Angela K. Wilson is the 2022 American Chemical Society president. She recently spoke with C&EN about her wide-ranging career and her plans for ACS. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What initially piqued your interest in chemistry?
My high school chemistry teacher taught us about the periodic table and told us fascinating facts about different elements. One time he was doing an experiment with sodium, and a large piece fell into a container of water. It blew a hole in the classroom ceiling, and I thought, Wow, that’s exciting! Later, the mix of mathematics, chemistry, and physics really got me hooked. Being able to describe electrons and the probability of where they’re located with mathematics was really intriguing.
How did your career begin?
After I finished my PhD, I did a postdoctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Due to family reasons, I needed to be in Oklahoma City for several years. During this time, I had a research position at the University of Oklahoma and also became an adjunct instructor at Oklahoma Baptist University, a small private college. Later, I moved to the University of North Texas, a PhD-granting institution of 40,000 students, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), where I was head of the Division of Chemistry. In 2016, I began a distinguished endowed faculty position at Michigan State University.
What prompted you to run for ACS president-elect?
Every time I have had a career change, there has been some connection with ACS. The professional networks that I have gained from local ACS sections and the opportunities that have emerged have been vital, from the time that I was in Oklahoma and left the field to begin work on an MBA, to the present.
ACS has been my source of information for career advice and training, research opportunities through the technical divisions, and activities that have benefited my students, such as the Green Chemistry Institute, the Women Chemists Committee/Eli Lilly Travel Awards, and Project SEED. Some of my earliest leadership training as a professional was provided through a program sponsored by the ACS Younger Chemists Committee. My research team and I have benefited from research and networking opportunities provided by the ACS Divisions of Physical Chemistry and Computers in Chemistry, the Journal of Physical Chemistry, the ACS International Activities Committee, the Petroleum Research Fund, and the rich array of national, regional, and local section meetings, to name only a few.
So for me, becoming president was a chance to give back to the society. I hope other people realize the importance of ACS and the impact it can have on their career—from the connections they make to ideas that manifest.
Meet Angela K. Wilson
Angela K. Wilson is the John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Michigan State University. She is also the associate dean for strategic initiatives in MSU’s College of Natural Science and director of the MSU Center for Quantum Computing, Science, and Engineering.
Wilson earned a BS in chemistry from Eastern Washington University in 1990 and a PhD in chemical physics from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 1995. After a postdoctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, she worked at Oklahoma State University, the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma Baptist University. She became an assistant professor of chemistry at the University of North Texas in 2000. After rising through the ranks to Regents Professor and associate vice provost for faculty at UNT, Wilson moved to MSU in 2016. She also served as the division director of the Division of Chemistry at the US National Science Foundation from 2016 to 2018.
At MSU, Wilson’s research is wide ranging, including method development in quantum dynamics and quantum mechanics, heavy-element chemistry, catalysis, medicinal chemistry, and environmental chemistry. She has partnered with a pharmaceutical company on drug design and with a power plant and clean energy company for carbon dioxide mitigation.
She is a national associate of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine and a fellow of the American Chemical Society, the American Physical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Her other honors include the Distinguished Women in Chemistry Award from the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry and the Francis P. Garvan–John M. Olin Medal from ACS.
A member of ACS for 33 years, Wilson has taken on numerous roles in the society, such as serving as a member of multiple committees and as a councilor representing her local section and the Division of Physical Chemistry.
In addition to chemistry, her more than 180 publications have covered topics including the development of department chairs and departmental strategies such as transition planning, mini-sabbaticals, and mentoring.
Wilson’s son, Trevor, is 16, and her daughter, Erica, is 14. Both are in high school band. Wilson herself has played the clarinet for more than 30 years. She also likes to stay active. She loves Zumba so much that she became an instructor. She’s taking tennis lessons, and she also bikes and plays basketball.
How did you spend your year as president-elect?
I attended a lot of virtual meetings, including a number of international conferences and ACS local section and committee meetings. Nearly every week I joined the ACS Division of Small Chemical Businesses, which hosts virtual learning and networking activities. In person, I was delighted to attend the fall ACS meeting in Atlanta and the Southeastern and Southwest Regional Meetings in Alabama and Texas in November. I participated in the many meetings of the ACS Board of Directors and its committees and tended to my committee assignments. And of course, there were many planning discussions for my 2022 activities. I also participated in virtual visits to Capitol Hill, advocating for support of the chemical sciences.
How did the pandemic affect your experience as president-elect?
Because of virtual access, I could easily engage with people in meetings all over the world, and so in some ways, there was more connectivity than normal. But not having the opportunity to sit down and have the in-person, one-on-one discussions or brainstorming sessions about activities, about what is going on at ACS . . . it is not quite the same doing that virtually.
What has surprised you in this role?
It is interesting to experience the inner workings of ACS from a new vantage point. I have always had a great appreciation for the society’s staff and volunteer members. I know they work incredibly hard, and that was reinforced by seeing all that they do and all that they engage in. In addition, the society has such an incredible span of offerings. I do not think that anyone fully understands all that ACS has to offer.
What else did you learn in the past year?
In the past year I engaged in areas new to me. The Division of Small Chemical Businesses is one example. They talk about what it is like to start a chemical business—the ins and outs and the obstacles they face, the challenges, the successes. So I discovered a lot about different sectors of the chemistry profession.
I think we all learned how impressive and impactful our field can be. With necessary resources, together, we have swiftly made tremendous progress toward a global challenge, COVID-19. I only wish more of the public would listen to, believe in, and appreciate our scientific progress.
What would you like to accomplish during your time in the presidential succession?
My focus is upon the future of the chemical sciences, ensuring that we, as a profession, are well prepared to address the challenges of the present and future, such as those included in the UN sustainability goals. This entails a strong, diverse workforce; knowledge of emerging fields; greater support by the public; partnerships to tackle science and technology challenges; and a vibrant chemical industry. Here I provide just a few of the areas that I plan to address.
Innovation in the chemical sciences, particularly enabling more of our discoveries to be brought to market, is of tremendous interest. NSF’s planned new technology directorate will bring an increasing number of universities to the tech-transfer and licensing process. However, there is a gap in the entrepreneurship process, particularly in the chemical sciences. Many organizations do not have the expertise to provide the unique perspectives and advice that can best launch and target start-ups in our field. ACS can help address this gap, as well as help others interested in entrepreneurship. ACS has offered terrific programming—webinars and symposia, for example—toward entrepreneurship, such as those initiated by Immediate Past President H. N. Cheng. I plan to continue and evolve these efforts as regular course offerings at ACS, enabling training and even greater networking. I am also engaging some of ACS’s innovators, including Jim Skinner, 2021 chair of the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, and former ACS president Diane Schmidt, with whom I am working toward this goal.
I want to engage more of our members, particularly younger chemists, in considering entrepreneurial opportunities.
People are interested in expanding the use of machine learning to accelerate discovery. Quantum computing is another area that is quickly emerging and that is anticipated to have a major impact on chemistry. But unless someone is going through school now, they might not have been trained in these topics. And if they look online, there is a steep learning curve for some of this material, and people do not necessarily know where to find it. So upcoming ACS meetings will offer training sessions for those who would like to get a taste of machine learning and quantum computing.
I would like the chemical community to have much more interaction with the public. For example, at Telluride Science Research Center conferences and at some major scientific meetings in Europe, a scientific discussion for the public is held before the meeting starts. I plan to replicate that model with a discussion for the public at ACS spring and fall meetings. The inaugural speaker will be 2021 Nobel laureate David MacMillan, who is an incredibly engaging speaker.
Also for the public, we plan to offer a number of webinars, including a discussion by a panel of experts about COVID-19. Of course, there have been many conversations about COVID-19, but here, scientists would talk about messenger RNA technology in lay terms and discuss some of the different options for treatment, including what works and what doesn’t work. I really would like the public to turn to ACS more often as a source for this type of information.
Diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect (DEIR) is a core value and goal for ACS. How might DEIR figure during your tenure in the presidential succession?
For years, I have been passionate about DEIR (Nat. Rev. Chem. 2017, DOI: 10.1038/s41570-017-0042). I want to have better representation of our general population in the chemical sciences. The National Science Board’s Vision 2030 report refers to the “missing millions”—the women, Black, and Hispanic or Latino professionals who are not in the science and engineering workforce. If we are going to meet future demand for STEM [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics] workers, we really have to better engage the missing millions.
I also think we do not give enough attention to disabilities in the workplace. We need better ways to address disabilities, including disabilities that are not necessarily evident, such as Crohn’s disease or Asperger syndrome, and we will have discussions about these matters over the next year.
You served as director of NSF’s Division of Chemistry. What did you learn from that experience?
It was wonderful to see all of the amazing chemistry that goes on across the country. It was also disheartening to see how much amazing chemistry does not get supported due to limited funding.
Pre-COVID, a member of the US Congress told me that the days are gone when support of science was a priority; science has become a special interest, and scientists really have to advocate for why support of science is important. However, federal government employees—and that includes those serving in NSF or any other government office—cannot advocate for science to members of Congress because of the Hatch Act. So it really is up to individuals and to ACS and other organizations to make the case to legislators and the public about the importance of supporting chemistry and basic science.
But as chemists, I do not think we tell our stories often enough or clearly enough. While I was at NSF, we had the division go through a workshop with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. It was eye opening in showing the challenges that so many of us face in communicating science in terms that the public understands. You can’t start off a conversation by saying, “In this part of the periodic table. . .” That disconnect in communication is a big barrier, and it is important to overcome it.
You spent 10 years as graduate adviser for the Chemistry Department at the University of North Texas. How can the field better serve its students?
Many graduate students are trained to become future professors, despite the fact that most of them go into industry. It is unfortunate that the first time many students set foot in a company is the day they do an interview, and the second time they set foot in a company is the day they start their job. Especially for students who want to work in industry, I think it is important to have an internship—3 weeks, 10 weeks, whatever the case might be. It is important for them to get a taste of the industry experience before their first job. So this is an area we should better address.
I am concerned about students these days because of limitations imposed by the pandemic. Now that we do not have many in-person meetings, a lot of students are missing out on valuable networking opportunities. So it is important to encourage them to get engaged with ACS. The society offers a lot of virtual programming that is important for their careers.
You have a number of partnerships with industry. What have you learned from those interactions? What advice can you offer others who are seeking partnerships?
I have benefited from having partnerships with companies for about 10 years now. It has been interesting for my students to learn about drug design from an industrial perspective: What dimensions need to be considered? What makes a viable drug? How are clinical trials pursued? It’s been wonderful and informative to work with a company from its early start to its public offering on the New York Stock Exchange.
That partnership came about through a university development officer who was interacting with different companies and came across a company that was looking for somebody to do computational modeling. I did very little of that kind of computational modeling at the time, but I was incentivized to do more. So it is helpful to be flexible.
ACS has members from companies of all different sizes, including those in the Division of Small Chemical Businesses, as well as members from academia who participate in partnerships with industry. Reaching out to them is a great way to start making connections and contacts.
How can readers contact you?
I look forward to hearing from readers. They can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. I would particularly welcome suggestions about engaging more people from industry in ACS activities and about making sure that the value of membership is known.
Sophie Rovner is a senior science writer at ACS.