Tuesday, July 19, 2011

CHEMisperceptions: Missing the 'how' of chemistry

I know it's hard to believe, but I read blogs outside of the chemblogosphere. One of the political bloggers I follow is Matthew Yglesias, who blogs for the Center for American Progress (a progressive think tank). Known for being one of the first political bloggers (he started his blog as a sophomore philosophy major at Harvard), he has grown into being one of the more influential progressive policy bloggers. He was recently writing a post covering some neuroscience news and had this opening:
I had a friend in college who spent a lot of time dissecting frozen rat brains (or something), which I always thought was funny but she swore was part of important neurological research. 
Yglesias is poking gentle fun, of course, but I found his tossed-off comment distressing. It indicated that, even at Harvard, it was difficult to bridge the 'two cultures' divide. Two things that I found disappointing: he didn't remember the 'how' correctly, and he couldn't connect the 'how' with the 'why.'

A section of placenta. While I love chemistry, biology really
has got us beat on the picture front.
Photo credit: ispub.com*
"Dissecting frozen rat brains" was probably someone using a cryostat/microtome (or a 'cold knife') to cut micron-thin pieces of frozen tissue. I had the chance to use one as a summer student and I found it a fascinating (and scary) tool to use. (Bear with me, chemists -- I do have a point.) The fresh tissue is first preserved  in media (polymer, wax, etc) and you chill the tissue in liquid nitrogen. The tissue is mounted in the cryostat and the knife block (heavy, extraordinarily sharp) is placed in its setting and extraordinarily thin pieces of tissue are sliced (keep those fingers away the blade!) and carefully lifted with a fine-tip paint brush onto a
slide, where they can melt and adhere. The slides can then be stained for morphology and presence of DNA, RNA or protein. The pictures that they can capture can be stunning. The most visually stunning 'how' technique in biology -- and he makes it sound like she's mashing frozen Hot Pockets.

What may be more disappointing is that Yglesias didn't remember (or his friend failed to press into him) the 'why' of what she was doing. Doubtless, there was an unknown region of the brain, or a key receptor or a new protein that would have shed light on some aspect of neurology. But sadly, that information is lost to him.

It got me to thinking about chemistry and people's perception of us as chemists. What do people think of us? Do they know the 'what' of chemistry or the 'how'? Do they know the 'why'?

What do people think of us? Well, according to this ACS study from 2000, honestly, they don't think of us at all. When they do, they're mostly vaguely positive. They're not so sure about the chemical industry (and these days, they're probably not keen on the pharmaceutical industry, either.)

Do they know the 'what'? To be blunt, I think the public thinks they know the 'what': we're chemists. We work with chemicals. (What are chemicals? That's someone else's post, I think.) To hear the jokes, of course, we're always making bad smells or blowing ourselves up. Thanks to AMC (and lots of other reasons), chemists and chemistry is also connected with recreational drugs. I don't think anyone blames 'Breaking Bad' for the perceptions of chemists (although some might), but it certainly doesn't help much.

Certainly, the federal government knows what we do -- that's a relief. The Bureau of Labor Statistics' description is pretty pat: "Conduct[s] qualitative and quantitative chemical analyses or experiments in laboratories for quality or process control or to develop new products or knowledge."

Do they know the 'why'? I don't know. I assume that they do. Chemists certainly do -- most chemistry papers make a least a head-fake towards the why: "We're making whateverol because we think it might have anticancer properties." "We're looking at the properties of gallium-arsenide quantum nanodots to make faster computers." "We're studying this polymer to make cheaper, greener plastics." That's the easier part, and the place where I think the public's perception of chemists is the closest to reality.

Do they know the 'how'? I think their perception of the 'how' is grossly distorted. In short, chemists look at chemicals. Check out these pictures -- there we are, chemists, staring at chemicals stored in glassware. Sometimes we look at them in the light, sometimes we look really hard at them, sometimes we raise them above our heads, sometimes we look at them with inspiration, but we look at them. Pages and pages of stock photos of chemists, and not a single photo that looks anything like a technique that I would recognize (although, it should be noted, that there is a wide diversity in what chemists look like.)
Professor Test-Tube on the right is a crowd favorite, I'm sure. 
That's obviously a tiny, tiny part of the story of chemistry. Experiments, scientific method, literature searching -- none of that is set in the public perception of chemists. And what to do about this lack of knowledge? Television? Sure, the general public may know a little about our instruments from CSI, but they're not scientific instruments at all. They're more-or-less Hollywood black boxes that require no intelligence to operate ('The GC/MS tells us the killer used tetramethyldeath -- which is only sold in one store in Manhattan!')

I have no great science communication insights to share (yeah, no kidding. -ed.), nor solutions to the clear problems with the public perception of chemists. As someone who can't stop talking about chemistry and science with his friends and family (no matter how hard he tries), all I have to offer is the following that I've gleaned over the last two weeks of thinking over this problem:

Don't go for the 'why' just yet: I think it's tempting to go for the 'why' too early. When you tell people "I work on cancer drugs", it's not likely to make people ask you more about your work. I think it may end the conversation about your work and it's a lot more likely to get people to tell you about their health problems (which you may or may not want). It's an escape hatch, and someday, you're going to meet someone who's more interested in what and how you actually do your work as a chemist. 

Can the 'how' be just as interesting as the 'why'? For day-to-day bench chemists, of course, the 'how' can be the most interesting part of being a chemist. The 'why' is taken for granted and the 'how' is our day-to-day lives. While it's difficult, I think it's possible to make the 'how' just as interesting as the 'why'. For example, Matt's kitchen chemistry posts are a great way of using cooking techniques to talk about chemical principles. While I think there are real challenges in telling a good story about a NMR or a HPLC, I think these are problems that may be surmountable. 

Does it all matter? While I am sorely tempted to say that public perception of chemists doesn't matter, the cold truth is that it does. The chemical sciences (and industrial chemistry, certainly) are deeply intertwined with the economy and with the political, legal and regulatory systems of government. Communicating chemistry with candor and clarity is one of the few means we have to make sure our voices as chemists are heard.

If you've gotten this far, dear reader, thanks and I'd love to hear your thoughts. (And many thanks to Dr. Free Ride and her post on communicating chemistry informally -- it was an eye-opener.)


  1. Meanwhile, Yglesias' friend was blogging:

    I had a friend in college who spent a lot of time deconstructing the aesthetics of Western epistemology (or something), which I always thought was funny but he swore was part of important philosophical research.

    Really, who cares? Chemists are people who are smarter than you who spend all day staring at clear containers of colored liquids and making the drugs you will be taking after you retire. That's all you need to know.

  2. @CJ - I agree that the "why" can come too early in conversation. If I say I make drugs, they crack a meth joke; if I say any acronyms longer than two letters, their eyes glaze over. To steal from SG a bit, I usually just say it's like being a chef, only I cook with chemicals (all foods are chemicals! #altchemicalfree response here)

    Also, RE: pictures - my favorite part about stock chemical photography is that LOOK. That penetrating gaze of concentration, as if staring at your beautifully colored solution (without goggles!) will tell you everything an LCMS or NMR would.

  3. I spent some time a while ago trying to explain the How of column chromatography in 'Grandmother-ese.' I still use this analogy when we get to the chromatography lab in my OChem class. We run a gradient column, and that's easy to explain with this analogy. Students seem to internalize the How of chromatography and retain it even after that week's lab.

    Explaining the How of day-to-day chemistry would be hard to convey by TV, imho. There's not enough time to run the same reaction for a week while we optimize solvent or catalyst loading. And they're not going to be able to go back ten steps to remake more starting material. It's been a while since I watched CSI, but I don't remember conversations being had while the analysts were doing serial dilutions.

    How to fix the How? I think analogies and comparisons - similar to Matt's 'Would You Rather' idea for communicating relative safety. I like James' analogy of steric hindrance from the other day. I don't know how a writer is going to work these analogies into pop culture. As you mentioned, the Why is all the public really thinks is important, and the Why they understand ok (although, as you move from research to industry, I suspect people start tending to think that Why = $$).

  4. Don't get me started on CSI! I'm a biologist, not a chemist (so according to xkcd a lesser being), and I can't stand watching people in lab coats using Gilson pipettes without tips. Honestly!

    I think you have an advantage over us biologists, though: if people don't know what you do, at least they don't expect you to know the name of every flower there is.

  5. @RB - speaking of the great divide ... I think there is a large gap between chemists who want to bring chemistry to "society" (whatever that is) and chemists who just say "meh". My obvious stance is that chemistry can't really survive without public involvement and public interest. From my point of view, chemistry needs to both accessible and accessed. Some people may disagree with that. Some may think: "As long as there are good chemists around, they'll be making pharmaceuticals and will stay relevant". *(snicker)
    While that should be the case. It's not. So ... how to do this. NMR and GCMS are dry. But, there IS a story that can be told for almost everything. The difficult part is ferreting that story out and making a primary (not a secondary as Dr. Free Ride talked about in the post CJ referenced.)

  6. Unstable IsotopeJuly 19, 2011 at 9:03 AM

    Heh. I always hate how chemists are portrayed in pop culture - with flasks of colored liquids and large distillation equipment.

    "We're making whateverol because we think it might have anticancer properties."

    I've always hated seeing that in synthetic papers. That's not the reason most syntheses are done. My husband describes synthesis like he's a carpenter inventing a new tool, which I think is a pretty good way to describe it.

    I do find that some people are very interested in the machines we use and like things described in mechanical terms.

    Sometimes the "why" is hard to describe in academia (it's usually easy in industry). The real reason "why" is that you want to understand. It's explaining why it's important to understand that becomes difficult.

    I find that it is hard for chemists to communicate to non-chemists because chemists are really interested in the process by which you arrived at your answer and non-chemists just want the answer and don't care about the process. I really wish scientists in general would spend more time thinking about communicating to the general public. There's not many Feynmans or Sagans out there. I wish we would build science communication think tanks which have people trained in both communication and science to do this. Let's face it, science is getting killed in the political arena.

  7. Unstable IsotopeJuly 19, 2011 at 9:04 AM

    Heh, sorry about above comment - it's a bit stream-of-conciousness.

  8. @UnstableIsotope: A friend of mine participated in just such a science-communication workshop, sadly, the funding was not renewed by NSF after the first go-'round...

  9. While I love chemistry, biology really has got us beat on the picture front.


    Our biology team makes these killer movies of cancer cells going through the cell cycle that I could watch all day long. There's nothing I do that would interest a biologist that much, short of throwing a blob of K into a pool and watching it ignite.

  10. Hey anyone see the season opener of Breaking Bad? It was terrific, and it was a great opportunity to describe to my wife chirallity, hydrogenation, dissolving metal reductions,how meth is prepared from pseudophedrine, how HF dissolves bodies and why you need a plastic drum to do so. This episode does show what we do on the job and how chemists are part of a special brotherhood.

    Our problem is most people find chemistry Greek, boring and chemists geeks. But so what? We should follow our hearts and the world be damned. Well that is until our job all go off-shore. Then again we might be more interesting Breaking Bad.

  11. @Chemjobber: I Really enjoyed this post and I really appreciate your position that it is important for us to convey the value of what/how/why we do what we do.

    RE @Unstable Isotope "The real reason "why" is that you want to understand. It's explaining why it's important to understand that becomes difficult." As a total synthesis person, I encounter this too. Everyone wants to know what my molecule is good for and assumes that we are planning to make it into a drug. It is a challenge to convince my friends and family that what I do has more significance in the realm of cultivating collective synthetic knowledge (and that that matters).

  12. Hey, I thought that right-wing Republican nutjobs cultivate deliberate ignorance of science! How can an enlightened progressive like Yglesias be such a Philistine?

    My son is a synthetic organic chemist. I tell people he makes molecules. I'm a theologian, so my son tells people that I think and talk about God. Neither of our teases intrigues people as much as we wish.

  13. Funny, I've described myself as both a cook and/or a carpenter to my friends and neighbors.

  14. I really like the "artisan" aspect to chemistry. We do gruntwork/non-technical/very necessary work like iron-smithing. But, we also do high concept artistry as well (natural product synthesis). And we do everything in between. We are the science worlds' artisans!

  15. There's a wonderful passage in Kitchen Confidential that I've been saving for a post, but for you, Matt, I'll burn it:

    [After comparing different subsets of cooks to Artists and Exiles]

    "Finally, there are the Mercenaries: people who do it for cash and do it well. Cooks who, though they have little love or natural proclivity for cuisine, do it at a high level because they are paid well to do it -- and because they are professionals. Cooking is a craft, I like to think, and a good cook is a craftsman -- not an artist. There's nothing wrong with that: the great cathedrals of Europe were built by craftsmen -- though not designed by them. Practicing your craft in expert fashion is noble, honorable and satisfying."

    There's a lot of truth in that statement, and there's a lot to being a bench chemist in there as well.

  16. @CJ
    LOVE IT!
    That's why I like "artisans" rather than "artists"
    And ... this still deserves a post!

  17. I think this is another opportunity to beat the drum for my (and others') belief that chemistry would benefit from a personable, photogenic, intelligent representative in the press. Someone like a Sanjay Gupta.

    Ideally, this person could serve as a tour guide into labs working on problems of practical importance and explain what the chemists are doing, how they solve problems, how the public benefits, and what the public can do to provide support. And, of course, the chemist would be on call to provide insight on current events that involve chemistry (spills, food tainting, explosions, BPA, etc.)

  18. See any here, Paul? http://www.youtube.com/user/CENonline

    I think maybe.

  19. Where is the misperception versus reality in this post? Don't want to rain on the love-fest here, but did this blog tell anyone anything? Would a non-chemist learn anything from this post? Could a practicing chemist take anything away from this post? No and No. This didn't tackle the misperception, this tackled what a couple people might ask you at a party.

    And no, we do not need a Sanjay Gupta to help with our profession.

  20. Very interesting post and love the pictures.

    I actually think the invisibility of the "how" is a problem for perception of science writ large, not just for chemistry. I think that a lot of people think science just happens, that facts and theories just reveal themselves. They simply don't realize the months, years, and decades of reading, thinking, running experiments, waiting for experiments to finish, tending to experiments, washing glassware, etc -- and of failing and trying again -- that goes into research.

    As a science journalist, I get supremely frustrated whenever I see an article about new science that makes no attempt to describe, at least in some small way, the methods that researchers use. I consider that a failure of communication.

  21. [Hangs head.]

    Anon1:45p: I think that's fair. What would you say different or what would you say that I didn't? (honest question)

  22. @Anon1:45p
    I think that CJ started to address some of your concerns in the comments section. Specifically
    1) Videos. People LOVE the Periodic Table of Videos from the chemists at Nottingham. And now Aaron Rowe and Carmen Drahl and Lauren Wolf are putting together a series of videos that will be a new spotlight for chemistry.
    2) Chemist as artisan/craftsman. I think that this is an analogy that hasn't really gotten a whole lot of play in the past. But I think its a strong one and I think that it will resonate.
    3) I think that another thing that would help are profiles of industrial chemists. What's their day-to-day. What do individual and teams of individuals do to advance a project. This is the kind of story that I think people would really like. Unfortunately I don't see Pharma or the chemical industry easily plugging a story like this. perhaps I'm wrong.
    4) The biggest thing that you have to do is listen to your audience. You (the communicator) get to set the agenda (so you don't HAVE to do potassium in water videos or explosions). But you need to keep trying different approaches until your audience buys in. Persistence. And paying attention.

  23. I love chemistry, although the math required is far beyond me. My late mother used to regale us kids with tales of her education (when she ' integrated' the class', et al.) and tales of her workplace (large consumer products manufacturer in the Midwest). Of course, this was back in the day before one could be a chemist with ' only' a B.S. in Chemistry, and people still used slide rules...

  24. @anon5:35 - perhaps you should refer to CJ and I's quiz from a few days ago. Turns out, you learn all these triple integrals and multivar in college, so you can turn around as a bench chemist and use algebra and decimals. :)

  25. Sarah said...
    "I think you have an advantage over us biologists, though: if people don't know what you do, at least they don't expect you to know the name of every flower there is."

    I was one asked "what's the formula of cheese?"

  26. I've heard it said that people think chemists actually have jobs! Can you imagine? 8-)

  27. @tumbler
    Oh, I'm so sorry! I really didn't expect people to ask things like that.

  28. Well, I'm a pharmacologist, meaning that I'm a biologist who plays well with chemists. In fact, I *love* my chemistry colleagues, especially in natural products and semi-synthesis. I've actually learned how to use a Rotovap and an Isco flash chromatography set up. I also love how you folks write your synthetic schemes and notes on the fume hood glass. Frankly, I find your world much more exciting and visual.

    Where I think we can do a good job of promoting chemistry to the public is with food and drink, a favorite area of Matt's. The chemistry of naturally-occurring food constituents and additives is fascinating and the key chemicals in sauvignon blanc vs. a gewurtraminer are great opportunities to talk about chemistry. Much of this kind of thing has to be done in person, of course.

    And while I love Breaking Bad, it's unfortunate that explosions and murders (i.e., what people want to see on TV) are more associated with clandestine drug chemistry than with legitimate synthesis. But "good" pharmacology can also be one place for public education on chemistry: this recent J Chem Ed paper by my pharmacology colleague at Duke, Shelly Schwartz-Bloom, talks about reaching out to our local science schools:


  29. I do like the new CEN video campaign. I found the NMR dissection quite interesting.

    Once there are more videos, it'd be nice to have them sorted or presented with a "front page" of sorts.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20