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More Gratitude for Chemistry

 Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee
Mark E. Jones, PhD, Member, ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee

Mark Jones retired as the Executive External Strategy and Communications Fellow at The Dow Chemical Company on March 31, 2021. He is a frequent speaker at a variety of industry events on industry related topics. He is a long-time supporter of ACS Industry Member Programs providing both written and webinar content, supporting the CTO Summits, and as a former member of Corporation Associates. He currently serves on the ACS Committee on Public Relations and Communications and the Chemical Heritage Landmark Committee. He is a member and former chair of the Chemical Sciences Roundtable, a standing roundtable of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Mark is the author of over a dozen U.S. patents and numerous publications.

The concept of “three gratitudes” came into my consciousness about a year ago. Stress is relieved, according to proponents of the three gratitudes exercise, by pausing to reflect and finding just three things that make you grateful or thankful. Those sold on the power of three gratitudes state that expressing gratitude can lead to increased happiness and reduced stress. I found three gratitudes for chemistry, three things tied to chemistry that made me grateful.

My gratitudes last year were a mixed bag. I saw optimism in drugs against COVID-19. That optimism was misplaced since treatments remain elusive. I was grateful that the SARS-CoV-2 is chemically fragile and easily destroyed. Studies show fomite transmission is unlikely, meaning that lots of sanitizer was wasted. I was also grateful that the industry was able to continue operating to provide critical materials. That one did hold up.

It is time for three new gratitudes for chemistry.

A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, vaccines are providing hope. Vaccines were the stuff of biology. No longer. The story of Edward Jenner is not a story of chemistry. Inoculation with cowpox takes advantage of the biological similarities between two viruses, similarities sufficient to create a protective immune response against the more devastating smallpox virus. The Salk vaccine required chemistry. Viruses were formalinized, treated with formaldehyde, rendering them incapable of causing infection. There was a chemical step, but the growth of the virus in living cells still made it feel more like biology than chemistry.

I received a vaccine made through chemistry. I am grateful for the chemical feats that made it possible. There is no weakened or inactivated version of a virus. The vaccine I got used messenger RNA, or mRNA. mRNA is a product of chemistry, designed and produced by chemistry. DNA plasmids are assembled by sequential reactions from amino acids. Chemical treatment of the plasmid DNA makes the mRNA that is injected. mRNA instructs the body’s cells to produce copies of the SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein and the immune system develops antibodies that guard against infection. One great thing about chemistry is that it is fast, far faster than biology. mRNA vaccines against variants are already being tested, requiring only changes to the synthesis instructions. I am grateful for the chemistry that enables these innovative vaccines.

I am grateful that concrete steps are being taken to improve the sustainability of the chemical industry. Sustainability remains important. The pandemic certainly illustrated the value proposition for many chemical products, with disinfectants and plastic being near the top of the list. PPE relies extensively on plastics, versatile materials that are cheap enough to throw away after one use. Bag bans were put on hold in recognition of that single use bags were the most sanitary option in a pandemic. It appeared we might be leaving sustainability behind. Any concerns over potential wilting of industry sustainability efforts were misplaced. Industry remains committed to aggressive greenhouse gas emissions targets and to addressing plastic waste. Recent announcements from BASF, SABIC and Linde show commitment to low-emission e-cracking. Covestro just announced a polyurethane back to monomer recycling effort. I am grateful that the pandemic didn’t derail sustainability efforts.

For my third gratitude, I’m sticking with sustainability, but with a focus on the larger chemical community. I am thankful for innovation, particularly innovation addressing sustainability. I am particularly heartened by academic efforts. Long ignored, improved processing and recycling are suddenly in vogue. Creative researchers are showing ways to get polyethylene-like properties in polymers designed for recycling, discovering new methods of upcycling, inventing new ways to utilize CO2 and more. I am grateful for the new approaches, and for the creativity being shown.

I’m going to add a fourth gratitude. My last day as a paid industrial chemist was March 31, after a career of 11,308 days, all working for The Dow Chemical Company. Purists among you will point out that there were the Dow DuPont years and the Dow, Inc. years. My paycheck came from The Dow Chemical Company for all 30 years, 11 months and 16 days.

I am grateful that a love of chemistry turned into a rewarding, challenging career. There wasn’t a plan; I just did things I found interesting and challenging. It is what got me to graduate school, into the research group I joined, and what I was able to do during my Dow career. I am grateful for all the wonderful people I got to work with, and that Dow provided me the flexibility to volunteer with the ACS. It is something I will continue. Douglas Adams summed up my career nicely, “I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.” 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of their employer or the American Chemical Society.

Copyright 2021 American Chemical Society (All Rights Reserved)

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