Many fields have awards recognizing rising stars. Recording artists have the Grammy Award for Best New Artist. Baseball players have the Rookie of the Year Award. And chemists have the Talented 12. Each year Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) unveils a new class of 12 promising young chemists at the Fall ACS National Meeting & Exposition. Each year’s list spurs plenty of discussion, as the honorees are all engaged in truly groundbreaking work. But it’s also impossible to read a list like this and not wonder about all the hard choices that went into making it. What does the selection process for the Talented 12 look like?
Ahead of the reveal of the 2017 Talented 12 on Aug. 20 during the 254th ACS National Meting & Exposition, C&EN Senior Correspondent Lisa M. Jarvis shares her thoughts on the selection process, the significance of the group having 12 members, and what the award is ultimately meant to achieve.
What are the broad criteria you look for in a member of the Talented 12?
First and foremost, we’re looking for researchers doing outstanding science. For us, that means an academic, industry, or government chemist who is under 42, early in their career (pre-tenure), and showing signs of leadership in their field. We also like to see a broader impact for their work. That could mean developing techniques or tools that could really change how their peers do science, or it could mean inventing new reactions or products that help solve global problems.
How did you decide on limiting the group to 12 members?
We are chemistry geeks at heart and picked 12 because it is so fundamental to our discipline: The International Union of Pure & Applied Chemistry defines the mole with respect to the number of atoms in 12 g of carbon-12.
Past years’ T12 classes were notable for having a diverse group of members. How do you find the right mix?
From the beginning, our goal has been to present a group that reflects the scientific breadth, interdisciplinary nature, diversity, and global reach of the chemical enterprise. To be honest, that’s not easy to capture with just 12 people! We rely on our staff to keep an eye out for promising people and our advisors to clue us in to up-and-comers that might not be on our radar. And our nomination form has been invaluable—each year our list includes many names that come in from the chemistry community. Academia is rich with obvious options, but it’s harder for us to identify up-and-comers in industry, where researchers’ work might not get published right away, or at all. There’s more of an insider’s game there, and we’d be thrilled if more industry R&D leaders sent us names for people to keep an eye on.
The T12 seems to be about the members’ promise, as much as their current achievements. How do you gauge someone’s potential for a project like this?
For starters, if we hear about a scientist’s work again and again from people at different institutions or from people outside that scientist’s field, we take it as a sign it’s someone special. We look at their publications or contributions to their field or industry and ask people who know their work to weigh in. It’s not just about what they’ve already done, but what they have the potential to do. For example, you’ll see some people on the list who are just starting out in their independent career, so don’t have many or even any publications from their own labs; we picked them because everyone we talk to is excited about how they’re thinking about science and its potential to push their field forward.
Putting together a list like this must involve some really hard decisions. Are there principles you look to, or “tiebreaker” factors you take into account when you’re narrowing the field down from say, 15 to 12?
It’s so hard! There are so many talented young chemists out there. Because we’re looking for a balance in the disciplines our list covers, the toughest decisions come when we have two or three outstanding people who focus on a similar problem. The good news is, the people we don’t pick get moved onto our list of prospects for 2018.
One of the interesting facets of the Talented 12 program are the Academic Family Trees C&EN creates, showing the connections between each T12 member’s academic backgrounds. Where did the idea for that feature come from? How does C&EN go about putting those together?
I suspect many people at some point have looked up their common academic ancestors on a site like academictree.org. We thought it would be fun to see how closely everyone on our list is connected. Putting that feature together—assembling and fact checking all of those academic histories–is a gargantuan task, one that is handled each year by C&EN Editorial Projects Editor Jessica Morrison.
What is the overarching goal of this project?
In a competitive environment, it can be hard for young scientists’ ideas to be heard. Our hope is that appearing on the Talented 12 list raises the profile of deserving early-career chemists and helps them to get their footing as they’re starting out. Beyond those individual scientists’ careers, we think features like this are an accessible way to highlight the critical work chemists do to solve some of our most vexing problems.