Among the many 2020 scientific gatherings that were cancelled because of the global COVID pandemic was the inaugural Commonwealth Chemistry Conference, which was to take place in Trinidad and Tobago in May. Three early career chemists had been chosen to represent Canada at this event and present papers outlining their work, but international travel restrictions made it impossible for them or any of the other participants to attend. Nevertheless, the event organizers enabled these same presenters to carry on virtually in August, when the poster session portion of the conference was launched in an interactive on-line format where 20 winners from 18 different countries were selected.

Among those winners was Amanda Bongers, an assistant professor in Queen’s University’s Department of Chemistry. Her poster outlined an extensive analysis of organic chemistry textbooks that she and two of her former students, Katie Henderson and Galen Yang, had conducted. By examining keywords and concepts found in widely used texts, they identified how principles of sustainability and green chemistry can best be integrated into lecture and laboratory teaching materials.

“The platform was geared towards live conversation via chat and impromptu video rooms,” explains Bongers. “I spent the conference discussing sustainable science with chemists from all around the world using the posters as a ‘jumping off’ point. This was a much better format than passively watching a talk or video recording, where I find it difficult to stay engaged.”

She notes that the judging process was made even more sophisticated by staggering presentations over several time zones, so that different regions were represented in unison.

“I’ve never been to a conference with this level of diversity among the attendees and, because it’s a Commonwealth organization, one that wasn’t dominated by American scientists,” she adds. “It was really refreshing!”

That variety was no accident, according to Canadian Society for Chemistry past president Deborah Nicoll-Griffith, who is also an Executive Board member of Commonwealth Chemistry. In collaboration with the Royal Society of Chemistry, the organizers provided the necessary resources to researchers from countries that often lack the ability to attend major international events.

All told, she says, there were 108 posters from 40 countries, divided into six categories: biodiversity & natural products; energy & materials; food & agriculture; green chemistry & catalysis; health & well-being; water & environmental chemistry.

“They were about real-world problems,” she says. “The variety was really incredible.”

Nicoll-Griffith adds that with the judges and other observers, about 225 people from around the world took part in this virtual gathering. For Queen’s University Ph.D. student Alex Veinot, it was the first time he had attended a virtual poster session. He was presenting his work on non-precious alternatives to gold in organic-on-metal devices, an initiative intended to make this technology more cost-effective and sustainable. Although he admits that the experience was initially awkward, it quickly became very comfortable and rewarding.

“Overall, the event was fantastic,” he says. “While browsing other delegates’ posters, I learned a lot of interesting chemistry and was educated on some of the priorities for sustainable development in other Commonwealth nations. There were plenty of opportunities to network with some of the best early career chemists around the world.”

Juliana Vidal, a Ph.D. student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, describes the process as very positive and among the best on-line events she has ever attended. Her poster outlined a renewable catalytic system for sequestering carbon from sources such as pulp and paper mills.

“The platform in which the conference took place was really interactive, engaging, and user-friendly,” she says. “The networking portion of the event brought some sense of ‘normality’ in these very different circumstances that we are currently living in. The Commonwealth Chemistry Poster Competition not only reminded us of the importance of the Sustainable Development Goals, but also highlighted how chemistry is responsible for addressing our current issues and helping us to achieve sustainability in the — hopefully not too distant — future.”

In the meantime, Commonwealth Chemistry has announced that the organization intends to re-mount its postponed conference next year. “Invited representatives from chemical societies across the Commonwealth will join high level stakeholders from academia, industry and government for the first Congress in 2021,” states a formal release. “The Congress will have a strong focus on early career chemists across the Commonwealth, with the aim of furthering their career development, enabling joint research and education activities, and providing training on policy and communicating research outputs.”

Nicoll-Griffith notes that the Canadian Society for Chemistry is one of those participating chemical bodies and she is anticipating many different activities that Commonwealth Chemistry has planned.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us,” she concludes.