Stupid Chemists (perhaps)

I’ve recently returned from my annual visit to the High Polymer Research Group Conference, held at the picturesquely named village of Pott Shrigley at the Western edge of the Peak District. This is a conference about which I have written before, following its evolution from the scarey place full of established and unwelcoming male chemists I encountered as a young researcher back in the mid-1980’s, to a much more diverse and inclusive group of people working across the polymer domain. If you want to know about the science discussed under the theme of Polymers in the Age of Data, I refer you to Richard Jones’ excellent summary on his own blog. My take on the conference will be more focussed on the human aspects.

Over the years I’ve been going, my own years have clearly advanced. Now, I have reached the heady heights of chairing the committee that oversees this annual event. One consequence of this is that I am expected to produce an after-dinner speech on the final evening. For any international readers, this idea may be somewhat alien, but it is a standard activity at more formal dinners in the UK. I have, in my capacity as Master of a Cambridge college, had plenty of experience of exhorting students in the college to better things, and reminiscing about the College’s activities (and why donations are so important to support our students) at alumni dinners. Neither of those sorts of speeches would fit the bill very well at this conference, as I discussed in my speech last year. (I may say my predecessor as chair was Andy Cooper. He gave an excellent talk this year about his robot-based synthetic chemistry lab, on which more later, but as chair for three years he managed to get away with only giving one after-dinner speech, due to two years of cancellation because of the pandemic.)

The challenge is, at least in part, because this is not a speech that can be written in advance, as it needs to take into account what the different presentations covered. So, the afternoon before the conference dinner may need to be set aside for dreaming up amusing anecdotes to include. The strategy I have taken, both last year and this, is to make notes, at the time, of the particular bon mots I want to include and then weave them together. It works for me, but probably wouldn’t for everyone. This year, speakers seemed to cover much about the skills needed, and the skills that perhaps robots lack. As Andy put it in his own talk, his ‘robots are the world’s stupidest chemists. We need humans in the loop.’ However, it is also the case, as Tanja Junckers said, that ‘robots are much more consistent than graduate students.’ Hence, using them (the robots that is) for repetitive grunt work absolutely makes sense, with the added advantage that they can work 24/7 without complaint.

Given that the whole theme of the conference was what can and can’t be automated, what data we do or don’t have, and how we’re going to tackle the gaps in knowhow and robust data, it isn’t surprising that much was said about how the average researcher fits into this evolving landscape. Michael Meier, who was obviously pushing the limits both of the chemistry and of his students, remarked that he had ‘some students very frustrated with the Chemistry he was requiring of them’ and that often there were various routes to some end point, but ‘all of them were crap’. However, whatever his students might have felt, he himself remained excited about his research, including one project that he called his James Bond project; you can imagine the sort of flavour that had.

One of the major problems in this area is that there are data on only a subset of all the possibilities – be it in molecular structure, or a particular property over a specific if narrow range of parameters. How do you construct a database under these circumstances? Jacqui Cole has been working hard at scraping the literature to build a huge dataset, but up till now she has concentrated on small molecules, often inorganic. To move into the polymer world is hard, as she admitted, saying not only that ‘polymers are messy and difficult’ but that overall ‘polymer science is really hard.’ I suspect those words will have resonated with everyone in the room, even if not applying all of the time. Polymer science is, of course, endlessly fascinating as well, or we wouldn’t all be doing it.

But careers do not go in a straight line – something I frequently tell the Churchill students (particularly at the Freshers’ and Graduates’ Dinners) as well as writing about here over many years – and that sentiment turned up too in the presentations, when Adam Gormley said flatly ‘I didn’t design my career to get here.’ Who does ‘design’ a career, even if synthetic chemists may try to design a macromolecule? Our final speaker, Filip du Prez, was perhaps being flippant, or cynical, when he praised those students who ‘boost their supervisors career’ – he was after all the only thing standing between the delegates and the conference dinner, so perhaps a little lightheartedness was in order.

It was an incredibly stimulating conference. I have picked out the comments I have, because I noted how many people addressed some quasi-social aspects of the area. I’m not sure that this is so common in conference presentations, but perhaps this field particularly lends itself to rueful remarks about human/machine-learning/robot/data interactions in ways that other parts of the discipline do not. I’ll be watching out next year to see if the theme continues.



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