Thursday, May 31, 2012

This is what a shortage looks like: computer science edition, part 1 of N

From the august pages of the Wall Street Journal:
[snip] Starting salaries at leading companies for average computer science grads from top schools range from $75,000 to $100,000, plus signing and relocation bonuses worth $5,000 to $15,000, according to venture capitalists and recruiters. (New hires may also get small equity grants, with stars getting additional cash bonuses or larger grants worth as much as 1% of the company. 
[snip] Companies, he said, routinely wine and dine students at posh restaurants to discuss internships and jobs, plying them with free limo rides to bars, $500 cash giveaways and raffles for iPads. So many companies give away free food when they hold technology talks at Brown that sponsors had to move the food inside the computer science auditorium to keep non-engineering students from grazing. "That did not deter people," said Mr. Poletto, who accepted a job offer with online storage start-up Dropbox.
What's that I hear? The strains of "Summer Girls" by LFO? Yes! It's just like 1999 for chemists, when I was offered a signing bonus by my first employer because I seemed sort of competent. I'm glad someone is doing well in this economy. (And yes, yet more evidence that STEM is TE.)

Students have differing ideas about career paths at beginning and end of grad school? (Not surprising?)

An interesting study from Nature Jobs:
The study, published on 2 May, surveyed life sciences, physics and chemistry PhD students at various stages of their programmes at top-level US research universities. Respondents in graduate programmes were asked to rate six career options and to recall how they had felt about them at the start of their PhD programme. Although a faculty post was an attractive career path for many students at the start of their programme, this preference slipped as students in all three disciplines advanced in their studies, with chemistry students showing the biggest drop (see 'Losing appeal').
Credit: Nature Jobs
There's a rather wonderful (and perhaps not-so-literally-accurate) quote from one of the co-authors of the study ("Henry Sauermann, a researcher at the College of Management at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta"):
 “It would be nice for other people to provide more information for students, but faculty and advisers don't have that experience,” he says. “You can't expect the chair of the chemistry department to tell you what it's like being a researcher in industry.”
Ooof. Depends on the chair, depends on the department. Still, a blunt (sometimes) truth. 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/31/12 edition

Good morning! Uh, how's it going? Between May 29 and May 30, there were 12 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 7 (58%) are academically connected and 3 (25%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Not much: There's not very much being put out here, with 2 whole positions in the last two days. One of them is not really a position, but...

Not sure what this is: But it sure isn't a job ad:
Custom Synthesis Labs and Academics Interested in Collaborations. We are looking for chemical labs that do custom syntheses and academics interested in increasing their research budgets by doing custom synthesis. See our website: to see compounds we are synthesizing. If interested in doing custom syntheses for us, please send us an e-mail at Also, describe your field of expertise so we can find projects that are relevant to your field.
The addresses lead to a company called Medical Isotopes, Incorporated. Small company in New Hampshire -- interesting.

Open positions at Pfizer?: We seem to be hitting a lull, so I'm going to randomly look at large pharma and chemical company sites. For the search term "chemist", Pfizer has 3 positions available, 2 R4s (i.e. "senior scientists") and a R5/R6 ("principal scientist"). 2 of these were posted May 15, one posted late March.

Rolla, MO: Our one real job ad of the last two days! It's for a B.S. chemist (with a MBA) to be a technology strategist at Brewer Science, a stalwart of ACS Careers:
Summary: Sets the technological goals/objectives of the business unit and works with the functional area managers to achieve these goals. 
Outcomes: • Brewer Science technology and market leader for every new technology that is brought through the BPD • A clear and concise set of product technology requirements that support the overall corporate goals • Achieve the business unit's objectives by working through the functional area managers 
Specific Responsibilities: • Represents the business unit at customers, suppliers, industry forums and internally • Serve as a technical interface between customers and industry groups and the Business Unit to align development and technical support efforts with their needs and industry trends. • Present pipeline technologies and products to customers through on-site visits and participation at shows and conferences. • Together with division staff, prepare technical presentations and publications. • Develop and manage the intellectual property plan for the Business and supporting R&D division(s). Identify areas for patent protection and work with R&D staff and IA/Legal Groups to ensure timely, comprehensive patent protection of new inventions and future technologies. • Works with functional areas to create area specific objectives, strategies and tactics to achieve the overall business unit technology objectives • Analyzes market information to select specific business and technological targets to achieve the overall business unit objectives • Reviews external documentation to meet the business unit’s goals. • Help drive product/process development by working through the functional area managers.
I'm tempted to offer a cash prize to whomever can translate this stuff.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 290, 807, 3134 and 33 positions for the search term "chemist."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Process Wednesday: Carbon steel versus organic acids

From the pages of Chemical Engineering Magazine, an interesting story about an extraction unit (I think this is somehow related to a petroleum fractionating column?) from Mike Resetarits, the technical director of Fractionation Research, Inc.:
The natural state of the extraction solvent was clear and slightly yellow. With time, however, oxygen would creep into the unit, especially via the vacuum regenerator. Organic acids would form. The acids would eat any carbon steel that they encountered. Iron oxide and carbonaceous materials would accumulate in the solvent, which would turn from yellow to green to brown and then black. Eventually the solvent would look and feel like the three-year-old engine oil in my 1974 Ford Falcon.  
One troubleshooting visit was in response to a complaint about reduced recovery. The unit was shut down for the annual turnaround. My colleague, Reese, and I decided to enter and inspect the extractor at three manhole locations, starting with the top manhole. The top manhole was open. According to our drawings, the top tray was only about 3 ft below the top manhole. We inspected the top tray with our flashlights. It looked fine -- no fouling. Then Reese entered the column feet first, on his belly. He almost fell 20 feet.  
Unfortunately, Reese and I failed to expect the unexpected. The top tray was there -- but it wasn't. It was paper thin. It crumbled to dust instantly under his weight. Fortunately, he was wearing a harness with a lanyard. It turned out that the top ten trays were similarly thin. Replacement trays were provided to the plant on an emergency basis. 
One of the things that I'm encountering as a relatively new process chemist in a manufacturing environment is how much focus there is on the materials of construction of equipment. Most of the time in the lab, your compounds are only going to see one material: glass. But in the plant, glass is relatively rare, it seems, and concerns about the compatibility of whatever metal you might be using with your reaction solvent, reagents and byproducts becomes very important.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

One raised eyebrow

In this week's C&EN, an article detailing ACS members' efforts to lobby Congress for more research funding. And what do we read from one of those members?
“I passionately believe that the voice of the scientific community needs to be heard by politicians... Scientific innovation is a key engine that drives the U.S. economy and is vital for our nation’s global competitiveness.”
Good sentiments, one that I might agree with. Who said it?:
[ACS Committee on Chemistry and Public Affairs] member Hui Cai of San Diego, who is vice president of corporate alliances at WuXi AppTec, a global contract research organization. 
Calling WuXi AppTec a "global contract research organization" is sort of like calling the Department of  Defense a "global protective services provider."

Yes, WuXi owns a few facilities in the United States. But let us call it for what it is: a Chinese outsourcing firm that (with its willing Big (and sometimes, small!) Pharma partners) has transferred many medicinal chemistry jobs from the US to China. I find terribly ironic that one of WuXi's employees is lobbying Congress for research funding; doubtless, it's a good deal for WuXi, in that many of their top employees have been trained with US funding. 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/29/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 24 and May 28, there were 42 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 2 (5%) were academically connected and 35 (83%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Hey!: Is anyone else noticing that the ratio of Kelly/non-Kelly positions is really climbing recently? That's a little freaky. Personally, I'm sort of vaguely curious about the "Chemist - Nights and Weekends" position that keeps popping up.

Neat: Merck (Rahway, NJ) is looking for a senior analytical investigator to work with API-related problem solving. Ph.D. in analytical chemistry plus 10 years experience desired.

Newark, DE: Air Liquide is searching for a M.S./Ph.D. research chemist with experience in GC/GC-MS/UV-vis and other spectroscopic techniques. 2+ years experience with environmental monitoring desired.

Boulder, CO: Lexmark desires a Ph.D. chemist with 3-5 years of polymer-related experience to work on "applied research directed at the implementation of emulsion aggregation chemical toners and at carrier coated materials for use in Lexmark laser printer products." If you click through, you'll learn that there's a lot (not that we didn't think so!) to printer ink/toner technology.

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/29/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 21 and May 28, there were 7 academic positions posted on the ACS Careers website. The numbers:

Total number of ads:  8
- Postdocs: 1
- Tenure-track faculty:  3
- Temporary faculty:   2
- Lecturer positions:  0
- Staff positions:  2
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 5 / 3

Detroit, MI: Wayne State University's School of Pharmaceutical Sciences is looking for a tenure-track assistant professor of medicinal chemistry / drug discovery.

Israel:  The Fulbright Scholars program is looking for postdoctoral fellows in chemistry to work in Israel. Sounds exciting.

Riverdale, NY: Manhattan College (oddly enough, located in the Bronx) is looking for a visiting assistant professor of general chemistry. Like New York? Might be for you!

Denver, CO: Metropolitan State College of Denver is looking for a M.S. chemist to be a lab manager.

St. Cloud, MN: 2 temporary faculty ("one full time and one half-time, fixed-term faculty positions") are available at St. Cloud State University for professors of general chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Day off today

Great Lakes National Cemetery (Credit: betterphoto)
It's Memorial Day in the United States, so it's a day off for the blog. Back tomorrow with IFF, DPT and (probably) a little bit of #chemjobs.

Cheers, CJ

Friday, May 25, 2012

Ozymandias, senior med chemist

by Chemjobber

I met a janitor from a run-down lab
Who said: Two vast and peeling poster slides
Hang in the hallway. Near, on the bench slab,
Half torn, a wrinkled photo, with a frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its subject well those structures read
Which yet survive, inked on these lifeless things,
The hand that drew them in the projects dead:
And on the white caption these words appear:
"Ozymandias, senior med chemist:
Look on my works, ye postdocs, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that empty building, tragic and bare
The clear hood sashes still rattle away.

with apologies to Shelley

Kindler, Liveris, Madeleine Jacobs all visitors to White House. Chemistry professors? Not really.

The Washington Post has done the country a service by tallying White House visitor logs and putting them in a searchable form.* Being a curious sort, I started to put the names of chemical luminaries into their database.

Disappointingly, I couldn't get any prominent professors of organic chemistry. Sanford, Jacobsen, Bertozzi and Breslow were all busts. (Maybe they were one of the people who didn't have to sign in, yeah, that's the ticket!) Daniel Nocera is a no-go, too. (See update below.)

Among pharma types, (your friend and mine!) Jeff Kindler has been to the White House many, many times. He first arrived on March 5, 2009 and visited 12 more times until his last visit on June 17, 2011. But Kindler has been active in politics for a while, I believe. (What was he doing at the White House after he was let go from Pfizer in December 2010? Who knows?) John Lechleiter, the CEO of Lilly has been to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue a few times himself, although not nearly as many as Kindler. Lechleiter seems to hold the title for most prominent holder of a Ph.D. in chemistry (and most prominent process chemist!) to be invited to the White House. Merck CEO Ken Frazier, by contrast, seems to have been at the White House only once.

American Chemical Society CEO Madeleine Jacobs has been to the White House 8 times, with 3 of them being meetings with their relevant policy professionals. White House staffer Victoria Espinel (the "copyright czar") seems to show up in these logs on a regular basis. Once, she was in the room at the same time as Robert Massie, the president of CAS. For fans of C&EN, I'm disappointed to note that Rudy Baum hasn't appeared to have been to the White House.

Finally, our #chemjobs fibber Andrew Liveris (and his wife Paula) seem to be frequent visitors to the occupants of the White House with 19 visits. (See update 2) It gives me cold comfort that the two people in my little database search to have been at the White House are 1) the person who's laid off many, many chemists in his time and 2) the person who keeps telling the mainstream media how the country has a desperate shortage of chemical professionals.

Readers, try your hand out at the database and tell us in the comments who's been to the White House (use the "advanced search" feature.)

UPDATE: Lisa Jarvis of C&EN notes that Harvard's George Whitesides spends a lot of time (more than Liveris or Kindler!) at the White House.

UPDATE 2: An astute reader points out that Andrew Liveris is co-chair of the President's Advanced Manufacturing policy committee, and would be expected to visit the White House frequently.

*[I should take a moment and say that, within reason, there should be high levels of transparency for the behavior of elected officials. I don't really see this as a Democratic/Republican issue; I see this as a "those who have influence" versus "those who do not" issue.]

Thursday, May 24, 2012

June 4 is Lab PPE Day

It's the start of the summer student season right about now, and I think it would be great to get them into the habit of wearing PPE in the lab. Wouldn't it be great if we could show everyone that PPE is a normal happy part of your day? (i.e. positive peer pressure)

So I'm declaring June 4 to be Lab PPE Day. I request that people who are interested send pictures of themselves in lab PPE to LabPPEDay -at- gmail/dot/com. On June 4 (and a little bit earlier), those pictures will be posted on the official Lab PPE Day tumblr. 

If you wear your PPE and you consider it a smart, effective way to stay safe in the lab, would you send me a picture? If you don't want to show your face, creative means of showing that you wear your PPE would be acceptable too. 

So June 4, 2012 is Inaugural Lab PPE Day. Many happy returns!

Gluts happen to other fields, too

From an astute reader, a terribly interesting article/story from public radio's Marketplace on a little bit of a looming issue for pharmacists:
Within the labor market, there's a lag effect as well. Industries and occupations that have job openings today might not have those same openings in a couple of years. 
Exhibit A for our purposes today is the professional pharmacist. Just five years ago, a pharmacy degree was a near guarantee of permanent and well-paid employment. So much so that a lot of universities started their own schools of pharmacy. In Tennessee, they went from one pharmacy school to half a dozen.  
Phil Johnston is the pharmacy dean at Belmont [University, in Nashville, TN]. He admits the agencies that oversee course work worried there might not be enough local drug stores and hospitals to support so many schools. Pharmacists have also been concerned that a glut of graduates may undercut their pay. [snip] 
...The pharmacy industry realizes it's hard for students like Deason to find jobs. The American Society of Health System Pharmacists recently authored a report. It's titled -- "Expansion of Pharmacy Education: Time for Reconsideration." Douglas Scheckelhoff is a vice president of the pharmacist group. [He said: When you almost double the number of graduates over the course of 8-10 years, over time that doubling of the graduates is going to have an impact."
Hey! That sounds pretty familiar!

[The comments are awesome, too; a person who seems to be a long-time health services person writes in to tell young graduates "hey, older pharmacists have had hard times, too" and "you don't have to work at a pharmacy if you have a pharmacy degree..." Hey, we've heard a version of that, too...]

Daily Pump Trap: 5/24/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 22 and May 23, there were 27 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 5 (19%) are academically connected and 12 (44%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Tarrytown, NY: BASF would like to hire a B.S./M.S. chemist to perform elemental analyses. Experience with
instrumental methods such as XRF, GFAA, FAA, ICP-OES and physical property measurement such as surface area, zeta potential, color measurement and surface tension/contact angle are also desired. (I'm amused that "financial accountability" before any comments about lab safety. Oh, well.)

Thousand Oaks, CA: Amgen is looking for a Principal Scientist to be a subject matter expert for the selection of raw materials for pharmaceutical manufacture. 10 years of experience desired, as well as "[e]xtensive knowledge of the manufacturing processes of raw materials, their usage, regulatory/compendial requirements, practices, physical/chemical properties and compatibility with proteins, and risks associated with the raw materials for pharmaceutical and biological products is desirable, along with the ability to assess the impact of changes in materials or manufacturing processes."

I found the educational requirements quite egalitarian: "Doctorate degree & 2 years of directly related experience OR master’s degree & 6 years of directly related experience OR bachelor’s degree & 8 years of directly related experience OR associate’s degree & 10 years of directly related experience OR high school diploma / GED & 12 years of directly related experience."

Feel like fracking?: Unimin Corporation (Spruce Pine, NC) is looking for a B.S./M.S. chemist to work on the development of proppants (an additive to help with hydraulic fracturing, looks like.) Lab scale to pilot plant scale up and product development is a part of this position; "recent graduates will be considered."

Wilmington, OH: TimberTech is a company that develops wood products for decking, railing and fencing. They're looking for 2 positions, a senior analytical chemist (B.S./M.S./Ph.D., 3 years of industrial experience desired) and a formulations chemist (M.S./Ph.D., 3+ years experience.)

Smokin'!: The Kentucky Tobacco R&D Center would like to hire a Ph.D. analytical chemist with 3 years experience in analyzing tobacco products. This position is the "reference cigarette" program and will also be involved in developing tobacco products for FDA approval. Smoke chemistry experience desired. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Compression saddles

A list of small, useful things (links):
Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!

Process Wednesday: directionality of agitators can be important!

In passing recently, I heard that it might matter which direction (clockwise/counter-clockwise) an agitator was stirring in a reactor. I was a little surprised by this, but looking through the Handbook of Industrial Mixing, I see that it indeed matters (emphasis mine):
In addition to suspending solids off the tank bottom, a process may require homogenous suspension throughout the bulk. An additional axial flow impeller, perhaps an up-pumping one, may be needed at a higher level for this purpose... 
When using axial flow impellers, the mixer rotation can be reversed to create up-pumping action. This pumping mode can be effective for some systems, such as entrainment of floating solids and gas dispersion. The up-pumping flow provides an effective mechanism for incorporating lighter solids on the liquid surface near the wall. This avoids the need for creating a vortex, which can cause air entrainment and mechanical vibrations (see Chapter 10). For gas dispersion, the up-pumping impeller is generally used at the bottom along with a down-pumping impeller at the top. Such a configuration can provide good gas-holding capacity and prevent mechanical vibrations caused by opposite flows resulting from a down-pumping impeller at the bottom. 
So apparently there's "up-pumping" and "down-pumping" (parallel to the agitator shaft, I assume) and depending on the relative density of things inside your reactor (gases, solids, liquids, etc.), you might want to do either one. Worth remembering, I suppose.

#ToxicCarnival: Fluoroacetate

Credit: Wikipedia
I don't really have a favorite element, but if I had to choose one, I'd choose fluorine. It's such an interesting atom, especially combined with carbon. Its small size and strong electronegativity provide polymer chemists with interesting physical properties; the strong bond with carbon allows medicinal chemists the ability to block metabolic oxidation and keep their drug compounds in circulation just a little longer.

When Matt Hartings asked for bloggers to write about their favorite toxic compounds, I couldn't help but think of one of the first things I learned about fluorine and fluoroacetic acid. What happens when fluoroacetic acid (oh-so-similar to acetic acid in size) enters the citric acid cycle in place of acetic acid and is converted to fluorocitric acid? 
It is quite interesting to note that citrate synthase stereospecifically constructs (2R, 3R)-4 (fluorocitric acid) out of four possible diastereomers and, in spite of the extremely poisonous nature of this isomer, causing convulsions and ventricular fibrillation, the three other stereoisomers are not toxic. Thus, this is expressed as the "lethal synthesis" by citrate synthase.
Lethal synthesis! As you can imagine, this really struck me -- what a phrase! It was just a remarkable thing to learn, reading page 2 of a book on fluorine chemistry (the source of the above quote.)

Fluoroacetic acid (or its sodium salt, sodium fluoroacetate), one notes, is quite the poison. It's naturally occuring in a number of rather toxic plants in Africa, Asia and Australia. It's apparently toxic to just about everything (probably because just about everything has the citric acid cycle.) It's used to kill coyotes and (perhaps unsurprisingly) rodents.

Credit: Cox et al. J. Med. Chem. 2008, 51, 4239–4252
The ability of fluoroacetate to kill rodents brings us to our last story. The last thing that I really enjoy about fluoroacetic acid is how it popped up as an interesting little side note in a 2008 J. Med. Chem. paper where some Merck medicinal chemists were concerned about the acute toxicity of an anti-cancer compound with a fluoroethylpiperidine moiety. The authors explain their findings:
As part of our preclinical evaluation of 14, we studied dose proportionality in the rat with iv bolus doses of 1, 4, and 12 mg/kg. As desired, a linear increase in exposure with dose was observed, with 14 achieving AUC levels of 0.5, 2.5, and 9.5 μM h-1, respectively; however, we were surprised to find mortality within 12 h postdose in 2 of 3 rats in the 12 mg/kg group. 
Acute toxicity is not an expected mechanism-based effect for inhibition of KSP and has not been observed in our preclinical program with any compound other than 14. The dose-limiting, mechanism-based toxicity observed for KSP inhibitors both preclinically and in humans is neutropenia (depletion of white blood cells) and typically manifests in 4-10 days following compound adminstration. 
In our search for a compound-specific source of toxicity, we identified the fluoroethylamine of 14 as a potential liability. If N-dealkylation of the piperidine ring were to occur in vivo, a likely byproduct would be fluoroacetate, a known toxin with acute pharmacology. In fact, we discovered that N-dealkylated analogue 12 is the major metabolite generated in rat liver microsome and hepatocyte incubations, suggesting that formation of fluoroacetate is indeed the source of toxicity in vivo.
One imagines that Cox et al always viewed that fluoroethyl moiety with some level of apprehension and their fears were confirmed by their metabolic studies. The ability of the liver (even the rat liver!) to chew apart molecules is remarkable -- oxidizing a fluoroethyl to fluoroacetate is just another fascinating (and not entirely unexpected) example.

So for fluoroacetate's ability to reveal the inner workings of biochemistry, it's one of my favorite toxic compounds. 

Daily Pump Trap: 5/22/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 17 and May 21, there were 62 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 11 (18%) are academically connected and 49 (79%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

So here's what I want to know: The Air Force is hiring a director of analytical radiochemistry, I think:
This position will be located in a new 38,000 square foot radiochemistry laboratory that will support the Air Force Technical Applications Center's (AFTAC) Nuclear Debris Collection and Analysis Program by performing high confidence measurements in support of the U.S. Atomic Energy Detection System. This position supports national-level materials treaty monitoring programs.
I'm sure that this is just a routine budget thing, but one hopes that the government doesn't really need a new nuclear weapons detection laboratory. Oh, well.

Richmond, CA: Chevron would like to hire a M.S./Ph.D. analytical chemist to perform atomic spectroscopy. 2+ years performing petroleum analysis chemistry desired, as well as GC/ICP/MS chemistry.

Unknown, unknown: Someone would like to hire a really experienced Ph.D. chemist, and not give them a particularly impressive title ('scientist' (perhaps the recruiter didn't catch the traditional 'principal' or 'senior')). Check out the preferred qualifications: "Ph.D. degree plus 2 years of process chemistry or material science industrial experience, preferred in crystallization development by FBRM, PVM, and ReactIR technologies. Experience in using Easymax or HEL AutoMATE chemical reactor. Experience in using Biotage, prep-HPLC, Akta, and size exclusion purification techniques."

Best of luck, I suppose.

Zeroes!: Ironwood Pharmaceuticals (Boston, MA) is hiring a Ph.D. organic chemist, 0-3 years experience. The HR person is going to be emptying their inbox with a shovel.  

Baton Rouge, LA: Albermarle is hiring a polymer chemist to work in their flame retardant and curatives department; no educational experience noted.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/22/2012 edition

Good morning! Between May 15 and May 21, there were 18 new academically connected positions posted on the ACS Careers website. The numbers:

Total number of ads:   18
- Postdocs: 3
- Tenure-track faculty:  14
- Temporary faculty:   1
- Lecturer positions:  0
- Staff positions:  0
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 12 / 6

Fort Collins, CO: Colorado State University is hiring an assistant professor of radiochemistry.

Miami Gardens, FL: St. Thomas University is hiring an assistant professor of physical chemistry. Experience with distance learning desired.

Beijing, China: The College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at Peking University is looking for young assistant professors to be fed to the tenure-track grinder to make advances in the cutting-edge of chemical research. Probably worth a look; it's a prestigious university in China.

Tuscon, AZ: The University of Arizona's Dr. Steven Schwarz is looking for postdocs for his group; applicants should have a background in theoretical chemistry with experience in analytic and computational research.

Monday, May 21, 2012

#ToxicCarnival over at ScienceGeist

I'm terribly sorry, but there isn't/hasn't been much time to blog today, but Matt Hartings' ScienceGeist is running a blog carnival of favorite toxic compounds. See Arr Oh, Derek Lowe and Russ Phifer and excimer have all contributed great posts. (I think SAO's post is really nice; a good look into the toxicology data -- the comments are edifying too.)

Go over there and enjoy!

(My entry tomorrow, I hope.)

A vote for alternative careers

From this week's C&EN, another letter from someone who has had a good career after a B.S. in chemistry (responding to both Mrs. Flohr and the high level of chemist unemployment):
I wholeheartedly agree with Rudy Baum’s editorial “Chemical Employment,” in which he says that chemistry “remains a wonderful intellectual pursuit that can lead to many different career paths” (C&EN, April 16, page 3). In my case, a B.S. in chemistry enabled me to have a successful 30-year career with the Department of Defense until I retired in 2009. 
Although my employment was not directly in the chemical field, everything I studied, including organic chemistry and polymer science and engineering, was applicable to my work. From missile solid-rocket motors to composite aircraft structures to space systems, my chemistry education was extremely valuable to my work. 
In retirement I’ve used my chemistry background in my consulting with Red Bull Technology regarding materials for their Formula 1 race car. I’m sure there are many other career paths outside of direct employment in the chemical industry or university environment where a chemistry education is most beneficial. 
By Frank T. Traceski
Turners Falls, Mass. 
When older chemists talk about their chemistry degrees and how it enabled them to have a long, successful career, I want to believe them and I hope that it is true. However, I feel there's a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc reasoning; perhaps it was not their chemistry degree, but their innate ability to learn and adapt that was key. Who knows?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Washington Post reporter wants to talk to recently unemployed scientists

Science reporter Brian Vastag from the Washington Post is interested in talking to PhD-level researchers who've lost jobs in the past year or two. To contact him, please e-mail vastagb -at- washpost/dot/com. 

Independence: learn to be a Big Player in the lab

Not who you want to be in the lab. Credit: deepfriar
There's an aspect to lab work and "having your own project" as both a graduate student and a young industrial researcher that's best explained by that literary classic, Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT students Who Took Vegas for Millions. Here's one of the older members of the MIT blackjack team explaining their team structure to the new player:
"A Gorilla is just a big bettor. He gets called into a hot deck, stumbles over like a drunk rich kid, and starts throwing down big money. He doesn't think for himself -- he lets the Spotter tell him when the deck goes bad. He's just a Gorilla, brain-dead. But depending on how high the count is when he's signaled in, his percentage advanatage can be staggering. He doesn't count, he just bets and bets and waits for the seated Spotter to signal him that the run of good cards is over. Then he gets up and wanders off in search of his next call-in." 
[snip] "A Big Player," Martinez said as they crossed the street, "does it all. It's acting and counting and betting, it's tracking the shuffle and cutting to aces. It's the toughest role and the most important. You carry the big money, and you get yourself known by the casino personnel. They comp you the big suites because you're betting a thousand dollars a hand. You get called in by the Spotters, but then you take over the play. You do things the Gorilla can't, like raising the bet as the deck gets better -- but you have to do it with style, so the casino doesn't nail you. You have to look the part." 
Being a Gorilla on a grad school project can be nice -- you're just doing the work, you're not really responsible for any of the results, you're just doing what they tell you to do. It can be relaxing, but it doesn't grow your critical thinking skills. I suspect that at some point, you can't unlearn your Gorilla behavior and you're stuck.

At some point in your project in both graduate school and afterwards, you need to be able to be independent. The best way to learn to be independent in the lab is to become the relevant expert on your topic, such that your professor or (in industry) higher-up doesn't have to offer you day-to-day advice. Their strategic and long-term advice can be invaluable, of course -- so I wouldn't ignore it. But the sooner you can make the transition to being a Big Player, the better. 

Awesome Reader of the Century of the week: "Chemist"

So it may come as no surprise that Google keeps track of incoming links for me -- I was stunned to use that link to backtrack to this comment by "Chemist" over at a post about the "college costs too much / whoa, student loans" meme at progressive political blog Balloon Juice:
Count yourself lucky to have a job. The job market for chemists at all degree levels is the worst it has been in at least 30 years ( Even Ph.D. students from top 5 institutions are having a rough go finding gainful employment. The reality is that STEM = TE. Math and science are perilously close to being dead-end fields in the US.
"Chemist", by linking this blog on a major political blog (by renowned internet provocateur Freddie de Boer, even!) and quoting one of the two or three original things that I've said on this blog, you are the Awesome Reader of the Century of the week! (Really, there have only been two so far.) 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Pharmalot: Pfizer eliminates pensions

"I gotta letter from Fi-fi-feedelity? I think it's a check."
This is a predictable, yet disappointing move. From Ed Silverman of Pharmalot:
First, Pfizer recently told employees that severance packages would be reduced as of mid-May. Now, the big drugmaker plans to eliminate its defined benefit pension plan as of 2018 and will direct employees to funnel their money into a 401K investment account, according to a company memo. And the pending changes will apply to all employees, including the c-suite crowd, a Pfizer spokeswoman tells us. 
“The pension changes apply to colleagues at all levels, including executives,” the spokeswoman writes. “There are some exceptions, such as colleagues hired after (January 1), 2011, as they already participate in an enhanced savings plan, rather than a pension plan; certain union colleagues based in the US, per their collective bargaining agreement; and colleagues who were part of an acquisition and are not currently earning benefits under a Pfizer pension plan.”
A commenter on the post clarifies what this really means:
To put in human terms, the people who are getting shafted the most are those with around 10-15 years to go before retirement. Basically, if you are turning 55 anytime around 2018, you lose all of the accelerated growth in your pension prior to full retirement, costing some up to $600,000 or more. 
I'm torn about pensions and whether or not they're economically possible in These Modern Times; it just seems to me that a promise from a company that "30 years from now, I'll pay you a modest sum of money for work you're doing today" seems a little tenuous. 30 years from now, we could all be floating in our Jetsons-like cloud palaces. Or more likely, I'll be traveling with my family through a desert wasteland in dune buggies, fending off marauding bandits while searching for an abandoned (yet still working) multiprobe NMR.*

In all seriousness, it's just one more kick in the shins to Pfizer scientists that have put in more time at the company, and now have to stash that much more in their 401ks and IRAs to prevent themselves from eating cat food at 72. Best wishes to them, and all of us.

*Hopefully, the Postman will come, bearing a Pfizer pension check. I won't hold my breath. 

Why STEM is TE: H-1B edition

Via Beryl Benderly of Science Careers, a nice Congressional Research Service report by Ruth Ellen Wasem on the current state of the H-1B visa program with some informative numbers and graphs:
"Over the years, a noteworthy portion of H-1B beneficiaries have worked in STEM occupations. In FY2010, the most recent year for which detailed data on H-1B beneficiaries (i.e., workers renewing their visas as well newly arriving workers) are available, almost 91,000 H-1B workers were employed in computer-related occupations, and they made up 47% of all H-1B beneficiaries that year, as Figure 5 indicates. Architectural and engineering occupations as well as occupations in education were tied at a distant second with 10% each. Administrative occupations followed with 9%, and health and medicine occupations were 8% of the 192,990 H-1B beneficiaries. The total number of H-1B beneficiaries reported for FY2010 (192,990) and shown in Figure 5 was less than the number of approved H-1B petitions approved that year as depicted in Figure 4."
Credit: Congressional Research Service, annotated by Chemjobber
There's a lot of talk about H-1B visa holders affecting the chemistry job market; I suspect this is evidence that it's not particularly large (what percentage of the 2% of 192,990 (3,859) visa holders are in chemistry? Hard to say.)

But what this graph really tells me is that the H-1B visa program disproportionately affects the technology and engineering fields more than science and mathematics. Yet more evidence that when politicians and the media talk about STEM, they're really talking about TE.  

Daily Pump Trap: 5/17/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 15 and May 16, there were 24 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 9 (38%) are academically connected and 10 (42%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Zeroes!PPG Industries is hiring a Ph.D. analytical chemist, 0-2 years experience with GC/HPLC. Nice!

Huh?: Metrex is a company that makes disinfectants; they're looking for a formulating chemist, I think:
Must have a minimum of a Master's degree in Chemistry - Ph.D. strongly preferred (analytical or physical chemistry as opposed to organic however if organic then formulations over synthetics which have more products , testing, evaluation and launches)
Just as long as you have an idea what you want.

Torrance, CA: I think Phenomenex is looking for a lab tech with an associate's degree with 2 years experience in QA/QC.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 273, 790, 3,208 and 37 positions for the search term "chemist." 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Thoughts while sitting in a meeting

  1. Are we really going to rehash this again? 
  2. Can I subtly signal my irritation at this conversation thread? 
  3. What this conversation needs is a good traffic-flow analysis. 
  4. And now comes the 20-minute tangent...
  5. Isn't my wife great? I love my wife. 
  6. If we didn't have ears, we'd look like weasels.
  7. Well, wasn't that productive!
  8. What makes people think that talking is going to change things? 
  9. Wow, that person's point just got crushed like roadkill. 
  10. Thanks, EPA, for making those satellite accumulation rules so clear!
  11. Passive-aggression is really excellent. 
  12. Oh, that's an engineering problem. Thank God!  

Process Wednesday: what the heck is Hastelloy?

It took me a while to figure out the different types of reactor metals that a typical plant has. There's the classic Pfaudler glass-lined steel (with its lovely purple hue), there's stainless-steel reactors and then there's Hastelloy. What the heck is Hastelloy, anyway?

According to Wikipedia (and Haynes International, the manufacturer of Hastelloy), it's basically corrosion-resistant nickel that's alloyed with other metals:
The predominant alloying ingredient is typically the transition metal nickel. Other alloying ingredients are added to nickel in each of the subcategories of this trademark designation and include varying percentages of the elements molybdenum, chromium, cobalt, iron, copper, manganese, titanium, zirconium, aluminum, carbon, and tungsten. 
The primary function of the Hastelloy super alloys is that of effective survival under high-temperature, high-stress service in a moderately to severely corrosive, and/or erosion-prone environment where more common and less expensive iron-based alloys would fail, including the pressure vessels of some nuclear reactors, chemical reactors, distillation equipment, and pipes and valves in chemical industry. (Emphasis CJs) Although a super alloy, Hastelloy does experience degradation due to fabricating and handling. Electropolishing or passivation of Hastelloy can improve corrosion resistance.
Good to know.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Why choose a Ph.D. in chemistry? A response to @DocFreeride

A while back, Janet Stemwedel wrote a long, detailed response to my comment on Jon Bardin's commentary (got that?) on the angst of senior science graduate students looking for jobs.

I'll paraphrase some of her main points here:
  • Like Jon Bardin suggests, getting a PhD in the sciences is about more than money. 
  • Chemistry graduate students aren't special in facing difficult job prospects -- philosophy students have always faced this!
  • Chemistry graduate students, for some reason, have never calculated their job prospects accurately. Perhaps it's that they don't care (they're young, dumb, and full of confidence!) or perhaps (purposely?) they are misinformed.
  • Attempting to lower supply of PhD chemists might be unwise and may result in cutting off options for young people who love chemistry. 
As you can tell from the time that has passed, I've wrestled with Dr. Stemwedel's essay quite a bit over these last weeks. I hesitate to say that the essay has persuaded me, but it has got me thinking about these issues more. Some direct responses to my reading of her points:

The knowledge problem: I agree that chemistry undergraduates and graduate students don't know and possibly don't care about their job prospects. For those that do, there's the ACS Salary Survey/ChemCensus, the ACS Starting Salary Survey, their advisers, their fellow students and postdocs, the rumor mill (and this blog.) I don't think (and apparently, neither does she) that they're purposely misinformed. I think it's more likely that professors just don't have the incentives set up to keep track of all of this information: career prospects, hot fields or the overall state of the #chemjobs market. (What's worse is that I'm not sure anyone knows the current state of the chemistry jobs market. I try my hardest to measure where I can, but I do this as a hobby, not a day job. The American Chemical Society has decided to put its effort into 3 or 4 measurements, spread out through the year. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does its thing once a year. That's pretty much the extent of what's out there.)

The casino problem: The metaphor that she uses for a portion of the essay is a casino:
How exactly are chemistry graduate students presumed to be different here [than philosophy graduate students]? Maybe they are placing their bets at a table with higher payoffs, and where the game is more likely to pay off in the first place. But this is still not a situation in which one should expect that everyone is always going to win. Sometimes the house will win instead. 
(Who’s the house in this metaphor? Is it the PIs who depend on cheap grad-student labor? Universities with hordes of pre-meds who need chemistry TAs and lab instructors? The public that gets a screaming deal on knowledge production when you break it down in terms of price per publishable unit? A public that includes somewhat more members with a clearer idea of how scientific knowledge is built? Specifying the identity of the house is left as an exercise for the reader.) 
Maybe the relevant difference between taking a gamble on a philosophy Ph.D. and taking a gamble on a chemistry Ph.D. is that the players in the latter have, purposely or accidentally, not been given accurate information about the odds of the game.
I think the casino metaphor is useful, but incomplete. It is my understanding that philosophy graduate students pay for their own tuition, teach classes/get a fellowship to get a stipend and generally need to more or less fend for themselves (with student loans making up the difference.)* In the case of chemistry graduate students, tuition is very rarely paid by graduate students (as opposed to their departments/advisers) and teaching classes is seen as a temporary problem until their professors support them. (In fact, many departments severely frown on students taking outside odd jobs to gain more money.) While finding prestigious postdocs (and NIH/NSF postdoctoral fellowships) are difficult, it is always possible to find a postdoc somewhere. Federal or state funding, of course, pays for all of this.

Not only are philosophy students playing a different game in the casino, they're also being charged admission to the house. They probably see the bills upfront and regularly. On the other hand, it's probably only a mild exaggeration to say that workers in academic chemistry are not charged admission and are plied with free drinks and food while they sit (and toil!) at the tables . In short, the costs (opportunity and otherwise) may be more obscure for chemistry graduate students than those in philosophy.

*UPDATE: Dr. Stemwedel points out that philosophy students are funded fairly similarly to chemistry graduate students: "Ph.D. students in philosophy don't pay their own tuition, either. It's pretty much just the same deal as Ph.D. programs in chemistry, except the TAing probably involves less contact with pre-meds, and the number of years of guaranteed support is usually lower (4-5 years), which means that if you go beyond that (which many do), you need to find a job, or a stop-gap grant, or take out loans."

What's it all about? Her concluding paragraph:
"[T]he whole discussion suggests to me that the very best reason to pursue a Ph.D. in chemistry is because you want to learn what it is like to build new knowledge in chemistry, in an academic setting. Since being plugged into a particular kind of career (or even job) on the other end is a crap-shoot, if you don’t want to learn about this knowledge-building process — and want it enough to put up with long hours, crummy pay, unrewarding piles of grading, and the like — then possibly a Ph.D. program is not the best way to spend 5+ years of your life."
I don't know how to choose a career (or a career path), but when I think about the different motivations that might enter the decision, I think of the diagram above. I don't know where I came up with this Venn diagram, but it's been in my head (Kekule-like) since I've been reading responses to my Bardin post. Maybe you would come up with a different Venn diagram with different factors, but those are the ones that come to mind. It's fairly self-explanatory, with factors like love (the sheer joy of chemistry), status (e.g. that we are thought well of by our friends and family for having an advanced degree, that I am proud to be a manufacturing chemist) and money (i.e. for the most part, our jobs pay an above-median wage) lend themselves to thinking that a Ph.D. in chemistry might be a good deal. I feel each one of these factors deeply.

This blog (and all of the #chemjobs talk that I do) is basically worrying about the fact that love and status will not make up for the changing economy and how it affects money. To me, Dr. Stemwedel's post says "Forget about money -- will love and status will be enough for you?"

For me, that answer (most days) is "Yes, for now." And for you?

Daily Pump Trap: 5/15/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 10 and May 14, there were 54 new positions posted on the ACS Careers website. Of these, 5 (9%) were academically connected and 36 (67%) were from Kelly Scientific Resources.

East Walpole, MA: Siemens Healthcare Diagnostics is looking for a  Ph.D. organic chemist with experience in chemiluminescence. 2+ years experience desired.

Are you on the journey?: BASF is hiring a Ph.D. chemist with 3+ years experience in graphene research and gas-phase synthesis of carbon materials. They've an interesting way of putting the experience level they want: "The position requires a fully qualified professional at the journey level."

Chandler, AZ: Intel Corporation desires a B.S.-to-Ph.D. process engineer; experience in the semiconductor processing field desired.

Now this is the way to do it: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories is looking for a safety coordinator. What's the first thing they're asking for?
Candidates MUST HAVE a detailed, hands-on understanding of chemistry and/or laser safety and extensive experience in chemical or laser research; excellent people skills; and a demonstrated proactive attitude towards safety. Education: Minimum of Masters’ Degree in Chemistry or related scientific or safety discipline, and 1-3 years of relevant experience or an equivalent combination of education and experience. 
If I were hiring a safety coordinator, that's how I would do it, too.

Cambridge, MA: Vertex is still hiring on the development side of the house (ever notice they barely hire any medicinal chemists, especially permanent ones?): they're looking for a DSC chemist (zero years experience for Ph.D. chemists!), among others.

You again: Cabot Microelectronics Corporation still hasn't found the polishing slurry chemist they've been looking for. Shortage!

Oklahoma City, OK: Tronox is looking for a M.S./Ph.D. chemist with experience in both polymer chemistry and titanium dioxide applications.

UPDATE: Anon051520121207p correctly notes that I forgot the 1 medicinal chemistry of the recent past!

South San Francisco: Genentech wishes to hire a Ph.D. chemist (2+ years experience) to be a discovery chemistry scientist. Here's the core of the ad:
Individuals need to possess a thorough understanding of synthetic chemistry and demonstrate a strong record of achievement in at least two pharmaceutical development programs. Qualified candidates will play a significant role in the management of current small molecule projects and leading multidisciplinary teams. 
Ph.D. in organic chemistry with at least 2 years of experience in the pharmaceutical industry and demonstrated impact on drug discovery programs (patents, process improvements, publications, etc), including team leadership experience.
 There's a title/experience/job description/requirements mismatch here that I don't quite understand.

Ivory Filter Flask: 5/15/12 edition

Good morning! Between May 8 and May 14, there were 9 academic positions posted on the ACS Careers website. The numbers:

Total number of ads:   9
- Postdocs: 3
- Tenure-track faculty:  3
- Temporary faculty:   1
- Lecturer positions:  1
- Staff positions:  2
- Ratio of US/non-US positions: 9 / 0

Ruidoso, NM: Eastern New Mexico University is searching for a tenure-track assistant professor of organic chemistry. Sounds intriguing.

Pasadena, CA: CalTech seems to be hiring a laboratory maintenance guy/gal "scientific research and engineering specialist." B.S. degree and/or 6+ years experience in lab experience desired.

Milwaukee, WI: The Medical College of Wisconsin is hiring an analytical chemist to perform GC/MS and LC/MS; Ph.D. and 3+ years experience desired.

Small College of the Week: Lyon College (Batesville, AR, student population: 600, SA-LUTE!) is hiring a visiting assistant professor of chemistry to specialize in analytical chemistry. Conversion to a tenure-track position is possible (shiny!); you'll be teaching instrumental analysis and advanced inorganic chemistry.

Monday, May 14, 2012

#BadBosutinib: It's not paranoid if the molecules are really out to get you

Would you have caught this problem?
Credit: Chemical and Engineering News
a.k.a. Don't take the bad bosutinib!

From the pages of Chemical and Engineering News, a synthetic mystery story by Bethany Halford that is so freaky, you'll go back to your lab and try not to put every bottle through a full characterization study:
Some bad bosutinib is going around. Scientists who have purchased the compound may have actually received an isomer rather than the genuine molecule. 
Bosutinib, also known as SKI-606, is currently in Phase III clinical trials to treat chronic myeloid leukemia. Officials at Pfizer, the company sponsoring the clinical trials, say that only genuine bosutinib has been administered to patients. However, as a selective kinase inhibitor, the compound is also used in medical and basic research. The news that researchers may have unwittingly been using an isomer of bosutinib instead of using the genuine compound threatens to invalidate research efforts around the world. 
The first inklings that there may be problems in the bosutinib supply were discovered in December, when Nicholas M. Levinson, a postdoc at Stanford University, noticed something funny in the Protein Data Bank. A structure recently deposited by Stefan Knapp, Frank von Delft, and coworkers at England’s Oxford University was supposed to show bosutinib bound to a kinase, but the arrangement of one of the ligand’s atoms was wrong. 
It was a subtle difference. Bosutinib has a chloro group on the 2-position of its aniline subunit, but this was missing in the Oxford structure. Instead, this molecule appeared to have a chlorine in the 3-position, where bosutinib has only a hydrogen. (Emphasis CJ's)  
Levinson had been working on the structure of bosutinib bound to a different kinase, and when he saw this new structure, it convinced him that what had been a nagging inconsistency in his own work was actually a widespread problem. 
Levinson and Boxer put their publication on hold, ordered bosutinib from a different vendor, and did a battery of tests to determine which material was the genuine bosutinib. They soon figured out the original compound they had done all their research on turned out not to be bosutinib. “We had wasted a huge amount of time and money on the wrong isomer,” Boxer says. On the basis of multidimensional nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) experiments, Boxer and Levinson believe that this isomer not only has a chlorine at the 3-position rather than the 2-position, but also that the chloro and methoxy groups that appear in the 4- and 5-positions, respectively, in bosutinib’s aniline moiety have been switched. (Emphasis CJ's)
What I find interesting is that the relevant company (LC Pharmaceuticals) that sold the research sample to Stanford has started blogging about this issue, and in a February report, he raises questions about Wyeth/Pfizer's own characterization of the compounds:
 Bosutinib (of empirical formula C26H29Cl2N5O3) could be taken to be one or more of:
(i) a particular arrangement of those atoms and bonds depicted graphically, such as in Figure 2, as was published in the 2001 J. Med. Chem. article. 
(ii) a substance in a bottle at Wyeth-Ayerst (the company that originated bosutinib and was later acquired by Pfizer) at the time that company first made the compound;
(iii) a substance made by a particular synthetic sequence and reaction conditions, such as in J. Med. Chem., op. cit. or by one of the three other published synthetic routes that we are aware of; 
(iv) a substance with (i) certain specific inhibitory potencies or inactivities when tested on a panel of eleven rat and human kinases [Cancer Res. 66: 11314-11322 (2006)] or (ii) other activity profiles as measured in other set(s) of bioassays;
or, a new, very important alternative: 
(v) the substance that is being administered to human patients in Pfizer-sponsored clinical trials.
In Bethany Halford's article, Pfizer makes very clear statements that only the correct bosutinib has been given to patients. Boy, for their sake, I sure hope they're right.

As a synthetic chemist (and someone who used to make molecules for sale to researchers), I'm in profound sympathy with LC Pharmaceuticals. I would like to think that I would have caught the weird NMR issues (Figure S2, Word document) and I would have noticed that things that weren't symmetrical were acting symmetrically. I hope that I am right.

Finally, I believe that this mistake could have happened to anyone. However, the fact that the incorrect compounds came to LC Pharmaceuticals by way of Chinese manufacturers cannot escape anyone's notice nor improve their reputation (or lack thereof) for quality.

Readers, would you have caught this? What, if anything, would you do to make sure this didn't happen to you?

Should companies start an industrial postdoc program?

Over at In The Pipeline, a reader writes in with a question for Derek Lowe:
". . .as a member of a growing biopharma company I am tasked with evaluating the effectiveness of industrial post-docs from both a business perspective and the post-doc's experience. Specifically, we are considering adding one for a short-term (2yr) to add headcount to a project. This adds resources without the long term commitment and also gives the scientists on site a chance for a paper they otherwise might not have time to work on. The candidate obviously gets a well-paid post-doc experience, and an industrial foot in the door. But, does this model work? I imagine that if it were that cut and dried you would see more of them."
Go on over there to read Derek's response; the comments are good, too.  

Chemical companies 1Q earnings a little wobbly

From this week's C&EN, a writeup of the first quarter results for chemical firms by Melody Bomgardner: 
"Earnings reports for the first quarter of 2012 highlight the diversity of the U.S. chemical industry. While several firms took advantage of a strong and profitable start to the agriculture season, other companies battled weak demand in Europe, slowing growth in Asia, and comatose end markets for electronics and other durable goods. For the 24 firms tracked by C&EN, sales in the first quarter grew an average of 6.4% compared with the year-ago period. It is the slowest growth rate since the end of the recession in the fourth quarter of 2009. In recent quarters, the industry increased revenues and earnings by raising prices, but in the first quarter of 2012, the strategy did not make up for receding sales volumes; earnings sank 8.4% compared with last year. [snip] 
...The progress that Liveris spied in March seems to have continued into April, according to a review of economic indicators by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group of U.S. chemical makers. Chief Economist T. Kevin Swift lists gains in consumer income and spending, sales of light vehicles, and upticks in construction and manufacturing as positives for chemical firms.  
“From a global viewpoint, the U.S. gain in factory output [in April] offset weakness in the euro area,” he said. “How long this can continue is the big question.” Employment gains for the month were lower than expected, fueling concerns that the recovery has slowed in recent months, Swift cautioned. "
I think we would all like to think that the economy is going to keep improving and suddenly go into a strong 3% GDP/year phase, where we'll all get raises and prices for consumer goods will drop, drop, drop. That doesn't really seem to be the case, does it?

I sure hope T. Kevin Swift is a pessimist (and enough of one.) 

Friday, May 11, 2012

Traffic flow problems or, get the $#$#$ out of my way!

The siting of instruments and balances in a laboratory are extraordinarily fraught things. Once instruments have been placed, the status quo bias is quite strong and you're locking people into certain traffic flows within a small space.
Culver's, south Prairie City, USA.
(the one on the main drag)

Of course, it's not as if the architecture of the room or building itself doesn't set up these patterns. Behold the image to my right, which is the floor plan of what was the local version of my favorite chain hamburger joint of all time, Culver's. For some reason, a standard Culver's floor plan has this ridiculous room that attempts to cram the soft drink fountain, the ketchup/mustard and napkins in a tiny narrow space. In addition, there was only one place to get the lids for cups (left side of the fountain). You can imagine all the traffic snarls as a bunch of Midwesterners tried to (very, very politely) navigate their way through getting condiments, napkins and drinks in a 10 foot by 4 foot space.

In a typical synthetic organic chemistry laboratory, the siting of group equipment probably can generate the same problem. Rotovaps, vacuum pumps, common consumables, solvents and balances (and hoods!) will all generate easy traffic flow or ridiculous snarls where awkward people will have to dance awkwardly with people.

After you, no, after you, no, I insist, after you. MOVE OUT OF THE WAY &^*&*&*%%$%%%!

Sigh. Have a good weekend!

Question from a reader

A reader writes in to ask about a reference: Liessmann, G.; Schmidt, W.; Reiffarth, S. Recommended Thermophysical Data; data compilation of the Saechsische Olefinwerke: Boehlen, Germany, 1995.

He says: "I clicked pretty much every link that shows up in google and can't find the source. Have you heard about it? Apparently it contains a ton of useful data on solvents etc."

Anyone have an idea as to where to find this? I've struck out myself, but I haven't searched any libraries.

Andrew Liveris: the gift that keeps giving

Andrew Liveris was interviewed on Marketplace yesterday, and he brought his trademark foot-in-mouth-ism with him. Here he is, identifying the dark matter problem in the universe:
Ryssdal: What do you do when the first thing that most people think of when Dow Chemical comes to mind is "oh man, whatever they make is probably toxic. It's chemicals, it's hydrocarbons -- holy geez, I don't want any of that stuff." 
Liveris: Yeah, it's a branding topic. So we've got to go out there and really re-educate humanity, because at the end of the day, 95 percent of all products out there have chemistry in them. 
As both Dr. Rubidium (~nsfw language) and See Arr Oh already said, what's the other 5%?!?

Of course, Liveris was trying to say that most, if not all, manufactured products use products from the chemical industry. But it would have been really nice if Mr. Liveris (a chemical engineer) would also have attempted to correct Ryssdal's suggested stereotype a little more forcefully. "I believe chemicals can be a force for good for humanity" or something equally cheesy might have helped. (Who knows, perhaps it ended up on the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor.)

While Mr. Liveris did not take the time to push his trademark "STEM degree holders get paid bazillions of dollars right out of school" baloney, he did try to steal second on jobs:
Ryssdal: And I'd be curious as to your perspective -- as a foreigner but one who has spent a lot of time in this country -- what your take is on the wailing and gnashing of teeth of the loss of American industry and manufacturing.
Liveris: The word manufacturing, you know, even the word industry just doesn't sit well. People think about it as a smokestack, environmental, yesterday's era; that everything should be services. Well last time I checked, you've gotta invent stuff, make stuff and sell stuff -- and then you'll service stuff. But if you don't do those first three things, who are you servicing? We really have to get our heads out of the notion that we can just be a service economy. 
The whole point I made from a Dow Chemical perspective is not only are we re-branding our company, but we're re-branding our industry. We're re-branding what science, technology, engineering, maths mean to this economy and how we can transfer that into American jobs for the next generation.
Boy, that sounds nice, doesn't it? (But what does it all mean, Basil?)

I'm pretty skeptical about Andrew Liveris' talk about American manufacturing jobs. It seems to me that he's consistently pushing for policies that will benefit his corporation without committing to siting manufacturing facilities in the United States. That is his prerogative as a CEO of a multinational corporation -- but don't try to dress it up in happy talk about "American jobs for the next generation."

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Needed: a futures market for PhDs?

Taken at the Chicago Board of Trade.
One of the core #chemjobs problems is the difficulty in predicting economic conditions 4-5 years into the future; as I have said in the past, when I entered graduate school, being an organic chemist in the pharmaceutical industry seemed like a reasonable goal. When I graduated, I found a different market (or I was less good at ignoring the signals.)

There's another group of people who have a difficult time deciding whether or not they should undertake a lengthy endeavor: farmers. How do they hedge the risk of planting in April and not knowing the price of corn when they'll be delivering in October? Well, there's always the futures market.

How it works, thanks to a helpful explanation from the Kansas City Board of Trade:
A futures contract is just what it's called - a contract. It is not equity in a stock or commodity. It is a contract - a contract to make or take delivery of a product in the future, at a price set in the present. If you agree in April with your Aunt Sue that you will buy two pounds of tomatoes from her garden for $5, to be delivered to you when they're ripe in July, you and Sue just entered into a futures contract. [snip]
Professionals such as grain merchants, energy firms and portfolio managers use futures and options to reduce the risk to their business associated with volatile prices. For example, a flour miller might use a futures contract to set a price now for wheat that he knows he will need to purchase in the future, rather than face the chance that prices could be even higher when he buys the wheat. Similarly, a natural gas producer might use a futures contract to set a price now for gas he will sell in the future, locking in a profit rather than being exposed to the possibility of lower prices. These types of futures and options users are known as hedgers, and are in the market specifically to reduce risk.
One could imagine a futures contract made with employers after a graduate student's candidacy exam, i.e. 2-3 years ahead of graduation: the student agrees to take a position at a specific wage in the future, locking in a somewhat lower wage in exchange for some stability. The employer agrees to "take delivery" of the Ph.D. student, with a knowledge that they won't be subject to spikes in labor costs. If this were to happen on an exchange (anonymized, in some fashion), people could see what the going rate for future chemists were, and whether or not they should attempt to "plant" more chemists.

I doubt that employers would be interested in participating in this sort of system; I assume there will always be plenty of chemists for them to choose from. I'm sure there are other awful flaws in my thinking, and there's no guarantee that there won't be a warehouse full of shrink-wrapped pallets of postdocs down by the docks who are all owned by Goldman Sachs. But there's something to be said for getting some price discovery on a future in chemistry.

Wanna work for free in San Diego?

I assume this sort of informal exchange is probably more common than is understood. But still:
Medicinal chemist (Torrey Pines) 
A San Diego biotech start up is looking for a hands-on medicinal chemist to synthesize small molecule heterocyclic drug candidates. The successful candidate will have had several years or more of experience in the lab, preferably in industry, and be able to search literature to create synthetic plans and extract relevant schemes and procedures. In addition, the successful candidate will need to know how to run samples and interpret NMR and LC-MS data. 
The company does not currently have funding, although we have applied for several grants and expect responses in the near future. Until the company is financed, salary will be paid in the form of company stock. (Emphasis CJ's) This is an excellent opportunity to get into a very promising start-up at the ground level. 
If interested, please send me a copy of your resume, and any questions you have about the company. 
Good heavens. (Thanks to reader IH for spotting this gem.)

UPDATE: From the comments, proof that I have excellent and very knowledgeable readers:

Advice for jobseekers looking for startup work (particularly aimed at this position):
1) Don't be enamoured with the number of zeroes in your stock amount. Know how many shares are outstanding and calculate the percent ownership of the company. If you are in "at the ground floor" and no pay as this guy says, you should probably be looking at double digit ownership. It could be up to 50% depending on how much experience you bring and how many partners are already on board. 
2) Find out what kind of stock you have. There are different types of stock and stock options. Make sure you get founders stock in this case. The differences are in payout order. When investors come in and you have regular employee stock options, you don't get paid until everyone who put money in gets their original investment. Founders stock puts you somewhere at the front of the line. 
3) Make sure your "strike price" is almost zero. The strike price is what you pay for options. Some places will make you pay that up front, some will subtract the original strike price from your future earnings. Figure out what your plan is. 
4) Make sure you negotiate your eventual salary and put everything in writing. If this is a good potential company, make sure you decouple the stock from your eventual salary. Based on the statistic that most startups fail within a few years, cash in hand is always worth more than the promise of future stock.
Thank you, Anon051020120900 -- I am honored that you're reading my blog.