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CAS Future Leaders Blaze a Trail Toward Scientific Leadership

Celebrating its 10th year, the CAS Future Leaders Program awards early-career scientists with essential scientific, business, and leadership training, and a trip to the ACS National Meeting & Exposition. This year participants took part in programming related to five leadership themes.


Great narratives can generate interest and engagement with a topic, improve comprehension, and influence real-world beliefs. Participants learned the essential leadership skill of storytelling and presented their research stories in a poster session attended by a diverse group of scientists, technologists, marketers, and administrators who work for CAS and ACS Publications.


Successful leaders are results oriented. Whether they need to deliver published manuscripts, funded grants, or completed projects, having deep insights into the research process can help them succeed at every step. Participants explored the process by which research is published, indexed, and delivered to scientists around the world, and went behind the scenes to see how SciFindern. can help them quickly find actionable results and deliver on their next big research project.


Collaboration is essential to scientific progress. Successful leaders inspire the best performance from their collaborators, research teams, and others by using several coaching techniques, such as building trust, clarifying their vision, and respectfully challenging and celebrating success. During an interactive workshop, participants learned science-based coaching strategies to help them lead highperforming teams and productive collaborations.


Scientists must drive understanding of their research not only in the published literature but also among science-policy makers, the media, industry stakeholders, and funding organizations. Successful leaders adapt their communication style for their audience and have a broad understanding of the scientific enterprise as a whole. An array of science-industry thought leaders shared their perspectives to inspire participants to make meaningful impacts in the lab and beyond.


Research matters. Whether it leads to innovation in health care or technology, or supports a greener Earth, it’s important that leaders recognize the impacts of their research and strive for real-world solutions. Participants visited with physicians, researchers, and
cancer survivors at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center – James, one of only 50 NCI designated comprehensive cancer centers in the nation.

Are you a Ph.D. student or postdoctoral researcher who would like to blaze a trail toward scientific leadership? Learn more at

Connections: Enhancing Student Engagement – Q&A with Dr. Laura Serbulea

Dr. Laura Serbulea

Dr. Laura Serbulea

More than 50% of students who start out in science or engineering majors do not complete them. Dr. Laura Serbulea is working to change that. Dr. Serbulea is Assistant Professor of Chemistry, General Faculty, and Director of Undergraduate Program at University of Virginia.  She is actively involved in curriculum development with a focus on improving the coordination between topics in the lecture and the laboratory. Dr. Serbulea has received several education awards and grants including the 2016 All-University Teaching Award at University of Virginia and a “Nucleus” grant for STEM course redesign (2013). Read an interview on her approach to improving student engagement with chemistry.

What do you see as key drivers for the high attrition rate of students in STEM degree programs?

In the sciences, the effort required to achieve mastery is often much more than in non-technical disciplines.  For a student starting out, there are fewer connections to their existing experience that they can draw upon than in the humanities or business, and each topic builds on understanding of the previous topics so if mastery of one is not achieved it is hard to progress.

What are some of the challenges you see to maintaining undergraduate student engagement in chemistry?

If students cannot see the connection of how chemistry affects their everyday life, then they will simply memorize the concepts and try to get through the class.  If I can help them make a connection to how chemistry impacts their world, they become engaged and connect to the material.  I try to accomplish this by leveraging a broad range of teaching techniques to make sure there is variety in the curriculum.

What methods or tools do you find most helpful in increasing student engagement and retention?

I try to learn what topics my students are most interested in, for example healthcare, and integrate them in my lessons.  I use a variety of assignments and approaches that are diverse in topic and difficulty level and activities such as classroom discussions, brainstorming, problem-solving in groups, and tools such as CAS’s Chemistry Class AdvantageTM that students can use outside of class to extend their classroom learning and bridge lecture and lab.

What initially prompted you to implement Chemistry Class Advantage?

I liked the interactive and adaptive experience it offers.  Students get immediate feedback on their responses and guidance to close gaps as needed.  It also introduces students to the complexities inherent in real-world research.  Instead of simply reinforcing the core textbook concepts, the students are exposed to an expansion of a topic through the literature found in SciFinder®.  Chemistry Class Advantage offers an opportunity to incorporate cheminformatics tools into the curriculum and is included as part of our SciFinder subscription.

What outcomes have you seen from using Chemistry Class Advantage?

Tools like this increase student engagement by helping them connect what we are working on in class with interesting real-world applications.  These connections lead to deeper understanding.   When I compared student performance year over year, I found that in my accelerated organic chemistry II course, 15% more students achieved grades of A or B after Chemistry Class Advantage was added to my curriculum.  It has also helped my students develop stronger research skills and work more independently in planning lab work – which will ultimately make them better and more prepared candidates for their future endeavors.

How do you think students benefit from exposure to cheminformatics tools like SciFinder in their undergraduate education?

Introducing cheminformatics tools as early as possible enables students to further their investigation independently and lets them explore “real-world” applications of what they are learning that are most of interest to them.  This helps them to continuously make and apply the connections from the classroom.  It also elevates their conversations with their fellow classmates.  These tools also help them to be more independent in preparing for and resolving challenges with laboratory exercises.   These skills will last them a lifetime and set them up for success by being prepared with research skills.

Learn More About Chemistry Class AdvantageTM

Scientists Must Challenge the Status Quo

In August 2017, the annual SciFinder® Future Leaders program started with a session on how innovative and creative thinking leads to valuable innovations that benefit society. The program, organized by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), offers a week of science communication, database research and leadership training to Ph.D. students and postdocs from around the world.

The team at CAS started their program by quoting Bob Iger, the CEO of the Walt Disney Company: “The riskiest thing we can do is just maintain the status quo.” This message stimulated me to think about the research that I am doing in my lab. I asked myself whether my research is too iterative. How can I know if I am working on a world-changing solution to a problem?

Society needs to continue to fund seemingly “non-relevant” research if they hope to find the answers to pressing challenges. Everyday applications are the best outcome of research, but only basic and blue-sky research leads to new knowledge and ideas.

The importance of chemistry research is often measured using different metrics that are distorted by several factors in the academic system. However, the academic impact of research is not the same as its social impact. Society profits from new therapies against cancer or phone batteries that last longer. But several years of basic research precede such attention-grabbing innovations. Basic research findings are the basis for novel applications that are then commercialized by startups and large companies alike.

Chemists often only think about their work in the lab and are not aware that they have an essential role in society. Any research project result could potentially affect the development of society. Some results have a more significant impact, some less, and some none. But how research will transform society is unknown before it is published.

The change will not always benefit society because the consequences of new technologies can never be fully forecasted. Nuclear fission is used to generate power and to build bombs; artificial fertilizers ensured the food supply of generations and led to over-fertilized soils. Scientists cannot predict the consequences of all their discoveries, but they should be aware of their responsibilities.

The SciFinder Future Leaders program opened my eyes to the opportunities that scientists have alongside their role as researchers. During the two weeks at the CAS headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, and at the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Washington D.C., I met more than 20 other Ph.D. students and postdocs from around the globe. This diverse group of scientists will soon work in different fields and job roles. As a scientist, we can change the world for the better.

Driving change, in science and society, needs creative minds, freedom, and endurance in overcoming stubborn old ideas and traditions.  Society sometimes needs to leave its comfort zone to make this happen. But “the riskiest thing we can do is [to] just maintain the status quo.”

Torsten John is a participant in the 2017 SciFinder Future Leaders program. Besides his Ph.D. research in Germany and Australia, Torsten is the Secretary of the European Young Chemists’ Network (EYCN) and works on the collaboration of young chemists across countries.

Science is Global: Why Diversity Triumphs Over Adversity

In August of 2017, I had the privilege of spending 12 days with 21 other young scientists from all over the world as we all took part in the SciFinder® Future Leaders program. First, we met in Columbus, OH, to spend four days at the offices of CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS). There we took part in team-building and leadership activities. We also got a sneak-peek behind the scenes to see the enormous effort that goes into the making of their products such as SciFinder. We then flew to Washington, DC, to visit the ACS headquarters where we participated in several workshops on authoring, communication, and the reviewing of manuscripts, before attending the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition.

Craig FraserOne thing that came to mind throughout the trip was the incredible diversity of the people surrounding me. Among our group of 22, there were 14 nations represented from 5 continents, and this number grew when we visited CAS and the ACS conference. It got me thinking about the importance of diversity in science, and how barriers between cultures, languages, and beliefs need to be taken down, not built up. Recently, however, two of the world’s scientific strongholds, the U.S. and the U.K., seem determined to close their scientific borders, putting collaboration and access to international opportunities at serious risk.

Science communication and collaboration are two of the most fundamental aspects of successful research and the advancement of science. Therefore, the quality scientific research and its ability to positively impact the world is intricately linked to diverse workforces across all disciplines and their ability to come together and work together. I encountered a perfect example of this while at the ACS meeting. Just before we all rushed outside for the solar eclipse, there was an audience with 2016 Nobel Laureate Sir J. Fraser Stoddart, who ended his talk with a note on how “science is global.” For 50 years, he has led his research in both the U.S. and the U.K., with collaboration in China, and has mentored 413 Ph.D.s and post-docs from 43 different countries. On top of this, he shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry with two other brilliant scientists, Ben Feringa and Jean-Pierre Sauvage, from the Netherlands and France, respectively. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has been awarded 109 times to a total of 177 recipients, which further highlights the importance of international relationships.

Stories of great science often focus on an individual, brilliant scientist who makes substantial contributions through their seemingly innate genius, e.g., Albert Einstein. However, no one is born with scientific talent. It is cultivated through many hours of hard work and learning from peers and mentors. Ultimately, it is teams, not individuals, who conduct most scientific research. For example, my research group in Singapore is led by an Australian, and we have one Chinese, three Indian, and two British researchers, as well as local undergraduate students. Our variety of backgrounds and levels of training from global institutions helps to shine new light on our research.

As scientists, we must embrace diversity in the face of this newfound adversity by pulling together and continuing to forge essential relations with our peers, not only in our institutions but all over the world. After all, science is global.

Craig Fraser currently works at the Department of Chemistry, National University of Singapore. Fraser does research in Organometallic Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry and Organic Chemistry. Their current project is ‘General: Metal and non-metal catalysed E-H activation (E = H, B, C, Si).’

The SciFinder® Future Leaders Experience: A Diverse Family

This August, I was one of 22 scientists to attend the SciFinder® Future Leaders program. We spent a week visiting the Columbus, Ohio, offices of Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), before heading to the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Washington D.C. for another week of scholarly (and fun) activities. In this blog post, I will talk about the Future Leaders family and share tips for successfully applying to the program.

The Importance of Diversity

SciFinder Future Leaders Coordinator, Peter Carlton, told us that selection into the program is highly competitive and multi-faceted. To maintain diversity, participants are evaluated based on their achievements, research, cultures, and geography. This diversity is necessary to develop new perspectives to look at problems and generate creative ideas for inter-disciplinary solutions. This diversity takes a number of forms:

Diversity in Non-Academic Achievements

This year’s SciFinder Future Leaders are all accomplished academically. Most of us have a couple of publications. But we’re all in the early stages of our careers, and we don’t have a lot of papers in top journals. However, I believe it was the work we do outside of labs that got us chosen as Future Leaders.

I have been working as a freelance writer for popular websites like Naturejobs Blog and The Conversation where I share career tips and scientific concepts with scientists and the public. During this program, I realized that other participants, such as Gabriela Tormet-Gonzalez from the University of Campinas, Brazil, have also been writing for blogs.

Nacole King, another SciFinder Future Leader from the U.S. National Institute of Standards & Technology also shared with us her volunteering experience with young students and how science outreach allows her to impact STEM education.

For those of you interested in this program, I strongly encourage you to try science outreach. You can accomplish this by engaging with various science communication platforms (such as ACS Axial for instance), mentoring/teaching and volunteering.

Diversity in Research

During our poster presentation, I was pleasantly surprised to see how diverse our research was. While this program is organized by CAS, I could see research spanning biology, ecology and even computational simulation. For instance, the research by Magaret Sivapragasam, a participant from Universiti Teknologi Petronas Malaysia, looked at how waste discharge affects ecology. Youngjin Kim from Seoul National University is trying to develop batteries that are safer and more energy efficient.

The Future Leaders asked sharp and intelligent questions, even about research outside their fields. For my research on magneto-mechanical neural stimulation, I was asked an interesting question on how I can modulate only specific populations of neurons. I would not expect such a question from a pure chemist!

If you are wondering whether your research falls within the scope of this program, my advice is not to worry too much. The selection committee truly values diversity in research, and as long as you can demonstrate how your research has some relation to chemistry and can create an impact on society, you stand a good chance!

Diversity in Experience

While there were only 22 participants this year, I counted 17 countries that were represented. I promise that the Future Leaders program will be one of the most geographically diverse experiences you can enjoy.

Take me as an example. I am a Singaporean studying my Ph.D. in the U.S. I traveled to the program from Sydney, where I am doing an internship. Previously, I have also performed research in Germany and Japan. Another SciFinder Future Leader, Alyssa-Jennifer Avestro who comes from the U.S. is now working as an independent group leader in the U.K. She also spent time in Switzerland during her Ph.D.

The value of this diversity is that we can easily share our research and working experiences in different countries and learn from one another. I remember one day over lunch, a group of us started discussing the culture of working on the weekends.

We learned that while this practice is extremely rare in Europe, it is almost mandatory in Japan (you can also see my Naturejobs Blog post on this). This discussion was useful for some of us looking to further our research experience overseas. It allows us to assess whether there could be potential conflicts in workloads and lifestyles.

In your application, spend time emphasizing how you can contribute to the diversity of the program. Perhaps you are active in science advocacy/policy, or you have spent time working for a non-profit in developing nations. These are valuable experiences that you can add on to the existing SciFinder Future Leaders family.

Summing Up The SciFinder Future Leaders Experience

At the end of the program, I asked many of the Future Leaders whether they were confident that they would be selected for this program.

None of them said yes.

To me, this spirit of humility is what makes the SciFinder Future Leaders family so dear to me. Perhaps it is also one of the few qualities that are common to all the diverse participants. Despite all of our achievements, we are continually trying to improve our research, mobility and science outreach. If you think that you will be a great addition to this family, I encourage you to apply for the next cycle of the SciFinder Future Leaders program.

Learn More about the SciFinder Future Leaders Program

Looking at Latin America’s Challenges in Innovation and STEM Education

Recently, I got a fantastic opportunity to participate in the SciFinder Future Leaders program sponsored by CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society. I shared the experience with 21 Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers from around the world. We got to share our experiences and ideas about how to build a brighter future through chemistry.

The program offered twelve days of memorable moments and learning in areas such as innovation, information management for scientists, marketing, and alternative careers in science. The experience made me think about the current situation in Latin America. I considered how the valuable lessons we learned from the SciFinder Future Leaders program could be used to build a brighter future in that region.

Latin American countries have around 20 million students in their higher education systems, most of them studying in the three biggest countries of the region: Argentina, Brazil, and Mexico. However, less than 17% of graduates in the region attained STEM degrees. According to a 2015 report from The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Mexico is the exception in the region with 24% of graduates attaining STEM degrees, one of the highest levels in the world. On the other hand, some countries in the region have fewer than 10% of their graduates focusing on STEM areas.

This lack of focus on STEM is a problem. It is not a secret that countries require science and technology education and investment for societal development and economic growth. It is essential for the region to bring more students to the STEM field. Addressing these problems will require a mixture of public and private policies, such as more scholarships and incentives to study in STEM fields.

A second valuable lesson I took from the SciFinder Future Leaders program that I would apply in Latin America is the need to incentivize innovation. The world has changed; never before has it been so urgent to incorporate new solutions to solve our old problems. During the program, we had a session dedicated to the study of innovation to solve our daily problems as students, or researchers, or even as a society. It was awesome to discover how many brilliant ideas can emerge when a small group of researchers and students are sitting together, and the environment promotes creativity.

How many ideas would see the light of day in Latin America if we could create an environment that supports innovation? It is not a secret that our region is at the bottom of the list when it comes to promoting innovative ideas. While some countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica, have some advantages, even their situation is not so different. Also, it is common to find authors from the region working on successful ventures in other parts of the world. Latin American societies need to take action to support innovation. They must create conditions that allow the development of new ideas and initiatives, fostering startups, non-governmental organizations, and companies focused on IT or science and technology.

I believe Latin America has serious challenges to overcome. We cannot break through these barriers if we continue thinking in the same old manner. We need to think of new ways to solve our persistent problems. This is the way Latin America can research its full potential.

Gabriela Gonzalez received her Bachelor of Science degree from the Central University of Venezuela. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Campinas in Brazil and a social entrepreneur. She created the becas_la Instagram account to increase Latin American students’ awareness of scholarships and other opportunities.

Learn more about the SciFinder Future Leaders program.

Exploring the Impact of Leadership Skills on Research

In August 2017, I was privileged to be one of 22 participants in the SciFinder® Future Leaders program from CAS, a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS). In disbelief, I made my way from Malaysia to Columbus, Ohio, then to Washington, D.C., for the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition. This program has been a life-changing experience for me. From the meticulousness of the itinerary to the amount of exposure I received, I would say this is a top-notch program.

As a postdoctoral scientist, I engage in numerous research meetings and discussions. I work with (and mentor) research officers, as well as postgraduate students. Research meetings are a core component of my daily routine. A challenge I think we all face at one point or the other is managing people and their various personalities. There is simply not one management style that works for every type of person. An approach that motivates one often creates an opposite effect on another.

“Management is about human beings. Its task is to make people capable of joint performance, to make their strengths effective and their weaknesses irrelevant.”

– Peter Drucker

This quote resonated in my mind at a SciFinder® Future Leaders program session titled “Fostering Leadership-Knowing your Innovation Style”. Here, we were taught to build rapport with research team members while helping them reach their potential. We learned about the phases of innovative growth (formative, normative, maturity, and transformative) and how different personality traits fit into these phases.

Through several exercises, we were taught to classify personality traits through a simple model. At the end of it, we were briefed on how each of our personality traits affected our innovation score. I was happy to know my innovation “style” and how I could use it to contribute to the growth of my research team.

What struck me most was learning how introverts and extroverts can use their different strengths to achieve a common goal. We learned to leverage these groups’ different advantages while acknowledging their individuality. Ultimately, a research team is most efficient when everyone plays to their strengths. Accepting a diverse variety of personalities is vital to achieving the maximum potential of a team.

The SciFinder Future Leaders program exposed me to the softer side of science. This was something I did not expect when I first heard about this program. The memories made and the knowledge learned will be something I will treasure for a lifetime.

Magaret Sivapragasam is a recipient of the 2017 SciFinder® Future Leaders award. Currently, she is attached to the PETRONAS Ionic Liquids Centre, a collaborative effort between Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS, PETRONAS Research Sdn. Bhd. and PETRONAS Group Technology Research Management. Apart from her passion for science communication, she enjoys traveling, food and animals. Follow her on Instagram at magaret62.

Learn more about the SciFinder® Future Leaders program

The SciFinder Future Leaders Experience: Behind the Scenes at CAS

This August, I was one of 22 scientists to attend the SciFinder® Future Leaders program. We spent a week visiting the Columbus, Ohio, offices of Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS), a division of the American Chemical Society (ACS), before heading to the 254th ACS National Meeting & Exposition in Washington D.C. for another week of scholarly (and fun) activities.

This post is the first of a three-part series on my experiences with the SciFinder Future Leaders program. In part one, I will share with you what I learned while touring the databases of CAS.

Behind the Scenes: Archiving

Andy Tay

With a few clicks on SciFinder or other CAS solutions, you will be able to access the rich literature in synthesis methods, chemical structures and patents. But have you ever wondered how this is achieved?

During the Future Leaders program, I learned that CAS receives ~17 million articles from different journals annually (P.S. this number shocked a Vice President at CAS too!) but adds only about 1 million articles to its database each year. This is because there are duplications of the same article, such as ‘Before Prints’ and ‘As Soon As Publishable’ versions.

To start off, incoming articles are sent to their respective departments, such as polymers and metallo-organics. Next, they are read quickly for novel chemical structures or synthesis pathways, which are then added to the database. With the rise of inter-disciplinary research, sometimes articles might find themselves in a few suitable categories. In this case, CAS staff communicate with one another quickly to assign the article to the most suitable category.

As a former librarian, this process didn’t come as a surprise. However, what puzzled me was that the entire cycle of archiving is still performed manually, despite advances in machine learning and data mining. I later learned that as journals and authors have different ways of annotating chemical structures and names, manual archiving is necessary (or at least until machines are intelligent enough to be on par with CAS staff). I was also informed that authors, peer reviewers, or editors might miss something in the paper due to the pressure to publish literature quickly. This is where CAS staff can help by flagging the article for another round of edits.

Behind the Scenes: Data Storage 

After the presentations on databases and archiving, we were brought into the control room for SciFinder and the many other CAS solutions. We were also shown CAS’s servers, the tremendously powerful computers that allow SciFinder users to access CAS data remotely. Due to the popularity of SciFinder, a few million dollars are committed to maintain the computing infrastructure annually, excluding the cost of an efficient cooling system that accounts for 52% of the electricity bills. CAS also has its own backup generator in case of power failures. We were also informed that when hurricane-force winds struck Ohio a few years back, remote access services provided by CAS were not affected at all. This is how committed the company is to service their consumers.


I have always enjoyed visiting companies and experiencing what they do behind the scenes to make things possible. What I appreciate the most about visiting the Columbus office is how transparent its staff are in sharing about their work, thoughts, and future directions of the company. I believe it is only through such a relationship that CAS can receive the most honest feedback for its products and services during beta-testing too.

The next time you make a few clicks on your mouse on any CAS solution, appreciate the painstaking efforts of CAS staff that make it possible!

In my next article, I will share more about how the Future Leaders program educates its participants in soft skills, such as entrepreneurship, peer review, and profile marketing. Stay tuned!

Embracing Diversity to Drive Chemical Innovation

acs diversity Lights, colour, action! It was these three things that first drew me to chemistry. My fascination with glow-in-the-dark toys and firework displays as a child paved the way to an education in this field. I quickly learned that an understanding of molecules and bonding could impact many other streams of science.

More recently, I learned to recognize that the broad scope of chemistry originated beyond colourful compounds with exciting reactivity. In fact, it starts with the diversity of the researchers themselves—the people working towards the next chemical breakthroughs.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of spending 10 days with 25 other early career chemists from across the globe as part of the 2016 SciFinder Future Leaders program. I met people from all over the world—like Australia, Brazil, France, India, Singapore, and Norway, to name a few. Not only were we an international bunch, but we also represented expertise in various streams of chemistry. I was finally able to put faces to names I recognized from chemistry literature and was pleasantly surprised to learn that people from other continents were familiar with specifics related to my own research.

Our time together was mostly spent sharing ideas, our career aspirations, ways to optimize scientific communication, and new approaches to achieve research goals. Because of our diverse backgrounds, we were able to find ways to help each other from technical standpoints or previous life experiences that vastly differed from our own. For example, when I mentioned that I was interested in a career in industry, a few people told me about their co-op experiences with different companies in Europe. Hearing their stories gave me insight into the various company cultures and what it might be like to work in countries abroad. After spending time with this group of talented young individuals, I certainly felt more inspired and confident to begin my career equipped with my skills and knowledge.

While at the CAS headquarters in Columbus, Ohio, I was also astonished and impressed to learn that SciFinder provided English summaries translated from the scientific literature published in over 50 different languages. This resonated with me, as there were several instances in which my PhD projects progressed thanks to findings reported in another language. Fortunately in chemistry, we have the advantage of our own descriptive language. We all understand chemical structures and reaction schemes. This led me to reflect on my research advancements. Those ideas were shaped by talks I attended and interactions I had with poster presenters at international conferences. This revelation, in combination with my Future Leaders experience, left a lasting impression on me.

As scientists, we are taught to approach our data with an unbiased mindset. I believe that by extending this open-mindedness to accept ideas from all parts of the world, scientific discoveries can be vastly accelerated. Embracing diversity will fuel ideas, which in turn will drive chemical innovations. I challenge you to actively seek opportunities to interact with people from all over the world. One chance encounter might just lead you to your next big idea.

Melanie Lui obtained her BSc from Western University, her PhD from the University of Alberta (Canada) and is starting a postdoctoral research position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her interests include main group chemistry, polymer synthesis, playing sports and slapping the uke.

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone: Making The Most of Your PhD

‘You have to be in it to win it’.

This might be a clichéd phrase, but it’s one I’ve tried to live by since starting my PhD. Like a lot of inexperienced twenty-somethings, I have a phobia of ‘putting myself out there’. The thought of public speaking makes me break out in a nervous sweat. What if somebody asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, and the impostor syndrome that you’ve been suppressing deep down is suddenly validated? Everybody fears rejection, and it’s easy to stay in your comfort zone. By not applying for opportunities and competitions, you’re choosing not to go, not to win, and be told that you’re not good enough. It’s a self-defense mechanism that limits your opportunities.

Breaking out of my cozy shell, I decided to apply for the 2016 SciFinder Future Leaders program. Writing a short essay on how SciFinder is valuable to your work seems like a daunting task. How can you make it stand out from all of the other applications? Unbelievably, I was selected, and embarked upon my journey to Columbus, Ohio. During the week, there were activities to really push us to the limits of our comfort zone. On only the second day, we underwent a challenge to design a scientific product with a group of other participants in the program we’d just met. At the end of the session, we had to pitch our idea in front of a panel of judges with a video camera pointing right at us. However, working with such a friendly group of scientists was incredible, and what initially seemed like the scariest part of the week ended up being one of the most fun!

Since taking part in the program, my confidence has blossomed, both personally and professionally. A fun and useful poster session at CAS was great motivation to apply for other opportunities, both in my department and externally. Several poster sessions later, and I’ve received some really great advice from fellow chemists and made some connections to help with the rest of my PhD. Part of the program also involved trying out CAS products and providing feedback. Having someone genuinely interested in what you have to say, and making you feel like your opinion is worthwhile, was encouraging enough to completely cancel out the initial doubt and worry of being rejected in the first place.

So what happens when you apply and don’t get accepted? A few weeks ago, I received a rejection from a scholarship I’d applied for. After the initial period of self-doubt, you accept the situation, move on, and get ready to embrace new challenges. You can look for positive aspects of the experience, such as having an updated résumé and project summaries ready for the next application. And who knows? Maybe you’ll be accepted next time. You just need to put yourself out there and keep trying!

Emma Durham is currently a third year PhD student in the University of Cambridge studying organocatalysis, and was a SciFinder Future Leader (2016). As well as a love of scientific communication and popular science, in her rare time away from the lab she enjoys food tourism and cats. Follow her on Twitter at @EmmaDurhamChem.