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Guest Post: “Recent Gender Ruckus Reminds Us To Be Vigilant” by Maureen Rouhi

Today’s post is by Maureen Rouhi, C&EN’s Editor-in-chief.

Suspicions of sexism roiled the theoretical chemistry community last month when organizers of the 15th International Congress of Quantum Chemistry (ICQC) posted a partial list of speakers. The all-male list prompted theoretical chemists Emily A. Carter of Princeton University; Laura Gagliardi of the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; and Anna Krylov of the University of Southern California to urge a boycott of the conference for its “gender-biased discriminatory practices.”

Gender inequity continues to persist in science. Until it disappears, we all must remain ready to expose it, because exposure leads to awareness, which improves fairness.

The 15th ICQC will be held in China in June 2015. It is being organized by chemistry professor Zhigang Shuai of Tsinghua University, under the sponsorship of the International Academy of Quantum Molecular Science. The academy’s president is Josef Michl, a chemistry professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder. The boycott call, he says, could be pivotal “in the long and difficult struggle that women have faced in science in general.” In a letter to academy members, he thanked Carter, Gagliardi, and Krylov for “raising a well-justified objection.” He also apologized for the “premature public release of a partial speaker list.”

“It is really terrible that this happened,” says Kendall N. Houk about the events that led to the boycott call. Houk is a chemistry professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an invited speaker. “But at least it has catalyzed a visible uproar and vivid reminder that chemists need to keep vigilant to avoid lapsing into old, bad habits that continue to disadvantage women scientists.” Houk says female members usually make up at least 25% of his research group. “They are becoming excellent computational chemists, and I look forward to their being speakers at future ICQC meetings.”

“The majority of the theoretical chemistry community is welcoming to female scientists,” says Sharon Hammes-Schiffer, a chemistry professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and an invited speaker. However, she adds, certain pockets “have cultures that are less welcoming to female scientists,” and people must speak up and point out unfairness when it is apparent, as in the case of the 15th ICQC’s all-male partial speaker list.

“Despite increasing awareness, biases are still prevalent in certain situations,” Hammes-Schiffer says. The boycott petition and the ensuing discussions will force people to examine their subconscious biases and to behave and make decisions in a manner that will lead to change, she adds. “As more women move into leadership positions and as the gender ratio continues to become more balanced, the culture will shift. Until then, we need to remain vigilant and to train our students and postdocs in a way that ensures that future generations will create a culture that is equally welcoming to both genders.”

In the meantime, the list of speakers for the 15th ICQC has evolved. To date, of 33 invited speakers, seven are women, a larger share than in previous ICQCs. Whether the boycott call caused this spike, I can’t tell. I give the organizers the benefit of the doubt that they had planned to invite this many women all along.

Whether this representation fairly reflects women’s participation in the field is another question. Michl says one has to look at those who lead research groups because they would be the pool of potential speakers. An educated guess could come from examining the corresponding authors in journals that publish only theoretical chemistry. In the 2013 issues of the Journal of Chemical Theory & Computation, the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry, Theoretical Chemistry Accounts, and the Journal of Computation Chemistry, women represented 11.49% of corresponding authors, for a 1:9 ratio of women to men, according to Michl. “The numbers clearly provide only a partial view, since much theory is published in journals that also publish articles from other subdisciplines; for example, the Journal of Physical Chemistry and the Journal of Chemical Physics,” he says.

Whatever is the true representation of women in the field, “it is low, and we need to continue to bring more women into theoretical chemistry,” Michl says. He notes that about 40% of graduate students in theory today are women. “This generation will run the show in a decade or two,” he says. “And the ratio of 1:9 will then be nothing but a bad memory.”

The West Virginia Chemical Spill: Chemists React

Today’s post is by Amanda Yarnell, assistant managing editor of C&EN’s science/technology/education group.

As part of our coverage of the West Virginia chemical spill, C&EN contacted a number of ACS members living in the affected area. We couldn’t fit all their stories into our report, so we’re sharing pieces of them here. Their tales reflect those of many Charleston area residents, who found out on January 9 that their tap water had been contaminated with a chemical used in coal processing. And they give a chemist’s perspective on the spill’s effects on daily life.

Like other residents, the chemists C&EN spoke to headed out to buy water when they heard the news.

Retired chemist Barbara Warren, who lives more than 2 miles from the Kahawha and Elk rivers, drove to her local Rite Aid. “The parking lot was full of cars. There was no water remaining there, nor was there any milk, juice, soft drinks, or any nonalcoholic drinks of any kinds. There were many empty shelves. Many were buying beer and wine and large bags of ice.”

When she got home, she and her husband found that they still had water in their 1991 pop-top Volkswagen van, leftover from a fall camping trip. A few days later, it rained, and her husband collected about 60 gallons of rainwater in coolers. “We used this for washing ourselves and dishes. I used two huge crab pots to keep hot water on the stove which could be mixed with cold rain water for warm water.”

Madan Bhasin also found a way to get clean, despite the water ban. The chief scientific adviser at Mid-Atlantic Technology, Research & Innovation Center drained his hot water heater as soon as he heard the news. “I used it to take a nice warm bath.”

Xiaoping Sun, a chemistry professor at the University of Charleston, lives and works in the affected area. “Per the order, the water could only be used for flushing toilets and extinguishing fires,” he says. “Routine tasks such as brushing our teeth required thought to remind ourselves to not turn on the tap water. Washing dishes, laundry, and hands – these basic routine tasks could have put our family in harm.”

Although officials have cleared tap water to drink for all but pregnant women and children, Sun and other chemists C&EN spoke with continue to stick to bottled water for drinking and cooking.

“We ask whether they are using bottled water before eating in restaurants,” adds Sun’s U of Charleston chemistry colleague Juliana Serafin.

Serafin had to resort to making her coffee with soda water in the spill’s early days.
Credit: Courtesy of Juliana Serafin

Warren installed a 10-inch countertop filter on her kitchen faucet with the best activated carbon 0.5 micron filter she could find. “I use that water for cooking and drinking, or we use purchased spring or purified water.”

“Times have changed,” Warren says. “At Stanford as an undergraduate, I remember doing an azeotropic distillation of carbon tetrachloride and benzene without hoods. We all got headaches. At the University of Chicago, we used to do reactions without gloves and wash our hands with hexane and acetone and methylene chloride directly, and sometimes chloroform.” She says they kept the same solvents in squeeze bottles by the sink just for washing. “After several years of that, I figure that MCHM and various unknowns will not kill me. Nevertheless, I may as well drink purified water or water from a source that is tested.”

Just as getting water was challenging in the days after the spill, getting accurate information also posed a problem for residents.

Sun notes that the recent chemical spill “has caused a high level of panic in this area. One reason for this heightened level of concern and precaution is due to the mixed guidance coming from local, state, and federal officials.”

Manufacturing process chemist Mark Darcy cites another reason. “I think there are huge differences in residents’ perception of risk. To someone who doesn’t know much chemistry, it’s alarming.”

Sun used details of the spill to bring practical chemistry to life for his chemistry students. Credit: U of Charleston


Hoping to change that, Sun and his colleagues have treated the incident as a teaching moment for their students. “I believe that after this unfortunate event, I have been able to strengthen my organic chemistry class,” Sun says. He’s described the structure, nomenclature, and fundamental chemical properties of crude 4-methylcyclo­hexanemethanol, the licorice-smelling chemical released into the local water supply. “And I’ve been able to strengthen my general chemistry class by bringing to the classroom practical chemistry in everyday life.”

This Week on GlobCasino: Happy #chemvalentine Day!

Your #chemvalentine tweet of the week:

It’s been a pretty quiet, snow-filled week at the network:

Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots

The Watch Glass: Valentine’s Day Potpourri and tissue-engineered Olympic rings and Olympic Science

This Week On GlobCasino: Montana, Tesoro, Sputnik and more

Tweet of the week, in honor of today’s “The LEGO Movie” release:

And before we head to the network highlights, a piece of administrative news. I’ll be solo overlording from now on. Esteemed co-overlord Carmen Drahl is stepping down to tackle some other projects for C&EN. Good stuff is on the way, my friends, though Carmen will be missed around these bloggy parts.

Now, to the network:

Cleantech Chemistry: Rivertop Makes Montana a Magnet

Grand CENtral: Not Part of Generation Sputnik? What’s Your Chemistry Set?

Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots

The Safety Zone: Tesoro refinery fire caused by weakened steel

The Watch Glass: Formulations for Fighting Abuse

Finally, our newest tumblr is up! Follow C&EN’s Chemistry in Pictures for a dose of cool chemistry images.

Not Part of Generation Sputnik? What’s Your Chemistry Set?

C&EN’s managing editor, Robin Giroux, sent around the following email to the staff (shared with her permission):


If you were drawn to science/chemistry when you were young, and you’re not one of the Sputnik generation (like I am), what was that intrigued you? What drew you in?

For my generation, the response is a resounding, “I had a chemistry set.” (And if you don’t believe me, read just the Feb. 10 ACS National Award vignettes!)

That made me wonder, was there a “chemistry set” for younger generations? If so, what?

So I’m asking the question of you – and feel free to ask others outside of C&EN – but I need to hear from you by next Tuesday (Feb. 11).

And tell me, if you will, how old you are, you can use “–ish”. (I won’t share, I won’t laugh, but I may be amazed :))


So I’m asking others outside of C&EN – what intrigued you and drew you into chemistry? Share in the comments below or send a note to Robin at r_giroux at acs.org.

For me (Yes, yes — I know I’m not a proper chemist, but I’ll still share), it was the hands-on experiments in my high school chemistry classes.

This Week on GlobCasino: #FlameChallenge 3, Informex, and more

Tweet (with Instagram!!) of the Week:

To the Network:

Fine Line: State of the Vibe

Just Another Electron Pusher: I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Newscripts: Flame Challenge 2014 and Amusing News Aliquots

Terra Sigillata: Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image

The Watch Glass: All-Chemical All-American Football Team and Equipment Mart and Thermoelectric Materials and Comets

This Week on GlobCasino: Informex #inf14 , Industrial Accidents, and More

Apparently, Gmail was down today. (Sarcasm there. I certainly noticed.) Plenty of Gmail tweets out there, but this wins:

Tweet of the Week:

To the Network:

Fine Line: C&EN Talks at Informex and Buh-buh-buh-buh-buh-Bad! and Ohhhhhhhhh~ Miami!

Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots

The Safety Zone: Prosecuting companies rather than executives for wrongdoing

The Watch Glass: High Temperature Superconductors and Supercritical Water

This Week on GlobCasino: Another Chemical Spill, McKinsey Training, and more

Tweet of the Week:

To the Network:
Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots

The Safety Zone: Friday chemical safety round up and How freight company Saia trains and monitors its drivers and How McKinsey makes training mandatory

The Watch Glass: Guiding Black Academics and Selman A. Waksman and Chemical Spill 911

This Week on GlobCasino: Rainbow Flame Test Safety, #Topchem, and more

Tweet of the Week:
Tip o’ the hat to friend of GlobCasino Biochembelle for pointing this one out:

To the Network:

Grand CENtral
: “Top Chemistry Moments of 2013″ Google Hangout #topchem 1/9 3PM Eastern

The Safety Zone
: Performing the ‘rainbow’ flame test demo safely

Newscripts: Amusing News Aliquots

The Watch Glass: Chemical Lab Safety and the Impact of OSHA and Surviving Stress and Insulators

“Top Chemistry Moments of 2013″ Google Hangout #topchem 1/9 3PM Eastern

UPDATE 1/10/14: View the archived webcast here:

Everyone loves a good year-end roundup. Chemists are no exception.

But condensing a year’s worth of discoveries into a neat little “top 10″ package is bound to stir up some discussion. What goes on the list? Who got left out?

We hope you readers will help hash out these questions at C&EN’s second Google Hangout, “Top Chemistry Moments of 2013“. It’s on Thursday, January 9, at 3PM Eastern US time. For those new to Google Hangouts, they are video chats broadcast live on the web. You can watch from Google Plus or YouTube. After the chat is finished it is archived on YouTube for anyone to view.

Join the Hangout here.

Carmen Drahl and Lauren Wolf will speak with Laura Howes and Ashutosh Jogalekar about the people and the research that made chemistry news in 2013, and talk about what to watch in 2014.

Follow the conversation, and ask questions to the speakers on Twitter using the hashtag #topchem.

Laura HowesLaura Howes is Editor of Science in School, the European journal for science teachers that highlights cutting-edge research and teaching. She is a former science correspondent for Chemistry World magazine. Follow her on Twitter at @L_Howes.
Ashutosh JogalekarAsh Jogalekar does molecular modeling at Ensemble Therapeutics, a biotech startup in Cambridge, MA focused on using the specific base-pairing properties of DNA to synthesize novel macrocycle drugs. Ash has been blogging at “The Curious Wavefunction” for about eight years and at Scientific American Blogs since 2012. His main interests are in the history of chemistry, in understanding the relationship between chemical models and reality, and in studying chemistry as a tool-driven rather than an idea-driven revolution. Follow him on Twitter @curiouswavefn.
Lauren K. WolfLauren Wolf is an associate editor at Chemical & Engineering News. Follow her on Twitter @laurenkwolf.
Carmen DrahlCarmen Drahl is a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News. Follow her on Twitter @carmendrahl.

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