A Chemist By Any Other Name


Several recent events have gotten me thinking about how important nomenclature and labels can be.

The first one was a newspaper headline about a local politician who was “almost guilty” of a crime.  Even though the jury found him innocent, the paper choose to report it as “almost guilty”, which of course colored my opinion of his true culpability.  The second event was a series of trash cans at a local university that were labelled “recycling” and “landfill”. Just seeing the word “landfill” made me pause before putting anything in there, in a way the word “trash” never does.

This got me thinking about just how important labels are, and how much they influence our perceptions, and even our actions.  Think about how you describe yourself to others, especially when you first meet them.  What words do you use, and what do you think others assume about you because of the words you choose?  And more importantly, what do those words tell others what you think about yourself?  Would you react differently to someone who described themselves as a “former synthetic organic chemist, now working on regulatory stuff”, versus a “regulatory affairs professional, who helps to ensure new biotechnology products are safe for consumers”?

We all have a number of different roles – professional, child, parent, volunteer, and so on.  How you describe yourself often depends somewhat on the environment in which the question is asked, but it also depends a lot on how you think of yourself.

A related point was made in an old episode of the Bill Cosby Show.  One of the daughters surprises her parents by bringing home a brand new boyfriend, and announcing that she is going to marry him.  The parents are less than thrilled, not so much with the boyfriend (whom they obviously know nothing about), but with the way he was presented.  The father likens it to serving a steak dinner with all the trimmings, but serving it on a garbage can lid.  The contents themselves may be wonderful, but the way in which it is presented completely negates any value.

When you meet someone new, especially in a professional setting, how do you describe yourself?  Do you put your best foot forward, and give not only your job title but a few words about your particular expertise, or why why you do is so important?  Do you speak enthusiastically about your work, and its value, inviting more interest by the listener?  Or do you just give a job title, with no details, indicating your own lack of interest in what you do?  And if you’re not interested, why on earth should anyone else be?

So right now, before you meet anyone else, spend a few minutes thinking about how you are going to answer the question “And what do you do?”  If you don’t like the answer, it just might be time for a change – either in the answer, or on the job.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).

2 Responses to A Chemist By Any Other Name

  1. Michele Sanders says:

    The “A Chemist By Any Other Name” article is right on. It is all too easy to slump into down-playing your professional title and role. So, now I am a “professional pharmaceutical chemist, who develops and validates chemistry methods to ensure that products are safe for consumers.”

  2. Andrew Kirkham says:

    I love this article.

    I am now “An organic chemist, specializing in heteroaromatic dyes, their biological interactions and their uses in Analytical Biochemistry.”

    I think many of us start to down play what we do in response to the tortured face of the uninterested family member, friend or other non-scientist.

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