Monday, October 31, 2011

The Layoff Project: "I seem to have lost purpose."

RK was a researcher at a major pharmaceutical company for 30 years. His layoff story is below. [Please note that I have redacted some of the profanity.]
My layoff was a disaster for me, it began as follows, just to give some background. 
The company was useless in the entire process (well almost useless).  
I received the E-mail from my [posterior]-crawler boss asking me to attend a meeting with him and HR in two days, no subject for the meeting, just the time and place. So I went to see him.
“What is the meeting about”, I asked? “Sorry I can’t tell you”, he said!!! ”Well”, I said, “if that’s the case I’m not coming”. “OH” he said, “no need to be like that.” I said “if I don’t know what it’s about how can I prepare?.” “Well”, he said, “I think we may have something for you, so I think you should come”. By that he meant early retirement. So I turned up for the meeting. 
The first meeting: 
There we were, [posterior]-crawler, me, a woman from HR and her boss, all seated in a meeting cage in an open plan office, surrounded by worker ants and boxed in by smoked glass! He started if off by introducing them then got right down to it. “There has been a re-organisation in development and your job is one of the 96 which will go” (to China). “Thank you”, I said. “There is a package currently being worked out by the board of directors and a workers committee.” “Oh” said I. Turning to the HR boss, employed, I asked what the package was. He said, “Sorry I can’t give you any details it’s still secret.” So I said, “WHAT THE [Anglo-Saxon curse word], you invite me here to tell me that you can’t tell me anything, that’s ridiculous.” “Why waste my time, you should have phoned me up or just sent a mail.”  
By this time I was cooking. He said, “We don’t do things that way! But we should know the details within the next 2 weeks.” “OK”, I said and stormed out and went home. Two weeks came and went, I started cleaning out the office, slowly, nothing from HR. I stayed at home, sometimes went in and continued to clean out my stuff. On a Thursday two days before the end of the month the [posterior]-crawler phoned me, “Can you come in tomorrow at 4 p.m. and sign the various contracts?” “No”, I said. “Monday at 8pm.” 
So it was; I signed the papers, no choice in the matter, either sign and get money, or not sign and get instant dismissal. I had 6 months to find another job within the company or I was on the street.  
Question: What can a synthetic organic chemist do within a pharma company apart from synthetic organic chemistry? The answer is NOTHING. What a hatful of [posterior orifices]. 

Bruce Roth, inventor of atorvastatin (Lipitor) has tough things to say about #chemjobs

From this week's Chemical and Engineering News, a terribly interesting interview with Bruce Roth, the inventor of atorvastatin. He was at Parke-Davis Warner-Lambert Pfizer, now he's a VP at Genentech. It's not exactly a cheerful interview:
Firms turned to mergers and acquisitions to fill pipelines. The shifts have cost drugmakers dearly, Roth says, both in the loss of thousands of talented scientists who’ve been laid off and in the lost diversity of approaches to tackling problems. “We’ve eaten our own here,” he laments. “Since we got to the 21st century it’s been all about layoffs and cutbacks and mergers and offshoring.” [snip] 
Roth himself has been on both sides of the chopping block. He was one of several thousand laid off in 2007 when Pfizer closed the Ann Arbor, Mich., site where he worked. He’s also had to let go scientists who worked for him, and he says he understands the cost pressures that lead companies to those decisions. Still, “as an American chemist it is something you agonize over,” Roth says, “because it isn’t clear where U.S. chemists trained in organic synthesis and medicinal chemistry are going to find their jobs in the future. [snip] 
“I have been really fortunate to work in what I think we will look back on as being the heyday of the pharmaceutical industry,” Roth says. “The sad thing looking back at my career is that as an organic chemist there are very few things that I could’ve imagined that would be more rewarding than making medicines. And yet in the future, there will be many fewer positions like mine.” 
You know, I don't know how many prominent chemists it will take to sound the alarm about the future of jobs in pharmaceutical chemistry (medchem and process) before someone actually does something about it. Too late, maybe?

(In a darker mood, I wonder if every single US-based grad student in organic chemistry should be forced to read this article and write a 100 word essay on what they plan to do when they graduate. Happy Monday.)

(I also wonder if the closing of the Ann Arbor site will be seen as some sort of inflection point in this saga; it seemed like there were so many jobs lost for relatively little gain on the part of Pfizer. Maybe I'm wrong.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

More policies for academic chemical safety: over at STEM_Wonk's

STEM_Wonk has more policies for academic chemical safety. I like them all, but I especially like this:
Another great teaching avenue for chemical safety and proper preps would be to publish in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVe).  Here is a chance for a publication! After watching a few of the videos, this seems like a wonderful way to show the handling of a hazardous or (even difficult) procedures in the context of actual research that was carried out for a publication. These are peer reviewed journal articles that are presented in video format in order to bridge the complexity of translating what’s actually done at the bench into a written prep. 
I like it, I really do. Benchfly has lots of technique videos as well, but mostly biology-oriented. Go on over there and read what she has to say. 

The Layoff Project: "Don't be afraid to ask people for help."

Ortho is a former pharma chemist and writes in with his story:

What should you do the first week? Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job?  
In my case the company was pretty upfront, and we had 2-3 months to finish up projects and pack up our labs (site closure). During that time  most people were networking and looking for work, setting up interviews, and some even landed a job before the site actually closed. Management knew this and were completely cool with it. We even set up a wiki to put job posting in. Although it will go against every fibre of your moral being I would take a vacation after it happens. Go somewhere relaxing for 1 week, or maybe do something you never get the chance to otherwise. Once you get into full job search mode you will be always waiting for a call back/interview, it's hard to rationalize taking a vacation.

How can your family and friends help? 
You will always try to put on a brave face, and think that you are stronger then this, but it will effect you. Co-workers and friends for networking. Ask your boss for help! I can't stress this enough. You will probably want to vent a lot so make sure you have some good listeners around.

Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?
Yes and no. Outplacement offices are not really adept at placing people in specialized technical positions. They can help you with networking and brushing up on interview skills (you always learn something). They are also really good people to talk to. I found my time with the CHRP to be very therapeutic.

What financial advice can you offer? What should/did you do? 
I was in pretty good shape, as I was pretty frugal being freshly out of school. It was hard to resist the temptation of a new car and a fancy place, but I'm sure glad I did.

What should you NOT do? 
Bet it all on black?

When did you start looking for another position? 
I had a pretty good idea 4 months prior, but being pretty fresh it was hard to justify to other employers why I was looking for new work.  You never "really" know so I was kind of stuck. I started sending out pre-written emails the day it was announced.

How painful was finding another position? 
Pretty damn painful. I was out of work for about 8 months and it really started to suck around the 6 month mark. Initially there was a short burst of interest because everyone was trying to grab talent from the site. I wasn't really too keen on remaining in Pharma for a couple of reasons. I spent a lot of time evaluating alternative careers and learning about other fields. Lots of informal interviews. I'm pretty glad I did that, as I eliminated a lot of noise and had something to focus on.

What should someone be emotionally prepared for? 
Anger, depression, moments of desperation, self questioning.

How did you spend your typical day? 
Lots of job searching and reading.  I took some classes, doesn't matter what it is, I just needed the mental stimulation.

What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 
Exercise and discipline in regards to job searching. Try to remain logical about making decisions and stick to what you planned. It was hard to turn down jobs, but try not to settle for something that you do not want. On the same note, never turn down an opportunity to interview, even if you are not 100% intrested. It's good practice and you might change your mind once you are there. Try to watch some comedy, a good laugh always helps. With depression comes the temptation to drink, keep that in check.

Have you found new work? What was helpful there? 
Yes. Having a clear idea about where you want to work is key.  You probably have a top 5, contact people there regularly (every 2 months) to check in.  Some places have a pretty good HR system that will alert you if a job comes up that matches your profile, fill them out! Don't stop networking and following up with people. Prepare like crazy for the interview, this is the acid test. If preparing is a chore, then you typically don't really want the job.

Oh and one more thing. Don't be afraid to ask people for help. You would be amazed at the kindness of strangers/ loose contacts. Ask to speak with them. Ask for contacts. Ask for advice. But you have to ask.

CJ here again. Thanks to Ortho for sharing his story and best wishes to all of us.

The Layoff Project is an attempt to collect the oral histories of chemists who have been affected by the changes in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The explanatory post is here; stories can be left in the comments or e-mailed to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed. 

Late night memories

"CJ's chance of passing this test is
slim to none, and Slim just left town."
So I stayed up (10 pm? in a sense) last night  to watch the end of the World Series game; with the miracle of modern technology, I was able to share the game with my friends on Twitter. I was amused to read this Tweet from Derek Lowe:
I am not going to be the most productive scientist at my company tomorrow. Lifelong St. Louis fan! #cardinals #worldseries
It reminds me of a terrible and amusing memory: election night 2000. I happen to have an inorganic chemistry exam at 8 am the next morning, so I decide to stay up and study with the TV on in the background -- not a good idea, I know. As Dan Rather was getting more and more incoherent ("If a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a hand gun."), I was as well. While I'm a big, big proponent of a good night's sleep, I found myself deciding to stay awake just long enough to see who the winner was...

Of course, there wasn't a winner. I bombed the test something fierce (possibly the worst grade I ever got in graduate school), but I have a story to tell my grandkids.

Readers, did you ever stay up in grad school? I'll bet you wish you'd had slept. 

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Would better training and more oversight help with academic chemical safety?

The university, funder and regulation slices are too big. (Credit: USCSB)
Hi, STEM_Wonk: 

I'm really appreciative that you took a really thorough look at the PI's role in creating a safe environment. Considering that of all the interactions posted in CSB's report (and their Swiss cheese analysis), the PI is the one who the student spends the most time with, it's well within reason to really carefully at them. 

Let's take your questions/points in reverse order:

Are you too harsh on PIs? I don't know -- I don't think so. They have unusual power over their students -- seems to me they should have unusual levels of responsibility for them, especially when they're so young and inexperienced. 

What do I glean from section 8.2 of the report? Boy, it sounds like DHS is just leaning on the university to lean on the faculty ('Faculty oversees student researchers', 'Research safety education and training to develop a culture of safety are provided', 'Independent review by subject matter experts of the safety protocols and practices is conducted.') I guess that means the PIs, but it sure doesn't seem like a lot of pressure. 

Of course, that's not enough for CSB. With this quote, I think it's pretty clear where they're headed:
The CSB identified the grant funding body’s role in safety as a missed opportunity to
influence positive safety management and behavior. Prudent Practices supports this finding
in its latest edition: “When negligent or cavalier treatment of laboratory safety regulations
jeopardizes everybody’s ability to obtain funding, a powerful incentive is created to improve
laboratory safety” (NRC, 2011, p. 6). Stated more bluntly: “Whoever is in control of the
purse is in control of the institution” (McCroskey, 1990, p. 472). The grant funding agency
has the power to end a research contract/agreement and, thus, can play an impactful role in
raising safety awareness and preparedness by the researcher and university.  
I have always thought this would be a disaster to implement. They're basically saying, "If you're negligent, we might pull your funding." First of all, I don't know any funding agency that would be willing to do so; I mean, how often does NIH (the likeliest agency to have support Sheri Sangji) pull funding? Heck, you can lie on their dime, and they'll only ban you for 5 years. Second, what's the chance that an incident that was due to negligence or cavalierness would be reported? "Uh, here, fill out this form that will yank our funding. Ohbytheway, did I mention that I'm on your committee and I'm counting on this funding for part of my salary?" Yeah, that'll happen. 

That said, I think this falls under the category of 'useful bad ideas.' I think this would be an incredibly blunt instrument -- but it would be effective. Even the threat of pulling institutional funding would be enough to start a cultural shift towards safety. 

Why do I think it seems as though the [PIs involved] has been “protected”? 

For what it's worth, I don't think they've been protected, but it's hard to see them having suffered materially. Certainly, neither Professor Brandon nor Louisa Hope-Weeks seem to still have their positions. I presume that neither of them are going to be getting any grants from DHS again anytime soon. Professor Patrick Harran still has his position at UCLA after the Sangji incident.

If there's a reason they've remained relatively free of interference, it's the same reason as always: professors have academic freedom, and they're unafraid to assert it when it comes to matters of chemical safety, as explained by CSB:
At academic research institutions, PIs may view laboratory inspections by an outside entity
as infringing upon their academic freedom. This was the case at Texas Tech, where EH&S
laboratory safety checks were not viewed as a means to understand how a PIs’ laboratory
practiced safety in their absence. Instead, some PIs saw the notification of safety violations
to the Chair as “building a case” against them, felt that the safety inspections inhibited their
research, and considered recommended safety changes outside their control because they
could not “babysit” their students. 
Seems to me that this is a bit of the stretch of the definition of academic freedom. 

What's my solution to all of this? I dunno. I'm pretty hesitant to suggest policies, so I only have two. One of them is pretty small (and similar to yours), the other, uh, it'll never happen:

Universities and departments need to take back their students: When you go to graduate school in chemistry, who do you work for? If anyone ever asked me that question, I'd say my PI. Who do you belong to? Well, I belong to my PI and I have a vague affiliation with my department (they pay me, sort of) and I'm a student at the university (they have my name on a roll somewhere, and I have to get a parking pass from them.) 

For there to be oversight of professors and principal investigators, universities and departments need to take ownership and care of the students that are titularly their responsibility. They need to say to professors, "You hurt one of my students, you're in big, big trouble." (Maybe this is where the funding thing comes in. And the hiding thing, too, for that matter.) I think this happens, but it's a lot spottier than it needs to be. I think this might be part of the change that CSB is pushing for; we'll see. 

Better training: How do you get safer in the lab? If it's important enough to worry about, it's important enough to practice. Most of the time, this simply involves a simulated fire and then learning to use a fire extinguisher to put it out. Why not expand this practice? 

Walk students through a cannulation procedure of a (simulated?) pyrophoric. Make someone reenact the TTU incident and make someone role-play trying to get a coworker in the lab to quit doing something dangerous. Give people synthetic routes and experiments and ask them what hazards exist and which references to use to determine the appropriate solutions.

I'll bet that in an annual all-attendance one-week course with daily 2 hour breakout sessions, you could really drill into your students and postdocs that Safety is Important. Caltech's Safety Day is a really good start -- you could imagine that a Safety Week would really make for a significant culture change. 

I think we agree that PIs need to be more responsible -- what other policies would you suggest, STEM_Wonk? Do you think mine have a shot at all of being implemented? Do you think they'd be effective? [Biggest question: do you think they'd have a chance of being funded?]

Hope your day is going well -- I feel like I'm late for work (only a little). 

Cheers, Chemjobber

The Layoff Project: help from ACS

Taking a break today from The Layoff Project, but I have more to come. Also, I should note that there have been quite a few stories posted in the HR thread, mostly (unfortunately) having to do with the actual process of being told their job was gone.

It should be noted that ACS has a rather lengthy sheet of dos and don'ts called "Coping With Job Loss." We'll revisit this soon, I think. 

Daily Pump Trap: 10/27/11 edition

Good morning! Between October 25 and October 26, there have been 14 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 5 (36%) are academically connected.

Atlanta, GA: Printpack is looking for a B.S./M.S. analytical chemist to perform GC/LC/FTIR methods development work for quality control on their product line. 

Ridgefield, CT: Boehringer Ingelheim is hiring a Ph.D. process chemist to participate their flow chemistry R&D program. Experience performing large-scale flow chemistry desired. 

Englewood, CO: Gevo, Inc. is a green energy corporation; they're looking for a A.A./B.S. lab technician to perform "routine chemical analyses." 6 month to 1 year contract, it appears. Exciting. 

Lausanne, Switzerland: Nestle is looking for a Ph.D. flavor chemist; post-doctoral training in "flavor formation, taste active compounds, chemometrics" desired. You'll be working on:
Flavour formation (Maillard reaction, enzymatic flavour formation lipid oxidation and interactions of those). - Taste-active compounds identification. - Chemometrics approaches towards understanding of flavour formation and/or flavour perception.
Interesting -- learn something new every day.

Riverside, CA: The University of California - Riverside is looking for an academic laboratory coordinator for its organic and upper division laboratories. Ph.D. desired, and "demonstrated excellence in teaching and laboratory management is required." In what possible way could you demonstrate excellence in laboratory management? Win an award?

Albuquerque, NM: Sandia is looking for a postdoctoral fellow with experience in "Synthetic/Physical Organic Chemistry, Organometallic Chemistry or Metal/Covalent Organic Frameworks, Supramolecular Chemistry, general electrochemistry, spectroscopic (NMR, Raman, Uv-vis etc.) characterization, and X-ray Diffraction." Starting salary? 83,100 smackeroos. Amazing. Good job for someone. DOE security clearance needed.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Academic chemical safety: over at STEM_Wonk's

STEM_Wonk has her post up on academic chemical safety. She's chosen to focus on the role of the PIs, which I can't say I disagree with much:
In both cases at UCLA and TTU, I strongly agree that there seems to be lack of responsibility placed on the PI to carefully train their students to be able to “accurately identify and address hazards in the laboratory…a skill that [does not] come naturally…and must be taught and encouraged through training and ongoing organizational support” (NRC, 2011, p.7). The CSB’s Investigation of the TTU incident does not mention any repercussions for the PIs having not properly mentored the students.  I believe that what is clearly missing from the CSB’s recommendations is for universities to establish consequences for a PI that does not enforce safety protocols, endangering students’ lives.
Go on over there and read what she has to say.  

The Layoff Project: "They herded us out like cattle."

An anonymous QC chemist writes in with their story of, well, insanity:

Hi there! I was a QC chemist at a pharma company. They laid off half of their employees days after they were raided by the FDA and US marshals. It was insanity!

Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job?  
I guess that would depend on your financial situation. I had just bought a house and was planning a wedding so I jumped right in.

How can your family and friends help? 

Outside of getting you a job or money (ha), not much, at least in my case.

Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?
HA! What help? They herded us out like cattle.

What financial advice can you offer? What should/did you do? 
We did the obvious and spent less. We stopped planning our wedding until I was working again.

What should you NOT do? 
Make any big plans.

When did you start looking for another position?
Before I was laid off. We all knew it was coming.

How painful was finding another position?
I found another position immediately, at a company I worked for previously, but I did take a month off. It was for far less money but it was way more than unemployment. I was eventually (a year later) called back to the company that laid me off while I was involved in an active lawsuit against them. Talk about HR sleeping on the job. It was all public knowledge. Anyway, I had to go back for the money and benefits. I worked there for another year which was absolute misery.

What should someone be emotionally prepared for? 
Fear and anger. Maybe relief!

How did you spend your typical day? What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 
I walked my dog morning and night and just enjoyed myself. It was July and I fully enjoyed my time off knowing that I would be back to working again soon.

Have you found new work? What was helpful there? 
I finally found a new job this summer and I have never been happier. Working under the EPA is far more forgiving than the FDA! I started to HATE chemistry and lab work while working under the FDA. I got so pissed at work one day that I enrolled in business classes and bought lottery tickets...I never play the lottery. The most helpful thing about my new position is that it gave me my confidence back. I do have great ideas, I can implement them, I can still love instrumental analysis and I can wake up everyday and not despise my job and employer. 

CJ here again. Thanks again to aQC for telling their story and best wishes to all of us. 

The Layoff Project is an attempt to collect the oral histories of chemists who have been affected by the changes in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. The explanatory post is here; stories can be left in the comments or e-mailed to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. Confidentiality and anonymity is guaranteed. 

Process Wednesday: That's a durn big molecule.

Wow. (Credit: C&EN)
This week's Chemical and Engineering News has a fascinating article on the bryostatins by Bethany Halford, complete with a little section on the process chemistry of Halaven:
Fang says that Halaven's potency and unique biological profile made it too attractive a target to pass up simply because it could be made only through a lengthy synthesis. "The perception wasn't so much that this was an obstacle but rather it was a challenge that we knew how to deal with," he says. 
And even though it takes a total of 62 steps to make Halaven, Fang points out that the synthesis is fairly convergent; the longest linear sequence is 30 steps. "The number of steps of a synthesis is one feature that people tend to focus on because it's easy to remember," he says. "But what really is critical to the successful implementation of a process in commercial manufacturing is not so much the number of steps but the types of purifications that are employed during the processing of the material." 
Chromatography, for example, takes a lot more time and generates a lot more waste than crystallization, Fang notes. "If you can take a 60-step synthesis and get rid of most of the chromatographies and replace them with crystallizations, then it's a much more manageable process than even a 10- or 15-step synthesis that has entirely chromatographic purifications," he says. 
Step count, Fang says, is nothing to be scared of. "Our feeling at Eisai is that natural products represent a large space of untapped potential new medicines," he says. "We're not deterred by a chemical obstacle. If the biological activity warrants it, we're more than happy to go after a compound."
Someday, an awesome set of Organic Process Research and Development papers is going to come out about this molecule. It will be great to hear the story of figuring out how to put this beast together. Until then, we'll just have to live on internet rumors and bang our heads on the wall that Eisai has only decided to publish in Japanese journals about the development of the process. 

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Academic chemical safety: a discussion with STEM_Wonk

Shudder. (Credit: USCSB)
Dear STEM_Wonk:

How are you? I hope the week is treating you well. Thanks for participating in this little discussion on academic chemical safety. 

So I'm sure you had a chance to watch the US Chemical Safety Board's video on academic chemical safety. I'm a big fan of their videos, even if they totally creep me out. It's kind of awful to watch videos of these animated figures ignoring obvious safety issues and subsequently dying. I have a difficult time not yelling out "Don't do it!" (like I was watching a horror film or something.) Substituting the drawings make them no less gripping; the closeup on the hand of the TTU student (before the compound blows up) is pretty awful. 

What are your thoughts about the incidents and the chemical community's response to them? It seems like I spent a fair bit of time writing about the Sheri Sangji case, all those two to three years ago. It was such a raw red shock at the time -- I can see it in the posts that I was writing. You're not supposed to die from this is still what I remember thinking at the time. I still agree with most of the things that I said: I think Professor Harran bears a significant share of the responsibility, as well as her labmates.

 The Wetterhahn incident, I confess, I don't have much to say about -- it just seems like a terrible tragedy and something that couldn't have been avoided (assuming that the video's version of events was accurate.) I personally wasn't aware that they didn't know the appropriate level of PPE for dimethyl mercury. To a bench chemist, that's pretty scary. 

...and then there's the Texas Tech incident. I think I've said my piece about it, but I was surprised to hear what the Chemical Safety Board had to say. I wanted to get the transcript right, so I went back and listened to exactly what the CSB investigator (now there's an alternative chemistry job!) said (at 13:30):
With these academic incidents, people like to focus on the immediate actions of the individuals involved and try to poke holes and with hindsight and assert some sort of blame on the individual involved and what we have to recognize is that there are bigger systems at play here that can influence safety...
For what it's worth, I think that's true. People love to poke holes (I do!) and there are safety systems that should try stop these things from happening. But as one of the "people" involved in analyzing chemical safety incidents and armchair quarterbacking them, I think there's real worth in doing so. The classic question that chemical workers should ask themselves when confronted with these situations is "What would I have done?" I think it's only natural, healthy and instructive to think through these issues from a bench chemist perspective.

So I'll end with this bit of over-the-top provocation: the lesson to be learned from the TTU incident is "don't do that." Don't make 100 times the amount of an unknown shock-sensitive compound. Don't perform dangerous manipulations without the appropriate safety gear. Don't expose your students to danger by allowing them to be dangerously ignorant of energetic materials safety. Don't allow your institution to be exposed to legal risk from ignorant PIs and insufficiently trained students.

Is there any other lesson to be learned from TTU? Probably. What policy would you implement to stop this from happening again? Can you even do that? I think it might be possible.

[Now to deal with a random leaking pipe somewhere in the lab.]

Cheers, Chemjobber

Note to readers: STEM_Wonk and I will be having a back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. Tomorrow's installment with be on her blog. 

The Layoff Project: A HR person speaks

Huge thanks to Derek Lowe for linking to The Layoff Project.

UPDATE: The actual named person has come forth and disavowed these comments; it appears to be a case of identity spoofing. See here for details:

In the comments to his post, interesting comments from a human resources type:
An unforgetten group of employees are those in hr who have to participate in these layoffs. While it is not supposed to be a central part of hr, it is becoming a full time job. I chose a career in hr to help drive company performance by helping employees achieve their best. Unfortunately now, I'm spending time downsizing them. Some days I just feel miserable, however the only thing that keeps my sanity is that the layoffs aren't my decision and that mgmt is to blame... 
While I cannot obviously comment on particulars, I can say that line management (meaning director level) often has a say in who may be laid off. They process is similar to a hand raising activity. However, in most cases managers are asked to "nominate" individuals and they are placed into a group. Some may get laid off and others stay depending on several factors, but ultimately VP levels make the final decision based on information and target headcount red'n numbers they are given. HR is notified usually that day to avoid rumors. It is tough to say the least. But everything is done by the book and not very personal as far as what I say to an individual. Really hoping this is over for a while. Any way, I'd like to stop there. But think you get the point to the harsh realities of a job I took to "develop" people. Definitely not what I was expecting, but not like I'm in a position to challenge things now.
I think it's a good reminder that HR people have feelings, too. It must stink to have to participate in the process of letting people go.

UPDATE: The actual named person has come forth and disavowed these comments; it appears to be a case of identity spoofing. See here for details:

Have a story of being laid off from your pharmaceutical or chemical industry position? Write in to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com with your own story. 

Daily Pump Trap: 10/25/11 edition

Good morning! Between October 20 and October 24, there were 106 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 28 (27%) of them are academically connected.

Santa Clara, CA: Agilent Laboratories is looking for a M.S. synthetic chemist; solid-phase technique experience preferred. Column support work?

Smmmmmokin'!: R.J. Reynolds is looking for a B.S./M.S. flavor chemist: "seeking an experienced chemist with knowledge of the chemical, physical, and organoleptic properties of flavor compounds to support the development of tobacco products consistent with R.J. Reynolds' Growth, Innovation and Harm Reduction Platforms." Fascinating; 2+ years in flavor chemistry desired.

Columbus, OH: GFS Chemicals desires a chemical engineer for "equipment install and maintenance, SOP development, process safety review, waste treatment oversight, and process development." 5-10 years experience in chemical manufacturing desired.

Greenfield, IN: Covance (the Lilly-connected CRO) is looking for a M.S./Ph.D. MRI staff scientist. "Must also possess the following: experience with MRI/S principles and applications, as well as the development of MRI/S acquisition methods; experience with aspects of in vivo and hypothesis-driven research and image/spectrum analysis techniques; experience with Unix-based computers and small-animal MRI spectrometer acquisition software, such as Varian VnmrJ or Bruker Paravision; experience utilizing animal models; experience handling and anesthetizing small animals (mice, rats)."

Say what, anesthetizing small animals? Oh.

Zeroes!: BASF is looking for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist/chemical engineer to perform research on FCC catalysts (whatever those are.) "Strong background in catalysis required", but 0-3 years industrial experience in catalysis okay.

I get the feeling that BASF is really trying to expand its staff these days. If I had a nickel...

MMEERRCCKK: 63 positions (56%) of the total number of positions. Boy, I wish they didn't count for the bulk of them, these days. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Layoff Project: "Not helpful, sitting around being bitter."

Our favorite Wall Street guy bbooooooya writes in for The Layoff Project:

Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job?  
No idea.  I didn't (with 2 layoffs under belt), but don't know if it would have made a difference.

How can your family and friends help? 

Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?
Nope, complete joke.  Execs hire these firms to assuage their guilt, not to perform any useful function.  What really pissed me off was a@@hole CEO walking around saying how sorry he was people were let go.  I think he will regret this if he ever ends up pitching a deal to me......

What financial advice can you offer? What should/did you do? 
Spend less

What should you NOT do? 
Buy that Audi R8

When did you start looking for another position?
pretty soon

How painful was finding another position?
meh, i think by the time it comes to a layoff everyone knows it, so in some ways it's a relief.  the uncertainty is not fun.

What should someone be emotionally prepared for? 
Emotions?  I'm a scientist.....

How did you spend your typical day? What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 
most useful, getting out every day playing tennis or bball with a buddy.  anyone tells you finding a job is a 40 hour/week occupation is a fool.  Lots of waiting around.  May as well stay fit.  Not helpful, sitting around being bitter (tried that, no one cares).

Have you found new work? What was helpful there? 
yup!  biggest help was getting the heck out of chemistry.  It's really a shame that chemistry's a dying profession in this country, at least near term.

CJ here again. Thanks to bbooooooya for writing in and best wishes to all of us.

A reminder: please send your story in for The Layoff Project to chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com. It's greatly appreciated and might possibly help someone in their tough time.

Active thread about teaching

People are still adding comments to Thursday's #altchemjobs post on high school teaching.

Needless to say, folks are wondering where teaching jobs could possibly be. My answer: I don't really know. Outside of the obvious and somewhat unpleasant places where teachers are being hired (North Dakota, for instance), many school districts are indeed laying off teachers.

Best wishes to all of us. 

Friday, October 21, 2011

CSB releases short video on academic chemical safety

This is a fairly interesting video. Thank goodness the producers decided that drawings would be better than those horrifying animations.

More to come on the policy recommendations. 

Anyone for taking the McArdle-Lowe challenge?

Derek Lowe points approvingly to a Megan McArdle post about how people advocating for a specific policy should write a 100 word essay explaining the problem and their solution; this would solve the problem of culling out the folks who are loud, insistent and don't know what they're talking about. 

I think that I will try this for chemistry unemployment in the next week. Anyone who wishes to participate can leave their version in the comments. 

Wanted: formulation superstar for $76k!

From, a truly exciting ad: 
No two days the same, baby. No two days the same. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Alternative careers in chemistry: high school chemistry teacher

In this week's chapter of "Nontraditional Careers in Chemistry"*, we're covering chemical education. While this is certainly a traditional path for chemists, Dr. Balbes covers the less well-known areas of high school and community college teaching. As she says about high school education:
High school teaching is both a career and a lifestyle, not to be entered into lightly. In order to be successful, you must enjoy the work and truly love hormone-laden teenagers. This career provides daily interactions with young people who are developing their own understanding of important scientific concepts and big ideas. Effective science teachers possess not only a though understanding of the subject matter but also a background in pedagogy and mastery of creative teaching methods that convey both the ideas and enthusiasm for the subject a hand. 
She interviews Bob, a high school teacher with a B.A. in chemistry. After Yale, he was a student teacher in New Haven and other places in Connecticut. Moving to another state, it seems, requires a bit of navigating of the teaching certification system:
Bob taught in Connecticut  for six years and then decided to move back to Missouri, where he and his wife could be close to family and afford to buy a house. But even though he was certified to tech in Connecticut and had taught there successfully for six years, he was not even provisionally certifiable to teach in Missouri. He recalls, "As it turned out, Missouri didn't care that I was certified in Connecticut. I had to go back and take some completely ridiculous classes to get my Missouri certification. I decided to take a year off from teaching, take care of my newborn daughter, and finish my master's degree in chemistry while I was at it. The next year, I had no trouble getting work, since lots of schools were hiring." Bob has been teaching at his current school for 14 years and has no plans to change careers.  
On a typical day, Bob interacts mostly with students but also with other teachers, counselors, secretaries, maintenance staff, substitute teachers, student teachers (interns) and parents. Typically tasks include lots of paperwork -- writing and revising labs, worksheets, quizzes, tests and note sheets and sending them off to the copy center; filling out forms and progress reports; and always grading, grading, grading. 
I don't think I want to be a high school teacher: too much hassle and not enough money. Interacting with students and parents doesn't seem to be a fun way to spend my day. But I'm not everyone.

The positives? Really, you get to change and grown young minds, you get to be a role model and you can actually have an impact on people. I remember my high school science teachers and you do too, I'll bet.

*As always, CJ's copy of the book helpfully provided by the author, Dr. Lisa Balbes. 

Daily Pump Trap: 10/20/11 edition

Good morning! Between October 18 and 19, there were 21 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 8 (38%) are academically connected. 1 (5%) is from our friends at Kelly Scientific.

Lexington, MA: Cubist Pharmaceuticals is looking for a B.S./M.S. research associate in medicinal chemistry. 2+ lab experience minimum.

Marlborough, MA: Shimadzu is looking for a field service technician; A.A. in electrical engineering desired, but I'll bet they'll take anyone who's got experience in instrument repair and willing to travel.

Kings Mountain, GA: Someone (confidential) is looking for a Ph.D. inorganic chemist to be a senior research chemist, with an eye towards lithium-based processes. Sounds intense.

Suzhou, China: Ascepion Pharmaceuticals is looking for a Ph.D. medicinal chemist to lead a group; 2-5 years experience desired. Whaa?!? 2-5 years? How many years does it take to lead a group in the US? 5? Dunno.

A broader look:,, and show 385, 744, 3,205 and 29 positions.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Layoff Project: "You are in the middle of a very emotional and stressful period."

Another pharma veteran writes in with his story for the Layoff Project:

What should you do the first week? Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job? 

File for unemployment immediately.  We were eligible for benefits even though we were on severance.  Take that money and sock it away for when your severance ends.

My company also gave us a week to clear our out stuff, send goodbye emails and the like (we had full access to the network, minus the electronic notebook).  I think it's a good week to clear out the clutter, touch base with folks that might help you down the road and let the initial shock/anger/depression pass.  You'll think more clearly in a week's time.  I did.  

How can your family and friends help?

Tougher question.  After a while I got a bit tired of being asked questions about my severance, my job prospects, what I was going to do.  I think good friends, colleagues and family members should give you some space until you start discussing things and take it from there.  Even the conversations that had great intentions can feel like someone is pitying you.  No one wants or needs that after losing your job, and maybe your career.

Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?  

It was useful to simply get out of the house and interact with human beings.  A few classes were good, but most weren't geared towards scientists looking for jobs.  

What financial advice can you offer? What should/did you do? What should you NOT do?

Again, file for unemployment and stash that money.  Do not touch your 401K unless you're about to lose your house.  My company gave us a sheet about what you shouldn't do that first month.  Basically it said to make no major life decisions that first month (aside from the one they just made for you, of course).  No major purchases, vacations, etc.  I think those are actually good suggestions.  You are in the middle of a very emotional and stressful period.  You don't want to make major decisions while you're still in a bit of shock.  Let things slow back down and start to assess your options.  

When did you start looking for another position? 

After two weeks.  I had to travel to bury a relative, so that slowed things down a bit.  There were a few openings in other areas in my company that I sought out unsuccessfully at first.

How painful was finding another position?

Basically in order to keep my wife from leaving her critical position, I ended up being placed into a Development group (I was in Discovery), doing a job I didn't have much experience or expertise.  It was a great learning experience, but it was a bit ego bruising to land a job not because I was the best candidate.  

What should someone be emotionally prepared for?

The 7 stages of grief, basically.  Losing your job/career is very much similar to losing a loved one.  You'll run through all the major emotions at one time or another.

How did you spend your typical day? 

Lots of internet searching for jobs.  Emailing friends and former colleagues.  I read a lot of books that I had always wanted to, but didn't have the time.  Worked out.  Did all of the household chores, grocery shopping, cooking and the like.  My dog loved all the extra attention and walks.  Since she died in March, I look back to that time period very happily in some respects because I got to spend so much time with her that I never would have.

What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 

I should have gotten out of the house more than I did, especially when the weather got nicer.  I tended to hunker down at home too much.  Get out, even if it's to the library.  Volunteer someplace to be around others.  One major rule I had was no drinking during the day if I was at home.  It could be a slippery slope from having a beer with lunch to having 12 by dinner.  Didn't want to slide down that road, especially as the unemployment time extends further.

As hard as it is to say, try to enjoy some of your time off.  I hadn't had a break since college, and not having to be someplace every morning was kind of nice.  I'd watch my wife head off to work while I drank coffee and read the newspaper.  Do something that you've wanted to do but didn't have the time.  Read, write, take on a project at home you always pushed aside.  Work out, volunteer at a dog shelter or hospital.  You never know where your next connection could come from.  Lastly, don't blame yourself for losing your job and let go of the anger you may have from your former company.  Let it go, it wasn't personal.

CJ here again. Thanks to our anonymous contributor and best wishes to him (and all of us.) 

Process Wednesday: FDA says "EPIC FAIL"

One of the joys of process chemistry is increased regulatory scrutiny from governmental agencies. It's kinda fun to read warning letters from the FDA to different companies. Here's one directed at the hilariously named Yag Mag Labs Private Limited's Hyderabad facility (excerpted):
During our June 27 to July 2, 2011 inspection of your active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing facility, Yag-Mag Labs Private Limited located at Survey No. 10, Gaddapotharam Village, Jinnaram Mandal, Medak District, Andhra Pradesh 502 319, India, an investigator from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified significant deviations from Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) for the manufacture of APIs. These deviations cause your API(s) to be adulterated within the meaning of section 501(a)(2)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 351(a)(2)(B)] in that the methods used in, or the facilities or controls used for, their manufacture, processing, packing, or holding do not conform to, or are not operated or administered in conformity with, CGMP.
For example, you manufactured approximately [redacted] batches of [redacted], USP, from April 2009 through March 2010, but the batch records were admittedly written months after the batches were manufactured and released for shipment... This finding that manufacturing batch records are untrustworthy represents a basic systemic failure by your company. 
...For example, prior to April 2011, you did not use cleaning logs and it was reported to our investigator, by your personnel, that no cleaning was performed. There was no evidence that any cleaning between batches or between product changeovers occurred for non-dedicated equipment. 
...For example, [redacted] batches of [redacted] USP were released for distribution from April 2010 through March 2011 without adequate sampling of starting materials.  It was observed within the in-house analysis records and through discussion with a firm employee that starting material [redacted], internal lot [redacted] had come from an unknown supplier via a distributor without product label or manufacturer information. According to the in-house records, it was tested by GC, KF and MP, but no raw data could be found to support the testing, nor records of instrument use logs. 
...Your response acknowledges that your facility “was not up to the mark of FDA....” and that corrective and preventative actions are needed, but are not completed at this time.  We recommend that you conduct a complete and extensive evaluation of your overall quality and manufacturing controls to ensure that all APIs manufactured at your facility meet the quality and purity characteristics they purport to possess. We highly recommend that you hire a third party auditor with experience in detecting data integrity problems, who may assist you in evaluating your serious CGMP deviations.
...Until all corrections have been completed and FDA has confirmed corrections of the deviations and your firm’s compliance with CGMP, FDA may withhold approval of any new applications or supplements listing your firm as an API manufacturer. In addition, until such time as your manufacturing practices are verified to comply with CGMPs, your firm will remain under FDA Import Alert and FDA will continue to refuse admission of all articles manufactured at Yag-Mag Labs Private Limited, India into the United States.  
So what you're saying is: your records stink, you're not cleaning your equipment and you're not checking your starting material. Annnnd, until you change, you can't sell into the United States.

I'll bet the inspector of these facilities overseas have pretty good stories. And I'll bet that many process chemists around the world get nervous about regulatory agencies knocking on their doors.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Layoff Project: "And then, life happened."

PH is a former Wyeth medicinal chemist; she writes in with her story below. I've excerpted some key parts, and the whole thing is below the jump.
Back story: both my husband and I worked for Wyeth, me in med chem and him as a pain pharmacologist. When we heard in January 2009 that Pfizer was taking over, we had our initial moments of panic.  Lots of swearing, wondering what was going to happen, etc.  Eventually, we made a decision that we were going to press forward as best we could and try to take control of our own situation...
...So during that year of uncertainty, we got everything done that we possibly could to aid in our job searches.  We updated our resumes, cover letters and LinkedIn accounts.  We networked, trying to reconnect with some former colleagues who had moved on to different companies.  We didn't mind moving, which was a huge advantage we think.  We were willing to go somewhere if only one of us had a job, as long as it was an area where the other partner had a good shot of getting something eventually.
...The first week of my unemployment I didn't do a whole heck of a lot.  I took some time off, relaxed, and got the last year of complete stress out of my system. I shoveled snow after the Philadelphia area got about 3 feet of snow one weekend.  I thought about my next steps even more.  I started researching job openings after my week of hibernation, actually managed to get an interview for an analytical-type job and was looking forward to that.  Hubby was doing some networking and thought he might have a lead with a former colleague of his.  We were pretty confident that we'd both be working in the next couple of months.  It may not be our dream jobs, but it would be something.  And then life happened.

I had always gotten headaches, and they'd gotten a lot worse over the course of 2009.  I blamed it on stress.  Finally, I couldn't ignore them anymore.  In April 2010, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor the size of small orange. (continued below the jump

Daily Pump Trap: 10/18/11 edition

Good morning! Between October 13 and October 18, there were 81 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 43 (53%) of them were academically connected.

M-E-R-C-K: 26 (32%) positions from our friends in Rahway, including a staff chemist position (polymer/drug delivery, B.S.) and a senior research chemist (analytical, Ph.D.) position.

Postdoc-not-postdoc: CIRES (Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences) at CU-Boulder is looking for a Ph.D. chemist for a 'research associate' position to "participate in field measurements of water vapor in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere." Sounds complex.

Postdoc-not-postdoc #2: Princeton's Department of Chemistry desires a "full-time professional researcher to focus on the research and development of new electronic structure methodology, in particular related to (i) correlation methods using quantum Monte Carlo; (ii) new classes of many-body wave functions; and (iii) solid-state electronic structure beyond density functional theory." A Ph.D. in chemistry with "preferably have a few years of additional research experience" is wanted.

Department of Soothsaying: Amyris is looking for a B.S./M.S. chemist/chemical engineer to, uh, well, you give it a shot:
The primary responsibility of the Analyst of Techno-economic Analysis is to develop and manage models at the interface between process development and commercial application. This includes models of production cost of Amyris chemicals and fuels as well as life cycle analyses of these products. In addition, this role will be responsible for developing an understanding of the competitive landscape in the arena of renewable product biosynthesis by focusing on their technological value proposition, their potential economics, and life-cycle benefits. As the Analyst of Techno-economic Analysis, you will have a strong understanding of chemical process design as well as capital and operating cost estimation. This understanding must bridge into the ability to analyze techno-economic models (developed by you or others) for robustness and potential development opportunities. You will be required to translate this understanding into actionable takeaways and will be responsible for successfully communicating those takeaways.
Yeah, that. I think they want you to guess which biofuels they should sell, and for how long. (maybe?)

Durham, NC: Someone (they won't say who) Novan (thanks, DP!) is looking for a B.S. chemist to perform QC work on APIs; 2+ years experience desired.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Layoff Project: chemists helping chemists cope with unemployment

UPDATE II: To read all Layoff Project articles, click here. 

This is something that I've wanted to do for a long while and I've been putting it off for the right moment. With the impending announcements of Amgen and Merck layoffs, I feel like this is the right moment.

I would like to collect as many oral histories of layoffs in the chemical and pharmaceutical world as people will send me. I would also like to hear as much advice for people who will be laid off in the coming rounds (late 2011 through 2012) focusing on a few questions:
  • What should you do the first week? Should you take a break? Jump right in to finding a new job?  
  • How can your family and friends help? 
  • Was the help the company offered you (outplacement, etc.) useful?  
  • What financial advice can you offer?
    • What should/did you do? 
    • What should you NOT do? 
  • When did you start looking for another position? 
  • How painful was finding another position? 
    • What should someone be emotionally prepared for? 
  • How did you spend your typical day? 
    • What behaviors do you think were helpful or not helpful? 
  • Have you found new work? What was helpful there? 
This is at the very beginning, so advice would be really helpful. Comments are helpful, either to this post or to the e-mail address: chemjobber -at- gmail/dot/com.

(I've never asked this, but I will this time: please consider e-mailing this post to your non-blog-reading colleagues. Thanks -- you guys are great.)

UPDATE: One more thing: anonymity guaranteed.

UPDATE II: To read all Layoff Project articles, click here. 

Looking for #chemjobs in Europe?

In this week's C&EN, stories of European chemists having difficulty finding positions in their original countries:
With high unemployment and the potential for underemployment in their home countries, young European chemists like Reguillo Carmona are increasingly seeking—and accepting—positions in foreign countries. Many look to European countries with stronger economies, such as Germany and Austria. Others are considering a move to the U.S., where the unemployment rate is also high but employers are still recruiting. 
Spain is among the European countries hardest hit by the recession. The country’s unemployment rate jumped from 8.3% in 2007, when the global recession began, to 21.2% in July 2011, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Countries such as Greece, Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania have also seen their unemployment rates rise. In contrast, Germany’s unemployment rate dropped from 8.7% to 6.6% between 2007 and July 2011, and Austria’s, from 4.4% to 3.7% over the same period. [snip] 
...For citizens of European Union countries, emigrating from one EU country to another is relatively simple, and countries such as Germany and Switzerland are becoming a magnet for job seekers. With strong chemical industries, these two countries provide more job opportunities than countries such as Spain and Italy, which concentrate on academic research. Sarah Ulmschneider-Renner, talent resourcing at BASF in Ludwigshafen, Germany, notes that nearly 40% of all scientists the company has hired in Germany this year have been of a non-German nationality. BASF has “observed a notable increase in numbers of applications, particularly from Spain, over the last six months for positions in Germany,” she says. “Overall, the number of foreign* applications for R&D positions at BASF is continuously growing.”
I suppose it's not a surprise that a successful and core chemical manufacturing corporation like BASF is still hiring. Also, it's not a surprise that PIIGS countries are experiencing outmigration. Nevertheless, an interesting article. Best wishes to them (and all of us), too.

*Do Germans consider other folks from Europe to be 'foreigners'? What does this say about the European project? I don't know enough about the situation to comment substantively, but I'm somewhat surprised. Someone needs to draw a map of 'Europe according to the French and Germans' in the style of the New Yorker's map of Manhattan and the world. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Do you have a haimish lab?

A few months ago, David Brooks was talking about the concept of haimish, which I confess I hadn't heard before:
Recently I did a little reporting from Kenya and Tanzania before taking a safari with my family. We stayed in seven camps. Some were relatively simple, without electricity or running water. Some were relatively luxurious, with regular showers and even pools. 
The simple camps were friendly, warm and familial. We got to know the other guests at big, communal dinner tables... Two of the Maasai guides led my youngest son and me on spontaneous mock hunts — stalking our “prey” on foot through ravines and across streams... The more elegant camps felt colder. At one, each family had its own dinner table, so we didn’t get to know the other guests. The tents were spread farther apart. We also didn’t get to know the staff, who served us mostly as waiters, the way they would at a nice hotel. 
I know only one word to describe what the simpler camps had and the more luxurious camps lacked: haimish. It’s a Yiddish word that suggests warmth, domesticity and unpretentious conviviality.
Having worked in two academic labs and a number of corporate environments, I believe that there is most certainly a haimish lab environment. Even though most laboratories aren't particularly warm (earth-toned hoods? soft leather benchtops?), there's certainly a warmth that some labs exude and others do not. A few haimish touches:
  • I think chairs and white boards lead to conversation. 
  • There needs to be a careful balance between privacy and isolation -- you want to be able to provide people space for a private conversation, but people need to work close enough together to interact. 
  • A coffee pot and some goodies is always a nice touch; a couch and a breakroom is helpful, too. 
  • The boss has to be wary of where he or she ends up; depending on the environment, he or she can either generate or crush the haimish. 
  • Music, I think, is a key part of generating a little conviviality. 
I think haimish is something that you can find in academic laboratories and small companies; in the larger corporate laboratories I've been in, I've seen less of it. That said, it's still possible. 

Readers, what do you think? Do you have a haimish lab? 

Apple's corporate innovation? The 'directly responsible individual'

Now that Steve Jobs has gone on to his reward, the negative stories are coming out about him. I found this story about a failed product launch at Apple to be fairly interesting:
Shortly after the launch event, he summoned the MobileMe team, gathering them in the Town Hall auditorium in Building 4 of Apple's campus, the venue the company uses for intimate product unveilings for journalists. According to a participant in the meeting, Jobs walked in, clad in his trademark black mock turtleneck and blue jeans, clasped his hands together, and asked a simple question: "Can anyone tell me what MobileMe is supposed to do?" Having received a satisfactory answer, he continued, "So why the f--- doesn't it do that?" 
For the next half-hour Jobs berated the group. "You've tarnished Apple's reputation," he told them. "You should hate each other for having let each other down." The public humiliation particularly infuriated Jobs. Walt Mossberg, the influential Wall Street Journal gadget columnist, had panned MobileMe. "Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us," Jobs said. On the spot, Jobs named a new executive to run the group.
My favorite defense blogger, Tom Ricks, find this to be actually a good thing ("In fact, what Jobs did strikes me as simply enforcing accountability -- which is what leaders should do.")

I'm of two minds about this and its relatability to the pharma/chemical world. First of all, nobody likes failure and Ricks is right -- someone needs to be held accountable when there are large failures. Relieving the executive in charge seems like accountability that doesn't seem to happen in the pharma world very often (or, at least, in my short time, I haven't seen it yet.) But Apple and other software companies control the horizontal and the vertical to a much greater extent than a pharma exec. Apple's software and tech products are subject to a man-made environment, while successful drug launches are subject to biological complexities that can stymie the best of plans.

But there's one thing coming out of Apple that I find extraordinary, and something that I hope catches on everywhere -- the Directly Responsible Individual:
The accountability mindset extends down the ranks. At Apple there is never any confusion as to who is responsible for what. Internal Applespeak even has a name for it, the "DRI," or directly responsible individual. Often the DRI's name will appear on an agenda for a meeting, so everybody knows who is responsible. "Any effective meeting at Apple will have an action list," says a former employee. "Next to each action item will be the DRI." A common phrase heard around Apple when someone is trying to learn the right contact on a project: "Who's the DRI on that?"
Obviously, this is equally subject to gaming and politics, like anything else in life. But it's a good idea, nonetheless. 

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Well, that's a different take.

From this week's Chemical and Engineering News, an interesting letter: 
Up to this point I have, over the past three-plus years, silently read the numerous letters written to the editor of C&EN bellyaching about the “outsourcing” of U.S. jobs overseas. The authors of these letters stand behind a common misconception that the jobs are merely going to locations with cheaper labor. This gross oversimplification is, at best, only partially true. 
China is the recipient of the majority of these “outsourced” chemistry jobs, and the true motivations for this far eclipse just the economics of employee compensation. First, China is an enormous emerging market, far larger in potential than the West. Second, it is virtually impossible to import finished products into China. Companies are moving chemical research and manufacturing into China to better position themselves to fully develop and capture sizable portions of the huge and emerging Chinese market. It will be far easier and far cheaper for these companies to export products from China into the West than it would be to attempt the reverse.
In order for the lost jobs to return to U.S. soil, a number of things must come into alignment: U.S. corporate tax structure must change; U.S. import/export laws must change; China’s market must become fully developed; China must change its import/export laws for the benefit of foreign nations; and, as has been pointed out previously, employee compensation must become more competitive. If you are one of the people writing letters to editors and waiting for these changes to occur, I sincerely wish you the best of luck. Personally, I’ll be taking a different path. 
Michael C. Matelich
San Diego
I can't quite tell what Dr. Matelich's different path might be. I suspect that 1) he's going to China or 2) he's picketing Congress or writing letters to the President or I dunno. (I suppose that, for now, blogging is my path.)

Daily Pump Trap: 10/13/11 edition

Good morning! Between October 11 and October 12, 33 new positions were posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 8 (24%) were academically connected.

This is Jack's new position: IKEA is looking for a B.S. chemist for a chemical specialist position. ("Knowledge of materials and their chemical risks, including knowledge about the manufacturing, use and testing of the materials.") Based in Houston, TX.

St. Louis, MO: Monsanto's process group is looking for a Ph.D. chemist with 3+ years experience.

Strong as an ox: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is looking for a Ph.D. analytical chemist to be a postdoctoral fellow in their biofuels group. Key success factors: "Ability to lift up to fifty pounds of biomass, media, fermented broth, some equipment etc." Huh.

Sales/marketing FTW: Shimadzu has posted 5 sales positions across the country, both field technicians and account managers.

Tarrytown, NY: BASF is looking for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. chemist with experience in materials science and surface analysis. "Extensive training and hands-on experience in materials characterization, operation and interpretation of XRD Characterization required. FT-IR/Raman, BET, Zeta Potential strongly preferred. Working knowledge or willingness to learn of AA, ICP, XRF."

Late to the game: Is there a battery chemist/materials scientist who hasn't been recruited recently? Well, Quallion LLC would like to get in the game with its 70-90k salary for someone who will "work on Material Synthesis of Lithium Ion battery materials: cathode, anode, electrolyte, binder, conductive agents, and separator."

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Hot new financial trend: default blame swaps

New York (Chemjobber News Service) In a surprising turn of events, R&D scientists across chemical and pharmaceutical companies have been growing wealthy due to a novel financial instrument: the default blame swap. This has been used to cushion the blow of taking the blame for various and sundry corporate failures of policy.

Here's how the process works: when a project is initiated, a ratings agency will analyze the project and the credit and the blame for its success or failure. Wall Street financial firms, investment banks and hedge funds will then offer terms for the default blame swap (DBSs) in case of project failure; people who typically take blame for the failure of projects can then purchase DBSs as a form of insurance.

This trend is rocketing across the country and is driving up the price of DBSs, as academic and corporate bench scientists of all stripes are eager to find some way of getting a benefit from taking the blame. Said one senior scientist, "Every time my department lead blames me for us taking a mauling in last month's quarterly profits, I get action -- what could be better than that?" International postdoctoral fellows who speak English poorly are increasing their purchases of DBS, too: "I tired of taking blame for lost reagents, bad project and big-ego PI! Now I get money!"

One idealistic Wall Streeters (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) sadly said: "It used to be that the boss would give the credit to the team members and would take the blame for bad decisions. Those days are gone - now it's every man and woman for themselves. Well, we might as well get some arbitrage from it; I've made double last year's bonus on DBSs!"

Corporate managers bemoan the trend in DBSs. Said one, "We used to take the credit and send all the blame to folks below us -- now they're getting rich on it. Where's the justice in that?" 

Process Wednesday: "The Safe Use of Sodium Hydride on Scale"

A recent Organic Process Research and Development paper from Merck Process [1] talks about something that I've heard about, but never had the opportunity to use: metal hydride reagents contained in sealed bags. The bags dissolve in solution, allowing the material to be handled in a relatively safe matter. To wit:
The risk of ignition during the addition of NaH to the reactor was eliminated by using NaH in dissolvable bag packaging (SecuBags) from Chemetall Foote Corp. The risks associated with waste disposal of unused NaH were also eliminated since the bags were purchased in premeasured quantities; the entire bag was used in the reaction. 
The authors describe a chloropyrimidine displacement using an unnamed alcohol with the bagged sodium hydride (60% in an oil dispersion) and MeTHF at reflux; they used a mass spectrometer in line with the reactor to monitor hydrogen off-gassing. The authors also cover the quenching of the sodium hydride with 4% wet MeTHF, analysis of the product and analysis for remnants of the bag in the product:
The SecuBag is made of styrene-butadiene-styrene (SBS) block copolymers. To ensure the SecuBag was sufficiently removed during the filtration, analytical methods were developed to rest for residual SecuBag and styrene in the isolated product. An analytical method that was developed to monitor residual SecuBads polymer used size exclusion chromatography with UV detection at 215 nm... The batch samples contained SecuBags polymer in the range of 120-250 ppm with respect to total weight of the sample analyzed, which was well below the ICH recommended level of 1000 ppm.  
...[regards to potential styrene in the product] Analysis of a concentration of 0.1 g/mL for pyrimidine 3 with a detection limit of 5 ppm styrene demonstrated that styrene was not detectable in any of the four batches produced by the described process. 
I suppose I'm a little bit surprised that there's still a little bit of the polymer from the bag in the product, but apparently there's not much harm and it's still well within regulatory specifications. [Presumably, downstream processing would take care of it?]

Sounds neat -- now I want to try it.

[1] McCabe Dunn, J.M.; Duran-Capece, A.; Meehan, B.; Ulis, J.; Iwama, T.; Gloor, G.; Wong, G.; Bekos, E. Org. Process. Res. Dev. ASAP. DOI: 10.1021/op200114t

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

MIT Chemistry corporate recruiting visits, 2002 - October 2011

Yet more tyranny of the negative slope. Long after I (pseudo-)promised to look at MIT chemistry's historical recruiting data, I finally stayed up until 1:30 on Saturday morning counting all of the entries.

As you can see, the fat years in the data set appear to be 2002 through 2004. Since then, it's just been a slow trend down.

  • Maybe corporate recruiters are going elsewhere other than MIT. 
  • Maybe MIT chemistry's recruiting is so group specific that recruiting visits are limited to groups rather than the entire department. 
  • Maybe this data set is incomplete (?). 
This isn't so pleasant to contemplate, but maybe things will come back sooner rather than later. Maybe. 

The big picture: uh-oh

Credit: Calculated Risk blog
Last Friday, the September unemployment numbers were published, with unemployment remaining unchanged at 9.1%. The broader U6 measurement of unemployment was up 0.3% to 16.5%. With 100,000 new jobs created, the economy just barely kept up with population growth, but did not manage to soak up any of the unemployed.

Ezra Klein's analysis of the last 3 years of Obama Administration economic policy was published this last weekend. Klein's basic thesis is that the policy response from all parts of government have been insufficient in the face of Reinhart and Rogoff's many writings that financial crises are much worse than a typical recession and that they require a much more robust response.
In March 2009, Reinhart and Rogoff took to Newsweek to critique the “chirpy forecasts coming from policymakers around the globe.” The historical record, they said, showed that “the recessions that follow in the wake of big financial crises tend to last far longer than normal downturns, and to cause considerably more damage. If the United States follows the norm of recent crises, as it has until now, output may take four years to return to its pre-crisis level. Unemployment will continue to rise for three more years, reaching 11 to 12 percent in 2011.” 
...“I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to say that everything follows from missing the call on Reinhart-Rogoff, and I include myself in that category,” says Peter Orszag, who led the Office of Management and Budget before departing the administration to work at Citigroup. “I didn’t realize we were in a Reinhart-Rogoff situation until 2010.”
I'm reminded of when I first thought things were going to be bad. It was in the middle of 2008, driving south on I-5 between Los Angeles and San Diego and I was listening to "This American Life" and the famous "The Giant Pool of Money" episode. This is what they had to say at the end:
Alex Blumberg: That talk seems to have faded and there's more talk that the next few years will feel like the 1970s. There are lots of technical differences between this crisis and Jimmy Carter's malaise. But for the average person, it could feel the same. It's not an out-and-out depression. Everything's just kind of crappy. And not just in housing or banking but for the economy as a whole. It’s barely growing. There aren't a lot of new businesses, new jobs. Unemployment keeps creeping up. We're just sort of stuck, in neutral, for a while. 
Anyone under, say, 45 probably doesn't remember that 1970's malaise too well. Anyone under 30 has barely known a US economy that wasn't growing. Now there's a decent chance we'll all get to see what life felt like in the '70s. Which isn't great. It's pretty bad, actually. Unless you're comparing it to the 1930’s.
The 70's-redux theme hasn't really been disproven. Uh-oh. Best wishes to all of us.