Taking Responsibility for Society

Taking Responsibility for Society

Author: Vera Koester, Thisbe Lindhorst

This year, the German Chemical Society (Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker, GDCh) celebrates its 150th anniversary. Dr. Vera Koester of ChemViews Magazine spoke with the Society’s president, Professor Thisbe K. Lindhorst, from Kiel University, Germany, about the anniversary, the responsibilities and visions of the GDCh, as well as the impact of scientific societies.



What makes chemistry in Germany and the GDCh unique?

The history of chemistry and the fundamental achievements of our science have been greatly influenced by German scientists. German even once used to be the principal language of chemistry. This is still seen in the German edition of the journal Angewandte Chemie. The German Chemical Society was founded on the rising success of the German chemical industry and German chemical research.

The GDCh combines both lines of chemical progress, that in industry and that in education and research. This is an excellent vision for a society at large to be able to refer to, and to benefit from one of the world’s most important non-profit organizations in chemistry.

Additionally, I am proud of the broad scope we have in our target groups: We contribute to training and education in chemistry from kindergarten to school and university and in various chemistry-related jobs. Finally, I believe that both the national and international character of our activities is, if not something unique, a strong idea of our society and of our members.



This year marks a milestone anniversary of the GDCh. What is planned for this special occasion?

We have organized various special events throughout the year. Our most prominent event will be the “WiFo” (Wissenschaftsforum; science forum), our biannual conference on all aspects of chemistry, which is taking place in Germany’s capital Berlin in September. We have organized a fantastic opening ceremony at Konzerthaus Berlin, situated on the Gendarmenmarkt square in the central Mitte district of Berlin. Here, the newly founded “Primo Levi Award” will be presented together with the Italian Chemical Society (Società Chimica Italiana, SCI). The inaugural winner is Professor Roald Hoffmann, the 1981 Nobel laureate and a GDCh honorary member. We will continue with a whole week full of chemistry including the prominent Angewandte Symposium with four Nobel laureates as speakers.

Then, on Thursday, a new exciting format will follow, which will bring us all into a dialogue about the great challenges of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the proposed name for the time period in which man has become one of the most important influencing factors on the biological, geological, and atmospheric processes on Earth. This symposium, entitled “Experiment Future ─ Values Thinking in Chemistry”, looks at the role of chemistry in the context of major future questions about education, nutrition, health, and sustainability. Outstanding speakers have promised stimulating lectures. These include Martin Brudermüller (Deputy Chairman of the Board of Management of BASF), Jonathan Forman (Science Policy Adviser of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winner), and Helga Rübsamen-Schaeff (Founder and Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board of AiCuris GmbH since 2015). After the short lectures, innovative discussion formats will give the opportunity to jointly cover the topics in more depth. As a result, we want to create a final communiqué that radiates beyond the chemical community into the general public and also reaches political decision makers.

On Friday, we are holding a symposium entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable”, where we are going to discuss how creativity can be fostered in the era of the German Excellence Strategy. The Excellence Strategy aims to strengthen Germany’s position as an outstanding place for research by funding top-level university research. We will ask if excellent chemistry is a mainstream phenomenon or if it eases discovery and innovation and how a funding environment can support the kind of progress that goes beyond incremental steps.

Additional events celebrating the anniversary will include a joint symposium with the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in London in October.



What have been the society’s main achievements during its 150-year history?

Of course, there have been many, many achievements over the last 150 years. The GDCh would not have survived without achievements and it will advance further. Here, I would like to highlight four things.

  • Thinking about the early history, in my eyes, the opening of our society to non-chemists was a courageous, yet necessary step. Today, our society is not “only” an elitist society of university graduates; it includes laboratory technicians and other experts with a non-university chemical education as well as academic experts from other disciplines.
  • We founded a platform for the next generation of chemists 20 years ago: the Young Chemists Forum (JCF; JungChemikerForum). Women and men of the JCF within the GDCh have helped very much to overcome the notion of an old men’s club.
  • I regard the GDCh code of honor as another very important topic. It was drawn up in 1998. All members pledge to act in a responsible and sustainable way and to strictly oppose any misuse of chemical weapons and illegal drugs. Thinking of recent horrible news, it is more important than ever that chemists reflect on the consequences of what they are doing.
  • Finally, the numerous international activities that the GDCh runs and its international reputation are its most important achievements. We are one of the main partners and drivers of EuCheMS, which emphasizes the European ideal. We publish international journals such as Angewandte Chemie and the ChemPubSoc European journal family, and we have signed bilateral cooperation alliances with chemical societies around the world. It is not always easy to keep the balance between the national and the international activities, but I think we are doing very well in that aspect and international cooperation is the lifeblood of any science.



What has stayed the same since the German Chemical Society was founded?

I assume the overarching constant in our society is our love of chemistry. Of course, I believe that the character of our society, being a union of a few male senior chemist scientists 150 years ago, is quite different today. But we still are part of this important history and always will be.

And, in spite of the fact that our life is much more influenced by global developments today than it was 150 years ago, our society has always been founded on the understanding that science and progress are achieved in international collaborations and reach beyond borders.



What are the challenges for the future?

For the GDCh it is important to navigate between continuity and the implementation of a strategy for the future. The GDCh wants to maintain its strong position as one of the leading chemical societies worldwide, and is faced with a global environment that changes at a great pace. Therefore, the GDCh board has started formulating a vision for our society that will help to answer a key question of potential members and supporters: Why should I join?



So why should I join? What makes chemical societies important today? What is the benefit for members?

I would like to borrow a quote from John F. Kennedy and say: Ask not what the society can do for you, but what you can do for the society! Of course, there is a benefit to being a member of the GDCh. It is a strong and extensive network of experts in chemistry, and beyond that, helps to find jobs and answers to questions, allows members to share their experiences, offers collegiality and even friendship, points out unexpected opportunities, supports enterprise and ideas, gives advice and training, and widens your horizons.

Imagine for a moment that we did not have a chemical society and chemists were not organized under the umbrella of our science. Would this be a good alternative? Every chemist would stand alone with an always detached and scattered voice. As a society, we are much stronger and can make a difference within our own community, on an international level, and also within our civil society. Moreover, the GDCh offers grants and funding for its members and supports a large variety of activities, ranging from international symposia to “chemistry and society” activities and political activities on chemistry education, for example.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that the GDCh unites chemists from industry as well as academia and from other occupational areas. And both main branches, industry and research, are very strong in Germany; this is reflected by the GDCh as a society for all chemists. We can learn from each other, we can inspire each other and we can advance together for the benefit of all humans. This is where I see the task of a chemical society: to be more than an internal circle of likeminded people; to represent a unique and unified expert group, which takes responsibility for society at large based on an extensive expert knowledge and common fundamentals of basic values.



How do you channel this?

The GDCh board has come up with the vision “Leading to a better future with chemistry”. This means that we do not apply expert knowledge blindly, but with a consciousness for overall success. Thus, we strive to contribute to solving the grand challenges, to work on the 17 sustainable development goals, to contribute to a healthy life for all humans, to communicate chemical knowledge to the society, and to contribute to chemical education, and work on the participation of the next generation. This is an enormous task and it is certainly worth being part of this group as a good citizen chemist.



You have often talked about values of and in chemistry. What do you mean by this?

My agenda as president of the German Chemical Society is “Wertedenken in der Chemie”. This German term can be translated into “Values Thinking in Chemistry”. It is an ethical attitude towards chemistry, which is based on moral principles combined with thinking. And thinking helps! Thinking is a source of pleasure and of learning.

The German word “Wertedenken” is a noun combined of two nouns. This also suggests, for example, that just a single approach to solving a problem is rarely sufficient. An expert opinion in chemistry, a paper that is awarded the highest ranks, is not automatically of global benefit or appreciated by society. Such ambiguity needs to be considered and discussed in a transdisciplinary way.

Likewise, although we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors in chemistry, fantastic men and women, we also have to keep the future in mind: the well-being of the next generation and the preservation of our planet. We have to make sure that the lives of our successor generations will not be worse but better than ours. And in light of the grand global challenges, an ever-growing world population with a demand for good food, clean water and air, energy, and health, it becomes clear that chemistry has a special task and responsibility for the future. It requires a combination of expert knowledge in chemistry and an ethical consciousness about the inviolable human dignity as a fundamental truth of humanity to make things good. This means “Values Thinking in Chemistry” for me.



Who or what has inspired you most in chemistry and during your career?

To be honest, I was initially repelled by many teachers as well as lots of chemistry. It took me a while to feel at home in the world of chemistry in the way it was taught to me in the 1980s. Possibly, the way chemistry is taught should be different … Equally, I do not feel like a fish in water within our funding system. If I had a free wish, I would like to have a very rich patron just providing the financial framework for my ideas.

Regarding inspiration, I have seldom met specific individuals who gave me my principal inspiration; I always needed to position myself within an environment and identify a personal appreciation and goal. In 2000, I was the first female full professor of organic chemistry in Germany after the Second World War. Unbelievable! Thank God this situation changed relatively quickly, but I am still missing more female colleagues in leading positions. Also unexpectedly: When I accepted the chair at the University of Kiel, my two children were 8 and 4 years old. There was no extra funding or support for young researchers with families at the time. I am also very happy that this is very different today.

Without excluding the many chemists who have my full respect and admiration, who have helped me learn, understand, and advance, I would like to name two who today give me great pleasure with their science and individual way of performing; these are Dirk Trauner and Carolyn Bertozzi.



What do you do in your spare time?

Spare time is a sensitive issue in a year in which I serve as the president of the GDCh, celebrating its 150th anniversary. Nevertheless, I like a lot of different things besides chemistry. I like books, I like art and paintings, I like creative activities, designing things. I also enjoy calming down and reflecting on the fundamental aspects of life, and I have fun exploring new places and sharing exciting debates with good friends and family with a good glass of wine at my side, or something like that.



And last but not least, a few words on your research?

My research interest is mainly driven by my enthusiasm for glycosciences, that is, the biological role of sugars in cell–cell communication. I believe it is important for human health to understand this in detail. All cells are covered by glycoconjugates in a particular way. There is no life without that sweet cell coating, called “glycocalyx”. The glycocalyx bears one of the greatest secrets of biological chemistry today, as we do not conclusively understand how it functions. Solving this secret could be rewarded with the Nobel Prize in the future.



What else would you like readers of ChemViews Magazine to know?

I am interested in the feedback of readers of ChemViews regarding our anniversary. It is not so much my intention to fill pages with my opinion or point of view, I would rather encourage mutual discussions and open a new forum in which a vision for a better future for all can arise and thrive. This makes me happy.



Thank you very much for the interview.
And dear readers, please feel free to send us your feedback.

Thisbe K. Lindhorst studied chemistry at the Universities of München and Münster, both Germany, and received her Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry in 1991 from the University of Hamburg (Prof. Thiem), Germany. After a postdoctoral stay at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada (Prof. Withers), she worked on her habilitation and became Private Docent in 1998 at the University of Hamburg. In 1997, she was a Visiting Professor at the University of Ottawa in Canada (Prof. R. Roy) and in 2014 and 2015 Visiting Professor at the University of Orléans in France.

Since 2000 Thisbe Lindhorst holds a chair in Organic and Biological Chemistry at the University of Kiel, Germany. In 2016 and 2017, she serves as elected president of the German Chemical Society, GDCh.

Her scientific interests are in the field of synthetic organic chemistry and in biological chemistry, especially in glycochemistry and glycobiology. Current research is focused on the study of glycosylated surfaces and control of cell adhesion.


Selected Awards

  • Scholarship Award of the Karl-Ziegler Foundation, 1998
  • Chemistry Prize of the Academy of Sciences of Göttingen, Germany, 1998
  • Carl-Duisberg Memorial Prize, 2000
  • IUPAC 2017 Distinguished Women in Chemistry or Chemical Engineering Award, 2017


Selected Publications


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