GUEST POST: The Blogversation Continues: Turning Around Public Perception on Chemicals and Chemistry

Guest post by Luke Gammon

This is the second post in response to a conversation started by @chemtacular and @reneewebs (see an excellent summary by Reneé Webster of the conversation so far).

In October last year, Chemistry World wrote an article on chemophobia which asked “Is it the role of industry, working academic scientists or communicators to do the repair work?”. My view (as an academic scientist) is that we must all take on this responsibility. As a PhD student who relies solely on federal government funding (via taxes) I see science communication as a public duty. It is our responsibility to inform, educate and encourage the next generation of scientists as well as the general public.

We’ve all been challenged by @chemtacular to suggest a “course of action” to combat chemophobia and encourage education about chemicals. So, what can we do as individuals and what can we do as a community? Also, how can we encourage future generations and engage with the wider adult public?

Here is a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his New York Times bestselling book “The Black Swan”:

When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

I see the central message here being about empowerment through access to information. It is up to us to provide the public with as much accurate information about chemistry as possible. We cannot simply correct those who are wrong, we must engage the wider community at local, national and international levels. Remember, knowledge is power.

There are many simple things we can do as individuals – write a blog, engage with your friends, family and even people you meet on the street! Tell them about the great chemicals in their everyday lives and ask them about their fears and concerns. “What’s the first word that pops into your head when I say the word ‘chemical’?”

Now, lets think bigger. Ask your local chemistry department about public outreach events or organise your own (Chemistry of chocolate or beer is always a hit!). Perhaps write an opinion piece for the local newspaper or appear on a local tv/radio program. In Melbourne there is a group called Laneway Learning which organises accessible “cheap fun classes in anything and everything”, including “The Delicious Science of Baking” and “Solar Power – how it works”. They’re always looking for people who might want to teach a class. There are so many opportunities for modern science communication. Go and find out what’s happening in your city.

We are part of a diverse, international and highly passionate online community of chemists (as evidenced by Reneé Webster in her excellent summary of the #chemophobia conversation). It is imperative that we leverage this network in our efforts to repair the public image of chemistry. We need to think big. What can we  do as a collective to stimulate change on a national or international level?

The West Virginia chemical spill is a good example of where lack of information spreads fear. An obscure chemical leaked into the rivers of WV and flowed downstream to taint the water supply. Residents were left confused and scared for hours. The online chemistry community scrambled for toxicity data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). As it turns out, Eastman Chemical had performed a ‘suite’ of toxicity studies in the 1980s/1990s and has since released this information. We, as a community, need to encourage the public release of this kind of information. Internationally our laws and regulations regarding industrial chemicals should be robust and we can play a role in identifying problems in these policies.

Chemisty – the least shared science*

What about chemophobia in the media and beyond? The simplest way to combat the problem is at its most basic level and that is through education. We need good science education in primary school to get kids excited about doing science. This needs to be followed through to high school education too. How many people have you met that have said “I never GOT chemistry”, “too hard for me!” or “never got past year x science!”? As long as chemistry is viewed as an abstract and complex entity we will continue to lose this battle. We need to pick up our game and make chemistry more relevant, interesting and exciting to the wider society (see diagram below!).

Some of my most valuable classes were spent doing media and language analysis in English class, learning how to pull apart newspaper articles and radio transcripts. Perhaps we could encourage teachers to do critical analysis of some (basic) science news articles in a school setting. Some have suggested we could lobby for a large chemical body (eg. ACS or the RSC) to respond to poorly informed media coverage.

At the end of the day, I agree with Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, who says “Chemistry needs more journalists talking about it” and James Kennedy, of All-Natural Banana fame, who says “Chemistry needs a hero [like David Attenborough or Brian Cox]”. As long as we continue to promote chemistry and show its relevance, chemophobia in marketing and the media will start to lose some of its shine.

*Borrowed from the Sackler Colloqium on “Science of Science Communication II”

By February 20, 2014 0 comments Uncategorized

Yes, there are chemicals in the shampoo!

‘Organic’ cosmetics manufacturers, the very epicentre of chemophobia, right? All those ‘chemical-free’ bottles of deodorants, shampoos and hair dyes.  It makes you want to pull your hair out just so there’s no need for their nonsensical products.  And here’s the latest from Daniel Field Organic and Mineral Hairdressing, tucked away in the FAQs is this gem.

Are there any chemicals in Daniel’s Watercolour [hair dyes]?

This is a question we are often asked and understandably so because there has been much discussion concerning the term “chemicals”.

Wait for it….

Many materials – both natural and man-made have a definite chemical composition; a common example of a chemical substance is pure water (H20) and so no manufacturer can claim that any product is devoid of chemicals – in fact all matter is made up of chemicals.

Well, that’s a turn up for the books!

And there’s more, the ingredients FAQs don’t shy away from ‘scary’ sounding names.

The nine ingredients for the dye pigments are as follows, followed by their safety ratings:

i. p-toluene diamine sulphate – PTDS

ii. m-amino phenol sulphate

iii. 2.4 diaminophenoxyethanol hcl

iv. p-aminophenol sulpahte

v. 4-amino 2 hydroxytoluene sulphate

vi. 4-amino -m-creosol

vii. 2-amino 6-chloro -4-nitrophenol

viii. 2-methyl-5-hydroxyethylaminophenol

ix. 4.5 diamino-1-(2-hydroxyethyl) pyrazole sulphate


Plus there’s real advice on the safety of each of the above.

All in all its very sensible. So bravo to Daniel Field, very well done indeed (edit: honestly no sarcasm here I really do think they’ve done a good job) ! You win the 1st Chemistry-Blog award for sensible chemistry information on an ‘organic’ product.

Now, what colour shall I have my hair?




Hat tip to @corrineburns

By January 28, 2014 7 comments Uncategorized

Seasons greetings &

Happy Holidays


By December 20, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized

Recapping Mike Shatruk’s AMA

Mike Shatruk, chair of Florida State University’s chemistry graduate recruiting & admissions committee, hosted an AMA (ask me anything) on reddit.com/r/chemistry last week. Over a span of three days, he answered redditor’s questions about applying to graduate programs, factors in admission decisions, faculty advisor selection, and more. A recap of the AMA is shared below (Quick note: Some of the content has been edited for clarity and grammar/spelling).

Application Process

Can you give us a short summary of how FSU does its admissions process?


Mike: We ask students to submit their:

  • GRE scores
  • Unofficial undergraduate transcripts
  • CV
  • a personal statement
  • three recommendation letters
  • a ranked list of three programs of interest (choose from analytical, biochemistry, inorganic, materials, organic, physical)
  • a ranked list of three professors the student might be interested to work with

After the application deadline, the admissions committee divides students by research interests and 1-2 committee members review applications in each respective area and make admission decisions. Each student is admitted individually. It’s a lot of work, but we believe we should dedicate time to screening our applicants as well as we can.

Can you please briefly explain currently the best approach for overseas students to search for suitable positions. From memory, so please correct me if I am wrong… 1) pass GRE, 2) Identify desired Universities, and 3) submit application by Jan/Feb in order to start in August.


Mike: Yes, you’ve got the right sequence in mind.

  • Pass GRE and make sure the scores satisfy the program-stipulated minima (we ask for at least 150 on verbal and 155 on quantitative parts of the test)
  • Get a copy of transcript from your undergraduate institution * Look through the list of US universities with PhD programs.
  • Write a 1-2 page personal statement as to why you would like to apply to a particular program, what prior research experience you’ve had if any, who of the professors you are thinking to work with (doesn’t have to be just one person), what your career goals are, etc.
  • Compose a brief CV to go along with your application
  • Get three people to agree to write your letters of recommendation
  • Submit the application package as described by the program. For FSU graduate program, you can check this link for international students.

When does your program typically send out acceptance letters/emails/notices? 


Mike: Usually we sent our acceptance letter from January 15 to February 15. We typically give you 1-2 months to report whether you’d like to attend our visitation weekend. IMPORTANTLY, following the Resolution by Council of Graduate Schools, no school can push you to accept their offer prior to April 15.


Application Materials

Grad schools generally ask for thing like GPA, letters of recommendation, research experience, and test scores. How much weight is applied to each one and/or which is most important?


Mike: To answer your first question, it depends on the particular school, but in principle, all the components of your application are important. I would say that most PhD program value some research experience. GRE scores are usually viewed as reflection of your intellectual ability, and your GPA indicates how well organized you were in your undergraduate courses and if you’ll be able to stay focused in your PhD pursuit. Finally, the letters of recommendation often help to improve the value of your application if your referees have something really good to say about you. At FSU we consider each case individually and carefully. We also know that sometimes a low GPA is not a real reflection of student’s ability, in which case we review the trends in your grades to see whether you’ve been improving toward the end of your undergraduate education.

How does a minor in a related field factor into your decision (I’m MSE but have a chemistry minor)?


Mike: The major/minor relationship really depends on the school you’re applying to. For example, we have a very active and broad materials chemistry program, so having an MSE student with a minor in chemistry will be viewed positively.

What little unknown things can we do to help us get into our first choice grad school? 


Mike: Make sure that your scores and grades are above the minimum requirements that the school stipulates. It would be better if they not just above the bar, i.e. if the requirement is 3.2 GPA, then it will be better to have 3.4 and higher. Also, work carefully on your personal statement and make sure your application is complete and submitted on time.

Ken: One trick for getting into the school of your choice is to try and do summer research at the university before applying (sophomore or junior year). You can do this through either an REU program or simply contact a professor directly to see if they are taking summer research students. If you work hard and show that you are competent it is the best summer long interview you could possibly give. If the rest of your application package meets the minimum requirements, the advisor would be hard pressed to say no to a competent student joining the program.

I’m a UK undergraduate, currently applying to Master’s programmes in Europe. I was wondering if the Master’s is really worth it if I apply for a PhD in the US. Would I effectively do another Master’s as part of that, or could I sort of skip ahead?


Mike: We actually like international students with Master’s degrees, because they come somewhat more prepared for PhD program. Yes, you’ll be taking some coursework again, but you will be likely to go through it faster. You also will have a faster start-up period in the lab, if you’ve done research as part of your M.S. degree. The research experience in the UK is just as valid as that in the US. Basically, we just would like to see that you’ve been in the lab and experienced some research environment, so it’s easier for you to get started. We also need to see that you are interested in research, because that’s what the PhD degree is all about.

Does having a B.A. vs a B.S. make any difference in getting accepted?            


Mike: B.S. is preferable, but it also depends on what courses you have on your transcript. If you took a lot of science courses and have good grades in them, then you have good chances.

 [I was doing well and then my grades plummeted.] What advice can you give me if I am sure I want to pursue a graduate degree?


Mike: You’re in a tough spot. One of your options might be to seek a summer research opportunity in some school to which you’d like to apply. You could just apply to some lab as a volunteer giving the argument you’ve just presented above. If you’re lucky, you’ll get your chance. And if you prove yourself to be much better than what you grades tell, then maybe the professor you have worked for will vouch for you as an exceptional case.


Admission Decision

Is there anything you frequently see in an application that make you dismiss an otherwise likely candidate (something they write in the statement of purpose, ect)?


Mike: Regarding your question about obvious flaws in the application, those would be (1) missing the deadline. It shows that you’re not very well organized and serious about the process; (2) something negative your referees have to say about you – and I mean negative, not just critical (some criticism never hurts); (3) deteriorating grades toward the end of undergraduate school – they indicate that you are currently academically weaker than in the beginning of your studies, that you don’t do very well in senior-level courses, and that you’re likely to fail in graduate-level courses for those two reasons.

How much importance do you place on an applicant’s undergraduate school?


Undergraduate schools do matter, but if a student has good grades and test scores, as well as research experience, he or she has just as much chance to make it as a student from a higher-ranked school with lower grades. Again, each case is individual, but we tend not to discriminate applicants based on their undergraduate schools.

How screwed am I if I don’t have any research experience?


Mike: It’s important, but not necessary. If your grades and GRE score and recommendation letters are strong, then you have a chance. We also offer an optional bridge summer research opportunity for students who have been admitted to our program, which in your case might be a good option. Again, without research experience all your other markers have to be pretty strong.

Could an excellent Chem GRE score (ie 95+ percentile) offset a mediocre GPA even if the Chem GRE was not required?


Mike: Perhaps, but I cannot answer that because we do not require Chem GRE. You’ll be better off asking the specific school directly.

How much do admission committees value the experience gained from professional employment?


Mike: Your industry experience is likely to be viewed positively, as it suggests you might be more mature in your attitudes and seeking the graduate degree to better your professional opportunities.



How much does FSU pay their students? Do they receive benefits?


Mike: Our graduate stipend in 2014-15 will be $21,500 per year. Out of the fees you pay, about 50% comes back to you as a reimbursement later. The health insurance subsidy is $1,300.

PhDstudentslave: Looking at the FSU program they only pay their students $20,000, however they then charge their students about $1,000 in fees each semester, (Fall, Spring, and Summer) leaving them a mere $17,000 a year. I believe the only perk the students get is subsidized health insurance option (~$800 a semester).

Spookyjeff:  I’m a chemistry graduate student at FSU. I’d like to note that in the area you can live comfortably on the stipend without much effort

Ken: Cost of living is something to consider rather than just the dollar amount. Here is a simple cost of living calculator. For example $20,000 in Tallahassee is equivalent to $21,500 in Chapel Hill or $26,000 in LA or $32,500 in San Francisco.

How soon is funding discussed in your program? Is it detailed along with acceptance?


Mike: Funding situation depends on the specific school. At FSU Chemistry and Biochemistry, we guarantee funding to all admitted PhD students at least for the first 5 years, which we believe is sufficient for graduation.

Choosing a Research Group/Advisor

Is it rude for me to bother an adviser’s other students to get a feel for how they treat their students?


Ken: you should definitely talk to the adviser’s current grad students before joining a group. The adviser can easily put on a facade when you meet and greet but hopefully their students will give you real insight into the group/research/adviser. If the students don’t want to talk to you that is probably a red flag about the group dynamic and social environment. Remember that you will spend the next 4-7 years with these coworkers. You want and will need people that are willing to go out of their way to help you. Asking questions before you join is a good way to test the water.

hstlives: My former advisor would encourage prospective students to meet with his current students. When you speak to a professor about joining his/her group, bring up the topic of meeting their students and see if they help you out with the initial meeting.

Mike: You most definitely want to talk to students from the groups you’re interested in. A rare advisor will tell his or her students not to indulge you into learning about their experiences in graduate school. It is very important that you join a group whose research is truly interesting to you and where you can see yourself fitting well not only intellectually but also socially.

What’s the best way to go about contacting a research advisor about joining their group?


Mike: If you are interested in research done by a particular faculty member, I suggest e-mailing them directly. They usually will reply promptly to your request.

Why is it so important to find a good advisor?


Mike: It’s probably the most important choice you’ll make in graduate school. You’ll have to work with that person and his or her research group for 5 years, on average, and to be successful, to build a strong resume, you need to be comfortable in your work place, get good and thoughtful advices, expand your knowledge and skills, and know that if you do all that your advisor will support you in all future endeavors with strong recommendation letters.

What advice do you have for applicants as far as selecting an advisor?


Mike: You certainly need to look at possible advisors before applying, because you don’t want to apply to a school, get in, and then find that nobody does any research that interests you. When you attend our visitation weekends, which serve as preview of the program for admitted students, you’ll have a chance to speak to 5-6 faculty members. Once you start in the program, you’ll be able to listen to brief presentations in which faculty describe their research projects. You will also be able to talk to many faculty and students before making your final choice. Most schools give you a few months from the start of the program to pick an advisor.



Does FSU have a program for graduate students for teaching chemistry or chemical management?


Mike: We attempt to educate our graduate students toward diverse career pathways, including research, industrial (management), or teaching careers. Two most important things you learn in graduate school are how to do independent research and how to teach others about chemistry. You’ll have a chance to TA in the lab or at recitation session. Usually students who are looking into teaching careers prefer to do recitation sessions, because those really let them experience how to explain concepts to students in classroom setting. Some of our senior graduate students who would like to apply for teaching jobs are even given a chance to lecture for undergraduates, and we are currently working on making such experience into a permanent program. That being said, having done a strong PhD will let you keep your options open to other career choices.

How likely are credits to transfer from undergrad to graduate school? I’m taking a few extra graduate level classes to supplement some of my learning and wondering if I should just audit it.


Mike:It depends what school you are attending (i.e. the school rankings and rigorousness of the coursework). We usually allow transfer of up to two courses, but typically that policy applies to students who have completed master’s coursework. Nevertheless, we will consider your request for the transfer of graduate courses if you’ve been admitted to our program.

How bad is it to do your undergraduate and PhD at the same university with the same professor?


Mike: In the United States it’s not very typical, but it does happen. In European and Asian countries, that’s a norm. Anyway, what you’ll be judge by in the first place is your productivity and the quality of your work (the number and impact of publications). But having the BS and PhD from the same place might be viewed just a tiny bit negatively when you apply for a faculty position. Nevertheless, a strong PhD and a productive postdoc experience (at a different place, I hope), will cancel out that very quickly.

I hesitate to use the terms “grade inflation/deflation”, but how does the choice of undergraduate university affect your perception of GPA?


Mike: We are aware of those issues, and we usually factor them into consideration, although it’s not easy when you get applicants from hundreds of different schools. So, our judgment is based on our previous experience with applicants from particular institutions.


By December 9, 2013 1 comment Uncategorized