Friday, May 29, 2015

CD: "My advice is to find the right advisor..."

Our fourth story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "CD." It has been redacted for privacy.
I was an undergrad at [large public university] and [a famous chemist] was scheduled to give a seminar. I managed to get myself on his schedule so that I could try to set myself up to join his group after I graduated. He was great and agreed that he would take me.  
When I joined his group, he assigned me to a project I wasn't so excited about. It was a weird time when he had no postdocs. My first assignment was to synthesize a class of compounds that a senior person on the project had failed to make. As [they were] the only person I could go to for advice, needless to say, my syntheses all failed and I was pretty depressed. In order to talk to my PI, I literally had to make an appointment with [a number of layers of admins] to see him. After finally talking to him, he encouraged me to stay in and even found me opportunities to do more teaching (my passion), but I knew I didn't have the background to figure out the synthesis on my own.  
I left (after successfully passing my 2nd year written and oral exams) and struggled to find a job in industry as a BS chemist. I finally did and was making [consumer product coatings] for a small company when I painfully discovered my allergy to isocyanates.  
I had already begun the process to finish a MS at [another, smaller public university] and switched to their PhD program. My new PI was AWESOME even though he made me take the ACS organic exam before he would accept me. He gave me to a postdoc to work under at first and an easy project to get my feet wet. I graduated in 4 years with 5 pubs, 2 first author, and 3 more in progress. 
I am now an assistant professor at a PUI and didn't do a postdoc. My advice is to find the right advisor and to realize that the right timing is everything.
Thanks to CD for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at

WN: "I earnestly want to do research..."

Our third story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "WN." It has been redacted for privacy.
Leading up to graduate school, I was experiencing signs of clinical depression but decided to continue to pursue the degree regardless.  In my second year, my health was heavily impacting my work. At this time, I had sought help from many healthcare providers so that I could manage the depression and succeed in school. I would receive emails about meetings from my laboratory and for a while I had conflicts due to appointments, which started the questions: "Why do you go to the doctor so often?" I was afraid to share my experience because my adviser had mentioned several times of a previous student, also a female, that was pressured into taking a "medical leave" in hopes that she would not return to the laboratory and finish her degree. 
My symptoms worsened drastically. Knowing that depression was covered within the university as an illness that could qualify for special accommodations, I confronted the chair of our department, who was an understanding and approachable person. I explained that I felt that my adviser had a history of not being understanding towards persons with health issues. The chair was overwhelmingly understanding, commending me for taking action for health purposes, but when the matter was handed to my adviser the results weren't optimal. 
Over the course of the next few months, I had support from my adviser, but slowly I was seeing signs that my decision to shed light on mental health issues backfired. I found that I was being closely scrutinized, my work was put into question with the argument that my "mind wasn't working right" and therefore my results often deemed erroneous. It even went so far that my medications and doctors were topics of conversation in any hopes that I could convince my adviser that I was doing all that I could and I needed some accommodation for trying to deal with major depression. 
Soon, it was time for qualifying exams. When I initially spoke with the chair, I was offered the option to postpone my exam if necessary.  My adviser felt differently gave me two options: take the exam as scheduled or leave the university. We settled on taking a medical leave for a semester. It was also around this time that I was awarded a large fellowship to cover the rest of my degree and I was advised to return the money and leave academia. During this time, I researched all possibilities for switching labs and even switching universities but for some reason I decided to stick it out in my former lab. 
When I returned, it was evident that my adviser's mind was made and regardless of my progress I was still viewed as not competent to work, even though I felt as though I was. I continued to work and was surprised to find that even though I have a full external fellowship for the duration of my doctoral studies, he would not support me in his lab. 
I've teetered for months on taking a master's. I'd be arguably more employable and would probably be much happier. However, I have full funding and I earnestly want to do research. I am unwilling to work excessive hours that sacrifice my ability to see friends and visit with my family. I value having a balanced life. 
Eventually, I found a research area that interested me and a new adviser who is overwhelmingly supportive. I know my degree will take longer, but I think I'll be much happier in the end.
 Thanks to WN for their story. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pope Francis Does Not Have a Master's Degree in Chemistry

Last night on Twitter, a classic conversation was started again: "Who is the most famous living chemist?" Very quickly, it was determined that both Pope Francis and Chancellor Angela Merkel should be considered for the "most famous person to have a chemistry degree" position.

This brought Forbes editor Alex Knapp into the conversation when he said that Pope Francis has a master's degree in chemistry. There was a discussion of the variety of news sources, including a pre-papacy Catholic News Service story from 2005 that likely originated the claim:
  • that as a young man, Jorge Bergoglio earned a master's degree in chemistry
  • from the University of Buenos Aires 
I remember being skeptical of this claim in 2013, but yesterday's conversation had me looking up Pope Francis' current Vatican biography, where the claim is not present (it does note what everyone agrees about - that he has a diploma in chemical technology.) Interestingly, there's a blog about the Shroud of Turin (there's a blog about everything!) with a 2013 post where the author and commenters roundly debate the likelihood that Pope Francis has a M.S. in chemistry. The post also contains quotes from the Pope's Wikipedia talk page showing others with skepticism about these claims. 

I also found it notable that searching through the University of Buenos Aires' English and Spanish language websites is not fruitful. Nor does UBA's English language Wikipedia page list him as a famous alumnus. 

While Googling, I came across a mostly positive New York Times review of a biography of Pope Francis by journalist Austen Ivereigh. This being 2015, I was able to tweet to Dr. Ivereigh the following question: 
Much US media believes Pope Francis to have a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires - is that accurate?
This was Dr. Ivereigh's response (1, 2, 3): 
[H]e completed what would be a kind of diploma in food chemistry, a technical qualification but not a degree. 
and certainly not a Masters.
Between the opinion of a biographer of Pope Francis, that his Vatican biography does not list that degree and that the claimed university does not seem to claim him as an alumnus, it is clear that Pope Francis does not have a master's degree in chemistry from the University of Buenos Aires.

What is the likelihood chemists will be replaced by robots?

TIL about the Petroleum Research Fund

Trolling through the 2014 ACS financial statement, I see that there's a short history of the Petroleum Research Fund, something that I don't quite understand, but seems to be an occasional source of funds for academic work: 
The American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund is an endowment fund established on October 25, 2000 as a result of The Agreement of Transfer of Trust (Agreement) between the Society and Morgan Guaranty Trust Company of New York, approved by the Attorney General for the State of New York, and ordered by the Supreme Court of New York. The Agreement dissolved the Petroleum Research Fund Trust (the Trust) and transferred the assets to the Society to create the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (the Fund), the purpose of which is the same as the Trust. The Agreement made the Society responsible for the management and administration of the Fund in an account separate and apart from any other accounts of the Society. As a result of the transfer, the historic dollar value for the Fund was established at $72,500,000, the value of the securities originally donated in 1944 to create the Trust. This amount must be held inviolate as permanently restricted assets. 
The assets of the Fund consist primarily of domestic equities, foreign equities, fixed-income securities, and hedge funds. Under the terms of the Agreement, annual payouts from the Fund are capped at a maximum spending rate of 5% of the net asset value of the Fund over a rolling three-year average. The Society uses distributions from the Fund to make grants for advanced scientific education and fundamental research in the petroleum field. Grants are expensed when awarded by the Society’s board of directors and accepted by the recipient. All grants awarded by the Fund in 2014 and 2013 were accepted by the grant recipients.
Here's a little more history about the fund, via the ACS. Looks like the fund has somewhere in the $478 million dollar range in "temporarily restricted net assets" and it made somewhere around $19 million dollars in grants in 2014. Curious to know how much that compares to NSF or NIH funds available to chemists. 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/28/15 edition

Good morning! A look through a few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs:

North Chicago, IL: AbbVie continues its hiring spree with a M.S./Ph.D. analytical chemistry position. (6-12 years of experience.)

Natick, MA: Sigma-Aldrich looking to hire two M.S./Ph.D. organic chemists.

Sparks, GA: BASF is looking for a site chemist. (Never heard of such a position!)

East Bay Area, CA:  Hexcel Corporation desires a B.S. chemist to work on polymers for the aerospace industry.

"Central New Jersey": Orthobond Corporation is looking for a director of chemistry; M.S./Ph.D. in chemistry or material science desired, "fluency in English" a must.

Ahhh, you again: Organix is looking for folks, but this time, they're not calling it a postdoc. 6 month contract position - interesting.

Dubuque, IA: Packers Chemical appears to be a cleaning products formulating company - they're looking for a chemist.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) "1000+", 1293, 10,074 and 24 positions for the search term "chemist." Interestingly, Indeed's number of chemistry jobs has jumped significantly from ~6000. I don't think that's a sign of market change as much as it is a sign of better search algorithms. LinkedIn shows 683 positions for the job title "chemist", "98" for "analytical chemist", 35 for "research chemist", 7 for "organic chemist", 6 for "polymer chemist", 5 for "medicinal chemist" and 3 for "synthetic chemist." 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The most enjoyable hour you will spend today

This oral history interview between Cornell professors Dave Collum and Bruce Ganem is thoroughly enjoyable, if only to hear Professor Collum's litany of metaphors and exclamations.

This reminds me that the ACS newsletter was advertising a similar effort from NIH to record the stories of the people of that organization. 

Rainbow flame incident injures 3 students in Florida

The Tallahassee Democrat's Amanda Curcio reports: 
A chemistry experiment gone wrong injured three Lincoln High School students Friday morning. 
Leon County Emergency Medical Services responded to the call, along with the Tallahassee Fire Department and the Sheriff's Office. Two students were admitted to Tallahassee Memorial Hospital with burns suffered during the incident, and another student was released to parental care. Both hospitalized students are in stable condition, confirmed Chris Petley, spokesman for Leon County Schools. 
A flame test being demonstrated by an experienced teacher during an AP chemistry class resulted in the accident. 
"The teacher is devastated," Principal Allen Burch said. "But she handled everything correctly." 
Burch said that students were wearing protective gear and that the teacher had successfully carried out flame tests in the past. His first concern is the students' recovery.
"As far as next steps – we'll sit down and look at how the flame test was conducted," he added. "We'll see how or if we missed anything." 
A flame test is designed to analyze mineral salts. Flames produced from burning a substance in question emit certain colors, allowing observers to determine the presence of specific elements. Several elements in a type of a common flame test called the rainbow experiment release vivid colors and can be fascinating to watch, especially for students. 
However, a string of disastrous accidents in high school chemistry labs in the U.S. indicates that the experiment – despite education or entertainment value – may not be worth conducting at all, according to national media reports....
Just a little reminder that the American Chemical Society's Committee on Chemical Safety specifically asks teachers to "Stop Using the Rainbow Demonstration."  

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Update on my questions about recent Bruker pricing

I have received a number of responses on my post about Bruker pricing. Sadly, these were all off-the-record, so I cannot provide you with exact numbers. With the exception of one correspondent*, the rest of the comments were about significant (above 10% to well above 10%) price increases for Bruker products during the last year or two.

I don't really have a problem with Bruker using its now-dominant position in the NMR space to extract what it sees as a fair-market price for its products; in the formulation of "The Godfather", after all, I'm not a Communist.

But if they plan on using all means available to increase prices for new NMR products and services, they will prove themselves to be a less-than-friendly member of the chemistry community. It will be interesting to see if other organizations (JEOL? a revived Agilent-as-academic-consortium? (my useful bad idea)) try to compete. I suspect such a competitor would be welcomed.

P.S. Say, what's happening to old Agilent/Varian instruments these days? Bet you anything some NMR guy somewhere is buying them up...

*I did receive a comment about lowered prices from Bruker, but not from an academic.

A status change for analytical chemists?

Also from this week's C&EN, an interesting letter to the editor: 
A Worthwhile Career 
“Seeking Analytical Chemists” is a welcome exposé of how analytical chemistry “used to be known as a service discipline” (C&EN, March 30, page 42). It is heartening to read that at least some companies now consider it to be “an integral part of the development organization.” 
In the past, analytical chemists were treated as servants not only by biased and misinformed R&D managers but also by their colleagues in other disciplines. Analytical chemists often received lower salaries and bonuses; were slower to be promoted; and were not given proper credit for contributions to solving research, product development, commercialization, and patent issues. 
I recall an analytical group supervisor in the 1980s who proudly stated that he would never hire analytical chemists. Some managers in the 1990s even suggested changing the title analytical “research fellow” to “service fellow.” Even today, the title “technical fellow” is sometimes substituted for research fellow to distinguish an analytical chemist from peers in other disciplines. 
During my own long career at DuPont, my emphasis was always on helping to solve my colleagues’ problems; we were all most successful when we worked in a fully cooperative environment. Despite occasional setbacks and disappointments, I thoroughly enjoyed the problem-solving aspect of my career. It was never just a job. A few enlightened managers and cooperative peers made it all worthwhile. 
Anthony Foris
Wilmington, Del.
I had no idea that analytical chemists were treated in a less-than-equal manner long ago; fascinating stuff. Well, good to know that things have changed at least a little.  

This week's C&EN

Inside this week's C&EN:

Last week's C&EN

A bit behind:

Monday, May 25, 2015

Memorial Day; back tomorrow

Fort Rosecrans National Cemetary (credit: KSWB, San Diego)
Today is Memorial Day in the United States; it's a national holiday.

Back tomorrow.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The best idea I've had in a while: instrument user manuals in graphic novel form.

Credit: @badphysics
Surely someone could come up with a great primer on running an Agilent 1100 in comic form. Until then, Peanuts comic strips will do. (comics annotation by @badphysics.)

XA: "I made it through only because I got help...."

Our second story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "XA." It has been redacted for privacy.
The comment about “STEM Propaganda” caught my attention immediately, as I definitely feel I was fed a lot of propaganda in undergrad. For me, graduate school was an almost automatic step because I knew I wanted to teach chemistry at the college level. I felt well prepared because I had done well in undergraduate coursework, although in retrospect my undergraduate research should’ve thrown up red flags (turning an RBF of bromosilane into a literal pyrophoric firebomb was probably the low point). Earning a poor grade—and yes, I earned every bit of that poor grade—in Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab was another red flag. 
I started in graduate school with blinders on, pointed directly at the post labeled “organic synthesis.” I worked my ass off to do well in classes—one story that stands out in my mind is the day I forced myself to memorize something like twenty different aldol methods. “This sucks,” I thought, “but I guess this is just what graduate school is.” I joined the research group of [Very Prominent Professor] who was well known to be extremely demanding. Upon starting research I realized that no, coursework is nothing like what you’re expected to do in the lab. The chasm between coursework and research both seduced and misled me, and I would encourage any young students to look very carefully at the nature of coursework and how (if?!) it promotes research skills. Places like Scripps do this really well; my sense is that most places do it horribly. 
I chugged along in research for a few months at an embarrassingly slow pace, sliding incrementally deeper into depression. Pardon the metaphor, but it felt like the activation energy associated with graduate school was climbing ever higher, and that I was not going to be able to get over the hump. Though I was very passionate about teaching, teaching at the college level just felt out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I walked into [VPP]’s office fully intent on leaving graduate school. Miraculously, in a move that instantly restored my faith in humanity, he compelled me not to leave, but to look for other options within the department. He was literally the catalyst that threw my ass over the hump. 
Ultimately I ended up switching research groups and working on research projects that were much better aligned with my long-term goals than organic synthesis. In my new group, my advisor was upfront about his lack of knowledge about my work, but didn’t aggressively question or put down the work. Some might say I got lucky; however, in retrospect many of the same things that were true in my first research group were also true in my second. I was still basically on my own. 
It took a great deal of maturation for me to come to grips with what graduate school entailed. I tell students regularly that I wish I’d waited a few years to start graduate school. That said, there’s a certain “delusions of grandeur” mindset that comes with being a graduate student in chemistry, and my sense is that most survive, rather than thrive. The system is broken at many universities, and in my experience it boils down to too little focus on developing research skills in coursework. I spent too many years aping my professors and not enough getting comfortable with doing science. I made it through only because (a) I got help from [VPP] and (b) I matured enough to set my own expectations.
Thanks to XA for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at

PF: "I'm glad I stuck it out."

Our first story of staying in chemistry graduate school comes from "PF"; it has been edited for privacy: 
I did my first degree at [Very Prominent UK University], and in those days ([the early 1980s]) [VPUU] was one of the few Universities that did a 4-year Bachelor's course, of which the last year was a research year, culminating in a thesis, which was regarded by other universities as equivalent to a Master's. I had done very badly in my final exams, and was on the borderline between a second and a third class degree on the basis of my exam results (my P-Chem let me down, but I had done well in my Organic and Inorganic exams. Ironic, because I really enjoyed spectroscopy, thermodynamics and quantum chem. Oh well!).  
I realized that I needed to work really hard in my fourth year if I was to have any chance of coming out with a second and going on to do a Ph.D. I was very fortunate in my Research Instructor. He was a new recruit, and keen to make a name for himself at [VPUU]. I got an interesting synthesis project to work on, trying to make the carbon skeleton of [well-known natural product class], and I put as much time in at the lab as I could. I got on well with my supervisor, and he advised me to apply to various universities to do a Ph.D. in Organic synthesis.  
I applied to many universities, and was rejected by all but one ([another UK university],my supervisor's alma mater). I got in there, to work on a project sponsored by [Famous Pharma Company]. I did a summer internship at [FPC], and started work at [UK university] in September [redacted], working on the [project P] until [late 1987.]
Sadly, I became very disillusioned with my Ph.D project, and almost quit. I managed to piss my [FPC] supervisors off so much they withheld my grant money for my last term. My supervisor, a really nice guy who had been very tolerant, told me that in all honesty he couldn't recommend me for a post-doc as I was too unreliable (ie I spent too much time in the pub and not enough in the lab). 
My parents persuaded me to come home and write up my thesis, which took me a year, spending about 4 hrs a day (I was so fed up with the whole thing that was as much as I could manage). At that stage I never wanted to do any research work again, so I decided to do a PGCE (a bit like an education diploma) and tried teaching High School chemistry for a year. I hated that too, so in 1991 I got an entry-level job (for a Ph.D chemist) in the chemical industry at [UK fine chemical company]. 
And the rest is history. I'm glad I stuck it out. But I had certain advantages that many of the people who posted their stories did not. My project was well-defined, if dull. The data I collected on the various substituent and protecting group effects was all valid data, so it went into my (rather short) thesis. My supervisor was very tolerant, and did everything he could to make sure I got my Ph.D. And I worked with a friendly group of people (which was part of the reason I spent so much time in the pub). 
So I guess you could file this under "why I almost quit Grad School but didn't". I'm glad I didn't. My Ph.D. eventually allowed me to get a pretty well-paid job in the US, and allowed my wife and me to enjoy a much higher standard of living than we would have had in the UK.
Thanks to PF for their story. 

Request: "I Stayed in Graduate School in Chemistry"

A while back, Tehshik Yoon complimented the "I Quit Graduate School in Chemistry" pieces, but asked for stories where people indeed stayed in graduate school, they overcame a challenge and it worked out for them.

I am not done posting "I Quit" stories -- I still have four or five to edit and post. But now that @chemtips has gone and written about the series (for which I thank him), I feel duty-bound to invite success stories as Professor Yoon asked for them:
...So I’d really like to hear some success stories as well.  Tell me about times that the system worked: folks who had a hard time in grad school but ended up in good places; mentors who did the right thing by their students; stories of women, minorities, and LGBT students being supported by the field.
So, with that, I am asking for those stories, or any of them that you choose to post. E-mail them to - confidentiality guaranteed. Also, I am posting the first two in that series today. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Daily Pump Trap: 5/21/15 edition

Been a while. Let's look at a few of the positions on C&EN Jobs in the last two weeks or so. 

Newark, DE: I've never heard of Taghleef Industries, but they're looking for an analytical chemist with experience in the polymer industry.

Foster City, CA: A couple of EH&S positions posted by Gilead, too.

Process positions!: One in Seattle (B.S./M.S./Ph.D., looks like), and two at DuPont Crop Protection in Newark, DE.

Rockville, MD: Someday, I'd like to understand what USP does better - anyway, they're looking for some reference standards scientists.

Cambridge, MA: I see that Warp Drive Bio is hiring Ph.D.-level medicinal chemists.

IP land: Steinfl and Bruno (Pasadena, CA) posting their usual position; a couple from the mellifluously-named Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, P.C.

Milton, DE: Dogfish Head looking for a quality manager.

I don't get it: Why would an energetic materials chemist (Virginia Beach, VA) need a biology background?:
Point One USA, LLC is seeking an entry level chemist (Bachelors Degree) or senior level chemistry student (Internship). The ideal candidate will have completed organic chemistry I and II with relevant lab experience. Candidates with a strong biology background will have preference. Candidates must be willing to work with hazardous materials (including energetic materials) under the guidance of an experienced chemist. Job duties will include maintaining chemical and consumable stock, setting up mock laboratories, and assisting Point One employees with chemistry and biology related tasks in addition to any other general tasks. 
- Must have completed at least 3 yrs of college in a relevant field.
- Must be willing to relocate to Virginia Beach.

Job posting: fluorine chemist, Synquest, Gainesville, FL

As my eyes were going to and fro on the Internet, a job posting from one of my long-ago favorite suppliers. Synquest is looking for a fluorine research chemist:
SynQuest Laboratories, Inc. (SQL) has an opening for an entry level fluorine chemist in our research group. The successful candidate will have an advanced degree in fluorine chemistry. The ideal candidate will have experience in the safe handling of toxic and corrosive fluorinating agents (such as F2, HF and SF4) and familiarity with autoclaves and high pressure equipment. A passion for organofluorine chemistry is a must, as is the ability to independently plan, troubleshoot and successfully execute efficient synthetic routes to target compounds in a timely manner.
Best wishes to those interested.