Friday, April 24, 2015

Food service, yes. Door-to-door, no.

From The Atlantic, a rather horrifying story by Darlene Cunha:
...Over a cup of coffee, she introduced herself as Tysharia Young and tried to do what she’d come to do: sell me overpriced magazine subscriptions. It was not the first time someone had knocked on my door for this purpose, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Gainesville has had such issues with magazine sellers that our local police department recently issued a public warning. 
Young came armed with an official certificate stating her company’s mission. According to the paper, Certified Management Incorporated was dedicated to helping youth and other troubled souls get off the streets by giving them the opportunity to sell subscriptions door-to-door for points while the company provided room, board, and food. The workers get placed on “crews”—teams of four to 12 people—and travel across the country, canvassing neighborhoods. At each door, they tell residents their personal stories—which generally include a litany of poverty-driven hardships and the need to support a family—and then try to sell them magazine subscriptions for a staggering $75 to $150 apiece. After a week or two, the crew moves on to another city. 
But Young was hundreds of miles from home, and she worried that if she failed to deliver, she wouldn’t earn enough to make it back to her kids. “If you sell too low or you’re a troublemaker, they’ll leave you,” she said. “And I ain’t got nothing.” 
Young is one of tens of thousands of people working for door-to-door magazine crews, and the fear of being left behind is nearly universal. 
I had a college friend who sold encyclopedias for a summer; he made it back and I didn't hear any horror stories. But I'd hate to have one of my kids abandoned in the middle of nowhere, as seems to happen to some of these kids.

I worked food service for a little bit, but I never did any door-to-door sales. I don't think the majority of door-to-door is for charlatans like Certified Management International, but I presume that it's still soul-crushing to try to work through hundreds of rejections and literal slammed doors.

Readers, any stories of door-to-door sales? 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Chemical safety updates: Daniel Powell charges dropped, David Snyder ordered to pay restitution

From C&EN's Jyllian Kemsley, a couple of items of interest. First, the story of Daniel Powell, the Colorado teacher charged with assault after injuring a student during a methanol/flame demonstration. The charges have been dropped: 
Last fall, a Denver teacher, Daniel Powell, was charged with four counts of misdemeanor assault after a classroom fire seriously burned a student. Powell had lit a small pool of methanol to demonstrate its flame properties, then tried to add more methanol from a 4 L container, Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board investigators said in September. The fire flashed back into the container, then jetted out to hit the student in the chest. Other students sitting nearby were also injured. 
The charges against Powell have been dropped, says Lynn Kimbrough, communications director for the Denver District Attorney‘s Office. “As the case moved forward, further review of the facts led the prosecutor to the conclusion that we did not a reasonable likelihood of conviction – and once that conclusion was reached we had an ethical obligation to dismiss the case,” Kimbrough says...
If the CSB account is indeed accurate, then this at least the fourth incident (the Calais Weber case, the Alonzo Yanes case (pdf), the Reno case) where it was the decision of the demonstrator to:
  • add methanol 
  • from a larger container 
  • to an already lit flame
that caused the injuries. Not especially surprising, but still worth noting. 

It is interesting to see that the charges were dropped - I wonder why? 

Also from Jyllian Kemsley, the David Snyder case (where a Ph.D. synthetic chemist was synthesizing explosives in his apartment and then injured himself) has concluded with restitution payments to the apartment owners: 
Former University of California, Davis, chemist David S. Snyder must pay nearly $100,000 in restitution to the university and a property management company as a result of a 2013 incident in his campus apartment. 
The restitution deal concludes legal proceedings against Snyder that involved 17 felony charges, including possession of explosives and firearms and reckless disposal of hazardous waste. He pleaded no contest to the charges last year and was sentenced to two years and two months in county jail plus two years and two months out of jail under supervision by the county probation department....
I still don't know what he was doing. Not buying his lawyer's story about removing nitrates from water. 

Any advice for someone who has a layoff non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement?

I have a friend who has been laid off -- they'd like to know more about non-disclosure agreements and the non-disparagement clauses of severance packages. Readers, any advice? 

Not quite on topic, but a funny-but-no-so-funny story found while searching on this topic:
A great example of the enforceability of settlement agreements that contain confidentiality agreements is the Gulliver Schools1 case out of Florida. There, Patrick Snay, the former headmaster of a private school, brought a claim for age discrimination. The case settled, and Snay was to be paid $80,000. However, the settlement agreement included a confidentiality agreement. Before he received his settlement proceeds, Snay breached the confidentiality clause of the settlement agreement by informing his daughter that he had settled with the school. And how do we know that? 
Well, Snay’s daughter was kind enough to post a snarky comment about the school on Facebook (which included a reference to Gulliver Schools paying for her trip to Europe and the parting shot: “Suck it.”) When the school learned of the Facebook posting, it refused to pay. Although the trial court had ruled in favor of Snay (who had brought a motion to enforce), the Florida Court of Appeals agreed with the school and reversed. The Florida appellate court found that the bottom line was that the confidentiality clause was clear and unambiguous, it was breached, and disgorgement was the articulated remedy. So goodbye $80,000. 
So I guess Gulliver Schools did suck it, sucking back the nice sum of $80,000.
That's an interesting aspect of non-disclosure agreements - no family.  

Daily Pump Trap: 4/23/15 edition

A few of the recent positions posted on C&EN Jobs:

Santa Fe, NM: This "Director of Global Scientific Support" position at OpenEye is very interesting - it's like a combination of computational chemist and customer service. Ph.D., 3 years with customer-facing work desired.

Santa Rosa, CA: Thermochem is looking for a B.S. chemist to do HPLC and IC work.

Bakersville, NC: Unimin is a mining company (not unknown around here); they're looking for a B.S. chemist to be a research scientist, 5+ years experience desired.

Zeroes!: Chattem Chemicals is looking for a M.S. synthetic chemist, 0-2 years experience.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) "1000+", 1359, 9248 and 19 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 562 positions for the job title "chemist", with 84 positions for "analytical chemist", 23 for "research chemist", 5 for "organic chemist", 3 for "synthetic chemist" and 1 for "medicinal chemist."

Huh, did not know that: Via Indeed, did not know that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission hired chemists. Not a terrible salary, looks like. 

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Runaway stirplates?

Thanks to a note on the listserv of the ACS Division of Chemical Health and Safety, I am made aware of certain models of hotplate/stirrer that seem to turn on by themselves and overheat. Here's a bulletin from the Division of Research Safety at UIUC:
Over the past ten years there have been multiple incidents of hotplates spontaneously heating in the OFF position leading to fires and explosions. Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory, the University of California, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Oak Ridge National Lab, and Northwestern University have issued safety warnings due to incidents on their campuses related to hotplate malfunction. Hotplates purchased prior to 1984 do not have temperature feedback controls. In particular, the models Corning PC-35 and PC-351 and the Thermolyne Model SP46925 are inherently unsafe by their design. Such older models can spontaneously heat with the heater dial in the OFF position. Other hotplates with reported malfunctions include Corning models PC-200, PC-220 and PC 420 as well as Fisher Isotemp.
This is the first I've heard of it, although I'm not especially surprised. (Here's a poster from Northwestern and a comment from Oak Ridge National Labs.)

Anyone else hear about this? I presume that IKA stirplates don't have this issue, but I dunno.

UPDATE: Nope, Anon1226p in the comments has a picture of an IKA stirplate burnt up because of this issue as well. 

n-Hexane, benzene, still troublesome in China

An interesting, sad Wired article about Chinese occupational exposure to industrial solvent and the difficulty surrounding getting health care after the injury from the exposure:
THEY CALLED IT “banana oil.” Long Li didn't ask what was in it. All she knew was that she was supposed to use it to clean cell phone screens, hundreds of them every hour. Fumes filled the air in the windowless room where she worked, in a three-story factory outside the southeastern China city of Dongguan. 
Long, the 18-year-old daughter of peasant farmers from Guizhou, was supposed to dip her rubber-gloved right index finger into the oil and then rub each screen for 10 to 20 seconds. The company—Fangtai Huawei Electronic Technology—gave Long and her coworkers paper masks, but they rarely used them. They were too hot, and anyway the women who worked there often exhaled onto the screens because the condensed moisture from their breath made cleaning easier. Long worked from 8 am until 11 pm, and as late as 4 am in the busy season. 
...But if working conditions were improving at Chinese factories, Long did not see it. Soon after she began working at Fangtai Huawei, her fingertips started tingling. After a few months, her feet and hands were numb. Long couldn't hold the screens properly. Her coworkers started getting sick too—Zi Renchun, a 25-year-old from Yunnan province, lost her appetite. Shang Jiaojiao, who had begun working at age 14, had joint pain and eventually could barely lift herself out of bed. By summer, some of the workers were collapsing. 
In mid-July, Long found herself unable to move her legs. “I was just lying on my bed all day and needed help to eat,” she says. Long ended up in a hospital in Guangzhou with more than 30 other Fangtai Huawei workers. Doctors found they'd been exposed to n-hexane, presumably in the “banana oil.” It's an industrial solvent that causes neurological damage at just 50 parts per million. Workers using it are supposed to wear respirators and operate in a ventilated area. As treatment, Long endured daily injections—she says they “hurt more than anything else in the world.” We interviewed her in a hotel a few blocks from the hospital; officials there wouldn't answer our questions or allow us to see her on the premises. Long still tries to stay cheerful. “When I cry,” she says, “I cry secretly.”
Another one that I'm rather horrified by, from the same article:
In 2007, when he was 20 years old, Ming Kunpeng began working at a factory then owned by Dutch company ASM International—a leading manufacturer of assembly equipment for computer chips, phones, and tablets. For two years, Ming cleaned motherboards with chemicals including benzene, a sweet-smelling and particularly effective industrial solvent and degreaser. It is also a carcinogen. Where people still use it, the International Labour Organization recommends wearing helmets with a face piece blowing clean air and gloves made of Viton, an expensive heat- and chemical-resistant fluoroelastomer. Ming Kunpeng says he was given only masks and standard gloves. 
In 2009 he was diagnosed with leukemia from benzene exposure, according to medical records. But as recently as 2013, changes to China's health care system continued to make health care untenable for him—and many others with work-related problems. When the family asked ASM for compensation, the company refused to pay, disputing the cause.  
A good reminder that chronic solvent exposure is bad (if you needed a reminder) and why the regulatory state (despite all of its many, many faults) manages to keep us from getting leukemia and other neurological damages.

(Is it really necessary to hand-clean screens and motherboards with industrial solvent? Surely there's a better way?)

UPDATE: DoD comments, and I reclarify what I meant above. (added "hand", which is what I was really getting at.) 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tears, followed by laughter, followed by tears

Via a friend of the blog, a funny LinkedIn ad. 

Ask CJ: Should I write a letter about my former advisor to the department?

From the inbox, an interesting question from "JGN" (this comment has been redacted for privacy and edited for clarity): 
I'm an [chemistry] graduate student working for a [prominent chemist]. Due to many [administrative problems] and me not seeing eye-to-eye with my advisor for a myriad of reasons, I've been fortunate enough to "leave with a Masters" and to gain entrance into another PhD program elsewhere. 
My question to you is this: 
Is it wise or a good idea for me to send a grievance to HR, [the university administration], and the chemistry department faculty a list of transgressions my advisor has committed after I have left? My advisor is toxic, corrosive and vindictive. I would have done this sooner, but I had heard stories of people attempting this in the past and no justice was served. 
This letter I doubt would help me in any way (in fact it may hurt), but I feel as though this man is getting away with years of abuse and no one is willing to do anything about it.
My thought process is that a letter addressed to other faculty in the department wouldn't do much to harm Professor Z's standing at your department or your university. This is exactly the sort of thing that professors have been great at ignoring (and let's be frank, it's not like this would get dealt with significantly better in industrial settings.) I think that it is best for you to move on and let your silence speak.

But my advice leans towards the exceedingly small-c conservative.

Readers, can you think of an instance where a graduate student has been truly wronged, they've publicly complained and then gotten a desired outcome (whether it's restoration for them, or a rebuke for the professor)? The last time we talked about this, there didn't seem to be a lot of examples. Any more?

UPDATE: As I hoped, chemistry professor (and associate dean) Chris Cramer has some good thoughts. 

Job posting: experienced computational chemist, AstraZeneca, Waltham, MA

From the inbox: 
We are currently recruiting a highly qualified computational chemist who will be joining our fast-pace multidisciplinary oncology team. The successful candidate will support project teams from target identification through lead optimization. The candidate is expected to have a degree of independence and proven record of excellence in a number of computational chemistry and cheminformatics techniques to assist in the identification and advancement of small-molecule drug discovery programmes. The qualified candidate will be creative, detail-oriented and a problem solver able to work collaboratively with a passion for drug discovery. 
The candidate will work closely with chemists and project teams to design compounds with improved potency, selectivity, functional activity and/or ADME properties. The work will include helping project teams analyse, interpret, and visualize biological data, and communicate these results. Additional responsibilities may involve using modeling and bioinformatics tools to provide druggability assessment for novel target classes, predicting novel druggable sites for known target classes, or mining databases for chemical starting points. The candidate will be expected to plan, write and publish high quality scientific papers with original results. 
* A PhD (or equivalent experience) in computational chemistry, biophysics, or a related field, and 5 years industry experience
* Sound understanding of physical and medicinal chemistry concepts and demonstrated success in addressing medicinal chemistry design challenges
* Experience in structure-based drug design (e.g., docking and scoring, virtual screening, library design, homology modeling)
* Familiarity with chemoinformatics and bioinformatics tools for database similarity searching, pharmacophore modeling, QSAR modeling, and identification and analysis of protein binding sites
* Experience with in silico predictive methods for the improvement of physico-chemical and ADMET characteristics
* Strong programming/scripting capability (e.g., python, perl, OEChem toolkit, C++) is desirable
* Excellent written and oral communication skills and the ability to communicate complex information clearly
* Ability to work effectively within collaborative, multi-disciplinary teams
Link here. Best wishes to those interested.  

Monday, April 20, 2015

David Harwell and the STEM panel: no hope

From a random clicking around, I happened upon one of my old bugaboos, Bayer MaterialScience, and a YouTube of flogging of the "STEM crisis" in a December 2013 panel. If you'd like to listen to it, there's over 90 minutes of self-congratulatory hogwash from a variety of people who claim that there is a vast shortage of STEM workers. I was pretty irritated at it, but then I heard this exchange from Dr. David Harwell, an American Chemical Society staff member, asking the panel a pretty darn good question (starts at 1:21:17 on the video): 
David Harwell, American Chemical Society: Thanks for the conversation, it's been great. I'm David Harwell, from the American Chemical Society. It's National Chemistry Week, so yay! 
Our unemployment rate in chemistry is 3.5% - that's good, until I look at new graduates. So new graduates, new bachelor's in chemistry are over 16% unemployment, new PhDs, 9%. 
So I'm not so worried about those more experienced people -- we've been able to place them. What I can't place are the new grads because I think that we overshot, there's this miscommunication that you've been talking about, where people have been encouraged and there's uh, for these students, or students that can't find a job, they feel that there's a broken covenant. Often times when I'm counseling them, they're saying "You told me" -- I didn't tell them anything -- but somewhere along the way, somebody promised them, "Get a degree in STEM and you'll be taken care of." And so they end up going for their master's or their Ph.D. because they can't get a job and at least they'll get paid in grad school in chemistry. That's the good thing about chemistry. 
So how do we, how can we address this - you have two lost boys, I have 6,000 lost students. How do we address their needs, can we get them back into the workforce somehow? Is there demand for them, or is it only at the manufacturing level?  
Laurel Rutledge, VP for Human Resources at Bayer MaterialScience: (laughter) I'm like, you know, chemists, you know seriously, I'm thinking about some retirements that we've had and some very serious changes in our workforce and Bayer is a company that's 150 years old, 150 years of making science make sense, that's Bayer. And so, we have, and it's a place that people don't leave. They come to Bayer and they retire from Bayer. What means is that if you look at the way the generational curve is happening, we are approaching a point in time where we are going to have more people retiring as fast as we need them. So, I'm not sure what's happening everywhere else, but we are looking for people daily. Daily. Entry as well as experienced, bachelor's, 2 year degrees, master's degrees, Ph.D.s, we want 'em. We want 'em.  
Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Senior Economist: And you know, it's not much consolation to tell them, well, your 16% is much lower than the 27% for some other degrees. But, what I would say is that you need to extend your search. All chemistry majors don't have to become chemists and first evaluate what your competencies are, sit down and you can go to the end O*NET site, discover what your knowledge, skills and abilities are, what your interests are and look outside of that. 40% of jobs require STEM competencies today that are not your traditional chemist, mathematician, actuary job. They're way beyond that, so just broaden that set and you can have a lot of opportunities outside of the chemist occupation. 
I've heard Dr. Harwell talk a few times, but I don't think I've ever heard him grok the #chemjobs problem for younger chemists as well as he does here. "Broken covenant" is a great way to put it. And the answers that he gets are appalling -- the VP for Human Resources basically tells him that, from where she sits, he's wrong, and the economist basically tells him to tell students to look elsewhere (gee, no kidding.)

I don't know what kind of long game the STEM shortage myth makers are playing, but it is clear that (much like many of us) when they are confronted with contrary evidence, they dismiss it pretty easily.  

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:

Friday, April 17, 2015

Science nightmares

It's been a long week of late nights and late consultations at work.

Last night, I dreamed that I was up for my doctoral thesis defense and I couldn't find the presentation room, didn't have a presentation and I was pretty sure that I didn't have my Powerpoint slides. It has been quite a number of years (5+) since I somehow managed to squeak by successfully defended my thesis, so that was interesting. 

It has been the only time in my life where I have woken up from a dream and realized, "I need to blog about this." 

I also remember a time in graduate school where I dreamed my advisor looked at me and said "[CJ], I don't think you're Ph.D. material." Considering that he was always supportive of me (and continues to be), it was obviously my subconscious feelings of inadequacy at work. 

Readers, what have been your dreams about science been about? 

More coming, but have a great weekend! 

Job posting: experienced Ph.D. medicinal chemist, Seattle, WA

The candidate is expected to utilize cutting-edge chemistry techniques to design and synthesize novel peptide conjugates, as well as the characterization of the physiochemical properties of both free and conjugated Optides. The position requires a strong background in protein chemistry, bioconjugation and analytical techniques. The chemistry will include highly potent/toxic chemotherapeutic agents and incorporation of radiolabeled tracers. Key goals are to design and execute on the synthesis of highly potent chemotherapeutic PDCs, develop novel means of improving pharmacokinetic properties while maintaining efficacy, and establish critical acceptance criteria for development and progression of optimized PDCs. The position will require contribution with a high degree of independence as a senior member as well as mentorship of junior team members. The candidate will act as the medicinal chemistry expert on a multidisciplinary team to develop effective anti-cancer therapeutics. 
To be considered the successful candidate must have:
A PhD in chemistry or related field with 8+ years of post-graduate research experience
Expertise in the synthesis of highly potent chemotherapeutic compounds.  Experience with conjugation techniques is highly desired
Experience with medical chemistry optimization of therapeutic candidates is desired
Training/experience in the use of radioactivity
Experience with solid phase and/or peptide/peptidomimetic chemistry techniques is highly desired
Well-organized with strong attention to detail
Best wishes to those interested. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

C&EN request for stories of infertility

From the inbox:
Nobody likes to talk about infertility, but it’s a growing problem, especially among busy professionals who are putting off starting a family to start their careers. Once they start down the path of infertility treatments, however, it can be financially draining and take an emotional toll.

C&EN senior editor Linda Wang is looking for chemists (both male and female) willing to share their experiences with infertility and what impact it’s had on their lives and careers. Sources may choose to remain anonymous. E-mail Linda at if you are willing to contribute to the conversation.
Note e-mail address has been spam-proofed.  

The most brutally honest sentence I read today

I've been reading Daniel Drezner (professor of international political economy at Tufts) for a very long time. This was a very interesting statement on his part:
The first is that if your goal is to become a professor and you are not accepted with a scholarship into a top-20 political science program, I would not in good conscience recommend that you get a PhD.
Most of the professoriate in international relations comes from the elite schools. Whether this is because these schools function as a prestige cartel or not is immaterial: the reason will not change the current realities. The academic job market is brutal; getting an academic job without a degree from a top-20 institution is even more brutal.
I applaud him for his honesty.

(The whole article is good, and a reflection of what I should be doing here more often.)