Define in 140 characters

I was listening to a programme on the radio a few days ago (BBC4, you’ll be glad to hear) about the banking crisis in the UK. 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.

Obviously, we are in the middle of a global financial crisis so we can all agree that at this point in time it is probably easier to describe a bad banker than a good one. It’s a pity, however, that one’s job should be defined by what you do wrong and not by what you do right. So I wondered: how would we chemists fare if the question had been about us? Chemistry and chemical are terms that, on occasion, have had a bad press and for some carry a certain negative connotation, but I refuse to follow the presenter’s line of reasoning and define what makes a good chemist by first defining what makes a bad chemist. I definitely want my discipline to be defined by what is good about it. So the question for me is: what makes a good chemist?

Excellence in problem solving and a mind for analytical detail are attributes that immediately spring to mind, together with a good degree of tenacity and perseverance; indeed, anybody who has spent any time in the lab completing a research project or a PhD should have these in spades. Being open is another vital characteristic that a chemist must exhibit; and by this I mean open to share one’s ideas and knowledge with others but also, and this is very different, open to ideas from others. Loving what you do, working well as part of a team, and following government and industry regulations are also important. An attribute that is becoming increasingly relevant is the ability to communicate: chemists need to be able to articulate their knowledge and thought processes and impart them to others. Writing papers, proposals and bids; giving presentations and lectures; attending congresses and networking with colleagues are all essential parts of the job these days so good oral and written communication skills are now vital.

Interestingly, many of the attributes I’ve mentioned are not exclusive to chemists; they are common to all good scientists. So I wondered: is there an attribute that is unique to us? I found some of the information I discovered doing a quick Google search quite baffling. 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? Others amused me. One site suggested that a good chemist must be ’aware of the limitations of science’. Patronising or what? 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. 

I fear 140 characters simply won’t be enough...

Bibiana Campos Seijo, editor