Friday, March 16, 2012

What defines a good chemist?

What uniquely makes a good chemist? Bibiana Campos Seijo of Chemistry World had this to say:
During one of the sections of the programme the presenter asked the interviewee: 'in your opinion, what makes a good banker?' The interviewee struggled to answer the question so the presenter changed tack and asked instead 'what makes a bad banker?' Funnily enough, the interviewee was not short for an answer then...
...To give you an example, one website said that, besides many other qualities, some of which I have already mentioned, a chemist must be humble. Why should a chemist - as opposed to a physicist or a biologist, or an artist, a lawyer or a politician for that matter - be humble?... The most satisfactory answer for me in terms of that exclusive attribute is around the reproducibility of results. A good chemist should be good at replicating other people's results and equally their results should be easily replicated by anyone else.  
But can I challenge you to define in 140 characters (it's the digital age after all) what, in your opinion, makes a good chemist? Tweet us @ChemistryWorld or email chemistryworld. 
Between Ms. Seijo and SeeArrOh, there are at least two votes against chemists being humble. There's an aspect of #humblebrag about this, but I really believe in humility. When chemists read the literature (especially the very old literature!), there is always a sense of where the field has been -- and that we are all (cliche alert!) standing on the shoulders of giants. Humility can keep a chemist grounded in the fundamentals of their field and it can give direction by showing what's yet to be known.

I'll nominate another trait that chemists should be really good at: truthfulness. When I speak, it's my sincere hope that I can understandably convey the truth about chemicals and chemistry.

Readers, what do you think makes a good chemist? 

22 comments:

  1. I don't know - love of obscure chemicals perhaps. Latent pyromania. Asperger.

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  2. Stupidity. I mean.. why would a sane person want to become a chemist, let alone a scientist, nowadays?

    I am seriously considering hawking snake oil cures under nutraceuticals.

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  3. Stewie Griffin:
    I 100% agree a good chemist should be humble. I have come across too many cocky chemists who are overconfident b/c they have a too simplistic view of the problem. Admitting what you don't know helps you uncover more of a problem.

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  4. Enjoying starting fires seems an oddly, and maybe disconcertingly, common thread among chemists......

    For me, I went into chemistry for the babes.

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    1. Hating cocktail parties and general chit-chat, I wanted a career where everything I would ever have to talk about would be worlds away from both the average person's understanding and interest.

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  5. For the babes! Had to laugh at that one! Personally I went into chemistry because I got to work with cool stuff like sodium metal. It certainly wasn't for the money.
    What makes a good chemist? Certainly humility and honesty are two important attributes, the first of which is often lacking in my (very humble) experience. Perseverance, a certain emotional toughness, to get you through those times where nothing works. Curiosity, and an interest in science in general. And, in all of the jobs I've worked in, an ability to work with people who don't know the first thing about chemistry, and care even less!

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  6. To clarify a small point: I'm all for situational humility. Learning from the old literature, facing new problems, and working with multidisciplinary teams all require you to step back and admit you don't have all the answers. However, what I don't advocate are certain traits often mistaken for humility: timidity, aversion, eagerness to please, or uncertainty.

    Humble pie is great, if served with a side of confidence, self-assuredness, and preparation.

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  7. I'm totally a million times more humble than the folks on this thread :)

    On a serious note, one thing that comes to mind when thinking about the traits of a good chemist is CJ's post last fall about farm kids in lab. I think the two traits characterized in that context are resourcefulness and a willingness to do hard/messy work.

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    1. Yeah, it's always funny to hear people get competitive about their humility.

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    2. Especially since everyone knows I'm the humblest. Me, me, ME! : )

      [Editors, pls check: humblest = real word?]

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  8. Emotional toughness is a must. Because chemistry can be so, so depressing sometimes.

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  9. Logic, but with a strong sense of intuition too, observation for detail, love of practical work, emotional sensibility, awareness of time management.

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  10. Although many of us may agree humility is a great/necessary trait, if you look at many of the greats in chemistry you will rarely find that word used to describe any of them.

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  11. Accepting failure... It's inevitable right?

    I would also say all good chemists talk to themselves... But what's the saying? As long as they're not answering...!

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  12. Peace be upon you
    The deep knowledge makes a good chemist,beside to be humble creative and open minded.

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  13. I had a supervisor once that told me it was being very optimistic that your reaction would work, and very pessimistic that it actually did. That gives you the motivation and enthusiasm to keep setting up reactions, but makes you check your data very carefully before believing in the results.

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  14. I personally got into chemistry because I love probing chemicals to see just what they will and won't do - it can be the source of both pleasant surprise and unwelcome disappointment. But there's nothing quite as rewarding as teasing out the details of what make a certain structure tick...

    As for being a good chemist, I think very close attention to detail is a must. Probably not the top trait, but certainly a requirement.

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  15. Humility is a desirable value but what happens when you see a whole community on the wrong track and they brush aside experiments they cannot understand? Do you give up or take them to task? Such an example is the belief that quantum mechanics is the most fundamental description of Nature when there exist experiments that QM cannot explain. This has to do with the belief that entanglement persists to space like separations--so people believe that stuff like teleportation can happen--so how? When you ask why, they say, "quantum magic" or "quantum weirdness.

    Eventually, soon I hope, qm will be shown to be incomplete and Einstein will be proved correct.

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  16. It's all about the TLCs.

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