The MolSSI & the MERCURY Consortium

This year, the MolSSI will be hosting a pre-conference workshop at the 2018 MERCURY Conference, an annual meeting held by the MERCURY Consortium.  MERCURY– Molecular Education and Research Consortium in Undergraduate computational chemistRY–is an NSF-funded consortium of 27 computational chemistry faculty from 25 primarily undergraduate institutions across the US. It began in 2001 as a strategy to pool resources in order to increase computing power, create a space for collaboration, and to increase visibility of participants’ works.

The MERCURY Consortium was started with the intent “to share access to state-of-the art computational power and numerous opportunities for student and faculty collaboration, mentoring and cross-fertilization.” It hoped, in other words, to create a community. And their results demonstrate that working as a community produces better outcomes: 1.7 papers per faculty/year, which is “3.4 times the rate of physical science faculty at undergraduate institutions.” Likewise, the number of publications made by their investigators has steadily increased per year, and “the number of external grant awards received by the faculty more than tripled” in the consortium’s first four years alone.

This isn’t simply due to increased resources (although the growing pool of communal tools & resources is certainly a part); hosting annual meetings is one of the highlights of the consortium’s work because it provides a space for students & faculty to socialize. “Students and faculty benefit intellectually and socially from engaging in detailed scientific discussions with others,”  the Consortium explains. “The ability to discuss science with others passionately engaged in the same subfield is a rare opportunity for an undergraduate.” Fostering an intentional space for collaboration, open to anyone–any student or faculty member from any undergraduate institution is welcome–creates the sort of community we at the MolSSI hope to emulate as well. Intentional space for collaboration, discussion, and ideating produces more science and better science.

One of the ways in which MERCURY is a powerful and important organization in our community is its intention to include and elevate underrepresented populations. Women, people of color, and people with disabilities have been, historically, underrepresented in the STEM fields. In response, the NSF has created programs specifically for the advancement of women, people of color, and people with disabilities within the field. The MERCURY Consortium is one such program. MERCURY has high success rates for recruiting and retaining underrepresented students. As their statistics demonstrate, 75% of the students they’ve worked with since their start have been female & minority students, and approximately 2/3rds of their students who went on to graduate school in STEM fields were female and/or minority.

This is an intentional effort, made by MERCURY, to create space for underrepresented groups in the field. Instead of assuming there will be a place at the table for everyone, they ensure there will be. Approaching diversity as an intentional and necessary component of the community sets a precedent for inclusion in the future, and demonstrates how our work can be made so much better when all voices are included in the conversation.  

Our part of the MERCURY Conference is a two-day coding workshop during which students learn basics of running and analyzing molecular dynamics simulations, Python, Jupyter notebooks, using GitHub as a software repository, modifying software packages, and submitting modifications to the GitHub repository. The instructors are Aurelia Ball, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Skidmore College, Paul Nerenberg, Assistant Professor of Physics and Biology at Cal State LA, and Theresa Windus, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry at Iowa State University. This workshop leads beginners through the entire process of creation, use, and archiving with the intent of their software being accessible for others to draw from.

That our workshop is for beginning coders is exceptionally important. As education is a main pillar of our mission and values, we strive to provide access and opportunity across the spectrum of academics and scientists, from novice undergraduate computational chemists to seasoned researchers. Further, it gives us the unique opportunity of effecting cultural change at a foundational level. We hope to weave the importance of community and collaboration into the foundation of our educational practices, in order to shift the culture towards cooperation as these young scientists continue influencing the field.

We’re honored to align ourselves with The MERCURY Consortium, as an organization with similar goals. By working together to develop a community of computational chemists eager for cooperation, education, and diversity in the field, we can both become stronger & better institutes.