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Vol. 33 No. 2
March-April 2011

IUPAC Wire | News and information on IUPAC, its fellows, and members organizations
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Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time

by Mary Garson

On the morning of 18 January 2011, women chemists from 44 countries leapt out of bed with purpose and shared breakfast together. They were taking part in the international networking event “Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time,” a “prequel” to the official launch of the International Year of Chemistry (IYC2011) in Paris on 27–28 January.

Worldwide there were close to 100 breakfasts, involving roughly 5000 women chemists, making it one of the largest gatherings of women scientists worldwide. A number of countries held multiple breakfasts; in Australia there were 9, while in both the UK and the Netherlands, there were at least 10 different functions.

Since an aim of IYC2011 is for chemists to “connect” as well as “participate,” the event organizers encouraged different breakfasts to interact with each other using video chat or Skype. In this way, participants created a chemical “handshake” around the globe, in the same way that a Mexican wave travels around a sports stadium.

Naturally, we had to cede the very first breakfast to New Zealand (Massey, Wellington; GMT +13), which then contacted several Australian breakfasts. From Australia, other international connections were then made with Singapore, Taiwan, and an event in Beijing hosted by the Chinese section of the Royal Society of Chemistry that was attended by Richard Pike, CEO of RSC. The Brisbane audience and their Chinese counterparts listened by Skype to an address by Vivian Lam, a L’Oreal-UNESCO laureate fellow for Asia.

The chemical handshake “relay” was then passed across to Russia, and into Europe and Africa. In Johannesburg, the South African Chemical Institute hosted a breakfast attended by IUPAC President Nicole Moreau (France) and ACS President Nancy Jackson. The event was particularly well supported in the Netherlands and in the UK; both countries hosted at least 10 different events, and a video link between the Beijing event and the main RSC event in London nicely joined Asia to Europe. The handshake then continued into Argentina (GMT -2), Brazil, Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela, and Colombia (GMT -5). North American breakfasts made links across the Pacific to Hawaii (GMT -10), which contacted Wellington in New Zealand across the International Dateline, thus completing the 24-hour global circuit.

After the event, a Cambridge woman scientist described in an online blog how she had an online breakfast with a European colleague and a colleague in Peru (who must have got up in the middle of the night to participate!)—an exciting confirmation of a transatlantic link, as well as a connection between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. Skype sessions between Slovenia and Kenya, and between the UK and various African countries provided a North-South dialogue in Europe-Africa, while Paraguay Skyped Canada, and Colombia Skyped the USA.

A creative summary of the 44 countries that joined in Women Sharing a Chemical Moment in Time is shown in this Wordle image by Dr. Gwen Lawrie, The University of Queensland.

Every country arranged their individual event(s) to suit the needs of their own audience, and many of them were able to attract local media attention. In the UK the BBC radio program Womans Hour ran an interview with two participants from the London breakfast held at Burlington House. In Russia, a central group met for a roundtable discussion in Moscow and shared their conversation with breakfasts in other Russian locations as well as in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. In Strasbourg, France, a conversation between four members of the European parliament was streamed live, as were some of the meetings held in the USA. A huge dump of snow paralyzed transportation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, but despite this, a few extremely hardy souls actually walked to the breakfast event held there by the Chemical Heritage Foundation—commitment indeed! In Brisbane, Australia, a disastrous riverside flood required that breakfast be moved to a different location at only 24 hours notice before the event; it was quite a challenge to inform all 60 participants of the new venue. Some countries held “breakfast for dinner” events that better suited the timelines of their working chemists, while Japan held a women chemists tea party.

Many countries took the opportunity to use the event to plan contributions to IYC, although the publicized themes of the event were first to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Marie Curie and the achievements of women chemists that have benefited society, and secondly to reflect on the current landscape for women in chemistry. Breakfast participants also reflected on why they were inspired by chemistry, and spoke to the younger chemists present about their own work experiences.

As international host of the event, I Skyped with newly found colleagues in Slovenia, Paraguay, Argentina, Colombia, and Peru. Paraguay held an evening function as this better suited their work habits; consequently, the timing of their event coincided with a very early breakfast (19 January of course) in Australia. When their Skype call came through at 6 AM, I remembered just in time to put a smart T-shirt on top of my pajamas before switching on the video camera.

From the many messages received since the event, it is clear that there was also a genuine mood of “chemistry togetherness” created on the day. A big factor in the success of the event, and the ease of communication between different events, was the interactive and user-friendly IYC2011 website managed by Fabienne Meyers of IUPAC.

Kathryn Linge (Curtin U.) helped by sending out e-mails during a 24-hour period when there were power, and consequently Internet, disruptions in Brisbane owing to the floods. Kathryn set up a Twitter site (@IYC_Breakfast; monitored with the hashtag #chemhandshake) which was used by many contributers; it was extraordinary watching messages come in from enthusiastic Tweeters as their local events kicked off, and many older chemists appreciated better the potential of these social networking tools once encouraged to master them.
Twitter allowed the rapid sharing of photo images, or blog access; a particular favorite was one from Perth in which the “deeply philosophical” blogger lamented her porridge and soil analysis of 19 January compared to the grand breakfast of the day before! A handshake image from the Brisbane breakfast was transmitted by Twitter, and reappeared in Paraguay more than 20 hours later.

A chemical handshake in Brisbane (l) placed on Twitter is mirrored in Ascension, Paraguay (r) 20 hours later.

In early January, UNESCO commissioned the preparation of a short video of clips from various breakfasts and arranged for it to be shown as part of a session on Women in Chemistry during the official IYC launch at UNESCO headquarters in Paris on 27 January. Each country sent footage and photo images directly to UNESCO, from which a captivating video was prepared. It was a privilege to introduce the video presentation at the launch ceremony, and truly memorable to meet two very special women who also spoke in the session on Women in Chemistry: Helen Langevin-Joliot, the granddaughter of Marie Curie, and Ada Yonath, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry. The day after, there was an official French-Polish celebration of Marie Curie held at the Sorbonne, attended by the first lady of Poland as well as a French government minister, various ambassadors, and senior scientific representatives. Afterwards, what better way to complete a memorable trip to Paris than by visiting the graves of Pierre and Marie Curie in the nearby Pantheon.

We hope that the enthusiasm and interest generated by the event will translate into ongoing strong support for IYC2011 within the Australian chemical community and across the world. An important outcome was the reminder to women chemists that they should step up and take a role in their own professional societies; the leadership opportunities that are created by working on professional society business are worthwhile, as they are beneficial to career development. For an overview of this event (and links to videos and related info), see the IYC website <>.

Thanks to both IUPAC and UNESCO for their strong support of this initiative, and to the many national chemical societies which helped to publicize the event among their local members. The grassroots appeal of the event was definitely a factor in its success. Finally, in addition to Kathryn Linge and Gwen Lawrie, mentioned earlier, Janet Bryant and Katie Hunt of the US and Barabara Moreno Murillo (Colombia) were invaluable in helping to coordinate events in the Americas. A particular “thank you” to both New Zealand and Hawaii, without whom the “chemical handshake” could not have been completed!

Mary Garson <> is a professor at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. Her scientific interests include the chemistry and natural bioactivity of secondary metabolites from both the marine and terrestrial environment. She is a member and secretary of the IUPAC Division on Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry. This year, she is also the co-chair of the Organizing Committee of the 27th International Symposium on the Chemistry of Natural Products which is to be held 10–15 July 2011 in Brisbane.

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