Friday, December 19, 2014

A Chemjobber holiday tradition

A new edition for a new year. Print out and send to your family -- it works!

A neat ozone+UV paper pointed out by See Arr Oh

Check out this really interesting Science paper highlighted by See Arr Oh, one where the authors transform cyclohexane to adipic acid (among other transformations) using ozone and 300 nm UV light. Obviously, this is a pretty neat method and one that should be highlighted to the broader scientific community.

I think it's obvious to the authors that a batch reactor approach is/would be sufficient for the laboratory, but not for industrial applications to large-scale polymer needs. From the Supporting Information:
In the current photo irradiation process, liquid reactant was gradually converted to solid precipitate. At the late stage of reaction process, a small amount of liquid reactant/intermediates were trapped in the solid precipitate. It is therefore inherently difficult to reach more than 90% conversion. Nevertheless, the problem can be overcome by designing a dynamic flow reactor allowing regular removal of solid precipitated products from the bottom of the reactor when a large scale production of solid adipic acid is concerned.
In my favorite formulation of the moment, "can" is doing a lot of work in that last sentence there. (Presumably, you'd need a ozone flow unit (and those exist), combined with a photoirradiation flow unit -- who knows, it could be done.)

I presume the economics would not work out for adipic acid, but would probably work out for higher-value monomers. Who knows? Either way, definitely a very interesting method -- congrats to the Hwang group. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

What would you ask a former hiring manager?

I'm planning on speaking with M.R. Nelson, the author of the excellent e-book "Navigating the Path to Industry." What questions would you like me to ask? 

Guest post: A comment on the 2014 Employment Outlook issue of C&EN

CJ here -- Frank wrote in with a comment about this year's Employment Outlook issue in C&EN, focusing on Susan Ainsworth's survey of industrial demand. It has been very lightly edited. 

It's the winter season and everyone's busy these days, trying to finish work up before the end of the year and also preparing for the holidays.  Even CJ's been busy this November and December.  While he highlighted a couple interesting articles in the Nov 3rd edition of C&EN, there was a treasure trove of employment-related information in an edition where the cover article was entitled Employment Outlook.  I thought that issue deserved a more attention and have condensed many pages of articles into a shorter (but still lengthy) guest post for CJ.

The cover story is that the job market is starting to look up and that chemists should anticipate slow growth in 2015. However, as the article Pockets of Opportunity (pg 16) highlights, the growth is occurring in niche areas, primarily petrochemical and contract manufacturing areas.  In a September speech Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez indicated that economic relief is coming because "manufacturing in the U.S. is coming back, growing faster than at any point in the last 15 years” (pg 10), a statement that holds given the expansion plans for the chemical industry.  Numerous plants are at various stages of development, including:
  • an ethylene cracker and derivatives and also a possible gas-to-liquid for Sasol in Louisiana (pg 9)
  • an ethane cracker and polyethylene plant for Badlands NGL in North Dakota (pg 14)
  • an ethane cracker and two polyethylene units for Chevron Phillips in Texas (pg 17)
  • an ammonia plant and also a potential methane-to-propylene complex for BASF in Texas (pg 18)
  • two plant expansions for Clariant in Louisville and Texas (pg 18)
  • expansion of a specialty additives facility for Altana in Connecticut (pg 18)
These projects are primarily fueled by the fracking and horizontal drilling to access more shale deposits in the US, and the American Chemistry Council predicts these projects will create 61,000 jobs in the chemical industry over the coming decade (pg 14).  US GDP is expected to grow 2.2% and 3.1% for 2014 and 2015 respectively (3.2 & 2.7% for UK, 0.8 & 1.3% for EU, 7.4 & 7.1% for China, pg 12), including predictions that chemical manufacturing employment will increase 1.1 & 0.2% in 2014 and 2015 (pg 13).  3rd Quarter numbers were favorable across the board, with the titan and large employer Dow outperforming analyst expectations to a 6% profit margin and DuPont meeting expectations with a 6.4% profit margin (pg 7).

This positive outlook is supported by ACS 2014 data which shows increases in full time employment (91.9%) and decreased unemployment (2.9%).  Furthermore, Jamie Stacy of Kelly Services and Josh Albert of Klein Hersh international, both talent search firms, speak positively of job prospects, since demand for chemists and other scientists in pharma and biotech is "much stronger than it was a year ago" and "hiring in chemistry is really coming back. It's a robust time." (pg 16)  On the UIUC campus two career fairs sold out within hours and more companies are coming to campus to recruit in the fall.

But this picture sounds a bit too rosy to me.  Paul Hodges, chairman of International eChem, fears that the petrochemical sector is suffering from irrational exhuberance, since while capacity might increase the demand for these products is not that high right now (pg 14).  Further, the ACS survey indicates that salaries are stagnant in current dollars, which means they are losing spending power to inflation and therefore decreasing in 'constant dollars.'  If you get down into the specifics, the Employment Outlook seems to still be bleak.
  1. Pharma is estimated to have cut 9,923 jobs for the first three quarters this year. (pg 13)  Allergan plans to cut 1500 employees by the end of this year and Amgen intends to cut 4000 by 2016 (pg 10).  Lily announced back in January plans to cut R&D spending by $1 billion.
  2. GSK has hired 2 dozen chemists worldwide in 2014, which represents "a considerable increase relative to 2013" (pg 16).  This is because "GSK recognizes that chemistry is central to drug development...chemistry will continue to be an area for recruitment."  One needs only to point to the recently announced layoffs of ~900 employees in Research Triangle Park, NC to question their previous statements.
  3. Genentech plans to hire 35 new scientists in biochemistry and chemistry by the end of 2014 (pg 17).  And they have been active on C&EN Jobs and have shown up in the Daily Pump Traps.  However they seem to be asking anyone and everyone to apply so they can choose the best applicants.  "Genentech will be focused on finding M.S.- or Ph.D.-level scientists who are fresh out of school or who have up to eight years of industry experience. The firm will also consider Ph.D.s with postdoctoral experience. Among those recruited will be candidates with expertise in analytical chemistry, discovery chemistry, formulation, process chemistry, and biochemical and cellular pharmacology." (ph 17)
  4. Merck is "currently hiring in areas of strategic interest, across multiple scientific disciplines" and continuing to offer 26 PostDoc research fellowships.  This is after announcing cuts of 8500 and 7500 employees, half of which are expected to come from R&D. 
  5. Chevron Philips plans to hire 50 Chem Engineers worldwide, despite having a desire to support an "aggressive growth strategy as well as replace our retirement-eligible workforce" (pg 17)
  6. Huntsman plans to cut 900 jobs after acquiring another TiO2 producer. 
Cambrex, a contract manufacturing organization who is actively recruiting chemists to meet demand, considers candidates who have a BS in chemistry, extensive experience in a laboratory environment, knowledge of analytical instrumentation, a strong chemistry theory foundation, and a proven ability to handle multiple projects effectively. (pg 17)  Stacey of Kelly Services also sees increased demand for BS-level positions: She sees increased opportunity for chemists in quality-assurance and quality-control roles. “We are also observing a large need for analytical chemists who have varied instrumentation expertise,” she says, adding that B.S.-level chemists are more in demand than those with M.S. or Ph.D. degrees in those roles. (pg 16)
Clearly what we have here is a STEM shortage, not enough BS-level chemists to fill all these positions.  The ACS statistics would seem to disagree, with the unemployment among 2013 graduates with a BS sitting at a recent high of 14.9%.

And Stacey has more interesting things to say about the current job market (again emphasis mine):
Stacey says there’s been strong demand for chemists in the temporary-staffing market, something she does not interpret as bad news (?!?). The emergence of this trend is less a sign of companies’ aversion to hiring full-time employees and more a reflection of a new workplace paradigm, she says. “More employees want to work on their terms and that may mean working as consultants or doing temporary project work for multiple companies. And more companies across many businesses see the value of a workforce they can flex depending on their immediate business needs,” she says. (pg 16)

Maybe it might be just me, but I would rather have a stable full-time job to part-time contracting work.  Certainly people would prefer some work to no work, but please don't pretend that this current employment situation is due to employee preferences and not companies' aversion to hiring full-time employees.

I think the most positive piece of information in the issue, on top of the chemical industry having an all around good third quarter, is that 3M "plans to bring on 2,200 new hires in the U.S. in the next five years with an emphasis on high-growth geographies and on R&D and sales." (pg 18)  I hope their plans come to fruition.

In the end, I think that Martha Moore, senior director for policy analysis and economics for ACC, really hit the nail on the head.  "If you've got the right skills and you’re in the right geographic location, it could be a good opportunity.” (pg 15)  To me it looks like the right skills include engineering and a proclivity for Texas.

Frank, current grad student

CJ here again. Thanks to Frank for his worthwhile thoughts. 

Daily Pump Trap: 12/18/14 edition

A few of this past week's postings on C&EN Jobs: 

Pasadena, TX: I would love, love, love to see the applications that come in for this B.S. QC chemist position for Total's Bayport plant. They're asking for 5 years experience -- how much does that cost in the rather hot Texas chemistry job market? I'd love to know. 

Arlington, VA: This is such a weird B.S./M.S. policy position -- it sure seems like a government thing, but there's no obvious "security clearance needed" marker: 
CRDF Global seeks a highly motivated project manager who can develop and implement complex international projects and who is capable to work in a challenging, fast-paced environment. The ideal candidate will have a strong academic or professional background in international relations or security studies, or chemistry as well as an interest in nonproliferation and chemical security. 
CRDF Global is a collaborative, team based environment; the Project Manager will implement projects in the Chemical Security Program (CSP) and/or on other teams as assigned. CSP establishes cooperative partnerships to raise chemical security awareness among the international scientific community and secure chemicals that may be misused, in support of common nonproliferation objectives. Projects are mostly implemented the Middle East, Turkey and Southeast Asia.
Boston, MA: Biotage looking for a technical sales rep. I'd think you'd be a busy person.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and USAjobs.gov show (respectively) 165, 1199, 6396 and 19 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 553 positions for the job title "chemist", with 29 for "research chemist", 77 for "analytical chemist", 6 for "organic chemist", 7 for "synthetic chemist" and 1 for "medicinal chemist." 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Chemist mystery of the day: Who died in 2013?

Thanks to Twitter chatter about the deadliest occupations, I was looking at the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries and found this interesting tidbit: in 2013, 3 chemists died on the job. Their cause of death is not clear, but it seems to me (from the table) that at least 1 of them died from "violence and other injuries by persons or animals."

Any ideas? 

Book review: Molecules, by Theodore Gray

A page of "Molecules", by Theodore Grey
I am not really one for coffee table books (only recently having owned a coffee table, or a living room to have one in in), but I had the recent opportunity to look at a review copy of "Molecules", by software guru and chemical enthusiast Theodore Gray.

The photos (by Nick Mann) in the book are gorgeous. What is really worthwhile is his uniquely curated different sets of objects that he photographed (each representing a particular molecule or class of molecules). Each picture is accompanied by Gray's observations, which range from fun to whimsical to really insightful. Perhaps I am uninformed about the history of a variety of different molecules (indigo, in particular), but I learned a lot. There's a clever section on controversial molecules ("I Hate That Molecule") which include carbon dioxide, azodicarbonamide and thimerosal.

I do have a very minor "chemistry nerd" complaint about the structures in the book. It is difficult for me to see line drawings in anything other than the standard "ACS 1996" syle. As you can see above, the different atoms are individually labeled, including the hydrogens. Each molecule has a purple blur about it, which is supposed to represent the electrons. (I'm actually looking forward to explaining this to my kids.) This is an extremely picayune point and one that should really be ignored.

The book is listed at $30, so that is pretty pricey (according to this cheapskate), but it is really lovely and would make a nice present for a chemist or in particular, children who like science. I do not know lots of older children, but boys and girls from 3 to 6 have flipped through its pages and found that it entertains for at least 10 minutes at a sitting for multiple sittings. As a parent, that's high praise indeed.

(Next week: a review of the Molecules app.) 

Geopolitical news diversion

Bold predictions:

1. This drop in oil prices won't last. I predict that there will be no Russian bond default in 2015.

2. Anyone want to predict when pharma will start moving manufacturing to Cuba, now that the US will be normalizing relations? 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Anyone heard of paying chemists by the reaction?

The different ways to pay chemists:

1. A yearly salary
2. An hourly wage
3. By project (i.e. deliver X grams by Y time for Z dollars)
4. Subsistence wages, supplemented with food and alcohol (kidding)

Has anyone heard of paying people by the reaction? If so, how did it work out for you? How much did you get paid?

Seems to me that this is a bad deal for any chemist. (How do you determine how you get paid? Do you have to work up the reaction, or just set it up? How many stir plates do you get?) Surely there is some kind of labor law about piecework that might apply to such a scheme.

I haven't heard of this before, so I thought I would ask. Readers, what say you? 

Like the northern white rhino

From the 2nd latest C&EN issue, a Merck ad for positions in Rahway. Rather unusual these days. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

A great article about graphene or, Did I catch The New Yorker in an error?

I am not a graphene expert, but I really liked this John Colapinto article about graphene research in The New Yorker. Also, if you like Rice University's Jim Tour, he gets the full The New Yorker profile treatment. But here's an interesting section on using graphene in 3D printing (emphasis mine):
The group’s members were pondering how to integrate graphene into the objects they print. They might mix the material into plastic or simply print it onto the surface of existing objects. There were still formidable hurdles. The researchers had figured out how to turn graphene into a liquid—no easy task, since the material is severely hydrophobic, which means that it clumps up and clogs the print heads. They needed to first convert graphene to graphene oxide, adding groups of oxygen and hydrogen molecules, but this process negates its electrical properties. So once they printed the object they would have to heat it with a laser. “When you heat it up,” Aby said, “you burn off those groups and reduce it back to graphene.”
As any chemist could tell you, clumping and clogging is not the definition of 'hydrophobic' (although it certainly could be a symptom.)

I'm going to pat myself on the back for seeing an error/misinterpretation that slipped through The New Yorker's famed fact-checking department. 

Best wishes to Carmen Drahl

Also in this week's C&EN, Carmen Drahl writes on the chemistry of holiday tinsel, including the fact that they used to have lead tinsel (good gravy.)

This is just as good as any time to say that Carmen has announced on Twitter that she is resigning her position at the end of the year to become a freelance writer. I'm sad for the C&EN readership -- I will miss her articles. She's had a tremendous positive influence on me over the years and she has shaped the chemistry blogosphere from early on. I have always considered her a bit of a mentor (and she may be surprised to read that.)

My best wishes to her in her future journeys and I sincerely hope that we read her writing again soon. 

This week's C&EN

Back to blogging (and here's to a complete week, he said):

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Bonus Process Wednesday: CSB speculation as to DuPont methanethiol deaths

From CSB chairman Rafael Moure-Eraso's written testimony in front of Congress today, the relevant portion on the November DuPont deaths due to methanethiol exposure: 
...DuPont is certainly no “outlier.” In fact, DuPont has long been regarded as one of industry’s leading lights in safety, and it markets its safety programs to other companies. What happened last month, however, was the fifth release incident at a DuPont facility that the CSB has investigated since 2010, and three of these had associated fatalities. While the CSB investigation remains underway in La Porte, some preliminary facts are already emerging. 
The incident occurred following an unplanned shutdown of the methomyl unit due to inadvertent water dilution of a chemical storage tank several days earlier. Efforts were underway to restart the process, but problems occurred including plugged supply piping leading from the methyl mercaptan storage tank.  
As efforts were underway to troubleshoot these problems, it is likely that methyl mercaptan (and possibly other toxic chemicals) inadvertently entered the interconnected process vent system inside the building. The release occurred through a valve that was opened as part of a routine effort to drain liquid from the vent system in order to relieve pressure inside. We found that this vent system had a history of periodic issues with unwanted liquid build-up, and the valve in question was typically drained directly into the work area inside the building, rather than into a closed system.  
In addition, our investigators have found that the building’s ventilation fans were not in service, and that the company did not effectively implement good safety practices requiring personnel to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) that was present at the facility. Appropriate PPE would include equipment, such as supplied air respirators, for workers performing potentially hazardous tasks inside the building....
Not enough time to do a detailed analysis here, but the fact that MeSH inadvertently entered the vent system seems relevant, as well as the fact that the valve drained into the building. (How can a valve drain? That wording seems odd.) I suspect that the vent system and where it drained was poorly understood and that the amount of MeSH they were dealing with was not understood well, either. 

Well done, Intel

From an ad for a Materials Chemist (synthetically oriented) at Intel Corporation, these requirements (emphasis mine):
Minimum Qualifications:
The candidate must possess a Ph.D. in one of the following disciplines: Chemistry, specifically synthetic inorganic, synthetic organic, or synthetic organometallic chemistry 
Preferred Qualifications:
Strong synthetic background, especially as it relates to the handling of air-sensitive compounds  
Proficiency in using NMR spectroscopy, x-ray crystallography and other analytical techniques such as GC-MS, HPLC, UV-Vis and IR spectroscopy, TGA/DSC.  
History of collaboration with cross-disciplinary academic and/or industrial partners  
Three (3) or more 1st author publications in high-impact chemistry journals (e.g. JACS, Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., Inorganic Chemistry, Adv. Mat., etc.)  
Willingness to apply academic background to semiconductor industry  
Unrestricted right to work in the US without requiring sponsorship.
In one sense, I think this is a silly preference. What if they were a 2nd author? Co-first author? (what a ridiculous designation, incidentally.)

In another sense, if Intel informally has these sorts of guidelines, by all means, I think that they should make them clear.

(Do pharma companies do this? I feel like the answer is "no", but I could be wrong.) 

Daily Pump Trap: 12/11/14 edition

A few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs this week:

Norwell, MA: Battelle looking for a B.S. chemist (4 years experience) for a GLP study director -- looks to be pesticide-related. Posted salary: 60-105k.

Santa Cruz, CA: Another entry in the #cannabischemjobs database. SC Laboratories hiring a M.S/Ph.D. analytical chemist.

Floyd, VA:  Hollingsworth & Vose Company is searching for what seems like a product development scientist with some combination of education and experience that I can't quite figure out.

North Chicago, IL: AbbVie continuing its hiring spree, looking for an experienced fragment-based drug discovery biochemist.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and USAjobs.gov shows (respectively) 165, 1132, 6356 and 17 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 555 positions for the job title "chemist", 76 positions for the search term "analytical chemist", 34 for "research chemist", 6 for "organic chemist", 1 for "medicinal chemist" and 6 for "synthetic chemist." 

A good non-traditional careers story

Anonymous helpfully points out the continuing Fazlul Sarkar saga at Retraction Watch, including the affidavit in support of PubPeer by Dr. John Krueger, a former ORI investigator who stood up their forensic image group and:
My direct expertise in forensic image analysis stems from 20 years of relevant federal work in my second career, starting as one of the original Investigator–Scientists in the Division of Research Investigations (or later the Division of Investigative Oversight), Office of Research Integrity (1993–2013). In this position, I was responsible for the initial assessment of allegations of data falsification and also for the oversight of investigations into allegations of falsification of research. Both tasks involved a heavy commitment to forensic assessment of the evidence, either for the allegations (sometimes made ‘anonymously,’ meaning that ORI had no way to determine the source the allegation) for referral to institutions, or in the evaluation of the resultant institutional findings. This was one of the more interesting ‘silent’ jobs in science, as it provided many new opportunities.
It's quite a good read from both an non-research science job and a forensic analysis position, if you have the time for it.