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A new relationship with Information

Posted on April 5th, 2016 by in Chemistry


Today, new drugs emerge from a diverse landscape of players that includes Pharmaceutical and Biotech companies, as well as Academia – a veritable ecosystem of innovation. The role of Academia in this ecosystem is unique. Research laboratories at universities and colleges are incubators of new ideas and valuable contributors to the discovery of new compounds and the decoding of drug action mechanisms. The same laboratories, coupled with lecture halls and classrooms, are also the training grounds for people who will push boundaries in drug development and drive needed breakthroughs. As such, Academia is a vital facilitator of the exchange of ideas, knowledge, technologies and people that fuels advances in the pharmaceutical arena.

Preparing young scientists to engage effectively in this exchange, be it in the pharmaceutical or any other industry, is a critical aspect of any chemistry education program. The skills and knowledge needed are defined in the student learning outcomes of most curricula. For example, strong understanding of foundational chemistry concepts and principles is essential. More than knowledge, this understanding gives students the language that enables seamless communication. However, conducting novel research, where new insights and true innovation emerge, requires processing the work of others in any relevant area of investigation. As Sir Isaac Newton said: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Science builds on evidence and this evidence is reported systematically to create a traceable trail of facts. Successfully navigating this information structure, critically evaluating the hypotheses and procedures it contains, and appropriately implementing the data it reports to support new ideas are indispensable skills to be an active participant in the ecosystem of innovation.

There is consensus among our partners in education that today’s generation of students has grown up experiencing information very differently compared to just two decades ago. As a result, they enter their training with the expectation of information immediacy — a Google search and answers are just one click away. This is not bad, in and of itself. The expectation has driven search engines to continually improve their performance. From the perspective of scientific methodology, however, availability is only part of the picture in finding and using information. Just as important are the relevance and validity of the information found, and this aspect of information literacy is often secondary in the minds of students (read an interview with Dr. Gregory O’Neil on this topic).

Helping students build a new relationship with information that supports scientific inquiry means (a) recognizing that tools to access information have advanced for the better and flooding students with endless lists of unvetted references is a futile and discouraging exercise; and (b) providing students opportunities to explore, trace and evaluate scientific information as early as possible in their training.

These opportunities must happen within the context of meaningful problems that compel students to look for answers. Fictitious search examples in a cursory survey of available databases give students an overview of the tools at their disposal. However, understanding when to use which tool, how to build a search strategy and how that strategy retrieves a given set of results requires incorporating the use of databases and information solutions into daily course and lab work. Librarians and information specialists construct a framework of information tools that best supports the activities at their institution. They provide training and services for the use of these tools. But the environment in which students truly develop information retrieval and evaluation skills is in the classroom with coursework that encourages them to delve deep into what they find.

An information solution that integrates well into the chemistry classroom and promotes learning will:

  • Grant access to comprehensive chemistry and its use across disciplines.
  • Help students learn to break down a research question into its conceptual components, present alternative search approaches and support finding relevant search terms.
  • Offer novices opportunities to easily find the right information but also enable sophisticated searches for more advanced students.
  • Be easy to use and intuitive to navigate so that its incorporation into coursework does not become a burden to the instructor.

Electronic information solutions are no substitute for reading, comprehending and evaluating a scientific publication. That was never their intent. But bearing in mind the exponential growth and variable quality of scientific information, these tools are essential to guide scientists in their exploration of the scientific landscape. The most effective information solutions go one step further: they bring relevant data directly to scientists who then readily implement findings to further the idea exchange that drives innovation. Transforming students into scientists means preparing them to use information in the same way.

Interested in using Reaxys in the classroom? Here are some examples to get you started.

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