Katharina Uebele is the youngest member of the board that GDCh (German Chemical Society; Gesellschaft Deutscher Chemiker) ever had. Since the beginning of her undergraduate studies, she has been actively involved in the work of the GDCh and has helped to shape the focus of the organization. Currently, she is a consultant at DuPont Sustainable Solutions in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Here she talks to Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about her experiences in the society, the potential of heterogeneous networks, how important the interests of young chemists are, and what she envisages for the future of the GDCh and other chemical societies.
What inspired you to study business chemistry?
I had a really good chemistry teacher and my father was a chemist, so I was keen to go into chemistry as a career. But I was not very excited about working in the lab. Instead, I always liked to organize and manage projects. So I decided to pursue business chemistry. There, you have the opportunity to combine both fields of study—a perfect combination for me, as it turned out.
How has your career developed?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in business chemistry from the University of Kiel. During my undergraduate studies, I did some internships to also gain practical experience. Then I went to the University of Münster for my master’s degree. During that time, I spent one semester abroad at the University of York in the UK. That was a great experience. I specialized there in green chemistry and sustainable industrial technology.
When I returned to Germany, I did another internship in the field of consulting before I started my master’s thesis. I wrote the thesis together with Clariant, focusing on sustainability in new business development.
And that topic led you to your current job?
Yes, exactly. A contact I met through my GDCh network was so convinced of the work I did at the GDCh and also during my studies that he asked me to join him and his team. That’s how I started to work in consulting, focusing on smart manufacturing, which basically includes everything related to digitalization on the production side. I am also developing sustainability-related topics, for example, how we can achieve a circular economy with digital technologies. For me, it is really great to continue my journey to work for a more sustainable world and having the opportunity to learn a lot about industry.
You are also involved in many, many different tasks with the GDCh. How did you first come into contact with the GDCh?
Actually, through glass insurance.
What? Can you explain that?
It is a type of insurance for the lab the GDCh had organized with a partner for their members. If you destroy a glassware item in the lab, they will cover it.
When I began my studies, members of the Young Chemists Network (JungChemiker Forum; JCF) in Kiel were running around telling everybody, “Come join us, we have glass insurance.” But besides that, they were really passionate about their work with the Young Chemists Network. That motivated me to join the GDCh during my first semester.
What was your motivation to engage with the GDCh?
My first motivation was always the network interaction. I really liked the work of the JCF and how the team worked together. It was also a great opportunity to get in touch with all different kinds of people from the university and beyond.
Then, together with one of the GDCh sections, we founded the JuWiChem, the Young Business Chemists Network. There was a huge demand by business chemists to connect across the whole country. As a team of five on the board, we started to organize events and conferences on topics that combine chemistry and industry, such as digitalization, sustainability, or innovation. We had the opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper and build everything up on our own. And we had lots of drive, like a small start-up. I was head of the board for two years and learned so much on this journey.
Around the same time, we also hosted the Young Chemists spring symposium in Kiel, where I was deeply involved. This is the annual JCF meeting and one of the largest scientific conferences for young scientists in Europe. I supported the conference by managing the on-site team and its activities.
What does that involve?
That involves everything that happens on-site, such as catering, booking rooms, and providing equipment for the poster session, as well as managing the work of all volunteers. This was a great teamwork experience and a very engaging and intense time. The conference and founding the JuWiChem gave me the opportunity to grow and learn beyond what is taught at university, such as how to work in teams, how to deal with conflicts, stress, or complicated people, and, project management.
Later I joined the management board of the Chemical Industry Network section of the GDCh (VCW; Vereinigung für Chemie und Wirtschaft). We organize conferences on relevant topics for the chemical industry and have a really great network exchange. As JuWiChem, we were the student part of this section and were able to bring in fresh momentum and new ideas. This was quite new to them.
By our work with the students we were able, I think, to double the membership of the VCW. So this meant real change and an evolution of the VCW.
How important is it that the next generation is also involved in the work of the GDCh?
I think it is super important. There is a lot of experience in the GDCh among the older members. They know how the business works, and they have this very deep knowledge in academia. However, as the young generation, we have the opportunity to break the thinking structures a bit, bring in new ideas, approaches, and perspectives, and to bring in highly motivated people. We have a lot of young chemists who really want to use their voice and who want to make a difference and to drive the GDCh forward.
What do you think are the main challenges for the young people in the GDCh?
There is a lot of change happening, of course. I think this is affecting everyone: industry, academia, and young students. Everything is getting faster. We have megatrends such as digitalization or sustainability. These are topics the young chemists really want to speak about and engage in. We as the GDCh need to find the best ways to take that energy into great projects.
Why do you think societies like the GDCh are important? You could also share your voice on social media, for example, or find other forums.
I think the advantage of the GDCh is that it brings together all the different groups. The heterogeneity of the members and the diversity of its network makes the GDCh so important. We can represent chemistry on a very holistic level. We have many chemistry experts within our network, so we can discuss and give opinions from diverse perspectives. That is something you would not achieve by yourself, but that the GDCh can.
How important is international exchange for you?
Of course, nowadays every chemical company operates worldwide, and also the academic research is a very international field. Exchanging worldwide and connecting internationally is very valuable for the GDCh. We are already very active in partnerships with other chemical associations around the globe. We can all learn from each other, exchange on new ideas, and inspire each other.
We always hear that there are a lot of student members of the GDCh, but many of them leave after they have finished their studies—especially those who find a job in industry. This is also true for other societies. You are not in academia and yet you are still a very active member. Do you have an idea of how this trend can be stopped?
I think this is historically grown. Today we have a really strong Young Chemists Network that works and manages itself very independent. The Young Chemists Network is about 20 years old. It started out of a need by the young members to address their own topics, exchanging as students and Ph.D.s, organizing conferences for Ph.D.s to present their work, and so on.
What happens is, that every young member feels very connected with the young chemists but does not know enough about the work the other parts of the GDCh are doing and the opportunities they offer. Therefore, we need to connect more closely and exchange ideas with the rest of the GDCh and vice versa to improve that problem. That is actually what we are working on now on the GDCh board: to bring more young chemists and young voices into the core work of the GDCh, and to make greater use of the diversity of the GDCh network and the interdisciplinary exchange between the generations.
So that the young chemists are not so separate?
Yes, exactly. We are one-third of the GDCh. This proportion should be represented in all parts of the GDCh. We want to accommodate the mindset of the younger generation. And that is what is happening at the moment. And I think we are on a really good path toward that goal.
What motivates you to work on all these committees?
I think it is an intrinsic motivation. I really like what the GDCh stands for: connecting people, bringing diverse minds together, giving chemistry a voice, and driving issues like sustainability and digitalization from a chemistry perspective. The GDCh enables me to support those issues. Sustainability, in particular, is a topic that is really important to me and where I think we have to be a lot more active. For me, the GDCh is a platform to do so.
And, of course, working together in the teams, making great friends on the way, and having a vibrant network really motivates me to go further and to invest my time into driving all these projects.
You talked a lot about what you like. Are there things you would like to change?
Our voice could be a lot stronger. I think the GDCh kept itself neutral for a long time. I understand that it is complicated to get involved too much in politics. But there is a lot of fake news out there and people are no longer listening to proven science. This is where we need to speak up and give society the facts. To explain what the science behind the topics looks like and to help them to understand more details. We could do a lot more of that.
It is also important not to represent just one voice but to have competing voices as well because there is not always right and wrong. I think these are discussions we should lead.
Do you have time to do other things besides your job and your work for the GDCh?
I have made a lot of friends through my journey with the GDCh across Germany and I also moved a lot during my studies, so I try to connect with friends over the weekends. Besides that, I am a swimmer and like to get my head clear in the pool.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Katharina Uebele gained her B.Sc. in business chemistry from the University of Kiel, Germany, in 2016 and her M.Sc. in business chemistry from the University of Münster, Germany, in 2019. She spent a semester abroad at the University of York, UK. Since 2019, she has been a consultant, first at PwC Deutschland, Düsseldorf, and currently at DuPont Sustainable Solutions in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Katharina Uebele has been a member of the GDCh since 2012 and has been very committed since then. For example, she was the deputy speaker of the GDCh-JungChemiker Forum (JCF; Young Chemists Network) Kiel from 2015 to 2016 and chairwoman of JuWiChem (Young Business Chemists) from 2015 to 2017. Since 2018, she has been a member of the board of the GDCh’s Chemical Industry Network (VCW; Vereinigung Chemie und Wirtschaft), a member of the Association of Chemical Industry (Verband der Chemischen Industrie, VCI) Working Group “Circular Economy,” and since 2019 a member of the editorial board of Nachrichten aus der Chemie, the membership magazine of the GDCh. In 2020, she was elected as a board member of the GDCh.