We weren’t all born to be a chemist – and we need to start admitting it

And you may find yourself performing synthesis in a shotgun shack. With apologies to David Byrne, my point is that we never really know what lies ahead on the twisty, convoluted pathway of life. And, as Talking Heads were wont to remind us, sometimes it’s worth asking, well, how did I get here?

Last month I posed that very question on Twitter. One of the Chemistry World team posited that most chemists got into the subject because of inspiration from well-known scientists (something UK physics departments like to call the ‘Brian Cox effect’); I believe TV has nothing to do with it. A quick poll suggests you agree: 53% of respondents said they became enamoured with science because of an inspirational teacher; 13% because of its solid career prospects; and 34% ‘just ended up here’. Nobody cited Sagan, Nye or any other TV maven.

I’m firmly in the latter camp. I hated chemistry at school. My GCSE teacher wasn’t a chemist and made it painfully clear to the class how little he cared for either them or the subject. I can’t remember a single lesson as we didn’t really have any. It was only at university that I began to pick things up – mainly because I was interested in the stories and people behind the pathways and syntheses. I suspect that, when it comes to twisting routes in to the chemical sciences, I’m far from alone.

Yet here we all are. We don’t talk enough about that. The most important movement in science at the moment is inclusivity, and a key part of that is sharing our stories and admitting we don’t all fit a cookie cutter stereotype of a kid whose dress up box included a lab coat and safety specs. It’s equally valid if you came late to science. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t (or perhaps still isn’t) your burning passion. And it’s fine not to like certain disciplines: Nobel prize winner Glenn Seaborg wrote at length about his loathing for organic chemistry, and Stefan Hell, the Nobel laureate who developed super-resolution microscopy, once told me he finds microscopes boring – his discovery came about because he was trying to escape them.

That’s OK. To be a chemist doesn’t mean you have to love every single itsy, bitsy part of chemistry. If you do, then great; but understand it’s not a required part of the job description. And the more we perpetuate the myth that it is, that you’ve got to be beguiled by every discovery or pretty precipitate, the more people will feel there’s something ‘wrong’ with them for not being passionate about other areas. There isn’t. Same as it ever was…