Friday, May 31, 2013

Physician versus chemist: no contest

UK chemist Jess wrote a worthwhile post, with her own twin study with an n of 1:
The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.
Naturally, the post goes where you think it does. It is worth noting that the difference between physician salaries in the UK and the US is quite significant, with US physicians basically making the most money globally. Read the whole thing. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Daily Pump Trap: 5/30/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 28 and May 29, there were 17 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 1 (6%) is academically connected and 8 (47%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources. 

Chicago, IL: AbbVie is hiring a senior chemoinformatics analyst. Nice work if you can get it, I'll bet:
AbbVie is looking for a highly motivated and talented Cheminformatics Analyst to support Research Informatics in our Lake County, IL corporate headquarters. The desired candidate will have a demonstrated track record in managing large volumes of scientific data in support of drug discovery projects and should have significant experience with in-house and commercial software solutions that facilitate data acquisition and analysis for in medicinal chemistry research and drug design.  
A MS in a scientific/technical discipline (Chemistry, Biology or Computer Science) with 7 years experience, or a PhD with 3 years experience, working in the biotech/pharmaceutical industry. 
Minimum 3 years experience in cheminformatic software development. Familiar with chemistry registration and electronic lab notebooks. 
Experience programming with chemistry database, such as Accelrys chemistry cartridge, and OpenEye are preferred.
I have a question for my pharma/biotech readers. This is a job aimed directly at a mid/large pharma-type, right? Am I wrong at thinking that you don't get access to Spotfire, Pipeline Pilot and the like without working at a largish (i.e. non-academic) drug discovery institution, yes?

Cincinnati, OH: I think that Procter and Gamble is trying to hire a senior B.S./M.S. analytical chemist (principal scientist and above.) Not positive, though.

Well, it's experience: Excet is looking for a B.S./M.S. coatings/formulations chemist with 1+ years experience in the field for work at the Naval Research Laboratory. Pays 47-56k -- in the D.C. area. Uh, really? Seems a touch low.

This week in engineering positions: Genentech would like to hire a new-ish B.S. engineer for work in cell culture. Also, would someone please fill these paper mill engineering positions in Oregon? (Why are these people at C&EN Jobs, again?)

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

What is the appropriate collective nouns for grad students and postdocs?

English is weird with its collective nouns: a gaggle of geese, a parliament of owls. What is the appropriate collective noun for grad students, Jon Lam asks? on Twitter:
Is there a collective noun for grad students? A depression, maybe? As in: surface defect on society, among other interpretations
The very interesting Kelly Sullivan responds: "the collective [noun] for grad students is an 'indenture'" and follows up with the very funny "graduate school... it's not just a job, it's an indenture!" Ouch!

I confess, both of those are rather depressing. Anyone got a better idea? I like the gentle "school", as in "a school of fish." 

A small skirmish in the "STEM jobs" PR battle

One of the interesting results of the big Economic Policy Institute study that suggested that there is not a shortage of high-skill workers is the pushback from the trade associations, PR flacks, etc. that have been hired to help with the comprehensive immigration reform bill. Here's a good example in the Seattle Times, courtesy of the great @fiainros:
Need for STEM graduates is indisputable 
The Economic Policy Institute study presents a picture of America’s STEM-worker shortage and STEM-education crisis that is vastly different from authoritative research on this topic [“Study: Shortage of U.S. STEM graduates a myth,” Business, April 25]. 
Most researchers agree there are not enough qualified workers to fill currently vacant American jobs or the jobs the nation is expected to add in the future that require experts like computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers. 
One flaw is that the study uses the category of “information science,” which includes librarians, social scientists and other professions that artificially inflate the pool of STEM workers. 
The reality is the U.S. economy will produce about 120,000 computer-science jobs annually through 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, we only produce 40,000 bachelor’s degrees in that field each year. 
After graduation, 43 percent of STEM graduates do not work in STEM fields. Furthermore, 46 percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree in STEM will leave their field after two years in the workforce, according to a Georgetown University study. 
The need for more graduates in STEM fields is indisputable. Any look at the facts shows our nation needs to invest in and improve STEM education if we are to compete globally, now and in the future. 
Beneva Schulte, executive director, inSPIRE STEM USA, Chevy Chase, Md.
Obviously, this letter is more than a little bit laughable. It sounds to me that most STEM grads do not want to work in STEM jobs, which means that we need more! Chad Jones has a nice post making fun of this letter, and I agree with most of what he says. You should go and read it.

[I would like to know the facts behind those computer science stats. They seem fishy to me somehow, but hey -- maybe I'm wrong. I agree there is an intense demand for computer jobs; this is what is really driving the high-skill part of the comprehensive immigration reform debate.]

I do want to point out Ms. Schulte's qualifications to be the head of "inSPIRE STEM USA", which is that she has a deep background in politics. Naturally, her words on this issue are backed up by evidence and are to be trusted. Indisputably! 

Process Wednesday: "Why Reactions Run Away"

Apropos of nothing, I'm doing a little reading on runaway reactions (and how to prevent them from happening.) Here's some joyful little anecdotes from the process chemistry literature [1]:
Case History 1. An explosion occurred in a nitration reactor. Although the company had carried out small-scale development tests, they had not measured the heat generated by the reaction, and the cooling system was inadequate. A particular problem associated with scale-up is the assumption that the so-called “onset temperature” for exothermic runaway or thermal decomposition will be the same in a small-scale test as in a full-scale plant. It is not always appreciated that the temperature at which such runaways/decompositions occur is dependent on a number of factors including the detection sensitivity of the test apparatus used,
vessel size and heat transfer characteristics, and time.  
Case History 2. An explosion occurred in a process vessel involving a thermally unstable material. The company had made the assumption that the decomposition temperature of the material was in the range 270-299 °C, the same as in small-scale tests reported in the literature. Following the incident the company carried out a fuller investigation of the thermal decomposition characteristics of the material in more accurate adiabatic tests, designed to simulate the plant environment. These tests indicated that the material could decompose at 153 °C on the plant scale, below the temperature of the heating jacket.
The lecture transcript from the OPRD article by J.C. Etchells suggests that thermal runaways have 3 root causes:
  • inadequate understanding of the reaction chemistry or kinetics
  • underrating of the safety controls or backup systems 
  • inadequate procedures or training
One notes that the T2 explosion happens to cover 2 of these quite easily (poor understanding of the reaction, and failed backups on the cooling.) All pretty fascinating, and pretty terrifying. 

1. Etchells, J.C. "Why Reactions Run Away." Org. Process Res. Dev. 1997, 1, 435-437.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/28/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 21 and May 27, there have been 8 new academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 8
- Postdocs: 2
- Tenure-track faculty:  3
- Temporary faculty: 2
- Lecturer positions:  0
- Staff positions:  1
- US/non-US: 5/3

Gainesville, FL: The University of Florida is searching for a prominent chemical biologist for a new chaired position. 

Moscow, Russia: Skoltech is a new institution; they're looking for people, looks like. I think it's interesting how all of the subject areas they're hiring for are very "hot." Wonder how that will look 10 years from now. 

Columbus, OH: Ohio State is searching a postdoctoral fellow for an imaging lab; synthetic experience desired. 

Washington, D.C.: Howard is looking for a department chair.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Day off in the US

Nashville National Cemetary. Credit: Cecil's Photos
It's Memorial Day here, so it's a day off for the blog. Back tomorrow with lots of good stuff.

#BRSMBlogParty: Best wishes for your time in the States!

BRSM of the excellent total synthesis blog BRSM Blog is graduating from his institution in the UK, and coming to the United States for a postdoc. Jess and Frida are arranging bloggers to give him advice; here is my (small and late) contribution:

What’s your message for BRSM?

Best wishes in your postdoc, and thanks for writing an excellent, excellent chemistry blog.

Any post-doc survival tips?

I am going to guess that you're far more skilled than I ever was as a graduate student, so I don't think I have much to offer. I will suggest that you take a lot of opportunities to both deepen your expertise and broaden your perspectives.

Also, time flies, so keep your eye on the job market!

Any survival tips for living in the US?

I hear that American women fall for British accents. Not being an American woman, I can't really tell you if that is true.

I would recommend getting a driver's license, getting a cheap, reliable car (a Honda Civic is a good call) and taking a few roadtrips. America (to a great extent, like the UK) is an incredibly diverse place, culturally and geographically. Pretty much any direction you drive, there will be something different that is worth seeing.

One more thing: if you're on one of those road trips and you stop at a roadside restaurant, do not order the "Trucker's Special", unless you wish to drown yourself in grease and sugar.*

What would you like to see on BRSM blog in the future?

Uh, more BRSM Blog goodness? You do such a good job of being yourself, why would I tell you to do otherwise?

Best wishes, dude.

*Unless, of course, that is something you like to do.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Podcast: Beth Halford on the plight (and joys) of being a postdoc

Beth Halford and I sat down to have a quick chat about the life of postdocs, based on her really interesting article in this week's C&EN. It was really fun and the edited recording is below:


0:00 - 2:00: What's been the background of postdocs?
4:30: The happiness of postdocs
6:30: The postdocs that Beth knew
7:00: Crowdfunding a postdoc (CJ grossly underestimates the cost of a FTE)
8:55: PIs and their postdocs
9:50: Should we pay postdocs more? Beth on Paula Stephan
11:00: $16/hour
12:00: Why do a postdoc?
13:30: The finances of postdocs
15:11: Jessica Breen's cogent comments on delaying life milestones?
17:15: Are postdocs really broader?
19:45: The postdoc arms race
22:17: The longest postdoc you've heard of
23:55: When will the arms race be over?
27:55: What should postdocs do about getting a job?

Thanks to Beth for a great conversation!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Interview: Mary Beth Mulcahy, CSB investigator

Mary Beth Mulcahy is a Ph.D. chemist and a Chemical Safety Board investigator. She was kind enough to offer me some of her time for an e-mail interview. What follows is an e-mail interview; it has been formatted for the blog and is basically unedited.

Can you tell us a little about your background? 

Dr. Mulcahy: Public school education mixed with a paper route, fast food jobs, and Science Olympiad in high school eventually led me to a major in chemistry at a private liberal arts school called Colorado College in Colorado Springs. By a chance meeting with someone at a party the last month of my senior year in college, I landed a high school teaching job in a small mountain town that eventually lead me to a teaching job in New York City. After three years of teaching, I went back to tackle a PhD in physical chemistry at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The National Science Foundation provided the funding for a post-doc in Bariloche, Argentina at the Centro Atómico. After returning from my post-doc, I taught high school again for one year before working for a biotech company and then ultimately the CSB.

How did you end up working at CSB? 

Dr. Mulcahy: When I started graduate school at 25 I suppose I thought I would get a PhD and be a professor, but somewhere along the way I realized that I did not want that career path. When I came back from my post-doc, I took a job at the high school where my husband was teaching because they really needed someone and I thought it would be fun to teach again. If anyone out there ever forgets why they got into science in the first place, I highly recommend he or she get a part-time job teaching high school science and then spend the entire year doing interesting demos and experiments with the students that get at real-life problems. (I say part-time because teaching is an incredibly time-consuming job and I do not think one could get the full enjoyment from it if he or she had a full teaching load.)

While I thoroughly enjoy teaching and definitely see myself doing it again toward the end of my career, I really wanted to see what I could do with a PhD. I took full advantage of ACS's help for the unemployed chemist and attended a national meeting for free (I think ACS still lets unemployed members attend for free) where I listened to a seminar on how to use the web to find a job (this was an amazing seminar put on by someone from Google I believe), participated in a kind of speed-dating type round table session to get exposure to other career options for a chemist, and communicated with a mentor that the ACS connected me to. Then, I started searching for a job using two methods I repeatedly read would not work--I cold called companies and answered Craigslist job posts. I was able to secure three interviews and two jobs using the methods.

I originally saw a CSB job posted on Craigslist and the description intrigued me. The CSB at that point was clearly looking for a chemical engineer who had worked in a chemical plant or refinery, but the CSB was also looking for interns. Never one to pass up an interesting opportunity, I applied for the internship and ultimately obtained the position almost a full year after I originally applied. So that year I believe the CSB had two 22 year-old interns, one 23 year-old intern, and me who was over thirty and had a PhD. Still amuses me to think that is how I got here.

What do you do from day-to-day at CSB? 

Dr. Mulcahy: To explain what I do day-to-day I need to give a little background on what the Chemical Safety Board does. At the CSB we conduct root cause investigations of chemical accidents. At first glance, you might think a root cause would be technical in nature such as identifying the corrosion mechanism that lead to the failure of a pipe or storage vessel. More often than not, the corrosion mechanism (or hazard) is well known and awareness of its existence was not enough to preclude the accident. As a result, we focus on finding a correctable failure in the underlying management system that enabled the conditions to develop which ultimately lead to the accident.

During the life cycle of an investigation, my day-to-day activities change depending on whether I am in the office or deployed. Typically we deploy to an accident scene within the first days after the incident has occurred. The early focus is securing the scene to preserve evidence and interviewing eye witnesses.

Once this initial phase passes, we enter into a reiterative process both in the field and the office of reviewing documents, testing equipment/samples, and conducting interviews to understand the equipment/system that failed and the management system it operated in. In the office I spend a lot of time reading through company provided documents, researching technical issues, and coordinating testing. It is much like a down day in the lab when you spend time doing literature searches, plot your data, and maybe contact other scientists about papers they have written. What I like most about office work is every case presents new learning opportunities in science, law/policy, and safety.

Our goal is not to simply fix a single company, but to effect change in an industry so advocacy work is important. This means attending meetings with regulators and  professional organizations that generate best practice guidance to begin a dialogue about the recommendations that the CSB is considering submitting and presenting initial (or final) findings to help promote the safety change we are advocating. After a report is released, outreach remains important and so I give many presentations around the country as well.

What I don’t do on a daily basis is any bench chemistry because the CSB does not have its own laboratories, though I use my chemistry skills often to interface with contractors and in all of the analysis that I do.

What level of experience or expertise do typical CSB investigators have, before they join? 

Dr. Mulcahy: This is extremely varied. The CSB investigators range from just out of college to over 25 years industry experience. In addition to myself, the CSB recruits employees with backgrounds in engineering(chemical, safety, mechanical), human factors, environmental science/policy, occupational health/safety, public policy, chemical accident investigations, and lawyers. Safety and PSM experience at refineries and/or chemical process facilities would help you succeed at the CSB.

If someone wanted a job like yours at CSB, what would you recommend that they do? 

Dr. Mulcahy: If you are still in college I would suggest you pursue internships in the oil and chemical industries or at the CSB (we have internships).  Also enroll in classes that will give you exposure to safety issues in the oil and chemical industries.  If you are working in the industry volunteer for safety investigations and for assignments that take you out of your comfort zone such as researching codes/regulations or writing sections of the final safety investigation report.  Finally, speaking of writing - it is so important for our jobs –no matter where you are in your career take technical writing classes and learn how to communicate technical information to non technical audiences.

What do you think is most misunderstood about the TTU/Preston Brown case? I confess that I am tempted by the 'it was a guy being dumb' answer, and I understand that, safety culture-wise, that's insufficient.  

Dr. Mulcahy: That accidents happen because of “rogue” researchers and if you take the researcher out of the system, an accident will not happen. Look at the TTU report and take the student out of the equation, all the other system deficiencies still existed. Perhaps the exact accident wouldn’t occur if the researcher were removed, but the deficiencies leave the door open for a different accident.

If you were to talk to a group of young graduate students about academic lab safety, what 3 things would you recommend? 

Dr. Mulcahy: I have a full-time job investigating worst-case scenarios and major accidents, they are not as rare as you think.

Learn how to conduct a hazard analysis. This will absolutely require you to talk to more senior researchers since it is difficult to identify hazards in a process you are unfamiliar with.

There is no perfect safety barrier, which means any barrier could fail at any time. Look for inherently safer methods to accomplish your goals, but if you can’t be sure to design your experiments with multiple safety barriers to minimize the risk to you.

If you were to talk to a group of experienced laboratory chemists about chemical lab safety (or chemical plant safety, for that matter), what 3 things would you recommend?

Dr. Mulcahy: Really, I would say the same things I did above.

There is a great quote on safety culture that says it is “…how the organization behaves when no one is watching.”  (American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AICHE), Safety Culture: What is at Stake?,  on 6/16/2011.) I would tell them this quote and then ask if they put on their goggles (even if they were normal eyeglasses) every time they walked into their laboratories.

What gets measured gets paid attention to, and so I would recommend they find ways to actively measure safety in their laboratories. (I just published something about this in a joint paper with other authors for the Journal of Chemical Health and Safety that might be useful to a reader wanted more of an explanation )

CJ here again. Thanks to Dr. Mulcahy for a great interview!

Job posting: Visiting Assistant Professor, Greensboro, NC

From the inbox: 
Guilford College invites applications for a full-time, one-year position in the Chemistry department beginning August 15, 2013. Teaching responsibilities include one organic chemistry lecture and three organic and general chemistry laboratories. A Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry is preferred, but ABD applicants are encouraged to apply. Applicants should electronically submit a cover letter, current vita, statement of teaching philosophy and areas of scholarly interest and research activities, transcripts, and contact information for three references at (Posting Number: F00015)
Best wishes! Click here for details.  

Job posting: Visiting Assistant Professor, Lebanon, TN

From the inbox, a visiting assistant professor position:
Cumberland University seeks applications for a visiting assistant professor position in chemistry as a sabbatical replacement.  Demonstrated excellence in teaching, scholarship, and university service are highly desirable.  Duties include teaching chemistry courses from general chemistry to upper division courses at the undergraduate level, university committee work, recruiting, and assessment. 
Click here for details.  

Daily Pump Trap: 5/23/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 21 and May 22, there were 9 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 8 (89%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

It's a cure all, too:Reynolds American is looking for a B.S. chemist/flavor scientist (emphasis mine):
R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company is seeking an experienced Flavor Scientist with knowledge in flavor chemistry to support the development of tobacco products consistent with RJRT's Growth, Innovation and Harm Reduction Platforms. The Flavor Scientist is responsible for developing new and innovative taste profiles to support project initiatives and for the sensory assessment of tobacco products. 
Requirements: BA/BS technical degree required in chemistry, biology or food science with three or more years relevant work experience or MS in related science field with relevant work experience. 
This position requires smoking to assess the sensory characteristics of cigarettes; therefore, is open to current smokers only.
That's pretty awesome. (Q: "How did you get your job?" A: "Well, I'm a pack-a-day smoker.")

*Yes, I recognize the song is about chewing tobacco, but I just love the song so. 

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 247, 13, 2779 and 14 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 110 positions for the job title "chemist", with 9 for "research chemist", 15 for "analytical chemist" and 2 for "organic chemist."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

10 ul microsyringes

A list of small, useful things (links):
Readers, did I miss anything? 

The most interesting paragraph I read today

My sincere apologies with the relatively quiet posting recently. I do indeed have a Process Wednesday post in the works, but I found this to be such an interesting framing of the issue by Alyssa Rosenberg, commenting on Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and her approach to looking at childcare costs that I had to post it:
Similarly, Sandberg suggests a different way to look at the cost of child care. Rather than considering nannying or preschool costs as a dilemma, something that wipes out a woman’s earnings, or that’s discretionary spending to allow a woman to continue doing something that she likes, Sandberg once again reframes the question, acknowledging that “Child care is a huge expense, and it’s frustrating to work hard just to break even. But professional women need to measure the cost of child care against their future salary rather than their current salary…Wisely, Anna and other women have started to think of paying for child care as a way of investing in their families’ future.” 
Sandberg makes a very interesting point and one that I hadn't considered. When I calculate child care for our family budget, I usually do the math against our income (numerator = child care, denominator = wages). I had not taken into account that, over time, the wages term goes up...

[One should point out that for those, like Ms. Sandberg, who have/desire offices in the C-suite, the beginning years of one's career probably play much more of a role in future income than those of us to aspire to more mundane titles like "group leader" or "senior principal fellow."] 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Not a surprise for some reason

Imagine reading an article on private spaceflight in New York magazine and coming across this interesting tidbit (emphasis mine):
Virgin Galactic’s CEO is a 39-year-old American named George Whitesides, who I met one evening after ISPCS. The son of a legendary chemist, he is himself a nonscientist who decided to devote his life to space one night in Tunisia, while studying women’s rights in the Islamic world on a Fulbright scholarship, when he found himself walking on the shore of the Mediterranean beneath an impossibly starry sky. He’s worked for Virgin for three years—recruited by Branson from NASA, where he served as the administrator’s chief of staff—but has been a customer for almost a decade: He and his wife, self-described “space geeks,” were among the first to set down a combined $400,000 for Virgin’s then-rather-speculative flights. It was meant, even at the time, to be a delayed honeymoon. 
George Whitesides (the senior?) is known to all as a character -- somehow not a surprise that his son would be radically different as well.

[The article is worth a read -- sounds like private spaceflight will be interesting and off-beat. I am, for the most part, a techno-optimist; I think that trends have always been towards popularizing technology that was initially only accessible to the very wealthy. All of that to say that I think that more people will be able to experience spaceflight than we ever imagined.] 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/21/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 16 and May 20, there were 51 new positions posted to the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 2 (4%) were academically connected and 44 (86%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Athens, GA: Noramco (a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary) is looking for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. senior analytical chemist; 6+ years experience desired.

Aurora, Illinois: Aurora Specialty Textiles Group is looking for a M.S. chemist to be a senior coatings chemist. 10+ years experience desired.

Classic Kelly: "Bustling Lab Technician." (Crockett, ?) 

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/21/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 14 and May 20, there were 4 academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 4
- Postdocs: 0
- Tenure-track faculty:  1
- Temporary faculty: 0
- Lecturer positions:  2
- Staff positions:  1
- US/non-US: 3/1

Abu Dhabi: New York University Abu Dhabi is looking for an assistant instructor for general and organic chemistry:
New York University has established a campus in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and invites applications for several Assistant Instructor positions. We encourage applicants with experience in teaching, preferably at the undergraduate level, and in planning and conducting laboratory experiments in organic, physical and analytical chemistry. An M.S., B.S. or PhD with teaching and research experience in chemistry is preferred.
So what you're really saying is: we'll take anyone. (For those intrigued by this Abu Dhabi position, here's a recent write-up of the campus by New York magazine.)

Jupiter, FL: Scripps Florida is looking for a Ph.D. NMR core facility manager; why do they prefer local residents?

Memphis, TN: The University of Tennessee Health Science Center is looking for an assistant/associate/full professor of pharmaceutics:
The successful candidate is expected to have a strong research program in the areas of pharmaceutics, physical pharmacy, drug delivery, gene therapy, nanotechnology, nanomedicine, regenerative medicine, bio-imaging, biosensors, biomedical engineering, or other related discipline with focus on drug discovery and development. 
Casting a broad net, I see.

Monday, May 20, 2013

C&EN: Is it wise to do multiple postdocs?

My short answer: no. 

3 true things in that Beth Halford article, and one awesome industrial inconsistency

3 true things and one awesome inconsistency that I was glad to see in Beth Halford's article on the current state of the chemistry postdoctoral fellow in this week's C&EN:

It's the job market: From Kelly O. Sullivan, a very, very good point:
“The challenge that postdocs are facing is probably the same that everyone is facing: a weak job market,” says Kelly O. Sullivan, who manages the Linus Pauling Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowships at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and is the current president of Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society.
I wonder if the senior industrial executives quoted in the article would be willing to admit that they were (or at least "the industry" or "the economy" was) part of the problem.

Hey, these salaries aren't so great: It's great to see a look at how inflation affects postdoc salaries:
Salaries reflect another disturbing development: Postdoc chemists seem to be making less money than they used to. According to the ACS survey, in 2005 the median salary for postdocs was $36,000. In 2012 it was $40,000. 
Although those numbers suggest that salaries are edging upward, they’re not when adjusted for inflation, says Gareth S. Edwards, senior research associate with the Department of Research & Member Insights at ACS. “Unfortunately, real dollar value—what that salary will buy you—is slowly decreasing, meaning that postdocs are earning less each year,” he says. From 2005 to 2012, salaries increased 11.1%, while the Consumer Price Index rose 16.1%.
I'll put my cards on the table and say that I am not one of the people who really buys into the "inflation is killing us!!!" theory of the post-recession economy and the Federal Reserve's activities. That said, inflation is still there, and it is interesting to note that like senior citizens, postdocs and other folks who rely on a stipend (that's not tied to merit, or subject to regular raises) are basically on a fixed income. Huh.

Life milestone opportunity costs: I found Jessica Breen's comments about her twin very interesting and true:
Because of the transient nature of the position, many postdocs end up putting off major life decisions, such as getting married and having children, until after they’ve finished their studies. “I have a twin sister, who I think is a good example of a normal person my age who is exactly like me but who isn’t a postdoc,” says Jessica Breen, a second-year postdoc at the University of Leeds, in England. “My sister is married. She’s got a mortgage and a house. She’s just had her first baby. I haven’t even thought about buying a house. I can’t even think about getting married because I don’t have money to do so.”
I wonder what would happen if people said, "if you do this postdoc, you're going to delay getting married or buying a house for another couple of years?" (For the most part, the answer would be, "beats starving, or continuing to be a graduate student.")

Check out this massive disagreement between Dow's Banholzer, DuPont and Vertex: Remember the Banholzer Award, where Dow's William Banholzer said this?:
But you'll notice that a history of postdocing is not among the characteristics that appear in Banholzer's description. "I don't think I need to hire postdocs," he told PCAST. A Ph.D. earned under an excellent professor is sufficient education, he says, because Dow provides newly hired scientists its own training for the work that they will be doing. "They sort of get their postdoc on the job," he notes. 
Here's what other industrial executives think:
Industrial employers’ opinions are more variable, but they still give postdocs an edge. “It is a slight positive but by no means necessary for our jobs,” says Gary S. Calabrese, senior vice president at Corning. “If there is a particular technical need we have and someone has the right skills, it does not matter if it came through their Ph.D. or a postdoc. Having said this, of course those with postdoctoral experience are by definition broader and have a greater chance of being a technical match for us.” 
Pat N. Confalone, vice president of DuPont Crop Protection, tells C&EN that although a postdoc isn’t a requirement to get a job at DuPont, it is a definite plus. “All things being equal, someone who has a postdoc is going to be more attractive to industry than someone without a postdoc,” he says. 
“The majority of applicants that we see have postdoctoral experience,” adds Mark Namchuk, senior vice president of research for North America with Vertex Pharmaceuticals. “A postdoc is not essential, but it is becoming the norm. Aside from the additional experience, it often provides diversification of a scientist’s skill set.”
First, I think "those with postdoctoral experience are by definition broader" is a potential stretch. What is the evidence of this? I think that graduate students and their doctoral and postdoctoral advisers are well-served to make sure that's true.

I think the true test is this: are chemists with postdocs paid more in industry or hired faster than those who do not? I think I have made the case before that there is a potential opportunity cost in salary to taking a postdoc; as I said then, if it helps you get you hired, then it's worth it.

Readers, what do you think? 

NAS study on academic chemical safety to begin

Also from this week's C&EN, a report by Jeff Johnson that the National Academy of Sciences is going to look into academic chemical safety:
Safety in academic and other nonindustrial chemical research laboratories will be the focus of a yearlong investigation by a National Academy of Sciences committee, which held its first meeting last week in Washington, D.C. The study will consider how safe lab practices can be promoted in academic and government labs, explained H. Holden Thorp, committee chairman, chemistry professor, and chancellor of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. 
The examination sprang from numerous chemistry-related lab accidents, particularly ones at the University of California, Los Angeles, in December 2008, and Texas Tech University in January 2010. Since the Texas Tech incident, 65 accidents* (see update) have occurred at academic and government chemical research labs, according to Mary Beth Mulcahy, a Chemical Safety & Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) investigator who spoke at the meeting. Those accidents injured 136 and killed two.
Several speakers stressed anecdotal evidence indicating that industrial labs are safer than nonindustry labs. But little hard data emerged to demonstrate or explain the proposed difference. The committee will investigate if such differences are real, and if so, whether industry safety measures can be applied to nonindustry labs.
There have been two deaths in academic and government chemical research labs since TTU in January 2010. One of them is likely Michelle Dufault, the student who died in a Yale machine shop. The other? I am not sure. Anyone know which incident Dr. Mulcahy might be referring to?* (see update)

I'm looking forward to a statistical look by NAS on the differences between academic and industrial labs; I'm tired of the anecdotal evidence.

UPDATE: Jyllian Kemsley writes in the comments:
CJ, we erred in how we framed that statistic. It should be "65 accidents have occurred at academic, government, and industrial chemical research labs." We're working on correcting the story. 
Regarding the two deaths, Mulcahy doesn't count Dufault because the incident occurred in a machine shop rather than a chemistry lab. The two deaths are: 
- Adrian Martin, Membrane Technology & Research, gas cylinder explosion
- Unidentified Battelle contractor, Aberdeen Proving Ground, lab explosion and fire 
There's one more lab death that Mulcahy doesn't count, because it was microbiology rather than chemistry: Richard Din, San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center, bacterial infection contracted from the lab.
Thanks to Jyllian for the fast response.

BASF to expand its worldwide research spending

From this week's C&EN, an article on BASF by Alex Scott that might be good news for U.S. chemical-industry jobseekers over the next few years:
The Americas and Asia will each get 25% of BASF’s research budget and scientists by 2020 under a plan being advanced by Andreas Kreimeyer, BASF’s board member responsible for research. The company now conducts most of its research in Europe, but to get closer to its customers and work with the world’s best scientists, it must venture outside the Continent, according to Kreimeyer. [snip]
...BASF already increased its R&D spending outside Europe by 3% in 2012 with the opening of seven new labs and the extension of existing labs in Asia-Pacific and the U.S. For example, the firm launched its Innovation Campus Asia Pacific in Shanghai for up to 450 scientists. It’s also rolling out a research center for battery materials in Amagasaki, Japan, opening a mining R&D center in Perth, Australia, and has plans to introduce an R&D center in India. 
BASF has “substantially strengthened” its R&D efforts in the Americas, Kreimeyer said. Notable U.S. projects include a new lab in Wyandotte, Mich., for developing thermoplastic polyurethanes in cooperation with customers in the automotive, building, construction, and sports industries across North America. 
Also in the U.S., BASF, in association with Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the University of Massachusetts, recently inaugurated the American Center for Research on Advanced Materials. Over the next five years, the partners aim to develop microstructures and nanostructured polymers with new properties and come up with bioinspired materials.
Well, that's certainly good news for Michigan, it seems. The academic/industrial collaboration model seems to be alive and well these days, no? It will be very interesting to see how it works out for the industry over the next 5 to 10 years. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Hey, that's not the right data!

Some of you may have seen this James Hicks article in The Scientist, where he shows a graph that seems to correlate high notices of retractions with low NIH grant success rates. Interesting idea, right?

Unfortunately, Nature reporter Richard Van Noorden (the collector of some of the data used in the graph) notes that Professor Hicks did not use the most relevant data for his retractions (i.e. US retractions, funded by the NIH) for his graph. When you do, the correlation is not nearly so clear.

I agree with Richard that the hypothesis is sound (i.e. as it gets more difficult to get funded, the incentive to cheat goes up), but it remains unproven. 

Man, I want to go to China someday to give a talk

From international political economy professor Daniel Drezner, a comment on being paid honoraria for speaking in China:
1) From a personal perspective, as the occasional visitor to China, I can confirm the wads of cash thing -- but it's a bit more complicated than Barboza suggests. First of all, for U.S. academics at least, the payment isn't in renminbi, but in U.S. dollars. Renminbi is sometimes dispensed for things like per diem reimbursements, but not for honoraria. After all, officially, the RMB is still not convertible to dollars outside of the country, so it wouldn't be very nice to get paid in a currency that is technically useless outside the People's Republic. 
There are two other qualifiers here. First, at least with respect to academic honoraria, it's not just China that pays in cash -- so does Japan, for example. Second, speaking as an academic who's received the occasional honorarium, it's friggin' awesome. At some point, someone takes you aside and gives you an envelope stuffed with bills. I know it's impolite to say, but every time it happens, I feel like I'm an earner in Tony Soprano's crew. It's soooooo much more satisfying than getting a check (as is the norm in the U.S.) or receiving a bank transfer three months later than it should be and only after haranguing someone a few times (as is the norm in Europe). 
Having just worked in the United States, I haven't had the pleasure of being paid in cash. (I've been paid in work experience and donuts -- why do you ask?) Whenever I go to the ATM to pull out a couple hundred bucks when we go on vacation, I always feel a little weird.

Readers, what's the best way you've been paid?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Awesome, enraging articles to read

This day has been busy (as you might be able to tell), but a few things to talk about:
  • This C&EN article by Beth Halford on the current state of the postdoc and the problem of chemists taking multiple postdocs is definitely worth a read and worth further comment. I love the quotes from senior industrial folks; it'll be great to see how their opinions match with how their companies have been hiring. 
  • Derek Lowe has a couple of great comments today:
    • The first, about an Atlantic article that talks about the problems with getting Western pharmaceutical companies to address neglected/tropical diseases. Derek has some problems with the article, naturally. I do too, especially with the thought that the solution to the problem is getting the global (i.e. non-developed world's) pharmaceutical manufacturing capacity to solve the problem. 
    • Coincidentally, the second great comment is about Fortune magazine's fantastic exposé of the quality issues and outright fraud that was happening at Ranbaxy's plants in India for about a decade. For example, they were using submitting bioequivalence data to the FDA using drug manufactured by brand-name companies or competitors. After reading that article, I am not sure how Ranbaxy has managed to stay in business. 
All three of these articles deserve your attention (and mine!)

It's a simple question: do you care about your people, or your career?

Nick Palmisciano is a former infantry officer in the U.S. Army. At the start of an interesting set of comments about being a new Army infantry officer (engagingly titled "Don't Be A Douche"), an interesting comment on caring about your people:
2.) Your guys are more important than your career.  
This ties in nicely with my last point, but it is worthy of its own bullet.  You’re all going to be civilians someday, no matter how much you love the military or how long you serve.  Years from now, the fact that you made Colonel or Sergeant Major won't erase the fact that you threw some unsuspecting subordinate under the bus to avoid punishment, and it certainly won't remove a stupid decision you made based on pressure from above that got someone killed or injured.  Every leader I've ever respected has been willing to stand in the Gates of Fire when it mattered.  If you're not willing to do this for your people, be honest with yourself and quit.  Join corporate America – you'll just annoy people, not get them killed, and you'll make more money.  Everyone wins.
I'm reminded of (former Marine commandant) Al Gray's comment to The Basic School in Tom Ricks' great book Making the Corps:
What bothers him most about today's military, he goes on to say, is careerism. It has eroded the other services  he warns, and is creeping into the Corps. The only thing you should worry about, he tells the assembled second lieutenants, is taking care of your people. In fact, he recommends adding one new little box to the officer evaluation reports: It would say, Does this officer care more about his career than about his troops? A "yes" mark would terminate that officer's career. 
Obviously, the evaluation criteria for officers in the military and managers in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries are very different. The military expects 'leadership' (a vague term, to be sure) out of its officers and senior non-commissioned officers as a primary responsibility; that's not necessarily the case for the business world.

However, I believe that direct reports can sense when supervisors and managers see them as valued members of a team (not, I note, just by referring to them as "a team") and not human data collection devices that will provide information/products/processes that will lead to greater corporate glory.*

I'm not naive enough to think that there isn't a mutual benefit aspect to this, of course. A good way to move up in the world is "make your boss look good." (Making your boss look bad, of course, is a good way to move down as well.) Direct reports are very, very good at sensing when that "mutual benefit" is out of balance, and they're even better at sensing when managers are actively taking credit for results and decisions that they did not make.

I agree with General Gray -- larger organizations should take note of the potential careerism of their employees and incorporate it into their evaluations of managers. I am, of course, hopelessly naive.

*This is probably where industry's long-time model for scientific administration may be failing. It is usually the case that the person at the top is some combination of "the smartest scientist" and "the most senior person" and "the person most likely to make good decisions." Somehow, that got translated into "to be a people manager/supervisor, you probably need a Ph.D." Academics don't teach leadership/mentorship skills to their graduate students, and I am not sure that they should. 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/16/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 14 and May 15, there were 15 jobs posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 2 (13%) were academically connected and 9 (60%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Zeroes!: Vertex (Cambridge, MA) continues its run of hiring with a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemical development position. 0-3+ years experience for Ph.D.s, 5+ for M.S., 8+ for B.S. positions.

San Jose, CA: Energy Storage Stealth is a startup, doing something very interesting that I can't quite tell what it is...:
We are a new start-up, located in San Jose, California, that is working on a fundamental disruption in the field of energy storage. The company seeks to change the paradigm in energy storage by developing a completely new class of electrical energy storage device. If successful, the technology could revolutionize the industry. We are backed by top VC firms. 
Gotta love the buzzwords. Description of the position:
The candidate will own the formulation development process and scale up production of inks, slurries, and chemical process solutions.  The candidate is required to identify conditions and variables for formulation stability and quality, and undertake continuous process improvement using statistical DOE.  This person will develop a qualification process and a characterization infrastructure for formulations and must be familiar with SPC environment.  The candidate is expected to identify, specify, purchase, and implement process and equipment for scale up.  The ideal candidate is self-motivated, team oriented, can work independently and in teams, and is seeking an atmosphere conducive to learning and growth.
What's weird about it is that the pay is listed as $160-$180. What's that about? Oh, and this too: "Additional Salary Information: start-up so equity play"

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 241, 730, 2751 and 14 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 99 positions for the job title "chemist", with 4 for "organic chemist", 14 for "analytical chemist" and 10 for "research chemist."

Bonus via LinkedIn: Nintendo of America is looking for a QC chemist, I think. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Resolved: Applying to Advertised Postdoctoral Positions May Be Unwise. Discuss.

I would like to hear people's opinions about advertised academic (i.e. non-industrial) postdoctoral positions. Isn't it a truism to say that most of the desirable postdoctoral employers do not advertise, yet still manage to fill their labs with armies of fellows?

Aren't advertised academic positions basically saying, "We can't find anyone who wants to work for me unbidden?" Is there anything wrong with that? Assistant professors and such gotta start somewhere, right?

So it might be good for the professor to get experienced hands in the lab. Is it good for the postdoc? I'm not so sure. Even if they manage to do awesome science (and of course, they will), will their employer have the influence to get their postdoc a good next position?

Readers, what say you? 

Wrong sample causes retraction

From Retraction Watch, a very interesting explanation from a Chinese group (Yang, UST-China, Hefei):
We recently published a paper entitled “s-wave superconductivity in Ba-doped phenanthrene as revealed by specific-heat measurements.” The sample studied in that paper as Ba1.5-doped phenanthrene is now found to be La-doped phenanthrene. This error was caused by mislabeling the La-doped phenanthrene sample as Ba1.5-doped phenanthrene. During our experiment, we synthesized La- and Ba-doped phenanthrene in the same furnace because both of them have the same sintering temperatures and procedures. The mislabeling occurred when the samples were taken out of the furnace with incorrect records. In addition, it is now found that both Ba- and La-doped phenanthrene show similar superconducting transition temperatures. 
In an earlier paper, we reported superconductivity in Ba-doped phenanthrene. At that time, we had not yet begun synthesizing La-doped phenanthrene samples, so it was impossible to have made a similar mislabeling error. Furthermore, we burned the superconducting Sr-doped and Ba-doped phenanthrene samples reported in the earlier paper at 750°C in air for 2 h and found that the final products were SrCO3 and BaCO3, respectively, which definitely proves that the samples in the earlier paper, indeed, have the composition reported there. 
We are sorry for this error, and we ask that the paper not be regarded as part of the scientific literature. The data in the retracted paper with the correct reanalysis may be reported in a different paper, and the conclusions could be considered valid for La-doped phenanthrene.
Assuming that this is an accurate reporting, I am in some amount of sympathy with the authors. Mislabeling of samples happens -- but it shouldn't make it all the way into a paper.  

Daily Pump Trap: 5/14/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 9 and May 13, there have been 59 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 5 (8%) are academically connected and 28 (47%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

This job is probably awesomer than yours: From NASA (Greenbelt, MD):
The Astrochemistry Laboratory, in Greenbelt, Maryland, is seeking a research scientist to provide expertise in studies of trace materials in complex organic compounds of astrobiological and cosmochemical interest.  You will serve as a Research Physical Scientist in the Astrobiology Analytical Lab, a state-of-the-art analytical laboratory that specializes in the characterization of organic and biochemical materials that could precede the development of life or that could be derived from fossil life either on Earth or throughout the solar system. 
Studies include analyses of natural samples of amino acids and other organic materials extracted from meteorites, interplanetary dust particles, material returned via NASA missions, and analog samples utilizing chromatography and mass spectrometry.  Work also includes development of advanced in situ methods and organic detection instrumentation for future planetary missions.  Research requires the analysis of small and precious samples and careful techniques to understand and limit organic contamination. 
Requirements: A record of successful planetary proposals and peer-reviewed publications is required.  Bachelors degree required, PhD in a relevant field is preferred.  Candidates must have experience in characterizing organic and biochemical materials to investigate questions of astrochemical and astrobiological interest related to the Origin of Life using chromatography and mass spectrometry, method development for the analysis of small organic compounds, and handling of precious, often irreplaceable samples.  U.S. citizenship required. 
The kicker: $89,033.00 - 136,771.00 offered. (Best wishes to the 4 or 5 people who are qualified for this position...)

Midland, MI: Dow Corning is looking for a M.S./Ph.D. chemist to be a product development chemist; experience in silicone synthesis and coatings desired.

Waltham, MA: Alkermes is looking for an analytical postdoc for solid-state pharmaceutical chemistry.

Akron, OH: Bridgestone America is looking for materials scientists towards tires:
Researchers at this location are primarily dedicated to the development of new materials for tires and other applications and are working cooperatively with scientists and engineers at our three major Technical Centers in Akron, Tokyo, and Rome. For the Materials Scientist position, qualified candidates are preferred to have a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering, Polymer Science, Physics, Materials Science and Engineering, or a related field with desired experience in the polymer/soft matter area. Solid academic training, creativity, and problem-solving abilities are essential for the position. 
Could be interesting.

Shimadzu: They're on a relative hiring spree, with 7 new positions across the country.

Iowa City, IA: It's abundantly clear that P&G wants a Q.C. experienced A.A./B.S. chemist to do more quality control work in a plant. Why not just write that instead of 100 words of nonsense?

Oh, Kelly: When you start a sales job ad with "no cold calling!", it's gonna be a good one. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/14/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 7 and May 13, there were 9 academic positions posted on C&EN Jobs. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 9
- Postdocs: 1
- Tenure-track faculty:  5
- Temporary faculty: 0
- Lecturer positions:  2
- Staff positions:  1
- US/non-US: 7/2

Cleveland, MS: Delta State University is hiring an assistant/associate professor of biochemistry. (Wasn't there some sort of vaguely famous restaurant in that town? I saw it on CBS Sunday Morning a while back.)

Princess Anne, MD: The University of Maryland - Eastern Shore campus is hiring an assistant professor of medicinal chemistry.

Savannah, GA: Armstrong Atlantic State University is hiring an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Saudi Arabia?: This little ad from the University of Akron is pretty fun:
University Innovation Ventures (UIV) in cooperation with The University of Akron Research Foundation is seeking highly qualified candidates with demonstrated leadership and elastomer teaching capabilities to instruct at a new world-class English-based vocational training institute in The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). The High Institute for Elastomer Industries (HIEI) opened in September 2012 training technologists to work in the nascent elastomer industry in Saudi Arabia:
 Sounds interesting, mostly. Might be an adventure...

Monday, May 13, 2013

What are the economics of rare disease research?

Also in this week's C&EN, Lisa Jarvis has a series of very interesting stories on rare diseases: their funding models, the regulatory hurdles and the families that have become advocates in Congress and in industry for their children. The story starts with a very affecting anecdote about some boys getting some medicine:
The boys have Hunter syndrome, a rare and fatal genetic disease caused by a deficiency in an enzyme that breaks down sugar molecules. The missing enzyme is just one of more than 100 housed in the lysosome, the cell’s waste bin. Today, some 50 different inherited diseases—known broadly as lysosomal storage diseases—are caused by genetic mutations that disable one of those enzymes. In Hunter syndrome, which affects only boys, the buildup of sugar molecules over time causes symptoms such as stiff joints, enlarged spleens, and difficulty breathing. For children like Justin and Jason, who have a form of the disease that affects the brain, the accumulation also causes a rapid decline in mental function. And it’s rare—just one in 155,000 boys are born with the disease. 
Elaprase replaces the missing enzyme, iduronate-2-sulfatase, buying the boys valuable time by shrinking their spleens and helping their heart and lungs function. Yet it won’t save their lives. Elaprase can’t get past the blood-brain barrier, the cellular security gate that protects our most complex organ, so it can’t stop the mental deterioration that will cause the boys to lose their ability to walk and talk. Most boys with Hunter syndrome die by age 15. 
Elaprase is also breathtakingly expensive. As his sons run in circles through the kitchen and living room, Jeff Leider holds up a small glass vial filled with clear liquid. “That’s, like, $10,000 right there,” he says, eying the bottle with a mix of awe and disbelief. Having two kids with Hunter syndrome who need several vials per treatment, the Leiders’ annual bill approaches $1 million. Deena’s insurance covers the bulk of the cost, and Shire, the drug’s manufacturer, takes care of the rest through a patient assistance program.
First, I cannot imagine what these parents are going through. Wow -- my heart breaks for them.

Second, I wonder how the pharmaceutical industry and the insurance companies will manage to work out this delicate interplay for these rare diseases. How can insurers bear these very high costs for modern pharmaceuticals, which seem to be astronomically expensive? Jarvis does note that the insurers seem be playing ball for now...:
But the naysayers were proven wrong. The Food & Drug Administration approved the drug in 1994, and Genzyme charged an unprecedented $200,000 per year. Although insurance companies balked at the cost, they eventually agreed to cover it. Companies like Genzyme ensured patient access by introducing assistance programs that helped families with potentially high copays.
Insurance companies are not exactly some of America's most loved corporations. That said, one wonders how long that they'll be able to afford these sorts of treatments -- especially if governments keep broadening mandates for insurance coverage and (perhaps rightly so) limiting their ability to extricate themselves from covering undesirable, unfortunate policyholders who happen to have rare diseases that are expensive to treat. (I suspect that, in reality, it's not a large enough group to put a hole in their margins too badly.)

Also, with this rare disease stuff, I wonder if this means that we're going spend more time and resources curing the rare diseases of the families who have the social capital to advocate for their sick loved ones than those who don't. Something tells me no. I suspect the overlap between "rare diseases of people who can advocate well" and "rare diseases that are tractable to modern pharmaceuticals" is very, very small and no larger than the overlap between "tractable rare diseases" and "rare diseases of people with little social capital." Probably a good thing, that.

This week's C&EN

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

Friday, May 10, 2013

Sheets of aluminum foil

A list of small, useful things (links):
Readers, did I miss anything? 

Have a great weekend!

A sad, puzzling #altchemjobs anecdote

From Sam Stein of The Huffington Post, an interesting anecdote in a story about young scientists and their issues with the current federal funding climate:
One particularly jarring example of this brain drain, recounted by two independent sources, took place in the summer and fall of 2012. A young researcher in the Midwest with a Ph.D. in chemistry from a prominent state school had been left unemployed after the project on which she had worked didn't get a follow-up grant. Three months of attempting to find research or academic work produced no results. With no other options, she rewrote her resume, stripping it of any mention of her Ph.D., and began applying elsewhere. Within a week, she had secured a job as a secretary at an auto parts company. 
The Huffington Post tracked down the researcher, "Rebecca," who asked that her real name not be used out of concern that it could jeopardize her current employment. Rebecca confirmed her story. Now an executive at the auto parts company, she recalled the abrupt end to her previous career as a "depressing" moment, filled with uncertainty. 
"It is possible that I could have gone to another college and gotten another post doc, but that's a temporary position," Rebecca said. "When I started way back in the day, this was the field to go into ... it is a much different field today."  
Despite 11 years of education (five as an undergrad, six for her Ph.D.) and aspirations of being a chemist, Rebecca said she has left science for good. She is happy with life outside the lab. Her company takes good care of her. 
"They are already scared I'm not there to stay because they know I'm bright," she said. "They just don't how bright."
I wonder what pushed her to make this decision? It very clearly sounds like Rebecca wants out of science, which is understandable. Well, here's hoping that she is happy with her current position.

[One notes that the current funding climate wasn't so great in summer/fall 2012, but the sequester didn't start until 2013.]

Best wishes to her, and to all of us. 

Patrick Harran pleads not guilty on 4 felony counts, LADA adds one more count to previous 3

From C&EN's Michael Torrice, the latest from the #SheriSangji case:
University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran was arraigned today on four felony charges of violating the state labor code. A Los Angeles County judge entered a not guilty plea on Harran’s behalf for all four counts. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a 2008 fire in the professor’s lab. 
Another judge ruled last month that Harran should face trial on three charges, each citing a violation of a separate state safety regulation: failure to correct unsafe workplace conditions and procedures in a timely manner, failure to require work-appropriate clothing and personal protective equipment, and failure to provide chemical safety training to employees. The Los Angeles County District Attorneys added a fourth charge that essentially expanded on the clothing and protective equipment charge. 
The new charge is for violating occupational safety regulation 3383(a), which states “body protection may be required for employees whose work exposes parts of their body, not otherwise protected as required by other orders in this article, to hazardous or flying substances or objects.” The original charge cited part (b) of that regulation: “Clothing appropriate for the work being done shall be worn. Loose sleeves, tails, ties, lapels, cuffs, or other loose clothing which can be entangled in moving machinery shall not be worn.”
The fourth charge is new and interesting news; one suspects that it is the district attorney playing hardball in plea negotiations.

The next court date (to determine how much time both sides need before the trial) will be on June 27.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

So forlorn

C&EN was advertising this auction for an old Rochester, NY photochemical plant's equipment earlier this week in its banner ads. It's not like they were long for this world, what with digital photography being what it is. But it's still sad to me, I dunno why. 

What does it take for a chemist to become a chemical engineer?

Here's a hypothetical question that I get a lot, that I don't have an answer to:
Hey, CJ: 
I'm a [insert here: junior undergraduate/new B.S. chemist/experienced Ph.D. chemist] and I'd like to get some of that sweet, sweet fracking cash and become a chemical engineer. How can I go back to school for this? 
Love, a reader
I honestly have no idea, even though I know some people who have gone this route. It seems to me that most of it requires some remedial undergraduate level classes/prerequisites and maybe a graduate degree. So, a couple sets of questions for my very knowledgeable readership:
  • If you're a senior undergraduate in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you have to take to get a B.S. in chemical engineering? 
  • If you've graduated with a degree in chemistry, how many more years of courses would you need to get a B.S. in chemical engineering? Should you just apply to graduate programs in chemical engineering?
    • Would you get laughed at for applying to graduate programs in chemical engineering as a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist? What programs are best for this transition?
  • If you've become a Ph.D. chemist, how long would it take to make this transition? Does anyone know anyone who has done this? How have they done? 
  • What level of math do you need? If p-chem was hard for you, are you completely screwed or what?
Thanks in advance. 

A very good point by Jyllian Kemsley

William Banholzer and a group of other high-level chemical corporation executives wrote a letter in this week's C&EN, where they really took academic chemical safety to task* ** -- and used an interesting metric to do it:
The facts are unequivocal. Occupational Safety & Health Administration statistics demonstrate that researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab. There have been serious accidents in academic labs in recent years—including fatalities—that could have been prevented with the proper use of protective equipment and safer laboratory procedures.
 Most chemistry and chemical engineering graduate students will find employment in industry. As new hires come on board, many companies spend weeks on remedial safety training before new hires are allowed to work in their labs. This clearly shows that the current state of graduate safety education is lacking and that there is a clear need to address it. If the report is supposed to focus on “preparing graduate students, about the future,” how can this not be a relevant topic?
Jyllian Kemsley unequivocally rejects the use of the metric yesterday (but agrees with them on the general need for academic chemical safety reform):
The “11 times more likely” statistic is inaccurately framed. I followed up on it with the letter authors and Lori Seiler, Dow’s associate director for environmental health and safety in research and development. The numbers actually compare the overall injury and illness rate for academic institutions (including those that might occur, for example, in grounds keeping or a dining hall as well as in laboratories) to Dow’s overall rate. Seiler adds that the injury and illness rate for Dow’s research laboratories is consistent with the company’s overall rate, when calculated per employee. 
That said, it seems like it would be wise for the academic community to take this letter to heart.  Banholzer, Calabrese, and Confalone are not writing in a vacuum—they see the skills that chemistry graduates lack, and those skills are necessary whether those graduates are going on to work in industry, academia, or elsewhere.
This is not the first time that Dr. Banholzer has used this metric; here's a tweet where he said it in February. (Interestingly, Jyllian Kemsley raised the same concerns. Even more interestingly, the statistic seems to have grown from a 7:1 academia/Dow ratio to 11:1.) I believe that this metric was used in Dr. Banholzer's presentation to the President's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology.

While I am also in agreement that academic chemical safety could learn from industry, I think that Dr. Banholzer is missing the regulatory aspect of the different approaches between corporations and universities. Corporations are employers, and thus have legal responsibilities to provide a safe workplace and state and federal regulatory agencies to help make that happen. There is no similar requirement or regulatory agency for graduate students and universities. (Note that Sheri Sangji was a research technician and an employee of UCLA and Professor Harran, thus involving Cal/OSHA -- if she had been a graduate student, I'll bet the outcome would have been very different.)

I also really doubt this comment in the letter:
As new hires come on board, many companies spend weeks on remedial safety training before new hires are allowed to work in their labs. This clearly shows that the current state of graduate safety education is lacking and that there is a clear need to address it.
I doubt that it is literally "weeks", and if so, I suspect that it's 6 days of bureaucratic nonsense about the structure of EH&S management and accident reporting, and 4 days of actual useful training. I'm more than willing to believe that industry does a better job of safety training, but I just don't think this is a very probative statement.

Finally, I also think that it is unfair for large corporations (Dow, DuPont and Corning) to compare the safety rates of experienced employees (what is the median age of a Dow bench scientist? 42? 45? The median age of an industrially employed ACS member in 2010 was 48) versus the safety rates of the relatively young graduate students and postdocs that populate academia. They're very different populations with very different risk assessment capabilities.

*Background: Some people, including Richard Zare, were quoted by Celia Henry Arnaud in her comprehensive article that the safety section in the report seemed a little out of place.  

** While we're at it, it is frustrating to me that this report makes vague references to recent incidents in academic chemical safety, yet refuses to talk about specific cases (e.g. Yale/Dufault, TTU/Brown, UCLA/Sangji.) 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/9/13 edition

Good morning! Between May 7 and May 8, there were 21 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs site. Of these, 4 (19%) are academically connected and 8 (38%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Toronto, Canada: This is a classic example, in my opinion, of the bogosity of some industrial postdoctoral positions. From Encycle Therapeutics:
Post-Doctoral Scientist 
The position is centered in synthetic organic chemistry with an emphasis on peptide chemistry; research will be carried out on macrocycle synthesis, purification and structural analysis; the Post-Doctoral work will be carried out under Dr. Andrei Yudin, scientific founder of Encycle, at the University of Toronto, St. George Campus; the position is full-time, 1 year renewable contract. 
In what sense is this a postdoctoral position? Is Dr. Yudin going to provide some sort of special training or opportunity? Why not just call it a "temporary senior scientist (renewable)" position and get it over with? What's that, you say? Postdocs are paid lower? Oh - never mind.

Torrington, CT: Dymax Corporation is hiring a senior adhesives R&D chemist; 5-15 years experience, M.S./Ph.D. desired.

Montvale, NJ: Reckitt Benckiser is a personal care products company; they're looking for 2 research associates to work on anti-bacterial technology. B.S./M.S./Ph.D., 1-6 years experience desired.

Hartford, CT: Simoniz USA is looking for a detergent formulation chemist; not much guidance provided as to education or experience level.

Cambridge, MA: This is how you do an industrial postdoc. Via Schlumberger, the oil services firm (emphases mine)
Schlumberger-Doll Research, based in Cambridge, MA, invites applications for a Post-Doctoral position in its Geochemistry group. 
The candidate will join our team conducting research on oil and gas shales, which are unconventional fossil fuel resources that have experienced dramatic growth in recent years.  Shales are a kind of rock composed of inorganic minerals and organic matter referred to as kerogen (similar to coal), and these complex materials are heterogeneous on length scales below one micron.  Our research aims to understand fundamental properties relevant to shales such as transport through nanoporous materials, sorption of hydrocarbon gases to organic and inorganic surfaces, and propagation of fractures through complex materials.  For this work we are looking for a postdoc to measure correlated chemical, mechanical, and thermal properties of shale on length scales below a micron.  The postdoc is expected to investigate fundamentals of shale, participate in our active collaborations with academic and industrial partners, and publish findings in the peer-reviewed literature.
I don't think it's too much to ask to advertise ahead of time what the "training" (i.e. compensation other than money) is about ahead of time.

UPDATE: SeeArrOh points out correctly that I missed this hilarious job requirement:
Strong laboratory skills including the ability to construct and operate homebuilt instruments are expected. 
A very interesting postdoc indeed.

Sacramento, CA: Ampac Fine Chemicals desires a B.S. analytical chemist for method development; 5-7 years experience desired.

Thanks, Kelly: Cheese Technology Specialist position, Lomira, WI.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 239, 709, 2,637  and 13 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 111 positions for the job title "chemist", with 4 for "research chemist", 14 for "analytical chemist" and 2 for "organic chemist."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

This is what we're reduced to?

Via John Spevacek, a funny little note on the reddit "Jobs 4 Bitcoins" forum:
I have a B.Sc. in Chemistry and am currently employed in the polymer/plastics additives field. I can help with homework, Analytical, and Organic Synthesis.
Couldn't hurt to have a side gig in a side currency, I suppose.

How other people see chemistry Ph.D.s

From the blog of Noah Smith, a graduate student in economics at the University of Michigan an assistant professor of economics at Stony Brook University and a reasonably prominent economics blogger:
Basically, I think of PhDs as mostly falling into one of three categories: 
1. Lifestyle PhDs. These include math, literature and the humanities, theoretical physics, history, many social sciences, and the arts. These are PhDs you do because you really, really, really love just sitting and thinking about stuff. You work on you own interests, at your own pace. If you want to be a poor bohemian scholar who lives a pure "life of the mind," these PhDs are for you. I totally respect people who intentionally choose this lifestyle; I'd be pretty happy doing it myself, I think. Don't expect to get a job in your field when you graduate, though. 
2. Lab science PhDs. These include biology, chemistry, neuroscience, electrical engineering, etc. These are PhDs you do because you're either a suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath. They mainly involve utterly brutal hours slaving away in a laboratory on someone else's project for your entire late 20s, followed by years of postdoc hell for your early 30s, with a low percentage chance of a tenure-track faculty position. To find out what these PhD programs are like, read this blog post. If you are considering getting a lab science PhD, please immediately hit yourself in the face with a brick. Now you know what it's like.
(Note: People have been pointing out that EE isn't as bad as the other lab sciences, with somewhat more autonomy and better job prospects. That's consistent with my observations. But econ still beats it by a mile...)
I think that's a pretty bogus reading on lab science Ph.D.s, even if it is connected to the infamous (and rightly so) Guido/Carreira letter. Yes, there's a low percentage of Ph.D.s who make it into the tenure track, but that's not the goal of most/many chemistry Ph.D.s. I agree with the characterization of brutal hours, but I think "slaving away" is probably a metaphor too far.

The problem is, in my opinion, that Professor Smith conflates the jobs scenario in biology (and also neuroscience) in which supply is clearly being fueled by (past) NIH funding increases with other fields (chemistry, electrical engineering), where limited economic growth and other structural changes probably have a role to play in the relatively difficult industrial jobs environment.

He goes on to say that economics Ph.Ds. are where it's at, because you're more or less guaranteed a job. Uh, if true, good for them.

UPDATE: There's something missing in my brief analysis, which is trading the correct words for the hyperbolic "suicidal fool or an incomprehensible sociopath". Here's how I would phrase it:
Chemistry Ph.D.s are Ph.D.s that you do if you love the actual doing of science more than you love most other things, including money, status, joy and family.
Readers, care to add your comments?

UPDATE 2: Corrected to note that Professor Smith is, well, a professor. Added the word "industrial."