Safeguarding the central science

Safeguarding the central science
Spring 2017
Key figures in the field reflect­ the past and the future of chemistry that, as McGill University vice-chancellor Suzanne­ Fortier says, will surely be amazing.

At the time of confederation in 1867, chemistry was already well on its way to becoming a mature and powerful scientific discipline that would usher in profound changes in our world, from life-saving medicines and food production technologies to the kaleidoscope of materials that underlie the electronic marvels around us. The Canadian Chemical News asked three prominent observers of this discipline how they regard this rich past and where they see the field heading in the future. 

Nurturing the next generation­ of talent

Howard Alper

Howard Alper, photo credit: Humboldt Foundation / David Ausserhofer

For Howard Alper, HFCIC, distinguished university professor in the University of Ottawa’s Department of Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences, the history of Canadian chemistry includes a parade of outstanding discoveries and ideas. More importantly, it is a field populated by outstanding personalities. He points to towering figures such as Gerhard Herzberg, John Polanyi and Michael Smith, who earned Nobel prizes for their diverse contributions in areas such as the structure of free radicals, chemical kinetics and the foundation of site-directed mutagenesis. He also points to those who may not have won science’s top honours but nevertheless made profound contributions, such as molecular pharmacologist Bernard Belleau, who pioneered the first effective drugs to fight AIDS in the 1980s and founded a company to carry on this research. “These are fantastic people,” says Alper. “Recalling their names and work is an important way of celebrating what has gone on in Canadian chemistry over the past century.”

Alper also regards the careers of these individuals as useful lenses to view the impact of Canadian chemistry, not just for new science but also new technology. Our modern lifestyle owes much to these chemical innovators and Alper fully expects that influence to be apparent as we continue to benefit from the advent of new manufacturing processes, new materials, new types of food production and new medicines. “Chemistry will be pivotal to the success of what is called the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as well as the rate at which it takes hold and accelerates,” he says, adding that the momentum will rely heavily on how we educate the next generation of chemists. “The role of developing a strong chemistry curriculum for students is just as valuable a contribution to the discipline as any landmark discovery or invention associated with the science,” he says. “Curriculum reflects and shapes the methodology of the field and the way in which people will explore it.”

Alper points out that while traditional chemical principles occupy the core of this teaching, a great many other areas are now connected to this subject matter. He had direct experience with these new linkages during his tenure as vice-president of research at uOttawa, when he oversaw the introduction of a biopharmaceutical program that broke new interdisciplinary ground on campus and became extremely popular among students seeking to work in this field. “Here was something not only fundamentally important but also attuned to the times and the needs of industry,” he recalls. Looking ahead, Alper suggests that this kind of initiative will not be exceptional but altogether typical of how chemistry education faces the future. It is also why he is equally pleased to recall another milestone from his time in that office, when he launched the Excellence in Education prize. “It’s one thing to do excellent research but the foundation of an institution is its education; its curriculum must be appropriate for the time and forward-looking.” 

From understanding to action­

Suzanne Fortier

Suzanne Fortier, photo credit: McGill University

Suzanne Fortier’s, FCIC, academic roots as a chemist lie in areas such as the use of complex numerical modalities to determine protein structure and mine crystallographic data. Fortier has also maintained a high-level perspective on how this scientific discipline affects society and the economy. The principal and vice-chancellor of McGill University since 2013, Fortier, a former Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) president, is also a member of the Minister of Finance’s Advisory Council on Economic Growth Council, the World Economic Forum’s Global University Leaders Forum (GULF) as well as a member of the International Jury of France’s Investissements d’Avenir and Canada’s Business - Higher Education Roundtable. “Chemists, to me, have always been practical people,” she says. “They are driven by a purpose, they want to do something with their science.”

Fortier suggests that the past century has seen chemistry move into ever-more practical activities, progressing from a desire to understand to an ability to act. “We were trying to understand what molecules looked like and what they did,” she says. “But now people are designing and constructing all sorts of things, for example, architectures of molecules that build on that understanding.” 

According to Fortier, this understanding has grown with the technological ability to model complex systems, which makes it possible to explore topics such as atmospheric chemistry or nanoscale interactions. Among the unifying themes of this work has been the concept of sustainable chemistry — replacing expensive, environmentally harmful chemical processes of the past with alternatives that can be carried on well into the future. “Sustainability comes naturally to chemists,” Fortier says, pointing to such game-changing concepts as green chemistry and yield optimization. 

As to what the future holds for the upcoming generation of chemists, Fortier remarks that, “students today are very interested in innovation. Some of them may want a career like their professors but many more want to do something else, to work with people in many different disciplines. We already see chemists working in fields such as biology or medicine and we’ll see even more of that. As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we’ll start seeing the fusion of the biological, the physical and the digital. These networks will be much more diversified and we can’t yet imagine what they’ll be able to do.” 

Above all, Fortier says, chemists serve as the intermediaries between various branches of science. She sees students eager to embrace this role, even if they do not find it in any kind of regular curriculum. “They will not wait for you to create the program for them. They are creating their own opportunities, whether it is through a campus club, a business or some other initiative.” As for where these efforts will arrive, Fortier is content to be surprised. “We will have a big wow factor,” she says. “One thing I’m sure of is that I’ll be amazed.”

Guarding the centre

Mario Pinto

Mario Pinto, photo credit: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada

As a chemical biologist at Simon Fraser University, Mario Pinto, FCIC, spent much of his career examining disease processes. In addition to serving in senior research and administrative positions at the university, Pinto has also been active in a number of chemistry organizations, serving as Canada’s representative to the International Carbohydrate Organization, vice-chair of the Chemical Institute of Canada and president of the Canadian Society for Chemistry. In 2014 he became president of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). With a front-row seat looking at changes in the laboratory as well as government policy, Pinto argues that chemistry must take care not to become a victim of its own success.

“The past 100 years have positioned chemistry as a central science,” Pinto says. “But the evolution of science has also blurred the boundaries between disciplines, so that chemistry has been subsumed into a number of diverse fields, from chemical biology to materials science.” 

Pinto says that it has been easy for outside observers to blame chemistry for problems, such as how the ubiquitous use of plastics in consumer products has led to this material becoming an equally ubiquitous pollutant. The good and the bad are reflections of just how significant the impact chemistry has been on civilization. Moreover, seemingly unrelated innovations such as photovoltaic cells, new battery materials, vaccines or smart phones would be unthinkable without the chemical innovations that made this technology possible.

“There’s a lot of chemistry there,” he says, “but we don’t think of these inventions in those terms. In this sense the discipline has lost its identity.”

This could be a problem as we head into the next century of scientific and technological progress, Pinto argues. “Traditional sub-disciplines of chemistry will have to be dissolved and new ones forged. Chemistry must draw attention to its role in these new sub-disciplines, otherwise one will not be able to recruit the next generation of students. This requires a major modification of curricula, which are extremely traditional. In fact, if done correctly, it will completely transform chemistry departments on campuses.” 

Pinto says that the power and the opportunity to effect these changes are already in the hands of university faculty members but if they fail to do so they may consign the entire discipline to the history books. “So how does one get back to that place where chemistry is a central science?” he asks. “Students are looking forward to a Fourth Industrial Revolution — a confluence of digital, biological and engineering worlds. Chemistry is an integral component but, he adds, “if it continues to be taught in the same old-fashioned way” students may miss out on its importance.