The global COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on human life worldwide, undoubtedly affecting our personal relationships and interactions, work-life balance, mental health, professional activities, and freedom through social distancing and lockdowns. It also has exerted dramatic pressures on healthcare systems and led to socio-economic disruption worldwide. Hence, it is consensual that the pandemic brought immense restrictions, challenges, uncertainties, fear, pain, and loss at an unprecedented level worldwide.
Despite the dark side and difficulties posed by the pandemic, it also brought several opportunities for us—younger chemists—to grow and succeed at many levels. In particular, the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN, affiliated organization of IUPAC)  wanted to give a voice to younger chemists worldwide and showcase how the community has been navigating the challenges and coping with the pandemic, as well as adapting and thriving. We reached out to the IYCN Delegates (see Fig. 1) and asked them to fill in a survey to hear about the experiences and challenges they have faced during the pandemic, as well as celebrate and learn from their achievements during this unprecedented time.
Figure 1. IYCN Delegates who responded to the IYCN survey.
With all the restrictions imposed by the lockdown, which varied from country to country and from state to state, there were several challenges. Those include not being able to go to the workplace, interruptions of ongoing research and experimental activities by graduate students, postdocs, and early-career scientists, adjusting to online teaching, not meeting friends and family members, the inability to travel and attend in-person conferences, among many others.
While some had to relocate to a new country and struggled to make new friends, relocating and leaving small city apartments was a solution to make working and living at home easier for others. Dr. Christine Dunne (IYCN Delegate from the USA), patent attorney at Cooley LLP-USA, used this opportunity to spend more time with her family: “I’m fortunate I had the opportunity to leave the city and stay with family until the offices reopen.”
Dr. Cynthia Ibeto (IYCN Delegate from Nigeria), an early-career chemist at the University of Nigeria Nsukka, stated, “I had to suspend some laboratory studies due to the inability to acquire some materials abroad, in addition to losing two travel grants to attend an international conference and a research visit. Although the conference was moved to a virtual program, it brought some limitations for active participation.”
Ways to Face Challenges and Adapt
The pandemic-driven challenges enabled people to think about innovative ways to cope and adapt to their new life circumstances. We asked IYCN Delegates about their ways of navigating these challenges. Some chose to keep themselves calm, optimistic, with a survival spirit, setting up short-term goals, and keeping themselves motivated. Others have chosen to adopt a healthy lifestyle and keep themselves busy as much as possible. Some filled the seemingly “extra” time granted to them by saving the time for commuting to work, traveling, or conducting lab work with other activities, such as learning new skills, using new teaching tools, reading books, exercising regularly, or attending numerous virtual workshops, webinars, and conferences related to COVID-19 research (diagnosis, treatment, vaccination, masks, etc.) and other topics of interest to them to advance their career development . Professionally, many researchers focused on working on available data and writing original research articles, review papers, grant proposals, and getting ready for job applications.
Younger chemists were thankful for the diverse virtual platforms that enabled them to stay connected to friends, families, and peers. Dr. Fun Man Fung (IYCN Delegate from Singapore), a junior PI and Lecturer at The National University of Singapore, advocates staying optimistic about the future and applying the new things learned during the pandemic: “Our mindset is the most effective panacea for all challenges. Reframing how we think about the new normal and propel ourselves to move into the discomfort zone, that is the first step. Having the growth mindset that with tough challenges we will become tougher never fails to keep me motivated. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Scientists and researchers have been affected by the closure of campuses and research laboratories. Moreover, some job openings and offers have been postponed or declined . While the year 2020 led to dramatic job cuts around the world, the pharmaceutical industry broadened its work towards developing diagnostic methodologies and tools, drugs, and ultimately vaccines to fight the virus. Ms. Lisa M. Jarvis, Executive Director of Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN) magazine, stated, “This year will go down in the books as the year of pharma” as a result of the ramp-up towards finding solutions to end this pandemic .
We asked the IYCN delegates if they have had any career shifts during the pandemic. While the majority have gone through the expected changes, i.e., working from home and moving towards virtual platforms and online teaching, others have experienced a career shift such as starting a Ph.D. position in a new country, as mentioned by Lieke van Gijzel (IYCN Delegate from The Netherlands), who started a Ph.D. at Technische Universität (TU) Darmstadt, Germany.
Dr. Hmunshel Jasha, (IYCN Delegate from India), Research Scientist at the Council Of Scientific And Industrial Research-Indian Institute Of Integrative Medicine (CSIR-IIIM), transitioned from a position as Senior Technical Staff in a central university to working as a Scientist in a national lab 2,500 km away, which required him to travel during the peak of COVID-19 in his area. Dr. Leonardo Scarabelli (IYCN Delegate from Spain), an early-career researcher at the Institut de Ciència de Materials de Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC), Spain, has started his junior leader fellowship in the middle of the pandemic.
With the move to online teaching in higher education, it has been a challenge to achieve a proper engagement of students in classrooms. Dr. Fun Man, who calls himself an educational-technology-savvy scholar, has received several international invitations to speak and share his recommendations and experiences. This has granted him a unique opportunity to think about new and innovative strategies and connect with other like-minded educators and potential collaborators to work on evidence-based research classroom experiments, which could improve online learning in the post-pandemic world.
Achievements to Remember during the Pandemic
Given all the challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic brought to the world, there has still been a ray of sunshine. The flexibility to adapt to the “new normal” enabled young chemists to grow professionally and to expand their knowledge on many levels. Younger chemists have been organizing virtual meetings, symposiums, and conferences, working on submitting articles that were on hold, and expanding their network virtually.
A few IYCN Delegates have started working towards pursuing new degrees across the chemical sciences—or even in law to be able to provide advice on legal issues. Moreover, some were involved in expanding their volunteer work towards connecting and benefiting younger chemists via new organizations, networks, and projects. We are proud of the IYCN Delegates’ achievements and their willingness to enrich their communities with scientific progress and volunteering.
Launch of New Younger Chemists’ Networks and Projects
Many of the IYCN Delegates have been active and proud of establishing new younger chemists’ networks and groups in their areas. Santiago Ampudia Vásquez (IYCN Delegate from Ecuador), a graduate student at Medicamenta Ecuatoriana S.A., Quito, Ecuador, was proud to collaborate with the team of the Latin American Network of Young Scientists Working in Chemistry (LANYSC) to help define the concept and spirit of this new young chemists’ network that has been growing at a fast pace.
Mark Kelada (IYCN Delegate from Ireland), an industrial laboratory analyst, is proud of the establishment of the Institute of Chemistry of Ireland-Young Chemists’ Network (ICI-YCN, see Fig. 2), in addition to organizing a postgraduate symposium and the European Young Chemists podcast, accompanied by work achievements and personal growth.
Figure 2. Establishment of the ICI-Young Chemists’ Network chaired by Mark Kelada.
Fatima Mustafa (IYCN Delegate from Jordan), a Ph.D. candidate at Clarkson University, USA, co-founded and chaired the Younger Chemists Committee of the American Chemical Society in the Northern New York Area (NNY-YCC, see Fig. 3), besides continuing her volunteer work with organizations such as the IYCN and IUPAC. The committee has grown to have nine board members, encompassing undergraduate and graduate students from four different colleges in the region.
Additionally, the committee has partnered with the Eastern US YCC Partnership, where they work with eight other YCC groups and have developed virtual programs, such as professional development workshops, a “day in a life of a chemist” webinar series, and “Self-Care Sundays” sessions of interest to younger chemists.
“I felt fulfillment and happiness watching my fellows in the group from the undergraduate level engaging with older students from the graduate level and early career, working together to establish an organization, planning events, learning, networking, leading and moderating meetings and workshops, etc. We have co-organized over 15 professional events and expanded our network hugely, and we hope that this work was received very well.”
Figure 3. The establishment of NNY-YCC/ACS. The picture on the right was taken in a virtual workshop entitled “Building your online presence and tailoring your CV and resume.”
More Scientific Publications, Research Progress, and Recognitions
Staying at home has pushed early-career chemists to work on the available data and manuscripts. Many of the IYCN Delegates were glad to be able to have their work published during 2020. Dr. Claudia Bonfio (IYCN Delegate from Italy), currently a post-doc at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge UK, has received a Principal Investigator position and published her first solo review and first corresponding author paper. Dr. Andreas Kalogirou (IYCN Delegate from Cyprus), a faculty member at the European University Cyprus, Nicosia, has successfully published four research papers.
Dr. Cynthia Ibeto had two papers published in addition to many recognitions and outreach activities “I got the research mobility grant of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) and a professional fellowship award from the Chemical Society of Nigeria. I was a poster prize winner for the “food & agriculture” theme in the “Commonwealth Chemistry Posters – Building the Partnership” virtual poster event held in August 2020. Also, I organized two webinars for women chemists in Nigeria.”
Fatima Mustafa has published three articles in addition to receiving many recognitions: “I was awarded leadership and community service awards at Clarkson University in addition to the outstanding teaching assistant award. The closest award to my heart that I received in 2020 is the Bozica Matijevic Endowed Graduate Fellowship, which is granted for the first time to a student who appreciates cultural experiences, values hospitality, and kindness to visitors, and enriches his/her community through volunteer efforts.”
Dr. Leonardo Scarabelli has had his first personal project running, bought his first piece of equipment, and recruited his very first Ph.D. student. Sebastian Weber (IYCN delegate from Germany), a Ph.D. student at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Germany, is glad to have had the chance to improve his skills in data analytics, which could enhance his ongoing research towards getting a Ph.D.: “I strongly improved my skills in data analysis and could, in the end, carry out more experiments that are required for my Ph.D. project than I would have expected. Furthermore, I had a beamtime alone for the first time—only with the beamline scientist—because of travel regulations that did not allow the planned partners to join. However, managing such difficulties motivates me to face future challenges.”
Adalgisa Martinez-SilveiraI (IYCN Delegate from Uruguay), PEDECIBA Química, Universidad de la Republica, Montevideo, Uruguay, finished her Ph.D at the beginning of 2020. Additionally, she and her team were awarded in the IYCN public outreach competition of 2020.
Professor Hooi-Ling Lee (IYCN Delegate from Malaysia), Professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang, was featured as one of the 80 women of the 2020 cohort of women leaders to be featured by the Southeast Asian Women (SEA Women) initiative in the Science, Education, and Women Categories.
Dr. Fun Man Fung participated in international collaborations, e.g., co-authoring an article on diversity, equity, and inclusion, titled “A Diverse View of Science to Catalyse Change” that was jointly published in different journals belonging to different publishers, including the Journal of the American Chemical Society (ACS Publications), Nature Chemistry (Springer Nature), Angewandte Chemie (Wiley-VCH), and Chemical Science (Royal Society of Chemistry) .
Fun Man Fung is also a member of the task force of ChemVoices, a project that is the result of a partnership between IUPAC and IYCN. The program focuses on topics of interest to early-career chemists and showcases the future of chemistry, aiming to raise the profile of younger chemists who exhibit scholarship and mentorship in the scientific community. He has been admitted to the 2020 CAS Future Leaders Program conferred by the American Chemical Society (ACS) .
Fung has authored or co-authored over 17 publications in 2020, and his research in chemical education and mentorship has resulted in the celebration of Fung as a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI, a program by the U.S. Department of State) “Hero” for his efforts in volunteering and supporting the academic community with various virtual learning programs during the global COVID-19 outbreak. He has also assisted young chemistry graduates in finding jobs during the unprecedented times posed by the global COVID-19 outbreak (see Fig. 4). Moreover, he became the first Singaporean to be admitted to the International Advisory Board of the Journal of Chemical Education.
Figure 4. Dr. Fun Man Fung (center right) assisted three fresh graduates, Jia Yi (left), Kenzo Togo (center left), and Wen Xin (right) from “Team Senpai Learn” in finding jobs during a challenging job market.
Chemists believe in the importance of being flexible, patient, and adaptive. The change in the dynamics of our daily lives created many experts in virtual platforms such as Zoom, GoToWebinar, WebEx, and Microsoft Teams. Indeed, as much as normal working life is missed, virtual connections still enabled scientists and the general public to seek knowledge from new and different places that they had never considered before, which was reflected in the increase of enrollment in online courses, especially the freely available ones.
However, working from home made working and resting hours almost indistinguishable, and thus, spending long hours on the laptop made it necessary to switch work off and disconnect from the online virtual world. The value of shutting down the laptop and silencing the phone cannot be stressed enough. Moreover, the importance of resilience, mental health, and wellbeing has been brought to the forefront.
The Role of Chemists in the Future
The nature of the COVID-19 pandemic puts chemists and scientists from other disciplines into the spotlight on the world stage. However, despite producing vaccines at incomparable rates, their work is far from being over. In the future, chemistry will incorporate more computational and simulation research projects due to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0). The internet of things, big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, robotics, and machine learning are—and will continue to be—an integral part of research. With rising demands for highly trained chemists, new means of learning are needed, such as open science, which enables scientists to engage more collaboratively and inclusively in national and international scenarios.
Beyond obtaining data and results, background training across the chemical sciences develops a series of skills, including creativity, problem-solving, critical thinking, and logical reasoning, both in the laboratory and in theory. Chemists are trailblazers for the scientific training of young minds, be it through excellent research or inspiring teaching. Our important role in society will continue to be more visible to people. Chemists have a key role to play in bridging science and technology towards a better and sustainable future worldwide.
Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) can often be misunderstood and seen as unpopular by the general public, an outdated perspective that must quickly change. As chemists, we need to clearly communicate how knowledge evolves through methodological research to foster trust in scientific results. Now, more than ever, we need people to trust, listen to, and follow science and scientists.
However, this is not a one-way street. Scientists also need to listen and cater to the larger population. The global pandemic offered a unique space for this mutual understanding between science and society to flourish and an opportunity to show the world the incredible power of science in tackling major societal challenges. Yet, a total re-evaluation of the role of scientists is needed to face the multitude of challenges stemming from climate change. We always need more great science, science communication, and outreach. As Christoph Wulf (IYCN Delegate from Germany), M.Sc., stated, “Chemists could act as speakers for new ideas especially if they are related to climate change and renewable technologies.”
The scientific progress made over the last year has been unprecedented and there is still plenty of room for improvements and advancements in chemistry and science overall. Hopefully, much of what has been learned during the pandemic can also be translated to tackle other big-picture challenges. Dr. Dimitra Pournara (IYCN Delegate from Greece), Scientific Editor and Consultant, summed this up nicely by saying, “The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are among the most important challenges that should be urgently faced to reassure a better life for future generations. In all cases, the contribution of chemists through research and/or other actions will be vital for improving human life and health, as well as towards pursuing sustainable development goals.”
The Future of Chemistry
Understanding the major challenges we are dealing with is the first step in taking action to address them. No system is perfect, but we have the power and the obligation to change what is not working. Although the future is uncertain, there is much work to be done in improving healthcare systems, better educating the youth, decreasing inequality and poverty within societies, fighting climate change and environmental degradation, and achieving a better and more sustainable future for all. Chemistry provides the most basic and fundamental solutions to tackle all of these issues, and thus, chemists will undoubtedly play a key role in driving the future of society. The pandemic offers ample time to evaluate, modify, rethink, and rebuild the society we want to see moving forward.
Adjusting to a new “normal” life will be as challenging and changing as 2020 has been. Virtual tools come to our aid by restructuring our daily activities and compensating for the lack of interactions we were so accustomed to. Beyond the current pandemic, 2021 and the following years show promise for more scientific achievements. The reflection on the last year—what worked well and what did not—provides us with the tools to be better prepared for the unpredictable future. Younger chemists, having just experienced a global pandemic, bring the grit, motivation, passion, curiosity, and openness needed to discover something new and embrace new challenges. Ultimately, we take action to accelerate a recovery in the well-being of humanity.
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Fatima Mustafa obtained her BSc and MSc degrees in chemistry from the University of Jordan, Amman. Currently, she is a Ph.D. candidate at the Chemistry and Biomolecular Sciences Department at Clarkson University, Potsdam, USA, advised by Silvana Andreescu. Fatima’s research focuses on the design of portable assays for detection of food markers for food quality monitoring, and smart packaging applications. In addition to the development of easy-to-use disposable sensors for point–of–care testing, environmental toxins mentoring and pathogen detection is of interest.
Fatima is passionate about connecting learners with opportunities and resources at a national and a global level. She is the chair and co-founder of the American Chemical Society–The Northern NY Younger Chemists Committee (NNY-YCC). She served as a secretary of the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN) from 2017 to 2019, and currently is a member of the Conference Presence Committee. She is also a task member in the IUPAC Global Women’s Breakfast Project 2020/2022.
Raymond Borg completed his BSc degree at the University of Southern Maine, Portland, USA, in biochemistry in 2014. In 2016, he completed his MSc degree at the University of Massachusetts Boston (UMB), USA, and started a Ph.D. at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), USA, co-advised in the groups of Irene Chen and Arnab Mukherjee. His research is focused on bioengineering, phage therapeutics, and virus-enabled diagnostics.
Raymond has been a member of the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN) since its founding in 2017, and has been serving on the Conference Presence Committee for the last two years.
João Borges graduated and received his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Porto, Portugal, in 2008 and 2013, respectively. From 2013 to 2018, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minho and University of Aveiro, both Portugal. Currently, he is an Assistant Researcher at the Department of Chemistry, CICECO – Aveiro Institute of Materials, University of Aveiro, focusing on the rational design, synthesis, and development of bioinspired supramolecular multi-component biomaterials to interface with living systems.
Besides his academic activity, he has been actively involved in several young chemists’ networks at national, European, and international levels. He has been a Member of the Executive Board of the Young Chemists Group (GQJ) of the Portuguese Chemical Society (SPQ) between 2016 and 2018, Portuguese Delegate and Member of the Networks since 2017, and Global Connections teams at the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN) since 2019, and Member of the Executive Board and Conference Presence Committee Chair at the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN) from 2019 to 2021. Currently, he is the Chair-Elect of IYCN.