Who Cares?

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

Suggestive Chemistry T-Shirts

My friend Tania put up this photo on her Instagram yesterday, which reminds me of a post I’ve wanted to write about chemistry T-shirts:



That is the most suggestive chemistry T-shirt that I’ve ever had the pleasure of owning. It was gifted to me in grad school by an awesome postdoc. Since it is much too risque for an assistant professor to wear, I felt the time was right to pass it on to the next generation of chemists. I know it is in good hands, as Tania has a collection going:



A quick survey of Google reveals some other dirty alternatives, but I think the round-bottom one is special because it’s from a legit glassware vendor (and one we still use to get our NMR tubes and caps).

Not how you spell that word.

It’s not polite to judge.

This could lead to confusion about the Burgi-Dunitz angle


The 2015-16 Chemistry Faculty Movement List

ed_academic_bigTwo major poaches were announced on Friday, so it’s a good time to start a poach list for the 2015-16 academic year. The first time I tried this was 2012-13, and See Arr Oh had one for 2014-15 and maintains one for 2015-16.

The criteria for inclusion on the list below will be: (i) a chemist or chemistry-rich scientist moving from one academic institution to another, (ii) with at least one of the institutions in the United States or Canada, and (iii) the move is announced between August 1st, 2015 and July 31st, 2016.

I’ll limit anything more than the basic facts to the comments section and keep the post itself uncluttered. Please share news of moves in the comments or e-mail me. Thanks!


Malika Jeffries-El (Iowa State to Boston University) – 8/28
John Rogers (Illinois to Northwestern) – 8/27


Last updated: 31 August 2015

Follow ChemBark on Instagram

Just a quick social media update: now you can follow ChemBark on Instagram.

You’ll probably just see an occasional photo or image there:


Oh, porphyrins…

A photo posted by ChemBark (@chembarkblog) on


The more active places to follow the blog are Facebook and Twitter. Join the fun — a very active chemistry scene on social media that includes eminent professors in addition to us lowly bloggers.

Mission Support

I took this photo of the chemistry building at SLU yesterday at 8:15 am. Note that the curb marked “fire lane” and “no parking” is completely full of parked cars.

I tweeted the pic and threw some shade on our Office of Parking and Card Services, because last year, they insisted it would be impossible to allow people in our department to use the curb for short-term loading because of the fire hazard presented by parked cars. True to their word, they have ticketed students and staff in our department who have attempted to run quickly into the building to attend to experiments. Given that none of the cars this morning had parking citations, I can only conclude that vehicles belonging to facilities crews and contractors are special and do not pose the same fire hazard as our cars. Or, perhaps, this is administrative hypocrisy at its finest worst.

At Caltech, parking is treated as a resource meant to support its students and staff. Despite having a campus in densely-populated Los Angeles County, the institute didn’t even charge for parking until around a decade ago, when space started to become limited. My favorite aspect of parking at Caltech was that students and staff could park on yellow-curbed loading zones after 5 p.m. You could drive right up to the door of the lab building! It was wonderfully convenient, and a boon to safety since the walk to your car at night was short.

Given the many benefits of the Caltech system, I thought our department should raise the issue of instituting similar parking policy at SLU. I drafted this letter and sent it up the chain. Unfortunately, little came of it. Our department was granted a few passes that allowed holders to park in a slightly-less-distant parking lot (perhaps, 100 yards away instead of 200) if they need to run inside the building.

The different approaches to parking policy mark a stark contrast in culture between Caltech and SLU. At Caltech, resources are milked to improve the efficiency of students and staff. At SLU, students and staff are milked of financial resources. Perhaps no parking rule illustrates this difference more than how cars are treated at night. Whereas all parking at Caltech is free at night—whether you have a day pass or not—parking at SLU can cost $10, regardless of whether you have a daytime permit. If I attempt to park at the garage closest to the chemistry department on the night of a sports game, SLU will charge me $10. My parking permit is no good. What a wonderful way to treat your researchers!

This picture, from Caltech’s Instagram stream yesterday, illustrates another nice thing that Caltech does:


Must be lunchtime. Caltech ❤️s Ernie’s. #caltech #campus #caltechalumni #summergram #nomnom A photo posted by Caltech (@caltechedu) on


Ernie is a guy who runs a food truck at Caltech. He is an institution within the institution—a legend—serving great food at cheap prices. Caltech could easily boot him off campus and drive students and departments to use campus eateries. But instead, Caltech provides places for Ernie to park his truck, giving students an inexpensive, convenient option to eat. During my official intake meeting with HR at Caltech, the HR representative even took out a photocopied map and highlighted the spots on Ernie’s route. It was awesome.

I would strongly encourage any organization to emulate this behavior and think how it could allocate under-used resources to improve the efficiency and/or morale of its community. Why not let researchers park in loading zones at night? Why not let students use the department’s nice conference room after hours? Or the big-screen of the lecture hall to watch movies?

Why not foster a friendlier, welcoming environment, where your university’s resources are used to support students and staff rather than wring every last penny out of them?