Keeping up is hard to do
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.
By Peter T. Kissinger and Ira S. Krull
After spending decades teaching both undergraduates andgraduate students and observing their progress, we note a few elements commonto those who have been successful. Most important of all are solid ethics,respect for others and good communication skills. These values are widelyexpressed, but less widely exhibited. They provide a true competitiveadvantage.
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 ourtheme, we've modified the title of a Neil Sedaka rock tune written at a timewhen there were only two commercial trade publications devoted to analyticalchemistry and no more than six peer-reviewed journals in the field with globalsignificance. There were no journals or trade publications devoted tobiotechnology. Topics such as genomics, bioinformatics, cell signaling,biomarkers, capillary electrophoresis, flow cytometry, liquid chromatographyand molecular imaging were hardly even imagined in fiction.
One of our current observations is how quickly promisingscientists can become adjusted to doing their assigned tasks well while losingtheir appetite for the independent learning that was to be the key return onmore than 20 years of investment in the highest science degree. The Ph.D. isdefined as a label recognizing an ability to function independently; to advancescience and go beyond current knowledge. It has also become a credential, or evena requirement. Fair enough.
In many positions, we are expected to use the tools ofscience to solve practical problems for our employer and the broader society.We can become exceptionally good at this—and in the process, very narrow andeven 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 thebasic science components have been excised by downsizing, leaving standardprotocols and regulatory affairs. Positions, departments, research centers andeven entire companies disappear overnight. That's a reality we rarelyconsidered as graduate student chemists in the 1960s. Firms like DuPont, Kodak,ICI, Monsanto, Dow and a dozen petroleum and pharmaceutical firms were thoughtto be as stable as the pyramids. We were very wrong. The forces of creativedestruction grabbed hold in the 1970s, and have accelerated ever since. Thepharmaceutical industry ran a couple of decades longer, and many of ourstudents found comfort there—some hiding, others rising.
Today, it is harder to hide, credentials afford littleprotection and mobility is anticipated. But as a rule, we seem less well prepared to be flexibleproblem-solvers. Many today seem either broad and very shallow, or deep andvery narrow. It is disturbing to read the questions thrown up on social networkscience groups such as LinkedIn, Research Gate and the like. They remind us ofthe students who say, "I don't want to understand it, just tell me how to getthe answer."
The secret is revealed by understanding the same fewconcepts 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. Aswe transition from one employer to the next, these highly portable basics arethe seeds of innovation that we can keep replanting. Acid-base chemistry andbinding constants still rule much of the life sciences.
The importance of getting into the habit of reading thescientific literature on a consistent and persistent basis was one of the tenetsof the Ph.D. degree. It was once possible to keep up by following a fewjournals in any given field on a monthly basis. Today, we are well served to dothe same, yet it seems impossible with the proliferation of journals to whichwe no longer subscribe for casual browsing. We only see online tables ofcontents flying by on a daily basis. Many journals are not issued in printedform and few are affordable.
Resources for searching and finding haveoverwhelmed our capacity for knowing. Information is coming at us at fire hoserates. There are now dozens of trade publications and hundreds of journalsrelevant to bioanalytical chemistry. It takes discipline to browse. Flippingpages from abstracts, to figure captions and concluding paragraphs once helpedtriage 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, bothindustrial and academic scientists would make it a habit to spend quiet time intheir library with the unbound new journals that just arrived. It was a time toenjoy and think, a time long gone. We miss the browsing of Analytical Chemistry at the breakfast table, including theadvertising, eliminated long ago. Many young chemists will not have experiencedthis joy, but their iPads are no doubt more resistant to coffee stains. You arewhat you eat, but you are also what you read.
Peter T. Kissinger is professorof chemistry at Purdue University, chairman emeritus of BASi and a director ofChembio Diagnostics, Phlebotics and Prosolia.
Ira Krull is a consultantand an emeritus professor of analytical chemistry at Northeastern University.