ACS Legislative Summit

Once a year, members of the American Chemical Society (ACS) Board of Directors gather in Washington to visit members of Congress to advocate and inform members and staff about priorities in chemistry and the broader scientific community.  This year’s event included a small group of younger chemists who had attended the advocacy training workshop in Washington last fall so they could each have their first experience with visits to Capitol Hill.

Our big priorities this year remain steady and reliable funding for research and development in the federal budget.  Although a funding bill has been passed to fund the government through September 30th and although the bill has a modest increase allocated to S&T R&D, it is important to make sure that agencies such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, DOE’s ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology are well-funded when the large allocations are broken down into smaller budgets.

When speaking to a member of Congress, it is important to contextualize an issue in terms of how it affects an individual state or district, which always leads me to fascinating research to allow me to illustrate the importance of various agencies.  This year I learned that ARPA-E is specifically designed to fund longshot projects that could be transformative if they are successful.  Thus I learned about a project in Connecticut that would use iron catalysts to produce hydrogen gas for direct use and for grid storage.  The importance of iron is that it is a common and inexpensive metal in sharp contrast with the pricey platinum group metals such as platinum, palladium and rhodium which power the catalytic converter in an automobile or the rare earth elements such as dysprosium or neodymium that are found in limits deposits globally.  Using iron would be a huge step forward in the cost and environmental sustainability of hydrogen production.  Likewise, I assume that the grid storage component would mean producing hydrogen through electrolysis during the daytime when solar photovoltaics are at their peak.  Then at night, the hydrogen can be fed back into fuel cells to produce electricity to power our lights without relying on traditional fossil fuels.  And that was just one of the cool projects that I learned about that reinforce how funding scientific research and development powers our economy.

I was also happy to put in a plug for the Chemical Safety Board, which has twice been targeted for elimination by the President’s budget but has been funded at a stable level in the final Congressional budgets.  The CSB is modeled on the National Transportation Safety Board.  As I put it, “They don’t regulate, and they don’t assign penalties, so no one has to hate them.”  The CSB goes in after a chemical incident to figure out what happened, why it happened, and what lessons can be learned so the same problem never occurs again.  They issue recommendations rather than assigning blame, and many of those recommendations are adopted.  Most recently, they worked through the sequence of events around the organic peroxide explosions at the Arkema facility in Houston after the extreme flooding occurred during Hurricane Harvey.  Through their video about the event (they have a large number of groupies for their videos), I learned just how many efforts the staff at the plant made to try to maintain refrigeration for the peroxides.  They do invaluable work for an agency of just 40 people.

Kristin, the younger chemist who was my partner for the day, had an invaluable experience by visiting the staff of the two senators from her state.  She’s from a purple state, so she has a senator from each party.  She was surprised but very pleased that she got an equally warm reception from the staff members in both offices, and she was treated with attentive courtesy on both occasions.

I did get to apply my former staffer knowledge since Kristin and I had some spare time in the morning.  We picked up gallery passes from my congressman and even got an intern to take us through the tunnels to the Capitol rather than having to go outside.  We were present in the Senate gallery at the opening of the session, which scored us sightings of four senators as well as hearing a nice tribute to Barbara Bush.  The formality of the Senate was contrasted with the quirkiness of the House during Morning Business, a time when representatives can give five minute speeches.  My favorite one began, “I represent all the welfare queens…”

At the end of the day, I was able to stop in at the Bennet office and see a few of the folks who I still know there, which was a special treat.  Although I really miss my staff badge, I always feel excited and empowered when I visit my elected officials.


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Nichols Medal Celebration, New York ACS Local Section

It was my great privilege to attend the celebration for the annual awarding of the Nichols Medal, the oldest award presented by the American Chemical Society.  William H. Nichols was one of the original founders of the ACS in 1876, and the award that he created through the donation of 10 shares of stock in the Nichols Chemical Company has been awarded 111 times, including 17 chemists who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

This year, Debra Rolison became just the third woman to win the prize, and I have hopes that the frequency will rise to greater than one woman per decade, the present standard.  Dr. Rolison, an electrochemist who works at the Naval Research Laboratory, invited a diverse set of colleagues to fill out the symposium in her honor: a woman early in her career, a woman in the middle of her career, and a Latino man who is a seasoned veteran of research.  My favorite quote from Dr. Hector Abruña who was describing the need to transition away from fossil fuels regardless of the existing supply was, “The stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.”

Dr. Rolison is likewise known for her pithy turn of phrase, which she applies with great accuracy.  She and her research team have been working on redesigning the portable batteries used by Marines.  As Dr. Rolison says, “No power = no mission.”

As the Director for ACS District I, which includes all of New York State and New England, it is my privilege to attend this very special event.  My favorite part is the large population of undergraduate students from the area schools and all their future potential juxtaposed with the recognition of the outstanding contributions of a scientist whose career has featured numerous innovations and discoveries.  It is an inspiring day, and I was honored to be a guest of the New York local section.



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McCabe Lecture at Springfield College

It was my pleasure this past week to deliver the McCabe lecture at Springfield College in Massachusetts. My invitation included, “I know you can talk about anything, but how about climate change?” I appreciated the tip of the hat to my wide-ranging interests, and I agreed that climate change would be an excellent topic to bring to first and second year college students.

As I faced several hundred students who were present for extra credit in various classes, I realized I hadn’t planned an opener. Fortunately inspiration struck and I began by complaining about how cold it had been that morning, which led to the distinction between weather and climate. I pointed out that there were many indicators beyond temperature that flagged a changing climate, which allowed me to present the requisite cute fuzzy mammal photo of the talk. Polar bears are often used to pluck the heartstrings of an audience, but I selected a shot of a white snowshoe hare who was fruitlessly trying to hide in a snow-free wooded environment. Snowshoe hares currently change over to their brown coats about one week after the snow has melted, which increases their chance of falling prey to a predator by 7% each week. As the timing mismatch increases, their continued existence will be threatened.

Although as a scientist I’m trained to lecture, I find that I need the interaction with the audience, so partway through I started asking questions to the group such as why atmospheric CO2 levels rise and fall on an annual cycle. The students did a good job of piecing together the role of plant photosynthesis, and I was amused that it was a faculty member who could not restrain himself from delivering the final answer that because the majority of the Earth’s landmass is in the northern hemisphere, it is the plant cycle on the top of the world that drives the oscillation in global CO2 levels.

Since sea level rise is such an important consequence of climate change, I had found several projections of what higher oceans would look like. I put up a picture of Florida with a meter of sea level rise, and the students took it all in. However, the next slide which showed the projected impact of a six meter sea level rise on the Mid-Atlantic and New England states, got a pronounced response. The conversation level rose abruptly as the students all evaluated the impact on their homes. I took an impromptu survey of the group, and about 20% of the students said that their homes would be under water with that level of sea level rise. Suddenly climate change had become personal.

One of the challenges of giving a talk on climate change is finding a way to send everyone home on a happy note rather than focusing on the doom and gloom. I found my way by focusing on the enormous variety of approaches that Massachusetts is taking to reduce their greenhouse emissions and to produce more resilient communities. As a member state of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, they are pledged to reduce their emissions, and the group has been extremely successful. It was a pleasure to point out that Massachusetts has maintained its participation in the program regardless of the party affiliation of their governor. In 2003, the state required all utility companies to produce 1% of their power from renewable resources, but that level would rise by 1% annually. So for 2018, the renewable power should constitute 15% of the electricity produced in the state. I put up a photo of cars whizzing by a field of solar panels, and the audience correctly identified it as the Mass Pike where the open land in highway ramp clover leafs or adjacent to the highway is being used for solar power.

Springfield itself has numerous initiatives as part of its resilient communities program including opportunities for residents to purchase rain barrels, a program to make it easier to install solar panels on houses, and a nascent bike share program for the Pioneer Valley.

The impacts and challenges of climate change remain extremely daunting, but it gives me hope to look at the bright spots of local, state, and regional efforts to do what we can. It was an honor and delight to share all of that with a group of students who seemed to surprise themselves with their engagement

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Hamilton: Teach Them How to Say Goodbye

Monday marked the final meeting of our Hamilton class, so we all did some reflection about what we had learned.

The students agreed that they thoroughly enjoyed the history that they learned, and they liked digging into the show and the lyrics and finding all the gems of references and details that were there to be discovered.  The annotations were a bit challenging at the start, but the students rapidly got the hang of what to look for and where to make comments on the show’s lyrics.

For my part, I learned that no matter how much research I did, my students could still come up with details that I hadn’t found.  I also enjoyed discovering how my students’ brains worked and that I was deluding myself to think that I could predict their reaction to a given topic.  (They will still never be fans of Jefferson.)  Individually and collectively, I appreciated the students who were always brimming over with things to say in class and the students whose insights were shared with me through their writing or outstanding annotations.  I was given quiet gifts of service from the students who always showed up to class early and rearranged the chairs so we could sit in a circle.  I was gifted with amazing stories, honesty, and courage from each person.

This seminar class also represents personal growth for me.  Three years ago, I taught my first seminar course, and I was consistently petrified that the students wouldn’t have anything to say and the class would fail. As a scientist, I am trained to lecture, not lead a seminar, but by the time I taught Hamilton, I had grown comfortable and competent with facilitating discussion.  I also developed the knack of surveying the quiet students for responses at the beginning of class to make sure that they had a chance to get a word in before the group as a whole got the bit in their teeth and took off at a gallop.  I successfully attacked a huge topic that was outside my academic training and demonstrated the power of an inquisitive mind and a broad educational background.

Last Friday, all of the first year students in the College of Arts and Sciences gathered to present and share their first year seminar collaborative projects.  The next time the entire group will be assembled again will be at graduation.  Although my students did not win any of the presentation awards, I believe if there had been an award for class spirit, my students would have won it hands done.  While the judges were away tallying their scores, my students entertained themselves by having an a cappella sing-along of “Non Stop” followed by “The Schuyler Sisters.”  I may have begun the semester with a group of which half were already fans and half had no experience with the musical, but they were all fans by the end.

Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote that a legacy is, “planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.”  For most of my students, this is the only class they will have with me in their college careers, so indeed, I may not ever know what fruit my seeds will bear.  I did leave each student with a memento of our time together in the form of a button that read, “There’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait.”  I do hope that they learned some lessons in class about themselves that will give them all a shot at success.

We finished our semester appropriately with a last rousing karaoke rendition of “Non Stop.”  In the end, they were the ones to teach me how to say goodbye.  Although I am scheduled for a reprise of the course next fall, there is always a special relationship with the people who help you through a first project.  Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.




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Hamilton: What is a Legacy?

After Alexander Hamilton’s death in the duel with Aaron Burr, Oliver Wolcott Jr. was faced with the daunting task of writing and delivering the eulogy for his friend who had preceded him as Secretary of the Treasury.  Hamilton was a complicated tangle of brilliant accomplishments and fatal flaws which combined to make Angelica Schuyler Church’s reference to him as an Icarus all too accurate.  Having focused in class on Hamilton’s many faults, it is important to recognize the vast scope of his positive legacy as well.  Hamilton ultimately had more impact on the country than many presidents, and he lived at exactly the optimum time for his exceptional talents to be used to their maximum scope.

In the lyrics of Hamilton, Burr tallied up many of Hamilton’s accomplishments.  He was a decorated war veteran, Washington’s right hand man, and founder of the New York Post, since it was important to have a newspaper to distribute a political party’s priorities and perspective.  When singing the lyrics describing Hamilton’s contributions to the Federalist Papers, I have noticed that the students’ voices rise in volume and unity when they announce, “Hamilton wrote the other fifty-one!” of the 85 essays, so that accomplishment is obviously notable in their opinion. What comes out less in the musical is the intricacies of Hamilton’s accomplishments in constructing the country’s financial system.

Upon becoming America’s first Secretary of the Treasury, Hamilton was faced with a country burdened with a $79 million war debt and no means of raising funds.  Understanding the power of rapid and decisive action, on his first day in office, he secured a $50,000 loan to the federal government from the Bank of New York, and he simultaneously requested a similar amount from the Bank of North America in Philadelphia.  He would ultimately acquire a large loan from the Netherlands to stabilize the country’s credit internationally.

Hamilton identified taxes on imported goods as being the most promising source of revenue for the new government so he created the Customs Service to collect those monies.  Unfortunately, during the American Revolution, smuggling goods to avoid British tariffs had become a point of pride to the colonists, so Hamilton also created the Coast Guard to enforce the lawful collection of duties on imports.  To this day, Americans still hate to pay taxes, but Hamilton did what was necessary to secure the vital revenue stream to make the government solvent.

Having played a considerable role in founding the Bank of New York, Hamilton also devised and executed the plan to create the Bank of the United States, the first federal bank, which would stabilize and expand the money supply, collect revenue, extend credit, handle foreign exchange, and generally keep and handle government funds.  Indeed these two banks were two of the first five securities traded as securities in what would become the New York Stock Exchange, which Hamilton designed and enabled.  The other three securities were Treasury securities that were also created by our man.  By the time Hamilton left office, he had set in place all six of the crucial pillars of an effective financial system, including setting the dollar as the national currency.  Knowing all this history, I find it infinitely appropriate that Hamilton’s picture still resides on the ten dollar bill.

When I try to summarize Hamilton’s legacy, I inevitably come back to a story from Jefferson’s presidency.  After Jefferson became President in 1800, he directed his Treasury Secretary, Albert Gallatin, to go through the department’s records and archives to reveal “the blunders and frauds of Hamilton.”  Gallatin undertook the task to tear apart Hamilton’s work and reputation with great relish.  After a time, Jefferson asked what he had found, and Gallatin felt he greatly disappointed his mentor when he responded,

“I have found the most perfect system ever formed.  Any change that should be made in it would injure it.  Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds.  He did nothing wrong.”

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Hamilton: Projects

Collaborative projects were a requirement of all first year seminar courses, and at the recommendation of my students, they self-assembled into groups around different ideas.  There is a longstanding Hamilton tradition of interacting with the material of the musical through fan art, fan fiction, the EduHam program for high school students, and even that Hamilton Mixtape involves extra songs and different takes on existing material.  The students were limited only by their own creativity.

In the first project, four students each did a painting depicting a relationship between Hamilton and one of the other primary characters:  Angelica, Eliza, Washington, and Burr.  Each painting started with a silhouette of the characters, and then each artist added words, color, or details to illustrate the relationship.  With Eliza, the background is the green-blue of her costume palette embellished with symbols of Eliza’s wealth and Hamilton’s motivation.  This one painting was done in the gentle medium of water color, and it is the only silhouette in which the characters stand together.  Angelica’s relationship is illustrated by the red of passion, the white of the spark between them, and the black of regret that they will never be together.  Red, white and blue appropriately illustrate the Washington-Hamilton relationship, specifically white representing innocence, red representing valor, and blue signifying vigilance, perseverance, and justice.  Lastly, the duel between Burr and Hamilton is the culmination of years of fighting and is painted in the red of violence and a little bit of red’s polar opposite green to represent their antagonism to each other.  The chaotic background represents the constant eruptions in their messy relationship.

(I had to tell the class about the blog to get permission to share photos of their paintings, thus prompting my previous post.)

In the second project, six students collaborated on a set of “missing” letters revolving around Hamilton’s illicit affair with Maria Reynolds.  Each student created documents for a different interaction: Maria confiding her growing infatuation with Hamilton to her journal, James Reynolds manipulating his wife to seduce the Secretary of the Treasury, a heartbroken Eliza exchanging letters with her sister, a particularly delightfully vicious exchange between Angelica and Maria, the scorned Maria adeptly pushing Alexander’s buttons in a vain attempt to entice him back to her, and Eliza writing to Maria reflecting on her marriage and finally preparing to go on with her life after the revelation of the affair.  The students did a magnificent job of researching extra details about their characters, and the letters were created to have a definite chronological order.  As a nice touch, most of the hard copies of the letters were printed using various cursive fonts to give the impression of genuine letters.

The Reynolds affair obviously struck a strong chord with the class since an additional project related to it as well.  A scene between Eliza and Angelica occurs in which Eliza is reading the nearly illiterate letters written to her husband by Maria Reynolds.  In the stack of papers, Eliza finds a letter that stands out because of the beautiful writing, and it is from Angelica to Alexander.  Music starts, courtesy of a friendly music production major, and the two sisters sing the rest of the exchange.  In the presentation, the lyrics flashed up on the screen while the music played.  In a hilarious twist for me, after the presentation, one of the students decided to “be Dr. Pence” and she led her classmates through an analysis of the lyrics.  I must say she did me quite well.  The class pointed out that in the song, Angelica keeps trying to connect with Eliza by singing her sister’s themes whereas Eliza is so angry that she raps, which she does not do in the actual musical.  Eliza demonstrates that she’s not stupid, and she’s a force to be reckoned with.  Go Eliza.

The final project was a collaboration between two students who were both born outside the United States and came to the country as immigrants.  They described their own experiences of arriving in a new place and struggling to learn the language and the culture to provide insight into what Hamilton himself might have experienced as a young adult arriving in New York City.  One of the students lived with his grandmother for seven years before arriving in America and had the benefit of joining parents who had already made the transition in contrast to Hamilton who did not have the same built in family support system.

The students all seemed to thoroughly enjoy each other’s work, and I was quite impressed by their creativity and how well everything linked back to the musical.

As a side note, one student commented that for another class she had to write a paper about a leader, and she wrote about Alexander Hamilton.  I asked if she even had to do any research, and she said no, but it crushed her to have to leave out so many details.

I sympathize.



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Hamilton: On Being Eliza

I fessed up to the class today that I had been blogging about our discussions all semester.  I had been a little concerned that they might hold back on their contributions if they knew I had been sharing outside of class, but as usual, they proved the opposite.  The cell phones came out, and the students immediately dove into scanning the posts to see if their contributions had been mentioned.  (As a side note, that may not have been the official end of class time, but I was well aware that I was done with holding their attention for the day.  Sometimes it’s best to give in to the inevitable.)

One student commented to me, “You are being Eliza.”  I hadn’t thought about it that way, but indeed, I have been telling their stories all semester.  This blog was originally in response to a number of friends who declared, “I would love to take your class,” and I wanted to share the historical and lyrical stories and gems of information that I have discovered as part of my research.  As the class gelled as a unit, I also began to share details of our discussions because I was fascinated by the links that they made between their lives and the historical characters.  I also enjoyed laughing at myself when I would begin a class with a script all mapped out about how the discussion would go and we would end up in an entirely different place.  (It’s difficult to debate the merits of Thomas Jefferson when the whole class was in agreement about his faults.)

It has indeed been my privilege to tell the stories that were shared in class, whether they were shared off-handedly or in a whisper, with bravado or with bravery.  I had focused on myself and on the gifts that had been given to me in those stories, but today my students educated me yet again and showed me the power of having your story told.  I have been aware from the beginning of how much they all admired Angelica, but for the first time, we all seem to understand the power of Eliza.  It was Eliza who told Hamilton’s story and made sure that when historians such as Ron Chernow went to research him, there was a story to be told in the future.  I, too, have admired Angelica’s intellect and quick wit, but today, I am proud to be Eliza.


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