Interview with David Evans

Behind-the-scenes conversation with a new CINF Awards Chair David Evans

In this bulletin we continue the “Meet your new CINF functionary” series of interviews. David Evans took over the helm of the CINF Awards Committee from Andrea Twiss-Brooks in January 2016. Mindful of the confidential nature of the committee work, Dr. Evans has graciously agreed to discuss his passion for giving professional prizes as well as his leadership of the Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry program and chairmanship of the InChI Trust.

David EvansBio: Dr. David Evans is a Scientific Affairs Director for RELX Intellectual Properties SA. He has been with RELX Group (parent company of Elsevier) in a variety of roles, including journals and books publishing, and software product management, for over 15 years. Dr. Evans has led Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry efforts since the program’s inception in 2009. His previous work experience includes positions as Executive Publisher at Elsevier (2004–2009), Senior Product Manager at MDL Information Systems, Inc. (1999–2004), Applications Scientist at Oxford Molecular Group (1998–1999), and a Research Fellow at New York University (1996–1998). David Evans has earned BSc and PhD degrees in chemistry at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom.

Svetlana Korolev: Greetings David! Let’s begin our conversation with an overview of your career path. When did you first realize you have an interest in chemistry? Have you considered specializing in other professions? Who or what influenced your transition to the field of scientific publishing?

David Evans: From an early age I have been (and remain) fascinated by how things work. I remember successfully pulling several radios apart as a child and then rather unsuccessfully trying to put them back together again afterwards. At school I was good at and enjoyed science and mathematics, and, despite occasional diversions into the arts, I have remained true to that calling. What pushed me into a chemistry degree was the passion, energy, and eloquence of my chemistry teachers when I was at school. One thing that motivates me today is communicating about science and chemistry. I am very lucky even today to be surrounded by people who have a passion and desire to learn to explore and to communicate about science.

I started out after my post-doc working for a contract research organization. After a short stint there I moved to MDL. The company had been recently purchased by Elsevier. After about five years with MDL in San Leandro, CA, I moved to Elsevier’s headquarters in Amsterdam for a publishing role managing the toxicology portfolio. Then after time in Amsterdam, New York, and Paris for Elsevier, I moved to Switzerland for RELX.

SK: You have been with RELX Group for over 15 years. How has your job evolved in that time? Can you describe the main activities of the “Scientific Affairs Director”? Which scientific, technical, and medical solutions do you oversee? Can you share with us more details about the Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry program and its team?

DE: I have been very lucky to be a part of RELX Group (the new name for Reed Elsevier). The business transformation in that time has been extraordinary (not a surprise for members of the ACS Division of Chemical Information) with the changes from predominantly print and advertising to predominantly digital products. In the future, I think, we will see even more changes as RELX Group continues to develop information-based analytics and decision-support tools. It is an exciting time and area to be involved with.

My role is a combination of communication, awareness, networking, and engagement. I work across a number of areas mostly in the life sciences. Product teams I work closely with are Reaxys, PharmaPendium, and Embase. I also work with other groups within Elsevier and other RELX Group companies.

The Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry program has three main aspects: 1) the Reaxys PhD Prize, 2) the Reaxys Prize Club, and 3) the Reaxys Advisory Board. The prize is intended to celebrate some of the very best chemistry being performed around the world by some of today’s brightest young chemists. We wanted to create something that was aimed squarely at those folks who are the future of science and of the world! The Prize Club is a networking alumni club for finalists and winners of the Reaxys PhD Prize. Finally, the Reaxys Advisory Board provides the Reaxys team with insights and advice on future directions.

The Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry program is one piece of the action here. There is a lot more that goes on besides. There are a bunch of really great people here who all make this a great place to work and live. I am very lucky to work with Anna, Coralie, Fabian, Fred, Ingrid, Ivana, Laure, and Robert, who are all part of the RELX team here in Switzerland. Some people who are involved in the program and known to the readers of this bulletin are: Pieder Caduff, Thibault Géoui, Tim Hoctor, and, of course, Jürgen Swienty-Busch.

SK: The name “Reaxys Inspiring Chemistry” sounds fascinating. May I ask you here a personal question of who or what inspires David Evans in life?

DE: When we were creating the program we liked the nuance the word “inspiring” had in that phrase. Who inspires me? Well gosh, a difficult question! I take inspiration from many different places. I said that I am passionate about how we communicate our science and the role science plays in our current and future lives. Not communicating properly does our science a disservice. There is an art to storytelling, I am blown away by those people who can capture an audience holding their rapt attention while they talk, those who can transform your mind through a single written phrase. They inspire me to go for it again every day. For example, the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals are “a call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity”. Science, and chemistry in its many forms, will be key to the future of our planet and us on it. We need great scientists and we need great communicators to secure our future.

SK: In collaboration with Alexander Lawson, Jürgen Swienty-Busch, and Thibult Géoui, you wrote a chapter “The Making of Reaxys - Towards Unobstructed Access to Relevant Chemistry” (http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/bk-2014-1164.ch008) for the 2014 ACS CINF symposium series book “The Future of the History of Chemical Information”. The chapter described the history leading to the launch of Reaxys in 2009 with its subsequent development until 2014 concluding the steps for better text-based searches by additional indexing supported by a chemical dictionary and searchable structures, enabling natural language query, integrating of the Reaxys repository into commercially available electronic lab notebooks, and linking to other information products (Scopus, ScienceDirect, PubChem, and eMolecules). Can you highlight some of the recent developments of Reaxys since 2014? What are the evolving steps looking forward to 2017?

DE: Reaxys is evolving all the time. There is an amazing group of people in the product team in Frankfurt. I guess Jürgen Swienty-Busch is the best known in the Division of Chemical Information, but there are a number of other people who all make this happen. A lot has happened since we wrote that chapter. We regularly perform “market research” studies, where we attempt to understand how people go about searching for information. Across all types of chemistry, about 70% of a researcher’s searches are text-based and 30% are structure-based. We also know that generic search engines (Google) are the first place people go. This kind of information is helping us decide which critical new features to include in Reaxys. The “Ask Reaxys” query box is an example, which involved an awful amount of work that has gone on in the background and the backend to structuring the data, ReaxysTree, understanding the query correctly, and then, of course, to returning the results—all in order to make the answers you get from “Ask Reaxys” meaningful. We are continuing to add experimental procedures from articles to enable users to see the “cooking instructions” when they see their results.

We’re also developing the medicinal chemistry features of Reaxys. I think the new data we’ve collected are outstanding, and the “heat map” capabilities really enable users to see their search results and to quickly find the answers they need.

I could go on (and on and on and on) but …well, there a great deal of work is going on for the future developments. One thing that I hope people are aware of is the work on the new Reaxys user interface. We’ve been working with a number of development partners on creating something that is really special. Over the past few months we’ve been in beta-testing, and (even though I say it) it is looking really nice and very special. I can’t wait for the release and to be able to show it off!

SK: Let’s move along from the evolution of Reaxys to the Reaxys PhD Prize, which has been awarded to the three most original and innovative researchers every year since 2010. There was a recent announcement of the ten shortlisted candidates for oral presentations at the 2016 Reaxys PhD Prize Symposium to be held on September 22-23, in London, U.K. All 45 finalists are invited to join the Reaxys PhD Prize Club. Can you reveal more information about the Club, its benefits, the communication channels of its network, and the symposium? Was it possible to observe an influence of the Reaxys PhD Prize on the careers of the “rising chemistry stars”?

DE: We wanted the Prize to be special. It has become acknowledged as the premier chemistry prize for PhD students, and we work hard to maintain and develop it. We imagined the Club back in 2009 when we launched a call for the Prize for 2010, the year of the first finalists and winners. We thought back then that inviting the finalists to join an alumni club for the Prize would be a great way for them to keep in touch with their fellow finalists and also to grow a network with finalists from other Prize years over time. We felt that networking and knowledge-sharing was something that we could offer to young scientists as they start their careers. We’ve set up a dedicated Internet site, which enables the Club members to find contact details for each other. We’ve set up groups on Facebook and LinkedIn too. In addition to providing travel bursaries for conferences, we’ve also supported travel amongst Club members to learn new chemistry and techniques in a couple of instances. We really want to help them to build a network and communicate with each other.

The symposium is the culmination of each year’s Prize. It is a special time for the finalists to come together and meet each other for the first time, meet members of the Reaxys Advisory Board, and usually a few members of the Club. It is always a harrowing time for me and the folks on the organizing team: we are running around making sure it all flows smoothly (or at least appears to!). We’ve been to some great places: from Nuremberg (Germany) to Bangkok (Thailand), to Philadelphia (USA), Grindelwald (Switzerland), Hong Kong, and this year to London, where we are being hosted by New Scientist Live (the U.K.’s biggest festival of science, technology, ideas, and discovery). It should be a great experience. And next year? Well, I know but I can’t say just yet …

We now have 315 Club members going back to 2010. We try to keep in contact and to know where people are and how their careers have evolved. We have over 60 people who are now in their first independent research positions in academia and close to 80 people who are in industrial research. And, of course, we have a number of people finishing their PhD work and in post-doc positions. I hope that the recognition of being a finalist or a winner of the Reaxys PhD Prize is something that helps people to stand out of the crowd!

SK: David, let’s make a connection from your leadership expertise with the Reaxys PhD Prize to becoming a chair of the CINF Awards Committee in 2016. How come this committee attracted you? Please highlight some non-confidential aspects of the CINF awards and scholarships. CINF has had some irregular success for the Herman Skolnik Award announcements to be published in Chemical & Engineering News. Is there a cost or other obstacle for a division to move up its prestigious award to the ACS national level of recognition? Who is the 2017 winner of the Herman Skolnik Award?

DE: I was invited to join the Awards Committee by one of the former chairs, Phil McHale. Phil had been my boss at MDL, and it was difficult to refuse when he asked! I thought that working on the Awards Committee would be a good way for me to contribute something back towards the Division of Chemical Information. After Phil, Andrea Twiss-Brooks become the chair, and then she twisted my arm into becoming chair. I must admit that I now know that she and Phil made the job of being chair seem effortless, and it is not! I am doing my best to live up to expectations. I am very lucky to have people on the committee who are doing an excellent job, and really ensure that the work of the committee gets done. We meet at every ACS national meeting, on the Saturday afternoon, immediately prior to the CINF Executive Committee meeting. We make decisions on the various Division awards like the Lucille M. Wert Scholarship and Val Metanomski Meritorious Service Award. The Herman Skolnik Award is handled differently as it is judged by a jury made up of the Awards Committee Chair, CINF Division Chair, and Division Chair-Elect.

I must admit I am still working on how best to promote or pitch the Herman Skolnik Awards to Chemical & Engineering News. I’d be happy for any thoughts and ideas from readers!

Am I allowed to announce the 2017 Skolnik Winner? I guess I am as there should be an announcement somewhere else in this bulletin. The 2017 recipient is Prof. Dave Winkler from CSIRO, in Australia, for his seminal contributions to chemical information in the development of optimally sparse, robust machine learning methods for QSAR, and in leading the application of cheminformatics methods to biomaterials, nanomaterials, and regenerative medicine.

SK: In addition to your involvement in recognizing excellence of division members and supporting students, you have been steadily contributing to the CINF technical program over many years. At the Fall 2015 ACS National Meeting you collaborated with Wendy Warr for organizing a full-day CINF symposium “Retrosynthesis, Synthesis Planning, Reaction Prediction: When Will Computers Meet the Needs of the Synthetic Chemist?” and then wrote a summary of it (http://bulletin.acscinf.org/node/812) for the Chemical Information Bulletin. Reviewing your presentations1 one may notice that the recent titles imply a sense of direction like in “navigating the sea of scientific information,” “from publishing to recognition,” “moving the standard ever onwards,” “digital transformation: the long and winding road,” “bridging worlds,” “from searching to finding,” “enabling information workflow”. Can you comment on such commonality and a scope of your presentations overall?

DE: I grew up watching Star Trek. It seemed so natural how Kirk et al. could ask the computer a question, and the answer was immediately forthcoming. Sandy Lawson in his Skolnik Award lecture described some of his ideas for an intelligent search (maybe support) assistant. Where is it not just you asking for answers, but the assistant actually knows what is going on, so maybe some analytical results have come in overnight and, based upon the calculated results, something is wrong. Your assistant is able to provide you with some background information, compare the results with others, and assist you to sort out what is going on!

We are a long way from being there, but I hope we’re getting there. A theme that runs through these and other presentations is all the hard work that goes into making that vision a reality. There is an awful lot of hard work that has, and continues to go into understanding customer’s needs, understanding data and its structure, understanding technology (and its limitations), and then there are some really clever people who are working to pull all of this together and make the magic happen.

SK: Let’s continue our conversation about your presentations with a focus on “moving the standard ever onwards” devoted to the InChI, the IUPAC International Chemical Identifier, and the InChI Trust, a U.K.-based charity founded in 2009 in support of the standard’s continued development. You are the current Chairman (2012-2017) elected to the Board of Directors (2010-2017) of the InChI Trust. The ACS Division of Chemical Information became a (non-paying dues) supporter of the InChI Trust promptly after the trust’s establishment and has organized several symposia at ACS national meetings with several reports in the Chemical Information Bulletin written by Keith Taylor (Winter 2015), Carmen Nitsche (Winter 2014; Winter 2011), and Alex Tropsha and Antony Williams (Summer 2012). Can I ask you the same question as in the title of Carmen’s report “What’s Up InChI?” Please discuss some features of the current InChI projects. What are the main activities conducted by the Board of Directors? How do supporting organizations, including yours, help in moving the InChI standard forward?

DE: The InChI Trust was set up in order to provide support for the ongoing maintenance and development of the InChI algorithm. In conjunction with IUPAC, we are also involved in extending the definition of the standard. The Board of Directors oversees the work of the Trust and we try to step in and ensure that things are moving ahead continually. The Trust is supported by some of the largest chemistry publishers, and some of the world’s largest government research institutions, as well as by an amazing group of associate members and supporters: it really is a great group of people to be part of. The InChI is a crucial part of “Internet plumbing” and it is our duty to ensure that it is fit for purpose, helping link together chemistry information all around the Internet world.

There is a lot going on at the moment. The IUPAC working groups are defining InChI standards for large molecules, mixtures, some aspects of complex coordination chemistry and organometallics. There is a group working on creating QR codes for InChIs: you can imagine how this and the mixtures group can really help make a difference in lab safety, where easy retrieval is vital.

A shameless plug here…next year immediately before the Fall ACS National Meeting in Washington, D.C., there will be a three-day meeting focusing on the future directions for the InChI. The NIH is graciously hosting us. Evan Bolton, Steve Heller, and Alan McNaught are developing the agenda and themes as we speak. So, if anyone has any ideas or wants to get involved please let me, Evan, Steve, or Alan know!

SK: Going a few years back in time, you co-authored a CINF talk titled “Beyond the Journal: Innovation in 21st Century Publishing” presented by Martin Tanke at the 2011 Herman Skolnik Award Symposium honoring Alexander Lawson. (A symposium report by Wendy Warr is at: http://bulletin.acscinf.org/node/256/.) Are you currently involved in journal publishing at any part? Can you point to some of the prominent technological advances for “smarter content” and added-value functionality links with Reaxys, or other enhancements at the article level in the last five years?

DE: I still regularly work with my colleagues in Elsevier’s journals publishing group, but I am not directly involved in publishing. I think over the last few years we’ve all seen some leaps and bounds in terms of what we can read and do online with journal articles. Some of the molecular viewers, and some of the interlinking between articles and other resources (including Reaxys) are creating a new environment for the reader. There is a great deal of work going on behind the scenes at Elsevier in the areas of smarter content and content enrichment, some of which I and others have spoken about at ACS national meetings. This work to enhance the reader journey is happening not only in the chemistry arena, but also across all of STM. And, of course, Elsevier is not alone in this regard. I think all publishers realize that enabling readers to find more relevant information is crucial. Here is also where initiatives like the InChI, and the work of the InChI Trust and IUPAC, are so important by providing standards.

SK: David, let me conclude our conversation on a personal note. You have lived in many countries: the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Switzerland, and travelled around the world. Are there any favorite places you liked living? Please tell us something about yourself beyond your professional life. Do you have hobbies?

DE: Wow. I am lucky that my job enables me to travel around the world. I get to visit some great places and to meet some great people. I always try to live where I live. I’ve lived in New York, Amsterdam, and Paris, and now I live in a small village in Switzerland. I loved those cities and the city life, but now I live in the countryside, and I love living here. I try to do all the things one can do here and now.

About four years ago my wife and I put all hobbies on hold, and started a new project. The project codename is William. It has pretty much taken over our lives. The project provides us with a sense of purpose, and an awful lot of headaches, but a lot of happiness and joy. We recently released William 4.0 into the local environment, enabling interactions with some other local projects. So far it seems to be going OK.

In addition to school, our son enjoys taking us to the local lake for swimming and ice-cream, cycling around the countryside, and running and running and running. Last winter, we put him on skis for the first time. It is now early September and he is asking when we can go to mountains to ski! I guess you get the idea, we are two very proud parents, who have a wonderful little boy!

SK: Thank you for your great sense of humor and time for this interview. What would be your final words of advice for young scientists wishing to explore alternative careers in chemistry like yours?

DE: Go for it! Science has so many different aspects to it. Take all the opportunities you can, explore many different paths until you find what makes you tick! Don’t be afraid to go for it.

David Evans’s presentations at recent ACS national meetings:

  1. Navigating the sea of scientific information. David Evans, Pieder Caduff, Thibault Géoui, Jürgen Swienty-Busch. 144-CINF, spring 2015. Slides http://bulletin.acscinf.org/PDFs/251nm/2016_spring_CINF_144.pdf
  2. From publishing to recognition - indexing literature for natural products. David Evans, Pieder Caduff, Jürgen Swienty-Busch. 2-CINF, fall 2014.
  3. Moving the standard ever onwards: The role of the InChI Trust in supporting and developing the InChI. David Evans. 31-CINF, fall 2014.
  4. Digital transformation - the long and winding road. David Evans, Pieder Caduff, Jürgen Swienty-Busch. 90-CINF, fall 2014.
  5. Bridging worlds: Speaking multiple scientific languages. Jessica Peterson, Pieder Caduff, David Evans, Jürgen Swienty-Busch.1-CINF, spring 2014.
  6. From searching to finding: New developments for managing large data sets. Jürgen Swienty-Busch, David Evans. 67-CINF, spring 2014.
  7. Enabling the translational medicine and drug discovery information workflow. David Evans, Timothy Hoctor, Jacqui Mason, Pieder Caduff. 61-CINF, fall 2013.
  8. Reaxys as an information resource for food chemistry. David Evans, Jürgen Swienty-Busch. 49-CINF, spring 2013.
  9. Chemical science that underpins the Reaxys database. Jürgen Swienty-Busch, Pieder Caduff, David Evans. 92-CINF, spring 2013.
  10. Helping you make the right choices for your next synthetic route! Jürgen Swienty-Busch, David Evans. 92-CINF, spring 2012.
  11. InChI here, InChI there, InChIs everywhere. Jürgen Swienty-Busch, David Evans.105-CINF, spring 2012.
  12. Useful and fun chemistry on the go. David Evans, Pieder Caduff. 14-CINF, fall 2011.
  13. Beyond the journal: Innovation in 21st century publishing. Martin Tanke, Rafael Sidi, David Evans, Philippe Terheggen. 22-CINF, fall 2011.