Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Professor Erick Carreira issues a statement of regret for the Guido Koch letter

Erick Carreira has been appointed the new editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Here's the news summary from C&EN, with the inclusion of a short paragraph about a letter to a certain Guido:
News of Carriera's appointment reignited debate over a letter he wrote in 1996 describing the long working hours he expected of those in his research group at the time. In a statement released Sept. 5 Carriera said "I regret writing this letter, as it in no way reflects my leadership approach today. . . . Whether I am leading a lab or leading a journal, I am committed to promoting a sustainable and positive cultural shift in our industry."
The full text of Professor Carreira's tweets follows:
A statement from Prof. Erick Carreira: 
“I regret writing this letter, as it in no way reflects my leadership approach today. I have made peace with those impacted by the letter. (1/3) 
In the decades since it was written, I’ve grown as a teacher, as a mentor, as a researcher and as a person. I am proud of the way I work with my colleagues and students and believe that a healthy work-life balance is now more important than ever. (2/3) 
Whether I am leading a lab or leading a journal, I am committed to promoting a sustainable and positive cultural shift in our industry.” - Erick Carreira (3/3)
It has literally been 10 years since this letter was first posted in the chemistry blogosphere, and I don't wish to replow this particular bit of thorny ground. I felt these statements from former students are relevant in terms of testifying to life in and around the Carreira lab, and that this letter seems at least a bit of an anomaly.

I do think it is very likely that senior academics and administrators who select editors-in-chief of major publications were not aware of this letter's impact among chemists in the 2000s and beyond, who are far more plugged into life online than those who were trained in other times. This is not the only letter of its genre, but I think it's the emblem of a certain culture and a certain attitude within organic chemistry. I think that the letter took on a life and a meaning of its own on the internet beyond an interaction between a specific professor and a specific postdoctoral fellow, and it's bluntly clear that The Powers that Be were unaware of that.

As I noted this weekend, it would have been better if this letter were to have been repudiated openly and repeatedly by the broad chemistry community for the last 24 years. That we have a statement of regret from Professor Carreira now is a start. 


  1. I feel like I saw that letter in the early 2000s -- well before 10 years ago. Perhaps it circulated in other venues.

    In any case, for me, it encapsulated a lot of the negatives of the academic chemistry culture. I attended another illustrious chemistry institution (not ETH) but I think we all heard the "I expect 75 hours a week", "do you really have to go to your uncle's funeral", "only enter if the light turns green", "why weren't you in the lab when I called on Sunday morning" stories.

    The idea that one has to sacrifice one's outside life to be considered a dedicated academic chemist is self-destructive. It seems it's slowly becoming an old-fashioned attitude (thankfully), but in the meantime, I made the decision to avoid that world entirely, and have had a pretty successful career in spite of it. I'm sure many others are in the same boat.

    1. Yes, agreed. I think on second or third thought, it is likely that it was posted on Tenderbutton or ChemBark as well.

    2. Well said. I also left the academic world behind and have been quite successful in industry although it's only been a few years.

      From my perspective, the idea that you have to sacrifice your outside life is not going out of fashion at all. Newer professors are worse offenders since they have more pressure on them. I imagine it will only get worse as the tiny pile of grant money continues to shrink and the number of people going for their PhD continues to outpace demand.

    3. Agreed. I don't see this going away in the near future. As long as we continue to overproduce organic chemistry PhD's relative to the number of available academic and industry R&D positions, this mentality is going to get worse. The only thing to change this would be a wholesale departure of students from organic chemistry to greener pastures (e.g. computer science).

      Unfortunately I don't see any incentive for professors to change their behavior either, since the pipeline of international students coming to the US* for PhD's doesn't seem to be slowing down.

      *Yes, I know Carreira is in Switzerland now, but he started his career in the US, and that famous letter was written when he was a professor at Caltech.

    4. "Unfortunately I don't see any incentive for professors to change their behavior either, since the pipeline of international students coming to the US* for PhD's doesn't seem to be slowing down.

      *Yes, I know Carreira is in Switzerland now, but he started his career in the US, and that famous letter was written when he was a professor at Caltech."

      As I remember, in the International Life Science PhD program in Geneva (Switzerland) they had around 1:100 position/applicants ratio.

  2. During my last year of grad school while writing up my dissertation, I took a 9-day vacation, the first I had taken since joining the research group over four years before. My PI threw a fit, despite the fact that I had never taken off more than four days in a row since joining his group, routinely gave up part of my Thanksgiving holiday due to a conference that starts the following Monday, and was routinely in the lab at 7am. Furthermore, during that final year, I had two separate stretches of over 100 days where I worked at least four hours. Yet still he griped. I am so glad to see these kinds of expectations dying.

  3. Denying more than dying perhaps. I don't think they'll ever go away for some people, they'll just be unspoken.

    Interesting that they've picked someone outside of the US to lead the flagship US journal. Do RSC and Chem. Eur. J. have editors-in-chief who are American?

    Will he resign as editor-in-chief from OL?

  4. My postdoc was with a well-known chemist, with a reputation as a serious hard-ass (early 90's). Good sized group, 30+ people. When I had my introductory talk with him, he explained that Tuesday evenings and Saturday mornings were group work days (meaning he was in the office at those times and expected the group to be there as well), and Thursday evening was group seminar night, besides normal working hours. "But most people work a lot more." We got nominally 3 weeks of vacation, which was also to be used for conferences or site interviews. Also, "nobody uses all their vacation." True to his word, he was there every Tuesday night and Saturday morning, and 7-5 the rest of the week. He was away some for professor stuff, but nothing profligate. He NEVER missed an opportunity to exhort people to work harder, sometimes "jokingly", sometimes decidedly not jokingly. I was in the lab for at least some time most of the days outside of the expected hours, and maybe 5-10 people were there anytime I was there off hours, too. True to his word, he never missed an opportunity to make a snide, sometimes borderline hostile comment when someone was away from the lab. I think for me, even when I was going for a job interview, iirc - that was strange. Otherwise I had no issues with his treatment of me, personally. I did hear him make and hear of him making what I think were out-of-line comments to more than one of my colleagues.

    Skip forward a few years, to his birthday symposium, and most speakers ribbed him a little about his management style (one was even kind of "I made it despite you"). Being a symposium in his honor, the attendees presumably had at least some favorable opinion of him, but I suspect there were some people who didn't attend who did not care for their time in that lab. He took it with good grace, chuckling at the anecdotes, and when it was his turn to talk, he said "I was hard and pushed you, and maybe I wasn't fair sometimes, but you were all young, you had a limited time with me to make your reputation, and I wanted more than anything for you to succeed." Or words to that effect - he wasn't apologetic, so much as maybe empathetic?

    Anyway, I thought that was a nice sentiment, but could have been voiced back when we were toiling and sometimes not very confident or secure in our places in the world. On the other hand, I know of at least one case when a student or postdoc had SERIOUS trouble (I mean IRL, outside of the lab, maybe that's the end of their career if not their life trouble), and he was there for them personally.

    So I guess I'm on the side of we're all human, we all make mistakes, for which we should be accountable, but life goes on. "Nobody said life was fair, but in the end I think it is."

  5. Also, to be clear - a big part of my personal takeaway from that time was a list of several things that I would NEVER do as a leader.

  6. This is a fascinating case and reveals so much about academics, privilege, and the complete ineptitude of the ACS (which should be the real story here, not 20+ year old letters). For full disclosure, I have met Prof. Carreira and people who have worked in his lab, although it has been many years since my last interaction with him and I would like to give the benefit of the doubt that he is not the same person who tormented Guido and his contemporaries at Caltech. I have heard from good sources that his tactics at ETH are different, but the bullying was the same. But let’s not let what must be a complex person become a caricature. Such people and situations deserve more consideration.

    Some observations:

    1) As I understand it, Carreira did not have an easy life growing up. It is a story to be celebrated, and it is kind of sad that it is marred by decades old bad choices that were probably pretty consistent with what he knew from colleagues and “mentors”.
    2) Carreira is not old, but he is definitely old school. As noted by others, ACS really missed a chance to send a progressive message here. Especially after the whole Hudlicky debacle.
    3) The ACS had to have expected this kind of reaction on Twitter to his appointment. If they did not anticipate this, the search committee should be fired, reconstituted, and restarted.
    4) The new executive editors are mostly organic or close to it. Where is the scientific diversity? Why aren’t the physical chemists outraged? What is the hidden agenda of ACS for JACS?
    5) Maybe this was intentional. ACS would benefit greatly if everyone boycotted JACS and shifted to JACS Au. Maybe someone had it out for both Carreira and the ACS. I’m not prone to conspiracy theories, but they are in vogue at the moment.
    6) I’m not sure how to reconcile Carreira with the Carolo case at ETH. I don’t know much, but it seems Carreira treated his students at least as badly. What was the distinction? Funding, gender, mob mentality of synthetic graduate students, passage of time? This does not reflect well on ETH at all.
    7) Which brings me to my final point, (again not original) – the whole PhD granting system is broken. If graduate students knew how many successful, well paid people there are in Pharma who do NOT have PhDs, their heads would explode. Sure, they are not working at the bench but then neither are most of the surviving PhD organic chemists.

    Thanks to @chemjobber for providing the anonymous platform. I feel a bit ashamed to use it, but you know if my legal department ever gives me permission I might one day want to publish in JACS. As I guess would hundreds of others probably biting their tongues.

  7. As a graduate student, I invited and ultimately hosted Erick Carreira to speak at my university. That was one of the single biggest mistakes I ever had made in my entire graduate career. The very first thing out of his mouth to me wasn't hello, hi, nice to meet you, or anything like that... no, it was "I was expecting someone a little more mature looking". I guess he forgot a grad student invited him and was hosting him. This was among the least combative encounters I had with him in the months following his visit.

    I received no less than 5 extremely aggressive and downright petty emails alleging me and the chemistry department trying to screw him out of being reimbursed for his trip. He lied about some of his travelings and was trying to get his whole trip paid for by my university: from ETH to the California so he can consult with a few pharma companies, to my university, to another university in the US and back to ETH. We ultimately paid for all of his requests minus about $400 (I think it was a $1500 total reimbursement request and we even paid for the hotel up front). I'm sure he made far more than that from just one of his consulting gigs, but he had two or three during that trip. He wanted every last penny paid back to him and didn't care if I had to pay it out of my grad student stipend! In his final ridiculous email, he then had the nerve to say "I guess am going to have to deal with the fact that I sponsored my own trip to your university".

    I really wanted to respond back to him saying "dude you probably make $300k a year; sorry you only got $1100 reimbursed to you out of a $1500 request, but I am not paying the balance from my extremely limited income". Instead I just ignored that last email.

    I seriously wish him nothing but the worst.

    1. So he is and was an asshole, I got it. And the assholes do not change.

  8. There is something about a faculty position that turns you to an elitist, maybe more so of you get to a prestigous uni. It can even corrupt an individual with modest roots (Cuba). You need a strong will to fight that urge.

  9. I had never seen this letter prior to it being posted here a few days ago. A decade ago, I was started my graduate studies with a well known chemist who held similar views; I was told the expectation was six 10 hour days a week and maybe half a day on Sunday for 60-70 total. My postdoc with a very well known chemist was a very different environment. He didn't care what hours you worked or how much vacation you took as long as you were productive. It was a huge breath of fresh air.
    For faculty in academia, you publish or you perish. I see the need to measure productivity and have high expectations, but it can be done without being abusive. People will do their best work when it is what they want to do and it makes them happy. You cannot force anyone to love science or what they are doing. You may be able to inspire them to greatness, but pushing/threats/demands are not inspiration. I try to keep that in mind managing my own lab.

  10. This attitude won't die unless organic chemistry dies first

  11. @5:31 - Haha (while crying).
    @11:13 - Maybe you'll get lucky and Interpol will sniff something up about non-disclosed Thousand Talents payments...

    Speaking of which, any updates on the Leiber situation beyond the additional tax evasion charge from July? Ooh, google took me to C&E which says his trial starts tomorrow!

  12. The ideal grad students and post-docs for Professor Carriera would be Morlocks. They don't like daylight and would enjoy having him for dinner after a group meeting

  13. tbh I do feel some of the things carriera or gassman said were true - one will truly excel if 60+ weekly hours of dedicated efforts toward chemistry is there. I for one tried and couldnt achieve excellence. its difficult enough for me to run around and get 4 prep scale HPLC runs done in an afternoon; my brain is already fried worrying solvent bumpings in one rotavap while watching the HPLC waste bucket is not full and the chromatogram looks okay. 3 hours of electron miscroscopy sample screening will put me fatigued for the next hour or so. I cant imagine orgo synthesis peers have much functional brain cells when running a column either. None of these really require brains, if these methods have exposed API I can probably write some scripts to automate it - but the sad truth is phds all go through this, whether 20 years ago or now. As for literature, I usually will spend 1-2hrs chugging JACS of the week alone. I work with structural biology and following some structure rationalizations with pymol takes some hours. Wish I have done more about lit research, but in my case its a skill people assumed I knew already - both in terms of my PI and my mom, a literature prof told me to just read more, but in the end I didnt get it.

    In the end I could spend more time and effort, but I'm easily fatigued and am not smart enough to catch everything efficiently; when I'm not efficient nor dumping hours in, success is then dependent on luck, which I was merely average in. I couldnt follow the pace and got a fruitless/wasted 5 years of it; no regrets as this 5 years did shape my life considerably that I am not willing to let go, though it could be better if I had made another choice besides phd, and if I can ever go back in time 1. I still wont work my ass off in a phd program; 2. I will talk myself out of pursuing a phd. My dad attributed my "failure" as me being not dedicated enough, and its true - I am not and I will not be. Perhaps someone is, and best of wishes to them.

    IMO the current best way to solve this slavedrive problem is to "industrialize" research; hire some MS/IR/NMR/isolera/rotavap technicians to do the grunt work and let the trained scientist do the actual thinking. why limit yourself to 10 hours of literature research time when you can go 35? stop wasting time in hand pushing silica columns when isolera exists. loading automated synthesizers and crystallization screening robots, actually running circular dichroism and electron miscroscopy, its just wasting time. train the real skills and stop wasting time improving lab tech skills. weed out people like me who clearly dont possess the talent in pursuing research by ramping up candidancy exams to yearly original research proposals, and stop pumping out so many phds every year. the truly talented will get the real training, I will accept my fate and become a lab tech, no time wasted and everyone wins.

    1. A few other ways grad school could be improved by imitating industry:

      Teams of people working on the same or closely related problems. I remember observing in my first industry job that my entire building was working on similar chemistry. If I was trying to work on the same problem as a grad student, I would have wasted the first 3 or 4 years figuring out the basics. I also remember seeing rapidly advancing computers, electronics, etc as a grad student, and feeling sorry for the poor terrified scientists who must be working on them. I later learned that this is done with large teams, not by scaring someone to death in the style of Corey, Denmark, etc.

      The other industry idea that should be copied is a real HR department enforcing basic standards of professionalism. Stuff that would never fly in industry is common in grad school - sexual harassment, verbal beatings, intentional humiliation of others, etc.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20