The Periodic Table of Elements is that rare slice of academia that has made an appearance, however brief, in most people’s lives.
Many recall less than fondly the forced memorization of its gridded letters and numbers, representing the building blocks of all matter. But from her first contact with the table in high school, Lynn Soby was drawn to its power to categorize such a vast array of knowledge.
Now director of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry, or IUPAC, Soby has presided over a key moment in the history of the table – the addition earlier this year of four new elements.
“These are extremely rare events,” says Soby, who took the helm of the RTP-based union in 2014 – the first woman to lead the organization. “I feel very privileged to be here at a time like this.”
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The new elements garnered international attention, including a spirited attempt to name one after a heavy metal musician, thrusting Soby into the limelight as the public face of IUPAC, an international body that oversees accepted standards in chemistry, from terminology to education initiatives.
Soby had a distinguished career before joining IUPAC. She’s named in nine patents and has held high-level positions at companies such as Avon and Research Triangle International, where she helped bring scientific innovations to the marketplace.
Laura McConnell, a chemist at Bayer Cropscience who is active in IUPAC, says Soby’s experience in both science and business has helped her modernize the organization and represent it at perhaps its highest profile moment.
“She definitely has the scientific credentials and the leadership skills and business credentials for this job,” says McConnell. “This is one of the most important jobs in our field, and she’s been really amazing at it.”
Finding a common language
Soby is from Connecticut, where she says she always had an intense interest in science and math. Her high school chemistry class sold her on the topic that would dominate her career.
She says she was impressed by its wide impact, helping to understand the world.
“It has a lot to do with just about everything,” Soby says. “There’s no scientific field that doesn’t relate to chemistry. It can explain so much.”
She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Boston College and a master’s from Ohio University. She worked as a researcher at the Cleveland Clinic before heading to Case Western Reserve University, where she earned a Ph.D. in macromolecular science and engineering as well as an MBA.
From there, she went to work in industry, first at BF Goodrich, where she worked in research and development, helping to develop new polymer technologies, and then at Avon. As her career progressed, she became increasingly involved in the process of developing new products, building business acumen on top of her scientific background.
She moved to the Triangle in 2008, when she became a vice president at Research Triangle International focused on engineering and technology and later for innovation and commercialization.
Soby had been aware of IUPAC, and was intrigued when its top position opened. The group started nearly 100 years ago with industry scientists attempting to standardize their language, which is now widely used in research, patent law and a wide range of other settings.
“We were put together because there wasn’t a common language to speak in chemical terms,” she says.
The group has only four employees, but works with the governments of nearly 60 countries on initiatives that go well beyond the Periodic Table. One committee is charged with projects relating to the environment, such as creating policies to deal with arsenic in water. In another program, chemists helicopter into remote areas to teach key scientific concepts.
Her job involves ample international travel, and constant contact with scientists across the world. Last week, she was drafting a letter of condolence to colleagues in Belgium, and she recently returned from meetings in Brazil.
“It’s like the UN of chemistry,” she says. “We have a connection to almost every nation in the world.”
What’s in a name
But the four new elements, which fill the last empty spaces on the seventh row of the table, took up much of Soby’s attention when they were announced in January. Researchers appointed by the union had spent nearly four years verifying the claims of researchers from Japan, Russia and the United States.
“You can think you’ve identified it, but you have to be able to replicate that and prove it and study it,” Soby says.
The elements are all man-made, existing for brief periods in a particle accelerator. They are highly unstable, but were found as part of an area of research that aims to discover more stable elements that could have practical applications.
Soby, a fan of science fiction stories, likes to imagine the tantalizing potential of the yet undiscovered elements, which she says could have “unusual physical properties that don’t exist on Earth today.”
“I like to think about it in terms of will we ever be able to get to the point in humankind when you can traverse the universe,” Soby says. “Think of the materials we’d need to do that. It’s something yet to be discovered.”
For now, the new elements bear the numbers 113, 115, 117 and 118, along with temporary names assigned to those spaces on the table.
The process of giving them more permanent names is ongoing. An effort to name one of the elements “Lemmium,” after Lemmy, the recently deceased guitarist for heavy metal group Motorhead, has received more than 150,000 signatures.
The effort landed Soby on the pages of Rolling Stone, but she notes that the naming is up to individual labs, not her office, which will only vet the final choices. But she says the petition helped make more people aware of the new elements.
“The founder is a big believer in STEM education, and that’s part of what he’s doing here,” she says.
But the naming is complicated. It must be shown that a potential name, and its abbreviation, haven’t been used in a way previously that might lead to confusion. They also have to be appropriate in dozens of languages.
Once accepted, they will go out for public comment.
“We worry about terms that may be demeaning in different languages,” she says. “It may be a cool name in U.S. English, but it’s insulting in Swaziland.”
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Lynn M. Soby
Born: March 1958, Connecticut
Career: Director, International Union of Applied and Pure Chemistry
Awards: Women of Excellence Award, N.C. Business Leaders, 2010; served on N.C. Governor’s Innovation Committee; appointed by governor to represent RTI on N.C. Board of Science and Technology, 2010
Education: B.S. chemistry, Boston College; M.S. chemistry, Ohio University; Ph.D. and MBA, Case Western Reserve University
Family: Husband Michael; two rescue dogs, Deuce and Sophia
Fun Facts: Among Soby’s many hobbies is riding motorcycles. She and her husband own seven. She’s also a fan of NASCAR and F1 racing.