Why We Need to Humanize Chemists, and All Scientists

September 11, 2018 | 10:02 am
Alexandra Gelle
Alexandra Gellé
PhD student

Manifesto of a passionate chemistry PhD student, tired of having to fight prejudices when introducing herself.

Why humanizing scientists and their research is essential

Science has shaped our society and everyday life, and yet the public and many policymakers neglect, discredit, and underfund research and scientists due to their negative perceptions of the field. Over the last few years, public trust towards scientists has been challenged. According to recent studies by Fiske and Dupree, the public describes scientists as competent, but not as warmly as they describe doctors or nurses. Yet, scientists need to be able to effectively communicate their research and engage with the public and policymakers to ensure that the decisions that impact all of us are based on evidence.

Graphics and tables are not enough to establish a relationship between scientists and society. The public needs emotional connections with scientists and scientists need the public’s trust to be able to disseminate reliable and pertinent research. In addition, although technology now provides wide access, fake and sensational news are more accessible and can damage scientists’ image. This is why restoring the public’s trust towards scientists and science is crucial.

What chemists can do for you

Have you ever wondered what medicine would be like without the molecules that have been carefully designed by chemists? How would engineers conceive of laptops and cellphones without the development of batteries and electrochemistry?

When introducing myself as a PhD student in chemistry, I often see fear, rejection, or incomprehension in people’s eyes. I have always thought chemistry was fascinating, entertaining, and useful. Unfortunately in my experience, some of the public seems to be reluctant and suspicious when speaking about chemistry. Chemists are commonly pictured as environmental destroyers, eager for explosions, who are disconnected from the impacts of their laboratories and experiments. However, reality is quite the opposite.

It would be a lie to say that fire and explosions are not part of every chemist’s life, however, chemists are pursuing a more noble goal: helping people by improving their health and quality of life, and preserving the environment. Chemists’ ultimate objective is to better understand the behavior of molecules and use elements available on Earth to develop high-performance materials, new drugs, and more sustainable processes. One of the most extensively shared examples of chemistry in media outlets is the environmental and health damages caused by the misuse of scientific knowledge, such as chemical bombs.

While the public frustration and confusion is understandable, chemists should not be blamed for their discoveries but instead work diligently for their ethical and just applications. Chemistry, and science generally, are key to our lives and the public often neglects its importance. However the work of scientists is meaningless if not shared.

Why I decided to study chemistry

Illa Maru, http://scientific-illustrations.com

Chemists study reactions intending to develop new molecules or to enhance the efficiency of chemical processes. My PhD projects focus on the latter, in the field of catalysis. Building new molecules requires breaking and eventually forming bonds between atoms. Therefore, chemical reactions are often energy-intensive and generate large amounts of waste. In catalysis, chemical reactions can be sped up upon the addition of a substance, called a catalyst, which increases the efficiency of a chemical transformation. Moreover, catalysts can often be recycled and reused in other reactions.

My PhD focuses on the use of sunlight as an energy source and silver as a catalyst to promote popular reactions. Such catalysts which can be activated by sunlight are called photocatalysts and fall within the field of Green Chemistry – field aiming to reduce the ecological footprint of chemical industries by developing more environmentally-friendly reaction conditions and reducing chemical waste.

I always appreciate sharing my research and can do that more effectively when scientists and the public respect each other and work to ensure science is used for evidence-based policymaking, for knowledge-sharing, and for justice . Next time you see a chemist, or any other scientist, let’s talk about how we can learn from one another and be stronger together. How about we chat over a cup of caffeine (C8H10N4O2) extracted by dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) or a glass of ethanol (C2H6O)?