Chemistry Blog

Jan 10

The Hidden World of the PostDoc Interview


I thought I knew the process involved in a postdoc interview, but it is a unique experience that people don’t share enough.

Lesson #1
The one thing that was never made clear to me is that you should have an hour long talk ready to go. I was asked the night before my interview if I would be willing to give an institute wide 1-hour seminar while I was there. Unfortunately for my own professional development I politely chickened-out; I have some ACS talks of 20-25 min length but nothing prepared that would tell a cohesive story for a whole hour. Other postdocs that I have seen interview at Berkeley usually give a talk to the group they want to join, but not the big seminar talk.

Lesson #2
The interview is all day long. My day started at 9:00 am with a meeting with the professor I contacted followed by a presentation to his research group of my thesis work. Afterwards it was 1-on-1 talks with his postdocs and a lunch with the group. Which is what I expected. After lunch came meetings with the other professors in the department, an aspect of the process that I was not expecting and was more under prepared then I would have liked to be. The final meeting of the day was with the professor I initially contacted followed by more specifics on what aspects of his work was most interesting to me. The whole process ended after 5:00 pm with an early dinner.

Lesson #3
You need to wear a suit. Fortunately my friends got that into my head before the interview.

Lesson #4
The last step in the process is getting the funds. I need to apply for a fellowship to get started, but as the institute manages the fellowship program I am applying to, I was told not to worry too much about getting it.

The whole day went well, and I look forward to that next step in academia. If anyone else has gone through this process please share your experience in the comments.

Mitch

Dec 22

Funny Flasks


During a recent group clean up, I came across these gems drying in an oven.  No one knew where they’d come from or how we obtained them:

IM000903

IM000907

Looks like the glass blower just capped some broken-off joints to make tiny flasks.  Although, I gotta say, if you’re going to do chemistry on that small of scale, why not just grab a 1 dram vial?

Merry Christmas, all!  Safe travels and well wishes in the new year :)

Dec 15

Silly Find from the Internets


Not much today. I saw this earlier and remembered having one of these moments back in G-chem that made me want to break the stupid buret. Actually, that happened on the last day of the semester, during checkout, after I washed it and was walking to the stockroom to return it. I forgot how long the damn thing was, and as I was walked out of the lab the door closed on it, cleaving it in two.

Why was this necessary for us learn in lab? Would have been much more useful to teach us how to make an electronic one instead.

Dec 13

Dissolution is the solution to pollution?



The machine that eats human bodies

The machine that eats human bodies

Want a solution to cremation pollution? In the 9th annual “Year in Ideas” issue, the New York Times Sunday Magazine covers a new Scottish company that wants people to “resomate” human remains as opposed to traditional cremation.

The company’s web site mentions that resomation “uses less energy than cremation and produces significantly less CO2 and avoids putting mercury and other harmful contaminants into the atmosphere.”

How does this work? According to the NYT: “The corpse is placed in a pressurized chamber. The vessel is then filled with water and potassium hydroxide, creating a highly alkaline solution, and heated to 330 degrees. After about three hours, all that’s left are a soft, white calcium phosphate from bone and teeth and a light brown primordial soup of amino acids and peptides.”

Huh. Even though it’s kinda grody, I have to say that it makes a lot of sense. Will alkaline hydrolysis be your body’s ultimate fate?

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.

Noel

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?

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