Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Seniority and bench chemistry: why the inverse relationship?

So I was perusing one of my favorite blogs (that of writer and amateur pilot James Fallows) and he posted this video, which I found pretty remarkable. But what I found even more remarkable was the linked posting about this "crab into crosswind" technique on a professional pilots website:
We must remember that the Airbus Flight Control system is based on "rate inputs". The wing will always look at the last bank angle and will try to return to that point, you may not see the input by the flight controls, but it is being provided. So, if you are rocking down on final due to gusty winds, or for that reason on the final portion of the flare. Should you apply correction in the opposite direction of where the wing is coming up, because of the gust, then you are adding more input to the Flight Controls computer's, reacting to bring the wing to the last known position with a bigger input increment (you have just Augmented that input), which will then force you to react in the opposite direction with more sidestick deflection. Hence, the feeling that you are running out of control deflections in the sidestick, you are just inducing a P-CIO (Pilot-Computer Induced Oscillations).
If you were to have a direct right crosswind of 29 knots, fly the aircraft, don't mind the gust (unless it is hurricane David), around 50 feet, start kicking your left rudder (and power as necessary), and as the left wing tries to come up (due to the Aerodynamics of the rudder inputs attempting to bring the right wing up), put the necessary right joystick (squirts) input and let go, squirt and let go, as necessary to keep the nose of the aircraft tracking down the centerline while adding rudder as necessary, then once the aircraft is tracking where you want him to, relax the bank inputs on the joystick, just work with the pitch for the flare and round out.
Touch down with the right main gear, right spoilers deflect, fly the left wing down nice and easy, while relaxing ruder input and squirting the bank inputs as needed. It is exhilarating and a great aircraft. 
Of course, these are very experienced, well-paid pilots talking to one another about technique. Senior medicinal chemists talking about fragment-based drug discovery or very experienced process chemists chatting amongst themselves presumably would sound the same.

Or would they? One doubts that very senior chemists would actually be the ones injecting the reagents, pumping the solvents or running the NMRs. Why does it seem that bench technique is mostly left to those who have less than 20 years at the bench, while passenger jet flying, in particular, is in the province of people have hair color similar to Chesley Sullenberger?

Certainly airline union seniority rules have some part to play in this. I'd argue that bench chemistry (and perhaps molecular biology techniques even more so) rely on enough fine motor dexterity that the aged might hold a disadvantage. Perhaps it is that flying (like surgery) is special; patients and the flying public are willing to pay for the best, most experienced hands to be at the helm.

Readers, have an opinion on this?


  1. All the older chemists who have a love of the bench were laid off or got invited for 'early retirement'. The majority of the older chemists were white males, and companies had to make room for diversity. Good luck to the young white males, they don't have a chance! Where is their Equal Opportunity?

  2. Hmm, a good question. I'm not sure the dexterity idea holds up though---how many surgeons are there over the age of say 40 years old? I would almost think that for the true specialties, it takes a long time to get the amount of practice required to be a great surgeon, but they still have the dexterity. But I don't know the numbers.

    I wonder how much of it is just a cultural 'let the young ones figure it out--just like I did' mentality. I mean, grad school seems almost like hazing. Many PIs will push you as hard as they can, probably because the same was done unto them so many years ago. I can imagine after the age of 40, you figure you've put your time in the lab and now you just get to 'think' about chemistry while your underlings carry out the (difficult, annoying, hard, etc) dirty work.

    I'm curious what others think.

  3. I doubt older chemists get turfed because they're white males: I also don't recall a lot of 45+ non-white/non-males in any chemistry lab outside of academia, and even there the professors are just passing through on their way to the office.

    My assumption is that chemistry is like law/accounting/likely a bunch of other fields, where it's "up or out". In this case up is management, away from smelly chemicals.

    Are there any 45+ chemists who actually do want to work in the lab? From what I recall, it's a fun place to putter around every now and again, but how many times can you mix reagents together and not get bored? Even the frisson of not knowing just how fresh the Pd you're adding to a solution of HCOOH/MeOH is, or just how much LAH is left to quench seemed to me to get old after a few (or 10) years. Wouldn't it be more fun to be able to think about the chemistry you want to do, but have someone else do it?

  4. I'd say it's pretty simple.Flying a plane with a couple of hundred souls from Boston to Munich, you want your best, most experienced guy doing that to minimize the chances for a catastrophe if some issue comes up.
    In research it's different. Mixing the chemicals and throwing the Gemisch on an HPLC and having the detector collect, well even our FTEs in Asia can do that more or less well. The difficult question is, what does the compound need to look like to inhibit watchamecallerase. And which water-solubilizing group do you have to attach to not hit the hERG ion-channel. Now that takes experience and cant be done be a youngling but rather requires some Obi-wan Kenobi-style I have-seen-it-all-before-and-can-tell-you-THAT-wont work knowledge.
    And of course as you get older and wiser your expertise will be 'requested' on several high-profile projects. You just dont have the time anymore to shake that sep funnel.

  5. I can certainly acknowledge @Anon6:40's viewpoint; even as a young chemist, you'll get tugged into more meetings than you'd probably like, and that diminishes your lab time. I think most people I've seen at the bench fit that sort of 25-40ish look, whereafter you're either promoted, or you decide to do something different (30-yr veterans of pharma are near extinct)

    However, as I (and others on this blog) have noted, there is always one dependable, seen-it-all crusty sailor in every company, who will die at the bench if you'd let 'em. Most people will tolerate his occasional outbursts and crankiness, because he'll be the first person they go to when their reaction isn't working, or they need to vet ideas.

  6. Its because bench chemistry is a commodity, a chemist at the bench is just a pair of hands. Essentially just semi-skilled labor (which incidentally, is done much cheaper overseas).

    The real value in being a trained chemist is knowing what to synthesis, and methodologically how to do it. The doing it is just some combination of pouring, heating, stirring, and filtering that you could train a monkey (read: graduate student) to do. Most importantly, it is time consuming - so it makes sense that the high value 'architecting' of the chemistry takes precedence with the experienced chemist, whose time could be more valuably spent.

    The difference with piloting, is twofold - first is that being a pilot is still an art not yet entirely reducible to a computer or algorithmic labor. Second, there is a much lower threshold for failure; a 20% increase in reaction failure due to less-skilled hands is a lot less bad than a 20% increase in plane crashes due to poor piloting.

  7. the comparison doesn't fly.

  8. Aren't experienced pilots also getting paid garbage in comparison to what they used to make? i.e. "working with your hands" = unskilled/semi-skilled riff-raff?

  9. I think they're getting their salaries/pensions looked/hammered at pretty hard.

    But I think the trick is that you can only find work at the smaller airlines these days -- and those pilots (the fella flying from Knoxville, TN to Atlanta, GA) are probably making a postdoc's salary.

  10. Super on-topic spam! That's a new one.

  11. @chemjobber

    Everything I've heard about the airline working conditions since the airline strike in the 80's has been abysmal, approaching abusive working conditions. I wasn't really attempting to be a troll, but if any industry knows what it is like to experience deflating wages and less job security it would be, well, our domestic airlines.

  12. A6:57: Sorry, the on-topic spam comment wasn't directed at you. I know you're not a troll.

    It was directed at the comment that I removed about "getting back into the lab" with 2 links to the drug discovery seminar.

    But you're darn tootin' right about domestic airlines. That's not a good business to be in, unless you're Southwest.

  13. Anonymous...November 29, 2011 5:08 PM
    I take an exception to your comment wherein you mention... "The majority of the older chemists were white males". I was laid off from a major pharmaceutical company and I found that the people who were laid were mostly colored (not black!) sprinkled with some whites. It turns out that the whites who were let go had a 30+ years of experience or majority of them were walking out with a separation package and a full pension. The colored one had anywhere from 15-22 years of experience. Meaning they got only separation package and no full pension. By the way I also found out that those who were retained were the white! A lot of people including my white American friends paid too steep price during the current cycle and were magnanimous enough to let go, but not you! Shame on you! This is not a time to look through the prism of racism and all are hurting!

  14. the problematic comparison: the pilots are no longer well paid, it used to be but now they are being screwed in a big way. The joke is that the airline pilots are just one step on the payscale and pecking order above the Greyhound drivers, but Greyhound has better retirement and more benefits than airlines.

    It would serve you well to read the Sullenberger's book: he is not bitching, more like describing his life and profession, but you will find that his pilot union "voluntarily agreed" to 30% pay cut and the pilots retirement plan was exchanged for one that has actual value of pennies on the dollar. Pilots don't even get anymore economy class meals while flying, the pilots either bring their sandwiches from home or buy it at the airport. The plane that Sully successfully landed in Hudson river had drowned his 10 dollar tuna sandwich from the airport...

    Also pilots are paid on their net flying time, from the moment they unpark the wheels and start rolling down the runway until the landing. The fallow time between the flights and the travel time to get to the starting destination of the first flight of their tour is unpaid. If the plane is waiting for an hour in the line for the take-off clearance from the tower, the pilots are not paid for this time.

    Increasingly it is becoming more difficult for pilots to find a place to crash and sleep between the flights, their hotel room at the airport is supposed to be provided by the airline but the airlines are trying to weasel of it to save money so the pilots often end up sleeping on chairs in the airport terminals.

    I should add (it was not in the book) that few weeks after Hudson landing another domestic flight went down down in a blizzard in Buffalo (there were no survivors), due to a combination of heavy icing and pilot errors. The freshman pilot flying the plane was being paid 19 dollars an hour, he was not trained properly and did not get any sleep for more than 24 hours because of ridiculous scheduling of his flights by the airline...

  15. @7:11
    The older males were white because the demographics of the workforce several decades ago was predomantely white males.

    Ethnic minorities and women then started suing because of the changing demographics of the workforce. Counteract, older white males started suing that they claimed they were unjustly fired due to EO Act. Therefore started the pissing match where all layoffs are not decided about ability, but how companies can fire as diversely as they hire. I have heard many companies use excel spreadsheets when firing. Not containing work performance, but demographic factors. It is discrimination which is going on in the US.

    The result of the demographics of the labs 30 years ago being predominately white male is that today new hires are disproporiately ethnic or women or both. How many white males go to graduate school? Quite a few. Now consider how few are actually hired. A disproportionate small percent, irregardless of their ability or skill. There is discrimination and it is against young white males.

    However if young white males bring up blantant discrimination they are labeled racist.

  16. Now consider how few are actually hired. A disproportionate small percent, irregardless of their ability or skill. There is discrimination and it is against young white males.

    However if young white males bring up blantant discrimination they are labeled racist.

    [Citation needed]

  17. Use of 'irregardless' is very unique......