Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Organometallics panel discussion: industry vs. academia, why no #chemjobs?

Organometallics recently published a panel discussion between an impressive panel of professors and industrial experts; they talked about the state of organometallic chemistry in 2011. Esteemed friend of the blog See Arr Oh is covering the research oriented sections at Just Like Cooking today as well. Go on over there and read it.

What should we teach? Industrial chemists versus academics: The panel discussed a number of different questions, most of which were academic in nature ("Are there any nominations for an "organometallic molecule of the year" for 2011?"). One of them seemed to generate more discussion between the different panel members. The editor of Organometallics asked about Whitesides and Deutsch's editorial (where they state that chemical academia is need of more innovation). This led to a (for this panel) heated discussion between Dr. Joachim Ritter of DuPont and Prof. James Mayer at the University of Washington, among others. A condensed version is below:
Joachim Ritter: [SNIP] What is involved in not just making 100 mg or a gram of a material, but 100 million pounds, and what are the implications? Challenges in the industrial world include space−time yields, purification methods, catalyst recovery and lifetime, solvent usage, etc. These topics sound straightforward, but when you’re actually working in industry developing new processes with broadly trained junior chemists coming straight out of top schools, sometimes you see that very talented chemists have a hard time connecting to these challenges. So I do feel there is something to be done in education. In addition to an in-depth drive toward the newest cutting edge developments in science, there needs to be a perspective of today’s problems in the context of chemistry.

Jerzy Klosin: I wholeheartedly second Joachim’s analysis. I often visit the websites of university professors and you can sometimes see on these sites what type of chemistries have been reviewed during group meetings. It turns out that this is nearly exclusively outtakes from other professors’ research. Very little is actually devoted to industrial processes that would highlight the difficulties with commercializing new technologies. [SNIP]

Jim Mayer: [SNIP] I think we also want to be very careful in going down the path of training chemistry students in the details of cost estimation and commercialization. When I was a postdoc at DuPont, discussions of such topics were led by expert engineers, with people who could for instance estimate capital costs of a plant. I think we can sensitize our students that such issues are important, but I don’t think it’s valuable for academic chemists like me to try to decide what kinds of processes are practical. Practical means that somebody could make money practicing the technology, and even the professionals aren’t so good at predicting that.

Joachim Ritter: I agree with you, but there is something to be said for raising awareness in a structured way... I’ll give an example: there’s a lot of people running studies on dissolving lignocellulose in ionic liquids, and I think it’s important to look into this option from a fundamental point of view. But at the same time, promoting this concept as an industrial process is audacious. You can estimate with very little effort that you’d have to recover about 99.99% of the ionic liquid, which is extremely challenging.

Jim Mayer: I concur, except I know someone at a major US chemical company who is very actively pursuing a process with ionic liquids. I think they are interested in using a thin film of the ionic liquid. So generalizations can be problematic.

Joachim Ritter: It may be possible for a specialty chemical. But for a commodity chemical (that is C6 and C5 carbohydrates in this case) worth 10−15 cents a pound the math does not add up, if you consider the cost of the ionic liquid and the recovery rate needed. Again this is just an example. I’m not talking about teaching Ph.D. students to learn the trade of detailed technoeconomic analysis, but to give them the tools to develop the skills to estimate what may make economic sense. In my opinion it would foster work in more relevant areas of research. After all, we want organometallic chemists to be relevant also outside the organometallic research community. Raising awareness and applying crude but insightful models to estimate minimum cost can help develop sound judgment. There is a place for fundamental science, a place for applying fundamental science towards a practical problem in applied science. When we try to place either one of those fields in the wrong context, we lose relevance.
I found this to be a really interesting discussion that condenses the problems of academics and industry into a short conversation. While Dr. Ritter is most interested in teaching the constraints that he (and the chemical industry) work under and (I believe) sees it as a source for direction and innovation, the professors seem to see his views as unnecessarily clouding the picture and constraining creativity. There's a clear balance to be struck here, but I think Professor Meyer is onto something when he notes that the economic constraints are very different between industries and may limit the applicability of that kind of analysis.

A bit of a digression: Inexperienced graduate students in organic chemistry will sometimes assume that mere potency is all that medicinal chemists care about. It's only after a few conversations with an actual industry medicinal chemist (or an afternoon reading In The Pipeline) that little details like patentability, bioavailability and metabolic stability will suddenly become issues that need to be addressed just as seriously as the yield and the number of steps. I think that Dr. Ritter is interested in getting those details in industry (cost, sourcing, time-yield) in front of the graduate student, so that they can calibrate themselves to where their chemistry needs to be to be relevant and 'practical.'

Wouldn't that be cool? A bit of a throwaway crosstalk between the industry chemists indicated to me the #chemjobs bonanza that a ligand synthesis Center of Excellence would be:
Jerzy Klosin: We do a lot of ligand synthesis and we have a state-of-the-art reactor high-throughput facility. However, often the limiting step is just making ligands... So there is a mismatch between screening and synthesis capabilities. We can actually screen about 200 reactions a day, but at times we can only make one or two ligands per week.

Joachim Ritter: I was involved with high-throughput work at Dupont about 10 years ago, and we built a facility to synthesize about 100 phosphite ligands per week under air- and moisture-free conditions. But it takes serious commitment. Ultimately, you have to recognize the immense staffing needs required to sustain such a facility.
Dudes! Can't you see the incredible amount of IP that could be generated by a group of 10 or 20 chemists doing this sort of work, day in and day out? These would be darn good jobs (that is, if you like the feel of a glovebox pushing against you). I hope this is still happening, but from Dr. Ritter's comments, it doesn't sound like the cost could be justified.

Don't you know there's a jobs recession on? A final challenge to Professor John A. Gladysz, who organized this most excellent panel discussion and who seems to have selected the questions:

Apart from some oblique comments about the economy, why wasn't there any concern from the participants about jobs for graduate students or postdoctoral fellows? Was it assumed that most of these professor's students would become academics themselves? That this panel could not find time for the number 1 concern of ACS members is pretty disappointing.

Putting that aside, it was a fascinating discussion and a really nice way to hear different voices from the top of their field. I encourage you to read the whole thing and also to hear what See Arr Oh has to say.


  1. This is quite frustrating. If "industry" really cared about the skill set of their employees, they would train them themselves. Just like they used to do many years ago. My grandfather was an engineer at GE, but he received his degree in English. GE felt it was a priority and an investment to bring his skill set up to snuff to achieve the goals of GE.

    I also find it even more baffling, because I don't think there is a consensus among "industry" what a broad industrial skill set would contain. I don't see Du Pont, Gilead, Monsanto, Exon-Mobile, and Gilead having as much commonality as they would like academics to believe.

    It's just a way to push the cost of training scientists for specialized industrial niches onto the Universities.

  2. When I read about that ligand-screening facility, I almost started to drool. Imagine having thousands of different ligand parameters at your disposal to tweak on a whim!

  3. @Anonymous 7:32

    Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!!! We have a winner!!
    Couldn't agree more.

  4. Anon &:32 & Matt I disagree as think most companies expect to and do work to train peoples to make them specifically suitable for positions after hiring because current people out of universities are so overly naive and have hopefully raw fundamental skills. IMO the problem is most academics appear to focus on cloning themselves with educating next gen professors (even with sparse career prospects there) and often the environments offers little exposure with examples of what industrial work is about. Meyer is correct that more need to "sensitize students" to important general elements of real world without over burdening with too much highly specialized data or less direct utility for entry role (that may indeed turn them off) or getting away from role of teaching basic techniques and "learning how to learn/adapt mentality". As CJ suggests there should be a good balance in chemistry for introduction of industrial realities as I believe ChemEs tend to have a better mix.

    1. I think the easiest solution is more industrial internships.

    2. Seconded. And if those internships could come with a stipend, and more than just an empty promise of future potential employment?

  5. The profs didnt talk about jobs, because they havent got a frikkin' clue! Honestly. None of them have ever left academia, and have no interest in the real world that is facing their students. Even the ones that would like to help, dont know how to.

  6. Why not have grad students add reviews of industrial literature to their literature review session. The problem is not that many industrial chemists publish in the open literature but there are publications out there.

    I knew absolutely nothing about economies of scale, issues with scaling up and cost-pinching when I first started to work in industry.

  7. @CMCguy et al

    Let's get something straight here. Industry has come to expect that they get well educated and capable people from graduate schools. What we're hearing from lots of sources lately is that the grad students aren't "properly trained for the current work environment".
    Seriously? What the heck does that even mean. Some here are complaining that Meyer et al want to create chemists in their own image. The problem is that industry wants the same thing to happen. They want new chemists created in the image of an industrial chemist. That clearly can NOT happen over all of academia, and its foolish to try to push that agenda. (I agree that there should be more non-academe training in academics, by the way).

    This is the reality. So, what industry needs to decide is: WHAT IS IT THAT THEY REALLY WANTED PEOPLE TO BE TRAINED IN? I know there is no single answer for this. But, what does industry want? Do they just want people, trained in a specific discipline, who are proven problem solvers? Do they want people who are well versed in lots of different techniques? Do they want people who have been trained in economies of scale? In recruiting new hires, WHAT ARE THEY LOOKING FOR? If recruiters and industry leaders could be a little more clear on this problem, I think that most faculty would be willing to help their students become ready for their future career. And, I also think that more graduate students would be willing to push for the right kinds of experience to satisfy what "industry wants". But until there is something more explicit, this is NOT going to happen. If industry is just sitting back and cherry picking new graduates looking for experience in "Solid phase synthesis of lithium-based materials that perform at under 300K with expertise in XPS, AFM, SEM, TEM, etc, etc, etc" what they are showing that they really want is for a larger pool of applicants and a larger pool of graduate students and graduate student projects to pick from. We've already discussed what a bad idea this is.

    What is it that industry wants and expects???


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20