Professorial Portraits

March 29th, 2012

My apologies for the lack of posting this week. My plan was to attend the ACS National Meeting in San Diego—for the first time with official media credentials. Unfortunately, my girlfriend took a shortcut down a flight of stairs this Saturday and broke her leg in two places. So, instead of playing intrepid reporter this week, I’ve been playing unregistered nurse. It’s not so bad; I have a fetish for crutches and find people who walk with them to be incredibly sexy.

In the run up to the meeting, C&EN has been running the following advertisement for an opportunity to meet 2012 Priestley Medalist Bob Langer in San Diego:

Is anyone else amused when they see an established professor photographed performing lab work? Langer has an army of students and postdocs; I sincerely doubt he spends much time in lab contemplating the blue color of solutions in round-bottomed flasks. Perhaps these photos can offer some value with respect to attracting public interest to a desk-based scientist, but the advertisement run by ACS Publications was obviously not intended for such an audience—the only people who subscribe to C&EN are chemists.

A quick search of the Internet reveals other examples of profs photographed at work in the lab. As a service to the media, I have included sample captions for use in future press releases.

  • Nocera shows off an unwired H-cell in front of a mess of unrelated vacuum lines
  • MacMillan adroitly mans an HPLC at Princeton.
  • Doyle insists on dressing to impress when it’s time to evaporate solvent.
  • Sir Fraser demonstrates how to properly rest one’s arm inside a fume hood.
  • Fréchet chills out by a drying rack.
  • Lieber prepares his submersible for another dive into the Mariana Trench.

There are plenty of other examples online—feel free to share your favorites. I am particularly fond of Nocera’s. Professors who desire high-powered non-lab portraits should consider taking the advice of these astute Stanford students.

24 Responses to “Professorial Portraits”

  1. Richard Van Noorden Says:

    Ha! Reminds me that three years ago Helen Pearson at Nature (where I work) followed Bob Langer and chronicled how he actually spends a typical day. Round-bottomed flasks do not feature.

  2. See Arr Oh Says:

    Melanie Sanford operates a glove box:

    MacMillan discusses some chemistry in lab:

    Micalizio in lab:

    Bob Grubbs…gets solvent?

    Hoveyda / Snapper

  3. Marcel Swart Says:
    Evert Jan Baerends
    Matthias Bickelhaupt

    in the “computational” lab (blackboard, orbital models)

  4. Safety_Officer Says:

    Even worse, more than half of the profs aren’t wearing ANY personal protective equipment (safety glasses, lab coat, gloves) in the lab. That is completely unacceptable. They are role models, and so if they think it’s okay to hang out in a lab without safety glasses, I’m sure their students are following their lead. Abby Doyle is the worst offender in the bunch- she’s actually doing lab work (a rotovap is a distillation apparatus) without safety glasses or a lab coat, although she did put on gloves for some reason. When that flask explodes, at least her hands will be safe…

    If you walk into a lab at my company without safety glasses, you get kicked out. No ifs ands buts ors or nors.

  5. Beratemyprofessor Says:

    Good point Safety Officer. Just ask Barry Sharpless about safety glasses even if you’re just walking in to check on things.

  6. Wavefunction Says:

    My favorite is of Philip Brainard experimenting with novel metastable polymers

    A few years ago a reporter did a profile of Langer in Nature in which she spent an entire typical day with Langer and treated us to his unbelievably hectic schedule.

    Langer does everything from having pizza with undergraduates to consulting with CEOs. The one thing he does NOT do is to step into a lab, don safety gear and start doing experiments.

  7. Lyle Langley Says:

    “…performing lab work?”

    What lab work is he performing? He’s just holding a flask, could be a glass of wine, just a prop.

    And it was a girlfriend that broke a leg? Hope she feels better…but (queue the whip noise)…seriously, you cannot attend a meeting because a “girlfriend” gets hurt. Wife, I can see, but really… Sorry, not a good excuse.

    Now if you just would have said…”This is a crappy meeting (which is was), that is going to be lightly attended (which it was), and I don’t want to waste my time going to it (which would be true) I could see. Or maybe “girlfriend breaking leg” is just code for the above.

    The meeting was atrocious. When is the ACS going to ditch twice-a-year meetings? There is not enough attendance or content to have it two times a year. And, you start running out of quality places to host – St. Louis and Indy – really!?!?

  8. Curious Wavefunction Says:

    Lyle Langley: So you think a girlfriend can never be as important as a wife? Try telling that to all the men (me, for instance) whose girlfriends turned into wives. In any case, I don’t see how that’s really our concern.

  9. psl Says:

    Nocera looks like Saruman from LOTR.

    The langer story is nice

  10. wolfie Says:

    spend her your hellchair, and my sincere condolences

  11. Lyle Langley Says:

    CW: Important once they turn into wives, not before (I know, it’s a tough line, but it’s there). It’s not our concern, but since it was given as an excuse, it’s worth commenting on.

  12. Lyle Langley Says:

    And not to sound mean, “girlfriend” can be substituted with “boyfriend” as well. Don’t want to leave out the ladies not being responsible for their boyfriends (who are probably just going to play video games and being even bigger slugs than they generally are). If you cannot plead the fifth (spouse), then you shouldn’t use that as an excuse.

  13. Jim Grinias Says:

    My PI’s work with CE was being covered by the University magazine. They took him to a fence with high voltage signs for his photo shoot. Sadly, very few copies of the picture remain, although one did surface at Pittcon 2011.

  14. bad wolf Says:

    I appreciate safety as much as the next chemist but i don’t need to see every staged photo requiring PPE. Obviously no-one’s doing any work around them and everything is meant to be clean and presentable to the public.

  15. Paul Says:

    @Lyle: My presumption is that your comment is some linear combination of sincere and trollish (with non-zero coefficients), but I will respond to it sincerely nonetheless. Fracturing a tibia and fibula plus ripping up an ankle is a pretty traumatic injury and one that requires the help of friends and loved ones. I am happy that I can provide that help and have a job that allows me a certain degree of flexibility to do so. The decision was made easier by the facts that (1) I wasn’t presenting, (2) my registration was free, (3) I was planning to drive, and (4) the hotel generously waived the penalty of late cancellation [Thanks Holiday Inn Bayside San Diego…you will have my business in the future].

    I used to subscribe to the macho school of chemistry that preaches chemists should cynically eschew society in complete devotion to chemical research. In hindsight, I think that was a mistake.

  16. Lyle Langley Says:

    Hey, I hope she feels better, as I stated previously. Just thought it was curious that this was relayed as an excuse (I would presume the other leg is fine?). Especially someone with first-time “media” credentials. I dare say, Wolf Blitzer wouldn’t have missed this…but, he’s an actual journalist, not a blogger.

    Which goes back to my comment regarding how poor the meeting was attended. The ACS cannot even get real media coverage that they need give out “media” credentials to – essentially – anyone. No offense intended.

    Just saying…if I had a monorail to sell some unsuspecting town there would be nothing stopping me.

  17. Head Shaking Moments « Chemical Space Says:

    […] need a chuckle after that lot, so why not undermine professorial dignity with ChemBark’s look at some portraits? Or seek career advice from a Corellian smuggler? Share […]

  18. qvxb Says:

    My favorite posed photo type is missing; two (or more) persons looking at a computer monitor, with one person pointing at the screen. Some of the photos in this post seem inspired by Diane Arbus.

  19. eugene Says:

    Once your group gets to a certain size, you do not really have to worry about the cost of failure anymore. The successes more than make up for it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is and not enough chemistry professors who want to be big shots but are at middling chemical departments realize it.

    What I mean is someone like Robert Langer takes credit for the successful grad students and the succesful companies, and there are just so many of them, that the ones who fail are forgotten about in light of the success. The better you can manage everything, the bigger your empire will be. Plus it helps to be in a university that attracts students who are very motivated.

    If you’re in charge of a small group, then the failure of a graduate student to get any papers will be magnified since you don’t have too many offsetting grad students that are publication machines. In fact, you might have none. I’ve seen a few profs with medium-sized groups that were taking off, but were blinded by their own hubris, forgot that they were not in a top ten school, and decided to ‘fire’ two or three students or postdocs who weren’t performing well enough (not getting a Jackass or Andjewandte or not coming in on the weekend). Not only does this cause potential students in a non top ten school avoid you (since they care more about lifestyle and not monastic scientific pursuit), but it magnifies the failures of your remaining students (should they happen) as your own failures. Automatically, you’re now an average scientist for the rest of your career and not Robert Langer. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as you can do very good science and pay more attention to individual students, but that’s not what some of the more ambitious types wanted before they cannibilized their group. The lesson is get big as fast as possible with as many driven types as possible and then just sit back and manage your success. You have to get rid of someone who creates a bad group dynamic or is lazy or just plain stupid of course, but once it starts being every second person who works for you, then you’re not doing it right (unless you’re in a really crappy department). Once you’re going, you can move to better and better departments and become bigger and bigger and have to worry about failure even less.

    The same effect used to work in pharma. If you’re the CEO of a start-up, when your drug fails, your failure is huge. You’re out of business. If you’re the CEO of a big pharma company and a few candidates fail Phase II, it’s no biggie because you’re got good phase III data on that one cholesterol lowering candidate that will pay the cost of failure for the others.

  20. eugene Says:

    P.S. I broke both my legs at different times as a kid (I think it was the joints though but it might have been a bone fracture on the right leg; don’t remember anymore). Very painful and I still think about it with very bad memories even though I was <6 years old at the time. Way worse than when I broke my arm.

    You were right to skip San Diego. Hope she gets better fast.

  21. EC Says:

    Eugene: spot on once again.
    Starting your own lab is a bit like pushing a cart upside a steepy mountain. Depending on the precise model and power of the cart (aka top-, mid- or lower-tier institution) the push may require more or less effort, brilliance and perseverance. But once the group has reached a certain size, and once the science is running smoothly, papers will keep flowing (although you might be under pressure to keep them all coming out in JACS) and it won’t really matter much if a couple of students aren’t producing. As someone very senior recently told me upon commenting on a very below-par student, “I can afford to have a couple of those in my lab because they won’t slow down the overall output too much”.
    In addition, the more famous and well-known you become, the better your student supply will become too… thus feeding the whole machine in a never-ending cycle.

    On the post: sublime as usual, Paul – that ChemWipes vid is pretty good stuff

  22. Carla Caprioli Says:

    ChemBark, thks a lot for your post and the comments!

    I’ve some experience of a somewhat related problem, the difficulty of providing a non-stereotypical image of scientists at work. This happened in our institute (EC, JRC, IHCP) two years ago, when collecting photos for our new web site. We tried to avoid the sort of product found in the image data banks; we sent a colleague (photographer) all around in our labs, and that’s what we got:

    scientists WITH PPE

    & without!/EC_JRC_IHCPnews


    You can still find a sequence of smiling people with flasks in this video

    but the current approach is

    Sorry for all these reference to our work. If you’re not bored, send feedback!


  23. Yunus Says:

    From our experience, workers are not supplied with adequate work safety wear, it is only when an unfortunate accident occurs, that companies rush to purchase these items, mostly for fear of reprisals and consequences with worker union regulations.

  24. Superlabs and the Expendibility of Grad Students | ChemBark Says:

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