Analytical Chemistry Faculty Shortage Haunts PittCon

Analytical Chemistry Faculty Shortage Haunts PittCon Amid bustle of meeting, participants worry about a growing need for professors to train the next generation. Many of the more than 35,000 analytical chemists streaming into New York this week for the 41st annual PittCon meeting know that not enough of them are teaching the next generation of researchers. They also know the problem is likely to worsen as industrial demand for their skills continues to climb. But that's not why they come to th

By | March 5, 1990

Analytical Chemistry Faculty Shortage Haunts PittCon

Amid bustle of meeting, participants worry about a growing need for professors to train the next generation.
Many of the more than 35,000 analytical chemists streaming into New York this week for the 41st annual PittCon meeting know that not enough of them are teaching the next generation of researchers. They also know the problem is likely to worsen as industrial demand for their skills continues to climb. But that's not why they come to the meeting, known officially as the Pittsburgh Conference on Analytical Chemistry and Applied Spectroscopy. They come to see what's for sale, and how best to use the equipment displayed by an estimated 850 suppliers.

PittCon sessions have "always been highly technical in nature; [they] feature developments in an area of analytical science," says John Sember, senior group leader at the Pittsburgh-based Calgon Carbon Corp. and publicity chairman for the conference. Although this year's gathering includes a rare symposium on women in science, Sember says, a strong focus on demographic issues "is not something that would really be appropriate for our technical program."

This is not to say that conference organizers are turning a deaf ear to newsworthy topics. The meeting will feature discussions of such cut-ting-edge technical issues as substance abuse testing, new perspectives on laboratory accreditation in light of a unified Europe in 1992, and catastrophic environmental problems.

First organized in 1950 by the Society of Analytical Chemists of Pittsburgh and the Spectroscopy Society of Pittsburgh, the conference retained its name even after it outgrew its original home in the Iron City in 1968. This year's conference is being held at New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center.

Although making sales in the exhibit area is prohibited by conference organizers, vendors of analytical instrumentation view the gathering as an important avenue for showing their wares to potential customers; many manufacturers, in fact, defer showing the year's new products until PittCon. Roy Yost, exhibits manager for the Norwalk, Conn.-based Perkin-Elmer Corp., says contacts made at PittCon "may be responsible for half of our business over the course of a year."

Jim Kozbelt, manager of exhibits at the Pittsburgh-based Fisher Scientific Co., concurs. Conference participants, he says, are "people who have buying influence: purchasing agents and laboratory managers." Even the high cost of staying in New York City won't keep his company away, Yost says. Although Perkin-Elmer vice presidents, squeamish about the expense, were hesitant to send representatives to this year's PittCon, they eventually realized that "it probably would be suicidal to not appear," he explains.

Nor does the skyrocketing cost of some high-tech instrumentation discourage companies from buying what they need, says Bob McCoy, senior research supervisor in the Chicago-based Amoco Corp.'s Analytical Research and Services Division. "We're looking mostly for capability of instrumentation," he says. Only when his scientists are able to find several competing instruments to fulfill their needs does cost enter the picture, McCoy says.

Analytical instrumentation is no less crucial to academia than it is to industry. But Ken Busch, associate professor of chemistry at the Georgia Institute of Technology and secretary of the American Chemical Society's (ACS) analytical chemistry division, laments that it's generally difficult for an academic lab to afford a $500,000 piece of equipment. One way for academic laboratories to acquire instrumentation is to obtain loans or donations from industry (see story on page 1).

But hardware isn't enough. There must also be enough professors of analytical chemistry to train these students. Although not part of the formal PittCon agenda, the underrepresentation of the discipline in academia is raised in private conversation "at every conference, as people worry about where analytical chemists will come from in the next five years," Busch says.

Because industry can offer better compensation packages, many academic positions remain vacant. "If a large chemical company wants to hire analytical chemists, they'll do what they need to get them," Busch says, and academia is "hard pressed to match that." A 1989 ACS survey of its membership found that while 69% of ACS-member analytical chemists were working in industry, only 12% had opted for careers in colleges and universities (in addition, 12% were working for the government, and 7% were employed in other nonacademic environments, such as hospitals and independent labs). Further complicating the picture is a growing need for analytical chemists in government, particularly in the areas of environmental science and risk assessment.

This trend, if it continues, will eventually be felt by industry as well. "We need trained analytical chemists in the industrial laboratory," says McCoy. "If there are no trainers in the academic world, then we're headed for a problem."

Busch notes that one factor mitigating the underrepresentation of analytical chemists in academia is industry's recognition that something must be done to correct the imbalance. Many companies, including Eli Lilly, Monsanto, and Procter & Gamble, are "becoming quite generous in their support of academic analytical chemists," he says. Some firms are awarding fellowships for analytical graduate students; others are sponsoring summer internships.

Additionally, companies have been providing funds supporting faculty research. And through the Society for Analytical Chemists, the proceeds from PittCon help to sponsor two $10,000 awards for assistant professors (The Scientist, Jan. 22, 1990, page 20).

But not all university administrators see the need to train chemists in this area. "Some schools do not consider analytical chemistry a valid branch of chemistry," Busch says, pointing out that some of the most prestigious U.S. research institutions do not have analytical chemists on their faculty.

For their part, administrators at those universities say analytical research is indeed being performed at their schools. "We think we do have folks here who are working on analytical chemistry," says Donald Ciappenelli, chairman of Harvard University's department of chemistry, which lists no analytical chemists on its faculty. "We just happen to call them physical chemists or materials scientists." And the situation does not necessarily preclude the hiring of an analytical chemist in the future, Ciappenelli says: "When we go out to make an appointment in a particular area, we go out and look for the best person in that area. If someone defined himself or herself as an analytical chemist, that certainly wouldn't bother us."

John Groves, chairman of the chemistry department at Princeton University, says that if a position were to open on his faculty, "we would not be advertising for an analytical chemist." But, he says, "we would consider hiring anybody who met our criteria. If the right person came along who had a background in analytical chemistry, we wouldn't hold it against him."

Concern about the future of the discipline should give PittCon participants plenty to talk about between technical symposia and trips to the exhibit area. To be highlighted at this week's conference are:

  • "Frontiers in Analytical Toxicology and Substance Abuse Testing" - Monday, March 5, 8:30 A.M. This symposium will focus on insuring the accuracy of tests for the presence of banned substances. Drug-testing methods used at the Olympic Games will be discussed.
  • "Laboratory Accreditation and Standardization: Perspectives on Europe in 1992" - Tuesday, March 6, 1:30 P.M. This symposium will deal with the quality standards expected to be instituted by the unified European Community.
  • "Catastrophic Environmental Problems" - Wednesday, March 7, 8:30 A.M. Environmental monitoring and assessment programs, acid rain, and stratospheric ozone depletion will be discussed.
  • James L. Waters Symposium Recognizing Pioneers in the Development of Analytical Instrumentation: Gas Chromatography - Wednesday, March 7, 1:30 P.M. This new symposium, expected to become an annual event, recognizes the work of teams involved in the invention and development of analytical instrumentation. This year's honorees are Leslie S. Ettre of Perkin-Elmer Corp.; Keene P. Dimick, founder of Wilkens Instrument and Research, later bought by Varian Associates; James E. Lovelock, inventor of the electron capture detector; and Albert Zlatkis of the University of Houston.
  • "Women in Science: A Blueprint for Progress" - Thursday, March 8, 8:30 A.M. This symposium will focus on identifying educational and societal factors hindering the progress of women in science.

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