neal: Like Helen, I personally identify with the mission of Pittcon and the SACP and SSP. I too have directly experienced some of the impacts that they have on people’s life trajectories. For example, I first came to Pittsburgh for a position I received through Pittcon’s Employment Bureau. I met my wife (also a PhD scientist) while at a society-sponsored event – judging a local science fair. My children have also participated (for several years) in science fairs sponsored by the SACP and SSP. I have no doubt these experiences impacted their decisions to become engineers.
Melinda: I have spent over twenty years volunteering for Pittcon in various capacities. Each year that I attend, I see the value of this forum for the dissemination of current scientific research and novel scientific instrumentation. And it provides a great opportunity for multi-generational engagement.
Although I have moved into administration now in my regular duties, I have more responsibility for budget and purchasing. I understand how important it is to invest in the development of your faculty and staff. I think that Pittcon is a great way for individuals from many different arenas (academia and industry) to interact with each other and to develop new knowledge and skills through our technical program, short courses and exposition.
Jonell: There’s so much that appeals to me! Like the others, I am fully invested in Pittcon’s science education mission – but it’s those personal experiences that stick with me. I went to my first Pittcon as a graduate student with the University of Florida. The conference offered me a significant opportunity to network with other students and to meet and talk with analytical chemistry professors and researchers from different universities, colleges and R&D centers to discuss the latest research and instruments. I don’t think this is an experience anyone would forget easily. But I also have other great memories; while finishing up graduate school, I took advantage of the Pittcon Employment Bureau and got my position with Alcoa. And my husband and I met while judging as society committee members at the Pennsylvania Regional Science and Engineering Fair.
Penny: As the others have mentioned, it’s the core mission of science education that really appeals to me. The money that Pittcon has made over the years continues to allow the SACP/SSP to promote science education in the Western Pennsylvania region through various teacher and student awards, as well as grant programs for elementary, middle, and high schools, colleges, and beginning university professors. My favorite part of the year is the annual awards banquet held by the SACP and SSP to honor and celebrate all of the awardees who received grants from the various programs for the year. I enjoy sitting with students and their parents who have received scholarships and grants. The energy, enthusiasm, and optimism from these young, up-and-coming scientists is exhilarating!
When I was chairman of the SSP, in 2005-2006, I started the Elementary School Science Olympiad Program (ESSOP). Essentially, the ESSOP is a hands-on program designed for students of all abilities aged 9-12 years old to excite, inspire, challenge and foster an appreciation for the fun side of science. Pittcon further supports this through their Science Week program, which invites elementary/middle school students from the host city to visit the convention center and participate in several hands-on activities. Through Pittcon Science Week, we are able to promote the ESSOP program and provide seed money to schools within the host city in which our conference is being held. I strongly believe we need to get students interested in science at the elementary school level. Often, children think science is too hard, but by allowing them to experience the fun, hands-on side of science it makes it less scary and less daunting to understand.
Besides the outreach initiatives, Pittcon appeals to me in so many other ways. It allows me to travel to cities and meet people I would not normally get to meet. I have met international scientists and Nobel Prize-winning chemists, and have networked with many people in the chemistry field. The week of Pittcon is like being in your own world. You are immersed in science and technology for an entire week. You get to experience jobs and tasks you would never get to do in your “real life” job. It is one week of the year where you are working but having fun with people who share your passion and commitment to the conference and to science education.
Eli: What doesn’t appeal? Pittcon is a comprehensive technical conference with a dynamic exposition. The venue allows you to examine the latest advances in research and scientific instrumentation. Over the past 72 years, Pittcon has showcased the latest in analytical instrumentation, data processing and scientific software, and supplies and column companies all in one place. It is a great place to exchange ideas and information. An attendee can participate in the technical programs, attend short courses, and participate in networking discussions. You can even look for professional opportunities through the aforementioned Employment Bureau.
What are some of the challenges today – and what are the solutions?
Helen: I think all organizations, including Pittcon, are trying to figure out what the new normal will look like post-pandemic. The pandemic forced us to figure out ways to do things virtually. Some things work well in a virtual setting and others are simply OK, but there are some aspects where face-to-face interaction cannot be replaced. As an organization, I think the challenge is to offer the best face-to-face experience we can. Beyond that, Pittcon has been offering some year-round programming outside of conference week (online short courses, online coffee breaks, and some other programs in the works). I would like to see our organization continue this and be more relevant to the scientific community outside of conference week.
Another goal is to promote our mission. I think there are many Pittcon attendees who are not aware that over 90 cents of every dollar spent at Pittcon goes to science education. With that in mind, I think people can feel really good about coming to Pittcon. (Plus, it’s still great value!)
Melinda: COVID-19 significantly impacted the trade show industry. We remain committed to offering an in-person experience for attendees and exhibitors. We want to attract a larger number of attendees by offering quality programs and provide more ROI for exhibitors by giving them a forum to generate more leads.
Neal: In a similar vein to what Melinda has mentioned, my intermediate and long-term goal is to help Pittcon navigate a path that best serves our exhibitors and attendees. This path will continually evolve based on factors both within and outside of our control.
Jonell: I agree. A significant challenge for in-person venues is to provide value that cannot be obtained from an online-only experience. Based on feedback, we know that exhibitors and attendees prefer in-person conferences and exhibitions over virtual.
Eli: Pittcon 2021 has been a challenge with the COVID-19 pandemic, but as one says – the show must go on! I am proud of all the hard work our organizing committee did to put on a first class virtual conference despite the challenges. Of all the virtual conferences I visited, none of them met the Pittcon standards.
I, like the others, am also really excited to return to a face-to-face conference in 2022 at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta. Talking to many of our exhibitors and potential attendees, the overall response is that they cannot wait to meet everyone again. We are expecting international travel to resume and are anxious to see our international friends again.
What are some of the lessons learned over the last year or so?
Melinda: I was the Chair of Short Courses for Pittcon 2021. I observed that, although a course can be offered in an online format, the experience is not as valuable as an in-person one that allows for informal conversations and networking to occur during coffee breaks. Although we offered a high-quality virtual show, attendance was lower than an in-person conference. In part, because individuals were experiencing significant “Zoom fatigue” and, I believe, yearned for an in-person experience.
Penny: I couldn’t agree more. Of course, Pittcon 2021 was an amazing show, and there are advantages and disadvantages to both in-person and virtual events. I think we need to try and combine the advantages of a face-to-face conference with that of a virtual show. Even before the pandemic, Pittcon was looking for new ways to attract attendees and exhibitors. We started offering short courses throughout the year instead of just the week of the show, and I believe continuing to have the conference in different cities is important to allow more people to attend.
I foresee Pittcon 2022 being a great success. So many people want to get out and see others properly again. People are tired of interacting with others over a computer screen. There is no substitute for actually touching equipment and talking to a person about your laboratory issues.
Neal: We’ve made a number of significant findings from pivoting to a virtual conference in 2021. We now know how to pivot from face-to-face to virtual to hybrid as needed, and when required by expected or unexpected circumstances. I truly believe this will be an invaluable lesson for the future. We’ve also learnt that, given a choice, both exhibitors and attendees prefer a face-to-face experience. Why? Because creating the opportunity for serendipitous – “Ah-ha” – moments is a significant challenge for virtual-only venues.
Jonell: Yes. In a world that is becoming increasingly “virtual,” Pittcon must provide platforms that encourage in-person connectivity and interaction, whether they are vendor-customer, teacher-student, or researcher-researcher.
Helen: I find myself drawing parallels between trade shows/professional conferences and higher education. Both are facing real challenges, including budget issues, reduced attendance, and a question of relevance. In both areas, we can’t continue to do things the way that they have always been done. We need to continue to innovate. We need to be scientific about it, too. We need to experiment with new ideas/approaches/strategies. We need to see what works and what doesn’t. Then we need to tweak the model and run the experiment again. Science continues to evolve and the way that we network with one another and communicate about science and technologies needs to evolve as well.
Eli: 2021 was a challenge. Pittcon did put on an excellent virtual conference, but as Melinda mentioned, people were certainly experiencing “Zoom fatigue.” Virtual does not offer the same benefits as a face-to-face conference. I believe this could have affected the virtual attendance.
What do you see (or want to see) in Pittcon’s future?
Helen: This is a tricky question. I am not on the board or in line for president, and they are the real decision-makers. But, in my role as a committee member, I will continue to push for innovation, to push for attendee engagement (both during and outside of conference week), and to push for making our mission front and center.
Neal: We will continually work to improve integration/harmonization of our technical program and short courses to remain a “one-stop-shop” for technologies, training, and scientific discourse regarding laboratory sciences.
Eli: Our staff are dedicated to offering a top-notch program and exposition. We need to make sure we address the scientific areas our customers want to help increase our attendance. Also, we must communicate well with our exhibitors about their advancements to help them receive a good ROI. As long as we promote all aspects of Pittcon (for example the all-inclusive exposition, technical program, short courses, networking opportunities, and employment services) I am extremely optimistic in Pittcon’s future.
Melinda: I hope we retain our regular attendees and attract new attendees to the conference. We want to grow the number of exhibitors and increase the lead counts per company. We also want to keep costs low for exhibitors so that they can have a significant ROI.
Jonell: We have a number of goals for the future. We are working to accelerate our ability to adapt and evolve our technical content, short courses, and networking content. We also want to address the changing needs of our exhibitors and attendees so that we can provide the best value available!
Penny: I don’t know what Pittcon will look like in the future, but I am excited to help Pittcon evolve. I believe a hybrid show of some sort that will allow both in-person and virtual attendance is a real possibility. As the face-to-face show’s dynamic keeps changing, we will be able to fit into even more convention centers and host cities. This will allow us to reach more scientists, especially the bench chemists working in the laboratories. A virtual presence will allow for more international visitors to attend the show. The Pittcon committee’s strength lies in our diversity, creativity, and passion to continue to make this the premier international conference and exposition it has always been. Pittcon is very much open to new and exciting possibilities!
Getting to Know Pittcon
What is Pittcon? How did it start? And what are some examples of its outreach activities?
The Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy, referred to as Pittcon, is a non-profit educational organization that organizes and holds an annual Conference and Exposition on laboratory science. Pittcon is comprised of two volunteer scientific societies: the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh (SSP) and the Society for Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh (SACP).
Since its inception in 1950, Pittcon’s mission has been to support science education. Its current mission reads: “Advancing and enriching scientific endeavor by connecting scientists worldwide, facilitating the exchange of research and ideas, showcasing the latest in laboratory innovation, and funding science education and outreach.”
Pittcon started as a small technical conference and exposition that was first held in the William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA in February, 1950. The first 18 annual conferences were held in Pittsburgh, before expanding to larger venues.
Pittsburgh has always been blessed as a birthplace of major companies with large science divisions, such as US Steel, PPG, Alcoa, Westinghouse, and Koppers together with several large universities. In the early to mid-1940s, two volunteer societies, the SACP and SSP, were formed to encourage regular, informal discourse (and meetings) between industrial and academic scientists in the Pittsburgh area.
The Pittsburgh Conference was a logical outgrowth of these meetings, including laboratory equipment and instrumentation developers, so that expanding local industries could quickly adopt new laboratory technologies and equipment, while suppliers could get first-hand feedback from users and potential customers.
How is it organized?
Pittcon is planned and executed by an organizing committee of around 100 volunteers together with a staff of conference/exposition/tradeshow professionals. The net income generated by Pittcon – approximately $1,000,000 annually – is allocated to the two Societies (SACP & SSP) each year for distribution in the form of equipment grants, scholarships, and education outreach (direct and indirect) programs, and in support of STEM oriented institutions (libraries, museums, and science fairs).
Examples of national outreach
- Grants of Foldscope® microscopes to middle schools and high schools.
- Support of Stem & Buds, which is a peer-based tutoring, mentoring and summer STEM program for middle school and high school students.
- The Undergraduate Analytical Research Program, which provides research funding for professors and chemistry undergraduate students.
- The Pittcon National College Grant Program, which provides grants to small college science departments to purchase scientific equipment and other teaching aids and materials for undergraduate students.
- The Starter Grants, which are provided to new chemistry professors to encourage high-quality, innovative research and to promote the training and development of graduate students in analytical chemistry.
Examples of local outreach
- The Pittcon Planetarium offers an in-school astronomy program by driving a portable, inflatable planetarium to schools within 200 miles of Pittsburgh.
- The Elementary School Science Olympiad Program (ESSOP) training sessions, where attendees can qualify to apply for grants of complete ESSOP modules that enable them to hold their own in-school science Olympiads.
- K-12 Equipment Grants to teachers and schools for the purchase of equipment and supplies to promote science and chemistry in the classroom.
- Science Fair competition grants to support science enrichment for middle school and high school students.