Articles by: noel

Existential crisis of a post-doc appointment (updated)

This month has been exceptionally busy around my group. My PI is currently on a 2-week trip to Norway and Germany[1] and before that, we were trying to get a ton of hiring business out of the way. My experience in the past couple weeks actually had quite an eye-opening effect on me.

A little back-story on my current work situation, I have been working at this lab full time (40h/wk) since last May. We are an engineering support facility with a few side chemistry and material projects. Because of the corporate nature of the facility, my work has been both well compensated and intellectually fulfilling.

The nature with this facility means that we hardly ever get grad students. 15% of the employees here are temporary (i.e. post-doc and interns). Ten percents are summer interns with employment of about ten weeks. The direct consequence of a lab that is not attached to a university has the need to constantly replenish its labor supply. While this means we gets fresh takes on things from all the new people, I also see the struggle of Ph.D.s in job market played out frequently. And as someone who is just dipping her toes in the idea of graduate school, this is quite daunting.

Anyway, I guess we have room for yet another post-doc.

Last Monday, I was sitting in the back of the conference room during a technical seminar on the grad school research of a post-doc candidate while sipping on my morning tea. The candidate was visibly nervous, frequently stuttering and wiping the beads of sweat at his forehead. In the next three days, the same thing took place. The seminar, the lab tour, the lunch, the non-stop interviews; as I did my best to be hospitable, my mind wanders, and I couldn’t help but keep coming back to the same thoughts:

  • I wonder if he knew that his voice was cracking and shaking
  • Does he need more water? It looks like he’s out of water
  • Everything sounds more interesting in a southern accent, even pchem
  • Isn’t it sad that you can summarize the past 4 to 6 years of your life in a 45-minute PowerPoint presentation?
  • It’s her third post-doc? Really?
  • I guess it doesn’t matter how well qualified you are, the guy that went to the most well ranked school will probably get the job
  • I wonder if they understand that they are constantly judged, when we walk them between buildings, when we take them out to lunch, by anyone and everyone
  • All for two more years of being replaceable, is it worth it?

Is it?


[1] It’s been a known fact that my PI forgot/failed/was too lazy to renew his training so he lose his access to our lab room. We were all happy that he had to knock and wave to get someone’s attention to be let in. Recently, he realize that we often leave the back door open to get solvents from the dock. Now he ambush us from the back door. Anyway my point of the story is that we always feel the need to fidget (more likely on unproductive tasks) when he’s around. I guess I can finally relax/be productive now. Like writing this blog post.


After re-reading it, I realized I failed to address my point here. My point: what is really the goal of a post-doc? As I have been told in the past 5 years, it is the rite of passage to the world of academia. But what does one hope to accomplish in a two-year appointment at a topic that is possibly unrelated to his expertise and past experience? It seems like the new guy is just picking up whatever the last guy has done in his two years.

It seems like an interesting role, to be contributing somewhat at a higher realm of science than the regulate graduate student, but for about half to a quarter amount of time. I ask again, what is the goal here? Is it to diversify one’s research interest? Is it to network in the community? Is it to push more papers out? Is it the parallel universe to dispense unemployed Ph.D.s? Or is it simply the awkward phase where the community thinks one should be while little professional and intellectual developments take place?

That is all.

By June 15, 2009 6 comments Uncategorized

Welcome back, Atlantis!


This is not completely relevant to chemistry, but is definitely of interest to the scientific community. On May 11, 2009, some of us astronomy fans and zealots gathered around to watch the launch of Atlantis STS-125. For those who are unfamiliar with it, this was a servicing mission in attempt to extend the Hubble ST’s life for the one last time. After all the amazing images Hubble was able to capture, this one last stretch seemed well worth the try. The team completed 5 space walks while orbiting 350 miles (Really? Miles? We’ll talk about the unit system another day) above Earth.

The mission will entail five spacewalks and aims to increase the telescope’s capabilities by a factor of 90, according to panelist Sandra Faber, an astronomer at UC Santa Cruz. After the repairs and upgrades, “it’ll have the capability of 100 Hubbles,” said panelist and NASA Chief Scientist Alan Stern.[1]

Over the past two weeks, we followed their mission closely, whether it is at the comfort of our own home or out in the field with our makeshift telescope. We envy their opportunity to take the ride of a lifetime and amazed at their epic fine-motor skill inside a space bunny-suit (I can’t even do that in a glove box, whoops).

On Sunday, May 24, the crew of 7 touched down at the Edwards Air Force Base in California, after a 13-day mission. The astronauts, in my opinion, are heroes in every way that one would defines any other American heroes–firefighters, soldiers, teachers, etc. Their contribution to scientific advancements is clear, and the risks they take is significant and very real. Their dedication and enthusiasm are beautifully put by one of the astronauts:

When asked about the risks posed by the Hubble service mission, Astronaut Grunsfeld told Earth & Sky that, “I think the cause of science is something worth risking my life for. I’ve spent almost my entire adult life and most of my young life,” Grunsfeld added, “in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. And Hubble is almost an icon for the quest of scientific knowledge.”

Yep. We’ll toast to that. And welcome back to Earth!!


[1] Hubble worth the risk, says NASA astronaut

[2] NASA space shuttle page

By May 27, 2009 1 comment science news, Uncategorized

We’re done!

Today we traded in our acid-burned, grease-stained lab coats for nice looking rental gowns. It was really an ugly day–we’ve been having beautiful sunny days in the 80s all month–until now, that is. Today was a whooping 55 degree with dark grey clouds hovering over the beautiful Berkeley landscape. Just about everything was out of the ordinary.

Today the College of Chemistry @Cal held its 137th commencement ceremony.

The two hours was reasonably pleasant to sit through. The whole ceremony was rather casual and humorous. We didn’t have much of any rehearsal. People were sitting when they were supposed to stand, speakers forgot their spots during the speech, the dean returned to his seat before he handed out the last of the scrolls… but it was an intimate, light-hearted ceremony.

The most unforgettable moment for me was the reaction of the grad students. During the ceremony, Ph.D. candidates were seated on stage with the rest of the professors. After they all walked across the staged, got hooded, received a scroll and walked back to their seats, the dean officially granted them their degrees. Across rows of sleepy professors and their hoods of various colors, I saw the genuine happiness beaming from behind. They hugged each other, celebrating their accomplishments (and the 6-10 years they might have spent in this hole in the wall). It was just a really wonderful moment, since graduate students really don’t show much of any emotion. 🙂

It was also something special for the Chemistry Blog, though. Today, Mitch, Maz and I walked across the same stage. So… PARTY TIME!!! (doesn’t Mitch look legit? That’s because you haven’t seen his shoes)!!!


So, cheers and many congratulations. And peace out, Berkeley.


“That’s why we love you guys. We ask you to do the impossible, and you ask us when it’s due.” – prof

By May 23, 2009 15 comments Uncategorized

Exciting! Safe! My childhood dreams come true

My discovery of this awesome toy kit posted on Retro Thing (via: Boing Boing/via: Oak Ridge Associated University) is motivation enough for me to drain my budding IRA account just to afford it.


This kit pretty much sums up everything a young, aspiring nuclear chemist could ever want. According to these sources, it contains: FOUR types of uranium ore (must be a deluxe kit, right?), a couple alpha, beta, and gamma sources, a cloud chamber, an electroscope, a spinthariscope, a Geiger counter, a comic book, and get this, a government manuel titled “Prospecting for Uranium.” Sweet.

Despite its awesomeness and foresight, it was only available for purchase between 1950 and 1951. The company explains its short lived glory by the rather high price tag at the time ($50.00). Today, the rarity of this kit means that the it can go for about 100x of the original price on the collectables market!

Now, if you would excuse me, I need to pick up and retry my failed could chamber project.


By April 16, 2009 7 comments Uncategorized