The spectacular stone walls of Québec City — the only North American city with fortifications north of Mexico — provide an impressive backdrop for any meeting. But for the thousands who gathered there in late May for the 96th annual Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition (CSC2013), walls are something that must be overcome if chemistry is to assume its rightful place as the ‘central science.’

“The interfaces between different disciplines, that’s where the new ideas will come,” conference co-organizer Mario Leclerc of Université Laval said in his opening remarks. The official theme, Chemistry Without Borders, was reflected in the fact that the opening plenary was given not by a chemist, but a physicist, Alan J. Heeger of the University of California-Santa Barbara. Heeger, who shared the 2000 Nobel Prize explained how quantum mechanical topics like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle underly chemical phenomena in conductive polymers, which could one day lead to thin, flexible and inexpensive solar cells.

Other invited speakers, such as Matthias Beller of the Leibniz Institute for Catalysis in Germany, reminded their audiences of the importance of international collaborations in chemistry. Montréal Medal winner Robert Prud’homme, FCIC, provided beautiful visual examples from his 40-year career to explain how his chosen discipline of polymers has grown to engage engineers and physicists as well as chemists. And Chemical Institute of Canada Medal winner Mark Lautens, FCIC, talked of the importance of moving outside one’s specialties, of engaging in a “random walk” that might lead to unexpected discoveries.

A highlight of the conference was the Career Development Day, where students and seasoned professionals engaged in discussions about career paths in chemistry. Keynote speakers like Patrick Doyle of Syngenta encouraged job seekers to think outside the confines of their chosen field. “In the 1950s, careers were like trains; as long as you didn’t de-rail’ you’d have a job for life,” said Doyle. “In the 1970s, it became more like an open road; there were still lines, but you could change lanes. Today, it’s a wide open field.” Doyle also underlined the importance of cross-disciplinary study, particularly in the humanities, which provide crucial interpersonal and management skills for any job seeker.

With more than 1,400 talks, over 700 posters, record-breaking sponsorship and a total attendance that topped out at 2,508, CSC2013 was a resounding success.