Career: As A Chemist at IUPAC

Career: As A Chemist at IUPAC

Author: Vera Köster, Fabienne Meyers

Dr. Fabienne Meyers is Associate Director of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC). She is responsible for the project system which deals with the allocation of funds, provides support for the planning of the biannual IUPAC General Assembly, and is managing editor of IUPAC’s bimonthly news magazine Chemistry International.

She talks to Dr. Vera Köster for about how and why she joined IUPAC, the daily challenges her job brings, and why IUPAC isn’t just there to invent rules for the sake of giving chemistry students nightmares.


Tell us a bit about how your career has developed, please.

It was one part curiosity and one part serendipity. While I was in graduate school in Mons, Belgium, it was never clear to me which career would suit me best. I enjoyed the research and the thrill that came with it, I enjoyed my hours as a teaching assistant, and, yet, I was not clear that I wanted to be a professor or run my own lab. Upon graduation, I moved to California, USA, for my postdoc. For personal reasons, I relocated in year two of that postdoc, and without much thought, I embarked on another postdoc.

Still not sure what would be next in store for me, I continued interviewing and one day found myself passing through the doors of a modest and somewhat shaggy building in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, to meet with John W. Jost, the Executive Director of the IUPAC. The organization sounded interesting. I remember wondering “What do they do?” “How do they do it?” and “Why are they located in North Carolina?” As it turned out, that was to be the beginning of my 15 years (already!) at IUPAC. I began with the title of electronic publishing manager; when the internet was still just a toddler.

My qualifications for this new job most likely derived from having a degree in chemistry, exposure to international crowds thanks to my Ph.D. and postdoc advisors, being curious, having worked across disciplines, and maybe because I was somewhat fluent in Unix. Things developed from there because of my interest in working for and with the volunteers who make up the hard-core scientists of the Union.


How is IUPAC working?

IUPAC is light, very light, on staff and the headquarters, also known as the Secretariat, is not an ivory tower populated with an army of scientists who invent rules for the sake of giving chemistry students nightmares. The main function of the Secretariat is to facilitate and service the scientists who volunteer their time and expertise to advance IUPAC’s mission around the world. The staff of five or six occupies a building of no more than 300 m2.

IUPAC members, about 300 to 400 scientist, are organized by disciplines. There are eight Divisions, physical and biophysical, inorganic, organic and biomolecular, polymer, analytical, environment, human health, and nomenclature. Also several committees are dealing with issues related to education, industry, world needs, or yet publication and terminology. Each Divisions and Committees membership is revisited every two years, while their activities coordinated through the project system are continuous. Overall, IUPAC initiates about 50 new projects every year and the average project time is about 4 to 5 years.


What do you do in your current position?

My job currently has two well-defined duties: overseeing IUPAC’s so-called project system and being managing editor of Chemistry International (CI), IUPAC’s news magazine. Both functions have their own challenges. They are actually related to each other, even though from the outside, one could easily think they must be two discrete jobs.

The IUPAC project system is one engine of IUPAC: it is the mechanism through which the Union allocates funds to its committees to enable task groups to address specific tasks. My job as manager of that system is to facilitate the review process of the proposals and allow the various committees to make decisions. As I try to keep apace with the work of the various committees, my second task, as managing editor, comes quite naturally. The main articles and contributions to CI essentially come from IUPAC volunteers. The magazine has no staff writers. My job in that regard is to invite and assemble the contents of each issue. All of the contributing authors are working remotely themselves, spread around the world and time zones, so e-mail is our prime communication channel.


How much is your job related to chemistry?

One does not really need to be a chemist to do what I do every day, but it helps to think in sync with the people I correspond with. For that, I would not trade my training for anything else. Also, having knowledge of the topics helps in communicating the information and findings to our community.


What other skills do you need?

Being organized and self-disciplined is essential, as is acquiring a realistic sense of priorities and making sure that these are in sync with organizational goals. There are hard deadlines that must be met and we all work together to achieve these goals.


What problems or decisions do you deal with regularly?

I receive a lot of e-mails. Often I am connecting people together and making sure that whoever should know about an issue is informed about it, or that whoever can help is asked to help. Knowing the organization inside out, and outside in, is key to be able to facilitate these connections.


What do you enjoy most about your job?

What I have enjoyed the most is the culture of the organization and the “bon enfant” attitude shared by the volunteers who contribute to IUPAC, as well as to the larger chemistry community.

I work with folks who want to do their job. Is that not fantastic? If someone does not want to do the job or be involved in IUPAC, they just do not. Realistically, many volunteers do not always have the time they think they will have to commit to projects and things can take a long time to get completed, but from where I sit, that is really what I can help with. I am there to facilitate their involvement.

I also enjoy travelling and meeting people. Once every two years, IUPAC helds its General Assembly and that is always a treat. It is an opportunity to connect with the people with whom I work remotely all year and it also provides a chance to meet new people from all over.

One fun part is that by virtue of the international nature of the organization, the location of the meeting changes every time, giving all of us an opportunity to meet in different places. In recent years we met in Europe, Australia, Canada, China, and Puerto Rico. This year, in August, the IUPAC community was bound for Istanbul, Turkey.


Are there any aspects you would like to be different?

Sure! I would like to have time to explore new ways of doing things, such as by taking further advantage of contemporary technologies. I am not questioning what we do, but how we do it.


Why did you decide to move from academia to this job?

The opportunity to work with great people in a non-profit organization to help the chemistry community.

What I miss the most from my time in the lab is the freedom to try new things and also run experiments.


What was most challenging of your job?

I am not sure. It may be to damper my eagerness to get things done right away and allow time for others to provide feedback? That is nothing specific to my job actually, but more to my character. When you are a graduate student or a postdoc, what you do and how much you do is mostly within your own control. As I started to work with others, I quickly realized that I needed to be more patient and accept that things—and decisions—can take time.


What advice would you give to students pursuing a job in this area?

I think of my job as being in the service area, and there are no two jobs alike; so my advice would be to make sure that it sits well with your personality. One can always learn new technical tricks and acquire new skills, but one can not work against his/her own nature and if your character does not fit the job, you are in the wrong space.


Thank you very much for giving these insights into your job.

Fabienne Meyers studied chemistry and gained her Ph.D. in 1994 from the Université de Mons-Hainaut, Belgium. She spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, USA, before moving to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA, as a postdoctoral fellow in toxicology.
In 1998, Meyers joined the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) as Electronic Publishing Manager with responsibility for the IUPAC website and the bimonthly news magazine Chemistry International (CI). In 2007, she became Associate Director of IUPAC and managing editor of Chemistry International.

Selected Awards:

  • Prix Louis Melsens de l’Académie Royale des Sciences Belgique, 1996
  • Prix Jean Stas de l’Académie Royale des Sciences de Belgique, 1995
  • FNRS (Fonds National Belge de la Recherche Scientifique) Travel Award, 1991 and 1995

Selected Publications:


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