I think that the phrase ‘creative productivity’ captures the essence of an organic chemist’s work. It’s not about the number of new molecules produced per day at all. Creative organic chemists have much more in common with prolific artists and craftspeople. Prolific chemists are relentless discoverers of synthetic pathways that result in a stream of new molecules in, for example, pharmaceutical research. Being prolific involves dealing with the complexities of synthetic pathways, completing projects, and strategizing the next steps once the SAR study results are in. Increasing productivity involves knowledge, and applying it, using the right tools.
Isn’t amazing chemistry what you want to do every day? Don’t you strive for white crystalline final products? But things get in the way, such as other priorities, endless emails and frequent interruptions to your synthetic flow. Not to mention the challenges of designing new synthetic strategies, creating what could be the world’s most impactful new molecular entity. Finding the right reaction, the right reagents. Finding a way to get around yet another dead end. But those challenges are why you got into chemistry in the first place, right? After all, if it was easy, anyone could do it and you’re not just anyone. So let’s look at a few things that can put the fun back into chemistry.
Our recent survey of organic synthetic chemists showed that more than half of you feel that the most enjoyable aspect of your work is researching new chemistries, while 33% told us that preparing reactions was the best part of your day. Purifying products and writing up came in at distant 3rd and 4th places, and no one enjoyed doing work up. Sounds familiar? If you want to find out more about how to bring fun back into your chemistry then read on.
OK. We get it. You aren’t a molecule factory. Creating the right target molecule as soon as possible in order to keep your pharmaceutical research project moving isn’t easy or routine. Frankly, organic chemistry is hard and unpredictable. As Professor Gilbert Stork said, “Unless the molecule is very simple, it is not possible to go into the lab and make it within a short period of time.” His ‘Rule of Seven’ meant that, “however long you think a synthesis will take, multiply it by seven”.1
Creative productivity is the ability to find innovative ways to keep projects moving forward, including finding a way around the roadblocks that will inevitably show up as you go. So the real measure of productivity is not in molecules per day, but in your ability to find the synthetic pathway. Instrument manufacturers tend to want to tell you about the latest user-friendly ultra-fast instrument. Faster is nicer, but if you can cut 30 seconds off a column chromatography step, what does it matter when the reaction refluxed overnight and the reaction didn’t work? The thing is, many of the reliable techniques you apply to your organic chemistry work are considered unchangeable. There may be a better way, but that takes time and feels risky. So, you continue on, using what you learned as far back as college chemistry.