Come February 17, Thomas M. Connelly, Jr. will be the new CEO of the American Chemical Society (ACS), taking over for Madeleine Jacobs, who is retiring after 11 years as CEO and a total of 24 years with ACS. Connelly comes to ACS after a 36-year career with DuPont, retiring from his latest position as executive vice president and chief innovation officer at the end of 2014. In the audio clip above, Connelly talks about the challenges the chemistry industry faces today.

Connelly joined DuPont in 1978 as a research engineer, and never looked back. Over the course of his career, Connelly held numerous positions within DuPont, including leading worldwide business and operations, with a special emphasis on developing markets. He led research laboratories in three counties, growing a staff of 100 to more than 2,000. On top of leading DuPont’s $1.8 billion science and technology operation into new areas, Connelly developed Open Innovation activities and launched DuPont’s photovoltaics unit. Overall, he was responsible for a 10,000-person science and technology team and businesses that accrued more than $12 billion in revenues. Connelly was appointed executive vice president and chief innovation officer in 2006.

Editor-in-Chief Michelle Taylor (MT) recently spoke with Connelly (TC) about his new position, his vision for ACS, his view of science education and much more.Thomas M. Connelly, Jr. Photo: DuPont/ACS

MT: How do you expect to draw on your experience at DuPont to lead ACS?

TC: At DuPont, I played a number of roles, ranging from responsibility for science and technology operations to spending 10 years outside the U.S. running businesses and laboratories. The parallels are the fact that both are very large, dynamic organizations. They are complex organizations. They both have global reach. I think those skills will be directly applicable. My last role at DuPoint was centered on innovation, and innovation is something that happens in chemical laboratories. It is key to the endeavors of the American Chemical Society in their publishing and information businesses, and also in the services to membership. I think the ability to lead innovation is a skill set that will serve me well.

MT: What are some of your short-term goals and/or areas you intend to critically focus?

TC: Right now, I am in listening and learning mode. It’s a very successful organization, it’s the premiere science organization globally for those in the chemical profession. In learning mode, I want to get to know the organization, understand the activities, and really make sure we are positioned to maintain momentum as the premiere home for scientists in the chemical sciences, be they in academic, life, industry or government.

MT: What are some of your long-term goals for ACS?

TC: My crystal ball isn’t quite that good longer range, but I do think some of the things that will be important going forward is collaborations and partnerships. There are key stakeholders in the chemistry enterprise that are in industry, education and government labs. I think creating a strong spirit of collaboration amongst the many stakeholders is going to be an important priority. And continuing the global reach. The enterprise is increasingly a global activity. It is no longer an activity of the U.S., Europe and Japan—the so-called developed worlds. The developing world is increasingly an important player in the global chemistry market. Continuing to expand ACS presence and reach into the developing market is going to be a key draw. Painting with very broad strokes, those are a couple of themes that will resonate with our board of directors for the future of ACS.

MT: As we all know, STEM education is vital. When it comes to K-12 STEM, what role would you like ACS to play?

TC: (STEM education) is critically important for young people who are going to ultimately chose to have a career in a STEM area, but it is also critically important for educating the general public—getting all young people a quality science education during those important, informative years. I could not feel more strongly about the importance of strengthening the science literacy of the U.S. population, and giving very strong support to the teachers in K-12. Science teachers, particularly at the middle and high school level, can be so influential in supporting young people who are thinking about careers in science or STEM areas, so anything we can do to help. The American Association of Chemistry Teachers is tremendous and I applaud ACS for taking this on and providing resources to that front line.

ACS is also active from a policy standpoint in doing things to promote policies that support STEM education at the higher education level. We are also very active in terms of offering our support to strengthen our research presence and research spending within the country.

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MT: Diversity is another hot topic. Will there be a focus on boosting the number of women and minorities in STEM?

TC: Having worked in the chemical industry for my career up to this point, I recognize the value of a diverse workforce. Having diverse points of view, having people from diverse background, having gender diversity within an organization is a tremendous strength. And that requires attracting young people of diverse backgrounds toward careers in science and technology. Certainly from a gender diversity standpoint, tremendous work has been done and the number of women graduates with chemistry and chemical engineering degrees has increased dramatically to the point where in the recent decade, gender parity has been achieved.

In terms of underrepresented groups, we’re still not there. (It’s very important to) attract more young people of diverse backgrounds into careers in chemistry. One of AACT’s missions is to promote diversity in the K-12 teaching ranks.

There are a couple other specific programs that ACS has been involved with for a long time that are promoting, have been promoting and will continue to promote diversity in the ranks of chemists. One example is Project Seed, which has been functioning since 1968. Working with the chemical industry, ACS has arranged opportunities for students of diverse backgrounds to spend time working, like a summer internship, in laboratory-related jobs in universities and industries to give them exposure, even at the high school level.

A second example would be our work on ACS Scholars, which is a program that provides support for undergraduate education for those of diverse backgrounds. Nearly 2,500 students have received support through ACS Scholars, which has been operating since 1995. DuPont has been one of ACS’ partners in both the Seed program as well as the Scholars program, providing financial support and also internship opportunities. These are great programs to give students support, education and hands-on experience in a chemical-related role.

MT: What challenges does the chemical industry currently face? (Audio clip of answer provided above)

TC: Challenges are also opportunities if viewed in the right way, and there are a number of changes going on in the world that I think represent opportunities for people in the chemistry-related profession. I think of chemistry as an enabling science for all sorts of industries. All chemists and chemical engineers are not necessarily practicing what we think of as the chemical industry. There are chemistry material challenges in virtually every industry you can think of, from healthcare to electronics to the automotive industry. All of these require chemical sciences in order to innovate and continue to succeed. So when I take a look at challenges in the area of human health and nutrition, our need for transportation, more sustainable approaches to the way we live and more abundant supply of drinking water for the billion people around the world who do not have access to potable water, I see in all of these things challenges but also really exciting opportunities for the chemical profession. That’s what gets me excited about what ACS can bring to it. I would say we also have to look at pressures on government funding and the very strong importance of maintaining the country’s momentum as the world leader in chemical sciences, and making sure that the government, with all the budget pressures, continues to invest in research, and that our companies continue to invest in research so we can maintain our preeminence in the chemical sciences.

MT: How do you envision the future role of ACS in educating the public?

TC: This will be done through AACT and the importance of having a scientifically literate population in this country and world. This is a huge challenge. It is bigger than any one organization. But it is an extremely important role and ACS can be part of the answer to that. I view myself as the spokesperson and advocate for science literacy and the importance of pursuing policies that support scientific literacy. Specifically, ACS plays a very direct role in initiatives such as National Chemistry Week, which occurs in the third week of October every year. In the past year, there has been a presidential proclamation in the U.S. Senate resolution acknowledging the important of National Chemistry Week. Initiatives at ACS around the celebration of Earth Day and the recognition of the important role chemists play in protecting the environment is also a contributing factor. We also deputized over 14,000 ACS members as spokespeople and chemistry ambassadors. These are volunteers who are committed to taking the word about the importance of chemistry into the classroom and into various public forums, and really displaying the role of chemistry in addressing some of the greatest global challenges.

We do a lot of work in terms of our press releases highlighting leading-edge science that appears in scientific literature and packaging that in a way that it can be brought to the general public in an approachable way.

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MT: To end on a light note, what is your favorite city in the world?

TC: I’ve had the opportunity to live and work in many places around the world. Every place I have lived is the best place for something. It is up to you to find out what that is.

If I have to pick one, I’d pick Hong Kong, just to be different. I lived there for several years. It’s a great city. It’s a city of contrast—it is a Chinese city but it belongs to the world. Everyone is comfortable there, everyone is welcome there. You’ve got the sea, the city, the mountains around you, and it’s spectacularly beautiful. It was a special time when we lived there.