Chemistry By Design

Dec. 19, 2011

Thanks to Jon Njardarson, Ph.D., associate professor in the department chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Arizona, organic chemistry students now have a new learning tool in their back pocket. Literally.

In the summer of 2011, Njardarson, in collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Office of Instructional Assessment, released a new website, along with apps for iPods, iPhones, iPads and Androids: Chemistry By Design. On the surface, the website and apps provide a relatively straightforward database of natural and pharmaceutical compounds.

But unlike similar databases, Njardarson’s formulation of the data includes a number of innovative educational features that are taking both student and professional uses of the technology to new levels. Unlike other archives, his presentation is interactive, allowing users to walk through the building of each molecule, one step at a time. Then, users can take quizzes to test their understanding of each sequence and every point along the process.

Cutting Edge Chemistry, For Free

Njardarson had the idea for Chemistry By Design four years ago when he was teaching at Cornell University, but it was Betsy Eigenberg – his wife and an artist in her own right – who came up with the name. At that time, he was unable to gather the support needed for such an undertaking. He wanted to design and build a comprehensive archive of the most well-known pharmaceutical compounds that would then continue to grow based on community contributions. He felt the world needed a tool that would be useful as a study aid for students, as well as a reference for professionals.

And he wanted to give it all away for free. It was a grand vision and an ambitious scope of work.

“I couldn’t find a team who was willing to help,” he remembers. “But when I came here and started asking around, I heard about the Office of Instructional Assessment (OIA), which is a very unique service for a university to provide.”

Initially, Njardarson started working with Stuart Glogoff, senior learning technologies consultant at OIA, in February 2011. Njardarson came in with his mockup in PowerPoint, a clear vision, and a solid understanding of the potential educational impact and value of his idea.

“But I didn’t know anything about the programming,” he says. “I told him (Stuart) I was willing to meet a gazillion times, that I would fully commit, and I said, ‘Are you interested?’”

OIA was immediately intrigued.

“We saw the potential for Jon’s project to help UA students test their synthetic skills using a web-based, interactive application,” says Glogoff. “At the time, we were also looking for the right project to become our first mobile app and Jon’s project was the perfect fit.”

Once Glogoff and programmer Gary Carstensen were all aboard, the team dove into development. They met for one-and-a-half hours every week, and OIA dedicated a half-time employee to the job for the four full months it took to complete development.

“It was a joy to work with them,” says Njardarson. “They understood the vision, made contributions to the dialogue, and the original idea got better. They felt ownership of it that gave me great joy.”

The collaborative good vibes are mutual according to Glogoff. “He came with a vision of what he wanted and was very open to ideas on how to proceed.  Jon is extremely enthusiastic and his enthusiasm rubbed off on all of us.”

The website and the online application were launched at the end of June 2011. Within the first week, the app had been downloaded thousands of times. Six short months later, the Chemistry By Design website has received over 75,000 visits.

Further building on Njardarson’s vision, the archive, which started with 200 sequences of compounds, has grown to over 280 with those community contributions that were central to the original concept.

The Art of the Organic Molecule

An essential element of what makes Chemistry By Design so successful is evident in its name; the information design is elegant, simple and enjoyable.

“One of my passions is design and architecture in general,” says Njardarson, “so this satisfies that creativity.”

In the creation of Chemistry by Design, Njardarson has taken enormous amounts of time to make sure the design – the art – of the presentation is spot-on. In his childhood home growing up in Iceland, his father was an architect, and his parents collected art from the time he was a small child.

“We visited artists and studios all the time in Iceland,” he says. “It was amazing.”

While he chose the path of a scientist, a large part of his motivation comes from this artistic perspective.

“I’m enamored by creativity in any field. Anyone who goes in a new direction. Creativity in any shape or form is why I do what I do. It’s like an addiction. A good addiction.”

Ultimately, Njardarson dreams of transforming the concepts of organic chemistry into mainstream art.

“My ideal would be to have an art installation that will use these ideas. I would like to fill a whole room with lights and artwork and sculptures and call it something interesting and have a conversation about it,” he says with an unwavering focus on exploring new ways to inspire and educate.

“I don’t like to follow the traveled road. I think we need to find new ways of educating and connecting and bringing information forward.”

Visit Jon Njardarson’s research group in the department of chemistry and biochemistry.

Check out Chemistry By Design.