Looking Back at the Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference 2014
Gentle rain had drifted across the beautiful Alpine village of Grindelwald all morning on Sunday, September 21. While we were setting up the rooms for the fifth Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference, we were certainly concerned that the attendees would not get to experience the location at its best, but there was no need to worry. As if it was part of the event plan, the sun broke through the clouds and lit up the impressive, snow-capped peaks around the Sunstar Alpine Hotel just as the attendees started to arrive.
Participants from all over the world made their way to Grindelwald for the four-day event. We were very happy to meet many of the finalists from this year’s Reaxys PhD Prize, who’d come from as far afield as the US, Australia and Japan. We also got to greet old friends, including members of the Reaxys Advisory Board and finalists from previous years.
The conference and indeed the Reaxys PhD Prize Club are very much about friendships and connections. From its beginnings in 2010, when it was a much smaller meeting that was held during a larger conference in Nuremberg, we focused on the potential for networking. The participants and club members agree that the event has more than fulfilled its potential. Now a conference in its own right, the Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference has become an important part of the chemistry calendar. It’s a perfect opportunity for some of the finest young minds in chemistry to share their research and inspire each other.
This year’s opening keynote presentation set the tone for the whole conference. The great and much-respected chemist Professor Dr. Dieter Seebach (Professor Emeritus, ETH Zürich) focused on three ideas that would each come up again during the conference. He began by discussing unexpected inspiration in the research process — the ‘magical mystery tour’ that science can be. The other keynote speakers and two of this year’s winners would also touch on this topic. He went on to talk about the importance of true expertise and how cooperation with experts in other areas of chemistry and other disciplines is crucial in good science. Finally, he spoke about the conflict between curiosity-driven science and the pressures of the current model of publication and funding. All of the participants that we spoke to during the four days had strong opinions on his talk, as evidenced by the lively Q&A that followed.
The rest of the first day was devoted to the Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium. This year’s finalists truly represented the breadth of chemistry. The outstanding quality of the chemistry meant that the Review Committee had a real challenge in selecting the winners! In the end, the 2014 Prizes went to Dr. Zoey Herm (ETH Zürich), Dr. Dawen Niu (MIT) and Dr. Changxia Yuan (Scripps Research Institute). After the awards ceremony, the winners presented their winning research, speaking about their inspirations and research process. All of this year’s finalists then had an opportunity to share their work in the poster session. With food and drink available, the posters were viewed in a very relaxed atmosphere and conversations went on well into the night!
Despite the late night, most of the attendees made it to the first talk on Monday. Our second keynote speaker, Professor Charlotte Williams (Imperial College London) walked us through her research into the potential of renewable resources for polymer and fuel synthesis and the catalysts that might be involved. Her research holds a great deal of promise, and while she does not consider this to be green chemistry, the potential environmental benefits were clear to everyone.
Attendees had more questions for Professor Williams than there was time to address, but one of the merits of the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of the conference is that people can always catch up with each other over lunch or dinner. To best facilitate this, we included a couple of hours over lunch on Tuesday dedicated to networking, with tables hosted by Reaxys Advisory Board members and keynote speakers.
Finalists from the first four years of the Reaxys PhD Prize gave presentations split across three general sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning. Attendees say that these presentations give them exposure to areas of chemistry that they rarely get time to consider. This glimpse of research collaboration possibilities makes regular attendees glad that the conference isn’t focused on one particular aspect of the varied science.
We’ve always wanted the Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference to be about more than just research and networking. We also hope to support the young chemists of the Reaxys PhD Prize Club in their journey through the research and publication landscape. The first afternoon session on Monday had two workshops, one focused on academic careers and the other looking at industry careers. Experts led the discussions, answering questions and illustrating the choices that are open to chemists as they finish their PhDs. The second session looked at publication: what publishers do, what journal editors do, and how to best communicate research in writing and presentation. Journal impact factors is a topic that no researcher feels ambivalent about, so this session had a very lively Q&A, fueled in no small part by Professor Seebach’s opening presentation on Sunday!
The third keynote speaker, Professor Lee Cronin (University of Glasgow), is a well-known figure in the chemistry world. His talk opened the third day of the conference, and it proved entertaining and educational, and no less controversial than some of the comments on impact factors. His search for the chemical origins of life is something he feels passionate about, and the room was abuzz after his presentation.
Luckily for everyone, the weather stayed clear and beautiful that day for our ‘Discovering Grindelwald’ event on Tuesday afternoon. We all love chemistry but we don’t want the conference attendees to miss out on the beauty of the location. The event lets people explore the beautiful village and sample some of the local delicacies. Participants worked in teams to be the best at discovering Grindelwald and everyone had a thoroughly good time.
Our fourth keynote speaker was Dr. Alexander Mayweg (F. Hoffman-La Roche). He closed out this year’s conference with a fascinating talk on the future of small molecule research. Focusing on new therapeutic opportunities, he showed how medicinal chemists can have a huge impact on human healthcare. He ended on a note of hope and promise for future pharmaceutical discovery.
The Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry Conference is a truly unique chemistry event. It brings together a broad range of chemists in an atmosphere that makes it possible to share research experiences and make new friends. It will always remain focused on the Reaxys PhD Prize Club. The conference is for the members of the club. They define the topics of their presentations and they have the chance to be involved in organizing the event. We’re very proud of how the conference has evolved, and we’re already looking forward to next year’s inspirational event.