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Angela K. Wilson

Michigan State University, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Chemistry

Candidate for ACS President-Elect, 2021

Q&A

Why are you running for President-Elect?

ACS is the critical authority for science and the chemical enterprise. We are at a crossroads of significant change in both our field and world.  I want to bring my experience as an innovator, strategist, and change agent to enhance ACS member experiences,  benefit the chemical enterprise, and strengthen ACS.

What are the top changes/improvements that you believe would improve ACS? How would you tackle these during your Presidential succession?

ACS is a great organization, which has the capacity to become even more effective.   In light of this, we need too:

  • Empower and equip: Ensure that our future workforce is well equipped for the current and changing needs of the chemical enterprise.  Provide further training and transition opportunities not only for students and recent graduates, but for unemployed and underemployed members. (#9 below)
  • Communicate and advocate:
    • ACS needs to gain greater traction and support at the state and federal levels in research and development (R&D), STEM education and workforce training, and manufacturing in chemistry, to stimulate jobs, research, and the overall chemical enterprise. (#6)
    • There is a significant gap between our exciting discoveries and the public’s knowledge and understanding of our work, which results in greater difficulty in advocacy. (#8)
  • Diversify and amplify: Diversity results in better performance,  greater innovation, and stronger teams.
    • Racial and ethnic minorities make up 39% of the US population, and are predicted to comprise ~50% of the population by 2060, yet, our field does not parallel this composition. (#6)
    • Academia, industry, and state and federal agency members tend to operate within their own areas and need encouragement and mechanisms to interact. (#6)
  • Adapt and innovate: ACS needs to ensure currency and lasting value and impact of society membership at all career stages. (#7)

These are among the top changes that are needed, and a number of possible routes to tackle them are addressed in the questions that follow.

How long have you served in ACS leadership and in what capacity(ies)?

The presidential role is both an in-society and for-society role. Internally,  the president is one of 16 members of the Board of Directors.  However, externally, the president is one voice – a voice that speaks on behalf of the society and the chemical enterprise locally, nationally, and internationally.  Thus, leadership roles within ACS are important, and significant leadership roles outside of the society are also vital.   Here, I provide examples of both.

During my 31-year ACS membership, I have served as a national councilor (~14 years) and have held leadership roles in local sections (~12 years) and a division (~6 years).  I have been on numerous ACS committees: Budget & Finance, Science, and two elected committee, Nominations and Elections (where I served as vice president and as secretary), and Council Policy.  I was an advisory board member for the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

In other roles,  I served as NSF Chemistry Division Director, where I was responsible for oversight of nearly $1B in research investments, 10 national research centers, and two national instrumentation facilities, interacted with federal/state legislators/staff members, and served as an advocate for chemistry.  I have been chair of the Chemistry Section of AAAS, president of the IUPAC Division of Physical and Biophysical Chemistry, and chair of the National Academies’ U.S. National Committee for IUPAC, and chaired the U.S. delegation to the IUPAC General Assembly (international meeting of chemical societies/organizations) on several occasions. (Please find more details at www.angelakwilson.com)

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment within ACS?

At ACS, we all have the opportunity to contribute, from chairing committees to engaging in activities in our local sections.  It is our collective ideas, when enacted upon as a team, that are impactful.  Among my ACS activities, I have led or seeded new programs, policies, and practices; developed innovative symposia; successfully advocated for new awards; provided opportunities for younger chemists; and have nominated four members who have become ACS presidents.

With a colleague (HIST) , I (COMP/PHYS) organized a symposium on the “Pioneers of Electronic Structure Theory”.  Stemming from this was a book, highlighting early quantum chemists, with contributions from the pioneers themselves or ones who worked with them.  Capturing this history provides insight about the incredible innovators engaged in the evolution of chemistry, and provides future generations with this valuable history.

In 2015,  I was greatly honored to receive the ACS Francis P. Garvan-John M. Olin Medal which recognized, in part, my leadership and service to the chemical sciences, with activities including those mentioned. In many ways, this was my greatest accomplishment.  But, really, this recognition is a result of a culmination of activities, working with other dedicated ACS members to make a difference for our members, our future workforce, and the chemical enterprise. And, a part of the joy of being engaged in ACS is that there are unnumerable ways to contribute.

Outside of ACS?

My greatest accomplishment outside of ACS is as a catalyst for change.  All of us – regardless of career stage, situation, or start – can be a catalyst.  When I completed my postdoctoral position,  I was place-bound where there were no positions advertised.  I cobbled together part-time teaching and temporary research positions.  This is not how I had envisioned my career start.

Later, I moved to the University of North Texas (UNT), large ( ~26,000 students), but in need of research infrastructure. As an assistant professor, I pursued every route imaginable to build university-wide infrastructure and an interdisciplinary program. I met with companies, Chambers of Commerce, legislators, funding agencies, and donors.  Through this grass roots effort, we built a substantial center (which I led) culminating in ~100 researchers, and bringing in ~1/3 of UNT’s external grant funding by the time I moved to Michigan.

This experience stemmed other opportunities to be a change agent.  At UNT, I became Associate Vice President for Faculty, where I conceived and implemented changes to address climate, developed mentoring and networking opportunities for new faculty, and provided greater support and recognition for lecturers.  At NSF, I encouraged program directors to visit HBCU’s, HSI’s, and other PUI’s. At Michigan State University,  I formed a new center on quantum science and helped form a center on emerging contaminants. In under two years, both have >25 faculty and have made innovative discoveries.

We can all be catalysts for change, at all stages of our careers, regardless of our start.

What is the Society’s greatest need/challenge and, if elected how would you address it?

Our greatest need/challenge is in connectivity,  from our connectivity and value proposition experienced by our membership(#7), to our connectivity to the public(#8).

One of the greatest challenges in the chemical enterprise has been the limited government support and investment in STEM.  This impacts innovation, education and workforce training, regulations, manufacturing, sustainability, national security, and so much more.  While the U.S. was once leading investments in science, this is no longer the case.  After over a decade of largely flat investments in science,  the trend lines are daunting.  COVID, however, has provided newfound realization about the importance of scientific research and chemical manufacturing.  A challenge for the Society in going forward is that we need to be a powerful voice in encouraging this realization to turn to greater support of the chemical enterprise.  Our government agencies cannot advocate for this support  (Hatch Act).  Rather, as the largest scientific society, ACS needs to lead  in this effort.   With my experience in advocacy, I will work with ACS’ Legislative Action Network, with insight gained across ACS employment sectors, towards greater connectivity with legislators to support the chemical enterprise.

We will be more effective in advocacy and in areas such as innovation and preparing the future workforce, by achieving greater connectivity between industry, academia, and government laboratories. We need to provide routes to facilitate these interactions, highlighting successful partnerships.  Achieving greater diversity is also vital, and greater connectivity with NOBCCHe and SACNAS to partner in identifying effective change strategies is a step.

Given that younger chemists Committee is a voice for ACS members under the age of 35 and our constituency makes up over 20% of ACS members, how do you plan to collaborate with the Younger Chemists Committee or younger chemists in general to achieve your goals as ACS President?

YCC is a group of dynamic, innovative, energetic younger chemists that are vital to ACS and the future of ACS.  Engagement with YCC, by listening to and brainstorming with YCC is absolutely essential in moving the society forward.   In a recent YCC meeting that I attended, a number of themes resonated:  careers, advocacy, diversity, communication, and membership.   These align with my top priorities.

I am highly concerned about membership.  In examining membership changes from year to year, the biggest loss in membership is in the younger chemist population.  While ACS has done surveys, YCC/younger chemists are best positioned to help address possible solutions.  What are we missing?  And, what can we do better?  Certainly, we can do more on the career front (#9), but there are other areas to be addressed; some are simple, and some are less straightforward to implement.  We need to:

  • Form YCC’s in more local sections. and international chapters, and support their creation and development towards engagement and activity of younger chemists.
  • Provide younger chemists with opportunities to get involved in leadership. Provide leadership mentoring opportunities. Support a program such as IUPAC’s “Young Observer” program, where younger chemists can shadow a Society leader at a national meeting to become familiar with ACS does and routes for involvement.
  • Enable more recognition opportunities for younger-to-early mid-career chemists (perhaps an ACS-wide program to recognize excellence in career domains?).

There are so many ways that I want to collaborate with YCC.   I look forward to future discussions!

What do you think the Society can do to improve the public perception of science?

Enhancing communication can help improve the public perception of science. To the public, so much of our work seems incomprehensible.  We need to tackle this, and a number of ideas include:

  • Provide more opportunities for communications training to our members. There is often a significant gap between what we believe should be understandable and what is understandable by the public.  Activities such as “communicating science” challenges and mock media interviews could provide routes to hone skills.
  • Expand the dialogue. ACS has a terrific communications team that translates chemical news and findings from ~5 journal articles each week (via ACS PressPacs) for journalists and the public.  To further convey what we do, consider an open access journal with articles  for the public including: layperson’s descriptions of research presented in other ACS journals, product development, economic impact, and new innovations.
  • Our K-12 teachers are key to future science literacy. How can we support them?  Through ACS and AACT, there are opportunities to serve as Science Coaches,  in our local schools, there are science nights, fairs, and other activities.  As a Society, our members are critical volunteers, and serve as aspirational role models.
  • Outreach targeting adults. This could take many forms – local section programming for the public (i.e. Saturday morning seminars, easy-to-find information conveying the importance of chemistry), science workshops for legislative staff members,  and “science camps” for journalism/media majors.

There are so many ways that we can – and need to - address this ongoing challenge and opportunity.

Please share your ideas to improve career development for chemists pursuing careers outside of academia, and even outside of the lab.

I am a passionate advocate for career development, and have created and offered numerous such programs for students.   While ACS has a very strong career development platform and offers terrific programs such as career fairs, career consultants, and numerous professional development opportunities, there is more that we can do. Ideas include:

  • Many students complete degree programs having limited opportunities to gain insight about what chemists outside of academia do. While ACS provides a dynamic platform (ChemIDP) for careers, this could be supplemented with a rich database of internship opportunities, coupled with a route to shadow a chemist (where feasible), visits (even virtual) to companies, and more interactive networking opportunities.
  • Encourage short-term graduate internships. This provides graduate students another perspective about careers and enables new experiences.
  • Design a professional development credentialling program. This could build upon the offerings that ACS already has and provide professional development opportunities to better align with career pathways.
  • ACS has a great group of dedicated volunteers who serve as career consultants. This program should grow further, with new volunteers (perhaps partnering with our Senior Chemists Committee) who could serve as career coaches for our members towards development opportunities, guiding participants through new professional development opportunities.
  • Offer retooling and retraining workshops.
  • Provide easier ways for employers and employees to better connect.

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Angela K. Wilson