Curiosity in Chemistry

Finding joy in research is not something that every young scientist experiences in the setting of a chemistry laboratory course or lecture, yet many undergraduates take the next step of their early career by investing the next few years of their life in graduate school.  In 1939, Abraham Flexner expressed the importance of spiritual and intellectual freedom when considering scientific research. From writings much like Flexners’ The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge, one should take a step back, analyze, and assess the current state of their research.  It wasn’t in the lab or classroom or even the university that I experienced a turning point in how I look at my research.

On the evening of June 15th, 2017, my wife and I were invited by my research advisor to dinner with his wife and the seminar speakers for the weekly department colloquium Professor Helmut Schwarz, current president of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and his wife. The evening started with local Saxonian refreshments and small talk regarding current events in Germany. Later into the dinner, the topic of the responsibilities of students and postdocs came up and as a postdoc, I listened closely to the conversion. Schwarz made the comment, “These individuals need space, freedom and trust to be able to develop to their full potential. Only then will they have the courage to take the risks that make discoveries possible.” From this dinner, I recognized two key points that I will remember for the rest of my life, (1) there is no telling what will come out of a research project prior to spending the necessary time in the laboratory and library and (2) “the enthusiasm of young people is the most secure currency we have…” – Professor Helmut Schwarz.

Flexner states it best, “…curiosity, which may or may not eventuate in something useful, is probably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking.” My personal interpretation of this quote sheds new light on not only in my research, but the essence of the unique perspective each member of the group can offer. During weekly group meetings or discussion over tea/coffee, there is no telling how or better yet who might guide your research into a new direction. Curiosity often assists in the scientific method but changing the most familiar variables by unfamiliar people can discover fascinating new results. As the key takeaway message, I would like to encourage all undergraduates, masters students, Ph.D. students, postdocs, staff scientists, professors, group leaders and all of those who might share my interest in furthering science not for the sake of application, but for the unforeseen results… follow your curiosity. This intrinsic property is truly unique and can separate you as a scientist, or better yet, you as an individual from anyone else.

Article by John T. Kelly, Ph.D.

John T. Kelly is a postdoctoral research scientist at the Universität Leipzig in the Wilhelm-Ostwald-Institut für Physikalische und Theoretische Chemie and a guest postdoc at the Fritz-Haber-Institut der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. He completed his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry at the University of Mississippi and his undergraduate studies at Georgia Southern University. John is an Associate Member of the YCC and is a guest delegate in the European Young Chemists’ Network.