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Keeping up is hard to do
By Peter T. Kissinger and Ira S. Krull
After spending decades teaching both undergraduates and graduate students and observing their progress, we note a few elements common to those who have been successful. Most important of all are solid ethics, respect for others and good communication skills. These values are widely expressed, but less widely exhibited. They provide a true competitive advantage.
Today, we focus on the technical side of an R&D career, whether in industry, academia, a nonprofit institute or government. In our day, "keeping up with the literature" was an obligation and badge of honor. As our theme, we've modified the title of a Neil Sedaka rock tune written at a time when there were only two commercial trade publications devoted to analytical chemistry and no more than six peer-reviewed journals in the field with global significance. There were no journals or trade publications devoted to biotechnology. Topics such as genomics, bioinformatics, cell signaling, biomarkers, capillary electrophoresis, flow cytometry, liquid chromatography and molecular imaging were hardly even imagined in fiction.
One of our current observations is how quickly promising scientists can become adjusted to doing their assigned tasks well while losing their appetite for the independent learning that was to be the key return on more than 20 years of investment in the highest science degree. The Ph.D. is defined as a label recognizing an ability to function independently; to advance science and go beyond current knowledge. It has also become a credential, or even a requirement. Fair enough.
In many positions, we are expected to use the tools of science to solve practical problems for our employer and the broader society. We can become exceptionally good at this—and in the process, very narrow and even cloistered for decades. It takes little time to regress to a technician, albeit a very good one.
Today, the world of commercial science is chaotic, and the basic science components have been excised by downsizing, leaving standard protocols and regulatory affairs. Positions, departments, research centers and even entire companies disappear overnight. That's a reality we rarely considered as graduate student chemists in the 1960s. Firms like DuPont, Kodak, ICI, Monsanto, Dow and a dozen petroleum and pharmaceutical firms were thought to be as stable as the pyramids. We were very wrong. The forces of creative destruction grabbed hold in the 1970s, and have accelerated ever since. The pharmaceutical industry ran a couple of decades longer, and many of our students found comfort there—some hiding, others rising.
Today, it is harder to hide, credentials afford little protection and mobility is anticipated. But as a rule, we seem less well prepared to be flexible problem-solvers. Many today seem either broad and very shallow, or deep and very narrow. It is disturbing to read the questions thrown up on social network science groups such as LinkedIn, Research Gate and the like. They remind us of the students who say, "I don't want to understand it, just tell me how to get the answer."
The secret is revealed by understanding the same few concepts that we digested in the 1960s about structure, equilibrium and rates. Those have not changed, yet many today seem unable to use them in practice. As we transition from one employer to the next, these highly portable basics are the seeds of innovation that we can keep replanting. Acid-base chemistry and binding constants still rule much of the life sciences.
The importance of getting into the habit of reading the scientific literature on a consistent and persistent basis was one of the tenets of the Ph.D. degree. It was once possible to keep up by following a few journals in any given field on a monthly basis. Today, we are well served to do the same, yet it seems impossible with the proliferation of journals to which we no longer subscribe for casual browsing. We only see online tables of contents flying by on a daily basis. Many journals are not issued in printed form and few are affordable.
Resources for searching and finding have overwhelmed our capacity for knowing. Information is coming at us at fire hose rates. There are now dozens of trade publications and hundreds of journals relevant to bioanalytical chemistry. It takes discipline to browse. Flipping pages from abstracts, to figure captions and concluding paragraphs once helped triage among the bizarre, the mildly interesting and the must-reads.
Most of us now search instead, and thus miss the surprises, where apparently unrelated topics spark a new idea. Decades ago, both industrial and academic scientists would make it a habit to spend quiet time in their library with the unbound new journals that just arrived. It was a time to enjoy and think, a time long gone. We miss the browsing of Analytical Chemistry at the breakfast table, including the advertising, eliminated long ago. Many young chemists will not have experienced this joy, but their iPads are no doubt more resistant to coffee stains. You are what you eat, but you are also what you read.