Chemical Nostalgia: My First Conference

April 17th, 2013

The Capitals beat the Maple Leafs yesterday, which for some strange reason made me think about what a great time I had at my first scientific conference, in Toronto. It was a meeting of The Electrochemical Society, and my labmates and I gave talks in a session devoted to electron transfer in functionalized fullerenes.

Things seemed so pure to me back then, well before layers of skepticism and cynicism caked onto my core love of chemistry. I had just finished my sophomore year at NYU, and I was scared as hell about giving my first talk. You can see my slides here, but this all took place in the era before slide presentations on LCD projectors were standard. I had to print the file onto transparencies at Kinko’s and carry them along on the trip.

I can vividly remember giving my first practice talk in front of the guys in lab. I thought my pace was fine, but I had rushed through what was supposed to be a 20-minute presentation in less than 10 minutes. This compounded my fears, so in addition to two more practice runs at NYU, we all went into a speakers’ ready-room at the hotel in Toronto and practiced again on site. Our typical conversations that day focused on how many spare pairs of underpants we thought we’d need to bring along to our talks.

At the session, I can remember my friends and I smacking each other to point out famous chemists. Fame is a relative term, but these people were all famous to us because we’d read so many papers about porphyrins and fullerenes. They were the titans of our world. “Oh my God…that’s Jean-Francois Nierengarten!” Dirk Guldi, another prolific author in our field, presented in a three-piece suit. Fred Wudl was there, and I believe Luis Echegoyen, too. It was like sitting in the front row of a rock concert. “Hey man! I read your papers!”

I can remember nothing of my presentation besides having to peel each transparency out of my purple three-ring binder before laying the sheet down on the blindingly bright projector. I made it through in great time, and mercifully, the questions focused more on the synthesis than the photophysics. I was much more comfortable with the former. I chuckled when I went back through the presentation and saw this slide:


Those columns were my life. You’d run reactions that would turn dark, then you’d add a bunch of DDQ and they’d turn even darker—jet black. At this point, you’d have to fish out your miserable (sub-10%) yield of porphyrin from amongst grams and grams of crap. I’m sure none of the PIs cared about how much these columns sucked, but Little Me cared deeply enough to use my nifty digital camera to snap a pic and make a slide out of it.

Also in hindsight, I can’t believe I omitted the hydrogens on my aldehyde functional groups. I hate it when people draw naked carbonyls:


The conference was much easier to enjoy once our presentations were done. I can remember several of the other talks and getting excited about some of the supramolecular chemistry being done. My friends and I also got to see a bit of the city, including the CN Tower and a Blue Jays’ game where Pedro Martinez was the starter. We sat on the first-base line, and the movement on his pitches was unbelievable.

Perhaps inspired by the night out—and since we were able to finally place faces/bodies with the names we’d seen in papers—my labmates and I decided to have a bit of fun. We drew a baseball diamond on a piece of paper and slotted the professors into positions and a batting order based on how athletic we thought they were. We then anonymously posted the sheet on the bulletin board outside the presentation room. I can remember the bosses crowding around it and complaining about their assignments.

And, perhaps this was the first time that I saw how these “adults” were not much different from the rest of us. I’ve never been as excited about a conference as that one, and I don’t think I ever will be.

15 Responses to “Chemical Nostalgia: My First Conference”

  1. Sven Says:

    The baseball lineup? That is … Awesome! Makes me want to copycat it for our next department mixer!
    Being a first year graduate student I haven’t gotten to go to any outside conferences yet, but I sure am looking forward to it!

  2. Paul Says:

    Also, terrible non-180-degree bond angle for the nitrile. So embarrassing…

  3. Ramiro Says:

    Great story Paul, thanks for sharing!

    I felt a little bit of nostalgia myself.

  4. Chemjobber Says:

    Great story, Paul. (But I love naked carbonyls!)

  5. Lilia Says:

    Love the story! The purple background was cute.

  6. Chemistry Blog » Blog Archive » Chemical Nostalgia: My grandfather’s (lethal) legacy Says:

    [...] Chembark and Seearroh have been indulging themselves in a bit of chemical nostalgia and so I thought I’d pitch in. [...]

  7. wolfie Says:

    who loses himself in detail, will be lost forever

    last prediction of the Sioux, before they went back to their reservation

  8. alex g Says:

    go leafs go! or jets, or kings.

  9. Sam Matthews Says:

    If you think back to that conference every time the Leafs loose, it’s a wonder you get any work done! : p

  10. purple Says:

    Hah, purple-black columns… brings back the memories!

  11. Paul Says:

    @Lilia: While I only use white backgrounds now, the purple background had all sorts of significance at the time: (i) as “purple” notes, it is the color of porphyrins, (ii) it is the color of C60 in solution, and (iii) it is NYU’s school color.

  12. Hap Says:

    I generally prefer writing out the abbreviations for CHO and CN rather than drawing them out – if there’s a connection off the carbonyl (an acetyl group), then I prefer to draw it out.

  13. Tien Nguyen Says:

    Just gave my first conference talk at ACSnola, you were spot on about geeking out over ‘famous’ researchers in the field. I actually remember using transparencies for my undergrad research lab updates then 2 years later, after a stint in industry, upon starting grad school all presentations were strictly PowerPoint. Crazy how fast and thoroughly some transitions can happen.

  14. wolfie Says:


    like most Americans, it seems to me, you’re orienting yourself too much from celebrities. Take Wudl. Who is he ?

  15. chemistry conferences Says:

    Cute story. Who would have thought that professors would complain. :)

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