Wednesday, July 31, 2013

#Chemsummer: The color of hydrangeas

This is written as a very late submission to C&EN's #chemsummer blog carnival.

Why are these hydrangeas blue? Seems to be an
aluminum complex of some sort.
Credit: Chemjobber's parents
On a recent warm summer Saturday, my sainted mother was walking around her yard with her grandchildren in tow. She pointed at her blue hydrangeas and said, "I heard that these change color with the pH of the soil. Do you know anything about that, Mr. Chemist?" I shrugged and said something about pigments changing their absorbance and changed the subject quickly by redirecting her attention to her lovely grandchildren.

Well, Mom, thanks for asking the question -- it's actually an interesting story. It appears to be a combination of factors; apparently, more acidic soils will generate blue flowers and more basic soils will generate pink flowers. (The ranges seem to be pH 5-6 for blue flowers, and ph 6 or higher for pink flowers. This pedantic chemist notes that both seem to be fairly acidic, but then again, I don't know much about soil pH.)

This Natural Products Report review indicates that it's actually an interesting complex between a specific member of the anthocyanins (the class of molecules that's involved in the classic cabbage pH experiment), another organic acid (5-O-acylquinic acid) and aluminum ions. The work that went into determining this is quite remarkable (single cell micro-spectrophotometry?!?), so I'll quote liberally:
In hydrangea sepals, the colored cells are located in the second layer; therefore, Yoshida et al. prepared protoplast mixtures, from which they collected and analyzed only colored cells.Vacuolar pH (pHv) measurements of colored cells illustrated the difference between blue and red cultivars. The pH of blue cells in the blue cultivar was approximately 4.1, significantly higher than that in red cells (pH = 3.3). Ito et al. analyzed the composition of anthocyanin (49) and three co-pigments (50–52) by collecting approximately 150 colored cells . The results indicated that the molar ratio of 5-O-acylquinic acids to 49 was much higher in the blue cells than that in the red cells. The amount of Al3+ was the same; in blue cells, the molar equivalent of Al3+ to 49 was greater than 1 eq., while the amount in red cells was lower than 0.1 eq. These results were significantly different from data obtained from whole sepal tissue. This discrepancy emphasizes the importance of isolating and analyzing only colored cells in flower color studies. To measure the composition in colored cells with greater sensitivity, Yoshida et al. developed a single-cell analysis method. Monitoring the cell color by micro-spectrophotometry, a single cell was collected, and then the organic or inorganic components were quantified. These results showed an obvious correlation between cell color blueing and increase in the levels of 5-O-acylquinic acid and Al3+.
The authors go on to propose a rather remarkable aluminum ion/quinic acid/anthocyanin complex. It is still a little unclear to me how plants change the color of their hydrangea according to the mechanism suggested by Yoshida et al. -- does the acidity of the soil determine the amount of the 5-O-acylquinic acid produced or sequestered in cells?

So, Mom, sorry, that Ph.D. in chemistry your tax dollars paid for still won't tell you exactly why your hydrangea could change color -- and yes, I'll be happy to water the lawn and pick the peas while you're on vacation. (Psst - it still has something to do pigments changing their absorbance.)

Love, your son CJ

Process Wednesday: extractions over filtrations

Another helpful tip from our mentor-by-literature Neal Anderson and his book Practical Process Research and Development:
Extractions are generally preferred over filtrations to remove impurities. Extractions can often be performed in the vessel where the reaction occurred, while filtration require additional equipment (filters, receivers and transfer lines) and more operations. Filter elements can also plug, causing delays in processing. For instance, it is more convenient to remove Et3N-HCl from a reaction run in toluene by extraction into water than by filtration; however, if large volumes are needed for extractions, filtration may be preferred. Solvents that dissolve small amounts of water may be preferred if the product is water-sensitive. For instance, i-PrOAc may be preferred over EtOAc. 
Perhaps the thing that separates laboratory-scale operations from plant-scale operations is the lack of a bottom valve on laboratory flasks*; the bottom valve is what allows a 2000-gallon reactor to serve as its own separatory funnel. Pump the water in, turn on the agitator for a while, let it settle, drain your aqueous layer away, Bob's your uncle.

*Although you can certainly purchase them with bottom valves!

I still don't know what David Snyder was doing

Does anyone remember the David Snyder case? He's the synthetic chemistry postdoc who has been charged with a variety of counts for experimenting with explosives in his Davis, CA apartment. He was discovered after he showed up at a Davis ER with an injury to his hand.

Jyllian Kemsley covered* Dr. Snyder's preliminary hearing** on Friday; the writeup is at The Safety Zone. As usual when Jyllian is involved, it is detailed, well written and very interesting. I'll try to summarize the highlights of the prosecution's case:
  • Graduate students noted that Dr. Snyder was interested in explosives (specifically, making triacetone triperoxide), setting off fireworks in his hood and collecting used chemicals. 
  • After Snyder's injury, he was heard asking his friend to dispose of some of the chemicals in his apartment. 
  • His apartment had a raft of evidence showing that he was doing explosives-oriented experimentation at home. 
At this point, it is still unclear to me as to what Snyder's motives were, other than that he enjoyed experimenting with explosives at home. I am very curious to know what scale he was preparing these explosive compounds on. (I presume that, if there was evidence of intent to deploy said explosives, we would have heard about it.)

I think some of his behavior in graduate school was certainly unusual, but does not really amount to a crime. However***, but it is clear to me that his request for someone else to remove evidence from the scene (and to do so in an illegal manner, with respect to hazardous waste disposal) is indeed a crime and enough to get some sort of a guilty plea from him.

(I assume, also, that he has experimented his way out of a chemistry lab. No industrial or academic employer would decide to take such an employee on.)

What bothers me most about this case is the potential threat it poses to the home experimental scientist. Law-abiding citizens who want to do a little science (and God forbid, some chemistry) at home have some difficult barriers to cross. David Snyder hasn't made it any easier on them.

UPDATE: Jyllian Kemsley mentions Beth Halford's very relevant article on home chemists and the legal troubles they can face; I admit it was this article that I was not remembering, yet thinking about when I wrote my last paragraph. Thanks, Jyllian!

* Covering the court proceedings of chemists must be the rarest of #altchemjobs. 
** A preliminary hearing is used to determine if the prosecution has enough evidence to proceed. 
*** I am not a lawyer. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Recovery from job loss takes two years?

Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal, an interesting set of thoughts about job loss:
Whether you've lost a job or a girlfriend, it won't take long before someone tells you, Dust yourself off. Time heals all wounds.
Yes, but how much time? 
Experts say most people should give themselves a good two years to recover from an emotional trauma such as a breakup or the loss of a job. And if you were blindsided by the event—your spouse left abruptly, you were fired unexpectedly—it could take longer. 
That is more time than most people expect, says Prudence Gourguechon, a psychiatrist in Chicago and former president of the American Psychoanalytic Association. It's important to know roughly how long the emotional disruption will last. Once you get over the shock that it is going to be a long process, you can relax, Dr. Gourguechon says. "You don't have to feel pressure to be OK, because you're not OK." 
Some experts call this recovery period an "identity crisis process." It is perfectly normal, they say, to feel depressed, anxious and distracted during this time—in other words, to be an emotional mess. (Getting over the death of a loved one is more complicated and typically will take even longer than two years, experts say.)
Two years. That sounds about right, even though I have no real experience with something as painful as job loss or a divorce. (I wonder if there is a similar emotional toll from a particularly long job hunt -- probably not.)

I wonder if the HR counselors who show up during site closures and layoffs and the like tell people that: "I know today sucks, and yes, it's going to be hard for you to find a position. But keep your chin up, and 2 years from now, you'll feel better." 

Some morning fun? Try #sciconfessions

Lots of folks telling the deep dark secrets of science on the Twitter hashtag #sciconfessions.

Daily Pump Trap: 7/30/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 25 and July 29, there have been 81 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 11 (14%) were academically connected and 66 (81%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Chengdu, China: Xizang Haisco Pharmaceutical Group Co. LTD is looking for a senior medicinal chemist; Ph.D. desired. Boy, might be helpful to people if they told them it was the middle of Sichuan province in western China.

Sahuarita, AZ: Freeport-McMoRan Copper and Gold is looking for a chief engineer of catalysts; desired credentials include a M.S./Ph.D. in chemistry. Molybdenum experience helpful, I suspect.
"Travel, including internationally, 30 – 50% of time to a variety of customer and processing site locations (high altitudes, must have passport and ability to travel both east and west internationally)"
The mining folks seem to have all the fun.

Cambridge, MA: Moderna Therapeutics is looking for a B.S./M.S. biochemist or bioorganic chemist to perform nucleotide research; 3-5 years experience desired. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 7/30/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 23 and July 29, there were 13 new academically related positions posted in C&EN Jobs. The numbers:

Postdocs: 1
Tenure-track: 8
Temporary faculty: 1
Lecturers: 0
Staff: 3
US/non-US: 13/0

And the 2014 season is upon us!: Lots of assistant professor gigs being advertised for Fall 2014 now. It's still July, but it might as well be September, seems like.

San Luis Obispo, CA: Cal Poly SLO advertising for an assistant professor of organic chemistry position. Also, tenure-track positions in biochemistry.

Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College, looking for an assistant professor of inorganic chemistry.

Towson, MD: Towson University, looking for an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago, broadly looking for an assistant prof.

And to round out the 2014 stuff: University of Florida, looking for an organic chemistry prof. Also, Middlebury College.

Today in random postdocs: Here's one studying nanotechnological pesticides in Corvallis, Oregon. Here's one in Carlsbad, New Mexico, studying volatile organic compounds. (31k-39k - wooo!)

Monday, July 29, 2013

Where's the best place to look for a job as a chemist online? Part 1

I want to take a walk around the Web and look into the best places to look for a job as a chemist. I know there are a lot of places to do so, but some places are more suited to the job-seeking chemist than others. Here's my brief review of ScienceCareers and Nature Jobs, both job databases that are connected to a larger publishing empire (i.e. Science and Nature.)

ScienceCareers (search performed 7/25/13)

Search term "chemist": 5 positions
US/international: 3/2
Academic/industrial: 4/1

Search term "chemistry": 92 positions

Summary: Simple, clean interface. Links for "Apply Now" either go to the employer website or a simple form. Not a whole lot there for a working chemist, though.

Nature Jobs

Search term "chemist": 51 positions

For the week of July 22, 2013 (Mon-Fri): 15 positions (7 academic, 3 from recruiters.) US/international: 6/9

Overall positions (irregardless of date): 51 positions (24 academic, 15 from recruiters) US/international: 27/24.

Summary: Sparse interface. Links for application pretty standard. Lots of UK recruiter positions for chemists, a healthy number of recruited positions for the US, as well. (YOH seems to like to post there.) I note that it appears that Nature Jobs allows free postings by employers -- interestingly, there doesn't seem to be any seriously weird positions posted, even with that barrier to entry dropped. There's a surprising number of US pharma positions, some of which haven't been advertised at C&EN. This Pfizer process chemistry senior scientist position out of Groton hasn't been posted at C&EN; neither (I believe) has this Lilly biomolecules research advisor position. I wonder why?

It's also interesting to see industrial chemistry jobs in Europe (like this plastics position in France); those rarely make it into C&EN Jobs.

tl;dr Science Jobs has a paltry amount of industrial positions for chemists. Nature Jobs has a lot more, especially for non-US positions. Both have interfaces that are spare, functional. 

NOS 2013, including a quiz

Carmen Drahl has written up a really interesting retrospective of NOS over the years; I especially enjoyed the technological progress of presentation equipment and dress code:
For example, “the meetings are much more informal now, certainly in terms of dress,” according to C. Dale Poulter, a University of Utah professor and editor of JOC, who attended his first NOS in 1969. “You always wore a suit and tie, or at least a sport coat and a tie.” Today, you might see Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops. 
Like any meeting, NOS has weathered technological winds of change. Cornell University’s Jerrold Meinwald recalled toting his presentation to the 1963 meeting, not on a laptop but on fragile glass slides, about 3 × 5 inches each. “They weighed a ton,” he said. 
By the late 1960s, glass slides gave way to slides made with camera film. Most slides were hand drawn and then photographed, Poulter said. In humid environments, slides could warp, he explained. “Sometimes, the intensity of the projector lamp would burn the slides. I saw a lot of presenters move rapidly through a talk because their slides were getting burned. 
“For someone who’s had to go through all that,” Poulter continued, “ChemDraw and PowerPoint are like dying and going to heaven.”
Scroll down and take the quiz about NOS history -- it's quite challenging!  

The weirdest thing you will read about America today

...courtesy of Hariolf Kottmann, CEO of Clariant in this week's C&EN (article by Marc Reisch):
One area where chaos reigns, however, is the cost of energy and raw materials in Europe. After Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster in 2011, Germany decided to phase out its nuclear power plants. As a result, industry’s energy costs throughout Europe are skyrocketing. 
“Ultimately, Germany may successfully turn to alternate energy sources,” Kottmann says. But for now, popular sentiment against nuclear power in Germany and beyond has put Europe’s chemical industry at a competitive disadvantage to its counterpart in the U.S., where shale oil and gas have made energy relatively cheap. 
Although European chemical executives and trade groups have been advocating for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale in Europe, most politicians there don’t support it at this time. In addition, Kottmann notes that the geology of much of the Continent may make the technique more difficult than in the U.S. 
In the U.S., industry and government are for the most part willing to invest in industrial infrastructure such as pipelines, power lines, railroads, and highways. (emphasis CJ's) That is not the case by and large in Europe, Kottmann says. 
“Societal attitudes are different in the U.S. versus those in Europe,” Kottmann says. “If industry doesn’t fight for its existence in Europe, society will shut it down.” Such attitudes are “one important reason why Europe’s economy won’t recover for another few years,” he adds. 
The outlook for the U.S., on the other hand, is bright, Kottmann says. Clariant now derives about 12% of its sales from the U.S., the largest share for any one country. And the company is taking steps to increase that share, he says.
I think it's sort of strange to hear that the US is more willing to invest in infrastructure than another place in the world. 

C&EN: DuPont to sell off performance chemicals division

From this week's C&EN, news of a sad divestiture (article by Alex Tullo): 
Citing volatility and few growth prospects, DuPont says it will divest a big portion of its traditional chemical business, including its storied Teflon fluoropolymers brand and its industry-leading titanium dioxide pigment unit. 
The company is exploring “strategic options” for its performance chemicals segment, a process that could mean a sale or a spin-off. The division includes well-known DuPont brands such as Teflon nonstick coatings, Nafion ion-exchange membranes, and Suva refrigerants. It also makes industrial chemicals such as aniline, sulfuric acid, and glycolic acid. 
Performance chemicals is DuPont’s second-largest division, after seeds and agrochemicals. It’s also one of the company’s most profitable businesses. It posted $1.8 billion in operating income on $7.2 billion in sales last year—figures that are 29% and 20%, respectively, of the company’s total. 
An exit would mark the second large divestiture of a long-held DuPont business in less than a year. In February, the company completed the $4.9 billion sale of its automotive coatings unit to the private equity firm Carlyle Group....
Best wishes to the employees of the performance chemicals business -- and to all of us.  

Friday, July 26, 2013

Tiny football shaped stir bars

A small list of useful things (links):
Not done for the weekend, but nevertheless, have a great one! 

Thursday, July 25, 2013


Upon reading this Kevin Drum post about the Amash amendment, I noted the interesting spelling of the plural of "No". I looked up "Noes" on Urban Dictionary and was even more confused to read about the definition of "Megahurtz." Slang is getting more and more chemistry-ish these days:

Ask CJ: should I take this QC position?

On a busy morning, a good question from a reader we'll call RY:
I am a recent grad with a BS in Chemistry. I have roughly 1.5yrs relevant work experience thanks to my university's co-op program.  I am currently a [redacted] intern (paid) at a company I have co-op'd with before.  I have expressed interest in staying on with them full time, but there are no openings in my department ([x number] Chem MS's were hired prior to my arrival).  However, the other day, the quality department head asked if I would be interested in applying for several open positions in quality. My concern is that I do not want to be stuck in quality, which seems to be what happened to everyone that currently works there.   
Will taking a QC position as a first full time job dictate or impede future endeavors? For that matter how much does your first relevant job dictate your future employment?
Personally, I think taking an entry-level analytical job early doesn't really hurt anything; it's a line on your CV, and suggests that (assuming that you can keep the job) you're hire-able. That said, many chemists do not enjoy QC work, because it is repetitive.

I think that it starts affecting your career choices at the 2 year mark. One imagines that the longer you stay in any position, the longer it begins to affect your future career choices (imagine someone who has been in 1 position in 1 field for 20 years -- they're basically defined by their career in that field.) So, my guess is, unless you have better options, take the job and keep looking.

Readers, should RY take the job? Seems to me that it couldn't be the end of the world, especially consider the other options (penury, living with your parents, etc.) 

Daily Pump Trap: 7/25/13 edition

Between July 23 and July 24, there were 53 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 2 (4%) were academically connected and 42 (79%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

King of Prussia, PA: GSK is looking for a B.S./M.S. chemist or chemical engineer to work on downstream process development for biomolecules. Looks like they're flexiblish with the job experience requirements w/r/t co-ops.

Richmond, CA: Chevron Oronite is a fuels and lubricating oils company; they're looking for a Ph.D. chemist to be an IP analyst for their current operations. Looks like you need 2 years IP experience. Fascinating job description, re: freedom to operate and current operations.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 232, 1248, 2593 and 18 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 135 positions for the job title "chemist", with 5 for "research chemist", 14 for "analytical chemist" and 3 for "organic chemist." 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

12 things that should matter, but don't

And yet:
  • "But one reviewer loved it!" 
  • "But they said it was the purest they've ever seen!" 
  • "But they're still hiring people at that site!" 
  • "But they said they were going to buy 30 metric tons!" 
  • "But the TLC looked great!" 
  • "But I have lots of skill sets!" 
  • "But we have a great crystal structure!" 
  • "But my phone interview went great!" 
  • "But it worked great in the lab!" 
  • "But we came in with the lowest bid!" 
  • "But they loved my talk!" 
  • "But we reported record profits last year!" 

(P.S. Stay tuned for one more post, I hope.) 

Person-to-person: a better approach to developing academic chemical safety culture?

Atul Gawande is a physician and a very good writer. His latest long article in The New Yorker is quite good, talking about the different approaches to public health in India and what is actually effective in getting medical personnel in developing nations to change their ways (emphases mine):
The most common approach to changing behavior is to say to people, “Please do X.” Please warm the newborn. Please wash your hands. Please follow through on the twenty-seven other childbirth practices that you’re not doing. This is what we say in the classroom, in instructional videos, and in public-service campaigns, and it works, but only up to a point. 
Then, there’s the law-and-order approach: “You must do X.” We establish standards and regulations, and threaten to punish failures with fines, suspensions, the revocation of licenses. Punishment can work. Behavioral economists have even quantified how averse people are to penalties. In experimental games, they will often quit playing rather than risk facing negative consequences. And that is the problem with threatening to discipline birth attendants who are taking difficult-to-fill jobs under intensely trying conditions. They’ll quit. 
The kinder version of “You must do X” is to offer incentives rather than penalties. Maybe we could pay birth attendants a bonus for every healthy child who makes it past a week of life.... [snip] 
...Besides, neither penalties nor incentives achieve what we’re really after: a system and a culture where X is what people do, day in and day out, even when no one is watching. “You must” rewards mere compliance. Getting to “X is what we do” means establishing X as the norm. And that’s what we want: for skin-to-skin warming, hand washing, and all the other lifesaving practices of childbirth to be, quite simply, the norm. 
To create new norms, you have to understand people’s existing norms and barriers to change. You have to understand what’s getting in their way. 
The most affecting portion of the Gawande article is too long to excerpt (imagine that, for this blog!), but I will try to present a summary: Gawande talks to a nurse, Seema, who acted as a trainer for a much more experienced labor and delivery nurse in India. The experienced nurse did not do any of the recommended items for childbirth: the room was not disinfected, vital signs of the mother and newborn were not checked, no emergency supplies were prepared, the infant's vital signs were taken with a hand instead of a thermometer and kangaroo care (the warming of the infant by skin-to-skin contact with the mother) was not performed.

After Seema pointed out these issues, the experienced nurse was unhappy, but she and Seema went to the hospital's organization to get some of the issues (room cleaning, equipment like a thermometer (!)) dealt with. Seema kept visiting the nurse, and kept talking to her and getting her to change her behavior through conversation, not through demand or incentive. Gawande followed up with the experienced nurse months later, and asked why Seema was effective:
“Why did you listen to her?” I asked. “She had only a fraction of your experience.” 
In the beginning, she didn’t, the nurse admitted. “The first day she came, I felt the workload on my head was increasing.” From the second time, however, the nurse began feeling better about the visits. She even began looking forward to them. 
“Why?” I asked. 
All the nurse could think to say was “She was nice.” 
“She was nice?” 
“She smiled a lot.”
“That was it?” 
“It wasn’t like talking to someone who was trying to find mistakes,” she said. “It was like talking to a friend.”
After I read this article, it is difficult not to think about our issues with academic chemical safety. It seems to me that universities rely too much on "Please do X" (please wear your PPE, please don't do that 3 kilogram azide reaction) and "You must do X" (you will wear your PPE! or we will fire you!).

In an ideal world, there would be space in a university for chemical safety educators who would do the work that Seema was doing: he or she would visit labs repeatedly (note that Seema visited at least 4 or 5 times!), befriend students, point out errors in practice and convince, not hector or harangue. I note that said chemical safety educator's job would be harder -- the experienced nurse could see the fruits of her labor, and be convinced that the new way was better. If a chemical safety educator does their job, nothing happens. (I've floated a similar idea in the past about using mid-career chemists for similar positions; I still think it's a good idea.)

The problem with this approach, of course, is that it's extremely labor-intensive and time-intensive; in the U.S., that means that it's money-intensive as well. There are a lot of other reasons why it might not work; I'd be interested in hearing others' thoughts about my policy notional. Readers? 

Process Wednesday: It's not just the organic chemists who have issues scaling up

Over at It's The Rheo Thing, a while back, John Spevacek talked about the issues with scaling up polymer manufacture:
Working with polymers at the lab bench is usually quite different than working with them at a larger scale (pilot plant, production, etc.). Benchtop versions of blown film lines, injection molders, extrusion lines...don't exist. Small extruders exist, but they don't have mass-loss feeders, custom screw elements and a whole host of other features that their big-boy versions have. 
And so at the benchtop we cheat. We use solvents to dissolve the polymers, which then allows us to easily stir in additives or other materials. We eventually have to get the solvent out, but that is usually pretty easy. Depending on the volatility of the solvent, a hood can work just fine. In other cases, an oven or a hot plate will do nicely. In short, the solvents make our lives much easier. 
In contrast, solvents at a large scale are generally avoided. Not only is flammability a concern (which then leads to higher capital equipment costs for the electrical equipment to make it non-sparking) but also the solvents need to be either recovered (more capital equipment) or oxidized (more capital equipment) which leads to CO2 emissions... [snip] 
...This difference in processing options with the size of the operation can lead to real nightmares in scaling up products. You can dissolve a newly-developed polyolefin in hot decalin and add in all the antioxidants you want, but you can't find out if it will make a nice blown film until you go to the pilot line. Even a cast film of the polyolefin will not provide meaningful samples as they would be completely lacking in the strength-inducing orientation that the blown-film line provides.
That's an interesting problem with the kind of chemistry that John participates in -- that the equipment itself provides the desired physical properties to be tested. (Any errors here are mine, not John's.)

For the most part, this doesn't seem to be the issue with classic old-skool chemical manufacturing; the physical properties of a compound are the same at bench scale or at plant scale. What we tend to worry about (and just like John, have difficulty simulating) is large quantities of your compound/reaction will interact with your equipment -- whether or not your agitator will stir, or your filtration will be effective, etc. Even then, the best-resourced among us have access to miniaturized versions of plant-scale equipment. Lucky us, I suppose. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Where online should a Canadian be looking for a chemistry job?

A davenport chesterfield, I understand.
A reader writes in to ask -- if you're a Canadian, what websites should you be using to search for jobs?

I don't really know. As the reader noted, the CIC's site didn't seem to be very helpful. Anyone know?

What book should I be reading?

I've yet another gift card to Amazon -- what should I be reading? I like to read (surprise, surprise), so feel free to suggest any topic. 

"A 7-year postdoc"

A Harvard professor of computer science, Radhika Nagpal, writes about her process of getting tenure by pretending it was a 7-year postdoc:
Seven things I did during my first seven years at Harvard. Or, how I loved being a tenure-track faculty member, by deliberately trying not to be one.
  • I decided that this is a 7-year postdoc.
  • I stopped taking advice.
  • I created a “feelgood” email folder.
  • I work fixed hours and in fixed amounts.
  • I try to be the best “whole” person I can.
  • I found real friends.
  • I have fun “now”.
I don't know what to think about it, but I am not in a position to have an informed opinion on the subject. But it's been zinging its way around the internet, so there you are. 

[Some of these ideas (especially the "real friends" part) seem really, really true. My problem with a lot of these sorts of "I beat the odds by not following the crowd!" essays is that everyone is the hero of their own story. It would mean more to me if I were to read an essay written by a 3rd party that said "Professor Nagpal is such an academic maverick!"; I am sure they exist.]

Daily Pump Trap: 7/23/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 18 and July 22, there were 81 new positions posted on C&EN Jobs. Of these, 10 (12%) were academically connected and 57 (70%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Surely, our long national #chemjobs nightmare is over: Pfizer is hunting for 1 (one) senior principal scientist for medicinal chemistry work. Ph.D. preferred, at least 5 years med chem experience desired (uhhhh -- don't you need a lot more than that at the R6 level?) You gotta love some of these qualities they desire:
Comfortable working in a highly innovative environment and can effectively cope with change. Responds well to scientific challenge and applies significant rigor to their own work.

Will scientifically challenge others in their group in a constructive manner and demonstrate exceptional team working skills (e.g. approachable and collaborative) to ensure the group as a whole is successful. 
Will proactively learn from scientists within the organization, assimilate and translate to success in their own areas. Equally, will look externally to build experience and internalize knowledge and techniques to maximum effect. Delivers new science and medicinal chemistry thinking into the department

Possesses a clear sense of urgency, recognizes potential problems and proactively acts to deliver solutions

Very strong influencing skills. 
Proactively! Influencing! Good luck.

Wareham, MA: Smithers Viscient is looking for a senior LC/MS chemist; M.S./Ph.D. with 10+ years experience desired.

Monroeville, PA: PPG Industries desires a B.S./M.S. chemist for QC work.

Edmonton, Alberta: Gilead Sciences desires a senior analytical chemist to lead a method development group; 12+ years experience in pharmaceutical industry needed. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 7/23/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 16 and July 22, there were 15 new academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. The numbers:

Postdocs: 1
Tenure-track: 10
Temporary faculty: 1
Lecturers: 0
Staff: 3
US/non-US: 13/2

Palo Alto, CA: Stanford is looking for a tenured professor of theoretical chemistry.

Camarillo, CA: CSU Channel Islands desires an assistant professor of chemistry.

Salt Lake City, UT: The University of Utah wishes to hire a synthetic chemistry postdoc for drug-protein conjugate research.  

Newberry, SC: Newberry College wishes to hire an assistant professor of chemistry; 46-48k offered. Well north of the 2000 census median household income of 27k.

Florence, AL: The University of North Alabama is hiring an assistant professor of chemistry; primary teaching responsibility is physical chemistry.

Bozeman, MT: Last minute lecturer time! Montana State is looking for non-tenure-track faculty to start teaching August 16, 2013 through next summer. Hurry! 

Monday, July 22, 2013

The RTP is not Detroit, Detroit is not the RTP

I don't really want to get into a big discussion on Detroit's bankruptcy -- you can go elsewhere for that sort of thing. That said, The Atlantic's James Fallows posted a reflection from a reader, and I found one aspect to be a bit silly (emphasis mine):
And yet, there is hope. Detroit has begun to reinvent itself, both in the city and in the metro area as a whole. SE Michigan does have a ton of engineers and a high level of R&D dollars being spent. While the bankruptcy is sad, just as GM's bankruptcy on 1 Jun 2009 was, it'll be far sadder if Detroit can't continue to reinvent itself as it has from the darkest days of 2008-9. The bankruptcy is payment for the sins of the past - but this purgatory should lead Detroit on a path to success. There's no reason that Detroit can't mirror what North Carolina's Research Triangle did in the '90s and '00s. And considering how much Detroit has made America look at herself over its history - I think we should all be rooting for the Motor City to rocket forward from here.

Not only can I not help but love Detroit - I can't help but believe in that city too.
Contra what your local economic development council tells you, you can't grow that kind of R&D focus overnight. There's probably plenty of reasons that Detroit can't turn itself into RTP, and not soon enough for it to make a difference -- a shame, to be sure.

[Seems to me that the main difference between Detroit and the RTP region is difference in economic focus of the regions: automobile manufacturing versus life sciences. Which one of those does America still have a relative comparative advantage in? I also wonder if there's a difference between the concentration of research-oriented universities in the RTP region and the Detroit area.]

UPDATE: Lisa Jarvis and Celia Arnaud point out that the more likely places for a life sciences renaissance in Michigan would Ann Arbor or Kalamazoo. This actually reminds me of something that I meant to point out in the original post, which is the seeming annihilation of Michigan's pharmaceutical research centers during the 1990s/2000s. It would be interesting to know what percentage of Michigan resident life scientists ended up 1) leaving the region, but still working in pharma or 2) staying in Michigan, but leaving pharma.

What happens when a Ph.D. chemist gets a PET scan?

Th'Gaussling is undergoing chemotherapy and is having some fun with his PET scans. Click here to see his longer explanation of 18F-glucose and PET scans. 

Ain't that a kick in the gut

Also in this week's C&EN, Pfizer expanding manufacturing in Ireland (article by Alex Scott):
Pfizer is investing $100 million to increase manufacturing capacity at its facility for biologic drugs in Grange Castle, Ireland, and a further $30 million to add new capabilities, including continuous production of small-molecule drugs, in Ringaskiddy, Ireland. 
In Grange Castle, the firm will build an additional mammalian cell culture line for manufacturing the protein-based rheumatoid arthritis treatment Enbrel. To be completed by 2015, the project will double the plant’s productivity, Pfizer says, and allow the firm to use it to make other therapies currently under development...
But wait -- what's the news for Irish chemists?
...No new pharmaceutical jobs will be created by the projects, however, which is a disappointment for a country whose economy contracted 0.6% in the first quarter of the year and where 13.5% of the population is unemployed....
Oh, well.

C&EN: Water treatment as chemistry employment field

College students frequently want to save the world. When the part they are interested in saving is water and they are studying at the University of Texas, Austin, they often approach chemical engineer Danny D. Reible for career advice. Most assume they can make the biggest difference in a developing country, working to remedy the shortage of clean drinking water, says Reible, a professor of environmental health and director of UT Austin’s Center for Research in Water Resources. 
However, Reible is quick to recommend another path. “I tell students that they are better off focusing their careers on the treatment and reuse of industrial wastewater, in both developing and developed nations.” This route offers them the best career opportunities and is “equally important to solving the potable water problem,” says Reible, who cochairs the International Society for Water Solutions, an American Institute of Chemical Engineers group founded in 2012 to focus on industrial water management.
I think this is interesting, in that it comments tangentially on Paul Hodges' opinion that chemists should be thinking about developing nations and their access to water as a place where chemists could do some good (and make some money.)

What are they looking for in their employees?
Chemistry and chemical engineering students who aspire to work in the field of industrial wastewater treatment and reuse should obtain a strong foundation in inorganic chemistry and also take water treatment technology courses that are typically offered within universities’ civil and environmental engineering departments, Reible says. Knowledge of technologies that use microbes, membranes, or specialized materials such as nanomaterials helps candidates stand out among other job seekers, he adds. 
Koon recommends that students looking to break into the industrial wastewater treatment field gain experience by working on projects with organizations such as Engineers Without Borders or through internships or short-term jobs. 
In addition, students should polish their interview skills. “They must be alert to the world around them and be able to carry on an interesting conversation in interviews,” Koon advises. They should be able to pro­ject the qualities that employers are looking for in entry-level employees. Companies are seeking people who “exhibit ethical behavior, can work effectively with others, and have the potential to become leaders within their organizations,” he explains.
The recommendation for inorganic courses and looking for training for other departments is useful, I think. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Saturday #longread: the comeback of Marlin Steel

This story from Fast Company about a small wire basket manufacturing firm is pretty great:
The job that rescued Marlin Steel was small--20 baskets, a $500 order. Greenblatt was handling sales in 2003, so he took the call himself. "It was an engineer from Boeing," he says. "He didn't think I was in the bagel-basket business. He just needed custom wire baskets." The Boeing engineer, who had seen a Marlin ad in the Thomas Register, a pre-Internet manufacturing directory, wanted baskets to hold airplane parts and move them around the factory. He wanted them fast. And he wanted them made in a way Marlin wasn't used to--with astonishing precision. For bagel stores, says Greenblatt, "if the bagel didn't fall out between the wires, the quality was perfect." The Boeing engineer needed the basket's size to be within a sixty-fourth of an inch of his specifications. "I told him, 'I'll have to charge you $24 a basket,'" says Greenblatt. "He said, 'Yeah, yeah, whatever. No problem. When are you going to ship them?'"
What's kind of nice is that CJ favorite Megan McArdle covered this small firm in 2010; nice to see that they're doing all right now. (Also, read the article for some interaction between Marlin Steel and Pfizer/Zoetis manufacturing.)  

Friday, July 19, 2013

Physicians, prescribe this graduate student Nuvigil!

Parody of this Teva ad for Nuvigil
Or, actually, tell her to get some sleep.

(But no, if you're Teva, you want her to have some Nuvigil, apparently. Sigh.)

What to know what happened to Blog Syn?

Short answer: Life happened. If you want to help out Blog Syn, here's your chance. 

A very confused paragraph at U.S. News on pre-meds

It's common to hear sweeping generalizations among STEM advocates about the lack of diversity and interest across all STEM fields. One educator took aim at this idea in a Tuesday panel discussion at the U.S. News Stem Solutions 2013 conference. 
"Not all STEM fields are created equal," said Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College. "If I look at biology and chemistry classes, they are probably about 60 percent female, and there are a lot of students of color in those classes." 
That sounds like a great thing, but Klawe cautioned that there is not job market demand for all of those students once they graduate. "They all think they're going to be doctors and the vast majority of them will not become doctors," she said. 
While these students have advanced science skills, they may not command the same salary and employer interest as a computer programmer. Women and students of color are least represented in computer science, electrical engineering, and computer engineering, said Klawe.
One imagines that President Klawe was referring to the difficulty in achieving entry into medical school; the reporter seems to have missed that one.

[If I were cynical, I would note that a not-insignificant portion of chemical and biological academia is involved in training pre-meds who will not become physicians. It is not a wonder that the upper-level majors courses seem to be more desirable for faculty to teach, as opposed to Chemistry 201.]

I would not tell a group of pre-meds "Hey, if you don't make it into med school, go become a chemist!" However, I would tell a group of pre-meds, "hey, you should think about the computer skills of the future, and try to get some of them." Readers, how about you?  

Cass Sunstein is wrong on "the STEM crisis"

Thanks to my Thursday morning Wonkbook e-mail, I was subjected to a classic "STEM crisis" column by Harvard law professor and former White House staffer Cass Sunstein:
In recent years, a lot of people have been concerned about the relatively low numbers of science majors among American college students. The percentage of science and engineering graduates in the United States has been far below that in China and Japan. On various math and science tests, the performance of U.S. students has fallen below that of students in South Korea, Singapore, Japan, England, Finland, Israel, Australia and Russia. 
This is a real problem, because science majors can contribute to economic growth and because many of them end up with especially good jobs after graduation. In the employment market, students with degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) can be at a comparative advantage. The relatively low number of American graduates in these fields has created what some people call “the STEM crisis.” 
...In 2012, Obama lamented: “Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that — openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work.” But while computer-science enrollments are increasing, the number of science majors remains disappointingly low. 
Why is this? Are young Americans uninterested in science?
I won't belabor this issue, because you, dear reader, are very, very tired of me repeating myself. Let's just remember that when presidents and law professors talk about "science and technology", especially with reference to jobs, they're talking about computers and IT. It's even in his own column ("But while computer-science enrollments are increasing, the number of science majors remains disappointingly low") and yet, the explanation (rising wages, growing job opportunities in computer-related fields) still escapes him.

[The rest of the column might be worth your time, in that it's an exploration of the recent study that showed that when students who thought they would do well in science classes don't, they leave. You don't say! He goes on to blame state and local governments, which is strange, in my opinion.] 

Daily Pump Trap: 7/18/13 edition

Between July 16 and July 17, there were 52 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 3 (8%) were academically connected and 37 (72%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Greenville, SC: Michelin is hiring for 3 positions; here's a senior polyurethane chemist position (10 years experience required.)

Chicago, IL: Abbvie is hiring a senior cheminformatician; Ph.D. desired. There's a weird "postdoc" label at the top, but I think it sounds more like a "senior scientist II" position.

Ewing, NJ: FMC is hiring an analytical chemist for methods development; Ph.D. with 1-5 years of industry experience desired. Analytically related fields will be considered.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 234, 970, 2599 and 19 positions for the search term "chemist." LinkedIn shows 132 positions for the job title "chemist", with 8 for "research chemist", 14 for "analytical chemist" and 3 for "organic chemist." 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

That's a little oopsie

There are errors/accidents often enough in the C&EN Jobs database that I wonder if the employer interface is particularly clunky: 

For those who can't quite see, apparently the HR person at W.L. Gore who entered this M.S. analytical position (which sounds perfectly good, really) decided to leave their name in it. 

At the very least, you have a point of contact! 

More actual posts later. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Has the US/world #chemjobs tipping point come? When will it?

An astute reader at a major research university has alerted me to a very interesting job opportunity; it's a partnership between a major US multinational firm and a smaller company located in India. They desire a M.S./Ph.D. in chemistry; the chemist would work for a year for the multinational firm in the United States; following that, they would go to work for the smaller company. Interestingly, the opportunity states that the candidate must be authorized to work in India (thus, presumably, shutting out anyone who is not an Indian citizen -- perhaps I am incorrect.)

I think this is very interesting -- I have heard of these sorts of opportunities, but I've never actually seen one "in the flesh", so to speak. I don't think it's particularly scandalous, for what it's worth. Seems to me that there's a perfectly legitimate reason for such a job to exist.

But it raises a very interesting question about the nature of the chemical enterprise in the United States, both industrial and academic. For generations now, graduate students have come to the United States (especially from developing countries) and gotten their technical training here and gone to work here. The vast majority have stayed in the US (or other Western nations), relatively few have gone back home, contra Mark Zuckerberg and half of Congress. The pay is better here, benefits might be better, etc., etc.

But over the past few years, as job opportunities in the US have become scarcer and jobs 'back home' have become more plentiful, I imagine the 'settlers'/'returners' ratio has begun to shift towards 'returners'. The job opportunity above is an indication of this changing ratio, but as I see it, most graduate students and postdocs from other countries still manage to find work in the US.

I have 3 questions for readers:
  • For chemistry, what do you think the 'settlers'/'returners' ratio is? I suspect that it is currently 5:1, but I think it is definitely higher lower than 10 to 1. 
  • Do you think the ratio is climbing or falling? When will it peak? 
  • What would be the best way to measure this ratio for chemistry?
Thanks to the astute reader. 

Process Wednesday: the 5 ways to get a liquid into a reactor

Our mentor-by-literature, Neal Anderson, tells us about how to get liquid (reagents, solvents, etc.) into a reactor in Practical Process Research and Development (the first edition):
There are five means to transfer a liquid: by gravity, siphoning, pumping, pressuring, or suctioning. The rate of transfer by gravity and siphoning is limited by the height of the liquid above the receiving vessel. Siphoning may be used conveniently on scale to remove a supernatant if dense solids separate from a suspension. Pumping is a faster means to transfer a liquid, and one of the fastest methods is to pressurize a liquid into the vessel using an inert gas. Transfer may also be carried out by applying suction ("partial vacuum") on the receiving vessel and by allowing the liquid to be drawn into the vessel. Transferring reactive materials by suction may be inherently safer than transferring by pressure; care must be taken to ensure that volatile solvents in the receiver are not lost when suction is applied. 
I've definitely used gravity in the lab and the kilo lab -- who hasn't? Addition funnels are basically gravity... but it's harder when you have larger amounts of liquid. We have done it in the plant (using gravity), but it is not something that is commonly performed. It seems that pumping and pressuring are the most common means of getting liquids from reactor to reactor and from reactor to equipment.

Suction seems to be a very common means of getting solvent for reactions into the reactor -- the reactor is pumped down to 20 torr and then that vacuum is used to pull the requisite amount of solvent into the reactor. I'm surprised that Anderson didn't mention the added safety factor, which is that (if you do it right, and don't pull a bunch of air into the reactor when your drum gets empty) there won't be any oxygen in your reactor when you're done pulling solvent in (and you still have a little vacuum left.)

Daily Pump Trap: 7/16/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 11 and July 15, there were 114 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 13 (11%) were academically connected and 84 (74%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources. 

Berkeley, CA: Lawrence Berkeley is looking for a Ph.D. staff scientist for its synthetic actinides program.

Richmond, VA: Evonik is looking for a M.S./Ph.D. chemist to be an agrochemical formulations specialist; 3+ years industrial experience, preferably related to "formulation of actives and surfactants for agrochemical pesticides or  organic surfactants or silicon surfactants."

Birmingham, AL: The Southern Research Institute is looking for senior medicinal chemists:
The Drug Discovery Division of Southern Research Institute (SR) invites applications from senior organic/medicinal chemists with experience in drug discovery and lead optimization to join the Medicinal Chemistry Department... To be in a position to exploit these projects, as well as support several internal projects, we are looking to hire experienced medicinal chemists interested in participating in collaborative drug discovery projects. 
To be considered, applicants must possess a Ph.D. in organic or medicinal chemistry and should have an externally funded, grant-based research program or have demonstrated the ability to obtain external funding.
First, it would seem to me that this would be a great set of opportunities for senior industrial medicinal chemists -- but then there's the "external funding" requirement (SBIRs, maybe?)

I wonder how these fishing expeditions by Southern Research Institute have been, especially considering there's been about one advertisement a year. Hmmm.

Hercules, CA: Evans Analytical Group is looking for a chemist to conduct pesticide residue studies. GC/MS, LC/MS experience desired.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I don't see myself or others in this analysis

Over at Not the Lab, Vinylogous gave a stirring defense of why employers should hire chemists over English majors for general business positions. An editor at a chemistry department in the US wrote a long comment about chemists and their writing, which I thought was really dead on:
Chemists' bad writing isn't bad because it's blunt. I just finished reading The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz -- bluntness a-plenty in there, and it's a terrific book. No. Chemists' bad writing is bad because it's unaware audience exists, is inarticulate, hopeless with a narrative, jargon-ridden, lede-burying, resentful of the task, and mutely stolid. (Chemists' good writing is, of course, a beauty to behold.) English majors tend to have these things in their writing roundly abused, if not beaten into submission, by junior year. 
I hate to admit it, but I feel that's a fairly decent description of my scientific writing, and possibly some of the writing on this blog. However, this follow-on comment was equally interesting, yet much less accurate, I felt:
The problem, at university level, is the structure of chemical education, which has nothing but contempt for anything that eats minutes and dollars and does not produce a more useful bench scientist/grad slave. And that, frankly, is part of why I'd be less inclined to hire a chem major for a general-biz job than I would an English major. You guys produce hothouse flowers simply by not giving the kids opportunity to wander -- oh, sure, they can take a few electives, but they know where their time's supposed to be spent -- and the naivete outside these narrow bounds can be astonishing. The gender imbalance doesn't help, either; it's -- still, often -- as though there's no awareness of the macho/nationalist assumptions, which play *really poorly* in many parts of the world. I kid you not, I just sat through a meeting in which a chemist spent a good bit of time mocking a Chinese name in a bizarrely Archie-Bunkerish way. can't do this. And he seemed utterly unaware. It's not rare.  
Let me make the contrast this way: A highly successful fiction writer of my MFA year decided, while in the writing program, that he wanted to be a doctor, and more or less went AWOL from the program so he could get his prereqs for med school taken care of. The faculty were annoyed -- he was, after all, a very promising writer, no less an eminence than Saul Bellow admired his work and called it out for special attention -- but didn't throw him out. He did become a doctor; he's also regarded as one of the best youngish literary writers in America.
I cannot begin to imagine a grad student in chemistry being allowed the same freedom. And in the end it makes a difference. 
You guys loosen up on the path to chemist -- kill that German military model -- and we'll see what happens. 
First, I just disagree with a description of chemistry students (undergraduates and grad students) as hothouse flowers. I would like to know more what they meant, but the environment of chemical academia is probably harsher (work ethic, etc.) than the general business world (so far as I can tell.) I also think the author does not understand the difference between a grad student in chemistry (more-or-less a paid university employee, even if the lawyers don't think so) and a MFA student (a paying customer.)  The administrative flexibility and time offered are going to be different. Finally, we don't really have a German military model, did/do we? Surely, this is exaggeration on the author's part.

Nevertheless, a thought-provoking read. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 7/16/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 11 and July 15, there were 13 academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. The numbers:

Postdocs: 1
Tenure-track: 6
Temporary faculty: 4
Lecturers: 2
Staff: 0
US/non-US: 12/1

College Station, TX: Aw, someone here wants to apply to be department head at Texas A&M, right? Right?

Pullman, WA: Washington State is hiring an assistant professor of analytical chemistry for fall 2014.

Haverford, PA: Haverford College desires a postdoc for an advanced instructional lab class, to be co-taught with a senior faculty member. I am not sure how I feel about this; seems to me that titling it a postdoc is granting this position "training" that it may not have. Calling it "visiting very assistant professor" would probably be more appropriate.

Bryn Mawr, PA: Bryn Mawr is looking for an adjunct lecturer of inorganic chemistry to start in January 2014.

Tuscaloosa, AL: Time for another Last Minute Lecturer contribution at the University of Alabama - Tuscaloosa. M.S./Ph.D. desired, start date of August 15, 2013. 

Monday, July 15, 2013

What do structures look like when they're in lower-case?

Copyright: NASA
A couple of months ago, I was watching "The X-Files"* and I saw this image flash up on the screen -- turns out to be one of the pictures that's on "The Golden Record" that's on the Voyager spacecraft.

I thought there was something rather odd-looking about it, and what I note is both the unique font (with backwards serifs (is that the term?)) and lower-case structures.

I welcome our alien overlords, but if they're using lower-case letters in their structures, it will be cause for interstellar war.

*The excellent episode "Little Green Men"

Hey, that's the wrong way!

From this week's C&EN, movement from East to West (article by Michael McCoy): 
In a reversal of the trend of moving ­pharmaceutical chemistry research to Asia, the drug discovery services firm Evotec has decided to close its laboratories in Thane, India, and conduct all chemistry research in Abingdon, ­England, instead. 
Evotec didn’t encounter performance or quality problems with the Indian staff, says Evotec Chief Operating Officer Mario Polywka. “They are the most amazing organic chemists.” 
Rather, Polywka says, the firm’s increasing focus on high-value collaborations—including with Harvard University and the Belfer Institute for Applied Cancer Science—means that close involvement by the firm’s medicinal chemists with research partners is paramount. 
The Indian labs’ operations will wind down by the end of September, Evotec says, putting 120 people out of work. Employment in Abingdon, where about 180 medicinal and other chemists work now, will increase, Polywka adds, although he won’t give a number.
It's my assumption that this is a brief blip in the other direction and not a trend-setter at all. Brief bad news for Thane, I'm sure, good news for Abingdon, one hopes.

[Is anyone noting that it seems like the major pharmas are the ones that seem to be going to China, not India, for med chem? I wonder what that's about?]

Friday, July 12, 2013

Could be re-titled "Hundreds of chemists apply to Merck senior scientist position."

It's hard to beat "The Onion" when it comes to satire. Click on this link if you want the video version (that autoplays, ugh):
SAN FRANCISCO—Upon coming across the same job posting Monday for a full-time position at a local startup company, an estimated 1,400 people reportedly described the opening as “a perfect fit” for their qualifications, saying it was exactly the opportunity they’ve been waiting for. “I have all the skills they want, my experience matches up—I honestly don’t know if there’s anyone out there better suited for this job than me,” said unemployed man Charles Duncan, echoing the sentiments of 1,400 others, 900 of whom believe their facility with social media and knowledge of web design will definitely make their application “stand out from the rest of the pack.” “This position just makes so much sense for me. My résumé and cover letter might not get me the job outright, but once I go in for the interview they’ll see why I’m ideal for it.” Sources later confirmed a family friend of a top executive at the company had already accepted the position, which had been unofficially promised to him long before the job was even posted.
The part about the family friend is particularly galling. (Thanks to John Spevacek for the link.) 

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Wisconsin researcher pleads guilty to computer tampering

Remember this sad story of a postdoc pilfering a compound from the Medical College of Wisconsin to take to China? He's pleading guilty to unauthorized access to a computer, and faces 5 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

How important is negotiation after receiving a job offer?

An astute reader has a question that I've reformulated as follows:
If you have an initial offer from a medium-sized company that includes an above-average salary (in the 50th to 75th percentile, according to the ACS Salary Comparator), how important is it that you negotiate with them for more? The self-help guides all say it's important -- is that right? 
Will it damage my reputation if I don't? And if I should negotiate, what should I use as my basis for a higher salary or more benefits when I don't have any data to back it up?
First, congratulations -- that's very exciting!

I think the self-help guides are correct, in that they would argue that your leverage will rarely be this high again -- so now is the time to make sure that you get everything you have. It seems to me that there are a number of other things to negotiate for: vacations, 401k/pensions, who will pay for health benefits, etc., etc.

As for damaging your reputation if you don't, it probably depends on who you are negotiating with. If it's a smallish company and you're negotiating with someone you'll be reporting to, it may be good to demonstrate that you're willing to use your leverage. (Certainly, if you take a low-ball offer, they may lose respect for you.) If it's a HR person, they may not care one whit either way.

As for what to use for data as backup, I frankly have no idea. Uh, Google? I dunno. Readers?

UPDATE: To calibrate, this sounds like an entry-level Ph.D. position. 

Daily Pump Trap: 7/11/13 edition

Good morning! Between July 2 and July 10, there have been 139 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website. Of these, 9 (6%) were academically connected and 113 (81%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources. 

Dude, you could not pay me enough: CalEnergy Generation is looking for an analytical/environmental chemist for its facility in Calpatria, California. Offering 64.6k to 83k. 2000 median household income of 60k (a lot higher than expected.) Living in the Imperial Valley? Um, no thanks.

Toronto, ON: The Structural Genomics Consortium is looking for a Ph.D. medicinal chemist to train graduate students and postdocs in medicinal chemistry while being a project manager for some sort of collaborative project. Sounds interesting, could be right for the right person...

Emeryville, CA: What the business is going on with this position? Sandia is looking for an organic chemist to take a postdoctoral position in biomass conversion. Organometallic, Schlenk, dry box techniques, blah, blah... and then there's this:
Bachelor's degree in relevant discipline plus five or more years of experience; or Master's degree in relevant discipline plus two or more years of experience; or Doctorate in relevant discipline; or equivalent combination of education and experience.
Rurr? I'm sure it's just pro forma language, but still.

Livermore, CA: Sandia National Laboratories is looking for a B.S./M.S. bioanalytical chemist to develop novel immunoassays.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 212, 1020, 2537 and 15 positions for the search term "chemist." (Big jump for Careerbuilder.) LinkedIn shows 124 positions for the job title "chemist", with 2 for "organic chemist", 7 for "research chemist" and 9 for "analytical chemist." 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What's your project ritual?

From a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, a look at silly (and not so silly) rituals in the office:
Salo LLC, a financial and human-resources staffing company in Minneapolis, incorporates rituals throughout its work cycle. When customer requests come in, they are posted on a wall-size whiteboard, and can only be recorded, altered or erased by the salesperson who landed the client. "That's their graffiti, their mark. You wouldn't alter someone else's graffiti. It would be bad luck," says Salo Managing Director Gwen Martin.... 
[snip] Salo employees prod transactions along with another ritual: "When we are about to lock a deal down, it's bad luck to high-five each other, because you might jinx it," Ms. Martin says. "So you do a 'pinkie-five' instead," tapping pinkie fingers. 
Once a deal is done, the salesperson rings a big brass gong on a bank of files in the center of the office. "People get up and cheer and clap," says Kelly Weight, a business development director. Other teams in the company have their own celebration rituals, such as chest bumps or victory dances.
At a previous employer, I always liked it when the marketing guy would walk up to our whiteboard and write down an order from a customer -- by the end of campaign, it became a rather fun thing for him to walk up to the whiteboard, pick up the red pen and announce (via writing) another large order. I kept telling him that we needed a bell next to the whiteboard, but him picking up the pen was just as good, really.

Academic groups have their interesting rituals. I've heard of bottles of champagne for every synthesized natural product or (via a member of the Doyle group) a coffee mug per publication. I've even heard of a week off (or was it two weeks) per publication? (Boy, that would be a good motivator.)

I think the ritual that I could do without would be the 'project beard':
...To speed up work on a stalled music-website project, Tony Kimberly and Matt Bernier, co-founders of a Kansas City, Kan., Web-development company called Spotted Koi, cooked up a ritual—vowing not to shave or cut their hair until they finished. In the next 2½ months, Mr. Bernier, who usually wears his hair cut short, says "I looked like I had lived on the streets for a couple of years." 
He adds, "Friends said, 'Seriously, are you ever going to shave?'  
Mr. Kimberly says his project beard was "tremendously itchy" with a "strange-looking" combination of brown and red hair. A few weeks into the ritual, his girlfriend asked, "So, when is this over?" The social pressure and his dislike for his beard "gave us motivation," he says. They finished the project and later repeated the ritual on another new product.
Uhhh, no thanks. 

Process Wednesday: when "old school" meant a bunker

How do you know when things might be a little dicey? When your operators have to get into a bunker to produce your desired intermediates.

From the compiled reviews [1] in the book Organometallics in Process Chemistry (emphasis mine), a look at the production of ethyl diazoacetate for the synthesis of the mixture of insecticidal compounds known as allethrins in the 1950s:
As mentioned previously, the generation and handling of ethyl diazoacetate on large scale is not a trivial operation. To mitigate the risk to human operators, early manufacturers were reported to conduct the cyclopropanation reaction by remote control from behind concrete barriers. 
Another creative processing approach to minimize the handling of and exposure to ethyl diazoacetate is embodied in a patent from ICI. They used a large excess of [the above diene] as the organic solvent to extract the EDA as it was generated. After removing the aqueous phase, copper was added as a catalyst and the mixture was heated to effect cyclopropanation. The excess diene was recycled into the process during the distillative isolation of the product. 
I think it is instructive to me how one of the ways to both maximize throughput and minimize operations is to run the reaction basically neat; that the cyclopropanation wouldn't run without copper present is probably an important aspect of the reaction as well.

Perhaps it is not a surprise that the review notes next that in 1975, another company patented a continuous process to generate the desired intermediate above. Good on them -- no one wants to run reactions from a bunker, I'll bet.

1. DelMonte, A.J.; Dowdy, E.D.; Watson, D.J. "Development of Transition Metal-Mediated Cyclopropanation Reactions." Topics Organomet. Chem. 2004, 6, 97-122. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Morning links

Some morning links to tide you over:
See you in a bit. 

Good luck, Barnes and Noble...

While I'm waiting for a moment to write up this week's IFF and DPT, a random comment by Matt Yglesias about Barnes and Noble:
Because Barnes & Noble is a very successful chain of bookstores, except the number of people who want to buy physical books is plummeting. A digital bookstore can stock a much larger inventory with almost no warehousing costs, and can deliver the book of your choice to you within seconds. What's more, a Kindle Paperwhite or a iPad Mini is lighter than a book and yet can contain many books, greatly facilitating travel. Even better, you can highlight passages of your digital books and annotate them and then have all your annotations available to you on all your digital devices. The only real value of physical books at this point is a kind of nostalgia-soaked experience, and people want to experience that at a friendly independently owned bookstore not an impersonal chain.
I like an independent bookstore, I really do. But growing up in suburbia, Barnes and Noble was the awesomest thing alive. I actually sat in Barnes and Noble on a comfy chair and read Executive Orders by Tom Clancy cover-to-cover when I was a teenager. Can't get away with that at the supermarket!

I'm pretty old fashioned, so I like to give books as gifts. I like to drive to my local independent bookstore (who am I kidding? -- it's basically the only one still open in my town), browse and wait for a moment of inspiration. My kids will probably never have that experience. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

The high-skilled immigration debate hits C&EN

This week, Andrea Widener and Linda Wang of C&EN tackle the high-skilled immigration debate. The 4 articles are definitely worth reading, if only to get a flavor of the statistics and scope of the debate. They are as follows:
The statistics: A short overview from the Widener story:
  • Just 2.2% of approved H1B visas for fiscal year 2011 were for "mathematical and physical sciences", which includes chemists. 
  • The "pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing" sector accounted for 0.7% of H1B applications; by contrast, the computer systems design sector accounted for 39.5%. 
  • Doctoral degree holders (from abroad) accounted for just 11% of total applications, with 83% holding just a bachelor's or a master's degree. 
  • 64.8% of H1B visas holders were from either India (58%) or China (8.8%). 
I was surprised to see the story lead off with a reminder of the relatively high unemployment rate of ACS members for 2012 at 4.2%. 

Wouldn't it be nice to get some facts on STEM exits?: From a former university president, a comment about students who leave:
What is truly important is to have an immigration system that allows the best and brightest to come to the U.S. and stay here, says James Duderstadt, former University of Michigan president who has been on several National Academy of Sciences panels that recommend immigration reform. Most of the industrialized world has already made it easier for highly skilled scientists to immigrate, he says. The U.S. has not. 
“We end up paying a lot for foreign students’ graduate education and then we show them the door,” Duderstadt says. “These people with advanced skills are worth their weight in gold.”
I would really like to know if/how this happens. I know that qualified chemists end up going back to their countries of origin due to terrible immigration circumstances (I have seen it myself!), but it seems to be oft-rumored and relatively few sourced statistics exist. 

[If these people are worth their weight in gold, why are we paying so poorly for postdocs?] 

Bravely done, Air Products: I was surprised to see an actual chemical company decide to comment on the issue on the record, and here we are:
It is those highly skilled workers that the chemical company Air Products & Chemicals seeks out. “Our objective is to find the right talent and to be blind to the circumstances around them,” says Martha Collins, director of the Global Technology Centers at the company. And if the perfect employee happens to need a visa, the company will work with them to make that happen.
I see that Air Products did indeed hire a couple of senior research chemists at 95k via the H1B system back in 2009 (search here for "Air Products" and 2009, 2nd page of results); seems to me that it's a fair wage for Allentown, PA, but what do I know? 

An unexpected comment: Lamar Smith is better known for some of his more controversial statements about science and science funding. I hadn't heard about this one: 
And some degree fields don’t need more workers. The life sciences are one of the sectors where wages are falling in most analyses. Last year it was specifically excluded from a bill expanding H-1B visas offered by the Judiciary Committee chair at the time, Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Texas). The bill passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate and died at the end of 2012.
I would not have expected that. Can't say I disagree, really. 

Finally, the human toll: From Linda Wang's article, a sad comment about international Ph.D. students wanting to go home for a visit: 
And going home to visit? Forget it. Pius O. Adelani, a postdoc in the department of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Notre Dame, in Indiana, who is from Nigeria, has not returned home since he arrived in the U.S. in 2007 to start a Ph.D. program. He knew there was a chance he could be denied a reentry visa, which would have meant that he’d have to terminate his Ph.D. training. “I didn’t want to take that risk,” he says. Now that he’s completed his Ph.D., he is hoping to visit his father and siblings in Nigeria soon.
There are a lot of sides to the STEM immigration debate; the corporations, the universities and the individual US worker all have their conflicting priorities. But it seems rather unkind of our system to seemingly deny students and postdoctoral fellows the ability to go home and see their family. I would really hope that there would be legislation or regulatory change to address this problem (why haven't the universities taken this up?). Surely, we can all agree that this, of all things, needs to change. 

All in all, a good effort from C&EN. Worth a read.