Life Before Advanced Materials?

by | Sep 15, 2010

Materials science is now well-established as an interdisciplinary field, but how was it in the early days? Professor Geoffrey Ozin recalls the challenges he faced when scientific research was still very traditionally classified–chemistry, physics, biology, engineering…

Welcome to one of our guest columns, where active researchers can share their views on topics relevant to materials science. Professor Geoffrey Ozin from the University of Toronto recalls the challenges he faced when materials science was not yet an established field of research (for Professor Ozin’s previous guest pieces, please click here).

When I began working at the University of Toronto 40 years ago in the late sixties I decided that I would like to focus my research efforts in the field of materials chemistry. This period of time was the beginning of an exciting new era and a turning point for chemistry pioneers who decided to adapt their skills in inorganic, organometallic, organic, metal cluster and polymer chemistry towards making exciting new classes of materials by design with a purpose. This was a new approach to synthesizing materials from molecules rather than the oft used trial-and-error solid-state chemistry modus operandi that had been around since the beginning of the century.

At the University of Toronto I happened to be the first chemistry faculty member to make this choice. It turned out to be a risky one. I immediately met fierce resistance that threatened to destroy my career as a young faculty member before it had even begun.

I am sure the materials baby boomers will be able to relate to this little piece of scientific nostalgia.

The first of my problems was with a powerful materials science lobby who believed that anything to do with materials research and teaching belonged in the materials science and engineering departments and certainly not chemistry.

The second heartache was that my colleagues, who were used to traditional chemistry classifications – organic, inorganic, physical, theoretical, analytical – really did not know where to put me because I fell between the cracks of the traditional disciplines of organic, inorganic and physical chemistry. This was not a good place to be for a vulnerable assistant professor on his quest for tenure.

The third cause of tension for me was trying to raise funds from government agencies. As well as not fitting into any particular area within our chemistry department, I also did not fit into any of the listed grant review committees and subject classifications. In this inherently interdisciplinary field, I was describing my ideas using terms from all branches of chemistry, with a little bit of physics thrown in for good measure, which must have led to a great deal of confusion for the grant reviewers who, at that stage, were not used to this sort of variegated approach to chemistry.

And the fourth giant challenge which is really the centerpiece of this story relates to perhaps the most serious problem I was confronted with. Assuming I could work around the first three problems, where on earth was I to publish my work? There were no suitable chemistry journals in which to publish my materials chemistry research other than tired, old, solid-state chemistry journals.

We needed a champion, we needed a saviour. The rest is history because Peter Goelitz and Peter Gregory recognized the gigantic void that existed in the materials chemistry publishing world. They appreciated the need for a new type of journal to showcase the breakthroughs that were beginning to appear from chemistry research groups who dared to venture across the boundaries of traditional chemistry, condensed matter solid-state physics, materials science and engineering, into the emerging field of materials chemistry.

The birth of the journal Advanced Materials had a monumentally positive effect on the growth of the field of materials chemistry and its young bride nanochemistry, which have blossomed into two of the most scientifically significant and technologically relevant fields of the 21st century. The creation of Advanced Materials enabled the career development of millions of academic, government and industrial researchers across the globe in the fields of materials chemistry and nanochemistry, without whom we may not have many of the technologies we enjoy today, and which promise to shape our lives in the future. Really, if you think about it, what journals did we have before Advanced Materials to showcase the amazing breakthroughs emerging from the world of materials chemistry? The answer is simple, none! Now we have Advanced Functional Materials, Journal of Materials Chemistry, Chemistry of Materials, Small, Nano Letters, ACS Nano, Nature Materials, Nature Nanotechnology, Nano Research, Nanoscale, and the list continues to grow!

On a personal note, my group was lucky enough back in 1995 to contribute the first cover of Advanced Materials (left) that featured an article within the issue. We are proud of that, and we have tried to publish there regularly ever since. I was fortunate enough to have Peter Goelitz recognise my group’s work in “Advanced Zeolite Materials Science” in 1989 and Peter Gregory to identify my group’s work on “Nanochemistry – Synthesis in Diminishing Dimensions” in 1992. These papers earned my research group a lot of recognition and hopefully helped just a little to make the journal and the field the success that it enjoys today.

And do you know something? Materials scientists and engineers, physicists and biologists, biochemists and medics have read the materials chemistry and nanochemistry published in every issue of Advanced Materials since its inception, and they have been inspired by what they have read and they have become involved worldwide, and the world has benefited!

What an exciting time it is for the global materials chemistry and nanochemistry family. We should all be proud to be part of this family and I thank Advanced Materials, the Two Peters and their able staff for helping to make this happen. Cheers!

What do you think – where did the modern field of materials science come from? Let us know in the comments below!