Head moderator of Reddit’s science community says chemists need to be more active online

A picture of Nathan Allen, moderator of Reddit’s science community.

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Now Allen, 42, is one of the most powerful science communicators in the U.S. as head moderator of Reddit’s science community, called the science subreddit(www.reddit.com/r/science). The science subreddit has almost 18 million subscribers and is growing by the equivalent of the Chicago Tribune’s print circulation—about 500,000—every month.

By day, Allen is a synthetic organic chemist at MilliporeSigma in Milwaukee, where he lives with his wife and two daughters, two and five years old. Leading the science subreddit is a volunteer position he does on the side.

And Allen keeps doing it because he feels passionately that more scientists—especially chemists—should be making sure science is fairly represented on the internet and in the larger world.

Meet your new lab assistant

A chemist in a lab asks Alexa, "Alexa, ask Helix for the boiling point of benzene," and Alexa responds, "80.1 degrees Celsius." Another person asks, "Alexa, when will I finish my Ph.D.?"

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Imagine working on a multistep reaction that requires you to add reagents in a specific sequence and with precise timing. Standing at the hood, reagents measured and ready to go, you begin the carefully orchestrated procedure, when suddenly your mind draws a blank. Which reagent do you add next?

You could take off your gloves and look up the protocol in your lab notebook, but with each precious second that passes, the reaction is more likely to fail. Then you remember your lab assistant—a black cylinder sitting on a shelf across the lab. “Alexa, ask Helix for the protocol for the coupling reaction,” you say. A ring on top of the cylinder glows blue as Alexa rattles off the correct order of addition. Crisis averted.