Monday, March 31, 2014

Not how you want organic chemists to be in the news

Some unfortunate stories: 

This story of a young organic chemist in the UK who committed suicide is sad; sympathies to her parents and friends. 

This story of a medicinal chemist whose Ph.D. has been revoked is quite interesting; don't know all the details yet. 

Kansas City? Why not?

Also from this week's C&EN, stories of chemical entrepreneurship from Susan Ainsworth (emphasis mine):
Just a few years ago, Patrick Kearney found himself in a place that is painfully familiar to many chemists. When his position as a senior director of medicinal chemistry at a San Francisco Bay Area biotechnology company was eliminated in 2011, he entered a challenging job market feeling as though his career had stalled. Eager to find another career path, Kearney made a decision to pursue a longtime dream of starting his own contract research organization (CRO). He was acting on a promising business idea that had come to him during one of his job interviews. 
As he sought resources to help him take that leap of faith, Kearney learned about the American Chemical Society’s Entrepreneurial Initiative, a program to support ACS members who would like to pursue starting and operating their own businesses. At the time, it was a new two-year pilot program, and he wasted no time in applying to be a part of it. 
Kearney’s application was successful, and he is now taking advantage of a renewed program. The ACS Board of Directors has approved a plan to “revamp and optimize” the Entrepreneurial Initiative for another two-year run, says David E. Harwell, assistant director of ACS industry member programs and coordinator for the initiative. The application period for the next group of participants, he adds, will open on April 2. 
The program recognizes the tremendous hurdles involved in starting a business, Harwell adds. As would be expected, most of the companies involved in the program “have a long row to hoe and are struggling, but a few seem to be rocketing right through.” 
Kearney is working toward being one of the success stories coming out of the ACS program. He founded HD Sciences, a Kansas City, Mo., medicinal chemistry CRO that aims to accelerate the identification and optimization of lead compounds for drug discovery. Next month, he is set to begin proof-of-concept research in the lab of his collaborator, Paul R. Hanson, a chemistry professor at the University of Kansas, Lawrence.
Fascinating to see how things go for ideas like this -- my sincere best wishes to Dr. Kearney. To find out more about the ACS Entrepreneurial Initiative, click here.

UPDATE: Thanks to Polychem, I see that Dr. Kearney has a blog. I like what I see: optimistic, yet realistic. Again, my very best wishes to him. 

This week's C&EN

A selection of articles from this week's C&EN:

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Hello, Toronto Star readers

If you came here from reading the article in the Toronto Star about Sheri Sangji, you may be interested in reading more about the case.
The most comprehensive article about the case is Jyllian Kemsley's "Learning from UCLA", with links to all the primary documents.  

Friday, March 28, 2014

The STEM contest: vote now!

Finally, it returns. Last month, I asked you all to come up with new words for the ridiculous acronym STEM, considering that, in my opinion, it confuses the issue and engenders bad thinking. Lots of you entered, and I promised that the winner would get "a certificate, a handwritten thank you note, a box of the finest Chemjobber business cards and a bag of hard candies". Well, it's time to vote. Here are the nominees that I chose:
The Iron Chemist: "Salaries Terrible, Employment Mediocre"
Anonymous: "Sorry The Employment's Missing"
Anonymous: "Sure To End Miserably"
Pig Farmer: "Sack Those Employees, Mate"
Pig Farmer: "Shortage, The Eternal Mantra"
Free Radical: "Surplus Trained: Employers' Market!"
Scott Frazee: "Solely Technology Employment Meaningful"
Will I. Retireachemist: "Statistics Twisted, Employees Mourn"
The entry with the most votes (counting Twitter, e-mail and comments on this post) will be declared the winner. If you think that another nominee is better, you can write in votes (for previous entries only).

Voting will end April 4 at midnight, Eastern time.

May the best alternative slogan win! 

An interesting comment on the fine chemicals biz

This week’s announcement that Albany Molecular Research Inc. will acquire Cedarburg Hauser Pharmaceuticals—a $41 million deal—has us on the verge of declaring a trend. You will recall that last October, AAIPharma purchased another Midwest active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) producer, Cambridge Major Laboratories. All we need is one more to feel that the black ice of overcapacity in pharmaceutical fine chemicals is finally starting to melt. 
[Note: The DSM/Patheon deal does not count as it has not, as of yet, led to any consolidation in API manufacturing stewardship.] 
Industry watchers have long bemoaned the need—some would call it the obvious-if-not drastic need—for consolidation in the contract pharma chemicals sector. The problem of too few jobs for too many producers is long-standing to the point of seeming sustainable. But action may be triggered now by the nature of those jobs. Customers, transitioning from the block-buster era into the age of targeted therapies, want much smaller volumes of chemicals than they did only a couple of  years ago. And the molecules they want have become increasingly more complex. The stronger contractors, such as AMRI, are on the lookout for ready-to-go advanced API synthesis capacity. Companies like Cambridge Major and Cedarburg are perfect targets, especially for diversified service firms such as AAI and AMRI that want to build out their API offerings.
I did not expect AMRI to be an acquirer, as opposed to the acquired. But what do I know? It's good news for them, I suppose, although I wonder how employees of Cedarburg feel. 

Thursday, March 27, 2014

I'd laugh if I wasn't crying: clinical research organization hiring postdocs as interns

From the inbox, yet more evidence of a STEM shortage*:
Camargo Pharmaceutical Services, a leading drug development organization specializing in the 505(b)(2) approval pathway, is adding expertise to its projects and helping postdoctoral researchers gain real-world experience through a unique internship program.

In January 2014, four postdoctoral researchers joined the Camargo team at its growing Durham, N.C., location. Partnering with academic organizations, including Duke University, the internship creates hands-on opportunities across the drug development process. As research associates, the interns assist research scientists during various stages of their work, including feasibility assessments and the design and conduct of nonclinical programs and Phase I-IV clinical trials, as well as FDA regulatory preparation and filings of INDs and NDAs.

“This experience provides an opportunity for postdoctoral interns to gain experience in the regulated environment of drug development, offers a fresh perspective to our research scientists by contributing to the therapeutic breadth and ultimately helps Camargo expand our efforts,” said Gary Barnette, vice president of drug development for Camargo.

The internship can also act as a gateway to a career. In the last 20 years, there has been an increase in Ph.D. graduates countered by a decrease in academic appointments. More and more graduates with a Ph.D. are looking for positions beyond academia and that includes positions in pharmaceutical research.

“Historically, Ph.D. students and postdoctoral researchers were training for tenured faculty positions, but now only 20 percent of graduates with a Ph.D. will go on to tenured academic appointments,” said Molly Starback, director of Duke's postdoctoral services office. “Today, these postdoctoral researchers are applying for the same positions as established professionals. It has become a very competitive field, but internship programs like Camargo’s are helping some of them get their foot in the door.”           
"Interns", "research associates". There's nothing quite like giving postdocs titles that typically mean "summer student" or "non-Ph.D.-holder."

It'd be interesting to know if/how these folks are being paid, or if they're doing this for free an educational experience. Also, note that there is no comment about using postdocs to um, perform research -- it's all about helping Camargo with paperwork. Good God.

*Note for the literal minded: I am kidding.

Job posting: nuclear power plant chemist, Brownville, NE

From the inbox, an unusual position: 
Implement and maintain chemistry, radiochemistry, radioactive effluents, and chemical control programs at Cooper Station to assure maximum performance, meet regulatory obligations/commitments, and comply with technical specifications and ODAM related to plant chemistry and radioactive effluents. The major aspects include ensuring instrumentation and process monitors are operated and maintained according to NRC, NPDES, Fuel Warranty requirements, INPO guidelines and development of the Chemistry staff. Review and coordinate Chemistry Department work schedule via the T-Process Work Week Scheduling. Serve as the champion of high standards of Human Performance Tool Usage within the Chemistry Department. Serve as program coordinator for BWRVIP, EPRI, INPO, Fuel Warranty, and station mandated chemistry programs. Coordinate and implement corrective actions and enhancements to Chemistry Department programs. 
Description of ideal candidate 
Qualifications: B.S. degree in Chemistry or related field of study, plus three years experience as described below.  
Detailed knowledge of chemistry and radiochemistry process and controls, chemical and radiological process monitors, and plant systems as they relate to the nuclear chemistry environment with a minimum of three years experience in chemistry. 
Not everyday I hear about this sort of position. Pays well, too, at 90k for Nebraska.  

Job posting: LC/MS scientist/lab manager, Baton Rouge, LA

From the inbox:
Immediate opening for a LC/MS/MS Scientist and general laboratory manager. 
This opportunity will afford the selected candidate a unique opportunity for unlimited professional and personal growth in a rapidly growing toxicology laboratory.
  • Must have experience working within a clinical laboratory environment
  • Hands on experience with LC/MS/MS in toxicology/pharmaceutical applications
  • CLIA/COLA experience
  • Method Development and Validation experience required
  • Management experience a plus
  • BA/BS, MS, or PhD Chemistry, Biology, or related are ideal.
  • 2+ Years of hands on industry experience for PhD, 5+ years for MS/BS
Contact information here. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The horrors of redistribution

About a week ago, noted demographer Michael Teitelbaum took to the (online) pages of The Atlantic to speak to "The Myth of the Science and Engineering Shortage". Here's a great summary by Derek Lowe of the article, also noting that Teitelbaum has a book coming out about it. I'm really looking forward to reading it (an early Father's Day present, Mrs. CJ?). Anyway, here comes Robert Atkinson*, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation with a retort in Washington Monthly. (ht @unstableisotope) I'm pretty sure that Teitelbaum and Atkinson are basically talking past each other, but here's something that I find really amusing as a comment:
Teitelbaum would also have us believe that all is well because more students than ever are interested in STEM. If so, why then do 4 times more high school students take the AP Art History test than the AP Computer Science Test? It’s not because of those high wages in art history jobs. 
If I were to hazard a guess as to why the AP Computer Science test is not often taken, it's because it isn't seen as a key prerequisite to going to college in computer science. (As I recall, and perhaps I am wrong, it's seen as a bit out of date?) Also, I'd think that there's a lot more legacy infrastructure around the AP Art History exam (i.e. a lot more high schools have arts teachers than qualified CS teachers?)

Finally, a rather wonderful blast at the cohort of professors that have been raining on Atkinson's parade for the last three or so years that he's been plumping the STEM shortage:
So what’s behind the man bites dog STEM stories? The short answer is ideology. Most of the advocates of no-shortage, including people like Ron Hira, Hal Salzman, Richard Freeman, and of course Teitelbaum are focused more on an agenda of redistribution, ensuring higher wages for workers, including STEM workers. Arguing against shortages is part of a strategy to oppose high-skill immigration policies so that shortages increase even more and already well paid STEM workers get paid even more. 
Yet policies established to achieve nothing more than an increase in STEM wages by restricting the supply of workers would have two bad effects. First, they would lead to higher prices for products and services that have STEM talent as a significant input. This would be a transfer payment from all consumers, including low income ones, to some workers, many of whom are already very well paid. Restricting the supply STEM workers would also reduce the competitiveness of U.S. establishments that rely on STEM labor, reducing U.S. jobs and economic growth. 
Higher wages for workers! What a travesty. It's a frickin' shame that Zuckerberg has to pay so much for developers and corporate America cannot import enough back office folks. Goshdarnit, we're all ideologues.

I'm not much of a trade unionist (much like Derek Lowe), but articles like Atkinson lay bare his agenda and make me want to start buying Billy Bragg albums.

*He was featured in this video last week, too.  

The economy that is Japan

Also (last one, promise) from this week's C&EN, an amusing aside on the need for the Japanese chemical industry to restructure (by Jean-François Tremblay): 
The complexity is no greater in Japan than it is elsewhere, Harnick says. But cultural differences play a role. “In Japan, there is a long-standing tradition and business practice where large corporations don’t like to be seen downsizing” or cutting jobs, he notes. 
At Mitsui, for example, no employee will be laid off when the phenol, acetone, and polyurethane facilities cease to operate, Tannowa says. Laying off employees, he explains, is impractical both financially and in terms of the harm it does to labor relations. “It is not wise to conduct such layoffs,” he says. The 200 or so employees affected will be redeployed, and Mitsui will lower its headcount over the coming years through natural attrition. 
I wonder at what point US companies transitioned from "we're closing your division, but transferring you elsewhere" to "see ya later." I don't think we're going back. 

Process Wednesday: trifluoromethylation on kilogram scale

From this week's C&EN, a great article by Stephen Ritter on process chemistry*, including some really enjoyable coverage of this Boehringer Ingelheim work: 
In one presentation in Orlando, Jason A. Mulder of Boehringer Ingelheim described the challenge of scaling up the fluorination of a versatile synthetic intermediate that his company is using to make a family of new anti-infective drug candidates... 
...Mulder’s target was synthesizing methyl 6-chloro-5-(trifluoromethyl)nicotinate on a 100-kg scale at a reasonable cost. At first, Mulder and his colleagues considered buying and modifying a trifluoromethylated precursor. But the one they needed cost about $800 per kg on a 100-kg scale, which was too much, he said. The team then turned to finding a method to make the fluorinated nicotinate from scratch (Org. Process Res. Dev. 2013, 10.1021/op400061w). 
...The researchers continued their search and zeroed in on methyl chlorodifluoroacetate (MCDFA). Although the compound would take some massaging to serve as a trifluoromethylating reagent, at $12 per mol on a 100-kg scale, the price was right...
...Copper stabilized by the ligand facilitates formation of difluoromethyl carbene, which couples with fluoride ion added to the reaction to form CF3 ions. The ligand-stabilized copper then coordinates to the heteroaryl ring to displace iodide and transfer CF3 to the ring. The reaction worked with good yield but not without a couple of monkey wrenches thrown in. 
For one thing, the team couldn’t achieve a catalytic process on the scale they needed because of competing impurity formation—the larger the reaction, the lower the yield. Running reactions that involve CF3 ion can be problematic because of side reactions of difluoromethyl carbene, Mulder said. The major impurities in this case were by-products with an unwanted fluoroalkyl side chain. 
During the reaction, the CF2 carbene likely generates multiple fluorinated alkyl copper species that compete with CuCF3 and react with the iodide, Mulder explained. This radical addition, or telo­merization, is how fluorinated polymers such as polytetrafluoroethylene are made. The team actually could see formed polymer floating in the reaction vessel. 
To curb carbene formation and telomerization, the researchers had to use just the right amount of copper and fluoride ion. But after running hundreds of reactions using the catalytic route with modified conditions, none of the options proved to be optimal. Although the catalytic process was preferred for its lower copper cost and reduced burden of removing copper salts at the end of the reaction, the team opted to simply use a stoichiometric amount of copper, which cut down on carbene formation and reduced the impurities. 
“Our final result was a safe, efficient, scalable process with low impurities that was successfully integrated into the scaled-up synthesis of new drug candidates with an overall cost reduction of 10%,” Mulder concluded. He reiterated that although many trifluoromethylation procedures are available, “finding one that works well on a large scale and at low cost remains a challenge.”
Here's how Mulder and coworkers described the polymer formation in their OPRD paper:

Notably, some solids, which appeared to be highly fluorinated polymeric compounds, were observed floating in the crude reaction mixture. This observation helped explain why a minimum of 3 equiv of MDCFA was required for this reaction. These polymeric byproducts were observed to a small extent on lab scale but had minimal impact. However, during the kilo-lab scale-up of the catalytic trifluoromethylation (Table 3, entry 1), these insoluble polymeric impurities made the workup tedious by complicating phase separations and by causing foaming during the reaction and distillation steps.... 
...Despite great effort, these impurities could not be sufficiently suppressed. Being very similar to the desired product in structure and physical characteristics, these impurities were also very difficult to remove by crystallization at this process stage and downstream. Because of these issues, the stoichiometric copper conditions were pursued for scale-up...
What a neat piece of work! Pretty cool.

*Definitely click on the link for a worthwhile explanation of the ICH classification system for solvents for use in process chemistry, too. 

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Ask CJ: how long should a resume/CV be?

From the inbox, a good question from a experienced early-career medicinal chemist:
I was curious what the appropriate CV/resume length is as well as if references should be included on the resume or just sent as a second document for other industry employment. Now that I think of it a follow up - how about publication list?  I have always assumed include it but it is getting a bit long.
Seems to me that the answer to this is that if you get a request for a resume, you go for 2 pages, and include your best publications. If you get the CV, you give 'em everything. I dunno, though I should. Readers? 

What's the story with Phenomenex?

Can anyone talk (in the comments, or by e-mail) about what kind of company Phenomenex is to work for, and why they keep posting the same 3-4 positions ("organic surface chemist", etc.)?

What's Genentech doing on Google's "Do Not Cold Call" list?

PandoDaily has been doing great work covering Google's involvement with Apple and other Silicon Valley companies in agreeing not to recruit other companies employees and avoiding driving up wages. But here's an interesting new little tidbit from the lawsuit:
The following companies have special agreements with Google and are part of the “Do Not Cold Call” list. 
Effective March 6, 2005: 
• Genentech, Inc.
• Intel Corporation
• Apple Computer
• Paypal, Inc.
• Comcast Corporation
The belief is that the agreements came from various CEOs that sat on each others' boards. It's my assumption that it was Genentech's IT/computer folks who were on "do not touch" lists.  (I mean, I assume that Apple wasn't interested in hiring Genentech molecular biologists or something.)

I don't really believe in conspiracies, but it's difficult not to believe when you have CEOs e-mail/calling each other (scroll down to see the really eye-opening call/e-mail exchange between Google CEO Eric Schmidt and EBay CEO Meg Whitman.)

The last time I talked about this, someone suggested that the legacy chemical corporations used to do this -- wonder if it's still going on? 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Age discrimination in Silicon Valley

I really wish it had a few more statistics attached to it, but this Noam Scheiber article about age discrimination was really eye-opening:
...Just because overt age-discrimination is illegal doesn’t mean it never happens. In 2011, Google settled a multimillion-dollar claim brought by a computer scientist named Brian Reid, who had been fired when he was 54. Reid said colleagues and supervisors had frequently referred to him as “an old man” and “an old fuddy-duddy” whose ideas were “too old to matter.” They allegedly joked that his CD cases should be called LPs. A labor lawyer I spoke with told me he recently got a call from a thirtysomething supervisor at a start-up who said her job was at risk because the team she was managing—most of them ten years younger—had rejected her on account of her age. “She was being referred to as a ‘den mother,’ ” says the lawyer. “If no one is following your lead, you’re not much of a supervisor.” 
Still, ageism in Silicon Valley is usually more subtle: an extra burden of proof on the middle-aged to show they can hack it, on a scale very few workers of their vintage must deal with anywhere else. “People presume an older developer learned some trade skill five to ten years ago and has been coasting on it ever since,” says a 40-plus developer whose department consists mostly of 20-year-olds...
The article should really be called "Silicon Valley VCs prefer pitches from young people", but the stories are interesting nonetheless.   

People v. Patrick Harran continued yet again

University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran had another trial court status check last week. The result is another status check scheduled for June 5. Harran faces trial on four counts of felony violations of the state labor code relating to the 2009 death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from injuries sustained in a fire in Harran’s lab. 
The case is on hold in the trial court while a California appellate court considers a petition filed by Harran’s legal team on Oct. 24, 2013, to try to get the case dismissed. The current deadline for the district attorney’s or attorney general’s offices to file opposition arguments is April 9, then Harran’s team has until April 30 to reply.
The legal system grinds on. I suspect that the case might be dismissed on the question as to whether or not CalOSHA/the LA district attorney can charge Patrick Harran with the felony violations, if he was not Sheri Sangji's employer, as opposed to her supervisor. 

What were the regulatory failures with the MCHM disaster?

A recent issue of Wired magazine features a science blog by Deborah Blum on the toxicity of 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). It is a well-written piece of history and current information by a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer. 
Reading the blog made me, as a chemist, feel ashamed of the harms that have been visited upon our society by the chemical industry and those who have made use of chemicals over the past many decades. It would be so easy to simply eschew personal responsibility for the many environmental sins, past and present. After all, what can I, as a resident of the state of Florida, do about a mess that has been made in West Virginia? But that mess, as with many others all over the country, exists because we lack laws, regulations, and enforcement that would have prevented them from occurring. 
We lack those laws and enforcements in part because we chemists, who among all the citizens of this society should be most knowledgeable, have been negligent in our moral obligations to be proactive. We have not made it our business to advocate for stricter regulation of the production and uses of chemicals. Nor have we advocated for more vigorous monitoring and more ardent prosecution at all levels of government of those who put us in harm’s way through practices that pursue profits at the expense of our well-being. Our obligations extend to informing our fellow citizens, through every means available: letters and phone calls to our legislators and to the editor of our local paper, blogs, participation in local environmental group efforts, and so on. But of course, to be informative we must be informed, and that takes commitment. 
Finally, we can and should ask: What is the American Chemical Society doing? Where does it stand? How much of its resources are being deployed to make this a safer world? The answer, I fear, is not much. Again, where is the commitment? 
Theodore L. Brown
Bonita Springs, Fla.
I've been meaning to write on this awhile now, but this letter is a good chance to state my qualms on this approach: where does the moral, legal and/or financial obligations end for chemists, with respect to chemicals that they sell? So far as I can tell, the root causes of the West Virginia disaster (i.e. an entire metropolitan area unable to use its drinking water for um, drinking) were as follows:
  1. The inability of the local municipal water source to be able to filter out MCHM at the water source, or the failure to stop the distribution of MCHM-contaminated water from the plant in time.
  2. The siting of a municipal water source downstream from a tank farm, or the placement of a tank farm upstream from a municipal water source. (whichever came first)
  3. The failure of secondary containment efforts at Freedom Industries. 
  4. The failure of the primary MCHM tank. 
There's a lot of governmental regulatory failure in #2, #3 and #4. It seems to me that the West Virginia environmental regulatory folks should have noted Freedom's lack of secondary containment*. Freedom Industries is likely responsible for the apparent poor state of their tanks -- I wonder if those tanks have ever been pressure checked or what the preventative maintenance logs look like. 

It seems to me that chemists should not be responsible for operations failures or business failures or local regulatory failures (I'll bet that ACS policy statements are a lot stronger on industry regulation than their industrial members would like.) I think it's pretty clear that chemists should be responsible for toxicity issues and the environmental fate of products when used as intended. (Of course, there are problems with that absolution of liability, too.)

I think I'm missing Professor Brown's point, but I guess I don't know where the American Chemical Society can really have influence over these situations, especially the West Virginia one. 

*I have yet to see industry sources say anything about what the secondary containment requirements of tank farms are. The silence of industrial engineering types on the failures of Freedom Industries is pretty deafening. 

This week's C&EN

Interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A fun product development story

This article has been knocking around my coffee table for months, regarding the birth of Hobie Alter's surfboards:
One day in 1957, my resin salesman at Reichold Chemicals came by and handed me a piece of polyurethane foam. I poured some styrene and resin on it, and it didn't melt. So I started building a fiberglass mold for a surfboard with it, which I knew was the future. I rented a building in Laguna Canyon that became a secret shop, and after two years of experimenting, we built the molds and got it done. We replaced the balsa wood with the foam, and the boards were strong and light. We started selling the foam-core boards, kicking up production to 20 boards a week. 
I was making enough to cover everything. We lived in a cheap house on Dana Point. We cleared more than $10 a board, which sold for $100 each, and we made 200 boards a week at the peak. 
It's neat to learn how chemistry helped the surfing industry. (Think he was using PPE with that styrene?)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Here we go again

Those of us who get irritated at media coverage of the chemical industry will be especially excited with this coverage from The Atlantic Monthly of Landrigan and Grandjean's latest publication in The Lancet Neurobiology, titled "Neurobehavioural effects of developmental toxicity." Here's those authors' list of bad compounds:
In 2006, we did a systematic review and identified five industrial chemicals as developmental neurotoxicants: lead, methylmercury, polychlorinated biphenyls, arsenic, and toluene. Since 2006, epidemiological studies have documented six additional developmental neurotoxicants—manganese, fluoride, chlorpyrifos, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, tetrachloroethylene, and the polybrominated diphenyl ethers. 
Here's how The Atlantic has chosen to illustrate them:

Within the article, Landrigan suggests that fluoride should not be taken out of toothpaste, but I doubt that's going to be noted by those sharing this article on Facebook. Also, who's going to tell them about the typos in the top graphic, and this one?: 

Also, I am terribly amused that ethanol is listed as a neurotoxicant, and yet the article does not touch on it at all. You can imagine America saying "FROM MY ICY COLD, DEAD HANDS." 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Has anyone had an offer rescinded for negotiating?

This has zinged its way around Twitter already, but I thought I would talk about it a little. From Inside Higher Ed: 
The candidate, identified in the blog as “W,” sent the following email to search committee members at Nazareth College, in Rochester, N.Y., after receiving a tenure-track job offer in philosophy: 
“As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier[:]
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.”
She ended the email by saying “I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.” 
In a reply, the search committee said it had reviewed the requests, as had the dean and vice president of academic affairs. 
“It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered,” the email continues. “Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.” 
The search committee ended by thanking the candidate for her “interest" and wishing her “the best in finding a suitable position.”
Here is the best explanation for why "W" may not have been on the best footing, where someone who is a professor at a small college notes that this e-mail may have been a sign that W had a poor understanding of the actual requirements of the job. I agree with Megan McArdle that e-mail was probably not the best way of attempting to negotiate, although it sure seems like to me that W was being more than flexible. A final caveat that I'm neither an academic nor a philosopher, so I don't really understand their culture well enough to say what is and is not the norm.

But I'd like sure like to know if there are any industrial chemists out there who have had a job offer pulled for being too strong on the negotiation. I've negotiated a little, but not enough to say that I'm really a champion at it, and I've not had a job offer retracted.* Has anyone else heard of this? I'd love to know.

*A couple of times, I wonder if when salary questions were asked during the interview, if I quoted a number that was too high. No job offer from either one of those interviews. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Paula Stephan at the Spring National Meeting at ACS

Paula Stephan, the author of "How Economics Shapes Science" (and noted STEM surplus crisis skeptic) spoke yesterday at ACS Dallas. Here's Carmen Drahl's Storified tweets of her talk. Gotta love this comment by Prof. Stephan:
"Take note grad students- re jobs "Advisors have incentives to tell you everything's fine." -Stephan"
Very true. 

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

What's been wasting my time for the last 48 hours?

This very simple game. If you don't have time to waste, don't click on the button -- you've been warned. 

A debate on the STEM shortage/surplus

Via Beryl Benderly, a video of a debate between STEM shortage skeptics Hal Salzman and Ron Hira and STEM shortage proponents Robert Atkinson (of the tech think tank ITIF) and Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings.

I haven't watched it yet, but I will. Ms. Benderly's pull quote seems to be pretty funny, which is Robert Atkinson saying "If you don't say there's a shortage, you don't drive improvement." Is this like saying "we had to lie to the village in order to save it?"

Monday, March 17, 2014


From Dorian Satoshi Nakamoto, Newsweek's candidate for the inventor of Bitcoin:
Part of the story pointed to the fact that Nakamoto of Temple City had programming skills. In the statement, Nakamoto says: 
"My background is in engineering. I also have the ability to program. My most recent job was as an electrical engineer troubleshooting air traffic control equipment for the FAA. I have no knowledge of nor have I ever worked on cryptography, peer to peer systems, or alternative currencies." 
The Newsweek story also notes what appears to be a strange gap in his resume over the last decade, the time during which the bitcoin code was written and released. Nakamoto explains: 
"I have not been able to find steady work as an engineer or programmer for ten years. I have worked as a laborer, polltaker, and substitute teacher. I discontinued my internet service in 2013 due to severe financial distress. I am trying to recover from prostate surgery in October 2012 and a stroke I suffered in October of 2013. My prospects for gainful employment has been harmed because of Newsweek's article."
That's completely unpossible -- everyone knows that there is a major STEM shortage and there aren't enough programmers!

Anybody know anything about PreScouter?

From the inbox, an alert to an interesting company called PreScouter, which seems to do science/technology-related consulting using graduate students and postdocs. From their recruiting information sheet:
Q: What is the main function of the Global Scholars Program? 
A: The goal of our Global Scholars program is a) to provide current academics with an opportunity to make valuable networking relationships while building their CV and b) to assist in our goal of connecting academia with industry. Our founders were grad students -- when they created this program and wanted to provide an opportunity they felt was not available to them during their studies. 
Q: How much time does a project take? 
A: Each of our projects run anywhere from 4 - 6 weeks in length. On average, Scholars spend between 15-30 hours for the duration of the project, which breaks down to about 5-6 hours per week. For each project, there are three (3) one-hour meetings that we ask our Scholars to attend. 
Q: What is the commitment of a Global Scholar? 
A: The amount of time that you are a part of our program and the amount of projects that you work on with us is entirely your decision. You are not obligated to a minimum amount of time or number of projects. We only ask that if you select a project, you must see it through completely. 
Q: What are some of the benefits of being a Scholar? 
A: Direct connections to Global Innovation leaders at Fortune level companies, which has led to employment. Gaining industrial experience. Networking with other Scholars. Project Management Certification through the Project Management Institute. And for our Scholars without funding restrictions, we do offer a small financial gift at the conclusion of each project.
I'm a little bit skeptical of their business model (basically picking the brains of grad students and postdocs for open-ended corporate research questions), but much like Innocentive, it could be fun and it could be useful. It's probably a lot more lucrative for the company than it is for the student/postdoc, for sure.

Does anyone have experience with PreScouter?  

Ahhhhhhhh, Doug Taber

From the letters to the editor page of this week's C&EN:
Possible special thermal effects of microwave irradiation are still actively debated (C&EN, Jan. 27, page 26). Paramjit S. Arora and Ross N. Chapman of New York University observed that the Ru-mediated ring-closing metathesis of an oligopeptide was sluggish with oil-bath heating—taking hours. But it proceeded rapidly—that is, in two to five minutes—with microwave heating (Org. Lett. 2006, DOI:10.1021/ol062443z). Could cis-trans amide flip be directly stimulated by microwaves? 
Douglass F. Taber
It'll be interesting to see if Kappe decides to respond to this.

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting articles in this week's issue:

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Sunil Kumar: the US has "more than enough" scientists, inventors and chemists

From this week's C&EN, Marc Reisch interviews Sunil Kumar, a retired CEO of ISP (a specialty chemical firm) with an unconventional comment on the STEM shortage myth (emphasis mine):
India’s economy grows at 6% a year, but its per capita output is stagnant because of population growth. In the U.S., lower population growth and 3% economic growth mean real per capita growth. And although India graduates large numbers of engineers, most, Kumar contends, aren’t well trained. 
“There must be something wrong when a country that graduates 300,000 engineers per year gets no Nobel Prizes, gets few patents, and has only a $1.8 trillion economy,” Kumar says. 
He sees no need for the U.S. to churn out engineers to better compete with India. Although the U.S. can always stand to improve its educational system, Kumar says, the country already “has more than enough brilliant scientists, inventors, and chemists.” 
What the U.S. shouldn’t do, Kumar says, is send talented foreigners trained in U.S. schools back to their home countries because of visa restrictions. “That is like gold slipping through your fingers,” he says.
A refreshing set of ideas, especially from the C-suite. 

Saturday thoughts

Brief thoughts on a Saturday:

This posting by @belehaa about the relative importance of family time in graduate school is quite good. It reminds me of this (rather morbid, but still gripping) mortality clock titled "See Your Parents."

[I am probably not the first to make this observation, but it seems common for students to enter graduate school with 4 grandparents and leave with, well, fewer grandparents. It's nothing to do with graduate school, really, it's just a matter of what happens to people who are between the ages of 22 and 30. Sadly (as Beth notes), it's not just grandparents.]

Glad to see th'Gaussling still writing about gold mining, even as he is continuing his treatment for cancer.

Ragus! (with comments from friend of the blog Philip Skinner.)

More later, as I see things I missed over the week.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Process Wednesday: taste as a specification

From Derek Walker's really fun book "The Management of Chemical Process Development in the Pharmaceutical Industry", a hilarious story about fuzzy specifications with Bristol-Myers' antibiotic Cephalexin:
Similarly, Banyu in Japan bought Cephalexin from Bristol-Myers' facility in Latina, Italy. In the early days Banyu complained that the taste and odor of Latina's Cephalexin batches varied considerably, with many batches failing to meet Banyu' organoleptic criteria, particularly for taste. Since taste and odor are not quantifiable parameters, the dilemma persisted for some time. During a visit to Latina, Banyu's President, Dr. Iwadare, politely explained that Japanese children actually retched when obliged to take Banyu's Cephalexin oral suspension.... 
...In an effort to resolve the problem, Banyu sent their President's son and their Director of R&D to conduct taste tests on batches of Cephalexin and to "train" Latina people to carry out the taste test to identify Cephalexin batches suitable for shipment to Japan.... 
The taste test itself was a ceremony to behold... It seemed to take on the aura of a religious occasion as each taster sniffed his freshly opened bottle and then carefully spooned a very small amount of powder onto a clean plate. After a debate about the powder's appearance, they lifted their plate to their mouths in unison and licked the sample off. A pause followed with exquisite facial expressions registering their reactions to their palates. The mouth was rinsed and the results of the tasting were written down. Only six licks per day could be undertaken such that it took the Japanese several days to lick their way through the assembled batches. The ruling on acceptable batches and unacceptable batches was handed down and arrangements made to ship the acceptable batches to Japan.  
The use of Latina staff to routinely taste test the Cephalexin batches never happened. Quite apart from the concern that the unions might react to people being used as "tasting guinea pigs." it was agreed that a scientific solution was needed. Indeed, Dr. Visibelli and his staff, working with Latina analysts and production people, found that the presence of acetone in the last process step led to the formation of traces of an unstable Schiff base with Cephalexin which degraded to give unidentified products causing the odor and taste problems. 
I am beginning to learn that this is a classic problem in chemical manufacturing. The customer doesn't like the material, but hasn't developed a chemical test to determine what exactly they don't like about it (or that the test is difficult to master, or that the test is subjective (color, taste, odor.) The manufacturer will say, "if you can't define it/specify, then we can't fix it." Rinse, repeat, until someone actually figures out exactly what is going on and addresses the problem directly. Would that we were all Dr. Visibelli and his team, the true heroes in this funny little story.  

Monday, March 10, 2014

Madeleine Jacobs to retire

More to come from this week's C&EN, but the big news is that ACS executive director Madeleine Jacobs is retiring. From the article by Maureen Rouhi:
American Chemical Society Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Madeleine Jacobs will retire at the end of 2014 after 24½ years of service, including 8½ years as C&EN’s editor-in-chief. 
“The past 10 years have been very good for ACS through difficult times,” says ACS Board Chair William F. Carroll Jr. “Madeleine has been a great change manager, leader for staff, and face for the society, particularly in Washington, D.C. We’ll miss her. And I defy anyone to find someone more broadly knowledgeable and energetic. ACS, the board, and I personally, will miss her at the top but will benefit from her future engagement as a member.” 
As CEO, Jacobs led ACS staff to an impressive portfolio of substantive achievements. They include consistently returning a positive net contribution to the society for 10 consecutive years; expanding membership, education, and public affairs offerings; growing the ACS journals program; and posting record-breaking growth in the databases underpinning Chemical Abstracts Service’s SciFinder....
Gotta love Bill Carroll's "a great change manager" -- that's an impressive bit of code that I find somewhat impenetrable.

I wonder who will be the next $800,000 CEO of the American Chemical Society?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Are you in the energy industry?

From Susan Ainsworth and Linda Wang, reporters at C&EN who would like to make a video about chemists in the energy industry at the Dallas ACS meeting:
I am trying to locate several chemists, chemical engineers, or biochemists who have recently landed jobs in the energy industry, and will be attending the Dallas ACS meeting. We plan to ask each person to describe his or her job and how they found it.

I am also looking to videotape an “expert” at the meeting—someone who can speak in general terms about the hiring environment for chemists and chemical engineers in the energy field.

We plan to use the video to augment a print/online story about job opportunities in energy; this will likely run sometime in June or July.
Interested? Contact Susan at S_Ainsworth -at- acs/dot/org  

Friday, March 7, 2014

11 ways John Lechleiter and friends would approach America's clown shortage

If only people knew how fun it was to drive one of these.
You may not know this, but apparently America has a clown shortage.* Here is how I imagine corporate CEOs and PR flacks might approach this crisis:

1. Clowns are vital to our national security.
2. There are 14,000,000 unfilled positions for clowns -- these are very mobile, high paying jobs!
3. Who will win the War for Clown Talent?
4. American youth is just not as zany as the youth of past generations of clowns -- it's all those iPads and iPhones.
5. By having insufficient clowns, we are depriving future generations of laughter and joy.
6. Do you know what the median starting salary for clowns is? I have a study that says that it's over $125,000. That, my friends, is a shortage.
7. America is being out-funnied by our international competitors.
8. Our education system just doesn't value clowning in K-12 -- it really needs to do better.
9. Congress needs to subsidize the production of clowns by founding the National Clown Centers of Excellence.
10. We need to make clowning more fun and more hands-on.
11. We should never, ever, ever raise wages for clowns.

Have a great weekend!

Total nonfarm payrolls increase by 175,000, unemployment up 0.1% to 6.7 for February

Fresh electrons from the Bureau of Labor Statistics: the unemployment rate for February was up 0.1% to 6.7% and 175,000 new nonfarm payroll jobs were created. The broader U6 measurement of unemployment was down 0.1% to 12.6%.

The chemical manufacturing sector saw an increase of 200 jobs to 796,200 positions.

The unemployment rate for college-educated workers was up 0.2% to 3.4% in February; the unemployment rate for non-high school graduates was up 0.2% to 9.8%.

I suspect that this will be graded by the economic media as a relatively good report, especially with the upward revisions to December and January payrolls (a total increase of 25,000.)

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Age discrimination, and how to fight it

From the inbox, an interesting comment by PQ about being older, and how they're treated by management:
I work for a chemical company in a support function.  I was in graduate school in the 1980s, and so have been in the workforce for about 25 years.  I’ve been in my current position for some time, and it is one that has traditionally been filled by a mix of Ph.D. and M.S. chemists, usually mid-to-late career.  However, as budgets have gotten leaner over the years, the positions in our department have been filled more and more with B.S. chemists, and ones who are earlier in their careers.  I estimate that their salaries are about ½ to ¾ of mine.

Several years ago, I noticed a trend of the newer persons being given the better assignments, with more responsibilities and more visibility, compared to those of us with more years of service.  The net effect of this trend is that we older workers have become marginalized, along with ending up doing more routine work.

Now, our division managers justify all this by saying that the newer people need to have opportunities, so they can ‘shine’ and advance in their careers. Some of these individuals certainly do rise to the occasion, while others really stumble along.  Sometimes they will surreptitiously ask one of us more experienced individuals for help, and we give it, though we won’t get any credit for these contributions. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014


From the pages of this week's C&EN, member of the ACS Board of Directors Pat Confalone on innovation and entrepreneurship:
...A key finding of the ACS Presidential Task Force report “Innovation, Chemistry, and Jobs” ( was that start-ups and small to medium-sized companies create about 3 million jobs per year, in contrast to the 2.5 million that are lost in large companies. It’s clear that the role of the entrepreneur in job creation is not only essential but also has been the key to robust economic growth, even in times of recession. In the middle of the deep downturn of 1973–74, the following companies were start-ups: FedEx, Microsoft, Oracle, and Southwest Airlines....
Does anyone else find it ironic that an essay on the glory of startups and small companies was written by someone who's spent a 40+ year career in corporate America (Roche, DuPont, BMS, DuPont)? 

Process Wednesday: photooxidation to get industrial scale artemisinin

Credit: OPRD, Turconi et al.
From the pages of Organic Process Research and Development [1], a fascinating article by workers at Sanofi-Aventis talking about their industrial route to the anti-malarial artemisinin. They decided to use a photooxidation to perform the semi-synthesis of the material and here, they talk a little about the challenges:
The utility of the Aubry reaction allows the generation of singlet oxygen, and thus the Schenck ene reaction, while avoiding the need for photochemical equipment. While in principle highly attractive, photochemical reactions are rarely practiced in industry25 and there is even less precedence for the large-scale application of the Schenck ene reaction with photochemically generated singlet oxygen.  
This is easily understood, as the hurdles to the implementation of a large-scale Schenck ene reaction are significant. Apart from the lack of experience and equipment, the choice of permissible solvents is very limited, the resulting products are inherently unsafe hydroperoxides, and the chemical engineering aspects such as mixing, gas transfer, and light transmission are unusually complex on scale.
More on the chemical engineering challenges:
On the basis of these results, a dedicated pilot unit was set up at Sanofi facility, Neuville (France). We selected a semibatch mode concept with a recirculation loop, which is possible as artemisinin is very stable under the reaction conditions and it offers optimal conditions versus energy consumption and the transformation rate. 
In addition to the other chemical engineering challenges, critical parameters included construction materials that minimize the loss of light (optimizing the quantum photonic yield) and the choice of a lamp with the optimal spectral distribution of emitted spectrum (medium pressure mercury/gallium lamp). The unit must also ensure a good turbulence of the recirculating fluid and allow a good gas−liquid transfer, while maintaining the internal temperature at −10 °C.
The first batch was piloted at 50 kg scale and now they're expected to run 60 tons a year, at a 370 kg batch size. That's 162 batches (?), which indicates a pretty impressive cycle time, although these numbers tend to get fuzzy around the edges (i.e. assuming running the plant at 100% capacity, which may not happen, etc.)

Of course, you have to read the Experimental Section* to get the full flavor of this:
Step 3: Photooxidation of Mixed Anhydride (DHAEMC) to Artemisinin. To the solution of DHAEMC (CJ's note: they started with 600 kg of artemisinic acid, 2 steps previous) were added 2570 kg dichloromethane and 300 g tetraphenylporphyrin (TPP) before the solution was exposed to light irradiation using photoreactors containing mercury vapour lamps and ambient air bubbling at about −10 to −15 °C. In the beginning of the irradiation 132 kg trifluoroacetic acid was added to the reaction mixture. The reaction was monitored by HPLC. As soon as the reaction was completed, the solution was treated twice with 720 L aqueous solution of sodium bicarbonate and was subsequently washed with 1440 kg water. The washed organic phase was treated with 30 kg activated charcoal and filtered. Before the crystallisation step,
the ADT24h of the reaction mixture was checked.
I don't have the professional capacity to comment on this intelligently, other than to say that it's a really impressive feat, in my opinion. I think it's apparent that the Sanofi coworkers not only had to design (and did!) robust enough chemistry to get it done, they had to design reactors to make this happen. Finally, it should be noted that Sanofi-Aventis was working with the Gates Foundation under a "no profit, no loss" model for anti-malarials. This seems like a pretty clear example of the good that industrial chemistry can do.

1. Turconi, J.; Griolet, F.; Guevel, R.; Oddon, G.; Villa, R.; Geatti, A.; Hvala, M.; Rossen, K.; Göller, R.; Burgard, A. "Semisynthetic Artemisinin, the Chemical Path to Industrial Production." Org. Process. Res. Dev. ASAP DOI: 10.1021/op4003196

*OPRD's experimental sections are the best, because it's always "To the reactor was added 14 quintillion liters of solvent..." 

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

I did not know that: the CEO of Gilead has a Ph.D. in organic chemistry

From friend of the blog The Aqueous Layer, an article noting that Gilead CEO John C. Martin has now become a billionaire off the success of HCV drug Sovaldi: an nice tidbit (emphasis mine):
The number of options and shares are in part attributable to Martin’s long tenure at the company, most of it as CEO, said Cara Miller, a spokeswoman for Gilead, in an e-mail. The cost of a 12-week regimen of Sovaldi along with interferon and another drug “is consistent with and in many cases actually less” than older treatments that require longer duration of therapy, she said. 
Gilead closed down 1.6 percent to $81.45 in New York. 
The billionaire, who has a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Chicago and an MBA from Golden Gate University, has spent most of his career working on antiviral drugs, and has been an active dealmaker, willing to pay a premium for companies with drugs that show promise. 
After one of its hepatitis C compounds had setbacks in early testing, Gilead acquired Sovaldi by buying Pharmasset Inc. for almost $11 billion in 2012, at a price that represented an 89 percent premium to Pharmasset’s price before the deal was announced in November 2011. Gilead stock has more than quadrupled since then.
I've long held that chemists don't necessarily make better CEOs than MBAs, with Thomas D'Ambra of AMRI and John Lechleiter of Lilly as the prime examples. Dr. Martin just might be the exception that proves the rule?

Via Google, it appears that Dr. Martin was a steroid chemist in graduate school -- who would have been his advisor? Here's a short biography about his MBA from Golden Gate University and his early years in San Francisco. 

A nice thing to see from employers: encouraging applications from the long-term unemployed

Spotted by Reverend J, in an ad for assay development chemists (emphasis mine): 
Company Description 
Siemens’ Healthcare Sector is one of the world's largest suppliers to the healthcare industry and a leader in medical imaging, laboratory diagnostics, medical information technology and hearing aids. Siemens Healthcare offers its customers products and solutions for the entire lifecycle of patient care – from prevention and early detection, to diagnosis, treatment and aftercare. By optimizing clinical workflows for the most common diseases, Siemens also makes healthcare faster, better and more cost-effective. Siemens Healthcare employs over 50,000 employees worldwide. In fiscal year 2011, the Healthcare Sector posted revenue of 12.5 billion Euros. For more information on the Healthcare sector, visit:  
Siemens encourages qualified long-term unemployed individuals to apply for open positions.
I hope that's not just lip service.  

Monday, March 3, 2014

Proposed $4 increase in ACS dues to $158 for 2015

From the "Council News" article by Susan Ainsworth, this little tidbit:
Other business before the council includes approval of a $4.00 increase in ACS dues to $158 for 2015.
I am going to guess that this increase is in line with inflation (a 2.5% increase). But still....

This week's C&EN

A variety of interesting tidbits:
I really enjoyed this series on lab-to-commercial scale work by Rick Mullin, Ann Thayer and Michael McCoy. I found Rick Mullin's story about a University of Kentucky professor's work on better mercury chelators to be fascinating (great molecule -- what to do with it?). Their work with PCI Synthesis for scale-up is highlighted, including this mysterious little comment (emphasis mine): 
In the face of these challenges, PCI’s analytical group took the catbird seat. 
“Analytical and synthesis have to work hand in hand,” Price says. “You don’t know if your synthesis guys are doing a good job if you can’t see what they’re doing.” PCI has significantly boosted its analytical chemistry staff over the past four years, Price says, and the firm now has nearly as many analytical chemists—about 20—as process chemists. 
Mehdi Yazdi, director of analytical chemistry at PCI, who joined the company in 2011, says the firm’s work for small clients such as CTI is picking up. “Since I have been here, we’ve revamped the whole analytical department,” Yazdi says. PCI has replaced nuclear magnetic resonance testing with high-performance liquid chromatography, he notes, a shift that proved crucial in developing NBMI to FDA standards.   
 While I certainly agree, I am wondering what PCI was doing without HPLC? That is oddly worded to me.