Bringing Other Voices into the Discussion

Bringing Other Voices into the Discussion

Author: Vera KoesterORCID iD, Peter Gärtner

Professor Peter Gärtner, Technical University of Vienna, Austria, was elected President of the Austrian Chemical Society (GÖCH; Gesellschaft Österreichischer Chemiker) in January 2021. Here he talks with Dr. Vera Koester of ChemistryViews about his enthusiasm for exchanging ideas with others, especially young people, the importance of explaining chemistry in a generally understandable way, and his research in the field of doping reference substances.



If you had to describe GÖCH in three sentences, what would you say?

GÖCH is a chemical society that tries to represent its members and the ideas of its members.
The advantage of GÖCH is that we are not beholden to anyone, so we can act as an independent, non-governmental organization.
We try to bring an unbiased expert opinion to discussions on chemical issues.



When you took up your presidency earlier this year, you said that you wanted to continue the renewal process that the previous president started. Can you say why this is important to you?

My predecessor Ernst Gruber started involving the chemical industry more in the processes of GÖCH. I think it is important to continue that because GÖCH is mainly formed by members who come from universities or research institutions. But I think that the members from the chemical industry also play an important role in the society. When you think about changing chemical processes or trying to improve the impact of chemistry on people and the environment by moving to cleaner and greener processes, chemistry plays an important role, as does the chemical industry.



What, for example, have you done to integrate the chemical industry more?

We have a strong collaboration with the Fachverband der Chemischen Industrie Österreichs (FCIO), which represents the interests of the chemical industry in Austria. Together we try to find some areas where we can assist the chemical industry in improving its perception in society. Sometimes the problem is that society itself or the people in society do not know what the actual problems of the industry are. The industry cannot communicate to them how it helps make a better life possible, as it is seen to be biased and not necessarily credible. People may be more likely to believe an unbiased opinion, such as the opinion of members of GÖCH.



So you see the modern chemical society as a facilitator of ideas and opinions among society?

I think one of the goals is that the chemical society should help society in general gain a better understanding of chemistry. Not in a deep manner, but in a way that they know what we are talking about. Chemistry is a very important natural science—for example, when you think about everything that has to do with the environment. We are currently talking about the Green Deal here in Europe. I do not think the Green Deal will achieve a successful outcome without the involvement of chemists. But if people do not accept or understand what we are talking about, this could become a problem. Therefore, one of the goals of a chemical society should be to communicate content to society in a way that people can understand what the problem is and what could be done to solve it.



Does that mean that we as chemists have to change ourselves and the ways we communicate?

Of course. Everybody in society has to change. What I mean is that there will be no meaningful change if only one group is changing and another group is not allowing change.

I think chemists have to change by stepping back a little bit and not talking about their special topics in a way that other people do not understand. Instead they have to learn to speak a language that other people can easily understand.



Another important point for you is to integrate younger chemists more into the chemical society, correct?

That’s right. GÖCH, as a chemical society, has a board. We have invited the Head of the Young Chemists to also participate in these board meetings to get a better sense of their perspective and also to be able to bring the opinion of the younger chemists to the discussions.



What is the percentage of young members?

They make up about 30 % of GÖCH members.



What made you decide to accept the position of GÖCH president?

The former president, Ernst Gruber, called me to ask if I would be available for the job. He told me that it wouldn’t be too much work, just a few hours per month, which didn’t turn out to be entirely accurate. I felt very honored and thought that I could help to develop GÖCH further.

I think I have a good connection with young people in chemistry, which could help to anchor them and their ideas in GÖCH. We have problems keeping young members in the society. This should be improved, otherwise the society will grow weaker over time.

The second aspect is that I like to talk to people, and I have good connections with people in the chemical industry, which I think is useful. I have been the Dean of Academic Affairs at our university for almost 18 years now. So I have seen a lot of students leave the university, and I am still in touch with quite a number of them. These people, for the most part, work in the chemical industry. So this helps me to find out what the needs of the chemical industry are, and to try as a chemical society to help them in a general sense, not with specific problems. As I mentioned earlier, one of these issues might be to improve the public’s understanding, for example.

That is why I decided to do this. As I said, it turns out that a few hours a month is not enough for all that the position entails, but I still enjoy doing the job.



Can you say a bit about your “proper” job?

In my primary job, I am a university researcher and instructor. I give lectures in organic chemistry, a special lecture in nomenclature, and some basic courses in chemistry for students of other disciplines, because at our university even informatics students have to take some courses in chemistry. I also teach a course in biomedical engineering.

My research focus is on doping analysis. I am not an analytical chemist, but unique reference compounds are needed for doping analysis. These reference compounds have to be synthesized. So you first have to find out what a metabolite of a doping substance is, then you have to synthesize that compound, and then you have to make sure that the synthesized material is the same as the material that is formed by metabolism in the body. Finally, those materials can be then used as reference standards for doping analysis. We have a collaboration with a doping analysis center in Austria, one of the largest units in Europe, working on this issue. We have already solved some very tricky cases of doping problems.



How are you developing the analysis further? Aren’t you always behind of what is happening in doping?

Currently it is very important in doping analysis to find metabolites of doping substances that can be detected in an athlete’s body for a long time. These substances are called long-term metabolites. If you know the long-term metabolites of a doping substance, it is more easily possible to find out whether an athlete was doped or not.

We are trying to synthesize these compounds that are not yet known or not used as reference materials and provide them to the World Anti-Doping Agency, which then distributes them to their laboratories.



Does an athlete’s individual metabolism have an effect on doping analysis?

To rule that out, athletes have what is called an individual steroid passport, and that should solve the problem of individual metabolisms as well as special cases. I mean, you are absolutely right that every individual behaves differently; but if you have a control baseline that you know because you are measuring it all the time, and it is documented, then you know if something does not exist in a natural concentration. In this case, it is not about absolute values; it is about ratios of concentrations of different individual compounds.



You have received many awards in connection with the Austrian Chemistry Olympiad. What was that about?

That was a long time ago. I can’t remember!

All joking aside, that was my entry into chemistry, so to speak. When I was very young, I first wanted to be a veterinarian, then I thought of becoming a doctor. When we had our first chemistry class in high school, we had a very fascinating teacher, and I came to view chemistry as the foundation for everything. I still believe that chemistry can contribute a lot to life in general.
I liked chemistry very much from the beginning, so it wasn’t difficult for me to do more chemistry in my free time than I was expected to do in school.

My chemistry teacher told me that there was this Chemistry Olympiad for pupils. I was allowed to participate in the Austrian Chemistry Olympiad and won three medals. I was even able to go on to the International Chemistry Olympiad and won a bronze medal there.



That’s great! What do you do in your spare time?

When spare time allows, I play golf, I waterski and snow ski, I enjoy going to the theater (especially a big one here in Vienna), and I like going to the cinema.



Thank you very much for the interview.

Peter Gärtner, born in Vienna, Austria, in 1964, studied technical chemistry with an emphasis on organic chemistry at the Technical University of Vienna, Austria. In 1991, he received his Ph.D. at the same university under the supervision of Christian Noe. From 1987 to 1991, he was first a research assistant, then a university assistant at the Institute of Organic Chemistry. From 1996 to 1997, he was a postdoctoral fellow as as Erwin Schrödinger Fellow at The Scripps Research Institute, San Diego, CA, USA, in the lab of K.C. Nicolaou. In 2000, Peter Gärtner received his habilitation, and since 2001, he has been a professor at the Technical University of Vienna.

Since 2004, he has served as Dean of Academic Affairs for Technical Chemistry at TU Vienna, and since October 2009, he has been editor-in-chief of Monatshefte für Chemie (Chemical Monthly).

Peter Gärtner’s research focuses on stereoselective synthesis. Currently this involves doping agents’ metabolites and natural products or analogues of them. He is also interested in the application of ionic liquids and solid-phase synthesis.


Selected Publications






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