Chemistry Blog

Jul 02

Memoir of a First Year Assistant Professor


As of July 1st I’ve been an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at Florida State University for one year. It has been a roller coaster ride complete with exhilarating highs and crushing lows all occurring at a frenzied pace. The last year has been incredible though and I thought I would share some thoughts on my experience.

Life as the Boss and Mentor

Starting a research group as an assistant professor is a lot like starting a small business. I began with a certain amount of startup capital ($500 K – $1 mil) and then made decisions on how to best allocate the funds. Some of the purchases are obvious. Others are difficult because it’s a matter of differentiating between what I need and what simply would be nice to have. Another issue I continue to wrestling with is if I should spend everything right away or save a nest egg for projects that may soon take off.

The other tough decision is on which research projects to prioritize. My group only has a few people and our time is limited. Which projects are most promising? Most impactful? Or which will get funding, help me get tenure, or motivate me the most? Do I put several people on one project or should I diversify our efforts? Another question I wrestle with is how to best match up a student with a project. There are many variables to consider: interests, innate skill, research priorities, available projects and who will work the fastest.

On a lighter note, mentoring students has to be one of the most rewarding parts of managing a research group. It has been great to watch them master skills in real time. I wish I could stop them from making the same mistakes I did (everyone breaks off the pipette tip loading a column the first time), but then I remind myself that errors like these are unavoidable and actually vital to the learning process. I’m also sometimes struck by the bittersweet realization that, as their lab skills grow, mine will get worse and worse as my focus is required elsewhere (teaching, writing papers, writing proposals, etc.)

It has also been fun and fulfilling to watch them take ownership of their projects. They have transitioned from spectators to hands-on scientists who are genuinely excited to see their experiments through. They stay late just because they want to know the answer or stop by my office just to share an interesting observation. I look forward to hearing “I tried what you suggested and it didn’t work but then I tried…” Even better will be the day they tell me I am wrong and then show me the result that verifies it.

0 to Authority in One Week

One of the more profound changes has been the instantaneous respect and authority that comes with the title ‘professor’. I literally went one week from being a regular, everyday postdoc in the Meyer research group to receiving notable, deferential treatment from almost everyone. I’ve had a doctorate for three years but I wasn’t ever really called ‘Dr. Hanson’ until my first week at FSU. My wife, Debbie, noticed the change too. She’s known me since I was just an undergrad trying to figure out my major. One day on campus we walked by a student who respectfully nodded and said, “Hello, Professor Hanson.” I could see the look and her eye and practically heard her think, “Hmmm. This better not go to his head.”

The narcissistic part of me really enjoys the prestige associated with the title. If I am really in the mood of artificially inflating my ego I can just page through the one or two post-doc applications I get every week and read phrases like “Dear Respected Professor Hanson,” “your prestigious research group”, and “your research legacy.” It is clear that these messages are just generic spam emails that have probably been sent to a dozen or more professors. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorite messages:

Dear Professor < http://www.chem.fsu.edu/bio-t.php?userID=1274>,
I am writing this letter in search of an opportunity of working in your group as a post-doctoral research fellow.

My guess is that they wrote a macro to automatically insert each professor’s name into the email’s introduction. Unfortunately for the author, the macro instead pasted my faculty profile link. As a quick aside for anyone searching for postdoc openings, if the email does not explicitly mention my research (i.e. I am particularly interested in your work on electron transfer at interfaces…etc.) I will not respond.

Automatic authority also has its drawbacks. Perhaps the most notable being that I am now “the boss.” I notice subtle responses from students when I enter a room. Sometimes the conversation stops, desktops are showing, heads look up and then are adamantly buried into books, papers quickly appear, etc. I responded the same to professors when I was a student so I don’t take it personally. But it is interesting to see it from the other side.

 Behind the Curtain

One of the surprisingly interesting aspects of my new professorship is seeing, first hand, the inner workings of a chemistry department and university. While many people might complain about faculty meetings, I have really enjoyed seeing the debates about hiring, budget battles, course content decisions, etc.

Being on the ‘inside’ also includes being part of the hiring/graduate admittance process. While looking through CVs, letters of recommendation, etc, I can’t help but feel that it really wasn’t that long ago when I was a starting as a grad student and then searching for a job as well. One of my more important realizations is that you do need to pay attention to “the man behind the curtain.” The younger me wanted to believe that science was a bastion of objectivity where the best science always win. While this might be true in the long run, reality makes a lot more sense when you consider that students, coworkers, program officers, editors, etc. are people too. People that have their own motivations, make mistakes, have superiors to answer to, and generally just want to be treated kindly.

Personal

The transition from post doc to professorship has also been interesting from a personal perspective as well. As a graduate student and post-doc there was an automatic, built-in ‘social circle’ of people aged ~22-30 at similar places in their lives. The jump into professorship is very different. My new cross-section of coworkers represent a wide range of ages and career points ranging from National Academy of Sciences members to Assistant Professors struggling for tenure. They are also at very different life milestones. Some are searching for a first house and have newborns while others are traveling the world and looking forward to grandkids. Scheduling time to hang out can be very difficult and, despite coming into a great department with an amazing group of coworkers, it can be a lonely experience. Luckily for me, FSU chemistry department has a great support network and I joined the department just as two other young faculty were starting their careers. There is something great about having a few kindred souls to empathize with. We also have three new assistant professors arriving within the month to share this experience.

 

Thank you for taking the time to read through my musings. I’d like to conclude with a random list of surreal ‘firsts’ that blew my mind at least a little during the past year. ln no particular order, here they are:

  • The phone call that became a job offer.
  • The first time one of my current co-workers jokingly called me Professor.
  • Seeing my lab space and sitting in my office for the first time.
  • Seeing my faculty profile on the FSU Chemistry Web page (Quickly followed by my emailing the link to everyone I know).
  • Creating the Hanson Research Group webpage.
  • First email/letter on official letterhead with my formal signature.
  • The first day of class as an instructor.
  • The day I hired my first student researcher.
  • The day I realized I now had eight people working in my lab.
  • The moment we had our first clearly publishable result.
  • The day I realized I’ve been a professor for a year.

 

 

Jun 27

Is the Coop bank fishing for an anti-science cause?


The Cooperative bank has had its troubles of late, mismanagement, scandal ridden executives and massive debts have seen an the organisation that prided itself on its ethical policy forced to reevaluate its self image.

At the moment it takes a stance, both through its investments and the customers its accepts, that supports communities, tackles povety, encourages responsible financing and protects the environment. One way that the Coop’s reevaluation has manifested is via a poll (aimed largely at its customers, but open to anyone) asking how the ethics of the bank should be manifested. Most of the questions seemed perfectly reasonable, asking participants to rank various activites, such as customer service, responsible lend etc. But when it came to the questions on environmental protections, they highlight chemistry, nanontechnology, GM foods and fracking as particular worthy of a mention.

image

Why these subjects in particular and why present them in such a leading fashion? It strikes me as a list of subjects that have been the most contriversial with respect to the environment in the last few years (or decades).

Personally I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Are they fishing for a particular area that they can easily fight? Afterall campaigning against GM or pandering to chemophobia is fairly easy to do without committing to anything in particular. However, making the bank carbon neutral actually requires some action. Or maybe its just a sloppy poll, but either way the bank needs to try a bit harder to come up with a meaningful and evidence based environmental policy.

Jun 19

Food for the souls of the most hungry


I’ve just come back from the Cheltenham Science Festival. It was a truly inspiring week of educating and entertaining science, maths and technology. Insights direct from Richard Dawkins (he didn’t claim he wanted to kill Santa), to  mesmerising talks from Sean Carroll, and the hugely entertaining Famelab final (a world wide science communication competition were contestants get 3 minutes to explain their science, check out their Youtube channel (dig deep enough and you’ll find me in there somewhere)) all made for an exhilarating few days.

Antibiotic resistance

Antibiotic resistance

All of this and loads more takes place in a grassy park crammed full of marquees adored with giant molecular models, surrounded by science buskers, set in an environment where the public mingles with some of the brightest minds in science (last year I stood behind James Watson in a queue for an ice cream (he had a soft ice and then complained when it was dispensed with a left handed twist)* meanwhile Peter Higgs wondered past).

I was lucky enough to do my bit too.  I helped volcanologists demonstrate what happens when lava flows through different types of rock (thermite makes a reasonable approximating to lava, although doing it in a marquee was a bit hair-raising). My show called ‘Ipads and Avatars’,  presented alongside a CGI motion captured monkey, was a big hit and great fun to perform. But, what I felt most proud of were my chemistry workshops for primary school kids. Quite simply the children played with Molymods and built models of chemicals found in food and drinks. Then we talked about how your body senses these chemicals. I introduced kids as young as 7 to concepts like chirality, valency, bonding and receptor proteins. And they got it! It was a real thrill to hear their excited chatter and exclamations about how much they loved chemistry.

TIMG_3220he Cheltenham Science Festival is a truly aspiration raising events for all ages, most especially for children. I’ve never experienced anywhere else with the same concentration of phenomenal science communicators ranging from Nobel laureates, TV personalities to equally inspiring PhD students. All of whom serve to highlight the joys, worth and excitement of science. And it really does work, the children who are lucky enough to live near to the festival and get exposed to it year after year, really do know their stuff.  One 10 year old sang the whole of the Periodic Table Song to me.

Now I want to help more children, especially those that don’t have supportive backgrounds, to experience inspiring events like Cheltenham’s Science Festival. Its the sort of thing that can make all the difference to a child’s choices in life by illustrating the worth of education and knowledge, then through it what is achievable. That’s why I’m raising money for The Children’s University. They work with children living in adverse situations, sometimes from families where there’s generations of unemployment with parents who encourage kids to live on benefits. Others are brought up in care or in a host of despairing situations.  In short the Children’s University is a charity that makes a real difference to young people’s lives by showing children from adverse backgrounds a world of opportunities.

Forgive me using this forum in this way, but please help support the Children’s University too by giving a little. And to add a little grist to the mill I’ll be hiking 100km around 18 peaks of Dartmoor in under 42hrs, whilst carrying 12kg pack and forgoing any electronic navigation aids  (the reason for this particular madness is another story).

Hopefully we can raise enough so that todays young people can be inspired by Richard Dawkins, who can tell them, in person, that he has nothing against Santa.

* The complaint about the ice cream may not be strictly true, but he was with me in he queue.

May 23

Making sense of chemical stories


Discussions on chemophobia (or whatever you want to call it) is a perennial favourite on chemistry blogs. But the conversation rarely extends out of our echo chamber. But now Sense about Science have joined the discussion with the publication of a guide entitled  Making Sense of Chemical Stories.

Sense about Science is a respected charitable organisation that  ‘equips people to make sense of scientific and medical claims in public discussion’. In short, they facilitate discussions between concerned/interested groups and relevant experts.  The aim of their guide is to bridge the disconnect between the lifestyle view (and popular definition) of chemicals and the realities of how chemistry is used to support the modern world. It does this by tackling common misconceptions about chemistry.

One of the key misconception that they address is that natural chemicals are somehow safer than man-made ones. The wrongheadedness of which is nicely illustrated by a pair of infographics  (designed by Compound Interest) that don’t shy away from admitting synthetic chemicals are often toxic but also make it clear that whether a chemical is naturally occurring or man-made tells us precisely nothing about its toxicity.

SAS - Natural vs. Man-Made Toxicity FINAL (1)

 

SAS - Dose Makes The Poison FINAL (1)

Making Sense of Chemical Stories is being promoted to the public, journalists, life-style press and policy makers. It, along with the infographics are freely available to download and distribute under a creative commons license. Or if you prefer a hard copy (or box full of them) email enquiries[ at ]senseaboutscience[dot]org  with your contact details.

 

 

May 21

Update: Photo Friday (#picpickoftheweek)


In January the Hanson Research Group (@HansonFSU) introduced Photo Friday, a twitter-based ‘best picture of the week’ (#picpickoftheweek). Since then my students have created an amazing collection of photographs depicting our research, equipment, and chemicals. I’d like to highlight my six favorite photos so far (in no particular order).

In the first picture a reaction mixture, under UV light, is cooled to -78°C using a dry ice-acetone bath. Emission is usually more intense when molecules are cooled because it slows vibrational relaxation (non-radiative decay).

rxnThe second picture shows a fluorescent dye in dichloromethane being poured into an Erlenmeyer flask under UV-light (365 nm).

PourPicture three offers a glimpse inside the excitation monochromator of our fluorometer. The device is composed of a grating, to disperse the white light (xenon lamp source) into its components, and mirrors to direct the monochromatic light toward the sample.

MonochrometerPhoto four is a very stylized look at one of our variable magnetic field cuvette holders. The knob you see in the bottom right is used to move the neodymium magnets closer or further away from the cuvette. With the magnets next to the cuvette we get a field of about 0.35 T at the point of emission. The dry ice adds an ethereal feel to the photo but more importantly allows us to see the laser beam.

Laser through magnetic fieldEmission from molecules bound to semiconducting films depend on the energy of the chromophore, the conduction band of the semiconductor, the solvent, and other variables. Photo five demonstrates how the distance between the molecule and the semiconductor can affect emission intensity.

Film emissionThe concentration gradients that occur when a solid dissolves in solvent is easy to visualize using fluorescent molecules, as shown in picture six. Eventually the color will even out but the process is relatively slow without stirring.

DissolveFollow us on twitter (@HansonFSU) for more more of our #picpickoftheweek.

May 18

The Rules


Here at chemistry-blog we feel the need for a sacred text setting out the etiquette to be followed by chemicals scientists everywhere.

Henceforth these shall be known as The Rules (an idea blatantly stolen for cyclists), and they shall set us apart from those that peddle particles or organisms.

The Rules have been distilled from precedents and consensus. However more may be required.

1) There is ONE periodic table. Do not tolerate poor imitations of Mendeleev’s genesis.

The ‘periodic’ tables of Muppets, Harry Potter, cocktails etc. are not periodic hence they are just tables.

2) DNA is a right handed helix. Should you see it depicted otherwise you must bring it to the attention of twitter immediately.

Amendment: Dear Reddit, yes I know Z-DNA is left handed and if the news outlet using the image has labelled it as such then you don’t have to inform twitter. Okay?

3) The rubber balloon was invented by Michael Faraday, it is therefore a perfectly acceptable piece of laboratory equipment. 

To avoid the embarrassment and bother of having to buy balloons form the party shop all chemistry departments/companies should stock them in their stores, where they shall be known as Faraday spheres.

4) Acceptable uses of liquid nitrogen include making ice cream.

5) Always wear your safety specs in the lab. Do not wear them (even on your head) in seminars, at lunch or wondering around campus.

An exception is made when you have a nice pair of wrap around specs and can’t find your cycling glasses, thus allowing you to adhere to cycling rule #39 whilst circumventing rule #36.

6) Do not use the phrase ‘chemical-free‘, ‘no chemicals‘ or similar, EVER!

Except of course when ridiculing those that do.

7) It never gets easier, yields just get better. 

8)  Chief Editors of Nature Chemistry are bestowed with the honour of being verbed.

9) Lab coats should be white.

Maybe you think that wondering into the lab looking like something from an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical makes you stand out from the crowd. It does, but not in a good way.

The only the exception is in undergraduate lab classes where it is acceptable for instructors and demonstrators to wear a splash of colour to distinguish them from the hoi polloi.

Amendment: Blue nomex coats are OK, but ONLY when you really need one.

10)  Zinc and cadmium are not transition metals. Keep up.

11) When taking part in a photo op do not don a lab coat and sit at the bench unless this is where you work.

If you have the title ‘Professor’ no-one believes that the lab is were you spend your day and frankly you look a bit awkward in your pristine coat, perched before a piece of equipment that you can’t remember how to use.

12) The journal PNAS is pronounced as you would expect. Stop trying to to pretend otherwise.

13) Sulfur is not spelt with ‘ph’ no matter which side of the Atlantic you are on.

14) Helium is for NMR instruments, stop putting it in Faraday spheres

15) Before you waste an afternoon in the library be sure to spend a month or two in the lab re-discovering something that’s already been published. 1

16) The structures in your graphical abstract are not to be arbitrarily coloured in, no matter how pretty it looks. 2

17) If you book the instrument USE the instrument.3

The booking calendar is not for letting everyone know when you think you might use the instrument unless something else comes up, like grabbing a coffee or writing an inane blog post.

18)  Clean out the god damn pump trap.4

It is not a place to conduct an unregulated experiment.

Contribute to The Rules through comments or twitter via the hashtag #ChemRules and together we’ll build our code of behaviour.

19) Always wash your hands BEFORE going to he bathroom.5

This also applies if you’ve been cooking with chile peppers.

20) Your lab coat is NOT a rain coat.

1 Courtesy of Cantrill (the noun not the verb). 

2 Good point, thanks Fluorogrol.

Well said Chad.

Thank you Alex.

5  A excellent rule suggested by a Rabbit on Redit.

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