Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Two interesting tidbits from a Vanity Fair article on Ebola

This long article in Vanity Fair about the Ebola outbreak that started in Guinea was quite good. I noticed two interesting factlets that I did not know: 
M.S.F. also needed to get blood samples to a lab capable of testing for Ebola and other exotic pathogens. To that end, a charter plane was dispatched from Conakry to an airstrip outside Guéckédou. Blood samples with suspected Ebola virus are categorized for transport by a special code, UN 2814, indicating “infectious substances, affecting humans,” and M.S.F. hired a specialty logistics operator to send the samples, which were packed according to a strict protocol, with three layers of protective and absorbent material. Then—because it was simply the fastest way—the samples from Guéckédou were loaded onto the daily Air France red-eye from Conakry to Paris.
UN 2814 -- that's a good one to look out for while you're driving down the highway. Also, advertisements for disinfectants:
On April 4, passengers on the Air France flight from Conakry were quarantined when the plane landed at Charles de Gaulle Airport, in Paris, and not allowed to leave until each was checked for fever, all because someone had gotten sick in the lavatory. Emirates airline had stopped flying to Guinea. Mining companies had pulled out their foreign staff. In the capital, radio stations were broadcasting ads for the best brands of chlorine, to protect yourself from Ebola, and Batchyli saw an article about “rebels dressed in yellow who attacked Guinea and then disappeared”—the interpretation of a local journalist trying to make sense of all the people in big yellow protective suits who had suddenly descended on the country.
I'm going to guess that chlorine is chlorine and that Ebola is pretty non-resistant to all brands, but tell that to someone who's living in the middle of that. Yikes.  

Your NSFW typo of the day

Thanks to @fxcoudert, who notes that there is more than one way to spell Hartree-Fock.

Warning Letter of the Week: bare hands!

I have a sense that FDA is stepping up its monitoring of pharmacies after the Massachusetts debacle. Here's a recent warning letter that's a bit disturbing: 
In addition, the investigators observed serious deficiencies in your practices for producing sterile drug products, which put patients at risk.  For example, our inspection found your facility was not physically designed and environmentally controlled to minimize airborne contamination, and the ISO 5 hood was located in an unclassified area. 
This area had no HEPA filters, no air pressure differentials, and the “sterile product compounding room” and the “ante room” were separated by plastic strips that provided no actual “room” separation. Your firm did not adequately monitor and control the microbial and particulate quality of the environment and personnel. Additionally, the flow and handling of materials that were placed in the ISO 5 hood posed an unacceptable contamination hazard. Operators loaded the materials on a tray in the ante-room with bare unsanitized hands and then they carried the tray to an unclassified room.  The outer surfaces of these materials were not disinfected prior to entry into the ISO 5 hood.  Furthermore, there was no hand washing prior to donning gloves or gowning, and the operators touched non-sterile surfaces and proceeded with aseptic manipulations without sanitizing their gloves.  A Form FDA 483 was issued to your firm on March 21, 2014.
You have to wash your hands before donning gloves? Who knew? 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Oooops: NPR's non-research jobs link is dead

What I got when I clicked on NPR's link for Ph.D. work
in "other fields."
NPR's Richard Harris is doing a pretty great series on the difficulties of biomedical researchers. (The second link features an assistant professor-turned-grocer - yikes!) In today's segment, he goes over the travails of biomedical postdoctoral fellows, talking to 3 postdocs, all of which are trying to find tenure-track positions unsuccessfully. And then there's this little paragraph:
There actually are jobs – in industry, consulting, government and other fields. Biomedical postdocs rarely end up unemployed. But many can't pursue their academic dreams, and they are often in their late 30s or even older before they realize that.
The fact that the link that the "other fields" sends you to is dead is a rather delicious irony.

Richard Harris elides a couple of issues in this short paragraph (which is fine -- reporters are pressed for space and they can't cover all aspects of an issue):
  • For biomedical researchers, the number of industrial and governmental research positions is relatively limited and there aren't enough open slots to absorb all the postdocs there are. 
  • While biomedical postdocs rarely end up unemployed, there is no measurement for underemployment, which is a real problem. 
  • Harris alludes to, but does not cover, 1) the massive time to degree issue of biomedical Ph.D.s (7+ years) and then the time period of a couple of postdocs. Let's face it, you can't take over a decade to train for a career, not get that career and not suffer a massive amount of opportunity cost. 
As I have said before (and still believe), the massive quantity of postdoctoral fellows and all the people who leave biomedical research is the negative externality of the current way that we get biomedical science done in this country. Sure wish we could come up with a different system. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

This week's C&EN

Lots going on in this week's issue:

What's wrong with this picture?

Courtesy of Bubba at In The Pipeline, a truly amusing set of bad chemistry structures behind this fake chemistry teacher.

(Surely correcting bad chemistry in Hollywood could be a paying job for someone, right?)

Also, a very perceptive comment from him:

"If you don't watch TV between 6 and 7pm, then you are entirely missing the public face of pharma."

Oh, dear, I'm afraid that's true. 

Morning tidbit: 538 on why STEM is TE

Ben Casselman, an economics writer for 538, Nate Silver's data website, has written "an economic guide to picking a college major". Here's a rather lovely paragraph:
All STEM fields aren’t the same 
Politicians love to tout the importance of science, technology, engineering and math majors. But when it comes to earnings, the “S” majors don’t really belong with the “TEM” ones. Engineering majors are nearly all high-paying. So are most computer and math majors, and math-heavy sciences like astrophysics.3 But many sciences, particularly the life sciences, pay below the overall median for recent college graduates. Students who major in neuroscience, meteorology, biology and ecology all stand to make $35,000 or less — and that’s if they can get a full-time job, which many can’t. Zoology ranks as one of the lowest-paying majors of any category, with a median full-time wage of $26,000 a year. 
3. There are a few exceptions to this. A few technology-related majors, such as “communications technologies” and “computer networking and telecommunications” are relatively low-paying. But these are mostly lower-level, technically oriented majors. 
His data set comes from the New York Federal Reserve. Here's what they had to say about chemistry:

Interesting data, more later. Read the whole thing. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Naturejobs falls for the "PhDs have lower unemployment!" fallacy

Via Twitter, yet another alternative careers essay, this one from Annalise Smith, a graduate student at the University of Miami on the Naturejobs website:
...A Nature article published in 2011 contends that the academic positions for science PhD holders are decreasing and sectors outside of academia are unable to compensate. Yet the unemployment rate for PhD graduates in the life sciences remains at a low of 1.5%, much lower than the national unemployment rate in the United States. So are there too many PhDs? 
There are only too many PhDs if every PhD candidate envisions a career in academia....
A couple of things here:
  • First, it's clear that the purpose of the essay isn't to engage with the "Are there too many PhDs" question. That's fine, but then, why bring up the statistics as if they're refutation of the Ph.D. glut theory. 
  • The writer claims above that this is the unemployment rate for Ph.D. graduates in life sciences -- so far as I could tell, this is not actually true. The number "1.5%" and "life sciences" are not tied together anywhere in the report. Maybe I'm wrong. 
    • Interestingly, many of the unemployment stats for recent life scientist grads are still quite low -- the most relevant number I saw in the linked 2012 NSF report (which I have no reason to doubt) is 2.1% for recent life scientist (page 3-35)
    • However, my main critique of these numbers is that they're from 2008, which means that they were measuring pre-Great Recession graduates. You can see that the similar number in the newer 2014 report for 2010 recent life scientist graduates was 2.8%. (page 3-35)
  • My main issue is this portion of the sentence "much lower than the national unemployment rate in the United States." It is ridiculous to compare the unemployment rate of recent Ph.D. graduates in the sciences (any sciences) to the national unemployment rate. ~30% of the US population has a B.S. degree; college graduates make up around 47% of the workforce. We should not be comparing a group of 100% Ph.D.s to a national workforce where less than 5% of the workers have a Ph.D. It is a meaningless comparison. 
  • The better number to compare against is the overall unemployment rate for Ph.D.s, which was 2.2% for 2013. Of course, the problem with this is, we're now measuring all Ph.D. holders, including your tenured faculty adviser. 
Also, the writer does not consider wages or opportunity costs of getting a Ph.D. in the sciences (time-to-degree for life scientists? In 2012, 6.9 years, according to the 2014 NSF Survey of Earned Doctorates.) If you're spending two presidential terms in school, you should seriously think about whether it's worth your time, from a dollars and cents perspective. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't. But those calculations weren't apparently covered in this essay.

Finally, I have a one-word answer for the writer as for why the unemployment rate of life scientists is so low: postdocs. Actually, I have another word: underemployment. If you have a Ph.D. biologist working as a QC temp at VWR, they're considered employed. 

For longtime readers of the blog, this is old hat. But for the editors at Naturejobs, apparently, this is news -- how disappointing. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Job posting: experienced Ph.D. medicinal chemist, Alkermes, Waltham, MA

From the inbox, a position at Alkermes:
Alkermes R&D is searching for an experienced medicinal chemist to play a key role in advancing the drug discovery pipeline. The incumbent will propose synthetic targets, design synthetic routes, interface with outsourced medicinal chemistry resources, and develop structure-activity relationships (SAR) to drive the iterative optimization of leads. Additional responsibilities include participation in experimental planning, data analysis, and presentations at team meetings and company meetings.  The individual will support multiple programs through participation on internal cross functional working teams including in vitro and in vivo pharmacology, ADME, toxicology, pharmaceutical development, analytical development, and legal departments. A strong background in synthetic organic chemistry and medicinal chemistry, combined with high creativity and strong leadership and communications skills are essential.

Minimum Education & Experience Requirements: Ph.D. with emphasis in organic and/or medicinal chemistry or related discipline and at least 5 years of post graduate drug discovery experience.
Link here. Best wishes to those applying. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A huge sign that Accenture does not understand the chemicals industry

Courtesy of my morning ACC Smartbrief, I see that Accenture has put out a report about the shale gas revolution and how the chemicals industry needs to prepare for future economic conditions once the boom is over.

All fine, but the report (PDF here) is marred by horrifyingly amateurish graphics of colored water in flasks, soap bubbles and dry ice in water. If they had put "IGNORE ME, I KNOW NOTHING OF YOUR WORK" in 72-point font across the bottom, the effect could not have been worse.

(Why do people (business majors, really) think about chemistry and chemicals this way? Do they understand a whit of what we do? Why not pointing-hard-hat guy/gal?)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

In practice, though, we might not.

I'd love to know what translation error led to this little booboo. I presume it's "as a principle". 

Professors, retirement and marriages

In this week's C&EN, a worthwhile article by Linda Wang on emeritus professors and their transitions, specifically Ed Vedejs, Al Padwa and Nancy Mills. It contained a very interesting (and unintentional, I suspect) contrast of marriages of the professors:
Nancy S. Mills, who will retire next year from Trinity University, a predominantly undergraduate institution in San Antonio, says she’s so busy finishing up her research projects that she hasn’t had time to think about shutting down her lab.... [snip] 
...Mills made a promise to her husband years ago that she would retire at age 65 so that they could spend more time traveling and hiking together. They plan to move to Oregon after the current school year. “I’m grateful to my husband for forcing us into this idea because the one thing I want to do is leave before the department wants me to leave,” she says. 
Being retired doesn’t mean disengaging from chemistry, however. In fact, in her emeritus status, Mills will be joining a research group at the University of Oregon that is doing computational chemistry in an area related to her current research. But she will be doing research at her own pace, and she will have the freedom to take extended trips with her husband. 
...In addition, Padwa continues to travel, climb mountains, build mobiles—and he’s dating again. After he retired, he and his wife realized that they had grown apart, and so they divorced. “What happens is that sometimes you go through a long period of time with someone you’re married to but you’re never really connected because you’re involved in your science,” he says. “This is what happens, I think, with very dedicated professionals.”
Professor Padwa's comments about very dedicated professionals is a bit frightening to me, considering that some version of that (although I'll never reach his stature!) is a goal of mine. The health of my marriage is more important to me than my career, but I am sure that a younger Al Padwa would have agreed with my statement, too.

To be sure, "growing apart" is something that happens to many marriages, dedicated professionals or not. I presume that there's a spike in divorces at retirement, too, but it's not something I have data on yet. (It'd be interesting to know what rate of divorce chemistry professors have, especially compared to other highly educated fields.)

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting articles in this week's C&EN, too: 

Last week's C&EN

Lots of interesting things in last week's C&EN, which I missed because its release was still (as far as I was concerned) in the middle of my Labor Day weekend: