Multidisciplinary collaboration has been a guiding force for Professor Elsa Reichmanis throughout her career in chemical sciences and engineering. It began during her Ph.D. research at Syracuse University, which she completed by the age of 22, and was a hallmark of the supportive research environment of Bell Labs, where she worked for nearly 30 years.
“lt (collaboration) instilled in me that this is how you get stuff done, this is how you can do something new,” said Reichmanis, a chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.
The organic chemist revels in bridging fundamental chemistry with real applications, such as integrated circuits and flexible batteries. Now, she aims to bring her experience in collaborative, multidisciplinary environments to a new role as president-elect of AAAS.
Members will vote on the nominees for president-elect later this year. The three-year term includes one year as president-elect, one as president, and one chairing the board of directors.
Reichmanis, surprised and honored by the nomination, initially wondered: “Why me?”
She has great respect for AAAS, of which she was named a fellow in 1997. Much like her research, she feels the organization’s strength lies in its diversity spanning the disciplines. As the world’s largest general scientific society, AAAS is an excellent forum for scientists of all backgrounds to grapple with vital issues within the community, such as ethics, as well as to champion the scientific enterprise to others, Reichmanis said.
Building consensus as candidate for president-elect of AAAS
If elected, leading AAAS would be both challenging and exciting, she said. Having served as president of the American Chemical Society, another large membership-based organization, she knows communication and listening are key parts of the role.
“It’s not just about one person,” Reichmanis said. “It’s about hearing different perspectives and being able to communicate broadly with different groups of people who may have different needs, maybe facing different issues, and being able to bring everybody into the discussion.”
She sees a key challenge facing AAAS today is defining its direction moving forward.
“It’s the one organization that everybody looks to,” she said. “What is the major role?”
Rather than define that herself, she would seek to build consensus from the membership, which she feels is essential to maintaining credibility.
“What are the big issues – not as a single discipline, but as a group – that we can try to address?” she asked.
She notes AAAS has excelled at advocating for science and funding for fundamental research, but perhaps there are new ways to articulate better what science and technology bring to society. She is also curious if members would come together to develop innovative, multidisciplinary education programs.
Growing up, Reichmanis enjoyed science and math, building things and doing experiments. It was a high school science teacher with a passion for chemistry who inspired Reichmanis to pursue the subject. She graduated high school and college early – she took larger than normal course loads and summer school “so I wouldn’t get bored.”
She began research as an undergrad and loved it, going on to complete her Ph.D. in organic chemistry in three years. She attributes her success in part to good time management skills, but more to the supportive environment of her research group at Syracuse University.
She wanted a research job in industry, where she could see how her research connected to potential technological applications. She found such a position at Bell Labs in 1978 and received strong support from senior scientists.
“Managers felt it was their responsibility to mentor and create opportunities for new researchers coming in, to help them be successful,” Reichmanis said.
It was through discussions with colleagues that she began trying to use shorter wavelengths of light to create integrated circuits, through a multi-step etching process, called microlithography. The process starts with a type of chemical compound called polymers, which Reichmanis had never worked on before.
“It was something totally new to me,” she said. “I had been in organic chemistry labs, so if you got a polymer or goop down at the bottom of the flask, that’s not what you wanted, you’d get rid of it.”
Embracing the opportunity to learn something new, she and her collaborators helped clarify the chemical properties of polymers in reaction to shorter light wavelengths, which determines the quality and functionality of the circuits. These insights enabled the development of smaller circuits used in today's computers and smartphones.
Reichmanis grew through the ranks at Bell Labs, becoming director of several departments, co-authoring five books and hundreds of research papers covering a range of topics, such as polymer chemistry and materials, microlithography, microelectronics, and nanotechnology. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including one of the chemical industry’s highest honors, the Perkin Medal.
In 2008, she found another supportive research home at Georgia Tech, where she and her students explore the possibilities of organic electronics, such as flexible sensors and batteries. She continues the cycle of mentorship, tweeting regularly about the successes of her students and encouraging them to embrace new collaborations.
“You can never really define ahead of time what path you are going to take,” she said. “Sometimes it’s being open to a new opportunity and seeing where it takes you.”
The AAAS annual election will begin on Tuesday, December 3, 2019, and run through January 6, 2020.
AAAS has partnered with Survey & Ballot Systems (SBS) to administer the 2019 election. To ensure your election specific broadcast email arrives safely in your inbox on or around December 3, 2019, add the following email address as an approved sender email@example.com. To request a paper ballot, please send your name, member number, and mailing address by December 13, 2019, to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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More information about the annual election, including the 2019 slate of candidates, may be found here.