Could You be a Great Analytical Chemist?


The Column

ColumnThe Column-03-24-2016
Volume 5
Issue 12
Pages: 2–5

Incognito aims to inspire greatness!

Photo Credit: Andy Roberts/Getty Images

Incognito aims to inspire greatness!

This week I visited the laboratory of an extraordinary innovator in science who holds many patents in the field of chromatography and who is credited with several key discoveries and developments in analytical science.

It was fascinating to hear him talk a little about the various instruments and applications in which he and his group have innovated, and the process by which some of the discoveries and developments were made. It started me thinking about the qualities and attitudes that set him apart from others and what has enabled his group to be so innovative. What can his approach and characteristics teach us about developing better methods, troubleshooting problems more effectively, or being more innovative in the lab? Read on!

Anonymity: Being anonymous allows one more freedom to try “radical” things and not fear failure in the public glare. Being better known tends to mean one is deemed an expert and whilst you are less likely to be challenged, you may also be less exposed to new ideas and fresh thinking. Avoid being boxed in, always be open to a challenge, and never fear failure, no matter how much of an “expert” you are. Don’t be afraid to take a risk, to prove or disprove an idea, and try to maximize your exposure to chance occurrences through speculative experimentation or using new techniques and instruments. Ultimately, the more anonymous one is, the more freedom there is to experiment and make mistakes - without damaging your reputation. 

Embrace “The Three Princes of Serendip”: If you don’t know the story look it up, because it describes how these young brothers happened upon some remarkably lucky findings, all of which
was aided by a rather large slice of intuition. Many advances and discoveries are fuelled by serendipity - actually, let’s call it for what it is - luck! However, one often finds that this luck originates from a stubborn determination to investigate unexpected observations or inconsistencies. Embrace the unusual and have the
same enthusiasm for negative results as positive ones.

Avoid the Flatpack Trap: Everyone loves the things that they build themselves and are usually highly protective of them. They have an emotional investment in them
and will tend to ignore small faults or slightly lower quality. This is the way we tend to feel about our own ideas and data, but we should be quick to criticize and test, and not so ready to explain away unexpected results, concentrating instead on those results which reinforce our theories.

Don’t be Discouraged: Whilst I’ve just encouraged you to be open-minded about your data, you also need to show resilience in the quest for your goal. There will be many experts and more experienced folks who are only too ready to decry your ideas or challenge your data or methods because they go against their own understanding or opinions. Be as dogged as you dare if you really believe in an idea, because every new idea, application, or process goes through a thousand deaths between the fringe and the mainstream. I’ve seen scientists at conferences, publically challenged, and seen a lot of younger scientists “mauled” by the old guard in public and on bulletin boards and forums. Great scientists pursue advancements with a resilience that is often mistaken for arrogance or single‑mindedness.

Enjoy Your Work and Realize it’s the Journey Not the Destination that Matters: To be successful you really need to enjoy what you are doing every day. Without enjoyment you will not have the love and dedication that you need to persevere when the going gets tough or when experiments and results are not going your way. You need to care about the why and the how, to understand things from the ground up. You need to be invested in your work and to be motivated by the desire to improve data quality, the way it is acquired, and the advancement of chromatography or analytical science in general.

I’m not a hopeless idealist - obviously everyone has bad days or periods in their career where external factors cause us to be frustrated or demotivated. An inherent love of what you do will help you through these times.

If your motivation is public recognition, accolades, or fame, that’s fine, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself along the way and be nice to those you work with. There will be plenty of opportunities for them to kick you as you fly past them on your fall from greatness!


Think and Question: Think about everything you do - analyze and be critical about every operation in the laboratory. If you don’t know or can’t explain then find out! Learn every day.

Scientists who work in a quality control laboratory often think they should just follow recipes and not ask too many questions. They are often not encouraged to understand analyte chemistry or the effects of the various different matrices, yet the ones who can be bothered to learn enough (even independently) to better understand the methods, analytes, and underlying principles will progress through better insight, more effective troubleshooting, and ultimately to suggest new ways of doing things.

Don’t ever take anything for granted and never accept that you don’t know something. If you don’t understand something don’t pretend you do. This is such a waste of a learning opportunity - admit when you don’t know - it’s the path to true enlightenment.

Learn to Love Communicating in Every Form: Some folks just really don’t like writing up. Some hate giving lectures or presentations and therefore also dislike writing presentations. Some don’t like protracted telephone conversations or even talking to others about their work. I have never met anyone who was highly successful who couldn’t effectively communicate via a number of channels. OK, not everyone is a great public speaker, but these people tend to excel in other areas of communications, writing great papers for example. You need to be able to communicate well in some form.

I truly believe that one of the most crucial skills in a scientific career is to be able to ask the right questions and formulate new ideas based on the information you are given. If you can’t explain your challenges and issues then you won’t get answers to them. If you can’t tell people about what you do, then they can’t help you to do it better.

Build Strong Partnerships / Get a Mentor: Do you have a mentor? Someone from whom you can learn, no matter what level you are at or what specialism you are working in? If the answer is no, then one of two things is true. You are either the world’s leading expert in your discipline or you are not going to succeed in being a great scientist.

You should be learning from others who know more than you all of the time. Make it your aim to hoover up as much relevant knowledge as you can and relate it to how you can improve your own work.

How many learned societies do you belong to? How many networking groups? If the answer is none or only a few, then how can you expose yourself to new and radical ideas that are opposed to yours? You can only build your ideas and think outside the box when you are able to define the box, not only in your own terms but also in terms of all of those working in the same field as you.

Take “Big Picture” Decisions: It’s so easy to get bogged down in detail, to get hung up on small difficulties. From time to time, write down what you are trying to achieve in a single sentence. The very act of having to compress your thinking into a single aim helps you to think big and can reveal the way forwards.

Having someone unconnected but understanding audit your work can help enormously in getting an objective opinion on whether you are following the right track and staying on it. The very act of preparing for the audit will help you to focus on where your priorities should lie. The auditors’ feedback will validate what you have come to realize in your preparation and may help to highlight issues or ideas that have been hidden in plain sight.

Ask How - Rather Than Why Not: Every “no” is another step along the path to yes. “That’s not possible” or “That can’t be done’ should always be met with “How close have we come?” or “How might it be done?”

Judicious obstinacy combined with informed insight is a constant combination in all of those people I have known who are considered to have been true pioneers in analytical science.

Work Really Hard!: I dislike that hackneyed saying about scientific discovery being 5% inspiration and 95% perspiration, but I have to admit that the principle is true. If insight and inquisitiveness is combined with an outstanding work ethic then you will enjoy success.

Notice I did not say inherent intelligence or a natural flair in chemistry. Talent is helpful but inherent genius is present in only a tiny proportion of the populace. There are many ways to measure success and the fact that you have been invested enough to read through to the end of this column shows that you have an interest in progression and success. The inventor I mentioned at the start is a great man but he freely admits that there is more to his success than innate intelligence. Put some of this advice into practice when you next enter the laboratory and be as great as you can be.

Contact author: Incognito


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