Baltic State researchers take to the European stage.

Baltic State researchers take to the European stage.

Chemists across the Baltic States - Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia - are poised to embark on greater worldwide collaboration in light of recent accession to the EU and a rich scientific potential, says Baltic expat Victor Snieckus, professor of chemistry at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario.

’There are a lot of good chemists there,’ he says. ’The problem is simply that they’re way behind in terms of what they can do because of lack of equipment and lack of facilities.’

Snieckus - half Estonian, half Lithuanian - helped found an organisation designed to showcase Baltic research and foster interaction between Baltic and Western researchers. ’Getting together with my colleagues who are Latvians and Estonians and Lithuanians, that’s how it all started,’ he recalls. ’Just four chemists.’

The organisation - Balticum Organicum Syntheticum (BOS) - holds a biennial conference on organic synthesis to bring together Baltic and internationally renowned industrial and academic chemists. The last two meetings, with speakers including Nobel laureates Barry Sharpless and Ryoji Noyori, were held in the Lithuanian capital Vilneus. This year’s meeting (27 June-1 July) is in the Latvian capital Riga. Tentative plans are underway for a 2006 meeting in the Estonian capital, Tallinn.

’The aim of the conference is essentially to bring people from the West to that part of the world that has been closed down by communist occupation for 50 years and to make them familiar with the fact that actually those Baltic states are not Russians,’ urged Snieckus. ’They’re European in origin. Fully!’

The organisation started rather ’gingerly’ he says, but such fears were misplaced and registrant numbers continue to rise. Funds raised through registration have already provided Lithuania with its first NMR spectrometer - which was no longer needed by a Western firm, so BOS paid to have it shipped over. This year’s meeting is expected to attract about 250 delegates, but Snieckus says more could harm his goal of a ’family feel’.

This year’s speaker list includes former ACS president Elsa Reichmanis of Bell Laboratories, Lucent Technologies, alongside a host of leading US and European researchers and their Baltic peers. Plenary speaker Steven Ley, who heads the department of organic chemistry at the University of Cambridge, UK, told Chemistry World that events like this, coupled with EU membership, will indeed boost future collaboration in the region.

Many researchers who left their Baltic roots for research careers in the West would love to return, but face significant obstacles. Snieckus fears that, now in his 60s, it’s too late to carve out a new career. Instead, he plans to launch an annual lecture trip. Olafs Daugulis, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Houston, US, a much more recent arrival to the West who will also be speaking in Riga, sees greater barriers.

’I feel that the Latvian government has no interest at all in promoting science or education,’ said Daugulis, who gained his first degree at Riga Technical University in 1991 and perhaps hasn’t the warm patriotic glow of his elders. ’I don’t see an opportunity of going back to Latvia any time soon,’ he sighed.

Bea Perks