Articles by: Kenneth Hanson

My Advice to First-Year Ken (Time Machine Availability Pending)

Having just successfully defended my dissertation and finding myself with spare time during a cross-country drive between Los Angeles to North Carolina, I have compiled a list of things that I did or, in retrospect, wish I had done at the beginning of graduate school. I hope that those who are just entering a program this fall will find it useful. One thing to keep in mind while reading this list is that I am primarily a synthetic chemist. Yet, I am optimistic that there is something useful to all chemists, no matter the flavor.

In no particular order:

1) Search through every nook and cranny of your lab. When you first start working you should look through every drawer/cabinet/fridge/corner in your group’s space just to get a feel for what is available to you. At some point you might need a unique item that you recall happening across during your initial search. Keep in mind that while group materials are often shared, some of the senior group members might not be happy if they find you going through “their stuff” so you might want to either ask them or do it at night when no one is around.

2) Have an extra set of clothing/shoes in desk. You never know when you will sacrifice an item of clothing on the alter of science (Ignore this point if you enjoy public nudity).

3) Use a numbering system for your files. Early in your graduate career you might be tempted to label your spectroscopic files (NMR, UV-Vis, IR, etc.) after the name of your molecules. However, unless you are going to list the full IUPAC name it will result in some acronym or abbreviation that could change over time. To avoid much frustration and ordeal while sorting through your first-year files as you write your dissertation it is much better just to name your files by notebook number or some systematic way that will not change over time.

4) Write down everything. I realize you are told this many times but you have no idea how difficult it is to recreate a procedure four years later with notes that are not up to par. If you are not motivated by the fear of your own personal frustration later on, do it for the next person that needs to recreate your results.

5) Always remain skeptical. It is very easy to convince yourself that there is a peak or signal or whatever when you want it to be there. Yet, no matter how much you want to have discovered a new phenomena or synthesized your final product, you have to double/triple check your results and use multiple measurements to be sure. If a result is to good to be true, it often is. There is nothing more devastating than to be “certain” of your results only to find out they are far from it.

6) Get a screw driver set. Although your research group may have public use tool, I strongly recommend keeping a personal set of both small and regular-sized screw drivers in your desk drawer. They will always be there and in good working condition when you need them (In consideration of point #1 – write your name on all personal items).

7) Buy Invest in a comfortable chair. Over the course of your graduate career (4-7 years) you will spend many hours in your chair, especially when writing up papers or your dissertation. Being physically sore due to a crappy chair does not help your mental well-being and thus can end up hindering your research.

8 ) Stagger your hours. No matter how close you are with your lab mates, make no mistake; you will be competing with them for lab space and equipment (rotovaps, spectroscopic machines, etc.). Although the idea of working from 6am to 4pm may not sound appealing, you can get a lot of work done when you have free reign over EVERYTHING.

9) Have a couple of 3 1/2” floppy disks in your desk. Working in a state of the art research facility does not always mean you are working with state of the art operating systems/software. In the event that you need to get data off of a machine without USB drives, running windows 98 it is handy to have your floppy disks readily available.

10) Screw up early and often and learn from it. You are going to make mistakes in lab. During your first year be prepared to fail. A lot. The key to success is to learn from your mistakes. As a senior group member I had no problem walking a first-year through a procedure or trouble shooting some issue, but if I had to do it three or four times I was less likely to help them in the future.

11) Pick and choose your battles. Although it is difficult to foresee what battles are important, especially when you are first starting your research career, the best advice I can offer is to ask yourself, “will this experiment support the narrative of my research/papers? Will it help me graduate?” For example, if you are not a synthetic chemist and only care about the properties of your final product it is not worth your time to optimize your reaction yields from 50 to 80%. If your product is valuable let someone else figure out an efficient way to make it. You should just worry about measuring pure product.

12) On your first day in lab figure out who the smartest member of your research group is and hit them with a lunch tray. Just kidding. Prison rules only apply 75% of the time in graduate school. But seriously, not every opinion from senior group members is equally valuable. Get a feel early on for who is able and willing to help you with your questions.

By June 14, 2010 9 comments Uncategorized

Want to get out of jury duty? Become a chemist.

A few months ago I received a jury duty summons from Los Angeles County. I was unhappy that I’d be out of the lab for several days if selected, but excited to have my first personal look into our legal system.

For those of you who have not yet been summoned, I’ll share with you a general description of my experience. The first step is to wait. I sat in a room with a few hundred other people for five hours before I, along with 60 other people, were called to a courtroom to begin the selection process.

Inside the courtroom sat the potential jurors, the prosecution/defense, the suspect, judge, bailiff and court reporter. They observed while I and the other potential jurors swore to answer all questions truthfully. Twenty of us, (everyone is assigned and referred to by a number. I was ten) were called to the jury box. The case involved a driving under the influence (DUI) charge and one by one the jurors were required to answer a series of general questions (Do you know anyone in law enforcement? What is your occupation? Do you have any strong feelings about the charges? Etc.). When asked my occupation I responded that I was a graduate student in chemistry.

After the general questions both the prosecution and defense asked additional questions, some directed to particular individuals. The questions attempted to uncover the jurors preconceived notions about the suspect and crime. One question asked by the defense sparked my attention. The attorney asked, “Does anyone know how breathalyzer works?”

Although a simple concept that can be grasped by any general chemistry student, the most common portable breathalyzer is actually a very clever use of electrochemistry. Inside of the device is an electrochemical cell operating at a constant potential:

At the cathode, oxygen is reduced in the presents of water to produce hydroxide ions.

O2 + 2H2O + 4e –> 4OH

At the anode, the ethanol in your breath is oxidized to acetic acid.

CH3CH2OH + 4OH –> H3CCOOH + 3H2O + 4e

Because this is a well defined 4 electron process, the current produced can be used to determine the amount of ethanol in your breath.

In response to the defense attorney’s question, I raised my hand, prepared to explain the chemistry behind the device. Unexpectedly, the lawyer turned to me and, as if already aware of my answer, dismissively said, “I will get back to you later.”

After 10 minutes the defense lawyer returned to me and delivered the following two questions:

1)  “It is the responsibility of a juror to leave any expertise at the door and make their decisions based only on what is presented by witnesses called during the trial.  This also includes not discussing your external knowledge with fellow jurors. Can you, even if you know the testimony of one of the experts is wrong, make your decision based only on what is presented?”

My answer: Yes. (Internal monologue: I can but I would lose sleep at night knowing I allowed a potentially innocent person to be punished.)

2)  “While hearing a testimony that contains information you know to be false you might instinctively think “that is wrong and this is why.”  Can you stop yourself from having these thoughts?”

My answer: No. (Internal monologue: Is that even possible?)

Following a meeting between the judge, prosecution and defense, the first three jurors were dismissed. I was one of them, along with a man who could not speak English and a woman whose best friend had been killed by a drunk driver.

In retrospect, it appears that I was dismissed from the jury because I am a chemist/scientist.  Despite not being selected, my jury summons provided a thought provoking experience and left me with several questions. I will now pose these questions to you, my fellow members of the scientific community.

1) Could you convict someone of a crime knowing that it is based on incorrect testimony?

2) We have spent years training our brains to critically analyze everything we think and hear. Can you shut that off on request?

3) In a system where those who testify swear under oath to tell the truth, is it hypocritical to expect those making the decision to suppress what they know to be true?

4) Why wouldn’t you want additional expertise on a panel of individuals deciding the outcome of a trial? Aren’t they the most qualified and as a result most likely to make the correct decision?

By December 6, 2009 15 comments Uncategorized

Chemical Spill or CHEMICAL SPILL!!

Some of you may have heard on ABC news about a “Chemical Spill” at the University of Southern California on 10/15/09.1 Luckily, you get the inside story because the spill was in my research lab.evacuation

A post-doc in my research group was transporting a few chemicals in a plastic basket from one location to another.  The plastic was brittle due to gradual chemical exposure and cracked. Three bottles fell to the ground and broke. One contained lauroyl chloride, another an anthracene derivative (I don’t remember which one) and the third was a 100 mL bottle of tributyltin chloride. The first two are entirely inert and caused no concern.  The third chemical is an alkyl tin reagent which, in general, are known to be toxic.2 Tributyl tin chloride has a high boiling point (170ºC) and a low vapor pressure compared to that of trimethyl tin chloride. To actually be affected by this chemical, you would probably have to lick the floor or rub it on your skin. However, it was a scenario where we decided it would be best to close the room and allow our on campus Hazmat team, composed of three guys and a truck, to clean it up.

Our lab safety officer soon learned, through USC Public Safety, that the Hazmat crew was unavailable due to a publicity event on the USC Health Sciences Campus. I am not exactly sure who was contacted next, but the response was big.  A building evacuation, two fire trucks, 10-15 firemen, several LAPD officers, and a Los Angeles county chemical spill response team later a news helicopter shows up. They were likely listening to the police radio and, once they arrived on the scene, started reporting the event on ABC news.

The chemical spill response team was no doubt baffled when they saw ~50 ml of clear liquid on the floor of our lab. This is the team called in when a chemical tanker flips over.

Eventually, the USC Hazmat team arrived and did the minor cleaning required from the beginning.

The image above is perhaps the best summation of how overblown the response was. It was used by ABC news to indicate a mass building evacuation.  The picture is actually of an on-campus engineering job fair that was happening a block away. Each white umbrella signifies a different visiting company.

Luckily, the media was distracted by a helium balloon, without which this overblown event may have been even further overblown.

Things I learned/re-learned from this event:

  • Know what chemicals you are working with, how to clean them up and their toxicity.
  • Find out who you need to call for both major and minor chemical spills.
  • Don’t use dollar store plastic baskets for transporting chemicals (at least not long term).
  • Don’t invite your Hazmat team to publicity events.



By October 17, 2009 6 comments Uncategorized

Hello my name is Ken and I am a science junky.

Since this is my first post on I want to introduce myself with an explanation of why I am a scientist and, more specifically, a chemist.I can quit whenever I want!

Like most children, I was born with an insatiable curiosity to understand the world around me. This curiosity was expressed in an unending string of “why” questions. I recognize now that when adults did not have an answer for me they were uncomfortable simply saying, “I don’t know.” I found there are two common ways to get around the discomfort of showing a child your lack of knowledge. The first is the straight forward blow off of “It just is.” This answer only fueled my inquisitive nature and the voice inside my head responded with “They don’t know, maybe I can figure it out.” The second response is far more nefarious: the argument “You can’t really know anything.” Although there is some validity to this statement in the strictest definition, a deep epistemological conversation is usually not the intended outcome. The statement is instead a dualistic assertion that every claim has equal validity.

Is every claim equally true, just because we say it is? No. Reality simply does not work that way.

Living creatures accept that the universe has a systematic set of rules. We accept this basic premise, not because we want to or choose to, but because we have to. If not, every action you perform could result in any possible outcome. How would you function if you believed that flipping a light switch might change the density of water? Despite their best efforts no one really thinks that way.

A basic understanding of the inner-workings of the universe could be roughly described as common sense (don’t touch fire, what goes up must come down, etc.), but the process is much more formal than that. It is scientific method:

1) That is weird.     (Observation)
2) I bet it’s because of …     (Hypothesis)
3) If I do … then … should happen     (Proposed experiment)
4a) I was right!     (Hypothesis supported.)
5a) Now how can make money off of …?     (Create a new hypothesis)
4b) Crap!     (Hypothesis falsified)
5b) I bet it’s because of …     (New hypothesis)

When I was a child there was nothing more enjoyable to me than looking at something and asking “how does that work?” I reveled in coming up with an explanation and then finding I was right. Even today, as a graduate student, the hours of experiments I conduct to test one simple hypothesis (the results of which sometimes ends up as a single sentence in a paper) are worth the effort for the elation I feel when the prediction is correct. I could be best described as “testable hypothesis junky.” My desire to get a fix is the reason I am a scientist. So, why chemistry?

After dabbling in several majors as an undergrad, I took organic chemistry. I fell in love with the atomic/molecular world. At the time I did not understand the draw of such a hated – even feared – academic pursuit (you have no doubt noticed the response when you tell people that you are a chemist). It is only now after years of research that I am beginning to understand the allure.

Of the hard sciences, chemistry is a unique field that allows us to understand the perceived world around us. Using our chemistry knowledge we can conceptualize why an egg yolk hardens when heated or why the Hope diamond is blue. Cell membranes, hand soap, and a layer of gasoline on water can all be associated in the mind of a chemist simply by understanding molecular properties. I started to make a list of more day to day things that are related to chemistry but I decided against it. After I wrote several lines, a photon emitted from the semiconducting material in a light emitting diode passed through the aligned molecules in the liquid crystal display of my computer, eventually hitting molecules in my eye causing a cis to trans isomerization setting off a cascade of sodium and potassium ion pumps which eventually resulted in the realization that the list was just too long.

I have come to understand the root of my passion and now it is my goal to share it with others. The key is finding a way to reignite the curiosity of everyone’s inner child. All it takes is a tidbit of chemistry that is useful and interesting to open a window for others and help them foster a new perspective and interest in our chemical world. I am a firm believer that everyone is interested in chemistry. They just don’t know it yet.

By October 11, 2009 4 comments Uncategorized