So you’re thinking about graduate school…

First off, I’d like to congratulate noel and everyone else who has gotten into graduate schools thus far. Considering the economy, applications are up and it’s even more competitive than ever. However, I have had some friends get rejected and start to freak out, which is of course, natural, and I asked, why do you want to go to graduate school?

I got the response: I want to be a professor. Okay, I said, of what? Um..a research professor, she said. Okay…why?

The pause really didnt come to me as a surprise. Yes, the economy is bad right now. However, graduate school should not be looked at as a way of escaping the real world. Grad school is hard, you will feel stupid, you will be frustrated and there will be multiple times you want to quit.

But, but..Boyie, I <3 chemistry. Bull. Crap. Maybe 1% of the people in graduate school love chemistry. People have multiple reasons for doing it, and most dont involve loving chemistry, but the thing is, most people who eventually succeed have /STRONG/ motivations to do it.

But, but…Boyie, I’m smart, isnt graduate school the next logical step? Again, I have seen LOTS of smart people drop out. Why? Various reasons such as “I just didnt think it was right for me”, “I felt stupid”, “I dont want to spend 5 years working on the same problem”, and “I just dont like research.” All those answers are things that could have been avoided. I am fortunate enough to attend a prestigious program and I know people would kill for the slots that have just opened up as a result of people dropping out. So really, think about why you want to go to graduate school.

When I was applying, my father and my undergraduate research advisors asked me the following questions as a reflection of sorts to see if I had the strength of will to make it. So, I present to you, the questions I was asked.

1) Why chemistry?
2) Why graduate school?
3) What do you see yourself doing in 5, 10, 15 years?
4) Is a PhD really required for that?
5) Again, why graduate school?
6) What do you like about research?
7) Name five influential people in your chosen field.
8) What did they do?
9) What do you want to contribute to science?
10) What do you want to contribute to chemistry?
11) Are you okay with feeling stupid?
12) Are you okay with slamming your head against a wall?
13) Finally, why graduate school in chemistry?

Yes, there were 13 questions, three repeat, but looking back on it it’s a very important question. So, for those of you about to enter, I highly recommend doing this exercise. Be honest with yourself for the answers, and g’luck!

By January 30, 2009 7 comments opinion

Do Big Dollars Affect the Little Guys?

PillsD-Lowe certainly beat me to the punch this morning, but in my defense, I was working on a time-sensitive reaction in the lab when I heard the news. 

In the midst of economic turmoil, an interesting deal has been proposed—one that hits home to a lot of R&D chemists.  Both Bloomberg and the WSJ are reporting that Pfizer is in talks with Wyeth to merge the two companies for an estimated $60 B.  The rumor, among several media outlets, is that Pfizer’s backup plan is to buy Bristol-Myers Squibb or Amgen should the Wyeth deal sour. 

Recently, both companies have had their fair share of time in the media spotlight (apart from the proposed merger).  As reported by Chemistry World last December, Wyeth announced it would revamp its R&D business model by minimizing the number of major areas of therapeutic research while retaining the same research budget (c. $3 B).  Wyeth plans to focus on the following 6 areas: oncology, central nervous system, vaccines, musculoskeletal, metabolism and inflammation.  I can tell you (from my experiences in pharma) that it’s a better strategy put 20 researchers on different aspects of one project (a concerted effort) versus working in 20 different directions.


Meanwhile, in DC, the USPTO recently agreed to allow Pfizer to “repair” its invalid patent for Lipitor thus gaining US exclusivity until 2011 (more details here).  By the amount of revenue generated in sales ($13 B in 2007 alone), Lipitor is considered the best-selling drug in the world.  For whatever it’s worth, the controversy was sparked by the challenge and subsequent rejection of one of Pfizer’s prized patents in 2004.  Essentially, exclusivity keeps the cash cow alive for another couple of years while other therapies are pushed through the FDA.  You can find a more detailed description here.

While the deal may be good for Wall Street, I fear that it may do more harm than good, especially in the world of chemical employment.  As someone who’s currently hunting the job market (and watching several of my peers do the same), I see shrinking job opportunities in pharma.  Often, as two large companies merge, it’s usually followed by a period of hiring freezes (there become a lot of replicated jobs) then the new mega company begins to tighten the belt by cutting spending and laying off thousands of employees.  

I hope we can all make it through these shaky and uncertain times.

By January 23, 2009 0 comments opinion, science news

Chemical Edutainment and Undergrad Labs

So it’s me, the writer of solidasarock, and well I’ve joined the chemistry forums blog team. Studying for qualifiers have been awful, so writing has been almost nonexistent, but with finishing off TAing and watching the first years teach lab and hearing their complains that were oh so similar to mine last year, I thought I’d tackle something that’s really prevalent in some chemistry departments, particularly, my department. And that would of course me chemical edutainment.

<insert 2 cents>

I had the privilege of teaching freshmen, juniors, seniors and graduate students in my TA load, and seeing how things were run here versus my undergrad alma mater is disappointing. Back in my alma mater, experiments were ‘boring’. We didnt go into the latest nanotechnology, but we did go over very valuable experimental techniques. Twenty-thirty titrations in the first semester lab alone was enough to drive one insane, and the qualitative analysis freshman lab of having to figure out what ions were in a mixture was difficult for us fishies. Then of course, there was our ‘reward’ lab where we synthesized YBCO and then did a iodometric titration to determine the oxygen content, and then lots of other random labs that, while ‘boring’ to the students, showed important concepts that helped us conceptualize concepts.

Let’s compare that to my new department. Freshmen here do not do multiple titrations till they die. They dont even determine the concentration of their titrant in a standardization. Here, they do one titration, and do it using a pH meter. We didnt use a pH meter in undergrad until junior year for our titrations since we had to get a feel for the end point before hand. From there, they move onto ‘ubersexy’ labs, such as the synthesis of CdSe nanoparticles, Au nanoparticles. Did they at least characterize these NPs? They did one UV-vis, didnt really get told what was the significance and then were told to move on. Then later they had experiments that had very little chemistry in it at all.

I remember asking why these labs were taught, and I was repeatedly told about the ‘educational value’ of them. They were short writeups with barely any real analysis for the students. I chagrined and did my duty as a TA and taught them the best I could, inserting concepts, that while tangentially related, would actually be covered on their exams. Needless to say, my students complained at the extra work I had ‘assigned’. So writing down a few questions and having them answer it as part of their lab report was making me into a tyrannical despot. My evaluations were crappy, and I had learned my lesson.

I then spoke with one of the lab coordinators who told me about the consumerism of undergrad. We, as the TAs, are the product, and of course, the customer is always right. Of course! They pay $$$$$ money to attend this fine institution, but if they arent getting actual quality and instead get frou frou labs that teach them little but keep them entertained where is the value?

Now this sounds like a rant. Where is your proof? Like I said, I also got to teach juniors and seniors later on in the year, and I, to my dismay would find my proof there. Here are a bunch of chemistry juniors and seniors. I was explaining the quantitative analysis lab, and asked if they had done serial dilutions before. Nope. No one had done it. Unless they were a lackey in a biochem lab and had to do serial dilutions all day for their grad/postdoc mentors. Come on, at the junior/senior level, serial dilutions should be a snap. I explained the concept, showed them how to do it, and in the end, I was still asked by juniors and seniors to whether they could get micropippeters to dilute 1000x in a 100 ml volumetric flask.

I was dumbfounded. I was aghast. I wanted to rant and rave, but I kept it in. I taught them what they needed to know and went over the concept again. I had asked if they had covered it in organic lab (since I didnt get to teach that), and they said no. I knew the freshman curriculum, and I know it wasnt covered there. There were these chemistry majors, almost ready to graduate, not knowing very basic experimental skills.

So I was on fire and wanted to teach hardcore again. I went into other concepts that tangentially related, were still useful, and that they could use the information. A lot of them were happy at the knowledge, some werent. Then fast forward to another lab. These were the same juniors and seniors. I had assigned all the questions in the lab, but some were deemed too difficult. They saw no point in those questions. Needless to say, they went to my lab coordinator and complained to their hearts content.

I had a serious talking to again. Once again, they were right, as the questions were too hard. Of course, I didnt say at this point that the lab coordinator had written the lab completely and we both deemed prior that the questions were of the right difficulty and should be good for juniors and seniors. Since I was no longer entertaining them, since I actually went from ‘nice guy TA’ to ‘no, you need to answer these questions’ I was evil. I was a bad TA.

I was distraught. I really felt like I didnt want to be a professor anymore if things were going to be like this. Then I got to teach grad students, who all went to undergrad elsewhere. Thank GOD for grad students. And now I want to be a professor again. Why? To change this system of edutainment in chemistry.

Chemistry should be fun, but to a certain extent. If you want kids to actually learn, you need to teach them important concepts, not just show them the latest and greatest sexy experiments that have little experimental value. Basic skills, especially critical thinking need to be taught. Students should be challenged in labs, cause if they’re easy, what’s the point?

</insert 2 cents>

That’s my two cents. What’s yours?

By January 12, 2009 21 comments fun, general chemistry, opinion

Can chemical compounds be pluralized?

I wanted to extract a paragraph from an earlier post and open it up for further discussion.  When I was creating the chemistry dictionary file, one of the last things I did was apply the dictionary file to ASAPs of popular ACS journals.  Here’s what I wrote:

One of the biggest things I noticed during this vetting was the use of plurals in scientific writing.  Cyclopentenone is an actual compound and is in the dictionary.  If your research requires you to make a family of cyclopentenones, then the plural was probably not in the dictionary (it is now, though).  Although, that raises an interesting question: can you pluralize compounds like that?  Or is it more correct to say that a library of cyclopentenone derivatives was made?  Same thing with families of natural products.  Are they members of the brevetoxins?  Or are they more correctly members of the brevetoxin family of natural products?  I’m not sure I know the answer to that one.  One thing I do know is that I did not include plurals of elements.  Your 13C NMR doesn’t tell you that you have 2 carbonyl carbons.  It tells you that you have 2 carbonyl carbon atoms.

The ACS style guide (at least the 2nd edition) doesn’t comment explicitly on the use of plurals with chemical compounds.  What say you?

By January 10, 2009 5 comments opinion