Monday, April 21, 2014

Chemists overcoming challenges

In this week's C&EN, Linda Wang's collection of inspirational stories of people overcoming a variety of personal challenges in their journey to becoming chemists. I really enjoyed Dr. Charlotte Cutler's story -- she has cerebral palsy and did work in grad school as a synthetic organic chemist: 
...In the lab, I cannot reliably hold anything with my left hand alone. My first research experience was in a synthesis lab working on moisture-sensitive cyclo­proparene chemistry. Looking back, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t work in such a physically challenging field. I would set up my hood with many clamps or anything else I could use to hold or stabilize glassware. Using syringes with pyrophoric reagents was challenging, so I learned to use a cannula whenever possible to transfer liquids. 
I was fortunate that the research for my doctorate was interdisciplinary in nature. It involved not only organic synthesis but also electrochemical polymerization and characterization, as well as simple photovoltaic device fabrication. It allowed me to learn new areas of chemistry where the lab work suited me a little more than lab work involved in pure synthesis, which required more stability in my handling of equipment. 
My chemistry career started out in organic synthesis and now continues years later in formulation science, where I have worked on many challenging and interesting projects in the microelectronics industry. Although there have been times when my physical challenges have made lab work difficult, I have persevered, motivated by the fact that research stems from the need to learn, understand, adapt, and move forward with the results, whether or not they are what we expected.
Impressive. Read them all and be inspired!  


  1. Thanks for sharing this CJ, I've met a number of people through the course of grad school who had overcome so much to get there. In my experience, these were the people who are the most driven to succeed, and the best prepared for the rigors of grad school.

    Also, related to the story you shared and in case you haven't seen it, there's a relatively new blog on "What it's like doing a PhD with disability & chronic illness":
    @PhDisabled on twitter.

  2. I'm kind of assuming the discrimination this person faced was more of challenge than cerebral palsy. She could have easily been a target for a PI who enjoys making fun of people, been seen as a poor investment causing fewer people to be interested in taking her on, and her disability could have been blamed on why a project wasn't successful.

  3. Remarkable reading, actually a pleasant impression. These stories touched me a lot in terms of inspiration. Thans for sharing.

  4. Thanks for posting this. Amidst the plethora of reports of shoddy and shameful practices in research, this story of individual courage, and commitment to core values, is refreshing and moving.

  5. Concrete DovetailApril 24, 2014 at 9:49 AM

    The most interesting thing here is that this uplifting post only received 4 comments (prior to mine), whereas the 3D Drug Printer has received over 70.

  6. People mostly don't have anything to say to uplifting, whereas the 3D printer story highlights a whole bunch of failures which are obvious (so you don't feel dumb commenting) and consequential; when the author shows up (and trolls), that probably throws even more fuel on the fire.

    Dr. Cutler's technique must be pretty good - considering the well-known horrific stinkyness of cycloproparenes, any mistakes in handling would be obvious, probably for miles around.