Dr. João Borges is an Assistant Researcher at CICECO – Aveiro Institute of Materials in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. He has been actively serving in several young chemists’ networks at the national, European, and international levels and is currently the Chair of the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN), an associated organization of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) formed in 2017 whose vision is to “connect and empower younger chemists globally”.
Here he speaks to Dr. Vera Koester about the activities of the IYCN as well as how the network gets its ideas and finds out what its members and the community need. He also talks about his research and what motivates him.
What is particularly important to you about working with chemical societies?
Let me give the example of the Portuguese Chemical Society (SPQ)—the first one that I was involved in. I really like the link to society as a whole and the way SPQ itself is working to communicate chemistry knowledge and bridge the gap between schools and universities, having a very important role in education and teaching. I think that its role is key in raising the interest of students and youth in the vital role of chemistry in addressing major global issues that affect our daily lives, but also in engaging more closely with society at large and getting the general public more involved and consciously informed about chemistry.
However, the work of chemical societies goes well beyond what I mentioned previously. It is also important for students who are thinking about the next steps in their career and are not duly informed about the professional careers those with a chemistry background can pursue. It can help them to get inspired about the course of study they might pursue. Moreover, chemical societies are also fundamental to all those who ask themselves what the role of chemistry will be in contributing to a sustainable future. I think this is an important aspect, as well.
The SPQ has been very involved in supporting students, for instance, by supporting the organization of the Chemistry Olympiads, not only at the national level but also by supporting their continuous participation in the Ibero-American Chemistry Olympiad and in the International Chemistry Olympiad. This is key in raising the interest of students in chemistry and showcasing how chemistry is intrinsically involved in our daily lives. It is everywhere, of course.
Also, thinking of IUPAC, I am very honored and grateful for the opportunity to work together with several like-minded colleagues and leaders in diverse projects, contributing to fulfilling its goals in communicating and advancing chemistry knowledge as well as in shaping the future of chemistry worldwide.
So public outreach is one of the reasons why you are involved with chemical societies?
Yes, it is, besides the fact that the societies are also very involved and important at the university level. The public is not as aware of the capacities of science—and chemistry, in particular—as I would like. In my own view, it is important to reach out to teachers and instructors in high schools, for instance, to help them in effectively communicating the latest content in chemistry and to work side-by-side with them to inform students about where chemistry plays a role in our daily lives.
What is special about the IYCN for you?
I really like the IYCN and the young chemists’ networks more broadly because we learn from and support each other, grow together, and jointly work towards a common goal that is to serve the young chemists’ community. In terms of the IYCN, it is a truly global network. It is great to see different individuals and different cultures coming together and bringing their passion for chemistry towards a common good in connecting and empowering early-career chemists globally, advancing their career development.
Of course, over the last two years, it was very difficult to meet in person due to the challenges imposed by the pandemic, but we have all managed, together, to turn several activities into a virtual setting. It is very exciting to engage with and learn from everyone across different age groups. At the IYCN, we have a truly diverse Executive Board uniting extremely passionate and devoted young chemists who are doing their undergraduate studies, their master’s or Ph.D. degrees, their post-docs, or even working outside the academic sector. I also like very much to engage with the members, the network, and share ideas.
You are the chair of the IYCN. Is there a topic that is particularly important to you?
There are several topics, projects, and initiatives that are important to me and to the IYCN that result from the joint effort of several individuals. As mentioned previously, at the IYCN we have a Board, and we have highly committed young chemists leading the various committees to organize different activities and initiatives to connect with and empower early-career chemists globally. We are very open, and we should, of course, be very inclusive, not only within the IYCN but also as a society. We should welcome diversity in thought and in all actions we undertake. That is something that we have been trying to do and that I want to continue to pursue within the IYCN—to keep an open mind to all ideas that come from all over the world. This includes ideas from IYCN members who are interested in being active in specific projects as well as from other young chemists’ networks or organizations that would be willing to collaborate with us.
So, I think that in these networks what is key is openness and the ability, the passion, and the commitment to empower the community of early-career scientists together.
What are the current projects of the IYCN?
We have several projects ongoing. We have some projects that have been going on since the foundation of the IYCN and others that were born over the years. We started almost five years ago (the IYCN was formed in 2017), so we are still quite a young organization. One of the activities is the annual Experiment Outreach Competition, in which we have been publishing several articles about in ChemistryViews. People from different countries can propose chemistry experiments on different topics. The winning experiments are then translated into different languages. Thematically, we are very much targeting the different themes of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). We want to emphasize the importance of pursuing the SDGs, because, of course, this is very important for our future and the sustainability of our planet.
We also started organizing a series of virtual workshops on professional development skills in early 2020 to support and empower early-career scientists in their career development. This has been very well received by the community. All of these workshops are available on the IUPAC YouTube channel, so those who were not able to attend can watch the recordings.
A new IYCN project that has been very recently launched is the Mentoring Program. The idea is to provide mentoring to Ph.D. students across the chemical sciences. The whole program is international, so a mentor might be based in Germany and the mentee in Brazil or wherever. We had a call for mentees and mentors to apply, and we have matched mentors with mentees based on the interests of the mentee. For example, if a Ph.D. student wants to learn more about careers in the chemical industry, we try to match them with a mentor who works in the industry. If a mentee wants to pursue a career in academia, we try to match them with someone who works in academia. In addition, we are looking for the same topics to match a mentor and mentee. This program has generated a lot of interest among the chemistry community, and we are very much looking forward to the feedback that will come out of this first class to improve the program in the upcoming years.
We are also collaborating with IUPAC on various joint projects and initiatives. IUPAC is sort of our parent organization. ChemVoices gives early-career chemists a platform to discuss matters that are pertinent not only to their careers but also to the scientific community as a whole and that impact our community.
This year we have launched a new IYCN/IUPAC joint project that aims to engage the chemistry community worldwide in a Global Conversation on Sustainability (GCS). The GCS project is aligned with the goals of IUPAC and the IYCN in effectively tackling the UN SDGs and keeping track of their progress by raising awareness and implementing sustainable practices on a chemistry basis. On September 25, the anniversary of the SDGs, we will be coordinating a one-day virtual event focusing on sustainability towards a common good. We encourage the chemistry community to organize their own events, to collaborate and share ideas on how we can pursue the SDGs, what the most pressing SDGs are in their countries, and how to engage with the community. The website of this IYCN/IUPAC joint project will be launched soon, and we will provide guidelines about the event framework and possible formats to promote the engagement of the chemistry community globally and fruitful conversations on addressing the SDGs. Keep an eye on the IYCN and IUPAC websites and social media channels for more information on this project.
In addition, of course, we always have some news articles about the IYCN, in collaboration with the other young chemists’ networks or with IUPAC about the projects and activities we are pursuing and the aims we have in terms of connecting and empowering the chemistry community and advancing the chemistry knowledge worldwide.
Another project that just started in July this year is a series of webinars focusing on the IUPAC Top Ten Emerging Technologies in Chemistry. Since 2019, IUPAC has been publishing a list of the top ten emerging technologies in chemistry that are of great importance not only for the chemistry community but also for society as a whole and that are expected to have a transformational impact in our lives by contributing to the well-being and the sustainability of our planet. In the first webinar, which happened on July 1, Professor Javier García Martínez, the President of IUPAC, introduced and contextualized the aims of this IUPAC initiative, highlighted how IUPAC started this initiative, how the technologies are selected and by whom, and engaged with the participants. In September, we will follow up with the webinar series discussing one of the technologies in more detail. Our aim is to discuss some of the 2021 top ten emerging technologies in chemistry until the end of the year. Then in October/November, the new technologies for 2022 will be released. We plan to cover them starting in January 2023.
Last, but not least, we are also planning the organization of some webinars focusing on artificial intelligence, machine learning, and quantum computing across the chemical sciences that will start this month. Stay tuned!
Sounds great! It’s also fascinating to see how the network has grown within the last five years.
Yes, and I am very much looking forward to all the new things that will come out in the upcoming years! I am quite sure the IYCN will grow much more and will pursue many more interesting projects and initiatives for the benefit of the early-career chemists’ community in connecting and empowering them in pursuing their career goals.
How do you develop new things within the IYCN? Where do the ideas come from?
Every month we have a meeting with the IYCN Board members to discuss updates from the different committees. Currently, we have eight committees. At the meetings we exchange, communicate, share ideas, and behind the scenes, of course, we are all thinking and engaging on other activities we can bring to the IYCN to empower the early-career chemists.
Sometimes we do surveys among the IYCN membership to track their interests. Other times we make use of publicly available surveys via our social media channels to collect information on what would be of interest to the young chemists’ community. This is important because we want to produce content that is useful, attractive, and of interest to the community. For instance, following up on a survey among the IYCN members, we are now organizing the webinars on the IUPAC Top Ten Emerging Technologies in Chemistry.
Another example is the workshop series on professional development skills, which is a project that was brought to life by the Conference Presence Committee because we could no longer go to conferences due to the coronavirus pandemic. There was no possibility to engage with the community as we used to do, and this was especially hard on young chemists. So, it was and it is our goal to continue engaging and providing them with the soft skills that they don’t often learn while they are doing their bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. studies but that are very useful for their careers.
Are the needs of young chemists the same throughout the community or are there different needs in different continents or countries?
I mean, it depends on the country and the continent, of course. Taking, for example, the workshop series on professional development: If we think mainly about Western Europe, there are a lot of possibilities to be trained in how to write a scientific article or a grant, how to communicate science, and so on. In other countries, young chemists do not have access to as much information as we do. Still, of course, we try to make sure that this content is accessible and useful for everybody irrespective of the country, but maybe that will be more pressing for those who don’t have so much content about it. But I’m sure we are all always learning. We always invite a diverse set of speakers, and they share their thoughts, so we always learn from new people who maybe approach the same topic in a different manner. Moreover, our virtual events are recorded and shared free of charge via the IYCN and IUPAC YouTube channels so that those that cannot attend the live events can watch them later.
What motivates you to do all this in addition to your normal work as a researcher?
That’s something that I am passionate about, and it allows me to balance research with its ups and downs. Maybe you might say, “Okay, but you could have more free time.” That’s true, but I really like it. I like networking, I like organizing events, and I like helping others. For me, it’s more than enough to know that what I’m doing is useful to someone. And I learn a lot from others while doing it. Maybe it will be useful for organizing a conference at some point, and you’re informed about different possibilities.
That reminds me of a paper that was published in Chemistry – A European Journal by Javier: “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Your Mentors and Role Models Will Shape Your Career” . Among other topics, it talks about the benefits of volunteering and the role of international organizations. When I read the article, I immediately identified with everything that he states in there, in terms of gathering new knowledge, developing soft skills, building professional contacts, making new friends, and also about being aware of opportunities about things that might not otherwise cross your mind—grants and collaborations, for example. It helps me to grow not only professionally but also personally in terms of the way I behave, the way I look at different things in our daily lives, the way I communicate, etc. Serving in early-career networks and chemical societies and similar organizations is a very rewarding experience that boosts your personal and professional growth. I think that’s key, but passion and commitment are very important, too, because you’re mainly serving in a volunteer-run organization, so you’re not getting paid. If you don’t have the passion, it probably won’t be attractive, and after a while, you’ll get bored.
Can you say a few words about your professional career path?
I graduated and did my Ph.D. at the University of Porto, Portugal. My focus was mainly to study and understand the fundamentals governing the absorption of proteins on gold surfaces modified with self-assembled monolayers and biopolymeric materials. This is very important in bioengineering, biotechnology, and medicine, for example, but also in non-biological processes.
Then, I enrolled in postdoctoral research at the 3B’s Research Group at the University of Minho because I wanted to get more involved and work at the interface of chemistry, materials sciences, and biology to apply the knowledge I gained in my Ph.D. in developing biomaterials for healthcare.
Since 2016, I have been a researcher at the COMPASS Research Group, which belongs to the Associate Laboratory CICECO – Aveiro Institute of Materials in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Aveiro, Portugal. Currently, I am an Assistant Researcher with an individual contract supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).
My main goal here is to focus my research and collaborate with interdisciplinary and international partners on the molecular design, synthesis, and development of multicomponent supramolecular biofunctional materials to interface with living systems. Basically, I am working with and combining the building blocks of life—in particular, peptides, proteins, polysaccharides, nucleic acids—aiming to develop bioinstructive matrices. These materials could recreate the extracellular matrices of tissues and/or organs and be used to stimulate cell-signaling pathways that are pivotal in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine strategies, and as platforms for controlled drug/therapeutics delivery.
Can you describe that in a little more detail?
Specifically, I’m working on the development of soft supramolecular biomaterials, either as hydrogels or membranes that can be used as devices for addressing biomedical and biotechnological applications, including as injectable or implantable biomaterials for tissue regeneration in the human body. Those biomaterials are developed by resorting to natural-based polymeric materials, mainly marine-origin polysaccharides which have very appealing physicochemical, structural, and biological properties and are widely discarded as the result of fish processing, but also to proteins, nucleic acids, and self-assembling peptide amphiphiles. So, we take nature as an unprecedented source of inspiration in developing such biomaterials.
The combined use of such building blocks of life and processing into supramolecular biomaterials, denoting different sizes and shapes by resorting to nano/micro-technologies, enables us to develop complex multicomponent biomaterials. Such biomaterials are aimed at recreating the supramolecular biological landscapes, in particular, the native extracellular matrices of specific tissues and organs to be used in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine strategies, including in neural and bone tissue regeneration.
Is there an example or model system where you have tested this method?
We are currently working on developing these bioinstructive platforms and assessing their biological performance in vitro to evaluate their suitability to address bone diseases (e.g., fractures, defects, osteoporosis) and injuries in the nervous system.
In particular, we are very interested in targeting injuries in the spinal cord, one of the most challenging and severe neurodegenerative disorders impacting human health and one of the main causes of disability worldwide, owing to the very limited capacity of the central nervous systems to self-regenerate after damage. Depending on the outcome of the in vitro assays, we aim to move forward to in vivo studies and, potentially, to reach into clinical trials. But, of course, this is a long pathway.
What fascinates you most about chemistry?
Chemistry is found everywhere and is essential in daily life, this means in everything we do. From what we eat, drink or wear to how we behave, there is chemistry everywhere because there are molecules (the essence of chemistry) that regulate our existence.
What fascinates me the most about chemistry and as a chemist is the ability we have, by using a molecule or by simply modifying a molecule, to fight a particular disease and, thus, improve the well-being and life expectancy of people globally. We can also use chemistry to develop new and more sustainable processes that contribute to a sustainable future. So, overall, with chemistry we have the capacity to improve human health and contribute to a sustainable future for everyone.
What do you do when you are not doing chemistry or working for one of the societies?
There is still some time left, although not much (laughs). I like to spend time with my family and friends. I do that mostly over the weekends. I also enjoy traveling and watching and playing sports. My special preference is soccer—I am truly a great fan. However, I also like running and enjoy watching handball.
Thank you very much for the interview. I really enjoyed it and would be very happy to interact with readers if anyone is interested in knowing more about what we discussed in this interview.
 Javier García-Martínez, Standing on the Shoulders of Giants – Your Mentors and Role Models Will Shape Your Career, Chem. Eur. J. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1002/chem.202100071
Summary in ChemistryViews: Your Mentors and Role Models Will Shape Your Career
João Borges studied chemistry at the University of Porto, Portugal, where he obtained his Ph.D. in Chemistry in 2013. Between 2013 and 2018, he was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Minho and the University of Aveiro, both in Portugal. Currently, he is an Assistant Researcher at the COMPASS Research Group, which belongs to the associate laboratory CICECO – Aveiro Institute of Materials in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Aveiro, Portugal, with an individual contract supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT).
In addition to his academic activities, João Borges has been actively serving in several young chemists’ networks at the national, European and international levels. He has been Co-Chair and Executive Board Member of the Young Chemists Group (GQJ) of the Portuguese Chemical Society (SPQ) between 2016 and 2018, Portuguese Delegate (2017–2019) and Member of the Networks (since 2017) and Global Connections (2019–2021) teams at the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN), and Executive Board Member (since 2019), Conference Presence Committee Leader (2019–2021), and Vice-Chair (2021) of the International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN). Currently, he is the Chair of the IYCN.
His research interests include the molecular design, synthesis, and development of supramolecular biofunctional materials to interface with living systems. In particular, he has been developing soft multicomponent supramolecular biomaterials, by resorting to natural polymers and self-assembling peptides, to be used as bioinstructive matrices to direct cell fate and as platforms for controlled drug/therapeutics delivery.
Also of Interest
- Webpage of International Younger Chemists Network (IYCN)
- Webpage of International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC)
- Webpage of Sociedade Portuguesa de Química (SPQ; Portuguese Chemical Society)
- Video: Connecting and Empowering Early-Career Chemists,
Vera Koester, João Borges,
Dr. João Borges on his work with chemical societies