ACS & You

Bonnie Charpentier on 'The Human Element'

The 2019 ACS president comments on how we can advance the field of chemistry together.

I always wanted to be a scientist, even before I understood much about science. A childhood interest in herbal folk remedies drew me into anthropology and ethnobotany, then into analytical chemistry, and eventually into my current role overseeing regulatory, quality, and safety matters at a small pharmaceutical company. Along the way, I encountered issues and pressures that many of you have faced in your own personal and professional journeys.

Those experiences and my experience in the American Chemical Society helped shape the initiatives I have chosen for my term as president of ACS. My experience as the first woman in my graduate school laboratory and the first woman in my section at my first post–graduate school job also influenced my desire to ensure that ACS is a welcoming, respectful, and supportive environment for all our members.

My overarching theme for 2019 is collaboration, including collaborations within ACS, between academia and industry, and with professional societies around the world. My major areas of focus are advocacy, and safety and the environment. It’s important to me to support sustainable programs that build on the gains of my predecessors and to engage your ideas and enthusiasm toward that goal.

A nontraditional path

I was raised in Cajun country, right on the state line between Texas and Louisiana. My father, who grew up on the Bayou Teche in Louisiana, had absorbed a lot of knowledge from local healers. If I had a cold or other ailment, he could make a tea that would help me feel better. I was very interested in what was in those remedies and how people had learned to use plants as medicines.

I wanted to understand people’s use of plants, so I majored in anthropology as an undergraduate. Then I earned a PhD in plant physiology so I could explore plant chemistry. In a project funded by NASA, I studied the influence of gravity and other environmental conditions on the biosynthetic pathways leading to lignin formation in pine trees. This involved germinating seeds and growing the tiny trees in both high gravity and zero gravity (on the space shuttle). The isolation and identification of the flavonoid intermediates involved a lot of analytical chemistry.

Bonnie A. Charpentier is senior vice president of regulatory affairs and compliance at Cytokinetics in South San Francisco. The company develops small-molecule therapeutics that modulate muscle function for the treatment of serious diseases and medical conditions. She works internationally with corporate partners and interacts with regulatory agencies worldwide. She also works closely with patient advocacy groups, particularly for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy, to understand patients’ needs and find treatments for these devastating diseases.
Credit: Gareth Gooch Photography

I was getting married at the end of graduate school, and my fiancé and I agreed we would go to the first place where one of us had a good job offer and the other one had a reasonable chance of getting a job. After graduating, I was hired on with Procter & Gamble as an analytical chemist in Cincinnati, and my husband started work at the University of Cincinnati. At P&G I worked on flavor chemistry and a variety of other problems, including the structure elucidation of the food additive olestra, which was originally developed as a research tool. The researchers realized they had invented a no-calorie fat, but it wasn’t clear how it could be used. I became fascinated by the question of how to establish the risk-benefit profile of olestra and how it might be approved for use. This was the start of my interest in regulatory affairs.

At that point my husband—a chemist who had been going to law school at night—finished his degree, and we decided we would move with our two small children so he could accept a patent law job in California. ACS friends gave me contacts for chemists in the area, and one of those contacts told me about a job opening at Syntex in Palo Alto. The company hired me as a regulatory manager in the area of chemistry, manufacturing, and controls. I was fortunate to have generous and experienced colleagues to help me learn this new area and grow into other areas of regulatory affairs.

After Syntex was purchased by Roche, my responsibilities continued to expand to the position of vice president and regulatory site head of global development in Palo Alto. I oversaw the submission of new drug applications in several therapeutic areas and shared responsibility with amazing teams for obtaining international drug approvals. I now work at Cytokinetics in South San Francisco, where I’m responsible for regulatory affairs, quality, and drug safety. Cytokinetics is a leader in muscle biology research, dedicated to improving the lives of people confronting devastating diseases of impaired muscle function, such as heart failure, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and spinal muscular atrophy.

I share this personal history with you as an example of how we come to chemistry from varied backgrounds and can use it in many, sometimes unanticipated, ways.

Advocacy and outreach

I want to strengthen collaborations with academia, industry, and our scientific society partners so we can stand together to advocate for education, jobs, science, and research. In the US, science funding has become increasingly politicized, and research has been devalued and dismissed. Education is seriously underfunded.

We need to respond by growing and intensifying our advocacy programs. We have effective national programs, such as Capitol Hill visits and Science and the Congress briefings, but our programs at the state level vary greatly. That represents a missed opportunity, particularly for advocating for science education at the state and local levels. Partnering with other groups (such as university and teacher organizations) can help us be more informed and effective at the state and local level. I ask for your help to establish effective advocacy programs in every state.

To this end, I plan to build on a program started by 2017 ACS president Allison A. Campbell, the Speaking with Congress Advocacy Workshop, which has been offered at several ACS national meetings and regional meetings. Expanding to local sections and to virtual meetings can help us provide support to more members interested in being effective advocates wherever they are. Further, we lament the lack of scientists in Congress but haven’t done much to catalyze a change in the demographic. For our members who are interested in being directly engaged in the political process, including on school boards and in national office, we can provide support in the form of information about best practices and effective communication skills to help them succeed.

Promotion of scientific literacy is also fundamental to ACS, and we need to support and expand our effectiveness in bringing a better understanding of science to the public. Many of our local sections do a wonderful job with National Chemistry Week and Chemists Celebrate Earth Week, but the public is hearing non-fact-based noise, and we need to increase our efforts to get the science message out. ACS must lead in communicating the value of chemistry to society. Our members expand knowledge; produce materials, medicines, energy sources, and clean water; and make myriad discoveries that improve life. We must empower our members to effectively share the human stories of the products of chemistry and the value of the scientific method.

We can also get creative in choosing where to do public outreach. For example, my local section established a hands-on chemistry program in homeless shelters. We provide the materials and some books and snacks and bring in chemistry students from local universities to do activities with the kids in the shelters. During one of these sessions, a young man staying at the shelter came up to the table where we were doing the slime experiment. He said he’d done it at a science fair in his school, so I invited him to help the little kids with the experiment, and he worked with them all day long. He told us he hadn’t understood how slime worked until that day. It may not always be easy to host these events, but when you have one moment like that, it’s all worth it. Many of you have similar experiences, and the more we share them (and applaud them­—through the ChemLuminary Awards program, for example) the more effective at outreach we become.

Importance of safety

We must also communicate the importance of safety—the newest ACS core value—in academia, industry, and government laboratories and in chemical demonstrations and outreach activities. In 2018, ACS president Peter K. Dorhout emphasized laboratory safety, and I fully support that continuing effort. My 2019 focus is on safety writ large: safety in the environment, including recovery after disasters such as fires, hurricanes, and floods. Chemistry can help in the cleanup. And anywhere there’s a natural disaster there are always safety issues. I am happy to be working with the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety and other sponsoring divisions on national meeting programming on the following topics:

▸ Bridging the (safety) gap between academia and industry

▸ Chemical safety issues in disaster recovery

▸ Safety and the environment: Chemistry’s impact on water

Other collaborations across ACS

As ACS president-elect I hosted a breakfast at the ACS national meeting in Boston to provide a venue for technical division program chairs and others involved with programming at national meetings to discuss collaborations for growing cross-divisional programming. More joint programming could help alleviate the phenomenon of many competing (and often poorly attended) sessions and could stimulate innovative ideas for cross-discipline collaboration. Participants at the breakfast shared their best practices and discussed ways of establishing better communication and cooperation. It was great to see the energy in the room, and I look forward to the collaborative programs to come. We also discussed and encouraged program cooperation among divisions and regional meetings.

I also look forward to working to encourage collaborations among local sections, international chapters, and student chapters.

For our members’ careers

ACS has several programs to help people hone their skills and plan for their careers, and we host career fairs at national meetings. However, increasing numbers of jobs are in small companies. Small companies don’t tend to recruit at national meetings or on college campuses, particularly if they aren’t local. Their job openings are harder to find, and ACS should seek ways to facilitate better communication regarding employment opportunities in small companies and start-ups. I’ve asked the Younger Chemists Committee to work with me to identify creative ways to connect chemists with jobs.

In addition, although we tend to think of our members as belonging solely to academia, industry, or government, members often switch among these areas. I want to help develop collaborations among these three sectors, particularly for the benefit of members when they are early in their careers or considering career transitions.

Partnerships between industry and academia can promote intellectual property transfer and start-ups. They can also be effective in helping students understand what industry is like and develop the skills to succeed if they choose an industry or government laboratory career. I plan to sponsor a symposium in 2019 on lessons from academic-industrial partnerships with examples of what works and what doesn’t.

Reaching out beyond ACS

I’ll work to enhance our partnerships with societies—such as NOBCChE (the National Organization for the Professional Advancement of Black Chemists and Chemical Engineers) and SACNAS (the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science)— that share our goals and values. This work includes strengthening our cooperative programs with chemistry societies internationally and sharing ideas and initiatives to help address global challenges. We are a powerful organization, but we can learn from other groups and be more effective working together. A touchstone for these efforts will be the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. If you have not already done so, I urge you to review them and develop ideas to help meet these goals.

2019: The International Year of the Periodic Table

Our participation in the International Year of the Periodic Table of Chemical Elements is a wonderful focus for building many of the collaborations and outreach programs mentioned above. This celebration gives us opportunities to establish interesting and fun programs locally and to collaborate in a noncompetitive space with other societies around the world.

An invitation

It is a great honor and joy to serve in the ACS presidency cycle. I’ve had many jobs in ACS, and I’ve learned a lot from all of them. But being in the presidential succession is the most fun because I get to communicate with so many people and to hear their ideas, their aspirations, and the ways they want to participate. Through this article I want to encourage that human connection.

To be relevant, ACS must support members in their careers and in their desire to contribute to the greater good. I have seen the satisfaction of our members in creating great National Chemistry Week events, successful regional meetings, and innovative programs for chemistry education, to name a few examples. I want to find new synergies and ways to support our members’ dreams.

There are a lot of good ideas out there, and I’d like to invite ACS members to crowdsource solutions to our challenges. Please feel free to reach out to me at with suggestions to improve ACS and its relevance to you and to society as a whole.

This story first appeared in Chemical & Engineering News: January 7, 2019.