Chemistry Blog

Dec 07

One semester down, 11(+/-3) to go…

On the day the first snow arrived this winter, I wiggled into a glove box for the first time since my sophomore year. I was 19 then and 22 now. I am 2300 miles from home in a very, very cold place where I pay my own rent and car insurance.

I will finally finish my first semester of grad school in a week. It’s weird to think that I had just driven cross country to this cluster of red brick buildings in the middle of a corn field not too long ago. Today I did my first synthesis in grad school, which earned today a blog post of its own.

Here are some of my random thoughts and lesson learned from my first couple of months of grad school:

  1. The midwest: I was and probably always will be a Cali girl. But so far, the lack of a coastline, mountains,  or any civilization beyond the city limit really haven’t bothered me yet. I love the humidity in the summer and watching the leaves turn color.
  2. Classes: This semester, I took advanced group theory and a matsci class. I find these interesting but not very difficult (probably true: MS = More of the Same). Taking graduate-level courses in my senior year definitely helped. I probably didn’t spend nearly as much time on these as…
  3. Teaching! I teach an honors genchem course. I love my students (all 80 of them!… ok, most of them)  and it’s a ton of fun to teach. I like that I can be a teacher and a mentor, since most of them aspire to do something relating to chemistry. I also learned that I should never have children of my own. Why bother when I can have college-aged ones that I can return to their respective parents when I get sick of them?
  4. Research: We spent a lot of our first semester getting tours and meetings to decide whose research group we will be married to for the foreseeable future. I haven’t gotten to do a lot of work in lab yet, but so far I think what I saw in undergrad and a little bit of the post-bac life about grad school is rather accurate.
  5. Stipend: If I haven’t griped to you about this already, here it is– many of you know that I took a pretty significant pay cut (I get paid about 2/3 less now than my previous job) to go to grad school. The thing about not living in California though… I live very comfortably on my paycheck. If anyone is thinking about grad school, that should be a major consideration to make (cost of living vs stipend).

Take home lesson to those of you who are thinking about graduate school: observe grad students and ask questions. Do the math on your budget. There is more to it than the ranking. After all, you are putting 6 years of your early 20s on the table, wouldn’t you expect a little more from yourself in return?

Happy first synthesis day to myself. A glass of Livermore Valley merlot for the many more reactions to come and fires to put out.


Dec 06

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?

Nov 26

More SEM fun

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

ASPEX is initiating a Name That Sample contest.  Head over to the ASPEX site to cast your vote.  Voting ends 11:59pm Friday night.  The winner will win a 1Gb flash drive courtesy of ASPEX.  Here’s Volume 1’s mystery picture:

Nov 24

Out and about

So let me tell you all of a story. Back in undergrad, there was someone who was in the closet as a chemist. There was no one else he could really look up to as there weren’t many out and about chemists,even though he went to a very liberal school. He tried to remain in the closet, but eventually came out to his friends and was accepted right away (as they pretty much had a feeling anyway). Now this person’s undergraduate research advisor was well, not that accepting and there was lots of drama. Too much drama really. Eventually fired from his position (for a really bullcrap reason) and after almost losing a summer fellowship due to comment by former advisor, he went back into the closet even though word had spread and had become a bit ostracized in the department.

Years later this undergrad would go to grad school. Again, he came out to a few folks when starting. But it didn’t last long as the department which was said to be quite friendly to the LGBT community seemed as such in the beginning. However, there would be more drama later on and decided to pursue other avenues instead of chemistry.

Alas, that is my story. Sure I’ve been writing here for a while, but there’s a reason why I decided to go an alternative career route instead of traditional chemistry. Considering I have had people try to change who I am, and the way I live, I have decided to leave academia for a bit. Might I return? Who knows, but alas, I am a jaded and cynical chemist now.

It surprises me that as liberal and as open minded many chemists are socially and even fiscally, the topic of LGBT scientists still causes some squickyness amongst their peers. There are far too many gay grad students and undergrads who are in fact scared. Sure there may be some places with out faculty (though my grad school only had them at lecturer positions), the heterohegemony still remains a strong force in academia. The program Safespace can only do so much, as even students who I knew were bi-curious/questioning/gay/lesbian/transgendered didn’t feel comfortable talking to various faculty members who had the stickers.

Then there’s also the GLBT scientists groups.  Sure, they exist,but there are no real open member directories. Why? How can young struggling scientists talk with someone who already went through what they are going through now? Where is the support structure? How can you find someone else who shares your struggles? In the end, some students just feel alienated and go through their struggle alone and sometimes even dropout of programs.

While younger chemists are more accepting, trying to get a career in industry or academia is very difficult. When applying for fellowships, I asked, should I come out? No one told me to come out.  In fact, everyone I spoke with said that the statement would detract from my application and would probably cost me a fellowship.

I followed their advice begrudgingly. I got a fellowship. But at what price? To not be true to myself in the lab setting and to constantly worry in the back of my mind wondering who might know or suspect and what would they do about this information?

So now I am out and about. I’m looking for new avenues to continue my career path. Hopefully one day, chemistry will be as open to the GLBT community as it is to other minorities.

That’s all.

Nov 23

Obama & Science Education

obama robot ball machine

Student science geeks will be going to the White House, that is what caught my attention from Obama’s remarks on his “Education To Innovate” campaign delivered Monday. Student winners in national competitions in science, technology, and robotics will be eligible to display their know-how to Obama at a White House science fair. The exact dates and times were not announced, but it is nice to know that White House visits will not be limited to athletes.

A list of some of his other initiatives is given below.

  • National Lab Day: Is an attempt to get scientists into local schools to help with demos and fieldtrips. I just signed up and would suggest you take a look at it too. [Link]
  • overview_potato_kid
  • Connect a Million Minds: Is a project running through Time Warner. The website is very vague and seems to mention robotics and has a sign up sheet, but detailed specifics on what they are planning is not forthcoming from their webdesign. The picture of a potato-grape molecule is interesting though. [Link, ie only apparently]
  • STEM Video Game Design Competitions: A competition to make the best STEM video game. [Link]


Nov 22

Ditch the Dimetapp?

I just finished up the teaching part of my teaching fellowship.  I got to teach five weeks of an undergrad organic class, and I had a blast!  As the seasons started to change, though, I started to hear more and more coughing and sneezing and sniffling.  Everyone’s all concerned with the swine flu, but we’re also entering cough and cold season, too.

The news I’m presenting today from ScienceDaily is old news, but I hadn’t heard it before… That makes it news to me :)  In an article published in 2004 in the journal Pediatrics (DOI: 10.1542/peds.114.1.e85), Dr. Ian Paul of Penn State Children’s Hospital studied the effect of dextromethorphan and diphenhydramine versus placebo in providing nighttime relief from cough symptoms as a result of upper respiratory infection.

Dextromethorphan is sold as an antitussive (cough medicine) in just about every cough formulation known to man.  The study specifically tested cough syrups in children ages 2-18.  Parents were given a survey to used to rate severity of symptoms.  The following morning, parents filled out a second survey re-rating the same symptoms.  The follow up survey also asked how both the children and parents slept during the night.

The double blind study showed that while symptoms did improve with the active ingredients, there was no statistical improvement over placebo.  On the scoring scale used in the study, children taking dextromethorphan improved 10.06 points, while those taking diphenhydramine improved an average of 11.79 points.  By comparison, children in the placebo group improved 10.85 points.

Given that dextromethorphan can easily be abused when taken in high doses, one wonders whether a spoonful of sugar (in the form of honey) might be as good of a cough syrup as any.  Keep this in mind when you browse the shelf at the drug store this winter.

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