Friday, February 27, 2015

Gotta love George Whitesides

Courtesy of See Arr Oh (who has a very cogent (and funny) post on this), here's George Whitesides criticizing (again) the chemical industry: 
This choice of direction has had several consequences: 1) it has ended (or constrained in scope and character) the unique and mutually beneficial intellectual partnership between industrial and academic chemistry that characterized the 1960s to 1980s (Figure 3). 2) It has increasingly limited the number of jobs for chemists in industry, and made a career in industrial chemistry less attractive for students choosing what to study. 3) It has limited the options for chemistry to explore new areas, since many of these areas (e.g., the materials science of porous media under hydrostatic pressure, or “fracking”; understanding if there is new chemistry—especially chemistry relevant to sequestration—that can be applied to carbon dioxide; the management of flows of material, energy, and information in cities; the development of new strategies for using solar energy) require the kinds of resources and skills in large-scale project management that only industry can provide.  
Industry continues to place a few large-scale bets in research (for example, synthetic biology to make fuels and specialty chemicals), but the number and audacity of these bets have declined sharply. Even the pharmaceutical industry—a long-term contributor to, and user of, sophisticated synthetic organic chemistry—increasingly considers synthesis a valuable, but primarily technical skill, and has turned to organismic and disease biology as the source of new products and services.
I couldn't agree more with Uncle George, but I would, wouldn't I? 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now that's an unfortunate title

I suspect this is actually one of those academic drug discovery former-pharma group leader positions, but tagging it with "adjunct professor series" is kinda painful. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/26/15 edition

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

Cleveland, OH: West-Ward Pharmaceuticals is hiring for 4 positions, including a B.S./M.S. Scientist I position. (0-2 years experience.) (Zeroes!)

Malvern, PA: Progenra (new company?) is looking for 2 experienced medicinal chemists, 1-10 years experience, all levels of education.

Menlo Park, CA: Pacific Biosciences is looking for a surface chemist, M.S./Ph.D., 5 years experience desired.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 260, 1340, 8769 and 22 positions for the search term "chemist." That's way, way up for Careerbuilder and Indeed, I believe. LinkedIn shows 619 results for the job title "chemist", with 37 for "research chemist", 87 for "analytical chemist", 2 for "organic chemist", 3 for "synthetic chemist" and 3 for "medicinal chemist."

What is Global Pharma Tek's business model?

Saw this ad through an Indeed search. What is this about? Global Pharma Tek has a website listing lots of QA/QC-type/GMP positions; something tells me that this is a temp/recruiting service that hires international folks only?

I'm confused.

(Hey, check out their partners - including the "Havard Clinical Research Institute." Something is very fishy here.) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bill Carroll: "to get the sharp corners knocked off you"

I have thrown a fair bit of criticism at ACS director-at-large Bill Carroll's way over the years. 

That said, like every experienced industrial chemist (even the ones who have left the lab), he has good tales to tell. He's starting a blog over at the ACS Network. I thought his first post was a good one, where he talks about his first years in industry: 
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl.  Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles.  But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped.  The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley.  I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow. 
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly.  But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast.  I wanted to make a difference in a hurry. 
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix.  I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about. 
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military.  After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion. 
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up. 
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths.  I couldn’t help but laugh.”  He was right.   He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“

So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress.  No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1.  Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can.  The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.

In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"

Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Job postings: senior scientist II, Abbvie, North Chicago; chemistry project manager, Wuppertal, Germany; senior analytical chemist, Cambridge, MA

From the inbox:

AbbVie: A process chemistry position: B.S./M.S./Ph.D. desired.

Wuppertal, Germany: A chemistry project manager position at Aicuris (new drug discovery firm?). No education requirement.

Cambridge, MA: Another analytical chemistry position at Broad, this time Ph.D. level.

Best wishes to those interested. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/24/15 edition

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

INVISTA: The Koch Brothers are hiring, with 6 positions over the last week.

Pleasanton, CA: Clorox is doing its usual spring hiring -- anyone have any comment about these positions?

Berkeley, CA: LBNL is hiring a "chemist research scientist" to manage its catalysis research facility. Ph.D. and 5 years experience desired.

Long Island, NY: Brookhaven is hiring a chemist/physicist for synchotron work. Ph.D. and 3 years of relevant experience desired.

Greenville, SC: A startup called "NUBAD, LLC" is hiring a synthetic chemist for a postdoctoral position. I would like to know "if this is a postdoctoral position, 1) will I be able to publish my work and 2) what kind of training are you offering?"

Livermore, CA: Assay Technologies is hiring a general manager.

Job posting: 2 visiting assistant professorships, Crawfordsville, IN

From the inbox: 
Visiting Assistant Professor of Analytical Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position in Analytical Chemistry to begin July 1, 2015. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry required. The successful candidate will teach analytical chemistry and contribute to first-year chemistry courses.  
The Chemistry Department is ACS certified, has six full-time faculty, excellent facilities and instrumentation, and support for undergraduate research. Further information about the department can be obtained here.   
Apply here;  and submit a letter of application, vitae, undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. 
Chair, Lon Porter at  
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position as a Visiting Assistant Professor beginning July 1, 2015. The area of specialization is open with renewal for a second year possible based on department and college needs. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry or biochemistry required. The teaching assignment of approximately 12 contact hours per semester will be primarily in general chemistry with other courses determined by area of specialization. 
To apply, go here  and submit a letter of application, vitae,  undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. Chair, Lon Porter at  
Wabash College, a liberal arts college for men, seeks faculty and staff committed to providing quality engagement with students, high levels of academic challenge and support, and meaningful diversity experiences that prepare students for life and leadership in a multicultural global world. We welcome applications from persons of all backgrounds. EOE.
Best wishes to those interested!  

Ivory Filter Flask: 2/24/15 edition

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

Rise of the VAPs: Everyone's looking for visiting assistant professors...

Davidson, NC: Davidson College is looking for a visiting assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University desires a visiting assistant professor of general chemistry.

Hamilton, NY: Colgate University wishes to hire a visiting assistant professor for a 2-year term, any subject.

Forest Grove, OR: Pacific University seeks 2 visiting assistant professors, one for inorganic and one for analytical.

Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong wishes to hire a tenure-track assistant professor of inorganic/organometallic chemistry.

Espoo, Finland: Aalto University is looking for a professor of biochemistry. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting tidbits:

Worthwhile safety warning on nitrogen in plant-scale Grignard quenches

...Performing a “kill reaction” or a quench of a reactive metal at the bench or at scale is always problematic and requires the skill and close attention of the process chemists and operators. I guess what I’d like to pass on is that nitrogen is not an innocent spectator in the presence of finely divided, activated magnesium. Humid nitrogen can support a combustion reaction to produce nitrided magnesium once preheated to an onset temperature. 
If you mean to kill any reactive residues, it is important to apply the quenching agent in such a manner that the heat generated can be readily absorbed in the quenching medium itself. A good example of a quenching agent is water. Often a reactive must be killed slowly due to gas generation or some particular. Adding a quenching agent to a solution or slurry by slow feed or titration may be your best bet. If you have another vessel available, a feed to a chilled quenching agent will also work.  Dribs and drabs of water on a neat reactive material will lead to hotspots that may be incendive.
Huh, worth considering.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Vox is wrong: the bad actor in Bakken shale is the gases, not benzene

UPDATE: Brad Plumer has made the correction. Thanks, Brad!

Vox's Brad Plumer had a nice explainer on oil trains derailing and exploding (written in light of the latest West Virginia derailment) which contained this line (emphasis mine): 
1) The newer oil is more volatile: Crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — where much of the new oil-by-rail is coming from — often contains extra chemicals like benzene that make the crude more flammable. The trains in the Lac-M├ęgantic and West Virginia accidents were both carrying crude from this region.
(Extra chemicals! N.B. there's always benzene in crude, I think.)

His source for this is (ultimately) desmogblog, which is better known as a climate change blog, I think. Here's their explanation:
...“Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.” 
Benzene is a carcinogen, while toluene, xylene and hexane are dangerous volatiles that can cause severe illnesses or even death at high levels of exposure.   
Scientific Vindication 
In a December 31 Google Hangout conversation between actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of Water Defense, and the group's chief scientist Scott Smith, Mr. Smith discussed the oil samples he collected on a previous visit to North Dakota's Bakken Shale. 
“What I know from the testing I've done on my own — I went out to the Bakken oil fields and pumped oil from the well — I know there are unprecedented levels of these explosive volatiles: benzene, toluene, xylene,” said Smith. 
“And from the data that I've gotten from third parties and tested myself, 30 to 40 percent of what's going into those rail cars are explosive volatiles, again that are not in typical oils.”
First, to a lab chemist, calling xylene a volatile is sort of odd (it has a boiling point of 140°C!), but everything is relative. When you're used to doing most of your reactions in THF (boiling point of 66°C) or say, heptane (boiling point of 98°C), then 140°C sounds pretty high. That said, EPA counts these aromatic solvents as VOCs, so that seems reasonable.

(Also, when your chief scientist has a degree in economics... I digress.)

But that said, I think there are many, many, many more volatile compounds than benzene in Bakken crude. This has been covered extensively by the Wall Street Journal -- here's a some nice examples of some of their explanations of the chemistry. From a February 2014 article by Russell Gold:
The rapid growth in Bakken production has far outpaced the installation of pipelines, which traditionally had been relied on to move oil from wells to refineries. Most shale oil from Texas moves through pipelines, but about 70% of Bakken crude travels by train.
Bakken crude actually is a mixture of oil, ethane, propane and other gaseous liquids, which are commingled far more than in conventional crude. Unlike conventional oil, which sometimes looks like black syrup, Bakken crude tends to be very light. "You can put it in your gas tank and run it," said Jason Nick, a product manager at testing-instruments company Ametek Inc. "It smells like gasoline."
Here's a July 2014 where Russell Gold and Chester Dawson say the same thing*:
Stabilizers use heat and pressure to force light hydrocarbon molecules—including ethane, butane and propane—to form into vapor and boil out of the liquid crude. The operation can lower the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car.
And yet another great explanation* by Alison Sider and Nicole Friedman:
There are geologic reasons that the new oil is particularly gassy and volatile. Over millions of years, organic material turns into a brew of hydrocarbons: crude oil, natural gas and other gas-infused liquids. The longer that fossil-fuel mixture cooks underground—in intense heat and under tremendous pressure—the more molecules escape from their source rocks and migrate to reservoirs where there is room to move around, says Scott Tinker, the state geologist for Texas. 
In those reservoirs, the oil and gas separate into less-dense gas on top and heavier crude oil below, much like a shaken vinaigrette settles into distinct layers. 
But shale rock is so dense that much less oil and gas escapes from it. The energy industry must frack shale to create tiny fissures so that oil and gas can flow out. Those minuscule pathways let only the smallest molecules rise, which is why large volumes of gas and the lightest liquids are coming out of the ground. 
In most cases, ultralight oil doesn't look like black gold. In fact, it can be as clear as water and some oil from the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas brims with so much dissolved gas that it bubbles, giving the appearance of boiling at room temperature. 
That gas makes ultralight shale oil highly combustible in a way conventional crude is not. In the past year, derailments of trains carrying light crude have resulted in spectacular blowups, including an explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec last July.
Ethane, propane and butane have boiling points of -89°C, -42°C and -1°C respectively. It seems intuitive to this chemist that they'd be far more flammable and more likely to burn and explode than benzene, toluene and xylenes. Vox is wrong, I think, and they should correct this.

(I should note that WSJ itself (and me, I guess) initially fell into this trap. I guess benzene just sounds like a bad actor.)

*How to get around the WSJ paywall -- search for the title of the article.

Oil refinery explosion on Wednesday in Torrance, CA

Refinery units are heavily damaged after an explosion at the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, California, February 18, 2015.  REUTERS-Bob Riha Jr.
Credit: Reuters
It is difficult for me not to be horrified by this picture of a Torrance, CA oil refinery that had an explosion on Wednesday. 

Here's a preliminary explanation/guess of what happened from Reuters:
Trade publication OPIS, citing an unidentified source, reported that an electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which reduces fluid catalytic cracker particulates, exploded as contract workers were doing maintenance on the nearby fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC. 
"Contractors working on the FCC to fix the expanders," the source said, adding that an injection of ammonia on top of the flue gas stream caused a pressure buildup, which resulted in the ESP unit explosion. 
The unit could take up to a year to replace, the source said.
(I confess that I don't understand refinery technology enough to know exactly what that means.)

It's likely a coincidence that the United Steelworkers union has decided to go on strike recently at a number of oil refineries around the country. That said, I think it definitely highlights their emphasis that this strike is about worker safety. I don't know enough of the issues to make a judgment, but that seems like something just as important as wages/benefits. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

More pictures that look funny

Job posting: analytical chemist, Broad Institute

From the inbox, an RA III position at the Broad Institute: 
Works within the Analytical Chemistry group to provide day-to-day maintenance and repair of analytical instrumentation. Role involves daily oversight of analytical instrumentation including UHPLC-MS, HPLC-MS, SFC-MS, NMR, and liquid handling such as Tecan. Instrumentation is used by either the analytical chemistry group or as open access for all institute members. 
May involve additional daily oversight of other scientific instrumentation within the Center for the Development of Therapeutics. Conduct bench level experiments and method development for analytical functions including purity assessment, purification, analytical screening (RapidFire), and ADME. 
Requires cross-functional interaction with organic chemists, software engineers, and other institute members on a daily basis. Responsibilities include, but are not limited to, operating and maintaining analytical laboratory instrumentation; preparing, ordering, and maintaining necessary reagents, solutions, and supplies; and data collection and analysis... 
Bachelor’s or master’s degree in chemistry or analytical chemistry and a minimum of five to seven years of experience in a research laboratory, or equivalent training and experience
Proficiency in the maintenance and operation of analytical instrumentation (LC, MS, NMR) with a focus on the technical/engineering aspects of the instrumentation
Knowledge of other scientific instrumentation (high-throughput-screening robotics, liquid handling) is an asset
Familiarity with vendor software packages including Waters MassLynx, Agilent MassHunter, AB Sciex Analyst/Discovery Quant, and Burker TopSpin
Strong analytical skills and the ability to work independently
Strong communication skills and the ability to interact collaboratively with all staff levels
Efficient organizational and time management skills and the ability to multi-task in a fast paced environment
Thanks to the sender! Best wishes to those interested. Apply here.

Daily Pump trap: 2/19/15

It's been a while, hasn't it? A few of the positions posted on the C&EN Jobs site this past week:

Salt Lake City, UT: The Utah Public Health Laboratory is hiring a head of environmental chemistry. M.S./Ph.D. desired.

Dallas, TX: Matheson Tri-Gas is looking for a lab technician -- they're going to C&EN Jobs for this? Maybe there really is a STEM shortage (kidding, kidding!)

Weird: What kind of position needs a process chemist in the Bahamas?

Boston, MA: Interesting carbohydrate chemistry position from Midori; Ph.D. level. Looks vaguely familiar.

Wickliffe, OH: I like the fact that Lubrizol is paying 90-100k for a seemingly entry-level Ph.D. position. (Maybe it's not, I dunno.)

Irvine, CA: What does Henkel Adhesive Technologies want to do with quantum dots? 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What's going on at Pixar?

A respected reader noted this article at Wired which measured the vaccine rates of parents who leave their children at Silicon Valley region company-run day care centers.

I tend to think this is a proxy for some other socioeconomic indicator, but I dunno. Thoughts?

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

A note/request on the "I Quit Graduate School in Chemistry" from Prof. Tehshik Yoon

An e-mail from someone I respect, Professor Tehshik Yoon, on this project: 
CJ and I exchanged a couple tweets of the other day, in which I expressed a bit of ambivalence about his #IQuitGradSchool project. Tweets, of course, are a terrible way to capture complicated feelings, so CJ reached out and offered me the opportunity to explain what I meant in a guest entry on his blog. 
So first of all, let me say that I essentially like the project.  What I like most about it is the same thing I like in general about chemistry blogs and Twitter and so on: I think it’s valuable whenever we speak openly and honestly about our experiences in graduate school.  Everybody struggles through the difficult transition from undergrad to grad school, and I think it helps us all feel less bad about it when we realize that this is true. 
In the stories that CJ has posted so far, I like the fact that so many respondents say they’ve landed in good places after leaving grad school, professionally and personally. And I think that’s a really important thing to acknowledge: leaving the PhD track is sometimes a good decision.  An MS is not some mere consolation prize, and it would be a mistake to consider it a personal failure. 
On the other hand, it’s also true that leaving graduate school is not the right decision in every case.  It would be great to get a little balance in the stories that are getting told here. 
So I’d really like to hear some success stories as well.  Tell me about times that the system worked: folks who had a hard time in grad school but ended up in good places; mentors who did the right thing by their students; stories of women, minorities, and LGBT students being supported by the field.
I set out on this project to learn from people who left graduate school and that's what I feel I've been doing by blogging about this. I still have at least 4 or 5 stories yet to edit and I plan on writing more about what I've learned.

I like Prof. Yoon's suggestion that I solicit stories from people who feel they succeeded in graduate school in chemistry, especially those who feel they overcame a barrier. I am committed to hearing from (and telling my readers about) as many stories of graduate school in chemistry as people want to tell. Thanks to Prof. Yoon for the suggestion. 

"E": "I met with my family and was overwhelmed with the support and relief."

Today's story on leaving graduate school is from "E"; it has been edited for clarity and privacy.
Why did you leave? 
I came from a small undergrad school [in the South] and joined a medium sized grad school [in the Midwest] to do some synthetic organic research. My advisor was very hands-off and laid back, and didn't have me really working on anything until after my first year of classes were done. I began my initial research in my second year with the help of a [redacted] exchange student. Even though the research wasn't going well at all, I ended up becoming great friends with the guy. 
By the time he was ready to leave, we looked back at the number of failed reactions, out of service instruments, expired/impure reagents, and our dwindling hours spent in the lab. I realized after he left how bad it was. 
I started getting severely depressed before the two year mark. I wasn't hanging out with anyone. I wasn't talking to anyone. I was reading stories of suicide online. I met my roommate's friend and we stayed up all night talking about my situation. She told me to consider quitting and going back home. But as Vinylogous wrote, I thought "I've already put in 2 years, so it would be a waste of time to quit now". 
But things were getting worse. One night I went to the lab around midnight and recrystallized a large vial of KCN and sat there on the verge of tears. If things didn't get better, I was going to just end everything. I cannot tell you how close to suicide I was. I had failed everything and everyone. I would never have my dream job.  
Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
I talked with my peers that had been there for 5, 6, 7 years. I could not handle this that long. I asked my advisor what I had to do to end with a master's. He replied "you're done when I say you're done". 
I took my bike home and started applying for every job I could find back home. I called everyone. I flew home for 3 days for two interviews. My friends and family were very supportive. When I got back to [the Midwest], I went in for a week and the depression came back. One night i went in again at midnight and cleaned up my desk and lab space.
I stayed home the next week. I didn't leave the apartment. A few days in, around 10AM, people were banging on the door. My lab partners, my advisor, and the police were all knocking and yelling for me to come out. I didn't answer the door. I packed all my stuff in boxes that night. A couple days later, I woke up early and put everything in my car. It was snowing, and absolutely miserable outside. As I was finishing, the 7th year student saw me and said "Where have you been? Everyone is looking for you!" and in the snow I replied "Tell everyone I'm sorry. I'm going back to [my home]." 
I cried for most of the ride home. 13 hours later, I met with my family and was overwhelmed with the support and relief. I was going to get back on track. 
Where are you now? How does the decision look to you? 
Two years later, here I am. I work for a [large pharma] and I wouldn't have it any other way. I have a great salary, great pension, great friends, and I live close to the beach. Life could not be better for me. I am so glad I got out when I could. The depression was so real - each time you refer to quitting grad school in one of your posts I am reminded of my decision.
Thanks to "E" for their story. 

G: "I have never regretted the decision."

Our latest submission in "leaving graduate school in chemistry" is from "G"; it has been edited for privacy and clarity.
Why did you leave? 
I left graduate school (organic chemistry) with a Master's degree after 3 full years.  I had been doing semi-successful research for nearly that entire time and received praise from my advisor for my research and laboratory technique.  I had passed all of my cumulative exams, and I was working at a top school. 
Leaving early was not an easy decision.  I had entered graduate school 110% determined to earn a PhD, no matter what.  [This perhaps stemmed from my failings in childhood; quitting drum lessons and the junior-high basketball team had left a scar on my psyche, and I was dead set against ever quitting anything again.] 
I've since learned not to deal in absolutes.  I had to adapt to a changing situation. 
Eventually, clinging to my desire to earn a PhD actually made me miserable. I had joined my group under the premise that I would be allowed to work on a synthetic project.  I had devised the synthesis independently.  It was interesting and very challenging work.  But everything changed when this primary project was canceled, despite making significant advances over the course of about 18 months. 
My advisor wanted me to take up a methodology project in its place.  I had little interest in the work and voiced my concerns.  Nevertheless, due to my laboratory skills and the importance of the work, my advisor assigned me against my will. I asked the department head about changing groups, to no avail.  I tried to work on the new project diligently, but I could not get excited about it.  Results were unspectacular and barely publication-worthy.
Ultimately, it became very clear to me that earning a PhD while working on this particular project was not going to pay off well.  I would be forced to do at least another two years in post-docs before I would be considered a good job candidate.  As landing a job in industry was the end-game, I made the tough decision to leave. 
Where are you now? How does the decision look to you now?   
I have never regretted the decision.  As a Master's-level organic chemist, I find it much easier to find interviews and jobs than PhD chemists.  I can usually find at least three interviews (5-7 in the "pre-Chemjobber" days) any time I want to change jobs (or get laid off!).   
I have built a solid reputation as a hard worker, and I have the ability to perform independent research.  As such, I have always been promoted to PhD-levels of responsibility and salary with each employer.  I have found it virtually impossible to progress beyond entry-level PhD positions, but I make a good salary and I'm completely satisfied where I am.  Besides, I don't have the work-related burdens of the PhDs I work with, and I leave my work at work every night.  I feel blessed. 
That's my story in a nutshell.  I don't recommend anyone enter graduate school lightly (I pondered the decision for at least a year and sought a lot of advice from elders), nor do I recommend that one leave flippantly (it took me almost a year to decide to leave early). 
But each person and each situation is unique, and "quitting" grad school may work out in your favor.
Thanks to "G" for their story. 

Ever played a mobile organic chemistry game? You might try "Chairs"

There aren't a lot of mobile organic chemistry games (or just chemistry games, something that we've covered here before), but Julie Winter's game "Chairs" is a fun example of one. You can download it here. 

She's looking for startup funding and has a chance to win some. If you've played the game, you might help her out by going to StartGarden (logging in via your Facebook account), and endorsing her game. Also, if you're enthusiastic about the possibility of mobile organic chemistry games, feel free to leave a comment there. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Weird letter on cancer carcinogenesis

Also from this week's C&EN, a really odd letter on cancer and chemistry (emphasis mine):
...This letter is to point out that chemistry plays the central role in the ­etiology and prevention of the most ­prevalent types of human cancer. The chemical agents responsible for the initiation of cancer are the estrogens. They become carcinogenic when their unbalanced metabolism in our bodies generates excessive amounts of estrogen-3,4-quinones. 
When that happens, the estrogen-3,4-quinones react with DNA, forming depurinating estrogen-DNA adducts that generate the mutations leading to the initiation of cancer. We have demonstrated this for five different types of human cancer: breast, ovarian, and thyroid for women and prostate and non-Hodgkin lymphoma for men. We also think that other prevalent types of cancer are initiated by the same mechanism. This mechanism can be prevented by use of natural compounds such as resveratrol and N-acetylcysteine to block formation of estrogen-DNA ­adducts. 
When we began conducting cancer research in the 1970s, chemical carcinogenesis played a relevant role in cancer research, supported by the National Cancer Institute. Unfortunately, appreciation of the role of chemistry in carcinogenesis was lost, and NCI dissolved the chemical carcinogenesis branch. 
Meanwhile, we discovered that the potent polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon carcinogens formed predominantly depurinating PAH-DNA adducts that generate cancer-initiating mutations (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 10422), and then we found that the depurinating estrogen-DNA adducts are also responsible for cancer-initiating mutations. The discovery of the importance of these depurinating DNA adducts has been neglected for the past 20 years. The final tragedy of this neglect is that chemistry also provides the pathway to cancer prevention. By using natural compounds such as resveratrol and N-acetylcysteine to prevent the formation of estrogen-DNA adducts, the transformation of cells to malignancy is also prevented. 
With all of the great advances chemistry has provided for humankind, cancer research is one more area in which chemistry can enhance life and remove misery—if this is recognized by scientists. 
Ercole Cavalieri
Eleanor Rogan
Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer & Allied Diseases
This seems like something with a real backstory. I don't know much about carcinogenesis and prevention of such, but it sure seems like to me that this resveratrol/N-acetylcysteine stuff surely must have been proven correct or falsified in the literature by now. Anyone have any understanding of what's going on here?

UPDATE: Oh, man, this is no good. Anon504p nails it, with a link to these authors selling something? that "Keeps Your Body in Balance" and "Blocks DNA Damage." $69/bottle on Amazon.
"Prevennia® is based on the pioneering work of Dr. Ercole Cavalieri and Dr. Eleanor Rogan who led the team that identified the initial step in the mutation – initiation – promoter - tumor formation, namely the formation of a reactive estrogen metabolite."

UPDATE 2: An anonymous commenter writes in to give a wise word of caution:
I have some thoughts on Anon@5:04PM's point. 
- It's not unheard of for snake oil hucksters to cite published, peer-reviewed research in their sales material.
- Neither Cavalieri nor Rogan are listed anywhere in the executive team; the founder is someone else.
- Although Google reveals that the web site has a bio for Cavalieri, Rogan and another academic scientist, the end of the bio document is a disclaimer which suggests that none of the three had anything to do with the bio. 
It seems possible (to me, at least) that neither Cavalieri nor Rogan have any connection to Prevennia.
I think that's a fair point, so I think I am going to contact Drs. Cavalieri and Rogan and see if that is or is not the case. 

This week's C&EN

Lots of longer worthwhile pieces in this week's C&EN: 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Quote of the day: "If you dinged yourself badly, it was no disgrace."

A favorite quote of mine from "Kitchen Confidential" by Anthony Bourdain:
We considered ourselves a tribe. As such, we had a number of unusual customs, rituals and practices all our own. If you cut yourself in the Work Progress kitchen, tradition called for maximum spillage and dispersion of blood. One squeezed the wound until it ran freely, then hurled great gouts of red spray on the jackets and aprons of comrades. We loved blood in our kitchen. If you dinged yourself badly, it was no disgrace; we'd stencil a little cut-out shape of a chef knife under your station to commemorate the event. After a while, you'd have a little row of these things, like a fighter pilot. The house cat - a mouse killer - got her own stencil (a tiny mouse shape) sprayed on the wall by her water bowl, signifying confirmed kills. 
This approach to chemical safety would be wrong. But I suspect the esprit de corps would be high! 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Job posting: Ph.D. carbohydrate chemist, Cambridge, MA

From the inbox, a position in Cambridge:
...We are seeking a PhD-level scientist with a strong background in organic/carbohydrate chemistry, analysis, and data interpretation for a leading role in the Company’s technology and product development programs. The successful candidate will be expected to design and conduct incisive experiments to test and improve the company’s technology by providing key data to support our value proposition and grow our IP portfolio. Typical experiments will include bench-scale chemical synthesis of novel carbohydrate products, characterization of products, preparation of samples for testing & attracting outside partners and investors, identifying reaction mechanisms, and optimizing yield and other performance metrics....
Minimum Qualifications: The successful candidate is highly motivated and eager to work collaboratively as part of a high-­‐impact, cross-­‐ functional team of chemists and engineers. Comfort being expected to deliver results in an aggressive technology development environment is essential, as is the ability to make decisions in the face of incomplete information. Specific qualifications include: PhD in chemistry or chemical engineering, Ideally 1 year industrial experience in a relevant technical area (candidates with more experience may be considered for a senior scientist role). Candidates with none will still be considered if strong fits elsewhere. Expertise in the chemistry, synthesis, and purification of carbohydrates (ideally oligosaccharides) or other relevant bio-­polymers, including both chemical and enzymatic transformations....
Looks like some DOE experience desired. A much, much more detailed description is available here.

Best wishes to those interested. Contact with the subject line: Scientist Position

What should a new small company call itself?

Let's say that you're Sarah Stewart, industry chemist, and you're becoming a contract project manager/coordinator/contractor for outsourcing, etc. Typical tasks would include writing proposals and contracts, managing multidisciplinary projects from candidate to IND, etc. What should you name your company?

Should you go with Stewart Associates? XPharm Consulting? IHeartChemistry.Com? What's the best name for a small one-person corporation for chemistry? 

Glassdoor Review of the Week: PharmAgra Labs, Brevard, NC

From the inbox, a note to enjoy the reviews of PharmAgra. Worth noting that the latest negative review is 4 years old. Maybe things have changed. Also, this might be a reason that they keep posting on C&EN Jobs. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Your teeth-grinder of the day: The Food Babe in The Atlantic

A profile of Vani Hari in The Atlantic that, in my opinion, is skeptical but still far, far too deferential to Ms. Hari: 
“Cereals here in the United States contain a packaging ingredient called—God, I’m paranoid." The natural-food advocate Vani Hari paused, laughing, looking at a man standing a few feet from our table in a Union Square coffee shop. He was huddled over his phone, just waiting for his coffee—or so it seemed. She lowered her voice, continuing, barely audible: "... called BHT." 
Hari looked in my blank eyes. I asked, "In the plastic bags?" 
She nodded as if I'd just been let in on the secret to end all secrets. "And in the U.K., they can't use it," Hari, who is better known through her blogging, speaking, and TV appearances as "The Food Babe," continued. "The purpose of it is to leach into the cereal, so it keeps it fresh. And, how many millions of kids are eating this every single day?" 
"Why did the U.K. take it out?" I asked. 
"They don't allow it," Hari said. 
"They must have a reason."
"There are studies that suggest it's linked to cancer, tumors," she said. "It's an endocrine-disrupting chemical."
This makes me want to pound my head into the wall. Also, there's this (emphasis mine):
She's clearly speaking to people in a way that resonates. Analytically-minded people, her scientist critics among them, often with big health ideas of their own, might do well to understand why and how these messages work. Or, as Hari phrases it, as a challenge: "People chastise me for being too simplistic, but it's like, okay, how are you getting through to people?"
I'll be honest, I am not sure how a community should deal with someone who is more-or-less shameless (and has a business model that depends on that.)  

Anyone else for the Fermi question of the moment?

I am closing the contest at midnight Eastern time this Friday night for the Fermi question of the moment:
Do you know how many QC bench chemists there are in the pharmaceutical industry by country?
We have one comment in the lead and the stakes are a fine prize.  

Warning Letter of the Week: panicked QC analysts don't look good

Apotex has already gotten some publicity for the 483 it's gotten, but this is a pretty great little tidbit:
As a result of the above observation, your firm initiated an investigation and reported that 290 [redacted] plates and 36 media tubes under testing were missing, affecting 45 product sample batches, 12 growth promotion test batches, and 37 negative control plates.  Your firm also found discrepancies between the documentation and location of samples/plates and you indicated that the majority of the missing plates were found in the decontamination area for disposal.

In your response, you refer to an investigation and indicate that “…two analysts momentarily panicked (upon (1) learning that FDA Investigators were approaching the microbiology Lab and (2) seeing used petri plates from the weekend scattered throughout the laboratory)[sic] and directed the lab technician to immediately remove the petri plates from the microbiology lab … in an utterly misguided and ill-conceived attempt to clean up the microbiology lab prior to the start of the FDA inspection.”
Your response lacks a comprehensive risk assessment of your failure to follow procedures, your inadequate documentation system and your inadequate practices related to microbiological control. Your response failed to evaluate the effect of these violations on product quality, and did not include an assessment as to whether any other batches have been compromised.

ARPL’s inability to prevent and detect poor recordkeeping practices raises serious concerns regarding the quality system in place at the time of the inspection. Appropriate controls are essential to assure that the information used for making decisions is trustworthy, accurate, and reliable.
I presume that when the inspectors visit, it's time to be cool as ice. (Please forgive the Robert Van Winkle reference.)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Comment experiment

This blog routinely has problems with readers attempting to comment and not being able to. Most of the time, it seems to be iOS products.

If you are reading this post and you have the time, can you see if you can post on the blog? Maybe tell me your device and browser/app?

If not, can you please e-mail me at or DM me if you're on Twitter?

SK's guide to grad school visitation weekends

CJ here: A very interesting post by SK on "grad school visitations".

Thanks to Chemjobber, I spotted the "Guide to Grad School Visitation Weekends" on the chemistry subreddit.

Many moons ago, I too went through the grad school recruitment process, and there is so much I wish I had known then. I'll re-cap and expand upon some of the more salient points brought up in the reddit thread, and also include some gems that I think are important but have not yet been covered.

Getting into grad school is a big accomplishment for sure, and right now it's all "reimbursed economy class!" and "free drinks at a halfway decent bar/restaurant!" You're living high on the hog! But remember, the purpose of this visit is to figure out where you want to spend the next 5+ years (which is all but certain to have a profound effect on your future). You can and should absolutely have a TON of fun on a recruitment weekend, but remember that fun is a secondary objective.
  • If you are going to a visitation weekend, you are effectively a spy. Like, actually a spy. Ditch the connotations of a black leather catsuit and mission impossible winch system, because those are not for spies. A real spy is successful because they blend in - you have no idea they are spies. (At least, so I am told. I have never met one in person that I was aware of. A further testament to their spy-eyness.) You are there to extract as much information as possible, in a limited timeframe, and as politely as possible. The department you visit is (hopefully!) not going to actively mislead you, but they are going to to do their very best to 'tidy up the place' during your time there. The goal is to ask some necessarily hard questions to see what things are really like, without coming off as the jerk who just grilled everyone the whole time. You do want to make a good impression if you actually choose to come to this school.

"KT": " love of science slowly came back"

Our latest story on leaving graduate school is from "KT"; it has been edited for privacy. It is longer, but absolutely worth it, with such good themes (transitioning from smaller schools to grad school, irreproducibility problems and PI issues) and worthwhile ending thoughts.
1. Why did you leave? 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
I'll answer both of these at the same time. I got started off on the wrong foot from the beginning, and made some mistakes that are clearer in hindsight. I didn't hit it off with my cohorts who started in the same year and subdiscipline as me, and was slow to make friends until I joined a lab. My first few months, I'd go to class, go to my TA assignment, and then go back to my apartment. It didn't help that I had foolishly chosen an apartment in a heavily undergrad-populated area avoided by grad students, so even though I was close to campus, I didn't live near any of my classmates.  I regret that I didn't join some clubs and activities when I first arrived on campus - having come from a small undergrad where everyone knew each other, I didn't realize the importance of joining clubs at a big university. 
In November of my first year, I joined my advisor's group. I was taking a graduate course he taught at the time and enjoying it, so it seemed like a safe choice. The grad students in his group were friendly, and said nice things about working for him. We had some known slavedrivers in my department, and he wasn't one of them. Things seemed to be looking up for a while, as spending time in the lab building put me in social contact with others, and I soon began to make friends. 
My project was supposed to build on the work of two students before me. [Grad student A] graduated shortly before my arrival on campus, and was the group's golden child. [Grad student B] graduated the spring of my first year, and was widely considered to be a marginal grad student in both ability and work ethic, although our advisor liked him more personally than academically. I had trouble reproducing work from both of them, and things started to go sour sometime around the summer of my first year. Every meeting with my advisor turned into a verbal beat-down, and my well-meaning labmates told me that they had to endure it too, it was just part of getting a PhD, and he was only doing it to help me and make me a better scientist. Even as it gradually became clear to everyone but me that he didn't want me around, I kept believing what I had been told, that this was some kind of boot-camp experience that would make me a PhD chemist if I endured it. As my second year went on, I bit the bullet through an increasingly miserable life of verbal beatings from an advisor I had become terrified of. 
Outside the lab, my social life had improved considerably. When my lease expired the summer of my first year, I moved to an apartment complex loaded with grad students in my department. We spent many happy evenings at the local bars, drinking away the stress of long days in the lab. During my second year, my friends started to notice I was drinking too much (even for a grad student). I never went to lab drunk, but I came in hung over on weekday mornings increasingly often, and several times my friends were upset with me for drunken behavior that I didn't remember the next day. 
Sometime during my second year, my advisor became frustrated enough with my inability to reproduce work by "B" that he took that part of the project away from me and assigned it to a new grad student. I was unable to get rid of an impurity peak in a spectrum, no matter what I tried. When asked about it in an email from my advisor, "B" assured him that he seldom if ever saw this peak. After the new grad student was also unable to eliminate the peak, our advisor went through "B"'s files, which revealed that he always did see this peak, and the spectra in his thesis were cropped to avoid showing the troublesome peak. Even though I was vindicated, I was already beaten down to the point that the quality of my work had become poor, and my advisor was constantly hollering about how perfect "A" was and demanding that I be more like her. 
In the fall of my third year, I was gritting my teeth through one of my meetings / beatdowns with my advisor, and he told me that he thought I should cancel my prelim exam and leave with a master's. I was shocked at first (of course no one else was), but soon relieved to be leaving. My advisor offered to let me leave with a thesis master's, and the alternative would have been to sign up for classes in the spring semester to leave with a coursework master's.  At that point, I was so mentally worn down that I was barely able to come up with an acceptable thesis, but I managed to write up and vacate my lab workspace just before Christmas of my third year. 
3. Where are you now? 
I'm in my mid-thirties, and I work in industry.  One benefit to having a master's and not a PhD is that I can choose where I live. Many of my friends from grad school see their parents once a year at Christmas, even if they aren't dealing with the two-body problem. I'm back in my hometown and I have a good job, and at least one of these probably wouldn't be the case if I had finished my PhD.  
Additionally, I was able to find a new job after a layoff without having to move - not an easy feat for someone with a PhD. The job I do is an interesting blend of bench chemistry and business responsibilities that a PhD would probably be considered overqualified for, but still at a high level of scientific challenge - not the beaker-washing drudgery that people go to grad school to escape. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
Leaving was clearly the right decision for me, but I regret not doing it sooner.  It was hard for me to admit failure to my family, friends, and undergrad professors back home, and I tried to force myself to stick it out long after it was obvious things weren't going well. In my mind, I was no different than the partiers and potheads who dropped out of high school or flunked out of undergrad.  It took me a long time to realize that to anyone outside my field, I graduated with a master's rather than failing grad school.  In hindsight, if I hadn't been so fearful of letting people down, seen that things weren't going well in my second year, and signed up for classes to get a coursework masters, I could have been done sooner and at less cost to my sanity. 
I contemplated suicide many times in grad school, and this scares the hell out of me looking back. I had heard whispers about past grad student freak-outs, but in the early days of the Internet, stories like Jason Altom's were little more than rumors. I'm glad I didn't do something like that, and I think today with Facebook, it's more likely that a grad student going off the rails would be noticed by family and friends back home. I did have some good friends in grad school, but they didn't know me before, and didn't have a baseline to see the changes taking place in me. 
My drinking went back to normal (at least what could be considered normal for a guy in his mid-twenties) once the stress of grad school was removed.  Aside from this, it took me a long time to recover after I left. As an undergrad, I had made great strides from being an awkward, nerdy high schooler, and was gaining confidence with dating at the time I graduated. I didn't regain the self-confidence my 21-year-old self had until I was about 30, several years after I left grad school. This is the biggest regret I have - I'm feeling good about myself now in my mid-30s, but I could have been feeling this way throughout my 20s if I had never gone to grad school, or had left sooner. 
Looking back, I'm glad I didn't leave the field. When I left grad school, I was so fed up that I never wanted to see the inside of a lab again, and I only applied to chemist jobs because they paid better than the kinds of entry-level cubicle-farm jobs that hired humanities majors. I didn't really want to be a chemist anymore at the time. Once I was out of the toxic environment of academia, my love of science slowly came back. 
One thing that made me feel vindicated was meeting the spouse of golden child "A" when we worked at the same company for a time. [They] had worked for a different PI in my department, and like "A" had graduated shortly before my arrival. I was shocked to discover that the group's golden child hated and feared our advisor as much as I did. 
One change I would like to see in academia is HR departments with teeth, more like those in industry. An industry boss would find himself in hot water for delivering verbal beatdowns, no matter what someone did to earn one. In academia, everyone looks the other way when this happens.  I'm not sure whether this is because university HR departments confine themselves to dealing with the payroll/tax/paperwork aspect of HR and stay out of topics like workplace behavior and sexual harassment, or if they do get involved in such matters, but only for people who are unambiguously unversity employees such as support staff. Others have commented on sexual harassment and mistreatment of female grad students, and I recall there weren't any consequences for this sort of thing, in sharp contrast to industry. If my advisor thought I wasn't that good, that's his decision, but he could have gotten rid of me a lot more humanely.
CJ here again: thanks for KT for their story. Readers, what do you think about the concept of a HR department in academia that would look after graduate students? 

Monday, February 9, 2015

A sign that all those PhRMA dollars aren't doing much good

From an interesting interview of President Obama with Vox's Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias (both politically progressive, one should note), an interesting question and answer (emphasis mine):
Ezra Klein: 
When you talk about Medicare as a lever, Medicare tends to pay a lot less per service than private insurers by a margin. Before single-payer there's also this idea you hear occasionally of letting private insurers band together with Medicare, with Medicaid, to jointly negotiate prices. Do you think that's a good idea? 
Barack Obama 
You know, I think that moving in the direction where consumers and others can have more power in the marketplace, particularly when it comes to drugs, makes a lot of sense. Now, you'll hear from the drug companies that part of the reason other countries pay less for drugs is they don't innovate; we, essentially through our system, subsidize the innovation, and other countries are free riders. There's probably a little bit of truth to that, but when you look at the number of breakthrough drugs and the amount of money that drug companies now are putting into research and where they're putting it, a whole lot of it is actually in redesigning, modestly, existing drugs so they can renew patents and maintain higher prices and higher profits. That's not entirely true, but there's some of that. So there is a lot of savings that could be achieved while still making sure that our drug industry is the best in the world, and will still be making a healthy profit.
I think it's a sign of insufficient influence on politicians that a former senator from Illinois (home of AbbVie) is quoting these not-particularly-friendly-to-pharma talking points, especially the classic "me-too-to-extend patents" thing. (Which, to be sure, there was a lot of that going on in 2003 or so.)

When I look at 2014's NDAs, I sure see a lot of innovation and not a lot of me-too-ism. Oh, well, can't win them all. (Sins of the fathers and all of that, too.)

This week's C&EN

Lots of very interesting things in this week's C&EN:

Friday, February 6, 2015

A Fermi question: how many QC chemists in the United States?

From the inbox, a question that I have no answer to: 
Do you know how many QC bench chemists there are in the pharmaceutical industry by country?
I will offer a fine prize* to whomever can come up with the best answer (I will be the final judge).

I approach this as a "Fermi question." Here's my 30-seconds-of-thought answer: find the number of actual chemical manufacturing subsector employees, the number of QC bench chemists will be no larger than 5% of that number.

*most likely a T-shirt. Market value: less than $10, actual value: priceless

"Z": "as soon as I had that idea, the decision was made."

This entry on leaving graduate school is from "Z"; their submission has been edited for clarity and privacy.
1. Why did you leave? 
My life in the [Professor X's] group at that time was not very pleasant. [Professor X] has a reputation as a demanding hard-ass, and it's true that he expected everyone to put in a lot of time at the lab, and let's say he was sparing with his positive feedback. I don't hold it against him (anymore) because he put basically his whole life into his work and simply expected his students to have the same commitment. Some people did quite well in this environment, but I was not one of them. At some point I started to ask myself if I really cared enough about chemistry to be miserable for several more years, and I realized that the answer was 'No.' This was in [pre-recession times], when the common wisdom was still that it was easier to hire an MS than a PhD, and I thought I might as well take advantage of that. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
The decision itself was rather sudden, but I'm sure it was bubbling in my subconscious for several months. I remember distinctly that I was at home late one night reading In the Pipeline, and some commenters were talking about the job market for MS vs. PhD students. It suddenly struck me to take the idea of leaving with an MS seriously. I talked about it with some friends in the group the next few days, and not long afterwards I decided to talk to [Professor X] about it. He was actually quite positive and it marked a slight thawing in our relationship. 
I said that I started taking the idea seriously that night and discussed it the following days, but I think the reality is that as soon as I had that idea, the decision was made. 
3. Where are you now? 
Shortly after I made a solid decision to leave with an MS, I finished up a project with a post-doc in the group (which led to my only publication), started the job search, and started writing my MS thesis and the exit process. I got a job in the process chemistry department at [large pharma Y], just before the market crash. I worked there for a little less than six years, then in [recently] my wife and I decided to quit our jobs and travel for a while. So at the moment I'm unemployed, but in an alternate universe where I make responsible life decisions I would still be at [large pharma Y.] 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now?  
Unquestionably it was the right decision for me. I felt liberated after making it, and much happier with my life after leaving. Like I said before, I simply don't have the passion for chemistry to put up with grad school long enough for a PhD. I also don't feel a particular need to prove myself capable of it; in fact I'm more than happy to admit that I'm not capable of it. Obviously I'm not very ambitious about my career so it never bothered me that not having a PhD would hinder me. 
I like doing lab work and working on technical problems and have no interest in moving into management, of projects or of people. 
Now, bear in mind that my experience comes from before the employment market became truly dismal. There's a good chance that not having a PhD now is going to screw me when it comes time to look for a job again. But I still don't regret leaving. It sounds paradoxical but it actually felt like making an active, positive decision with my life.
Thanks to "Z" for their story. 

"W": "It was involuntary, and I was mad."

This entry on leaving grad school in chemistry is by "W"; it has been edited for clarity and privacy:
Less than a week after passing my quals, my advisor came into my office, and just said, "I think it would be better for everyone if you went on to new things." He apparently had no intention of (and never did sign) the papers for my qualifiers, although he volunteered to write recommendation letters for me: the letters also never manifested. I talked with my co-advisor, and he said that I just wasn't going to cut it. When I went to talk to the rest of my committee, they were stunned and didn't know that this was part of the plan.

If I had just flat-out failed that first presentation and been asked to leave, I'd completely understand why I'd been kicked out of the program: I had done a horrible job. But since I was given a second chance, I assumed that meant I was actually being given a second chance.

So there's the long version of why I left. It was involuntary, and I was mad. (Clearly, I'm still a little mad.) I was given a token 3 months of stipend to finish the semester and find my next steps (as well as getting a non-thesis MS degree).

I had also just broken up with a long-term boyfriend, so my personal life was lacking. And I never liked the city I was in. I quickly determined that I was leaving, and going as far away as I could (geographically, politically, and socially).

While being mad at the world, I realized that while doing research was okay, I really liked tutoring, and had been doing so since middle school. I started looking at teaching programs, and applied to several. I earned my MEd.

What I realize now is that I would have been miserable if I had actually finished that degree. My advisor was correct: I'm not a good researcher. However, he could have been far more effective in his actual advising, including talking me out of the PhD.

I now teach high school chemistry and general science, and I love it. It's hard to call myself a "chemist" anymore, and am only (in some people's eyes) a chemistry teacher. There are times where I miss the academic nature of grad school, with the calls for data-driven education, and keeping up with discoveries. But for now, I get paid to make silly putty and blow things up, and I get to see the light in kids' eyes when I show them new things. I hope I give them far more encouragement than I ever received in that program. 
Thanks to "W" for their story.  

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Um, no.

From both the weekly ACS newsletter and this morning's ACS Career Navigator newsletter. Whoever wrote this headline is divorced from the reality of becoming a professional organic chemist in the United States. 

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

More remembrances of Carl Djerassi

Detailed remembrance of Carl Djerassi from his Stanford colleagues. Did not know about his foray into early work with computers. (thanks to Stuart Cantrill)

More unusual chemical hazards

Busy day today, but I wanted to note more unusual chemical hazards in the 5th edition of Bretherick's. (The most modern one is the 7th - unknown if it has the same sense of humor.)

On another note (regarding the "can of beans"), I confess to having used the laboratory biochemical reagent refrigerator to store my lunch as an undergraduate. I don't think that was a wise move on my part. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"S": "I cannot think of a more realistic choice I could have made."

This entry on leaving graduate school is from "S"; it has been edited for privacy and clarity.
1. Why did you leave? 
It came down to physical and mental health.  I battled anxiety and depression, [constant medical problems], and probably more.  Our insurance at the time was a joke and I ended up taking out loans to pay medical bills.   
In retrospect, the stress wasn't all project/dissertation related, although I was working an unfunded project and constantly battling contaminated or broken equipment when I did get the instrument time I needed.  My boyfriends's (now husband) project was funded and progressing very quickly, and we faced potentially several years in difference between graduations.   
The big kicker... My advisor was having an affair with a graduate student in our group. They were very secret about it, but everyone in the department suspected.  So we were constantly fielding questions from interested parties.  It was very uncomfortable, and I didn't realize it was a form of sexual harassment until I attended a training a few years ago and found myself running out of the room crying at these memories. 
2. Your thought process in leaving? Was it deliberate (over a period of time) or sudden? 
For months, I could not eat breakfast until I had cried my nerves out while hiding at my boyfriend's desk. Then I would return to my lab/office and try to get work done.  I loved teaching far more than my research and established an exit plan with the graduate program in education.  I abruptly told my advisor in tears, stayed [some time] to finish up some loose ends, and started in education [the next term]. 
I suppose I could have switched groups, but I was facing a two-body problem and my advisor was [involved with student grievance procedures].  I had no idea who I could safely talk to without making my life more hellish than it already was (I'm not sure if the contaminated equipment I faced was deliberate or incompetence). 
3. Where are you now? 
I earned an M.Ed. in [redacted], along with my teaching certification.  I have taught as an adjunct or instructor at [many] different colleges and universities because of my chemistry coursework [which was completed in its entirety] and the teaching experience I gained in grad school.  I am healthy again. 
I currently teach as an adjunct in chemistry part time, mostly teaching labs, but I also teach [other fulfilling courses on occasion].  I spend most of my time with my [children] but get out into academia enough to not go stir crazy.  I use my education background to collaborate with my husband and contribute to my department.  We (not so jokingly) say that he does the work of two people, and it's practically necessary for me to do all of the cooking and such AND do things like revise his teaching philosophy so it includes actual educational terms. 
4. Are you happy after leaving? How does the decision look to you now? 
Financially, I'm not happy about the decision and the student loans I had to take on when I switched departments, but I cannot think of a more realistic choice I could have made.  I consider my teaching certification and the investment in it to be "insurance."
If something were to happen to my husband, I could move closer to family and take the required tests to get the state's teaching certificate and hopefully not have too much difficulty securing a job.  It certainly gave me a unique skill set that I bring to my department in contributing to student assessments or evaluating our labs for disability accommodations.  I don't do as much of those projects as I like, though, because I'm not paid to do them. 
I do like being able to work part time and still be at home enough to minimize the need for child care. I wish I had a more secure job though, and I wish I wasn't relegated to teaching general chemistry labs. 
I think what I hate most is having to explain over and over that I am not to be addressed as Dr. (to both students and faculty) because I am so often in positions where I am the only adult without a Ph.D.  That hurts.
Thanks to "S" for their story.  

Memorizing the periodic table seems like a waste of time to me

Sparked by a tweet from Anne Helmenstine ('s chemistry expert) suggesting ways that students can memorize the periodic table, I was amused to find that some tweeps had strong feelings about the memorization of the periodic table: 
@stephengdavey: I can think of literally no reason to want to do this. Never once had a chemistry exam where this was a requirement. 
@jkemsley:  To be clear: IMO it's ridiculous to require students to memorize the PT. Understand? Yes. Memorize? No.
I am not an expert in the pedagogy of chemistry, but it seems to me that there is a lot more to be gained from the understanding of why the periodic table is organized in the fashion that it is, as opposed to memorization of where the elements are. Understanding the trends in electronegativity, atomic number, size (or memorizing them, even) would seem to me to be far more important.

I think it's fair to expect upper-level undergraduates and graduate students to have significant chunks (transition metals, etc.) of the periodic table memorized, more as a byproduct of familiarity than an actual end goal. (Here's one professor who expects this.)

From a practical perspective, I am always under the impression that most high school and early college students have access to the periodic table for exams. Does anyone out there require memorization of the whole periodic table? It's definitely a neat parlor trick, but why?

(To a great extent, this is part and parcel of the seeming resistance of the majority of chemists to memorization. For example, there's no better way to get a bunch of organic chemists really upset than to say "o-chem is just a bunch of memorization.")

Job postings: Exelon has nuclear plant chemist openings

From the inbox, two openings at Exelon nuclear plants, one in Morris, IL and another in Lusby, MD.

It's hard to understand how much experience you need -- I presume that nuclear plants require a lot of direct experience, but I dunno. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/3/15 edition

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

Davis, CA: Marrone Bio Innovations looking for a M.S./Ph.D. natural products chemist.

Kalamazoo, MI: Kalexsyn is looking for a research chemist:
Qualified applicants with an M.S. or Ph.D. degree in synthetic organic chemistry are preferred. However, exceptional candidates with a B.S degree in chemistry with a minimum of 5 years of pharmaceutical medicinal or process chemistry experience will also be considered.
Best wishes to those interested.

Beverly, MA: Radikal Therapeutics (love the spelling) is looking for 4 M.S./Ph.D. analytical chemists.

Brevard, NC: I see PharmAgra is once again looking for research chemists; turnover there must be impressive. 2 openings at all educational levels.

Freeport, TX: This BASF position looks interesting for the process/manufacturing-oriented: they're looking for a Ph.D. chemist/chemical engineer to act in a QA/process development role:
...[Y]ou will be responsible in providing direct support to the Caprolactam and Intermediates technologies. Caprolactam is used to make nylon polymer for plastics and fibers. The intermediates technologies are Cyclohexanone and Hydroxylamine. The Chemist will work closely with the plants using multivariable testing techniques in experimentally designed plant tests, coordinate with the plants in obtaining plant samples, collecting analytical data from plant-compiled spreadsheets, and monitoring manufacturing process conditions using process flow diagrams and a real-time, web-based Process Information Management System (PIMS). 
Most of the process/product improvement work will be performed in laboratory scale reactors. The person will be responsible for the operation and maintenance of laboratory instruments including, BET, Chemisorption, Particle Size Analyzer, LCs, GCs and XRF.
It would be interesting to know which portion of the job you'd be spending most of your time on -- I sure hope it wouldn't be the maintenance of lab instruments portion.

Wyandotte, MI: Another BASF manufacturing position, this one accepting all education levels.

Huh: This is a pretty typical Pfizer regulatory position, but it's posted oddly. HR robots not working correctly?

Dublin, CA: Valent USA looking for an agricultural formulation chemist position; Ph.D., 0-5 years experience or M.S. w/3-8 years experience. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 2/3/15 edition

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

Somewhere in Texas: The University of Texas Pan-American and UT Brownsville are consolidating to form The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. They're looking for an assistant professor of organic chemistry.

(You know, something tells me that universities don't consolidate when times are good. That said, who knows?)

Urbana, IL: Postdoctoral position in laser spectroscopy in Prof. Dana Dlott's laboratory.

Urbana, IL: Also at UIUC, a lecturer position in material science and engineering. 60-80k? You could live like royalty for that amount.

Rochester, NY: Monroe Community College is looking for a full-time tenure-track instructor. M.S. or higher.

Belleville, IL: Lindenwood University-Belleville desires an assistant professor of analytical chemistry to start August 2015.

Conway, AR: Hendrix College (Derek Lowe among its distinguished alumni) is looking for 2 visiting assistant professors of chemistry, one organic, one inorganic.