Wednesday, July 19, 2017

"I'm a chemist"

I had a very lovely experience recently talking to some new neighbors. After introducing myself and talking about our children, that moment that you all have been a part of arrived:
Neighbor: What do you do?
CJ: I am a chemist.
Neighbor: [acting impressed] oh!
CJ: [looks a little sheepish] so what brings you to Forest City? 
It's not like it was a showstopper - just a funny moment in the conversation where I wish that I had something to draw people in and get them to talk about chemistry.

I try not to make it a very big deal; I am very happy to talk chemistry and Why I Love It. But I wish I knew a way to say "I am a chemist" without it being intimidating? off-putting? Maybe I should say it different? "I work in chemistry"? "I help make the drugs that save your life" (I HATE that tack) "I am a scientist"? 

Readers, what do you do in this situation? 

39 comments:

  1. In the UK, chemist also describes someone who works in a chemists (or pharmacy). So normally I have to follow it up by saying I make drugs, I don't sell them. Then it's usually, "No, not those kind".

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  2. I usually stick with, "I am a scientist." Then the conversation can open up about my projects and less about my title, position or training.

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    1. I do that, too. I'm a biologist, so I'm not dealing with the same set of issues, but it seems like "scientist" opens up people's curiosity more than the other options, and lets you get them past bad classroom memories or other issues.

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  3. I usually say I am in the drug business

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  4. Say it loud. I'm a chemist and I'm proud!

    (Apologies to James Brown)

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  5. Always related to drug first, then explain that I'm a chemist.
    "I'm making drug for living" is always a good punchline ! Explosives were also good back in time ...

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  6. It's hard to build up a conversation when somebody answers "what do you do?" with a 4 word response. You want to add some conversational hooks into your reply. So a better reply would be: "I'm a chemist, I work at [Company] and do [1-2 sentences simple description like 'designing new reactions' or 'figuring out a way to make medicines on a large scale cheaply']". Now the other person has several points of connection to you: "Oh, my in-laws used to work at [Company]" "Oh, my niece is studying chemistry" "Oh,I could use some cheaper medicines!"

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  7. 1) Be a woman. People almost never ask about your job, just whether you have kids or not.
    2) Turn it around immediately: "I'm a chemist at X, how about you?" Most people love to talk about themselves...

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    1. I started doing this as soon as I realized in college that using the word 'chemistry' shuts down conversations so fast. I still don't know how to make it more accessible so typically I'll explain my work instead 'I work on making new 3D printing resins' which isn't THAT much more accessible but definitely has less negative connotations.

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  8. "I save people's lives".....

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  9. I prefer the direct approach: "I fix people's problems before they kill themselves or burn their building down. Unfortunately though, at times, I figure out what went wrong."

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  10. "I'm a chemical engineer" doesn't go any better, so your guess is as good as mine.

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  11. Be glad you're married and not having that conversation and reaction to "I'm a chemist" from your date!

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  12. Usually when I respond to that question, I get the following..."I hated chemistry in school". Which is then followed by everyone taking a drink and silence. Then I usually say I'm trying to discovery a drug for X and that gets the conversation back on track.

    I don't know how many conversations I've killed at larger parties with saying "I'm a chemist".

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  13. I always say I'm a chemist. Most of the comments are "wow you must be smart". My response is usually something like "nope, that's why I remained a chemist"

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    1. I find this response funny and mordant and clever.

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    2. I have to give myself credit for this exchange with co-workers. "If you weren't a chemist, what would you be?"

      ....."Happy."

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    3. sometimes I would use 'well, i'm bad at english' ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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  14. Hmm, people usually asked me if I have seen Breaking Bad.

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  15. I once had an individual misinterpret my response as an organic chemist; he assumed organic food chemist. That conversation eventually moved on to him wanting to know if I worked with drugs (not the legal ones). Some people.

    My most memorable, though, was someone asking how I got into chemistry and why. That started a lengthy conversation about my childhood making improvised explosives and learning all I could about "exothermic" reactions. Something that today would get me placed in a supermax prison. Man, the good old days.

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    1. I was a volunteer fireman and a fire policeman for 25 years as a volunteer. One night, we had a couple of kids throw a bomb at the front door of a home.

      One of the fire marshals and I were examining the remnants when the local ATF agent showed up. I suggested the possible construction of the bomb when the agent asked the fire marshal how I knew so much about bombs, The fire marshal told him that he should have known me in my younger days. :-) (though I never did any damage to anything but trees :-)

      It's a phase, I guess.

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  16. Whenever I ask someone how they got into chemistry, "Making nitroglycerin in my garage," the answer I'm secretly wishing for. For me, the figurative spark that lit up my eyes was a homemade lachrymator.

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  17. I can just quiet down the impressed noises with, "Oh, no, I'm an analytical chemist." (Or, more realistically, explain what an analytical chemist does, followed by a nonplussed "Oh.")

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  18. I also had the experience, that saying "I am a chemist" is a show stopper. I finally turned to making some simplified but outrageous claim like: "I cure cancer" or "I make antibiotics". Somehow such statements arouse people's interest and lead to much more positive types of discussion than the "I am a chemist" one. Another possibility I also found to work well is "I am a researcher", which has a much more positive connotation than "chemist" and leaves room for questions. Sadly, we might have do go that way until the chemist's public perception gets a bit better.

    But still, we could be worse off: "I sell magic healing water to gullible people" probably will get a worse welcome. ;-)

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  19. Could be worse. Try being an organic chemist from/in Albuquerque, especially when Breaking Bad was still huge and on the air. It got very old very quick.

    These days, I'm under enough confidentiality agreements and the like that it's really hard to talk about what I do other than in extremely broad terms. So I mostly just tell people what the parent company has done and leave it at that.

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  20. I just moved into a new house and when I mentioned that I was a chemist my new neighbor said "we did not want our son to study that because we are vegan and against animal research"---- I guess no open pit BBQ as a welcome party

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    1. Or maybe do have that open-pit BBQ party while wearing this shirt: https://www.amazon.com/Vaccines-Work-GMOs-Safe-T-Shirt/dp/B01M1AC6ZA

      I always get a raised eyebrow when I wear it at the local Farmer's Market.

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  21. I'm just an atom jockey.

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  22. I do that everyone does without knowing they are doing it; I just understand it differently. I am a chemist. Everyone does chemistry sheen they cook and your body is doing thousand of reactions non stop. I just doing mine on a lab instead.

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  23. Had an amusing encounter, at dinner with a set of (very) random strangers. One guy was... unusual; he'd mentioned at least twice during the meal how taking LSD had changed his life forever, and said "dude" and "man" a lot.

    When I mentioned I was an organic chemist, he was amazed. Like, not just interested - acting as if I'd said I'd single-handedly programmed a space shuttle, or climbed Everest on one leg in a day. He continued for several minutes about how "totally awesome, man" it was: way past the point it became embarrassing. I shifted the conversation onto other topics...

    Ten minutes passed, and the rest of us were discussing something unrelated. The man suddenly looked very thoughtful.
    "Hang on... what -is- an organic chemist?" :)

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    1. SSG,

      You could have told him about Owsley Stanley. Not all organic chemists need a degree.

      https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owsley_Stanley

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  24. + I am a chemist.
    - So you make soap.
    + Actually, bla bla bla...
    - Poor guy [out loud], you should become a doctor or at least a banker.
    + But, I contribute to save lives...
    - [already faded away]

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  25. Whitesides goes for the slightly sinister 'chemists: we change the way you live or die'! http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/2016/01/george-whitesides-chemists-we-change.html

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  26. I too often got the long pause after saying I was a physicist. From here, my most-common line went like this: "Yeah, I usually get one of two reactions: 1) 'Oh, I hate physics' and the conversation is over, or 2) 'Oh, I liked physics in high school' and the conversation is over. Either way, it doesn't do me any favors as an awkward, socially-inept physicist." The self-deprecation and attempt at humor usually gave people the chance to have a polite chuckle and then feel either more relaxed or change the subject.

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  27. I tell people I'm a molecular shepherd.

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