There is a great deal of storytelling that comes along with chemistry. Take a look at any article from our ‘In Your Element’ series and you’ll notice the gentle reverence we give to discoveries and champions of the field. For better or worse, part of what makes a particular event memorable in chemical history is the mythos surrounding it: besides being an important compound, ferrocene comes with the twisting tales of its structural assignment and the back-and-forth between eminent scientists is recounted to students regularly, and we take note of the fact that the original report of C60 to Nature was written by Curl & co-workers in only a single day. These stories, and many like them, are the ones that make us proud to be chemists and excited to continue building these legacies.
However, there are plenty of stories that don’t make it into the broader canon for one reason or another. Every day in the lab we have experiences that build us as scientists and, as Beth Haas pointed out in her article on the autobiographical Lab Girl, there are stories of success, failure and everything in between that come together to form the full-fledged chemists that we are today. Moreover, I am a firm believer that there is value in sharing these stories and diverse points of view. As a young scientist, learning about the challenges that come up in research that you can’t learn about in a textbook or journal article can be the difference between thriving and burning out. Knowing that you aren’t the first to struggle with research in some fashion is empowering — particularly if it comes with some perspective on how to address the issue at hand.
It’s in this vein that I’m proud to introduce the first of several posts that will appear here on The Sceptical Chymist as part of an informal series called ‘Chemistry in retrospect’. In this series, I hope to collect stories of life in the profession that are less formal in tone but illustrate an aspect of the job or a particular area of research that might not be clear from just reading published reports. Some of these stories will be more anecdotal ‘around the watercooler’ tales of adventures in professional development, lab safety and more, while others will take a slightly more technical slant as they pull back the curtain on how some important work came to be. The inaugural story is a little bit of both of these as Professor Richard Eisenberg from the University of Rochester recounts the story behind how his group came to develop parahydrogen-induced polarization NMR techniques as a case study in how curiosity can take fundamental research in new and unexpected directions. It serves as a reminder that sometimes you don’t get what you sought out, and a well-prepared mind can capitalize on that.
I intend to maintain this series as often as I have articles to post — if you have a story to share or would like to suggest someone to write one for us, send an email to nchem at nature.com and I’ll get in touch. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this first entry.