Archive for the ‘Current Events’ Category

C&EN is Cutting Staff

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

CEN Fake Cover of Paul BracherYesterday brought the alarming report that Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) is cutting eight members of its staff. It appears that these cuts are rooted in the continued sag in advertisements and other sources of revenue at the magazine.

If I recall correctly, C&EN had a similar cutback when the economy tanked, and it is alarming to see a new round of cuts. I think C&EN serves an important and underappreciated role as the major—sometimes, only—means by which many ACS members keep track of chemical news, major advances, and society business. For any large democratic organization to operate efficiently, good journalism is required to keep the electorate informed.

Based on grumbling in comment threads, I think many people are skeptical whether C&EN fulfills this role, but the magazine is really the only publication that comes close (as far as the ACS is concerned). It is more than distressing to see these cuts and think what they mean for the coverage the magazine will be able to provide. Will there still be resources to send reporters to courtrooms (as with the Patrick Harran case)? Will the magazine pursue misconduct cases with the same vigor it has in the recent past?

I know that C&EN recently underwent major changes in its editorial staff, and I hope that means they will be reevaluating their approach to ‘new media’. There is revenue there, along with the chance to engage a wider audience. Given the latest round of cuts, it’s obvious that staying the course and relying on a traditional model is not working. When one looks at the direction of major news outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post, it is bizarre to see that C&EN shuttered its CENtral Science blog network. The blog platform never got the resources it deserved. There was never a full-time blogger who could throw herself into the system and innovate, rather than juggling a responsibility to pump out stories for the print edition.

I’ve got to wonder whether anyone there ever considered the obvious move of hiring Derek Lowe, the godfather of the chemical blogosphere. Given Lowe’s problems ‘under the hood’ at Corante and his impending move to Science Translational Medicine, I have to imagine C&EN could have made a competitive offer. His blog would have represented a strong foundation at C&EN on which to build.

But that ship has sailed. I hope the magazine’s future efforts experience fair winds, because the chemical community needs and deserves good journalism. Fortunately, the staff at the magazine is a great group of people. I hope the Society gives them the resources and editorial latitude they need and deserve to keep the membership well informed.

RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

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?

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.


For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.

Update: First-Year Professor Craziness

Tuesday, February 4th, 2014

ChemBark Moving to St. LouisHello, friends.

Apologies for the continued radio silence, especially in light of the fact that several instances of data manipulation have recently been exposed through “corrections” published in a variety of journals. The beautiful thing about having a blog is that you can update it whenever you want. Sometimes, life happens and blogging takes a back seat…

I continue to fly by the seat of my pants as a first-year assistant professor. One of the main differences about moving on from life as a grad student and postdoc to life as a professor is the tremendous weight of responsibility involved. If you put something off as a grad student or postdoc, you are usually just inconveniencing yourself. But when you fall short in your duties as a professor, the problem is compounded by the multitude of students who are affected. While a variety of to-dos may arise, it is simply untenable to show up to lecture unprepared, because you’re not just wasting your time, you’re wasting the time of 30+ students. And when you delay getting something set up in the lab, you are letting your group down. I imagine the feeling of being a new professor is similar in many respects to being a new parent—there is so much to do and so little time, but if you don’t get all of your work done, bad things will happen (not to you, but to innocent young’uns for whom you care deeply).

I’m teaching Organic Chemistry II this semester, which is proving to be enjoyable. Once again, it is somewhat stressful to have to create a brand new lecture every 48 hours, but I’ve got a great group of students to keep me going. In lab, my research group is growing and things are continuing to take flight. Outside of lab, I got married a month ago and that was splendid. As luck would have it, a few days after we returned to St. Louis, our high-rise apartment building experienced a massive flood because some genius left his window open over the winter break and the sprinkler lines in his room froze. The water damaged seven floors and knocked out all of the elevators in the building. Unfortunately, my wife and I live on the 11th floor. It is also unfortunate that I have a spinal cord injury that makes it difficult for me to climb stairs. So, since January 7th, I’ve been practically homeless. Some nights I sleep in my office, some nights I sleep in a hotel, some nights I invest the 90 minutes it takes for me to crawl up the 10 flights of stairs. My wife and our dog have been real troopers in this ordeal, and it sounds like one elevator might be working by the end of the week—though after four weeks of this crap, I am not holding my breath.

I hope to return to blogging more regularly soon. In parting, please enjoy a scan of a letter from my property management company to the tenants of our building. I want to vomit every time I read it.



Some Fantastic Christmas Presents

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Bethany Halford and the crew at C&EN‘s Newscripts blog run an annual holiday gift guide with some cool gift ideas for chemists, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised by the creativity of your family.

I got a few great chemistry presents for Christmas. The first was a Periodic Table of Magnets that I’ll put on my office door. Next, from one of my new brothers-in-law, I received a fail button in the colors of SLU that plays the sad trombone sound. I’m not sure if all of my students will appreciate this gift, so maybe I’ll keep it in an inconspicuous location. My orgo lab instructor at NYU used to have a bullseye taped to his wall captioned “hit head here”. He would point to it when students realized a silly mistake they made on a exam. I thought the sign was hilarious, but some of my classmates thought it was obnoxious.

From my other new brother-in-law, I received a copy of “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” signed by Linus Pauling. Very, very cool. Apparently, signed chemistry texts by Pauling command a much higher price tag, but I would much rather have something signed relating to Pauling’s medical quackery than chemical bonding or crystallography.

Finally, from my lovely fiancée wife, I received this:


That, my friends, is total victory: a stuffed animal version of ChemBark’s mascot, Ed the Dog. I am a very lucky boy.

That’s it for the chemistry presents, but I got a bunch of other great gifts and had a wonderful wedding three days later (that will be the subject of another post). I hope everyone had as good a holiday break as I did, and best wishes for a happy and productive 2014!