What it Means to Be a Chemist

This is a fully developed/long piece that I wrote also for a writing class. So, you can skip the sections you don’t feel like reading 🙂      


These are my last few months in Boston. This summer, I will be back home with my diploma after having lived in Boston for five and a half years. And what a rich experience it was! Yet, I’m really worried about the reverse culture shock once I’m back in Jeddah. I think it is important for me to look back and analyze my experience as a whole. Perhaps this will ease the transition and give me a different perspective. Since I’ve spent these five years here in pursuit of a B.S. in Chemistry, I will focus on this aspect of my journey. It is not easy to think in retrospect without having mixed feelings. Maybe this explains, at least in part, why this piece will have a critical tone.

Thinking back to the days before I stepped a foot in the United States, I had different expectations. I was offered a scholarship in either chemistry or an engineering major. Initially, I chose to be a chemist, as opposed to becoming an engineer, because I was more interested in the science than its (scaled-up) applications. Doing research, making discoveries, and learning how the world works meant more to me. Recently, I’ve had days when I thought someone should’ve taught me better and convinced me to go into engineering. When I try to see where these ideas come from, I find that it is mostly about how engineers are viewed by society, how they are treated, and their position within ‘the system’. In short, it is the fact that engineers get paid more and they often have more opportunities for careers. Maybe this is more of a concern now because I’ve gotten older; I have to think about income, about supporting myself, about settling, about the far future. I think I knew this before, but I also thought that if I become a good chemist then I would have endless opportunities. But am I a good chemist? Or can I become one?
Perhaps a more pressing question, and the true purpose of this blog, is to ask, what does it mean to be a good chemist? And who decides that? These questions are strongly related. It could be just me, but I strongly believe that we (humans) are predisposed to look for meanings in things. Answering these questions will draw an intricate picture that describes where I stand. Evaluating my position will show me why I feel the way I do towards the matter at hand. In turn, this should (hopefully!) ease my anxieties about it. In a sense, the picture I’m trying to draw is outlined by the relationship between disciplines, institutions, and my part in this relationship. It is most useful then to give clear definitions of these concepts first.


Laila and Majnun in School - Nizami


In this academic context, a discipline can be generally understood as ‘a body of knowledge’. However, this definition is not really clear. A field is also a body of knowledge, a science is a body of knowledge, and an art is a body of knowledge. A better definition of discipline in this context may be clearer when thinking about the other meanings of the word “discipline”. These other meanings involve the ideas of limiting oneself to certain acts in order to achieve a certain end. When parents discipline their children they instruct and engage them in certain acts in order to make them better behaved. “Disciple” means a follower (of a certain doctrine/method), or a student. Thus, discipline in this context could be defined as referring to the activity of acquiring the knowledge of a certain body of knowledge.
This understanding is supported by Philip Seargeant’s definition [1]. He describes the evolution of disciplines as “a body of universal knowledge is divided into disciplines for the purposes of teaching”. Furthermore, Seargeant also quotes other authors to give an elaborate description of what constitutes a discipline, i.e. the components of a discipline. Hence, disciplines refer to something more of an activity rather than abstract concepts.
I classified the primary components of such an activity as:
• The body of knowledge to be taught (concepts/doctrine/theory)
• The method/practice (development of knowledge)
• The teacher
• The disciple (or student).
The secondary components connect these primary ones together, e.g. the language used, the community, the literature… Hence, a discipline is not merely the body of knowledge or the subject matter at hand; rather, it encompasses a dynamic process of acquiring/teaching the ever-evolving field. Such process shapes the field and is, in turn, shaped by it. 
According to Allen Repko, multiple disciplines can offer their independent insights into an issue to offer a multidisciplinary view of the matter at hand [2]. If an integration of some kind occurs between several disciplines, then it’s regarded as an interdisciplinary view. Finally, a transdisciplinary approach aims to transcend all boundaries to offer a view that is “holistic”.
As I understand it, this is how/why the “(academic) institution” is established.

Hurtig Hall - Northeastern University


From the same academic standpoint, an institution can then be defined as: a body of authority where an activity of discipline is practiced. Universities are excellent examples of such institutions where students are taught the basic theory and practice of the doctrine. Also, established communities in the field, like the International Council for Science, can be regarded as a type of institution. Although these latter institutions do not directly take students to teach, they are more concerned with the methods of the discipline. Furthermore, there is a third type of institutions which is not actively involved and concerned with knowledge transmission. These institutions are domains for the application of acquired knowledge. These are the places we go to after we graduate; i.e. the companies we work for and the jobs we get. We use our received knowledge there and utilize a variety of methods in order to develop and create new solutions. Hence, all these institutions are involved with the constituents of discipline in different combinations and to various degrees.
The discipline is thus continuously affected by these institutions, as much as these institutions are built based on the discipline and affected by it. That is, my university teaches me chemistry in accordance with what the scientific institutions at large uphold. At the same time, in teaching me, my university focuses most on what is needed in the job market. This need will determine what problems and issues we focus on in our classes. If a groundbreaking discovery is made within the discipline, a ‘threshold concept’[3] for example, all kinds of institutions would then rearrange and align themselves in order to conceive this discovery. Thus, the discipline evolves according to power relations between institutions. To the same extent, new knowledge can shift/alter such power relations; it’s a cycle.

(c) Wellcome Library; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Good Chemist

It is now appropriate to ask, what is my position in all of this? Currently, I’m a disciple. Therefore, going back to my initial question, the answer would be no, I’m not a good chemist. It’s simply because I’m not a chemist yet, I’m in the process of becoming one. Can I become a good chemist then? But I should ask first, what are the characteristics of a good chemist? From a university’s point of view, I can argue that a student with a good GPA is/has a potential of becoming a good chemist. From a company’s point of view, I need to possess the knowledge, be productive, be socially competent, and be a loyal employee to be considered a good chemist.
Hence, Northeastern University, and all the universities I have looked at/heard of, aim to prepare us for getting good jobs. This is apparent from how skill-oriented their programs are. Their program descriptions promise us an education that will secure us prosperous careers. In fact, NEU is distinguished from other universities because of its Co-op program which is an excellent preparation for the job market. (I say this based on what I hear about it. I haven’t done any co-ops and I won’t, which was shocking to my academic advisor!)
However, leaving the considerations of the institutions aside, I have my own criteria for ‘being good’ at something. Clearly, getting a good job wasn’t the main reason why I went to college. Otherwise, I should’ve chosen to become an engineer. I went to college to learn, and I want to learn so that I know more. Knowledge, and wisdom, would then enable me to fulfill my potential and become a good human being. Hence, to me being good at chemistry means possessing a sound understanding of its theories, being able to analyze/explain daily-life situations, feeling that I belong there… and to utilize all of this for the greater Good.
Yet, I really don’t know how to do something if I’m not interested. I literally struggle to force myself to study for an exam when I’m not interested in the material. For me, to be good at something I have to be really passionate about it. Sometimes that is enough. For example, I feel I am an artist even when I don’t make art that often, rather just being driven to conceptualize and materialize in artistic form – just because I’m passionate about Beauty and Meaning. But when it comes to chemistry, I honestly don’t know! It feels as if I’m oscillating back and forth between the two extremes; often, I am so fascinated that it brings tears to my eyes, but on other occasions I’m so indifferent that I once ignored studying for a whole semester! This is my greatest concern. This is the challenge I have to figure out. And sadly, this is where my discipline failed to discipline me.
Then, there is the question about “utilizing being good at chemistry, for the greater Good“… What is that? How do I know it?


"Seven Lives, Many Faces"


I can’t help but think that a huge part of the dilemmas we face in our lives are caused by (unanswered) questions of identity. This brings me back to the question of ‘what does […] mean?’ where that blank can be filled with any-thing. So what does it mean to be a chemist? For the vast majority of institutions in the field, this means being able to study and manipulate nature on the molecular level to come up with useful applications. For me, it mainly means possessing the knowledge, being able to explain, and feeling it. I keep emphasizing those words because they are fundamental to my question. Whether I take my personal definition of being a chemist or that of the institution, I study chemistry to be a chemist. An active transformation in identity happens here. It is to the extent that if one asks me “what do you do?” my answer would be “I do chemistry/I’m a chemist/I’m a scientist.” For the large part, it is common nowadays that our jobs define us.
This process of ‘becoming something’ is not trivial. It is existential. Our actions are dictated by how we identify ourselves. Yet, there are aspects of this new identity never touched upon or discussed throughout our formal education. Such aspects could be dubbed as ‘philosophical’. Chemists are scientists. And what do scientists do? The generic answer is ‘they discover solutions to our problems based on exploiting nature.’ However, what type of problems are those? Do we come to rigorously analyze them before we proceed in finding their solutions? I argue: the problems to be solved are highly market-driven. It is all about the profit; everything else comes after. And honestly that makes me sick. It is science that enabled one species to have such a huge effect on the whole planet – sadly, a negative effect for the most part.  
The largest part of my anxiety about the future is caused by how ominously it is thought to be. Clean water is becoming scarce in many communities around the world, the ice is melting, the sea levels are rising, the climate is changing, the oceans are acidifying, the rate of species extinction is highest, and all of that is worsening. However, these issues are treated as if they are happening in a neighboring planet that we only care so much about. Yes I’ve heard about ‘green chemistry’ a few times throughout my studies here, but it does not look like people are concerned. We are supposed to be concerned. And if we, as students, are not concerned due to our ignorance and immaturity, our professors should agitate us.

Chemistry to Alchemy

It might be antithetical to ask scientists to go back while science seems to only progress forward. But some ancient alchemists might have actually surpassed us in their aims. Aside from trying to amass wealth or avoid death by developing the philosopher’s stone, some alchemists were devoted to understanding and explaining nature, first and foremost, in order to better understand ourselves. This philosophical (somewhat mystical?) aspect of today’s natural sciences is extremely absent from our classrooms. It is unnecessary, one might think. It appears that the chief purpose of chemistry programs is to give young people the basic skills that’ll help them find a job after they graduate. It is not really, really about the science. Of course I do not have an objection to applying our knowledge. After all, we humans utilize what we know; that’s what we do. But why is this philosophical perspective very absent at this level? Maybe most students don’t care what level of reality their experiments express. Maybe companies don’t really think about anything but getting the answers to increase their profits. However, how does that fit with the idea of discipline if the very bases of the perceived knowledge are never discussed? What about ethics and our moral responsibilities as scientists? We live in an age of scientific hubris. Universities should be preparing us to be true intellectuals, not only people with advanced sets of skills (that a robot/machine could replace someday!)  
Interestingly, I feel that my interest in chemistry peaked last semester when I took modern philosophy. I thought that every student of the natural sciences should take that course as a requirement – or at least take philosophy of science. That modern philosophy course showed me the development of the fundamental threshold concepts that allowed for modern science. These are concepts like ‘action at a distance’, empiricism, corpuscularianism/atomism…etc. A lot of these concepts, or modified versions of them, are still persistent in our contemporary science. It is then of vital importance that we understand where these ideas come from, what are the logical grounds for them, what are their limitations and challenges…etc. These were troublesome threshold concepts when they were first introduced in the modern period, but now they are taken at face value. The deeper understanding that I gained from that course transformed the way I look at chemistry, physics and the natural sciences. During many lectures I was in extreme awe that I could barely hold my tears!
Another more pressing and annoying issue is that about ethics. It was honestly weird, to the extent that many students laughed, when our professor in the drug design course warned us from the future of breakthroughs made in the field that would enable us to easily modify human genes. We all know we didn’t laugh because it was funny. It wasn’t funny. It was scary. But maybe we weren’t used to this; maybe it was too awkward! And I honestly think this is dangerous. People don’t like awkward situations. If a brief talk about an ethical issue in the field felt this much out-of-place, then why would we engage in such discourse, even with ourselves? It was just as disappointing when I discovered that (technically) every student should undergo ethical training before working in a university research lab. It’s disappointing because the first time I knew about this was during this semester, in the third research lab I work at! I may have a negative perspective about this; yet, it is through our scientific advancements that we have almost destroyed our planet. Knowing how to discover or create more things is not all we need as disciples. We need to know how to be critical, to prioritize, to have strong moral grounds.


So, can I become a good chemist? I really hope so! I am not the best disciple; nor have I really acquired all the skills necessary to be a good chemist. However, I’m happy that I could go the extra mile and explore my discipline further than what my curriculum thinks I should. Many academic institutions nowadays are proud to offer ‘(multi/inter)-disciplinary’ programs. But most of these programs cross between disciplines within the natural sciences. It astonishes me how they aspire to employ multiple disciplines together before even trying to connect with the root and origin of the core discipline. We need a version of transdisciplinarity that connects chemistry (and science) back to philosophy and beyond – to offer a solid ground that we can truly stand on and face our challenges.
I know that I will (hopefully!) start my career as a researcher in a large company, but if I become a good chemist I think I would rather go back and teach. My experience is only my own but I cannot imagine that a deeper and more intimate understanding of nature wouldn’t be even more enticing, rewarding, and beneficial. I do wish that I was overly pessimistic about where we are heading, and that the future wouldn’t be as grim. I remain optimistic that there are many, many great scientists, engineers, philosophers, institutions,… out there (and in the making) who will contribute greatly in fixing what we have corrupted. But we are all responsible.



[1] Seargeant, P., Disciplinarity and the Study of World Englishes, World Englishes 31, (2012) 113–129.
[2] Repko, A. F., Szostak, R., and Buchberger, M. P., Introduction to Interdisciplinary Studies, 3-31.
[3] Meyer, J., and Land, R. Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practising within the Disciplines (2003) University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.

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