Friday, April 29, 2016

Are you a chemist and over 50? Write in!

A phenomenal request from Logan's Run:
I would be much more interested to read "how chemists keep their jobs past 50," but I think that getting enough anecdotes to write a story would be challenging. 
Are you a chemist, still a chemist, not a "boss of bosses" and over 50? I would love to publish your story. Please write in to, and I would be happy to publish your story. Anonymous or not, that's up to you.

(My father, whom I love, spent the last ~15 years or so of his engineering career basically working his heart out, running completely scared of being laid off from his employer before he could reach retirement age. He woke up every day determined to be a great asset to his company, thinking about his job pretty much every waking moment that he was not thinking about his family or his other (few) responsibilities. I'm not sure that's attainable for most folks.) 

Job posting: B.S. chemist, Plain City, OH

From the inbox, a position at Quanta BioDesign in Plain City, OH:
The successful candidate will be an essential part of our QC/QA team providing analytical support in characterizing our dPEG® products for both catalog sales and products in clinical trials. Will support company scientists in acquiring and interpreting QC data as well as assist customers who have QC-related questions about our products. Will be a vital link in the development of the dPEG® technology. Excellent communication, problem solving, and time management skills are critical aspects of this position.
Best wishes to those interested.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

So which one of you is it?

John Bohannon is an interesting character who always seems to get a good story. Here he is in Science, having somehow gotten SciHub's Alexandra Elbakyan to give him all of SciHub's downloading data. You gotta read this article, and then come on back here for my weird question: 
...The intense Sci-Hub activity in East Lansing reveals yet another motivation for using the site. Most of the downloads seem to be the work of a few or even just one person running a “scraping” program over the December 2015 holidays, downloading papers at superhuman speeds. I asked Elbakyan whether those download requests came from MSU's IP addresses, and she confirmed that they did. The papers are all from chemistry journals, most of them published by the American Chemical Society. So the apparent goal is to build a massive private repository of chemical literature. But why? 
Bill Hart-Davidson, MSU's associate dean for graduate education, suggests that the likely answer is “text-mining,” the use of computer programs to analyze large collections of documents to generate data. When I called Hart-Davidson, I suggested that the East Lansing Sci-Hub scraper might be someone from his own research team. But he laughed and said that he had no idea who it was. But he understands why the scraper goes to Sci-Hub even though MSU subscribes to the downloaded journals. For his own research on the linguistic structure of scientific discourse, Hart-Davidson obtained more than 100 years of biology papers the hard way—legally with the help of the publishers. “It took an entire year just to get permission,” says Thomas Padilla, the MSU librarian who did the negotiating. And once the hard drive full of papers arrived, it came with strict rules of use. At the end of each day of running computer programs on it from an offline computer, Padilla had to walk the resulting data across campus on a thumb drive for analysis with Hart-Davidson.
All right, which one of you is downloading all of ACS' articles? 

Ask CJ: who are your favorite pharma/biotech analysts/writers?

Great question from the inbox, and one that I'd love to get an opinion on myself: 
Dear CJ and friends, 
As a relatively new chemistry hire in Pharma, I've been looking to broaden my perspective on the industry. In a world where everyone and their pet gerbil is a SeekingAlpha writer who spews out the shallowest of hot hot takes on the latest company press releases, I would like to know which analysts you and your readers think are worth the time and clicks.  
I'm not just looking for industry news, I want people with strong, but thoughtful opinions: particularly those who write from a business perspective, but show a passable understanding of the science behind it. One such person who comes to mind, for instance, is Adam Feuerstein. 
I'm wondering if your readers could list a few of their favorite industry analysts and writers, 
With eternal gratitude,
My two answers that come off the top of my head? Matt Herper at Forbes and Lisa Jarvis at C&EN. 

What happens to assistant professors who go into industry?

Professor Carolyn Bertozzi is the editor-in-chief of ACS Central Science, one of ACS's newer journals and the first that is entirely open-access. She has written a number of opening columns, and they're all worth reading and considering (how often do I get hear the internal thoughts of someone who is a heck of a lot closer to a trip to Stockholm than I ever will be?). Here's an interesting aside from her most recent column, which is about the dearth of senior women chemistry faculty: 
With autonomy comes responsibility, of course, and many people will count on you to keep the ship afloat and headed in the right direction. Occasionally women articulate to me that such responsibility looms large in their mind, that their aversion to academia is rooted in a fear of judgment and failure. In response, I share with them what my dad said to me when I once admitted these feelings. First, he reminded me of the first time he handed me the keys to the car, and I peeled out of the driveway without concern for the depth of my qualification. Then the conversation went like this:
Dad: “You got your own lab? Go for it. What do you have to lose?”
Me: “What if I can’t get grants funded?”
Dad: “So what, as long as you still get paid. Try again.”
Me: “What if I don’t get tenure?”
Dad: “So what, it is still a good starter job that builds skills for many other (higher paying) jobs.” 
He was right about that. My friends who didn’t get that coveted promotion jumped into high-level industrial positions they could never have acquired had they started their career in that same company. You see, after six years running a lab in academia, they had project and budget management experience. They had done HR, PR, and built a valuable network of colleagues and collaborators. No age-matched bench chemist in industry could develop that portfolio of skills at the same pace.
It is the last sentence that I would like to examine. Is this actually true? Far be it from me to doubt Professor Bertozzi's superior years of experience to mine own, but I find this to be a tiny bit skepticism-inducing. I suspect that it depends on the definition of "my friends" and "high-level". Also, is it really true that "no age-matched bench chemist in industry could develop that portfolio of skills?" I think there's plenty of argument to be made that industry is just as good at academia at forcing collaboration, and growing project and budget management experience.

(This draws me to another aside, and another CJ-like complaint about the lack of solid data about job cohorts: what happens to untenured assistant professors of chemistry? Where do they go? What do they end up doing? Do they actually go straight to "group leader" or "director" in industry? Rather than relying on the opinions of prominent chemical biologists or random bloggers, wouldn't it be great if we just knew, i.e. had a database somewhere?)

Readers, your thoughts? Is there enough anecdata out there to support this? 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Ask CJ: what to do when there are layoffs of rumors at your company?

Readers, a question from the inbox for which I have relatively little experience: when rumors of layoffs start at your company: what should you do?
A. Nothing. Plan a little, brush up your CV, that's about it.
B. Work on plans for career changes, think about going back to school.
C. Get out ASAP.
D. Other
Please don't take the above choices as the only one.  

The funniest paper you will read today

Credit: Ma et al., Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.
Thanks to Free Radical, I note a paper in Angewandte Chemie from a Chinese team [1] where they coated gloves with tannic acid and found that it greatly improved the ability of the gloves to catch fish.

I kinda love this idea; sure, catching fish in your hands is awesome (you can really imagine a version of these gloves being sneaked into a noodling championship in Mississippi), but who knows what uses this invention will be used for?

1. Ma, S., Lee, H., Liang, Y. and Zhou, F. (2016), "Astringent Mouthfeel as a Consequence of Lubrication Failure." Angew. Chem. Int. Ed.. doi:10.1002/anie.201601667

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Nucleotides are not permitted in organic products."

Via Twitter user @mem_somerville, a lawsuit from the Organic Consumers Association against two formula manufacturers.

If you'd like to read some high-test chemophobia, these lawsuits (PDFs) are a great place to start. 

Postdoc: biochemistry postdoc, University of South Florida

From the inbox:
We have an opening for a joint position in the labs of Professor Michael White (Department of Global Health) and Professor Jim Leahy (Department of Chemistry) at the University of South Florida.  This is a post-doctoral position to join a drug discovery project focused on identifying new treatments for malaria.  The successful applicant will establish new methodology for assaying kinases that are difficult to express and develop protocols using the new assays to screen small compound libraries.  Candidates with biochemical experience are preferred.  Interested candidates should contact Jim Leahy ( 
Best wishes to those interested.  

Job posting: NIH postdoctoral position in chemistry

From the inbox:
A postdoctoral position is immediately available in the laboratory of Daniel Appella, Senior Investigator in the Intramural Research Program at NIDDK, NIH. The objective of our research is to use chemically designed Peptide Nucleic Acids (PNAs) to uncover novel facets of biology (for background, see: Nature Communications, 2014, 5, 5079 and J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2014, 136, 12296). In this position, training will be provided on synthetic preparation and purification of PNA as well as the application of PNA to multivalent scaffolds and RNA detection. Candidates must have a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry (or a closely related discipline) and possess a strong desire to work at the interface of chemistry and biology.  Interested candidates should send a C.V. (listing three references) and cover letter to Daniel Appella ( no later than June 1, 2016.
Best wishes to those interested. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

How chemists get promoted

Also in this week's C&ENLinda Wang has an thought-provoking article about how chemists get promoted, with some stories from actual chemists. I found the one about the chemist at 3M to be most interesting: 
...Sos was presented with an opportunity to become an international director at 3M, overseeing the company’s businesses in Asia. But the position required that he relocate to Shanghai. 
“Never in my life did I anticipate we would move to China,” Sos says. “I was excited, but when you have a family and a life you’ve established, you have to really think about what it means for your career. There’s no guarantee that you come out of those assignments and you’re better off.” 
But the gamble paid off, and it became a career-defining move for Sos. “I was thrown into a completely different culture, and it was really challenging, but it was a good learning opportunity in many ways,” he says. “I developed a lot as a leader.” 
After living in China for four-and-a-half years, Sos began exploring his options for returning to the U.S. One opportunity that presented itself was at Thermo Fisher. “What I found was that the experience that I had in Asia was highly attractive to companies like Thermo Fisher.” 
Sos joined the company in November 2011 as vice president and general manager of molecular spectroscopy before assuming his current position in October 2015. “Life is about experiences,” he says. “I felt as though it was tremendously valuable to take on some risks, and they’ve paid off for me.”
It seems to me that "go overseas for a short while" is a pretty standard way of getting a promotion in a large multinational company. Don't miss the other ones; they're all worth your time. 

How do the ACS employment surveys work?

Rick Ewing is the chair of ACS' Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs. The committee is in charge of the 3 core ACS employment surveys, the ACS Salary Survey, the ChemCensus and the New Graduate Survey. In this week's C&EN, he writes about the surveys and their methodology.

If you would like to understand the methodology behind these surveys, you should read Dr. Ewing's article; it is worth your time. He also responds to member concerns here:
...ACS members have also asked specifically about the decline in the response rates for each survey. Although the drop has been observed for some time, it has accelerated in recent years. For example, the Comprehensive Survey response rate of 36% in 2011 dropped to 28% in 2014. Though disconcerting, the decline in response rates is a general trend for surveys in all segments and not unique to ACS. The increased prevalence of surveys has resulted in ambivalence, which makes it tougher to convince individuals to take the time to reply...
While I understand that this is a problem of resources (we can't send people to ACS members' houses, knocking on their door and asking them to fill out the ChemCensus), I am a little bit concerned that CEPA apparently does not have a plan or an answer to the response rate problem.

If the response rate continues to fall, at what point does the data from the ChemCensus or the annual Salary Survey become less valuable? What others plans does CEPA have to raise the response rate? (I have gotten physical postcards, reminding me to fill out my Survey (and I do!)) What distinguishes respondents from those who do not respond? I am sure that CEPA is looking at these questions, and I look forward to the answers. 

This week's C&EN

A few of the articles from this week's C&EN

Friday, April 22, 2016

The View from Your Hood: "Above the trees"

Portland State University, Oregon.
"Above the trees"
An anonymous submission.

(got a View from Your Hood submission? Send it in (with a caption, please) at; will run every other Friday.)

Gruesome photo

Pictures of wrecked labs are always sobering, but the latest photographs obtained from the Honolulu Fire Department by C&EN from the University of Hawaii incident are pretty awful. The last photo is the worst. You've been warned.

Flammable gases are no joke.

UPDATE: Added another line. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

A smart comment I wish I had thought of, re: resumes

A piece of advice I heard recently about resumes:
"No one [cares] if you know how to use Microsoft Office."
(There's this terrible "skills section" aspects of resumes for laboratory positions, where you're supposed to list "your skills." And I think that it is useful, but the problem is that people start listing every single lab technique they've ever used, stood next to, looked at or walked around. That's a problem, and I wish I knew what to do about it.) 

A series of terrible financial decisions

There have been a number of "personal finance disaster" books written in the wake of the Great Recession. (One that I remember was Edmund Andrews' "Busted: Life Inside the Great Mortgage Meltdown."

The latest entry in this genre is an article in The Atlantic Monthly titled "The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans"; the author, Neal Gabler, talks about, among other things, the difficulty some folks have with covering surprise expenses: 
Since 2013, the Federal Reserve Board has conducted a survey to “monitor the financial and economic status of American consumers.” Most of the data in the latest survey, frankly, are less than earth-shattering: 49 percent of part-time workers would prefer to work more hours at their current wage; 29 percent of Americans expect to earn a higher income in the coming year; 43 percent of homeowners who have owned their home for at least a year believe its value has increased. But the answer to one question was astonishing. The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all. Four hundred dollars! Who knew? 
Well, I knew. I knew because I am in that 47 percent.
The article is quite excruciating to read, especially for folks who cringe at bad financial decisions. Here was one of the author's that I was surprised to read:
We have no retirement savings, because we emptied a small 401(k) to pay for our younger daughter’s wedding.  
Assuming this is true and there is no other context to this statement, this appears to me to be a profound error in judgment. Don't let this happen to you, dear reader. Emptying out your 401(k) for a party (no matter how important the party) is not a wise decision. 

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The weirdest video you will see today

Apropos of nothing, a video of 6 bulldozers fighting in China. (Context here.) You figure this is what the streets of Brooklyn were like in 1910 or so.

UPDATE: Are you a young woman in China? Watch out for your foreign spy boyfriends! 

Warning Letter of the Week: multiple injections edition

Looks like "Sri Krishna Pharmaceuticals Ltd. - Unit II" got themselves a 483 recently. This is an interesting one:
A QC analyst injected eleven identically or similarly named samples for impurity and assay analysis approximately one to fifteen seconds apart from one another, according to the HPLC audit trail for [redacted] DMF submission batches [redacted] and [redacted]. A second analyst injected eight similarly named impurity and assay samples approximately twelve to sixteen seconds apart, according to the HPLC audit trail for the analysis of [redacted] batches [redacted] and [redacted].  
Neither analyst reported all results obtained during testing. The laboratory incident reports concluded the first analyst deleted 28 original files due to pressure fluctuations and ghost peaks, while the second analyst deleted original trial injections of working standard and sample testing data due to a problem associated with peak shape. However, your laboratory incident reports provide no evidence to support these conclusions. Both analysts also changed the clock prior to reanalyzing the samples.

b.    A QC analyst injected sample P140818008.lcd for the assay analysis of [redacted] (batch [redacted]) prior to the reported sample injections. The “trails” [sic] folder where the original sample injection file was saved had been deleted. Your response acknowledges that an analyst deleted eight injections, including the blank, six standards, and a sample.

c.    A QC analyst deleted original test method validation data and admitted plans to fabricate sample preparation data. According to the HPLC audit trail, on October 7 and 8, the QC analyst injected two sets of similarly named samples of (b)(4) (#1:P141007001.lcd and #1:P 141007001.lcd) for an impurity analysis method validation study. Your analyst deleted data from the first set of injections and submitted only the second set in the validation documentation. The analyst stated that he planned to back-date the preparation data within the worksheets once all testing was complete. However, aside from balance scale tickets, your firm was unable to provide sample preparation data for either sample. Your response states that you abandoned the method validation study, but you continue to use that method for routine testing. In response to this letter, provide the method validation study that supports your current method for analyzing impurities in [redacted].
So what the heck is the point in injecting sample after sample into a HPLC within seconds of each other? I don't get it.

(Changing the clock - that's brilliant.)  

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

More details on the UH-Manoa incident: explosion probably due to sparking pressure gauge

Credit: KHON (Picture of "before" by Jian Yu, "after" by the Honolulu Fire Department)
(Via Jyllian Kemsley's tweet about Honolulu TV station KHON's report). A partial PDF copy of the report from the Honolulu Fire Department about the explosion in a University of Hawaii - Manoa biofuels laboratory is pretty clear as to the cause of the explosion: there was a pressure gauge that was not explosion proof that sparked in a flammable gas environment. From the report: 
Accidental causes were considered and only one probable cause remained. 
The accidental cause of this explosion was caused by the detonation of compressed gasses to include: Hydrogen, Carbon Dioxide, and Oxygen within the air tank. A digital pressure gauge used to check the pressure within the tank was not rated or designed (not Intrinsically Safe) to be in a flammable gaseous atmosphere. When the OFF button was pressed, an electrical arc/spark created within the gauge detonated the flammable gas within the tank causing the explosion. 
Level of Certainty: Probable, with a reasonable degree of fire investigative certainty.
Please forgive the gruesome details that I am going to share next, but I think they're essential to understanding the incident:
On this particular day, she moved and filled the tank with a set amount of gasses using the Ashcroft 300 psi digital gauge that is battery operated. This gauge is a push button type for ON and OFF. When she disconnected the hoses used to fill the tank, she checked the pressure in the tank to verify the amount to be 117 psi. She then pressed the OFF button and the tank exploded. Prior to the explosion, she did not hear any sounds of escaping or leaking gasses from any of the fittings or pressure relief valve. 
She did not lose consciousness or hit her head; she was aware that she lost her arm in the explosion. She couldn’t open the door to the lab, the door was stuck closed. A person by the name of Savannah was there to help get the door open and help her out of the lab. 
She added that earlier in the week, she was conducting another experiment using a smaller one gallon size air tank assembly nearly as identical as the one that failed using similar components to include the Ashcroft 100 digital pressure gauge and the premixed gasses. The tank pressure was set to 27 psi. After reading the gauge, she pressed the OFF button and a small internal explosion occurred. She related to me that there was evidence of a soot and smoke stains. 
Static shock also appeared to have been a problem as Ms. Ekins-Coward would get shocked on occasion when touching the tank. 
She brought this information to the attention of Mr. Yu who she said told her don’t worry about it.
What immediately bothers me about this incident is that I have been simplistically trained to think about the "fire triangle": that oxygen, fuel and a heat source are needed for a fire. In this case, because the Yu Laboratory and Dr. Ekins-Coward were running mixtures of hydrogen, oxygen, you have both fuel and oxygen, so most of the preventative measures should have been aimed at reducing the risk of a spark. That there were near-misses is supremely tragic - this didn't have to happen.

(Readers, what do you think here? Is there another root cause I'm missing? Should attention have been paid elsewhere?)

To make this even more interesting, it appears that we have a disagreement as to who designed the system. I think this sort of thing is bound to happen during police investigations; two people will disagree about something key to the event. From the report's interview with Dr. Yu (emphasis mine):
The following was related to me by the named individual above: 
The victim Thea Ekins-Coward was working as a Post-Doctoral Fellow trained in Marine Science and a Chemical Engineer. 
She was hired by Dr. Yu October 2015 to conduct research in bioplastics and biofuels. 
In response to my questions he related that: 
The tank that failed was Ms. Ekins-Coward's design. She bought the equipment (tank, digital gauge, pressure relieve valve, and fittings) between November 2015 and January 2016. The tank was to have been rated at 10 bar or 150 psi. When the tank was assembled with its parts, a pressure test was done using the buildings air which produced 91.2 psi. Several leaks were detected. So the tank assembly was taken to the Universities maintenance for help in stopping the leaks. 
This particular tank was used to contain a mixture of gases to include: 70% Hydrogen, 10% Carbon dioxide, and 20% Oxygen in that order and to a normal operating pressure of 50 psi. 
The tank was not grounded and was normally moved from a stored location to areas where it could be filled. The tank would be moved approximately 3 feet to fill it with Hydrogen and Carbon Dioxide, then moved approximately 13' so it can be filled with Oxygen.
And here's the relevant paragraph from the interview with Dr. Ekins-Coward:
The air tank and assembly that failed was purchased between November 2015 and January 2016. The parts were assembled and pressure tested with the building supplied air. This output of air was 91.2 psi which was sufficient enough to cause leaks at the connections so the tank assembly was taken to the Universities maintenance shop where they helped stop the leaks. The design of this tank assembly was that of Dr. Jian Yu. The tank was rated at 145 psi.
So, it's time for some questions that will ultimately need to be answered:
  • Who designed the tank and selected the pressure gauge? 
  • Is it accurate that both the PI and postdoc were trained as chemical engineers, as brief Google searching seems to indicate? 
  • What is the role of the institution and its EH&S office in this? Did the EH&S office know about the Yu Laboratory's experimental systems? 
  • This was clearly an unsafe experimental setup - will the comments about this experiment being safely performed since 2008 be walked back? 
  • What disciplinary actions are going to be carried out by the department or institution? 
  • Will there be civil penalties from the state occupational health and safety regulatory agency or from the local fire authorities?  
  • Will there be criminal penalties? 
The current lesson to be learned: when dealing with flammable gas mixtures, inherently safe equipment will go far to prevent fires, explosions and serious injury.

UPDATE 160419 4:49 PM: Jyllian has a story up about the Honolulu Fire Department report at C&EN's website; some background on the experiment follows:
The gas mixture was “food” for bacteria being used to produce biofuels and bioplastics. Ekins-Coward was working for the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute under researcher Jian Yu. A 2013 paper by Yu indicates a set-up in which gases are plumbed through a mixing device called a gas proportioner directly into the bioreactor (Int. J. Hydrogen Energy 2013, DOI: 10.1016/j.ijhydene.2013.04.153). The gas gauge identified in the paper is an “intrinsically safe” model designed to prevent ignition. 
But after Ekins-Coward started in the lab last fall, she purchased a 49-L steel gas tank, a different gauge not rated as intrinsically safe, a pressure-relief valve, and fittings, and she put them together, Yu and Ekins-Coward told fire department investigators, according to the report. Ekins-Coward would add the gases to the portable tank, which would then be connected to the bioreactor. She was using a mixture of 70% hydrogen, 25% oxygen, and 5% carbon dioxide for her experiments, the report says. 
In the week before the incident, a similar set-up with a 3.8-L tank resulted in a “small internal explosion” when Ekins-Coward pressed the off button on the gauge, the fire department report says. 
Also, she links to a longer version of the report.  

Monday, April 18, 2016

A lot of people have strong feelings about organic chemistry education

Also from this week's C&EN, a couple of really interesting letters about 'the youths' and organic chemistry, using Bethany Halford's article about a recent ACS San Diego symposium as a starting point:
“Overwhelmed by Orgo” (C&EN, March 28, page 24) on the crisis in organic chemistry education struck a chord. As an organic chemistry instructor at the university level for more than 20 years, I can attest to a noticeably diminished student capacity to handle the subject with each passing semester. 
It should be emphasized, however, that organic chemistry is not and was never intended to be an easy discipline to master. Hand-wringing over new teaching techniques or providing yet another clone of the texts is an exercise in futility. Jazzing up texts with pictures and graphics does little more than inflate already obscene prices. 
My suggestions to include at least a rudimentary introduction to organic chemistry in the preparatory general chemistry curricula have been met universally with stiff resistance. As a result, students are thrown into the deep end with no swimming lessons. 
But the core problem is endemic to science education in general. Students go unchallenged through their first 12 years of formal education, rewarded exclusively by rote memorization with no opportunity to develop skills in critical thinking and problem solving by analogy, essential elements of organic chemistry. Disturbingly, many of those considered successful at the university level are so only because rote memorization is now embraced by their professors as well. 
Robert G. Davis
Naugatuck, Conn. 
In C&EN’s article, Melanie Cooper, a chemistry education professor at Michigan State University, states, “Students come out of general chemistry typically very unprepared.” Worse, I’ve found, they graduate college very unprepared. 
I routinely give a 12-question chemistry quiz to interviewees/applicants looking for employment as a bench chemist. I have found that they and even some recent hires are poorly prepared for jobs in chemistry. For instance, they cannot explain the difference between a weak acid and a dilute acid or the difference between an end point and an equivalence point. 
One interviewee, prior to taking my short chemistry quiz, told me he tutored chemistry, but he only got 6.5 correct answers out of 12. And a recent graduate with a B.A. in chemistry whom I had hired, and who has thankfully left, didn’t know that mercury was a liquid. 
Who lets these people graduate high school or college? Educators should be held liable for poorly educating students. Some teachers are “teaching-disabled.” If you really want to improve the quality of chemistry students going into the working world, put pressure on the secondary schools and colleges to stop graduating those who simply put in four years. The education and work ethic are not there. 
Fred G. Schreiber
Newark, N.J.
Regarding the first letter, I actually deeply agree that organic chemistry is just a difficult subject, and there's not a lot that people can do to change that fact. 

Regarding the second letter, there's a certain "kids these days/teachers these days" vibe to it. At the same time, I think it's important to note that we all have something I'm going to call "intelligence-essential facts" - that is "if you don't know this, you're stupid about this subject." For Dr. Schreiber, it is (apparently) "what state of matter is mercury?" (For what it is worth, if I think that if you spend 4 years in a chemistry program and you don't realize that mercury is a liquid, true, there has been a hole in your education somewhere.)

I am not sure what my "intelligence-essential facts" are, but I am sure that I have them. It'd be interesting to get a copy of Dr. Schreiber's 12-question quiz to see what he considers important. 

This week's C&EN

From this week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News:

Friday, April 15, 2016


You should go over here and read about "Hidden Force Looking" (a round cold thing to help you figure out the stuff you made). It's really good and your time will be well spent (if you liked Up Goer Five.

PTFE lid liners

Small, useful things (links):

A good quote about medicinal chemistry

...What is the role of the medicinal chemist in the development of precision medicine and how can younger generations prepare to make contributions in this area of research and development? 
...The adjective “medicinal” already alludes to the complexity of the work and, consequently, the demands on a medicinal chemist. He or she must understand biology, must be a data scientist, must be familiar with the full spectrum of assays and analyses that inform his or her design work. A medicinal chemist must remain up to date on developments, always look for new potential targets, new applications for a candidate drug and new ways of designing molecules to meet often contradictory requirements.  
Looking into the future, as more discovery and optimization work is conducted at smaller biotech companies, the medicinal chemist will also be expected to control development costs, to seek new resources, and to interact collaboratively with a growing number of stakeholders that can inform his or her work. Though perhaps a daunting prospect, this increased responsibility will be accompanied by a greater and more direct impact of his or her work on the well-being of patients. 
For a future career in medicinal chemistry, nothing can replace knowledge acquired through experience. Academic training is only the beginning of the medicinal chemist’s preparation. He or she must continue to learn from the work of designing and optimizing a compound, from the often overwhelming information that he or she must integrate, and from the people with whom he or she interacts. Important to remember is that this chosen profession is at times very frustrating, but also has moments where you advance in solving a problem and that satisfaction is unmatchable. Be always flexible and creative, and strive to do something different. 
One thing that Dr. Cui mentions here is the centrality of the medicinal chemist in a drug discovery project. Derek Lowe mentions this every once in a while when he says that "You are in real trouble if someone knows more about your project than you do." I think about that a lot.

[I do also have to note (whenever anyone talks about this, as Dr. Cui does here) that as medicinal chemistry moves to smaller companies, this comes with lower wages and benefits (combined the lottery ticket of an eventual buyout.)] 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Huh, that's pretty good advice

In the midst of some pretty standard innovationstartupinnovationdisruption talk from venture capitalist Paul Graham, something pretty smart: 
I know it may disappoint some administrators to hear that the best thing a university can do to encourage startups is to be a great university. It's like telling people who want to lose weight that the way to do it is to eat less. 
But if you want to know where startups come from, look at the empirical evidence. Look at the histories of the most successful startups, and you'll find they grow organically out of a couple of founders building something that starts as an interesting side project. Universities are great at bringing together founders, but beyond that the best thing they can do is get out of the way. For example, by not claiming ownership of "intellectual property" that students and faculty develop, and by having liberal rules about deferred admission and leaves of absence. 
In fact, one of the most effective things a university could do to encourage startups is an elaborate form of getting out of the way invented by Harvard. Harvard used to have exams for the fall semester after Christmas. At the beginning of January they had something called "Reading Period" when you were supposed to be studying for exams. And Microsoft and Facebook have something in common that few people realize: they were both started during Reading Period. It's the perfect situaton for producing the sort of side projects that turn into startups. The students are all on campus, but they don't have to do anything because they're supposed to be studying for exams. 
...But if a university really wanted to help its students start startups, the empirical evidence, weighted by market cap, suggests the best thing they can do is literally nothing.
I gotta say, I don't know much about startups, but I'm pretty sure that "try to be a better university" and "do nothing and let stuff happen" is pretty good advice. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

How do you use data sorting tools?

Friend of the blog Philip Skinner donated $200 from Perkin Elmer Informatics to the DIY Science Zone at the 2015 GeekGirlCon. With that donation, he gets a post on any topic. He asked to talk about Spotfire and other data tools, as he writes below: 
As a medchemist I lived and breathed SAR. And, working with Spotfire, I still kind of do as that tool is often used to allow quick comparison of many properties and make SAR much easier than looking at Excel tables. My question is this.... how many other industries use similar methodologies? 
I talked to a major unnamed oil and gas company once, but their homogeneous catalysis unit (metallocenes) and they were doing essentially SAR on their catalysts - albeit with different properties than the cLogP and #RotationalBonds that a medchemist is used to. 
I'd be fascinated to learn what other non medchem chemists use similar techniques - be it battery development, paints, stuff to keep mollusks from growing on your boats or maybe process chemistry. What tools do people use (Excel, Spotfire, JMP?). And what properties do they use in lieu of the traditional cLogP etc. 
I think in process development, there are a variety of data tracking tools (and various Design of Experiments software packages.) I think I'm still a fan of Excel, but I am probably stuck in the Dark Ages. I think most research-intensive organizations do some sort of multi-parameter optimization, but I dunno what kind of parameters they have, and how they keep track of all the data. Readers? 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Holy cow, that hood

Via a random Google search, I have discovered a scholarly work from Ms. Victoria Carhart of the University of Vermont, comparing the response of UCLA, the University of  Minnesota and the University of Vermont to chemical safety incidents. [1]

Quite the photograph in the chapter about UVM (to left); that hood took a real beating. The reason the hood caught fire is not made clear.

(There's probably quite the literature of hood disaster pics, but I've never quite seen one so interesting.)

1. Carhart, Victoria, "A Comparative Examination of the Safety Programs at UCLA, UMN, and UVM in Response to Recent Chemistry Laboratory Incidents" (2015). Graduate College Dissertations and Theses. Paper 430.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Institution speaks for itself and investigates itself

Via Beryl Benderly, I see that the University of Hawaii has hired UCLA's Center for Laboratory Safety to investigate the recent explosion that resulted in serious injury of Dr. Thea Ekins-Coward, including the loss of her arm. From the official press release:
The University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa has retained the University of California (UC) Center for Laboratory Safety to conduct an independent investigation to determine the cause of the explosion in a Hawaiʻi Natural Energy Institute biofuels research laboratory in the UH Mānoa Pacific Ocean Science and Technology building on March 16, 2016. A visiting researcher seriously injured in the accident has been released from the hospital. 
“The entire Mānoa community is keeping her in our thoughts and prayers for a speedy recovery,” said UH Mānoa Chancellor Robert Bley-Vroman in a message released to UH Mānoa community on April 4, 2016. 
The UC Center for Laboratory Safety is considered a national leader in laboratory safety in developing evidence-based best practices and facilitating implementation and optimization of laboratory safety practices. The UC Laboratory Safety Team was on the Mānoa campus the week of March 28 and the investigation is expected to be complete by the end of April. 
“All preliminary indications are that the accident was an isolated incident and not the result of a systemic problem at Mānoa or intentional wrongdoing,” said Bley-Vroman.
As I said on Twitter, analogies are terrible, but this is like a college football team hiring NFL investigators to tell them how to avoid concussions. 

[Perhaps my problem with CLS is their origin. From my jaded perspective, to serve as a true "lessons learned" organization, they should perhaps focus on and publish the lessons they should learn from the Sheri Sangji incident. But I am a skeptic, and I await the University of Hawaii publishing CLS' work product.]

It also frustrates me how often organizations (all organizations) will get out in front of these incidents by swearing up and down that it was an "isolated incident", and that it's most certainly not systemic. (Don't forget "tragic accident.") In these situations, I think "it happened, we are sorry, and we are investigating" is all I want to hear until there is a full report to be given. 

#chemjobs letters

Also in this week's C&EN, letters about #chemjobs: 
I am responding to Nelson Marans’s letter “Skimming the Classifieds” in the Feb. 22 issue (page 2). Maran wonders why the listed academic positions post requirements that the applicant would “have to walk on water” to qualify for. I have been under the conception that (and please tell me if I am misinformed) the applicant has already been picked for this position and that they are fulfilling requirements to advertise the position before a selection is made. Therefore, another applicant would be exceedingly difficult to find. 
I also have my own question about the job openings. Industrial position listings have almost disappeared. Why? 
Gary J. Banuk
Hanson, Mass 
I would like to add a counterpoint to Nelson Marans’s advice to recent Ph.D.s to seek a job in industry or government rather than in academia. I worked in industry before moving to academia, and there are signal advantages to the latter: the freedom to work on whatever science excites you, the opportunity to inspire young people to pursue chemistry, the soothing rhythm and flexibility of the fall-spring-summer academic schedule with its regular breaks and changes of pace, not having to worry about “fifty and fired” (as an industrial colleague of mine put it), the satisfaction of teaching chemistry well to brand-new science majors, and the gratification of seeing former students thrive and succeed in their careers. 
In the words of the Miller of the Dee, “I would not change my station for any other in life.” 
Tim Royappa
Pensacola, Fla
"Fifty and fired" makes me more nervous every day.  

This week's C&EN

A few of the articles in this week's C&EN:

Friday, April 8, 2016

Public Breakup Hilarious to Employees, Competitors

NEW YORK, NY - The breakup of Pfizer and Allergan, which occurred publicly on April 4, left thousands of employees and competitors gleefully amused.

“There's nothing funny about this situation—except everything," said Pfizer's longtime rival Merck. "They were a terrible couple and never should've been together in the first place. They had nothing in common, other than loneliness and delight in generating fees for investment bankers. Not that I'd ever say that to their faces.”

Pfizer and Allergan met two years ago on Wall Street, where they embarked on their ill-fated affair with a drunken kiss in a Manhattan parking garage, ending six-month dry spells in mergers and acquisitions for each of them.

Jack Lew, a mutual friend of the couple, was one of several witnesses to the abrupt and hostile public disintegration of Pfizer and Allergan’s torrid-but-strained romantic entanglement.

 "A group of us went out for drinks at the Auld Dubliner [pub]," Lew stated. "I thought we were all having a good time until Pfizer got offended at some joke Allergan made about un-American tax codes. She pouted and glowered at him like a sulking 6-year-old until she could no longer contain her rage. Then she started screaming that he was a bargain basement cheapskate who couldn’t pay for her Botox.”

“After they made a scene and spilled their drinks,” Lew continued, “the last thing she said before she stomped out was that she didn’t want to move all her stuff to Ireland anyway. The whole incident would have been uncomfortable if it hadn’t been so funny. We all suspected their relationship was based more on shared interests in financial shenanigans and tax avoidance than on love."

Allergan was said to have stayed at the bar and ordered another drink. Rumors abound that Allergan has been cavorting with several other partners, including U.K. resident Heptares, behind Pfizer’s back. Hours after his breakup with Pfizer, Allergan and Heptares were seen making out in in a restaurant in Welwyn Garden City.

“Who needs Pfizer?” Allergan told his close friend, AstraZeneca. “Brits are much more fun.”

with apologies to the Onion
by Chemjobber and co-author

The (Past) View from Your Hood

Anonymous submission, March 11.

"So, I don’t have a picture, but I have a memory from [redacted] years ago. The floor-to-ceiling windows of Pfizer’s Chem Eng lab in Groton, CT look out on the mouth of the Thames River. The Northrop Grumman shipyard is just a mile or so up river and the Naval Submarine Base New London is another couple of miles. Every few days you could watch a nuclear sub going out or coming back from a patrol. Silent black shape with a few sailors standing on deck."

(got a View from Your Hood submission? Send it in (with a caption, please) at; will run every other Friday.)

Thursday, April 7, 2016


A sharp, funny critique of Boston software startup culture by a former Newsweek magazine writer named Dan Lyons at This section about layoffs was really funny, I thought:
Dharmesh’s culture code incorporates elements of HubSpeak. For example, it instructs that when someone quits or gets fired, the event will be referred to as “graduation.” In my first month at HubSpot I’ve witnessed several graduations, just in the marketing department. We’ll get an email from Cranium saying, “Team, just letting you know that Derek has graduated from HubSpot, and we’re excited to see how he uses his superpowers in his next big adventure!” Only then do you notice that Derek is gone, that his desk has been cleared out. Somehow Derek’s boss will have arranged his disappearance without anyone knowing about it. People just go up in smoke, like Spinal Tap drummers. 
Nobody ever talks about the people who graduate, and nobody ever mentions how weird it is to call it “graduation.” For that matter I never hear anyone laugh about HEART or make jokes about the culture code. Everyone acts as if all of these things are perfectly normal.
I have heard of people who have left a company as "alumni", but this is taking it a step further.

Every company has its jargon, but I think folks should be cautious when an organization's internal language tends to obscure unpleasant things. I've never heard any euphemisms during an interview, but if I did, it would instantly put me on guard.

Readers, what's your favorite corporate euphemism?

What's it like to work at AMPAC Fine Chemicals?

Does anyone know what it is like to work at AMPAC Fine Chemicals in Sacramento? Pay, benefits, etc?

For the last 5 years, they've put out routine positions for entry-level process chemists. My understanding is that they are a pretty solid CMO, with routine FDA inspections, GMP suites and the like.

Anyone have any experience they'd like to share?

P.S. If you'd rather not share in public, send me an e-mail: (confidentiality guaranteed.)

UPDATE: I should note that Glassdoor salaries for AMPAC Fine Chemicals are not exactly fabulous. 

Daily Pump Trap: 4/7/16 edition

A few positions posted this past week at C&EN Jobs: 

South San Francisco, CA: Not every day that you see an industrial chemical biology position, but here it is at Genentech.

Los Angeles, CA: Surface chemistry R&D position in Los Angeles; Ph.D. desired. 75-90k - hmmmm. 

Torrance, CA: Dentistry-oriented 3D printing company is looking for a polymer chemist; pay offered is 50-65k. Wow, that's......... bad. 

Baytown, TX: ExxonMobil looking for a Ph.D. analytical chemist. 

Chandler, AZ: New health-oriented startup HealthTell, Inc. is looking for an analytical biochemist and a director of chemistry. 

Wilmington, DE: And all the way on the other side of the country, a Field Service Engineer position with Agilent. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Now *that's* a different one!

From the inbox, a very adventurous job (Fort Story, VA):
POSITION DESCRIPTION Barbaricum seeks a Chemist Support SME to support an advanced EOD course of instruction specifically designed to train EOD operators assigned to support SOF Regional Commanders. This PWS focuses on curriculum, operational training, and practical exercises to better prepare EOD personnel to support SOF missions. This program is meant to train EOD Technicians prior to their evaluation period within the SOF EOD Fleet Readiness Training Plan (FRTP). The evaluation is conducted by the appropriate EOD Group Training and Evaluation Unit (TEU). 
This contracted training event is to provide post-military, experience-based Improvised Explosive Device (IED) diagnostics and Category A training to United States Navy (USN) EOD Technicians in support of Counter Terrorism (CT) Direct Action (DA) mission forces deployed throughout all regions of the world.

  • Secret Security Clearance
  • PhD in Organic Chemistry
  • 5 years of verifiable experience in synthesizing and mixing homemade explosives
Best wishes to those interested!

Bonus military nerd headscratching: So I'm sure the US Navy has their own EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) technicians. But who are the "Counter Terrorism (CT) Direct Action (DA) mission forces"? I think my understanding of elite special forces units is pretty decent, but is about a decade out of date.... I guess what I am really saying is that I feel that "Direct Action (DA)" is a new-ish term for the US military to be using in its self-descriptions. 

WWWTP: THC edition

From the inbox, a minor oopsie. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Job posting: teaching assistant professor, University of Denver, Denver, CO

From the Twitterz, a teaching assistant professor position at the University of Denver: 
Position Summary 
The Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry has an opening for a Teaching Assistant Professor. The successful candidate will teach 2 undergraduate courses and accompanying lab sections per quarter with a total of 6 courses per year. Typical sizes of lecture courses are 80 to 90 students. Teaching opportunities include classes for non-science majors, general chemistry, and organic chemistry, depending on candidate background and Departmental needs. Responsibilities for laboratory sections will include supervision of undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants. The position is non-tenure-track, and is renewable annually, based on performance evaluations. The start date is September 1, 2016.
Link here. Best wishes to those interested.  

Ivory Filter Flask: 4/5/16 edition

A few of the academic positions posted on C&EN Jobs:

Mayagüez, Puerto Rico: The University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez is looking for an assistant professor of biochemistry or biophysical chemistry. Interestingly, this is a position for August 2016. "Starting at 62,256.00" - I suspect that's not bad for Puerto Rico.

Minneapolis, MN: The Center for Drug Discovery at the University of Minnesota is looking for synthetic medicinal chemistry postdocs; 38-40k offered.

St. Paul, MN: "Ranked faculty" position at St. Catherine's University; appears to be non-tenure track.

Rolla, MO: Non-tenure track position at the Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering at Missouri S&T (formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla.) 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Bagel watch 2016

...Later this year, Webster said, prices will likely dip once more below $30, a level low enough to shake some high-cost producers, largely in the U.S., out of the market. Prices will climb once that bottom is reached to average about $44 this year. Webster sees prices inching up higher in 2017. 
Despite harrowing signs such as low oil prices, meager stock market performance, and deep recessions in Russia and Brazil, IHS Chief Economist Nariman Behravesh put the probability of a global recession at 25%—and one in the U.S. at a mere 20%. Strong consumer spending is bolstering the U.S. economy, offsetting poor performance in manufacturing. Behravesh also observes strength in Europe and Japan. 
Behravesh does see China as a threat to the world’s economy. Its current annual growth rate of 6.9%, astronomical by Western standards, is its lowest since 1990. He notices alarming structural problems in the country, such as higher debt levels than in the U.S. before the financial crisis of the late 2000s....
In other evidence of an economic downturn a bagel, here's the American Chemistry Council's Chemical Activity Barometer for March:
The Chemical Activity Barometer (CAB), a leading economic indicator created by the American Chemistry Council (ACC), expanded 0.1 percent in March following a revised 0.2 percent decline in February and 0.1 percent downward revision in January. All data is measured on a three-month moving average (3MMA). Accounting for adjustments, the CAB remains up 1.5 percent over this time last year, a marked deceleration of activity from one year ago when the barometer logged a 2.7 percent year-over-year gain from 2014. On an unadjusted basis the CAB jumped 0.9 percent, thus ending three consecutive monthly declines.
I still don't think there will be a "technical" recession bagel (e.g. negative growth for 2 quarters in a row) in 2016 or 2017, but there might be data to support predictions that there will be one. Readers? 

Did you notice the British American Tobacco advertising supplement?

Also in this week's C&EN, an irritated letter to the editor: 
I was disgusted to find the 14-page “special promotional supplement” from British American Tobacco (BAT) in the March 14 issue of C&EN. Regardless of the advertising revenue this may have generated, that is insufficient justification for the American Chemical Society to help big tobacco look respectable.  
The special report portrayed BAT as concerned about reducing toxicity of tobacco products and expending significant money on tobacco safety research. R&D Director David O’Reilly proffered that BAT is developing several “reduced risk” products “because consumer needs vary.” 
The facts are these: (1) There is no consumer “need” for BAT’s tobacco products; (2) persuading consumers that new products are “safe(r)” is in BAT’s interest to grow its business; (3) BAT’s goal is not a reduction, but an increase, in the use of tobacco, whether smoking or smokeless; (4) the new products have risks (Environ. Health Perspect. 2014, DOI: 10.1289/ehp.122-a244); (5) there is concern and evidence that e-cigarettes are a gateway for new smokers and nicotine addiction; (6)
BAT is the second-largest tobacco company in the world; (7) BAT vigorously fought an $8 billion judgment in Canada in 2015 that found it inadequately warned smokers of health hazards, yet (8) BAT and other tobacco companies continue to vigorously fight regulation of advertising and packaging around the world; (9) BAT continues to buy tobacco companies in developing countries to expand its sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products and to lobby to increase market access (such as during China’s World Trade Organization negotiations so that it could target that population of 1.2 billion to make up for declining Western markets); and (10) BAT’s head of product stewardship,  
Audrey Richter, wrote that BAT aims to “contribute to the development of global voluntary and regulatory product standards for e-cigarettes.” Translation: BAT will fight for the least restrictive universal regulation so that it is free to broadly market its products globally. 
To its everlasting shame, the American Medical Association published tobacco advertisements in the Journal of the American Medical Association for 20 years despite known risks, lending respectability to a killer. It would be a shame if ACS through C&EN does the same. 
Robert Johnston
Lake Jackson, Texas
 And a response from the publisher of C&EN:
Kevin Davies, C&EN’s publisher, responds: The promotional supplement sponsored by British American Tobacco was excerpted from the company’s “Science & Technology 2015” report. A condition of accepting the advertising was that the promotional supplement focus on BAT’s R&D and quality-control efforts, as well as spotlight career opportunities for chemists within the organization. C&EN does not endorse e-cigarettes or tobacco products of any kind.
I have to say, I was surprised to see the British American Tobacco supplement in the magazine. Ya gotta pay the bills somehow, and I hope there was a pretty penny paid by BAT for this opportunity to annoy influence educate C&EN readers.

Here's the thing that I have to ask BAT, though - does anyone actually read special advertising supplements? I could barely make it through a page or two of the thing, and I have more of an interest in reading every word of the magazine than most.

This week's C&EN

A few articles from this week's issue of Chemical and Engineering News

Friday, April 1, 2016

Announcing the World Chemical Congress of CV Padding

2016 World Chemical Congress of CV Padding
              December 9 to 12, 2016, Orlando, Florida, U.S.A.

Welcome to the sunshine of Orlando, Florida for the CJ WCCCVP 2016, a flagship international conference sponsored by the Chemjobber Institute of Chemical Employment Study promoting all aspects of CV padding (CVp). The CJ WCCCVP 2016 co-locates multiple exciting symposiums at one single location, providing a unique opportunity to encourage cross-fertilization and collaborations in all areas of CV padding. The CJ WCCCVP 2016 features a large number of keynotes, tutorials in padding your CV, and special sessions in all manner of CV padding. The CJ WCCCVP 2016 will also offer a number of travel grants as well as an exciting Predoctoral Consortium, a ABD Consortium, Doctoral Consortium, a Postdoctoral Consortium and a Postpostpostpostdoctoral Consortium.

In following with the the best traditions of CV padding: 

YOU are an invited plenary speaker. 
YOU are on the organizing committee. 
YOU are the chair of your own invited symposium. 
YOU are a keynote speaker. 

We hope you could participate in this exciting event, and look forward to joining you in padding CVs in Orlando in December 2016!

Important dates:

Paper submission: June 15, 2016
Notification to authors: September 5, 2016
Final submission: October 5, 2016
Early registration: October 5, 2016