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Northeastern professor runs for American Chemical Society president

By Gwendolyn Schanker, Journalism and Biology, 2018

Tom Gilbert doesn’t have a very long resume – he’s worked in only two places since finishing grad school, both in Boston. But if you have questions about chemistry education, he’s the person you should ask.

Gilbert, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Northeastern University, is running for president of the American Chemical Society. This fall, his will be one of two names on a ballot that will be sent to more than 158,000 ACS members. ACS is the biggest scientific professional society in the world, so leading it isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Fortunately, Gilbert has plenty of experience and ideas.

“I think the biggest challenge facing ACS is to do a better job of making itself relevant to scientists who are working at the boundaries between chemistry and the other sciences, while at the same time maintaining its connectivity to traditional chemistry professionals,” he said.

He notes that ACS has seen a decrease in recent years in the number of members who work in industry, and a shift in memberships from employees of large chemical companies to those who work at small companies and start-ups.

Gilbert also points out that the nature of the field itself has changed. “Chemistry is not as narrowly focused as it once was. Today it flows over into other disciplines, particularly biotechnology and biopharmaceutical science,” he said. “The term ‘molecular science’ has a much broader meaning today than it once did.”

Gilbert received a PhD in analytical chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1971. His first job was in the Research Department at the New England Aquarium, where he met his future wife. In 1981, Gilbert was asked to give a seminar at Northeastern, and the rest is history.

Now in his 35th year on the faculty, Gilbert’s responsibilities at Northeastern have run the gamut. He has taken on many administrative roles include serving as the Executive Officer of the Barnett Institute, a center of chemical and biochemical analysis headed by Professor Barry Karger. During his time at Barnett, Gilbert was involved in organizing several international symposia on emerging analytical technologies.

He then spent six years as the first Associate Director for Academic Affairs of Northeastern’s School of Education, and later served as the School’s Interim Dean before returning to the chemistry department to serve as the Academic Director of Northeastern’s Professional Science Masters in Biotechnology.

During his years in the School of Education, Gilbert dove headfirst into chemistry education. He worked with colleague Rein Kirss to write a general chemistry study guide that introduced chemistry using contexts drawn from the other sciences and current events. Success of the study guide led to a contract with W. W. Norton to write a full general chemistry textbook. The first edition, which was co-authored by Kirss and Professor Geoffrey Davies, appeared in 2004. He’s since worked on four more editions of that book, and is also senior author of a second book that focuses on the particulate nature of matter – its atomic and molecular structure – to explain the physical and chemical properties of substances.

Simultaneously, Gilbert became deeply involved with the American Chemical Society. He served as national councilor from the Northeastern local section (which has over 6000 members) for over 20 years, before being elected to the ACS Board of Directors in 2012.

Last November, Gilbert was asked to be one of four nominees for ACS president-elect. At a recent meeting of the ACS Council in San Diego, he was selected to be one of two candidates who will be on the ballot this fall. Now, Gilbert is busy launching his campaign. He’s building a website and will be attending ACS regional meetings throughout the summer and early fall, as well as the national ACS meeting in Philadelphia in August.

If elected, he will focus on engaging more younger and mid-career chemists as ACS members, and better preparing young chemists for successful careers as industrial chemists. “This country can no longer afford graduate programs that consistently fail to prepare PhDs that have the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed in today’s chemical enterprise,” he said in his address to the ACS Council.

Gilbert says he is running for ACS President because he has a sense of “unfinished business.”

“My involvement in ACS has given me a deep appreciation for the many things it does – and does well – for its members and for the chemistry enterprise itself,” he said. “Still, there are some things we just need to do better.”

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