Working with Stuff

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Or … Better living through working with more stuff.

This is from the Summer 2014 edition of Interface which should have just arrived in your real-world mailbox. It’s Petr Vanysek’s “From the Editor” piece.

I think that I will need to change what I do. No, I am not thinking of quitting electrochemistry and opening a kennel for German shepherds. I like chemistry and I do not see eliminating it from my life, but the college freshmen students would probably prefer to see it, at least in the name, all gone. Now, it seems, that even the analytical chemistry specialty is in peril.

You see, I am going to give a recruitment talk at a chemistry department at one of the Wisconsin universities. This is how it works: our department sends neighboring schools fliers describing our PhD program and offers to send a professor to give a seminar presentation. The host department gets a free seminar out of it and our department may entice some students to apply to our graduate program. Even if nobody applies right there and then, the departments keep in touch, which is always nice. In preparation for the trip I offered a few topics I could discuss, all electrochemical, and I asked which would be the most appreciated by the students. The guidance I got was frank and disheartening. “For some reason,” the instructor in charge wrote, “the word ‘Analytical’ seems to cause student aversion – thus I’d counsel against its use in a title.”

Electrochemistry at U.S. chemistry departments is traditionally part of the analytical chemistry curriculum, so how long can I hide the fact that I am a chemist and an analytical one at that? The more pressing question is, what can we do about it? There are possibly two reasons why the present student population does not care much for chemistry. One goes back to their parents and grandparents. Larry Faulkner in his tribute to Bard and Goodenough, pointed out how the DuPont slogan “Better Living Through Chemistry,” adopted in 1935, lost the “through chemistry” in 1982.