When is a chemist not a chemist?

The following is a post I wrote while participating in the course Science Media SpaceThe course aims to “provide scientists with the practical knowledge needed to use social media effectively” and is certainly worth signing up for if you’d like to improve your skills in this area. This post was aimed at an Australian audience and may not make sense to you, depending on your local variant of the English language!

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My name is Renée, and I’m a chemist.

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What picture do you have in your mind about my profession? Is it a person in a lab surrounded by test tubes and beakers? Or is it a person behind a counter dispensing drugs and medical advice?

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Studies show* that 68% people associate the job title of ‘chemist’ with a person who dispenses drugs. Although the terminology varies around the world, in Australia, most people will use the word ‘chemist’ interchangeably with pharmacy or pharmacist. Indeed, in the past when it was common for pharmacists to compound and quality test their own medications, the two professions shared many similarities. Compounding pharmacists are now rare, but the shared name lives on. This can be quite frustrating for a ‘test tubes and beakers’ chemist, when you would love to talk about what you actually do for a living, rather than explain the difference between chemistry and pharmacy.

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Strategies to overcome chemist confusion
1. Be more specific when people ask what your job is. Rather than saying ‘I’m a chemist’, I prefer to say ‘I’m an analytical chemist’, or ‘I’m a fuel scientist’. This technique removes any ambiguity that comes with the word chemist. It also takes care of an annoying subset of people who know just enough about chemistry to be dangerous… The ones who when you do say ‘I’m a chemist’, smugly reply ‘organic or inorganic?’ As though the entire field can be delineated by these two outdated subdisciplines. I think I’ve gone off track a little…
2. Specifying a subfield may work for individual chemists communicating to a captive audience, but what about a collective group of chemists? Universities and professional chemist’s organisations such as the Royal Australian Chemical Institute or the American Chemical Society tend to overcome this by avoiding the use of the word ‘chemist’ in favour of ‘chemistry’ or ‘chemical’ which are not associated with pharmacy.

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Is this even a problem?
Do chemists even have a right to feel aggrieved that they happen to share one synonym of their profession with a different, albeit slightly related profession? Maybe they don’t, or maybe I’m the only one!
Is this going to cause any life or death mix ups? No.
Is this just another example of intellectual elitism? Maybe.

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*Study was conducted via twitter poll. May not be representative of population. Actual number may not be correct. All respondents mentioning ‘Breaking Bad’ were discarded.


One Comment on “When is a chemist not a chemist?”

  1. I sympathize. I’m starting to put together a list of various scientific disciplines and the inevitable “clever” comments associated with them that every idiot assumes have never been made in the history of human civilization. In my case, my work with carnivorous plants gives me a lot in common with dentists: we’re all sick to blasted death of the same three “Little Shop of Horrors” quotes bleated at us, over and over, by people who think they’re witty. I’m dreading talking to palaeontologists and geologists specializing in Antarctica, because I suspect that one more reference to either H.P. Lovecraft’s “At The Mountains of Madness” or John Carpenter’s remake of “The Thing” will leave them bleeding from their eyes.


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