Archive for the ‘Conferences’ Category

Chemical Nostalgia: My First Conference

Wednesday, 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.

Combatting Chemophobia

Friday, February 1st, 2013

Chemical Ed with GogglesThe annual ScienceOnline 2013 conference is taking place in North Carolina, and chembloggers Carmen Drahl and Dr. Rubidium are running a session tomorrow on chemophobia. You can follow updates on Twitter labeled with the hashtag #chemophobia.

Personally, I think the greatest failure of our field over the past three decades has been the steady decline of the public image of chemistry. Our “brand” has steadily deteriorated from an apex of “better living through chemistry” in the 1970s to the ever-worsening current climate where “chemicals are bad” and products are nonsensically advertized as “chemical-free”.

There certainly are cases where specific chemists and chemicals have had horrific consequences for the public (e.g., thalidomide or the Bhopal disaster), but surely these cases are balanced by the numerous ways that chemistry has improved modern life: from countless new pharmaceuticals that improve health to a wide array of new materials that make modern technology possible. That’s all “chemistry” and “chemicals”, but the average person-on-the-street would probably not associate these advances with our science.

Of course, this is a blog for chemists, so there’s no sense wasting time here celebrating all of the benefits of chemicals and chemistry. Rather, why don’t we focus on how utterly stupid our field is with regard to communicating these benefits? Despite the manifestly dire state of the public image of chemistry, chemists continue to do nothing to correct the problem.

But, Paul…is it really a problem? Who cares if the public dislikes chemicals? So long as chemists know better, we will continue doing good science. Why should we be distracted by general ignorance?

The problem with that argument is that we live in a democracy. For a democracy—where the People govern by voting—to function efficiently, the electorate must be educated and informed. The steady decline of chemistry’s public image is a massive problem, because it erodes support for our field. Taxpayers fund our research, and if they are convinced that not only is chemistry not helping the world, it is hurting it, then what is going to stop politicians from cutting funding? This is already occurring. Look at how many Americans vilify scientists who support the highly (un)controversial theory of evolution. We also spend many, many times more money on the DoD than scientific research because the public is generally much more concerned about the threat of foreign dictators than the combined threats of insidious disease and the global energy crisis. Seem stupid? Well, turn on the news tonight. What are people talking about, the Middle East or cancer? And what’s worse than people not knowing anything about chemistry is when they “know” incorrect negative information about chemistry. That’s basically where we are.

Hey Paul, isn’t this something the ACS should handle?

Yes! Actually, it is something all of us should take responsibility for handling to some degree, but the ACS should be at the forefront. This brings me to the point: WHAT THE HELL HAS THE ACS BEEN DOING FOR THE PAST 30 YEARS? As far as I can tell, very little in the public-image battle, and the miserable status quo is all the evidence you need that our professional society has failed its mission in this regard.

OK, wise guy, what should the ACS be doing?

I can think of a number of things, but let me give you two: one from the executive level and one from the grass-roots level. First, the ACS needs to get a handle on misinformation in the media. When someone blurts “chemical-free” into a microphone or opines about the hazards of a compound with zero supporting evidence, the ACS should have someone step up and provide a rebuttal. We need a “war room” at ACS headquarters that monitors all major media outlets and contacts editors and producers when something is wrong. The war room should have experts trained in public communication who are camera-ready 24 hours a day and a TV studio on-site for satellite interviews. Reporters are getting lazier; we must adapt. At the grass-roots level, the ACS needs to do a better job organizing outreach efforts and coordinating volunteer chemists to run these programs. More on that below.

Whoa. Volunteer chemists and outreach programs? What are you talking about?

I think it is important that every chemist spend some time engaging the general public for the purposes of education and promoting the benefits of our field. Let me toss out a ball-park figure: 5% of your time allotted to chemistry.

You want me doing what, exactly?

Pretty much anything where you are bringing science/chemistry to a population not already intimately involved in the field. I am not talking about writing essays for Angewandte or leaving comments on In the Pipeline. I am talking about: (1) judging kids’ science fairs, (2) writing letters to the editors of newspapers to correct misinformation, (3) running or volunteering at a local science club, (4) explaining your research at a science cafe, (5) volunteering to talk to a middle-school science class, (6) developing a lab exercise for high schoolers based on your research, (7) making a science Web site for a general audience, (8) making YouTube videos pretending you are “Phil Nye the Chemistry Guy”, (9) editing Wikipedia, (10)…   need I go on? Anything. Anything! There are thousands of possibilities. If you don’t think you have a good idea, other people should have plenty of ideas in need of volunteers.

You think this will work?

Yes. I believe it will help. I think that education and outreach, or “E & O” in NASA parlance, is exactly what kept a largely overpriced set of shuttle missions in operation for so long. Spacemen realize that they need the public on their side, so they appeal to the public. I assume astronauts on space stations have more important scientific activities they could be doing than giving interviews to the yentas on The View, but NASA has the big picture in mind. If NASA could keep the space shuttles up so long, think about all of the additional funding we could bring to a field of science that is much more successful at improving people’s lives.

What’s in it for me?

Lots of things: (1) you’ll become better at communicating and teaching technical material, (2) you’ll feel good having taught someone something, (3) you’ll be giving back to society – was there a role-model or teacher when you were young that made you want to pursue a career in science?, (4) you are making the world less dumb, one person at a time, (5) in thinking about fundamental concepts and how to explain/teach them, you will invariably come up with new ideas. Sometimes it’s nice to think about areas of chemistry outside your focus of research, (6) you will help to improve the funding climate by persuading voters chemistry is valuable.

Bah. Those are worthless. I can’t list those on my CV!

Actually, you can list outreach activities on your CV. They may even make you seem human, you robotic hardass.

Seriously, my boss/advisor won’t care. Actually, I’ll get in trouble because he views them as a waste of time.

Public engagement should be a shared responsibility. Perhaps the reason almost nobody pitches in is because “why should I do it if the guy over there doesn’t?”  We need to find ways to incentivize desired behavior. Maybe a small outreach component for Ph.D. theses? Maybe make it part of tenure packages?

But Paul, I went through 11 years of university training to become a high-powered research machine. I am God’s gift to chemical research. I can think of nothing more inefficient than removing me from the bench to muck around with third-graders. Can’t we just hire professional outreach people so I can be left alone?

First, you are going to be able to bring things to the table that an education professional would not. Second, if you are truly “God’s gift to chemical research”, then you are a rock star. People love rock stars of any field. That is why we are willing to watch events like curling in the Olympics. You will be a great help! Also, get over yourself! Astronauts frequently give interviews while working in space. I assume there are probably some experiments they could be doing, but NASA recognizes the importance of education and interacting with the public.

Paul, I am too busy, go away.

What if everyone were too busy? Everyone is too busy! You can make a little time for this. C’mon.

Paul, I am still unconvinced this is actually worth my time.

Fine. You are a selfish jackass. I hope there are enough good chemists out there who can make up for your dereliction.


Folks, if we don’t start getting serious about addressing chemophobia, we are going to find ourselves in a bad, bad place as a profession, and the consequences for mankind won’t be pretty either.

Godspeed, Mr. Baum

Tuesday, August 21st, 2012

If you haven’t heard, Rudy Baumis retiring as editor-in-chief of C&EN. Today, at the ACS meeting in Philadelphia, his tenure at the magazine was celebrated with a special symposium on “Communicating Controversial Science”. That’s a fascinating subject, and I would have loved to attend. My interest is especially piqued by William Schulz’s talk billed as “a reporter’s notebook of stories that have covered a wide range of ethical violations, including one of the worst cases of scientific fraud ever.” That’s got to be Sames-Sezen, right? Anybody have the scoop?

The symposium also featured talks from chemical superstars like Dick Zare, Nate Lewis, and George Whitesides. And look who made an appearance in George’s talk:

Credit: Carmen Drahl, C&EN

Uhhh…me?! That C&EN cover is one of the fakes I designed way back in a post from 2007. I can’t tell whether it is the “chemistry bloggers” edition here or a similar one I used in a group meeting on thioesters. The title of George’s slide was “C&EN is What?”, and I have no idea whether C&EN is or is not my fake cover. Anybody willing to fill us in?

I hope the remarks regarding me/blogs were kind, but regardless, I was tickled to see that photo appear in my Twitter feed. I’m glad I can say that I was a (small) part of Rudy’s celebration. As I’ve stated here before, I am a big fan of Rudy Baum’s leadership at C&EN. I think it is great that he has the stones to write on controversial subjects, that he regularly publishes letters critical of his positions, that he has pursued coverage of “negative” stories such as safety mishaps, and that he has embraced new media. I hope C&EN‘s new skipper, Maureen Rouhi, expands on these developments…especially with more investigative reporting. Best wishes to her and the mag.


I shamelessly stole the above picture from Carmen Drahl. You can follow news from the meeting on her feed (@carmendrahl) or by following the #ACSPhilly hashtag.

Professorial Portraits

Thursday, 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.

Poster Boy

Tuesday, September 6th, 2011

Going to an ACS national meeting is like going to Applebee’s—there’s an extensive menu that seems great at first glance, but when you’re actually inside, the experience is distinctly mediocre.  And if national meetings are the Applebee’s of conferences, then Thursdays at the ACS are like the 30 minutes before closing when the waitresses are vacuuming the carpet and giving you the stinkeye to leave.

Last week in Denver, I had the “pleasure” of giving a talk on Thursday at 3:30 PM.  There might have been ten people in the room; the tears welling in my eyes hindered my ability to get an accurate count.  Some of the previous speakers in the session didn’t bother sticking around, and I was so pathetic that the session chair couldn’t even muster a charity question.  Basically, thousands more people will read this blog post that is only tangentially about the talk than actually attended it.

So, I’m done with giving talks at ACS meetings.  They’re more trouble than they’re worth.  On the other hand, I had a great time giving a poster at Monday’s Sci Mix session.  This disparity seems strange, since I might have “only” talked to something like 15–20 people during the two-hour session, but those interactions were of much higher quality—actual conversations about science—than lecturing a sparsely populated room of seated cadavers.

Like many things in chemistry, I think poster presentations are undervalued (see also: non-Science/Nature/JACS/ACIE papers, public outreach, and IR spectroscopy).  There are more than a few people who believe that giving a poster instead of a talk is a sign of weakness or copping out, and when was the last time you saw a big-named chemist giving a poster at ACS?  I think it’s time to spit in the face of the establishment and make posters cool again.  Who’s with me?!

So, it’s time we get organized.  I’ll start by providing my set of tips for getting your poster printed at Kinko’s/FexEdOffice:

1. Don’t wait until the last minute.   I have never had an experience printing a poster at Kinko’s where everything went 100% right.  Either the plotter was broken and I had to drive 15 miles to a different store, or they were out of paper, or an image didn’t render, or the people on duty just had no idea what they were doing.  Give yourself at least a two-day buffer just in case you have to deal with some drama.

2. Don’t go during the graveyard shift.  Kinko’s has saved me many times by its virtue of never closing.  In high school, I recall several late night/early morning runs to make color printouts on their fancy $5/page printer.  I am a night owl, and I generally prefer going to 24-hour stores like gas stations and groceries late at night when there are no crowds.  Do not do this for printing your poster.  I find that the people on staff during the graveyard shift are often severely incompetent and/or stoned.  Go during the daytime when the best staff members are on duty.

3. Bring a CD or USB with two files: your source file and a high-resolution PDF.  Ideally, you want to print your poster from the source file, which is usually an Illustrator or PowerPoint file.  The people at Kinko’s should be able to open these files.  Where you get into trouble is if the staffers try to modify them, even a tiny amount.  If they do and you have something like a ChemDraw image embedded within the document, there is a good chance it will get messed up.  I’ve also seen staffers make a PDF from the source file and then print the PDF.  This is unnecessary and can create all sorts of problems, most commonly reduced resolution or uneven scaling of the poster’s dimensions.  Bottom line: get them to print the source file directly, without any modification.  If that doesn’t work, get them to print your hi-res PDF. 

4. Bring a printout of your poster on 8½×11″ paper.  Give the staffer a printed copy of your poster so she knows what it should look like.  Make sure the poster is printed to scale (and not stretched to fit the paper).  Write the dimensions of the poster in the margins so the staffer knows how big it should be.  If they mess up, you can then point to the printout and say “No…it should look like this.”

5. Go with the glossy paper instead of the matte.  As far as the paper goes, you’ve got two options: glossy or matte.  The glossy finish looks so much more professional: the way it reflects fluorescent lighting will make your poster seem radiant.  It is truly a thing of beauty.  The resolution also seems to be marginally higher than with the matte finish.  That said, the matte option is usually much cheaper—about two-thirds of the cost of the glossy.  But if you can afford it, go glossy.

6. Inspect the poster closely before paying for it.  Kinko’s is going to charge you ~$100 for the poster—you deserve a good product.  I have seen all sorts of printing errors, from messed up ChemDraw structures, to garbled jpgs, to stretched dimensions, to random lines from misfed paper, to odd patterns from the plotter’s running out of ink.  When it comes to approving the final product, don’t let the staffer hold the poster up from 10 feet away behind the counter.  Get up close and quickly inspect it. 

7. Get a plastic poster tube and bring it to the store.  Kinko’s gives you your poster in a plastic bag that neither protects the paper from physical bumps nor damage from rain.  If you’re travelling somewhere, you’re going to want to put the poster in a proper tube anyway, so why not just bring it to the store in the first place?  I recommend buying a hard plastic Ice Tube, as I have heard a couple of sad stories regarding air travel and “regular” cardboard mailing tubes.  And nothing says “cool scientist” like walking around an airport with a neon orange poster tube.