Friday, May 30, 2014

Kim Janda: my new hero

At the end of a very interesting article by C&EN's Stu Borman on the TIC10 kerfluffle (background best covered by Derek Lowe (natch)), a rather wonderful quote:
“I knew the whole TIC10 story would be an attention grabber,” Janda says, “but I did not anticipate so much blogging” about it. He believes the high volume of Internet discussion on the TIC10 issue to be, in part, “backlash from so many pharmaceutical companies having laid off their chemists and disbanded their medicinal chemistry divisions. Now we see how ditching the chemistry can really bite you in the a--.”*
Quite so.

*Bowdlerized to avoid work firewall issues.

Professor Fails To Behead Student for Middling Yield on Protecting Group Reaction

THE CONFERENCE ROOM DOWN THE HALL -- Expressing shock, 22-year-old Kevin Jones was surprised to learn that upon what he thought was a poor performance at their second research group meeting, he failed to be beheaded by his adviser. "I mean, I reported that I got a 85% yield on that silyl group protection, which is terrible -- I totally expected that she would have my head." While Professor Brandstrom is known for her incisive questions and has a reputation for brooking no nonsense, she seemed to not notice her new graduate student's nervousness or his self-perception at being an absolute failure as a graduate student and an organic chemist.  Also, she failed to pull out a sword and behead him on the spot, which was the third-hand story told of a recent postdoctoral fellow. "The 4th years told me she keeps the sword in the coat closet in her office -- maybe she doesn't wear it all the time", he mused to himself. 

C&EN: skills that future medicinal chemists need

Every time C&EN's employment team covers issues from this perspective, I learn something. This issue, it's Susan Ainsworth who gets high-powered pharma folks talking. (I've really been remiss in not covering this article earlier this week!): 
C&EN: At the bachelor’s and master’s degree levels, what are the key courses that you want universities to teach their chemistry students? 
Roth [V.P. of discovery chemistry at Genentech]: We want the B.S.-level chemists we hire into discovery chemistry to have completed higher-level organic chemistry courses, such as theoretical organic chemistry and physical organic chemistry. These courses help them gain a deeper understanding of the theory behind both synthetic and medicinal chemistry and give them more hands-on laboratory experience. If undergrads are able to take courses to get some exposure to biochemistry so they understand enzymatic reactions or receptor pharmacology, they will have a leg up, but it’s not essential. Most of all, we want to see that candidates have an ability to design synthetic routes, troubleshoot, and understand the underlying mechanisms of reactions. 
Shakespeare [V.P. of drug discovery at Ariad Pharmaceuticals]: There needs to be more emphasis on classes that will help develop more creative and innovative problem solvers and thinkers. We are seeing fewer and fewer students who have this ability. Increasingly, new grads are too focused on memorization and knowing the “right answer,” which may stem from students’ rigorous preparation for SAT tests or other standardized exams. Universities have a great opportunity to address this issue at the undergraduate level.
I think Dr. Shakespeare's comments are very interesting -- I wonder which 'right answers' students are focused on getting, especially at the B.S./M.S.-level. Here's the Ph.D. version:
C&EN: What kinds of educational experiences do you want the Ph.D. chemists that you hire to have had?
Roth: We are looking for people who successfully completed very challenging research projects. That work does not have to be something as complex as a total synthesis of a natural product, for example, but we like people with that background. We also hire people who completed work that was more methodology focused. In any case, we want people who are innovative and can independently approach and solve problems. 
Hill [V.P., discovery chemistry at Merck]: We are looking for candidates who have taken courses that give them a strong grounding in the properties of molecules, how to make them, and the way they interact with other molecules. If they have that basic knowledge, we can help train them and hone them to our desired needs. 
Kress [V.P., process and analytical chemistry at Merck]: We want to hire chemists who have a deep understanding of core chemistry principles, which include thermodynamics, physical organic chemistry, and kinetics. Taking courses in these areas is paramount to success moving forward. 
Palkowitz [V.P., discovery chemistry and technologies at Eli Lilly]: We hire Ph.D. scientists across multiple disciplines of chemistry, including medicinal/synthetic, analytical, and computational. In general, we seek individuals who have taken on challenging research projects and solved complex problems with scientific courage and creativity. We try to identify candidates who are not only well grounded in their core disciplines, but also demonstrate a keen interest in working at multiple scientific interfaces. In our experience, the more successful chemists often learn and master companion scientific disciplines to effectively advance hypothesis-driven drug discovery.
Pretty standard stuff, although I was a bit surprised at the inclusion of thermodynamics. Do they really check for that? And for the really off-the-wall answer:
C&EN: What other skills or experiences would you like universities to introduce to chemistry students to prepare them for working with you? 
Kozarich [chairman and president of ActivX Biosciences]: It would be great if universities could somehow train students in the concept of situational awareness. When scientists come into the pharma R&D field, many don’t seem to understand that what they do in their job is a function of the environment that they are in, the work being done by their colleagues, and the broader aspects of the problems that they are trying to solve. The students that seem to best understand situational awareness are those playing sports in college. Football players or basketball players are dealing with real situations, in real time, and competing with other teams. Unfortunately, many chemistry students don’t have the same opportunity to grasp this critical concept.
I would respectfully disagree with Dr. Kozarich. Football and basketball players are dealing with a designed game, in an artificial environment (e.g. chalk lines on a grass field), with an artificial clock (that stops!) and rules that are mutable.* The pharmaceutical environment is somewhat similar, sure, in that there is lots of human intervention, but the core conflict is not like sports ("human versus human"), but much closer to "human versus nature." Sure, the commercial pharmaceutical environment is full of competition, but it's usually "who is closer to the finish line?" as opposed to "how can I beat my opponent?" Also, I think most employees are perfectly aware of how their work fits into "the bigger picture" of a company (and sadly, how often and how little it matters!), but perhaps I am wrong.

Nevertheless, a terrible interesting article, with lots of food for thought for new graduates and university professors alike. Read the whole thing!

*UPDATE: changed to reflect what I really meant to say. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What to do when you have an absentee PI? A reader responds

From the inbox, a reader responds to Tuesday's questions about absentee PIs (lightly redacted for privacy): 
What are the dept obligations? Who gets to know? 
Well, for starters, I do think that the department has an obligation to help the students out, and at least present them with options. That’s what [institution A] did for me/my former lab, although it was actually a little circuitous. The whole debacle started when the lab started bouncing checks and the department not yet knowing about [the absentee PI's issues]. But, regardless, what they did do was offer us options, and temporary funding. To paraphrase, they basically said “we know your lab is out of funds, and [absentee PI] has bounced during grant application season. The dept has funds and can float you to do what you need to do immediately, but this is obviously not a sustainable solution. You are strongly encouraged to seek other labs, because we cannot guarantee how long we are able to fund the lab, and we certainly cannot guarantee that [absentee PI] will have funds for future research.” Honestly, I was doing mostly [non-laboratory research] at that time, so it didn’t really affect me anyway, but that was a stand-up move by the department...  
...Who gets to know? Obviously, with any of these situations, there’s a certain amount of discretion that is necessary, but I think that ultimately students need to look out for themselves and fill in anyone who is on a ‘need to know basis.’ So, committee members, and grad-student advisory committee type people (most departments have one, with some sort of acronym). All of these individuals/organizations exist for the sole purpose of assisting the grad student, and I think it’s worth the ‘risk’ to confide in them.
  1. It’s their job to serve/advise/assist you, and they can only do so if they’re up to date on a situation.
  2. It shouldn’t be a risk, period. If your adviser is (un)intentionally putting you in an awkward position, they need to understand this and accept that you’re going to talk to others for support/advice.  
  3. Some faculty members seem to be able to exercise decent judgement and restraint, and if you approach them with a ‘you didn’t hear this from me, but’ type attitude, certain ‘cool’ ones can play along. Or, these kind of people can explain point #2 to your boss if they don’t seem to get it. Use your best judgement for who to play this card with. 
  4. If you’re talking to someone in the department, they’re going to find out eventually anyway.
What are the obligations to group members toward each other?   
(CJ's note: lots more good stuff after the jump)

Job posting: QC manager, plant chemist, North Carolina

From the inbox, 2 positions, both in North Carolina at a specialty chemical company. If interested, contact Joe at joe-at-mrplymouth/dot/com.

Plant Chemist:
  • 10 years specialty chemical experience
  • 4 year Chemistry Organic Chemistry required:  Masters/PhD degree desired.
  • 5 yrs minimum industrial experience, manufacturing organic chemicals: preferably personal care related (surfactant, esterification chemistry)
  • Prefer strong background in cGMP compliance and management
  • Prefer strong background/experience in SPC (Six Sigma BB type experience)
  • Excellent people skills, able to amenably handle subordinates, peers, colleagues, customers, business personalities 
  • Excellent computer skills and daily functional knowledge of statistical analysis and reporting
  • Calm demeanor, likable personality, strong moral compass.
 Typical Role Information:
  1. Technical support NC manufacturing
  2. Product trouble shooting and general plant technical support: Quality, Yield, SPC
  3. Alternate raw material approvals for established products produced in Salisbury plant
  4. Direct and Oversee Pilot plant operations.  Manage Trial runs, develop trial plans, report results. Assist in the running pilot reactions when needed. 
  5. Manufacturing process optimization and improvements
  6. Support lab/pilot plant/production scale-up process
  7. Verify established procedures for production scale-up
  8. Knowledge of the QC analyses for Finished products and Raw materials
  9. Create New Product Introduction packages per Corporate template
  10. Create / Maintain Manufacturing Procedures (Batch Sheets)
Also, after the jump, a quality manager position: 

Wednesday, May 28, 2014


The DOC is privately (and randomly, I assume*) surveying its members for the 2015 National Organic Symposium via e-mail.

I seem to recall (from the 2001 NOS) filling out a survey for the same purpose via paper -- this is a better technique, I think.

*The survey was sent to everyone with a DOC membership. 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Ask CJ: What to do about an absentee PI and a lab that's running out of money?

A reader writes in with an interesting set of circumstances (heavily redacted/edited for privacy)
"[Lab B] is in dire financial straits. They're not bouncing checks yet, but there is scrimping and saving, and the occasional delay to get [standard lab supplies]. [Lack of funds for stipends] has brought the lab to a standstill, [on occasion...]
[The PI's time/energy is entirely spent elsewhere. They gave their senior-most students an directive that they are to graduate ASAP] -- an interesting conundrum if these students don't have the funding to efficiently and swiftly carry out their research to meet that end-point. Newer students to the lab are blindsided by this as well, and aren't sure how much of their current research they'll get to keep if they're transplanted into a different lab.  
...there is also a disconnect between what the students know, and what other professors know. Needless to say, this puts the grad students in a very awkward position when collaborators very clearly don't know about this move and the students do." 
This isn't the first time I've heard of this sort of thing. Classic examples include the sad cases where the PI passes away. In those cases, it seems to me that the department recognizes that There Is Business To Be Handled, and students are Taken Care Of. But in cases like those of Lab B, the PI has unfortunately put the students in the position of not knowing when it's okay to tell the department authorities (the chair, the director of graduate studies, what have you...) and trying to handle things Within The Family.

So, readers, questions for you:
  • First, has this happened to you? If so, what happened? What worked well? What did not? 
  • What are the obligations of the department to these students? Who, within the department, gets to know the bloody details and make sure that the students progress towards graduation?
  • What are the obligations of group members towards each other?
  • For those who have been in similar situations, how much time can you expect to add? 
  • What are the warning signs that this might happen in your laboratory? 
Obviously, if you'd like to comment by e-mail, I would be happy to receive your comments at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com 

Job posting: cannabis extraction scientist

From the inbox, a rather different position (although, one expects, becoming more and more common):
The candidate for this position might not have prior experience in Cannabis but a background in organic and inorganic chemistry will be given high priority. This candidate knows that multi-tasking and adaptation will be key elements to the success of our brand. Everyday will bring new and difficult challenges. In order to thrive it will be important to overcome constant obstacles while dealing with multiple people and various situations simultaneously. Candidate should always be motivated and eager to campaign for a culture that lives and breathes Quality, Customer Service and Team. 
Minimum Requirements:
  • BA/BS in Chemistry or equivalent combination of education and experience
  • 5+ years real world laboratory experience
  • 2+ years leadership experience with proven track record for effectively managing a strong team
  • Expertise in subcritical and supercritical CO2 extraction methods as well as the purification, separation and isolation of various compounds of cannabis
  • Excellent research and data organization skills are very important. We use a variety of Google and cloud based programs such as Docs, Spreadsheets, Tasks, and Calendar among others.
  • MUST have skills to manage internal and external conflicts while empowering team members to problem solve independently
Truly skilled, experienced cannabis extraction chemists could probably hold a convention in a hockey crease. Best of luck to those interested. 

(This MUST be a growth industry, but one of those "this year, ten, next year, 30" sorts of ways. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

Memorial Day; back tomorrow

Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery (credit: Southtown Star)
Today is Memorial Day in the United States; it's a national holiday.

Back tomorrow. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Milkshake wants to buy a kilo-scale hydrogenator

Milkshake would like some help in purchasing a kilo-scale hydrogenator:
I wanted to ask the readers from process groups if they worked with a low-pressure batch stirred hydrogenation reactor that they liked and could recommend – for us to buy. Specifically,  we would need a hydrogenator that can accommodate 8-10 liters of a reaction mixture that has tendency to initially foam under reduced pressure (this means that the total available volume should be about 15-20 liters). Maximum operating pressure 3 bar would be enough, no heating or cooling is required and the typical solvent is water. I am not really interested in flow hydrogenation systems because they would be unsuitable to our particular case. A glass vessel or at least a glass window on the top would be nice to have, because of the foaming problem during evacuation.  Thank you for your suggestions!
I don't have a ton (pun not intended) of experience with mid-scale hydrogenators, but I've seen use of 10-20L reactors before (here's Parr's version -- they can't be cheap) (Here's a small one for sale at LabX!) They seem to do fine, from what I've seen. There are issues with the bolts (always), but I think that's just a problem with hydrogenators, as opposed to a problem with this particular model. Minimum stir volume/agitation issues can arrive, of course. Cleaning is a bear, but Milkshake probably knows that anyway. Oh, and I don't think there's a window.

Readers, what is your experience? 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Daily Pump Trap: 5/22/14 edition

Good morning! Don't call it a comeback, but here are some of the positions posted on C&EN Jobs in the last week or so:

A neat thing to see: Pfizer's Groton campus is hiring a younger Ph.D. natural products chemist:
- One year of post PhD. natural products biosynthesis research experience.
- Strong knowledge and experience surrounding biosynthesis of natural products, fermentation processes and microbial genomics.
- Solid expertise in molecular analytics.
- Demonstrated record of accomplishment in microbial natural products chemistry and in delivering natural products leads in a drug discovery program.
Technical Skills Requirements:
- Proven track record of creative thinking in modern natural products sciences, as demonstrated by publication...
I think this is great -- let's hire some more! (Looks to be a R4 position?)

Torrance, CA: Phenomenex is hiring in a business development associate. They only want local candidates, and a B.S. degree and 5+ years experience in industry. That's pretty intense for that sort of position, isn't it?

Billerica, MA: E-Ink is looking for an experienced B.S./M.S. analytical chemist, 5-10 years of wet chemistry experience desired.

San Luis Obispo, CA: Promega Biosciences is looking for a Ph.D. organic chemist, 5+ years experience for "design and synthesis of novel chemical probes for the (bio) pharmaceutical and cellular analysis research market."

Houston!: CARBO desires a B.S. chemist with 1+ years of oilfield analytical testing experience. 

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Music to my ears

From new #chemjobs blog "There Once Was A Chemist", a position with a rather wonderful job description statement:
MBAs without strong science or technical background need not apply.
Yeah, baby! Actually, the position isn't all that wonderful, but go over there and check it out, see what you think. 

Bonus Process Wednesday: more on the MV Cape Ray

From Chemistry World, some interesting tidbits on the U.S. Navy's newest chemical plant, i.e. the MV Cape Ray (article by Nina Notman): 
...Walker, however, says that unexpected issues may occur because the units are new and their set-up on ship unique, and they haven’t yet been tested on actual agents or precursors. ‘They have many kilometres of piping on board the ship, and the precursor chemical for sarin tends to crystallise and could back up and plug up the valves and the pipes. There could be breakdowns that would slow the process down,’ he says. The US government has predicted that the hydrolysis operation will take about 90 days. Blades remains confident: ‘The field-deployable hydrolysis unit was designed and built with an elegant simplicity and mechanical redundancy to address potential component failure. Should component repair or replacement be required, there are highly trained technicians as well as appropriate spare parts on board.’ 
The largest unknown is the weather. ‘There have been questions raised about what sea state they can operate in,’ says Walker. The Cape Ray is equipped with stabilisers, and because the ship has no set destination it can be navigated to avoid bad weather. Two sea trials have been carried out to evaluate safe operating parameters for both the equipment and the crew, says Blades. 
The neutralisation process 
The two field-deployable hydrolysis units are contained within a single environmentally sealed tent on board the ship. The plan is to operate the units in parallel 24 hours a day.
The mustard and DF will be neutralised slightly differently. ‘[Mustard] will be hydrolysed using a batch process facilitated by the titanium reactor at a ratio of approximately 13.5 parts 95°C water to one part ambient [mustard],’ explains Blades. The mustard breaks down in hot water to hydrochloric acid and thiodiglycol. The second step is to adjust the effluent’s pH to neutral using sodium hydroxide. ‘DF will be hydrolysed as a continuous feed process using a ratio of five parts ambient-temperature water to one part ambient-temperature DF,’ he says. DF breaks down to methyl phosphonic acid and hydrogen fluoride. A batch process using sodium hydroxide will again be used to adjust the pH. On board the ship there are approximately 220 ISO containers, each capable of holding 6600 gallons of water or caustic solution. The ship can desalinate additional water if required. 
‘The neutralisation process generates hazardous waste effluent in volumes of five to 13.5 times the volume of chemical warfare material being treated. These materials are similar to standard industrial chemicals, containing less than 0.1% agent, that are regularly processed by commercial facilities,’ says Blades. This effluent will be stored in the empty ISO containers. After all the chemicals have been neutralised, the Cape Ray will sail to Germany and then Finland to deliver the two effluents for incineration...
That whole "plugging up the valves" part sounds awful -- the "up the pressure and break it loose" solution probably doesn't work well there. Don't forget, the MV Cape Ray also has analytical chemists on board!:
There is an analytical laboratory on board the Cape Ray containing GC–MS instruments. Before the hydrolysis begins ‘analytical chemists in this laboratory will verify the identity of the neat agent, ensuring the chain of custody at the point of destruction,’ explains Forman. ‘After neutralisation, GC–MS analysis would again be used, this time to determine that the neutralisation has gone to completion.’
Pretty neat. Read the whole thing!

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Ask CJ: anyone else get random applications from postdocs?

A very interesting question from the inbox, written by IFB (lightly redacted for privacy, edited for formatting)
I am an assistant professor at a primarily undergraduate institution (PUI), starting [recently].
We have undergraduates and masters students at my institution, and we focus mainly on teaching, but we do have a strong research component and involve our undergraduates and masters students in cutting edge research. Our department does not have a PhD program. Postdocs and other hired/non-student researchers are pretty much non-existent (our university encourages writing grants to hire them if we get funding through large grants, and I will consider it in the future, but it looks like a relatively uncommon practice).  
Over my short time here, I have received many emails asking to do a postdoc in my lab, or to do research in my laboratory (from undergraduates/masters students who were never enrolled in my institution). Some of the people emailing me have CVs and experience that is quite extensive (and in some cases h-indexes and publication lists much larger than mine), and I am surprised that they do not already have a more permanent position. Talking to other faculty, they also get these requests. In the postdoc cases, the postdocs are often applying for a 2nd or 3rd postdoctoral position. In my responses to them (I would feel bad just to ignore them), I explain the type of institution I work at, wish them luck in their job search and offer suggestions to look at more permanent positions. 
I think this possibly speaks to a few things:
  1. These researchers may not be aware of the type of institution that they are applying to, 
  2. Perhaps they were not well mentored in their previous postdoctoral positions (In my opinion, your graduate and postdoctoral advisers should help mentor students during their jobs searches and help you think about your future) 
  3. The economy is bad enough that these individuals are so desperate they are emailing anyone whose name pops up in their area, and finally 
  4. Some of these researchers could be frantic due to the need to secure visa status (at least one has expressed that to me).
Is this a common experience (both from their end as a research and my end as a professor at a PUI) based on what you have heard from the chemical community? What do you think about it?
I've heard about this sort of thing, but I don't really know what it is about. I think it's a combination of Factor 1 (not knowing enough about the positions you can apply for, the institutions that supply those positions) and Factor 3 (they cannot find other work.) (As I have asserted in the past, I suspect that for a large majority of Ph.D.s in chemistry, postdoctoral positions are inferior goods, i.e. they're positions that you take, for lack of a better position.)

I think there's a significant (60+%?) percentage of these applications are immigration-related, i.e. it's a foot in the door to coming to/staying in the United States. But I'm just guessing. Folks, is this your experience? What have you found? 

Safety letter: nickel nanoparticle exposure

Via the DCHAS listserv, this safety comment on nickel nanoparticles:
A 26-year-old female chemist formulated polymers and coatings usually using silver ink particles. When she later began working with nickel nanoparticle powder weighed out and handled on a lab bench with no protective measures, she developed throat irritation, nasal congestion, “post nasal drip,” facial flushing, and new skin reactions to her earrings and belt buckle which were temporally related to working with the nanoparticles. Subsequently she was found to have a positive reaction to nickel on the T.R.U.E. patch test, and a normal range FEV1 that increased by 16% post bronchodilator. It was difficult returning her to work even in other parts of the building due to recurrence of symptoms. This incident triggered the company to make plans for better control measures for working with nickel nanoparticles. In conclusion, a worker developed nickel sensitization when working with nanoparticle nickel powder in a setting without any special respiratory protection or control measures. 
Am. J. Ind. Med. © 2014 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
That sounds.... bad. I presume this is about nanoparticles being particularly bioavailable due to their particle size/larger surface area. 

I found this New York Times story on a chemistry professor heartening

I thought this story about a somewhat different approach to teaching introductory chemistry at the University of Texas in the New York Times Magazine was pretty neat: 
The person at the University of Texas who has been given the responsibility for helping these students succeed is a 56-year-old chemistry professor named David Laude. He is, by all accounts, a very good college professor — he illustrates the Second Law of Thermodynamics with quotations from Trent Reznor and Leonard Cohen and occasionally calls students to the front of the class to ignite balloons filled with hydrogen into giant fireballs. But he was a lousy college student. As a freshman at the University of the South, in Sewanee, Tenn., Laude felt bewildered and out of place, the son of a working-class, Italian-American family from Modesto, Calif., trying to find his way at a college steeped in Southern tradition, where students joined secret societies and wore academic gowns to class. “It was a massive culture shock,” Laude told me. “I was completely at a loss on how to fit in socially. And I was tremendously bad at studying. Everything was just overwhelming.” He spent most of his freshman year on the brink of dropping out. 
But he didn’t drop out. He figured out college, then he figured out chemistry, then he got really good at both, until he wound up, 20 years later, a tenured professor at U.T. teaching Chemistry 301, the same introductory course in which he got a C as a freshman in Sewanee. Perhaps because of his own precarious college experience, Laude paid special attention as a professor to how students were doing in his class. And year after year, he noticed something curious: The distribution of grades in his Chemistry 301 section didn’t follow the nice sweeping bell curve you might expect. Instead, they fell into what he calls a “bimodal distribution.” In each class of 500 students, there would be 400 or so who did quite well, clustered around the A and high-B range. They got it. Then there would be a second cluster of perhaps 100 students whose grades were way down at the bottom — D’s and F’s. They didn’t get it. 
To many professors, this pattern simply represents the natural winnowing process that takes place in higher education. That attitude is especially common in the sciences, where demanding introductory classes have traditionally been seen as a way to weed out weak students. But Laude felt differently. He acknowledged that some of his failing students just weren’t cut out for chemistry, but he suspected that many of them were — that they were smart but confused and a little scared, much as he had been.
I would prefer to see a peer-reviewed study of a randomized controlled trial of Laude's techniques (which involves identifying students likely to do poorly and then giving them a lot of resources, both directed at help with chemistry and help with teaching good study techniques, tc.). But it is neat to see that someone is trying to solve this rather intractable problem.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Biotech: Dear Pharma, Please Stop Eating Our Seedcorn. Thanks.

From the LifeSciVC blog, a cri de coeur about where biotech's next employees are going to come from (emphasis from the author): 
...Two recent events sparked my interest in this topic of where young talent develops and emerges in our industry.  A good friend and “greybeard” med chemist forwarded me a note from a chemistry professor who was trying to find a spot for his “best student”, a new PhD chemist.  I said we tended to not hire new graduates into our portfolio, but was saddened to hear of this star pupil’s job challenge. Shortly after that, I had dinner with a senior chemist from Big Pharma. He said the shortest-tenured chemist on his 30+ person team was 15-year veteran. His group had shrunk in the past and had never rehired. Since hiring a “trainee” post-doc chemist “counted” as an FTE on their books, they haven’t even implemented the traditional fellowship programs that exist elsewhere. Stories like these abound. 
This is exactly what worries me, as the seeds are being sown for a major talent crisis in our industry...
I'm pretty sure that I had this exact conversation on the phone with a friend of mine in either 2009 or 2010. Oh, well, I hate it when I'm right sometimes.

Read the whole thing -- it's quite good and there's a lot to think about there. I'll be writing more about this post, since it really talks about some important issues, especially for younger Ph.D. chemists who wish to work in small molecule pharma. 

I cannot resist a caption contest

I guess that this has been out there for a while, but I did not see it before this weekend. Caption contest?

My entry: "I'm so awesome, I can almost pull off this bizarre paisley tie."

(Don't miss the text, which also includes a review of Professor Baran's exercise routine. (Sparring partner: No shots to that head, please.) 

Job postings: Ph.D. medicinal chemist (Cambridge, MA), Ph.D. analytical chemist (Spartanburg, SC)

From the inbox, two positions: 

Ph.D. medicinal chemist, Cambridge, MA:
The desired skills and experience of candidates include:  
- PhD with at least 3 years industry experience as a medicinal chemist
- Ability to analyze multicomponent SAR
- Adept at utilizing computational chemistry tools and structural-based drug design principles for lead identification and optimization
- Demonstrated ability to successfully work in cross-functional teams with an emphasis  on teamwork, collaboration and communication within team and across the department.
Click here for details.

Analytical chemist, Spartanburg, SC:
This position is responsible for contributing to the success of multiple projects within Milliken’s R&D community through analytical science and materials characterization. Primary objectives are to contribute directly and indirectly to project milestone completion and to enable laboratory technical staff to support researchers on multiple projects. The position is located at Milliken & Company's corporate headquarters in Spartanburg SC and reports to a R&D Manager. 
Required qualifications: Ph.D. degree in analytical/physical chemistry, materials science, polymer science or physics. Deep domain knowledge and experience in microscopy, microanalysis or x-ray scattering.
Click here for details.  

Open-plan skepticism

In this week's C&EN, a very, very interesting article on open-plan buildings by Alex Scott. There's plenty of coverage of scientists' general skepticism about them. I have even more skepticism for ya here: 
[Author Susan] Cain’s findings raise interesting questions about collaborative work in chemical and pharmaceutical research, where scientists who resisted sharing data on electronic notebooks 10 years ago now swear by the tool and research-sharing strategy. The idea of groupthink would also seem essential to collaborative research in the drug industry, where competing companies now share laboratories in search of breakthroughs. 
But Lowe makes a distinction. “I like electronic notebooks very much and would never want to go back to paper. My spectra are attached, pdfs of the relevant papers can be attached, other experiments are automatically cross-referenced, the whole thing is searchable by structure and six dozen other fields,” he says. “There are just so many obvious enhancements that most chemists in my experience are eager to make the switch. Open offices, not so much. And the benefits there can be a bit fuzzy and hard to quantify.”
I don't think that resistance to electronic notebooks was about a desire not to share or collaborate. I suspect that resistance to electronic notebooks is about the horrendously terrible software that is foisted on bench chemists by their managers. But I digress...
Bill Odell is the director of the science and technology group for design and architecture firm HOK and has been creating open-plan science buildings for three decades. He sees evidence that open-space research is better at meeting the needs of scientists as science becomes ever more complex and multidisciplinary.
HOK recently designed an open-plan research building in the U.S. that Odell says has enabled a leading pharma company’s scientists to reduce lab size and increase office space by moving temporary walls just as a drug candidate goes from the lab development phase into administration-heavy clinical trials.
Maybe I'm crazy, but there's something VERY wrong about this sentence. If a pharma company's lab space needs to be reduced in order to accommodate more clinical research staff, then this company is a hell of a lot smaller than they're letting on with that "leading" bit. It smells like baloney.

Besides, which clinical research staffers would be comfortable with such a shift? "This office used to be our animal lab/bench chemistry area, but don't worry, we cleaned up really well."
Any dislike of open-plan science buildings is something that Odell predicts will fade over time because it is the older generation of scientists accustomed to closed environments who oppose open-plan buildings. “That is because people in their 30s and 20s work in a completely different way than anyone older. Putting them in a cell is just anathema,” he says, citing examples of how the younger generation prefer to use headphones and work on mobile electronic devices in open spaces.
You know, I'm in my 30s, and I would love my own office. But no, instead I've lived most of my life with "open-plan" buildings because businesses are cheap, they can't quantify the negative costs of open-plan buildings and because people like Bill Odell keep patting them on the back and telling them what a good idea it is. No thanks. 

This week's C&EN

Some noteworthy things in this week's issue:

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The weirdest, neatest idea you'll hear about all weekend

Timothy Broderick (an accomplished physician and professor of medicine (and also Matthew Broderick's older brother)) is also a program officer at DARPA and wants to make a universal snake anti-venom. Via War is Boring:
This topic focuses on developing a universal antivenom that will be effective without identification of the venomous species and can be used in the field without fear of significant adverse side-effects. Successful proposals to develop broad spectrum antivenom may include, but are not limited to, aptamers, engineered proteins, nucleic acid vaccines, or other nanotherapeutic-based technologies. Proposals should focus on broad applicability and ease of use in austere conditions. The regions of particular interest are AFRICOM and PACOM. Consideration should be given to the systemic neurotoxic, myotoxic, hemorrhagic, coagulant, and hypotensive effects of envenomation. Proposals to improve existing polyvalent treatments that require high and/or repetitive dosing and/or require administration in a critical care facility are specifically excluded from this solicitation. 
Whoa. A neat idea, really -- classic example of DARPA thinking.

(Could there possibly be more buzzwords in the biotech sentence?)

Friday, May 16, 2014

A fun polymer story + media criticism by The Rheo Thing

The New York Times has a great opening for its story on IBM's new polymer discovery that has been published in Science: 
As a research chemist at an IBM laboratory, Jeannette M. Garcia spends her days mixing and heating chemicals in pursuit of stronger and more easily recyclable plastics. Recently she followed a simple formula that required mixing three components in a beaker. Somehow she missed a step, leaving out a chemical. She returned to find her beaker filled with a hard white plastic that had even frozen the stirrer. 
Dr. Garcia tried grinding the mystery material, to no avail. Then she took a hammer to the beaker to free it. 
That laboratory error has led to the discovery of a new family of materials that are unusually strong and light, exhibit “self-healing” properties and can be easily reformed to make products recyclable.
There have been other news outlets have been a little more hype-driven; John Spevacek takes them to task.  

Best wishes to North County readers

Being a close-enough spectator of the 2007 San Diego County fires, I remember how scary it seemed. My best wishes to readers who are part of those being evacuated.

Foreign doctorates staying?

From this week's C&EN, an article by Linda Wang that I've been meaning to mention since Monday: 
Despite strict immigration policies in the U.S. and the lure of improving conditions in their home countries, a majority of foreign nationals who earn doctorates in science and engineering from U.S. universities are staying in the U.S. That’s according to a report produced by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science & Education (ORISE). 
The report, “Stay Rates of Foreign Doctorate Recipients from U.S. Universities, 2011,” found that in 2011, 68% of foreign doctorate recipients who graduated five years earlier (in 2006) had stayed in the U.S. Further, it found that 65% of recipients who graduated 10 years earlier (in 2001) had remained in the country. 
The report findings counter a growing concern that foreign students get doctorates in the U.S. and then leave in large numbers after graduation. “The numbers speak for themselves,” says Michael G. Finn, a senior economist at ORISE and author of the report. 
The data used in the report were collected using 2011 tax records of foreign doctorate recipients without violating individual confidentiality. A “stayer” is defined as a foreign doctorate recipient who earned $5,500 or more and paid taxes on it for the year or years specified. 
“One could assume that foreign doctorate recipients from U.S. universities are finding regular employment in the U.S. even after completing postdoctoral appointments,” Finn says. 
The majority of foreign doctoral graduates staying in the U.S. in 2011 were from China and India—graduates from these countries account for nearly half of science and engineering Ph.D.s earned by non-U.S. students. Other countries with above-average stay rates in 2011 include Iran, Romania, and Bulgaria. The countries with the lowest stay rates were Thailand and Chile.
I found the report quite interesting and something that might detract from the whole "we're kicking out new science graduates!" meme that goes around the chattering classes. I do find it interesting that in Table 6 and Table 7 of the paper, it seems that the stay rates of Chinese, Indian and South Korean S/E Ph.D. graduates are declining, but slowly. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Job posting (?): B.S. plant/refinery chemist, southeastern US

From the inbox, someone looking for a B.S. chemist with plant/refinery experience (0-2 years, emphasis on the zero.) Co-op/internship experience at a plant/refinery very desirable. The salary looks pretty respectable. Located in the southeastern US.

E-mail me at chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com w/resume.

A sign of the times

In my morning inbox, an unsolicited e-mail about chemistry opportunities in China. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Pharma exec laugher of the week: "Pfizer is a company of its word."

I'm surprised Ian Read going in front of a Parliament committee isn't getting more attention:
William Bain, a Labour member, pressed Read on whether the company would live up to its commitment to keep 20 percent of the R&D workforce in the U.K. for at least five years. “Why on Earth should we believe you?” Bain asked. 
“I am a man of my word,” Read said. “Pfizer is a company of its word.”
Mr. Bain, if I were you, I would ask for some sort of financial guarantee. But I'm a sneaky, suspicious sort.

Bleg: good recruiters?

Does anyone have any good recruiters that they prefer? Medicinal/process chemistry-oriented, in the New York/Boston area would be preferable, I think.

If you would like, feel free to e-mail me at chemjobber /at/ 

Warning Letter of The Week: Your Claims Are Too Big

From the FDA's recent warning letters:
Our review of the inspection and your firm’s websites ( and determined that the MegaVac System is adulterated under section 501(f)(1)(B) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 351(f)(1)(B), because your firm does not have an approved application for premarket approval (PMA) in effect pursuant to section 515(a) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360e(a), or an approved application for an investigational device exemption (IDE) under section 520(g) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360j(g) for the device as described and marketed. The device is also misbranded under section 502(o) the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 352(o), because your firm introduced or delivered for introduction into interstate commerce for commercial distribution this device with major changes or modifications to the intended use without submitting a new premarket notification to FDA as required by section 510(k) of the Act, 21 U.S.C. § 360(k), and 21 CFR 807.81(a)(3)(ii).
This letter gets only gets better (if not MUCH more textually NSFW), but I'm afraid I'm going to set off work firewalls cross the editorial boundaries of this blog, if I quote more.

Honestly, I did not intend for this feature to become a "naughty medical device of the week" thing, but, um, I cannot resist.  

Tuesday, May 13, 2014


Via The Upshot, a useful comment on meetings from former Treasury secretary Tim Geithner:
“Meetings are life in Washington. Often they’re just for show, a way to suggest motion or commitment to an issue. Sometimes their main purpose is to make people feel included. But occasionally they’re the real thing, a forum for actual policy making. I got into the habit of walking into crowded meetings in Larry’s office and joking: ‘Is this a real meeting or a fake meeting?’ In other words, are we talking about a policy that requires a decision, or just talking? When it was a real meeting, I’d usually suggest that we skip the throat-clearing and fast-forward to the end of the PowerPoint deck so we could get to the debate about options. I wore my impatience too openly.”
I attend so many fake meetings, it's not even funny.  

For the love of all that is good and holy

Can we PLEASE stop using "Science Says" for headlines? Some alternatives for this story:

"Clemson Scientists Publish..."
"Scientists Suggest"
"Food Scientists: 5-Second Rule...."

A sign that Joe Nocera doesn't know what he doesn't know

That he's willing to take this statement at face value in his column today on Pfizer and AstraZeneca (h/t VI):
For instance, scientists can use biomarkers to target disease population subsets. “Even in oncology, we are getting at such a better understanding, it is almost like a lock in a key,” said Mark Schoenebaum, the head of health care research for International Strategy and Investment. 

(As for his question of whether Big Pharma cutbacks have slowed "innovation" (whatever-the-holy-effing-eff-that-means), my answer is probably "Yes, unquestionably." Every time you fire a team of scientists, you lower the probably of discovering something new from 0.005% (or whatever) to zero.)

(Hey, biotechtoreador, I'm catching on.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Favorite Pfizer-AZ bits from over the weekend

The Guardian (as might be expected) is doing a lot of coverage of the Pfizer-AstraZeneca takeover. A couple favorite headlines from over the weekend: 
MPs to demand Pfizer protect British scientists' jobs for at least a decade 
MPs will this week demand that the US drugs company Pfizer guarantee British scientists' jobs for at least 10 years as its boss Ian Read flies in to face parliamentary scrutiny over his proposed £60bn takeover of AstraZeneca. 
Andrew Miller, the Labour MP who chairs the science and technology select committee that will question Read this week, said a Pfizer promise to keep 20% of the research and development workforce in Britain for five years was not enough. 
"Five years is no time in drug development," Miller said. "A molecule that's discovered today will not be an active ingredient in a medicine that you or I take for a minimum of 10 years. Given the time frames of development in pharmaceuticals, we need very, very long-term commitments." 
Politicians, unions and scientists are concerned that the inevitable cost-cutting after a takeover by the New York-based company could eliminate thousands of highly skilled jobs and undermine Britain's long-term science base...
It's difficult to imagine that this would happen, but kudos for asking, anyway. Not to be outdone, the governors of Maryland and Delaware are asking about the fate of AZ's jobs in their respective states.

In other news, Pfizer is now saying that their 5 year jobs pledge is legally binding:
...Pfizer's chief executive, Ian Read, wrote to David Cameron last week pledging to complete AstraZeneca's research and development centre in Cambridge, employ at least 20% of the combined company's R&D workforce in the UK for five years, and locate some manufacturing in Britain. 
Pfizer said the assurances were legally watertight because they were published with the company's takeover proposal for AstraZeneca. Under Britain's takeover code, the pledges created a legal commitment and should "be given full weight", Pfizer said. 
But the US firm, which has a reputation for preferring cost cuts over investment in treatments, offered no new assurances to the government. Sweden's finance minister, Anders Borg, said last week that Pfizer had failed to honour similar assurances on research jobs it made when it bought the Swedish drugmaker Pharmacia in 2002...
Yeah, I'd still want some sort of monetary pledge. 

An ominous letter

Also in this week's C&EN, a rather ominous letter: 
Concerning the News of the Week article “Protection for Drinking Water” and on the basis of my observations, I believe legislation is urgently needed (C&EN, Feb. 10, page 6). I was hired as an independent consultant to assess potential environmental damage costs from the operations of a chemical subsidiary of a major international firm based in Pittsburgh. 
The firm has plants along the Ohio River in Pennsylvania and the Illinois River near Chicago. I saw several large chemical storage tanks along the shore of the Ohio River about 30 feet above its normal water level. Each tank was surrounded by an earthen berm designed to hold the contents of the tank if it failed. The products being stored are chemicals used as precursors for plastics production in the Illinois plant. 
I was unable to confirm with the plant operators that a failure of a tank at its maximum storage capacity would be contained within its berm, but my rough estimate was that a spill into the Ohio River might be possible. Furthermore, I noted that a major flood of the Ohio River might topple or shift the tanks and likely result in a rupture. 
The situation in Illinois seemed no better. The customer for my consultation was an investor group that proposed to buy the chemical subsidiary. I told them their environmental exposure was unlimited. I could not begin to estimate how large it might be if either the Ohio or Illinois River were contaminated by their chemicals. I was later told they had bid $100 million to buy the subsidiary. Fortunately, they did not win the contract. 
Laws to provide for regular state and/or federal inspection of such facilities are urgently needed. I urge prompt passage of S. 1961 by the U.S. Congress. 
Richard S. Greeley
St. Davids, Pa.
So who's the mysterious company? My guess is Lanxess, but I dunno.

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting stuff in this week's C&EN:
Felt like this week's issue had a few less stories? 

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Job posting: B.S. chemist, Sandusky, OH

From the inbox, sounds like an interesting one: 
Plant Chemist  
P&T Products, Inc. is a manufacturing company located in Sandusky Ohio. We manufacture asphalt based, polymer modified crack sealants used on roads, parking lots, and driveways.  
The Plant Chemist will: 
  • Be responsible for product R&D. Finding solutions and creating new market opportunities. 
  • Support purchasing by certifying raw material quality is consistent, new raw materials meet chemical specifications. 
  • Responsible for quality assurance of the materials produced 
  • Drive programs and procedures to reduce rework, and batch production problems 
  • Develop production batch cards 
  • Provide technical assistance in processing difficulties. 
  • Assist with quality control measures for production 
  • Reduce costs by finding and approving multiple chemical suppliers for purchasing 
  • Formulate materials to cut costs and improve performance 
  • Maintain lab equipment 
Candidate Requirements: 
  • BS Degree in Chemistry or related discipline 
  • At least 1 year experience 
  • Must work effectively and cooperatively with others 
  • Proven ability to think independently 
  • Demonstrates a commitment to safety 
  • Exceptional documentation skills is required 
  • Proficient in standard business office software 
The company offers a competitive salary, bonus and benefits packages as well as retirement funding.  
For immediate consideration send your resume to Info -at- or fax to 419-621-1988 
A very interesting job description -- best wishes.

UPDATE: Darn it, I got the e-mail address wrong. It's been corrected. It should be 

Stupid joke of the day

When reading all the generic names for antibodies, is anyone else hearing them in Little Richard's voice? I'm pretty sure awopbopaloobop is in Phase II trials for small cell renal carcinoma, while Lilly is preparing alopbamboom for a NDA. 

Why your organic chemistry classes are so full, in one chart

Present and former organic chemistry professors, lecturers and teaching assistants, this is why your classes are so full (and your students are so grade-grubby) in one chart, thanks to Vox and the Medical Group Management Association:


There's a hell of a lot of selection and training (and money) involved in becoming a physician, but there are quite some monetary rewards as well... and it seems to all start with learning the difference between an alkane and an alkene. That's just bizarre, but there you have it.

(This chart is a bit unfair, in that I suspect that there are more residency/fellowship training requirements in becoming a surgeon than a pediatrician. It's a measurement of median salaries in the first year after "leaving residency or fellowship." For the record, I'm not one to begrudge physician salaries -- I think they're pretty commensurate with education/importance, etc.) 

An experiment, inspired by Susannah Locke

This morning, Susannah Locke of Vox published a GIF-heavy explanation of new element 117. Here is Ms. Locke's text without the GIFs: 
How scientists made a new chemical element, by Susannah Locke
The periodic table is on its way to get a new chemical element. 
On May 1, researchers in Germany published a paper in Physical Review Letters showing that they had created element 117. The results confirm previous experiments by a team of Russians and Americans and make it likely that 117 will someday get an official name and join the periodic table. 
Researchers have been creating man-made elements since the 1950s. Recently, in addition to element 117, some experiments seem like they generated 118, and scientists are now attempting to make 119. 
Synthetic elements are exceptionally difficult to create and only exist for a split second before falling apart. How do researchers do it, and why do they even bother? Here's the story of man-made elements. 
A guide to making new chemical elements 
First, let's start with the basics. 
Most known chemical elements have been found to occur on Earth naturally. All elements are all denoted by their atomic number, the number of protons in their nucleus, and the natural ones start with hydrogen (1) and end with californium (98).
But it doesn't stop there. Scientists have created 20 other synthetic elements. Those start with einsteinium — atomic number 99. (You could also consider atomic numbers 93–98 synthetic elements because they are almost exclusively man-made.) 
The atoms of these synthetic elements are all really, really big, but only exist for a short period of time. The bigger they get, the more positively charged protons they have in their nuclei, which repel each other and help make the atom unstable and more and more radioactive. 
There are lots of reasons why scientists might want to make new elements. Finding out how these new atoms behave helps with basic nuclear physics, and some are simply interested in better understanding what makes nature tick. 
Scientists are also motivated by the quest to find the theoretical, magical island of stability — where a proposed group of very heavy elements might have much longer lives, flouting the general trend. Certain special numbers of protons and neutrons, referred to as magic numbers, are predicted to produce more stability. 
So scientists have been creating larger and larger elements working up to and around this possible island. And element 117 is one of those steps. 
Back in 2010, researchers first created element 117 by using a particle accelerator to smash together two smaller elements: calcium and berkelium. (The experiments were especially tricky because berkelium itself decays quickly and had to be generated in a nuclear reactor at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) They did it again in 2012. 
 The placeholder name for element 117 is ununseptium. And, as expected, the element was highly radioactive. Its half-life is only about 50 thousandths of a second. But it survives long enough to suggest that the magic island of stability is very close. 
Then, in spring of 2014, a separate research group confirmed the existence of 117 through an entirely different method. These scientists were actually trying to create a different element — element 119. They haven't been successful in doing so yet. But they did manage to create 117 by smashing a beam of ionized calcium at 67 million miles per hour into berkelium. 
In the process, they also produced something unexpected: a new isotope of element 103, lawrencium (named after Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory). This isotope turned out to be surprisingly stable — another piece of evidence that the island of stability might be nearby
It's not official yet, though. The International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry will be the one to make the call. At some point, it will decide whether there's actually enough evidence for element 117 to officially join the periodic table and get a real name. 
Element 117 may have to hold on a while for official confirmation. The last element to join, 116, waited six years.
There's been a lot of discussion on Twitter as to whether or not Ms. Locke's piece was distracting or not. Considering that I find the text above to be really easy to read and perfectly explanatory, I think this is evidence that it is the GIFs and the GIFs only, that are problematic.

I also think that this was an experiment worth trying. Buzzfeed has done a lot of journalism (or "journalism") that's GIF-heavy and I get completely distracted by it, almost like the protagonist of "Memento." But who knows, maybe it draws people in. For me, though, the experiment failed. 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

I like this list of criteria for SpaceX

Via Quora, a very interesting set of hiring criteria for SpaceX, Elon Musk's space vehicle corporation (edited for grammar): 
I ran recruiting at SpaceX for almost 6 years; everything about how they recruit is part of the footprint myself and my team created - so hopefully you'll find this input helpful, though it will only magnify the challenge that lies before you. 
SpaceX aggressively pursues top collegiate talent; but because the hiring bar (mandate per Elon) is top 1% of the human population - we focus on top ranked engineering programs because their strict acceptance requirements are a good prefilter and remove 90% of the bell curve, thereby automatically bringing us to about top 10% of the college population; making our haystack much smaller and thus easier to find the proverbial needles. 
Once within the top program populations we again filter aggressively based on: 
1. Hands-on hardware/software development experience - i.e. What problems have you actually encountered and solved?
2. Experience with engineering competitions, and placement in top positions/brackets at those competitions
3. GPA/ SAT - other hard scores
4. Drive/Grit  
The reality is that SpaceX makes some of the most magnificent machines on the planet (and beyond - yes, pun intended :).  So the world's best engineers want to work there. That paired with what I've already stated means there is both an ability and a necessity to only hire people after they have in some way demonstrated themselves to be truly exceptional.
I wonder if any large pharmaceutical/chemical corporation would be as willing to divulge their internal criteria. I doubt it.

[I am not saying, NB, that SpaceX's criteria are good/correct/ideal (as a matter of fact, I think focusing on 'top engineering programs' may be the least good of their criteria, but maybe I'm wrong.) But I think that they're relatively clear and more importantly, well-publicized. (now anyway.) That's worth something.]

Personal finance moment

If you're into personal finance and thinking about retirement, here's a link to a pamphlet (PDF) that I find to be a pretty good summation of close to what I believe, personal finance-wise.

I'm gonna rebalance next year, yeah, that's the ticket! 

(I like this notecard as well.) 

Pretty great line about specialization

Neat story on NPR about Bryan Shaw, an assistant professor at Baylor (in chemistry):
Naturally enough, after his son's diagnosis, Shaw's first thoughts were to do whatever it took to save his son's life. 
But at some point, during the months of chemotherapy, radiation and ultimately surgery to remove his son's right eye to prevent the cancer from spreading to his brain, Bryan started thinking more like the scientist he is.  
He wondered what would have happened if the family camera had been programmed with software that could recognize leukocoria automatically. "If I would have had some software in it telling me, 'Hey, go get this checked out,' that would have sped up my son's diagnosis and the tumors would have been just a little bit smaller when we got to them. There might have been fewer," says Shaw. And maybe Noah's eye could have been saved. But there was no software.
Now, for most of us, that would have been that. But Bryan Shaw, the inorganic chemist, figured what the heck, I'll become a software designer. 
"I was trained in this funny lab at Harvard called the [George] Whitesides Lab, where we scoffed at specialization," he says. "If you were just an inorganic chemist, you weren't cool. You had to go make it in areas totally outside your field."
I had to smile at that.  (And I still believe in specialization, but in this context, there is always room for individuals to learn new things.) 

Process Wednesday: elemental fluorine? Why not?

Credit: Org. Process Res. Dev., Abele et al.
It's not often that you see elemental fluorine in Organic Process Research and Development, so I had to read this article. [1] The authors needed a fluorinated napthyridine and while they decided to go with either purchasing the fluoride (Route 2) or using Select-Fluor (Route 1), they did explore using elemental fluorine, which, um, I would be hesitant to. The authors talk about how elemental fluorine is typically not a very selective reagent nor does it tolerate much functionality, but then are surprised to report the results of their experiments:
Surprisingly, an excellent selectivity was observed when 10% F2 in N2 was bubbled through a solution of 10 in conc. H2SO4 (100 vol) at 80 °C for 4 h, the IPC (HPLC) indicating a 89:11 mixture of starting material and product without any byproducts or side products (Table 1, entry 1). Heating to higher
temperatures to accelerate the reaction led to significant byproduct formation (entry 2, byproducts were not identified). The use of a sintered glass frit for a better dispersion of F2 doubled the reaction velocity (entry 3). 
When the concentration was increased by a factor of 10 to 10 vol, excessive foaming resulted in a slower reaction rate (entry 4). A higher concentration is desirable as it will reduce the amount of base required for the quench. The slower reaction rate could successfully be compensated by the use of a glass frit with double-sized pores (20 instead of 10 μm, entry 5). On 50-g scale, 10% F2 in N2 was bubbled into the solution of 10 in conc. H2SO4 (10 vol) via a 20-μm frit at 80 °C for 27 h, leading to 93% conversion (no byproduct by HPLC). 
SiO2 was added as antifoaming agent and the flow rate was varied between 30 and 60 L/h to control remaining foaming (entry 6). 27 was obtained in a moderate yield of 41% yield after a quench with aqueous ammonia and filtration (nonoptimized work-up).  
All six alternative solvents tested (entries 7−15) either led to no conversion or to multiple byproducts. HF would be a preferred solvent due to the ease of its removal by distillation. The reaction in HF was carried out in an autoclave and did give the expected product, albeit accompanied by side products (entry 16). 
Remaining challenges for the scale-up of the orthofluorination with elemental fluorine are the high corrosivity of the reaction media, the foaming, and the isolation of the product from conc. H2SO4 leading to large volumes during the aqueous work-up.
I'm a little bit surprised at the foaming problem -- I am not sure that I expected that as an issue. (Does that have to do with the concentrated sulfuric acid as a solvent?) Nevertheless, pretty neat to see that it can be done.

1. Abele, S. Schmidt, G.; Fleming, M.J.; Steiner, H. "A One-Pot Diazotation−Fluorodediazoniation Reaction and Fluorine Gas for the Production of Fluoronaphthyridines." Org. Process Res. Dev. ASAP DOI: 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Discussion between Linda Rosen and Michael Teitelbaum on STEM shortage or surplus?

STEM Worker Shortage: Does It Exist and Is Education To Blame? from EdWriters on Vimeo.

Video is of Linda Rosen of Change The Equation (who I've tangled with here) and the excellent Michael Teitelbaum (noted STEM shortage skeptic.) Good stuff, thanks to the Education Writers Association.

Thanks to Ms. Rosen, I learned that Jonathan Rothwell of Brookings' even more expansive version of STEM workers, which, believe it or not, includes carpenters and plumbers. 

A shortage of chemical industry workers in the Houston area?

Interesting letter from ExxonMobil Chemical's CEO in the Houston Chronicle last week: 
Thousands of jobs are coming to the Houston area because of an enormous wave of investment the chemical industry plans to make in new plants and capacity expansions. Announced projects totaling $100 billion would capitalize on abundant, affordable U.S. natural gas to produce chemicals. Most of those dollars will be invested in the Houston area and across the Gulf Coast, which is the heart of the U.S. chemical industry. 
You would expect a stampede of job applicants when I tell you about the salaries involved with these jobs. For example, in the chemical industry in Texas, the average wage is almost $100,000 a year. That is the good news. 
The bad news is that the chemical industry is seeing a growing shortage of skilled workers - men and women with the talent and training to succeed in our high-tech manufacturing sector. 
It's not just chemical companies who are seeing this. The National Association of Manufacturers reports that two-thirds of U.S. manufacturers are reporting moderate to severe shortages of skilled workers. That means there are some 600,000 good jobs going unfilled. 
ExxonMobil believes there is an urgent need for business, educators and government to widen the path to these career opportunities by expanding vocational training. That's why we support the work of nine Houston-area community colleges to train students for technical careers in the chemical and energy industries. 
The community colleges have joined together to create the website to show visitors the career opportunities in the chemical industry, the pay for these jobs, how many will be needed in the coming years and the required training the schools can provide. 
This innovative program seeks to recruit and train high school graduates and returning military veterans for careers such as the instrument technicians who keep chemical plants running safely and efficiently, and skilled craftsmen such as welders and pipefitters who build and maintain the equipment. This program will benefit 50,000 students and educators over the next five years. 
As a major employer in this community, I'm proud to partner with our community colleges to prepare Houstonians to fill high-paying jobs and launch satisfying careers in a critical industry. 
Stephen D. Pryor, president, ExxonMobil Chemical Co., Houston
I could actually believe that the petrochemical industry needs more workers; it does seem as if I am hearing about a lot of high salaries coming out of the Gulf Coast region. The "600,000 jobs going unfilled" factoid is completely untrue; it is an extrapolated guess from an online survey of manufacturing CEOs from 2011.

I also note with some amusement that the website is rather amusing in its simplicity; it's basically a splash page with the word "JOBS" and some vague assertions about how good ExxonMobil's new Baytown complex is going to be for employment.

I suspect that this letter is really about local political opposition to ExxonMobil's expansion in Baytown, but I'm not a resident of Houston, so I don't know what the politics there are. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Why don't more safety shutdowns happen in US academia?

A very interesting response last month to a couple of lab fires at the National University of Singapore, via The Straits Times:
Several faculties at the National University of Singapore (NUS) were told to suspend laboratory activities yesterday in order to review safety after two fires at the university this month. 
In an e-mail seen by The Straits Times, the engineering, science and medical faculties were asked to suspend all research activities from 8.30am to 6pm yesterday. They were told to reflect on how to improve safety in their labs instead. 
The latest blaze broke out on Wednesday in a walkway at the engineering faculty at about 11.45pm. Nobody was hurt, and the fire was put out before firefighters from the Singapore Civil Defence Force arrived. The cause is being investigated. 
The other fire, which was reported in the media, took place on April 4 in another part of the engineering faculty, and led to two people being warded.
I wonder why this tactic has not been used in US science academia? I'd think that it would be potentially worthwhile, but I could imagine a lot of faculty members protesting. 

This week's C&EN

A variety of tidbits:

Friday, May 2, 2014

The Product and The Spatula

You are the product and the spatula,
the glass flask and the solvent.
You are the condensate at the top of the distillation head,
and the warm glow of the heating mantle.
You are the white lab coat of the chemist,
and the postdocs celebrating a job offer.

However, you are not the whoosh of the air in the NMR,
the reagents in their cabinets,
or the thoughts of managers.
And you are certainly not the smell of terpenes.
There is just no way that you are the smell of terpenes.

It is possible that you are the potassium bobbing in the THF still,
maybe even the spinach on the director’s shirt,
but you are not even close
to being the rattle of hood sashes at night.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the empty bottles in the corner
nor the tools asleep in their toolkit.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of water in the condenser.

I also happen to be the internal standard peak at 8.27 minutes,
the stir bar making a vortex in the middle of your flask,
and the Erlenmeyer of NMR tubes on the benchtop.

I am also the sunlight in the atrium
and your boss' coffee cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the product and the spatula.
You are still the product and the spatula.
You will always be the product and the spatula,
not to mention the glass flask and--somehow--the solvent.

with apologies to Billy Collins

My suggestion to UK politicians: don't believe Pfizer, demand that Pfizer CEOs post a bond

Via Derek Lowe, an interesting set of comments in this Reuters report on the Pfizer/AZ goings-on (emphasis mine): 
In an attempt to smooth relations with the government, Pfizer CEO Read wrote to Cameron, promising to complete a substantial new research center planned by AstraZeneca in Cambridge and retain a manufacturing plant in Macclesfield. 
The Cambridge site, in particular, is viewed as important to the development of the so-called "golden triangle" of Britain's life sciences industry, spanning Oxford, Cambridge and London.
Read also said that 20 percent of the enlarged group's research and development workforce would be in Britain, which a Pfizer spokesman said would represent a "very substantial" increase in its research efforts in the country. 
"We make these commitments for a minimum of five years, recognizing our ability, consistent with our fiduciary duties, to adjust these obligations should circumstances significantly change," Read added in a letter to Cameron. 
Science minister David Willetts said Pfizer had moved a long way in its commitments to British science and research, but the opposition Labour party was scathing about the potential deal. 
"Pfizer has a very poor record on previous acquisitions. Do we really want a jewel in the crown of British industry, our second biggest pharmaceutical firm, to basically be seen as an instrument of tax planning?" said business spokesman Chuka Umunna. 
Pfizer's reputation is under a cloud in Britain following a decision three years ago to shut most of its research work at a large R&D center in Sandwich, southern England, where Viagra was invented, with the loss of nearly 2,000 jobs.
Here's what I suggest to the subjects of the United Kingdom and their politicians: Don't believe Pfizer CEOs when they say they won't cut jobs to save money. What proof do we have that Pfizer management would go against their now 10 year record of job cuts?

In fact, I would ask Mr. Read or any current Pfizer CEO to post a bond (in an amount of say, 10% of their personal net worth) to guarantee any employment-related promises -- because I don't believe them. 

An interesting bit of medicinal chemistry/process chemistry history

Thanks to Anonymous at In the Pipeline, I learned a little bit about salvarsan: 
In 1909 the anti-syphilis Compound 606 emerged from the laboratory of Paul Ehrlich at the Hoechst Dye Works, the result of several years of investigation into the anti-spirochete activity of organoarsenic compounds. After much technology development and a clinical trial, reports of the drug's efficacy in treating syphilis became headline news in the world press. The long-wished-for cure to this dreaded disease was now at hand. 
The drug was called salvarsan, and those suffering from syphilis tried every possible trick to secure ampoules of this miracle drug. Pilfering by factory workers was such a problem that the plant manager had no alternative but to personally count each vial at the end of the day and lock them in his steel safe until they could be distributed by doctors to the sick, many of whom impatiently waited at the plant gates for their chance to get this wonder drug. Letters from kings, popes, the rich and the powerful begged the company for access to this new drug on behalf of this or that patient. 
Within a couple of years, reports appeared claiming that salvarsan was not really that effective, that it was far more poisonous than had been stated, and the price of 10 marks per ampoule was much too high. In 1912 a Swiss professor criticized the price of salvarsan. He had totaled up the costs for a kilo of arsenious acid and a kilo of benzene as if the two substances were simply thrown together and salvarsan had been distilled from a Hoechst retort. No mention was made of R&D costs, the tricky nature of salvarsan's industrial-scale preparation or manufacturing costs. 
Thus began the long-running love-hate relationship between the general public and the pharmaceutical industry which continues to this day.
Truer words have not been spoken. Fascinating stuff.  

Non-farm payroll jobs up 288,000, unemployment down 0.4% in April to 6.3%

Credit: Calculated Risk
Total non-farm payroll was up 288,000 in April; the unemployment rate fell 0.4% to 6.3%. That's a pretty big drop -- I haven't heard yet whether or not this was a move in labor-force productivity, or if it's viewed as a genuinely good news. My sense from a quick scan around the economics blogosphere is that it's seen as good news. 

The broader U6 measure of unemployment was down 0.4% as well to 12.3%. Hard to believe that just a couple years ago, it was 14-15%. 

Employment in the chemical manufacturing subsector was up 1,500 to 798,600 positions.

Unemployment for college graduates was down in April 0.1% to 3.3%. Unemployment for non-high-school graduates was down 0.7% to 8.9%.  

Thanks, as always, to Calculated Risk for the graph. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Ask CJ: I've got a bad two-body problem

From the inbox, a sad dilemma (redacted and edited for clarity/privacy):
Dear Chemjobber, 
I recently ran into this dilemma and I need both you and your readers' opinion on it. 
I'm a PhD organic chemist currently working outside of chemistry making a decent-but-not-PhD-chemist wages. I've been yearning to get back in chemistry for a while now and has been seriously applying for chemistry-related jobs for over 6 months now. Suffice it to say that I did not get much attention from anyone.  
Anyhow, I recently moved my job hunt overseas, and because of my language skills, I was quickly offered a position.  
Here is my problem: my wife has zero intention of moving overseas. Granted, the salary they offered me is about half of what I'm making now, but I can offset that by living in a cheaper country and in my parents' house. 
I desperately want to get back into chemistry, but it seems my wife is more concerned about living overseas. Now, the question is, should I take the job? 
That's a tough one, X. Personally, I would factor my wife's desires into my desires for a career in a specific field. Is a life working as a chemist really worth 1) moving, 2) getting a lower salary and 3) risking my marriage? For the most part, I'd say 'no' and I suspect that most people would as well. Of all of these factors, it is the objections of my spouse that I would take most into consideration. You can have many careers, but spouses are relatively few.

That said, there are plenty of folks who have made big, big sacrifices to keep working in chemistry. To each their own.

It's sad that, at the moment, organic chemistry isn't allowing people the ability to 1) find jobs where they live and 2) employ everyone who wishes to be employed in the field. Best wishes to you, X, and to all of us.

Readers, your thoughts?