Editor Discusses F—ing in Nature

nchemfc_kit_250Stu Cantrill, editor of Nature Chemistry, has performed a profoundly beneficial service for our field: he has tracked the use of the word “fuck” (and its variations) throughout the 146-year history of the esteemed journal Nature.

Stu’s interest in the subject was piqued after seeing bollocks in a recent edition of the journal. He traced the first pair of ‘bollocks’ back to 1998.

Stu was able to find two innocent ‘Fuck’s in 1937 and 1985—they were proper nouns—before the first virulent ‘fuck’ appeared in 1989. This stuff is fascinating; check it out.

Stu takes a look at many other dirty words, and his analysis includes the expected reference to the infamous copper nanotube (CuNT) paper in ChemComm. Albeit unintentional, there is no better example of how ridiculous the acronym scene has become in science. I had several conversations in grad school excoriating some of the more creative acronyms devised by labmates.

And finally, this is an excellent opportunity to boast that I hold the honor of being the first person to write the F-word in Nature Chemistry, if you don’t count the hundreds of times fourth-year graduate students have scrawled it in the margin of papers after getting scooped.

That’s an accomplishment sure to impress the tenure committee.

Our Newest Instrument

I received this fantastic gift for Christmas, and it has made a great addition to the office:


While I don’t chew gum, I’m a huge fan of jelly beans. If you’re curious, 7.5 pounds of Jelly Bellys will fill the reservoir perfectly. I highly recommend the fruit bowl mix—it contains most of the best fruit flavors without all of those weird ones, like buttered popcorn and margarita.

And if you end up getting one of these beauties, don’t be a knob—put it on free spin.

RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize

ChemBark MedallionWhenever I get a media inquiry about the annual list of odds for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I am always sure to emphasize that the list attempts to address who will win the Nobel, not who should win the Nobel. When reporters follow up with the question, “Well, who should win it?”, my answer is always immediate and unequivocal:

Carl Djerassi.

Djerassi’s contributions to our field are immense (1 2 3)—from synthetic organic chemistry, to natural products, to analytical chemistry and beyond. Djerassi’s signature achievement in the development of oral contraception was earth-shattering to the worlds of chemistry and medicine, and it went on to have profound implications for society at large. Norethindrone changed the world like few molecules had before it.

With Djerassi’s death at the age of 91 last Friday, I will have to come up with a new answer to the question of who should win the next Nobel Prize. Djerassi’s name now ranks among those great chemists who inexplicably never did, on a list that includes titans like G.N. Lewis and Dimitri Mendeleev, whose work remains the foundation on which chemistry is built.

These massive oversights, coupled with jaw-dropping exclusions like Gabor Somorjai in 2007, make it impossible to consider the Nobel Prize as the definitive metric for achievement in chemistry. Is it fun to get excited about? Yes. Is it a high honor? Yes. But despite the massive hype and public reverence surrounding the Prize, it is nothing more.

When someone like Carl Djerassi dies after having had 40 years to be recognized, I simply cannot take the Swedish Academy seriously. With these omissions, made all the more heinous when juxtaposed against a “mistake” like 1996, the Academy continues to chisel away at the institution that is the Nobel. If they keep it up, nobody is going to care much about the Prize in 100 years, because others—more lavish and/or respected—are bound to come along and surpass it in the same way that the once vaunted prizes of horse racing or the NIT championship are now afterthoughts on the modern sports scene.

Last Friday marked the death of another piece of Alfred Nobel’s legacy to honor scientists who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. For surely, how could any serious list of this sort fail to include Carl Djerassi?

So Many Gas Cylinders

While most people in St. Louis use Grand Boulevard to march in protest, I mainly use it to get to our medical campus. Along the way, you pass directly over a stockyard for Airgas. When the weather is nice, I like to stop at stare at the sea of gas tanks and cylinders. It’s really quite amazing:

Airgas Stockyard in Saint Louis, Missouri

ChemDraw Rebus #1

I’m not sure if this has ever popped up in someone else’s mind before (or on the internet), but it does every time I hear the song:


Do you know what I’m talking about?

My Design for Organic Exams

ed_academic_bigIt’s fall semester at SLU, and I’m teaching organic chemistry for our majors once again. Last year, I was focused on just getting through the course. I was so consumed by producing slides, homework assignments, practice exams, and real exams on a tight schedule that I didn’t get to think hard about the finer points of design until the class was over. Now, on the second pass, I can focus on making improvements rather than creating everything from scratch.

At SLU, instructors don’t get assigned TAs for proctoring and grading unless the class has greater than 30 students. In the spring, the majors’ class fell below this number and I had to think about designing exams to make grading as efficient as possible without eroding their effectiveness as tools for teaching and thoughtful evaluation. The system I settled on was different from my experience in both college and grad school, so I thought I’d share.

I’ve settled into a system in which quizzes and exams generally have four or five sections/problems picked from the following varieties: multiple choice, mechanism, synthesis, A+B reactions, explanations, and calculations. While I’ve never been a huge fan of multiple choice, it allows me to test a variety of straightforward points without the strain of having to grade a wide assortment of free-response questions. My multiple-choice questions are typically five choices, with students getting +5 points for a correct response and +2 points for leaving a question intentionally blank. This scoring system introduces a penalty for guessing; students need to recognize that sometimes the best option in life is to admit “I don’t know.”

In my system, if there is an exam on Wednesday, the students have a quiz due on the previous Friday that covers the same material. Each quiz contributes 2% to the final grade in the course, while each exam contributes 20%. The quiz has the same length, format, and answer sheet as the exam, except the problems are harder to compensate for the fact that I give students 48 hours for the quiz and allow them to talk with each other about the answers. I like how this approach requires the class to be familiar with the exam material almost a full week before the exam, and that students have an incentive to form study groups and debate answers to hard problems. I never learned as much in organic chemistry as when I was trying to defend my proposed answers to classmates. Finally, having what is essentially a hard practice exam due on the Friday before the “real” exam means that I can return it graded and marked with comments by Monday. In many cases, these quizzes serve as wake-up calls to students while there is still time to fix issues that need attention.

In every chemistry class I’ve taken, students either wrote their exam answers directly on the problem booklet or in small blue exam books. I find these response media are murder to grade because you spend so much time flipping through pages, hunting for answers, and flipping back to write the subtotal for that problem on the cover page. And, of course, there are always two or three students who get creative and write their answers out of order or on the back side of pages.

To solve this problem, I started writing exams such that students have to place all of their answers on a single letter-sized piece of paper. I draft an answer sheet for each exam on which it is clear where each answer should be written. When the answer is a single word or structure, I’ll typically draw a box for it. The use of a single sheet minimizes the burden of flipping, while the answer boxes (located at the same spot for every student) minimize the burden of hunting. Here’s a sample answer sheet typical of one of my orgo exams:


I copy answer sheets onto 65-lb. card stock so that both sides of the sheet can be used without the pen ink bleeding through to the other side. I find that the smooth sheets sold under the Neenah brand are better than sheets of the less expensive Staples brand, which have an annoying coarse texture on one side. The card stock also gives a regal quality to the answer sheets. These puppies are suitable for framing and will withstand decades of wear if pinned to the refrigerator door of a proud parent.

Another nice thing about having students limit their answers to a single sheet is that the entire stack for the class can be scanned without hassle. Most modern office copiers are capable of sheet-feed scanning, so if your exams have no staples, you can scan the entire stack of paper all at once and e-mail the data to yourself as a single PDF. What a wonderful miracle of technology.

I scan the entire set of answer sheets both before and after I’ve graded them. In doing so, I have a permanent record of performance that I can access for eternity. If there is an issue over improper grading or a student attempting to cheat by altering answers upon return of the graded copy, I can refer to the electronic file. If a student needs a letter of recommendation two years down the road, I can open up the file and make specific comments about his/her performance. And if I want to mine data in the future for some pedagogical purpose or project, all of the data will be available for analysis.

A final important feature of each answer sheet is that I have a line for students to write their names at the top of the back side. This makes returning exams very simple, because I can fan them in columns in alphabetical order on a table and have students come in groups to pick them up. With only the top inch of the back page of each sheet exposed, students cannot see each other’s grades. Of course, as the columns thin out, I adjust the sheets to prevent greater exposure.

As I discussed before, I allow students to bring handwritten notes into exams. They serve to emphasize that organic chemistry is about analysis—not memorization. Also, having students organize the information of each unit onto a single sheet of paper forces them to make connections about the material in their minds ahead of the exam. This semester, I’ve started collecting, scanning, and returning these note sheets as well. I am fascinated at how students organize their thoughts, and I plan to use this information in my future letters of recommendation when appropriate. How an individual organizes her thoughts on paper gives you an interesting window into her mind.

So, that’s the system. Are there drawbacks? Yes. I tend not to write long mechanisms or synthesis problems that go over four steps, because there isn’t enough space to do so. With that said, I’m not sure if these problems offer much added benefit relative to alternatives with more concise answers.

One thing that I’ve found surprising is that even though the answers for the exam all fit on one page, there are students who still feel they need three hours to finish. I thought that offering four shorter exams instead of three longer ones would make time a non-factor, but often at the end of two hours, I still find myself nagging for all of the papers to be turned in.

Anyway, I like how this system works and will continue to modify it to work better for both the students and me. It is ironic that as a teacher, I feel that I am the one in the classroom who has the most to learn.