Engaging a New Generation of Chemists

Engaging a New Generation of Chemists

Author: Vera Koester

Jan-Willem Toering has been Director of the Koninklijke Nederlandse Chemische Vereniging (KNCV, Royal Netherlands Chemical Society) since March of last year. He talked to Vera Koester for ChemViews Magazine about his motivation and connection to the KNCV as well as the Society’s challenges and his future plans for it.

Please tell us a bit about how your career has developed.

After studying law and economics, I joined the Royal Netherlands Navy for a few years and served in the Caribbean. After that, I worked at BASF in The Netherlands, where I held several different positions. I also became involved with the KNCV as a member of the board. It was a great time; the KNCV was looking for a new identity and positioning in what was then the start of the Internet era. Over the years, I never lost touch with the KNCV and the chance to be a director of the Society was a great opportunity.

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

Over the years, I have met a lot of chemists and people working in chemistry-related areas. They always inspire me with their stories and their way of coping with challenges that seem like magic to most people without a profound chemical background. For me, the challenge is to act as an intermediary to connect both worlds.

What is unique about the position of director of the KNCV compared with the jobs you had before?

I consider it an honor as well as a responsibility to be director of the KNCV. In my opinion, the members of the KNCV are the builders and guardians of the heritage of the chemical and life sciences in The Netherlands. Our Dutch chemists are considered to be of a very high standard. They represent excellence in the chemical sciences. I consider it both challenging as well as immense fun to contribute to the future of our Society, to make the Society resilient in a changing environment.

What are your main goals as director?

I see it as my main goal to engage a new generation of members, leaders, and volunteers. A lot has changed in membership models over the years. Joining an association isn’t at the top of most people’s to-do list anymore. Members of all ages question the value of membership. We have to accept that the rules have changed. We really have to tell a story that goes beyond the advantages of being part of a network or enjoying a package of member benefits.

I think one of the keys is within direct reach. As European chemical societies we bundled our strengths in the journals of ChemPubSoc Europe. At the KNCV we finance the meetings, awards, and activities of our divisions partially with the royalties gained from these journals. In these meetings, KNCV members and chemists from universities and companies share their opinions, discuss what’s going on in their field of chemistry, and enable PhD students to present their research results. So for them, being a member of our Society is taken for granted.

We also support chemists in various stages of their professional life, especially when they are starting their first job. We have excellent connections within the student populations and together with them we organize master-orientation markets (give bachelor students orientation on the next phase of their study), job fairs, application workshops, CV checks, and other things for students and young professionals. Additionally, we help them with courses such as “How to Write Scientific Papers” or “How Do I Present My Results in Posters?”.

What is special about the situation of the KNCV?

The KNCV is a society with more than 7500 members. Our roots go back to 1903, the year in which our Society was established. One of our major strengths is our loyal members, who volunteer in sections, divisions, and all sorts of commissions and working groups. We can always make an appeal to them. Furthermore, we are excellently connected to universities and universities of applied sciences and we manage to attract lots of new young members.

However, we notice the overloaded agendas of our members and question whether we should organize new events or join existing and successful events organized by our divisions or partner associations.

What are your plans for the near future for the KNCV?

The KNCV used to present a wide portfolio of activities and benefits. Now we have to make a clear choice as to what to do and what not to do. As an example, we want to focus on our KNCV Awards program, which is designed to encourage the advancement of chemistry in all its branches and to enhance the visibility of our chemists and their outstanding achievements. Better visibility is a necessary condition to obtain the funds needed to conduct their research.

How do you connect your members as well as chemists in The Netherlands and worldwide?

There is a lot of fuss about new generations X, Y, and Z and how they should behave and how to handle them. I think that chemistry is still a common language and that it is not the people that have changed, but just the tone of voice. We have all the different media at our fingertips to reach our members, but I am really convinced that the heart of the matter is to show yourself, to meet your members in person and try to connect them.

How can we best educate society about the role of chemistry in today’s world?

It is in the nature of chemists to tell others about the great achievements of chemistry, how they contribute to daily life, and how awful the world would be without the blessings of chemistry. We have been telling this story for at least 30 years, and you know what? We still worry about our image. I think we have to go back to basics, to the fundamentals of chemistry, which are inspirational as they are, and make clear that chemistry first and foremost is a science about the beauty of nature.

What do you do in your spare time?

I am married and I have two sons. So in my spare time you will find me supporting and encouraging the boys at some hockey field or tennis court.

Thank you very much for the interview.

Jan-Willem Toering studied law at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands, and business economics at the University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands, in 2000. After serving in the Royal Netherlands Navy in the Caribbean, he worked at BASF in The Netherlands in different positions. Since 2006, Toering has worked as an independent entrepreneur and was appointed director of the KNCV, effective 1 March 2014.

From 2000 until 2004 he served on the KNCV board of directors.




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