Carmen Nitsche

An interview with Carmen Nitsche, a highly effective collaborator in chemical information

Svetlana Korolev, interviewer

This article continues a series of interviews with functionaries of the ACS Division of Chemical Information (CINF) compiled at: Carmen Nitsche is well-recognized in CINF for her leadership role as the division chair 2010, webinars coordinator 2014-16, alternate councilor 2016-18, and a frequent speaker at ACS national meetings.

Bio: Carmen Nitsche earned a B.A. with honors in chemistry from the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and an M.S. from the University of California at Berkeley. She held laboratory positions at ARCO and Los Alamos National Laboratory before entering the field of chemical information in 1987, joining Nalco Chemical Company as an Information Scientist. During her 12 years with the Library and Information Services group, Carmen was responsible for technical and chemical searching and end-user search services. She left her Staff Scientist position in 1999 to join Nalco sales, working with water treatment customers in the greater San Antonio area.

Carmen returned to chemical information in 2001, when she accepted a position in the Business Development group at MDL Information Systems, an Elsevier Company. She continued there through Symyx’s purchase of MDL, and Accelrys’ purchase of Symyx, holding positions of Vice President Content and Vice President Corporate Development. In 2013 Carmen founded CINforma Consulting, dedicated to business development in the scientific software and content arenas. Her largest client is the Pistoia Alliance, where she helps develop their project portfolio, and their membership base. Carmen's professional memberships include Sigma Xi and ACS. She continues to publish and speak, most recently at the spring 2017 ACS meeting in San Francisco and the Dassault “Science in the Age of Experience” conference in May.

Svetlana Korolev: Carmen, I first met you at a CINF executive committee meeting after your winning the Chair-Elect 2009 position. Since then you have been very active in division governance with continuous commitment to “strengthening interdisciplinary approach, leveraging new technologies, and reaching out to new and existing members”, to quote from your statement of goals in the 2015 division elections. Please share your insights into CINF and ACS in this context. What can the division and the society do to better serve its members?

Carmen Nitsche: The most exciting changes tend to happen at the interfaces of disciplines. Colleagues with different perspectives inject new thinking and new ideas into the mix, and so one can make real progress in tackling challenges. CINF is a small division, but our discipline affects absolutely every member of the chemical community, and we can have the appropriate impact if we seek out those partnerships with other disciplines in other divisions. I would highlight the CINF/CHAS partnership around safety, where there are several projects underway where the librarians are contributing their deep knowledge about information management, handling and access, and the EH&S (Environmental Health and Safety) colleagues bring their safety and laboratory management experience and expertise to bear. Together, we will come up with much more robust and sound solutions and recommendations, and we have a much better chance for wider adoption, as more stakeholders have been involved.

As far as technology is concerned, I have always felt that information professionals are the ideal candidates to help all of us navigate the tremendous changes we see in information access and volume. We should never fear our obsolescence with every new technology change. At any point in time, the medium and tools at hand are less important than the underlying principles around data validation, data handling, information dissemination and the like, and these are the core of our discipline.

I do feel our division needs to create more tangible benefits for its members and prospective members, and we should be reaching out more to all manner of chemists. This is why I was so involved in the webinar series. Our virtual events were a way to provide idea exchange and connection outside the national meetings, which many of our members cannot afford to attend. This is where the national organization could help as well: providing the infrastructure to support small division ambitions, so we can focus on inviting interesting speakers, or making useful materials readily available, rather than scrambling to find a webinar platform or workable document sharing tool.

SK: Reflecting on your third goal for “reaching out to new and existing members”, I would like to acknowledge again generous funding of the CINF Scholarship for Scientific Excellence program sponsored by your former companies, Symyx and Accelrys. While speaking at the “Careers in Chemical Information and Cheminformatics” discussion panel (a summary of which was published in the Chemical Information Bulletin), you advised to younger scientists: “It is important to network and stay in touch with what is going on. Actively look for mentors who have an interest in you and offer a reality check”. Have you benefited from mentor relationships at any point of your career? What are your personal favorite tools for staying abreast in the chemical information field?

CN: I have been fortunate over the years to have several trusted mentors who have helped me navigate new terrain. When I look back, most every job I have taken was a leap into the unknown. But each leap was less intimidating because of mentors who helped me find my strengths and my voice.

I would call out a couple of people in particular. When I first started in chemical information, I knew next to nothing about the job I had just accepted. But Steve Boyle at Nalco hired me anyway. He became my most valuable teacher and mentor, and ultimately my friend. He let me shadow him through all the tasks, and he seemed to trust me when I was not sure I trusted myself. He made it clear I could always ask for help, which made it so much easier to try new things. He also encouraged me to engage outside our organization, allowing me to develop professionally and bring back ideas we could try to implement in-house. This is how Nalco became one of the beta test sites for SciFinder, and how I first became involved in CINF.

I would also call out John Regazzi, the former CEO of Engineering Information, whom I met during our Elsevier days. He has had a rich and varied professional life after leaving Elsevier, including a stint as the Dean of the College of Information and Computer Science at Long Island University and as a Managing Director at Akoya Capital Partners LLC, where he leads their Professional Information Services Sector. I had long admired his embrace of change, and reached out to him as I was contemplating starting my own business. John has always been generous with his time, and we touch base regularly. And now and then I am able to give back. One must always remember, a successful mentor/mentee relationship is a two-way street.

Regarding staying in touch with the chemical information field, I still depend heavily on the CHMINF-L listserv hosted at Indiana University. I know and trust the people on this list and know that if an important topic is trending, someone on the list will keep the rest of us abreast.

SK: What was the most interesting item in your schedule during the latest ACS national meeting in Washington, DC?

CN: As you know, I am involved in a safety project at the Pistoia Alliance. At this last ACS meeting I was able to meet so many folks at ACS that are deeply committed to safety culture, and I have very high hopes that we will soon see many more concrete, useful actions from the society that embody the new ACS core value of safety. The most interesting session I attended was hosted by Allison Campbell, President of the ACS, on Safety Culture, top down and bottom up. The room really should have been overflowing, this is such an important issue and the panel was world class.

SK: How is the ACS national meeting experience different from the Bio-IT World Conference & Expo? What were your highlights at the last Bio-IT World Conference, May 23-25, 2017?

CN: The Bio-IT universe is different from ACS. The purpose is quite focused – bringing together life sciences IT professionals to “advance science, technology and patient care”, and the attendance is smaller: 3,400 attended Bio-IT this year, and it attracts mostly corporate participants. There were definitely aspects that would be of interest to CINF members. For example, there was a hackathon dedicated to FAIR data, (data that are findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) and the expo attracted many companies delivering information-related tools and services data management, visualization and analysis that don’t tend to exhibit at ACS. I was especially proud this year that the Pistoia Alliance had 18 of its members involved in the expo or sponsoring, and that does not include those involved in the technical program.

SK: The Chemical Safety Library (CSL) project was launched by Pistoia Alliance on March 15, 2017 with “hot off the press” announcements in many scientific magazines such as Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) and Chemistry World. You spoke about CSL at the Division of Chemical Safety symposium earlier this year during the spring ACS national meeting in San Francisco. What was the “reaction” of the audience to the launch? Were there any concerns about disclosing trade secrets requiring protection? Is the required registration for using CSL aimed at specific restrictions? What was your most surprising finding in this project?

CN: The CSL is one of the most exciting projects I have ever worked on. The Pistoia Alliance began this initiative last year, to collect and disseminate information on laboratory chemical reaction incidents, including what components were combined, what the unexpected outcome was, and suggested warnings. It became clear early on that this initiative was going to be of interest not just to Pistoia Alliance members, but rather to all chemistry lab practitioners. First, we had to build a simple prototype tool to collect and return this type of information. Then we began our grand community experiment to determine 1) is there a need for experiential insights from the lab about reactions gone awry and 2) is the community ready to share such information.

To solicit the broadest range of participants, we embarked on an extensive publicity campaign that garnered coverage from C&EN and Chemistry World; we enlisted help from CINF and CHAS divisions, both of whom have advisors on our project team; and, as you note, I presented the launch report at a CHAS session in San Francisco in the spring.

I guess what most surprised me was the instant, overwhelming interest. By the time I gave my talk two weeks after launch we had 600 people signed up. I just checked, and today we have 871 registered users, and every week we have a few more signups. All the feedback we have received at the session and beyond suggests there is an interest and a need for this type of information to supplement current safety resources. So to our first experiment question I believe the answer is overwhelmingly yes.

On the submission side, we have seen modest increases. We started with 27 entries from our members at launch. We now have 108 entries, of which 10% are coming from non-Pistoia Alliance members, which is terrific. But we are looking for more. We are announcing a CSLDatathon for end of October, targeting librarians, students, EH&S practitioners, and others, to promote submissions. We will be providing training and prizes, and expect the event will help populate the database substantially. And for those who wonder how they might be able to use the database, we will be holding a CSLHackathon to demonstrate how the collection of data might be put to use.

You mention a few points I want to address specifically. Regarding trade secrets, we have made it clear that there is no need (or even, at this point, no ability) to share proprietary information in our prototype. And yes, we do require registration of the submitters, because our small curation team needs to be able to follow up on entries should there be any questions. However, based on the feedback in San Francisco, we have removed the public display of the submitter’s name and institution, as personal embarrassment seems to be a barrier to submission. I would suggest, however, that we should embrace and thank any submitter who is passing along their hard-learned experience, and that they should not feel shame, but rather pride in helping their fellow lab mates.

We realize that some fear legal or regulatory reprisals, but it is not clear whether these are warranted concerns or not. To that end, I am organizing a CINF session for New Orleans, which will include a panel discussion, where we will discuss safety-data-sharing fears, and evaluate how to address them with experts in the field. We will at minimum be hosting this in conjunction with CHAS and CHAL, but I hope to secure additional divisional co-sponsorship.

SK: ACS instituted safety as one of its core value last December. For one thing, safety is currently underlined in many presidential initiatives such as a symposium “Building a Safety Culture across the Chemistry Enterprise” cosponsored by 20 ACS committees and divisions, including CINF ,at the fall national meeting in Washington, DC, planning for a symposium “RAMPing up the Culture of Safety” at regional meetings, and creating a ChemLuminary Award for Leadership in Safety Culture. Please talk about other projects occurring in collaboration with ACS committees and divisions in support of safety. How does your work with the Chemical Safety Library (CSL) project relate to them?

CN: I think it is terrific that ACS is taking a greater leadership role around safety. We see this for example with the new ACS Publications policy around novel or significant hazards reporting by authors, and with the new Task Force for Safety Education Guidelines (TFSEG). I know that CHAS, together with CINF and the Committee on Chemical Safety have a variety of other ideas underway, and there are InChI Trust and Research Data Alliance ties as well. I could even imagine partnership with ACS around the CSL, which would be most exciting.

SK: What are the other exciting developments for the chemical information community by Pistoia Alliance going on right now, in your view?

CN: It would have to be HELM, the Hierarchical Editing Language for Macromolecules. HELM is both a notation, and a set of open-source tools and applications that implement the notation. The notation enables representation of a wide variety of biomolecules, from proteins, to nucleotides, to antibody drug conjugates, allowing for easy exchange of data. This representation has become the de-facto standard. It is supported by a variety of software vendors, and is available in both the ChEMBL and PubChem database records.

I should also mention that our members are about to release into the public domain, via the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a set of previously internal antibody crystal structures as part of the Pistoia Alliance AbVance project. The ultimate goal of this project is to improve antibody predictive modeling, and data sharing is one plank of that effort.

SK: Let’s move on to the subject of Open Access. In 2014, Steven Bachrach and you wrote a chapter, “Tying It All Together: Information Management for Practicing Chemists”, for an ACS symposium book, The Future of the History of Chemical Information, where you pointed out key problems regarding difficulty in reusing data content from supporting materials archived as PDF files and quality curation of data depositions at open access repositories. Has much changed since that publication? Are there any exemplary endeavors?

CN: I am not fully up to date on this topic, but certainly we are seeing growing efforts to deal with the data deposition challenge. Many journals and funding organizations are now requiring data deposition along with paper publication, so we are definitely beyond the “should we do this” stage. Progress also has been made in assigning persistent identifiers to data sets, which is a prerequisite to successful data sharing efforts. In fact, the RDA plenary meeting is this week (Sept 19-21, 2017), during which the Persistent Identifier Interest (PID) Group will be discussing the progress, the gaps, and the growing community initiatives around PID. And of course the commercial efforts like FigShare are maturing. I guess I am a bit disappointed that ChemSpider has not taken more of a leadership role here.

SK: Carmen, I remember vividly your leadership role for the Division of Chemical Information becoming a supporter of the InChI Trust in 2010. You invited a guest presenter to the CINF executive committee, collaborated with ACS for their clearance, attended the InChI Trust board meetings, and wrote updates of the InChI projects for Chemical Information Bulletin. What made you want to focus on that? Are there specific contributions or recent activities you would like to discuss?

CN: Data exchange and reuse is key to scientific collaboration and discovery. Within CINF we understand what needs to be done and we have the obligation to take a leadership role in advancing initiatives that promote such data exchange and collaboration. InChI was one such initiative, and at the time I thought it was important for us to support this open community effort. InChI is now over ten years old, and has become the open standard for small molecule data exchange. This year we saw the release of the first version of the reaction InChI, known as RInChI, which is very exciting. We would like to adopt the RInChI for the Chemical Safety Library, because this would be a perfect application.

SK: Another outstanding contribution to the Division was your organizing a series of webinars during 2014-16. In collaboration with Belinda Hurley for hosting, you invited over a dozen prominent guest speakers from beyond the CINF scientific information community to share their expertise for the benefits of division members. Let’s imagine that ANY guest speaker could agree to participate. Who would you be interested in hosting?

CN: I am glad to see that we are reviving the webinar series, because it is an excellent current awareness vehicle to support our members beyond the national meetings. I guess if I could invite anyone, I would want to do a series on data access and sharing where we brought in senior leaders of leading information institutions and corporations: the Librarian of Congress, the head of the National Library of Medicine, the head of the USPTO, CIO of Google, folks like that. Maybe we should try that!

SK: In conclusion, let me ask a couple of personal questions. What does a typical day in the office of Carmen Nitsche look like?

CN: I have been working remotely since 2001. So my days either start with that long 30 foot walk to my home office, or a ride to the airport. Since many of my clients are in Europe, I do find myself on early calls frequently (I did myself a favor by moving from Texas to New Jersey, which cut down on those 6 am calls). I spend most days in GoToMeetings, or on the phone.

SK: Please tell us what you like to do when you aren't working?

CN: I love to cook and entertain, and am always looking for that next new recipe to add to the party rotation. I also love traveling. We moved to the Jersey Shore last year. This is our first time living on the East Coast. So we are enjoying exploring our new locale, heading to NYC and Philly frequently, and taking in the beautiful New Jersey countryside.

SK: Thank you, Carmen, for fostering collaborations in developing useful tools in the interest of increased safety in the chemical enterprise. We will look forward to learning more at your symposium titled, “Community Sharing of Chemical Safety Data: Yes, No, Maybe?” being organized for the next ACS national meeting in New Orleans, LA, March 18-22, 2018.

Carmen Nitsche’s presentations at recent ACS national meetings:

  1. Nitsche, C; Whittick, G.; Manfredi, M. Reaction Safety Information: Engaging the Community in Collecting and Sharing of Safety Learnings. Spring 2017, San Francisco, CA; CHAS-32. (slides at CHAS; symposium)

  2. Nitsche, C. Data Sharing and beyond: Lessons Learned from the Life Sciences Industry. Fall 2016, Philadelphia, PA; COMP-79.Nitsche, C. Data Sharing in Life Sciences R&D: Pre-competitive Collaboration through the Pistoia Alliance. Spring 2016, San Diego, CA; CINF-68. (Presentation on demand)

  3. Nitsche, C. Pre-competitive Collaboration to Advance Laboratory Safety. Spring 2016, San Diego, CA; CHAS-41.

  4. Bachrach, S.; Nitsche, C. Tying it all together: Information management for practicing chemists. In Future of the History of Chemical Information; McEwen, L., Buntrock R., Eds.; ACS Symposium Series 1164; American Chemical Society: Washington, DC, 2014; pp 255-268.

  5. Nitsche, C.; Taylor, K. InChI Names and Keys: Do They Add Value to Commercial Software and Databases. Spring 2012, San Diego, CA; CINF-102.

  6. Taylor K.; Hassan M.; Foss D.; Nitsche C. Interactive Prediction of Biological Activity. Fall 2011, Denver, CO; CINF Flash - Lightning Talks.Nitsche, C. One Search, Many Answers: Bringing Together Results from Multiple Databases through the DiscoveryGate Platform. Fall 2009, Washington