Archive for the ‘Disciplines’ Category

Andrew Myers and Harvard Sued by Former PhD Student

Sunday, June 30th, 2013

ChemBark InvestigatesDr. Mark Charest, a chemistry PhD student who graduated from Harvard in 2004, is suing the university and Andrew Myers, his PhD advisor, over the royalties associated with a patent covering intellectual property developed during Charest’s graduate work.

In 2005, the Myers Lab published this paper in Science that described a new synthetic route to 6-deoxytetracycline antibiotics. Charest was the first author on the paper, and the work was patented by Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (prior to submission for publication). A company, Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals, was started to commercialize the work by licensing the tetracycline patent from the university.

According to Charest’s complaint:

  • Harvard’s policy is to distribute royalties equally among all of the inventors on a patent unless the inventors agree to a different distribution.
  • Harvard OTD asked Charest and his former labmates to voluntarily accept a distribution of 50% to Myers, 15% to Charest, 15% to Dionicio Siegel, 15% to Christian Lerner, and 5% to Jason Brubaker (the five co-authors of the paper).
  • The four co-authors besides Myers agreed amongst themselves to a distribution of 18.75% to Charest, 11.25% to Siegel, 10% to Lerner, and 10% to Brubaker. Myers would not participate in this discussion and his 50% share was not open to discussion.
  • When Charest later spoke to Myers, Myers told Charest to “tread lightly”, “be careful”, and “think about [his] career”. Charest interpreted these statements as threats.
  • Charest initially refused to accept an unequal distribution of the royalties, and then engaged in a series of exchanges where Harvard’s representative threatened to directly cut Charest’s share of the royalties or to shift the distribution of licensing payments to a second patent on which Charest was not listed as an inventor. Fearful of this threat, Charest signed an agreement to accept 18.75% of the royalties for the first patent (presumably, the distribution arranged by the four postdocs/students).
  • The second patent never materialized, and Charest believes it was a ruse fabricated to force his hand to volunteer to let Myers get a 50% cut of the royalties.
  • Later, Charest describes a second act in which Harvard’s OTD did shift royalties away from Charest’s patent.
  • Myers refused to serve as a reference when Charest applied for a position at a venture capital firm, and Myers would not return phone calls when a potential employer directly contacted Myers regarding Charest.

Charest appealed to an internal review board at Harvard, but his case was unsuccessful. His lawsuit filed on Friday seeks reallocation of the royalties, punitive damages, and a bunch of other stuff that is outside my complete comprehension. Read the document for yourself.

It will be interesting to see how this story plays out, but it would seem to be yet another cautionary tale that when you are a graduate student, you are in a position of incredible weakness. As is said, your advisor holds your paycheck in one hand and your letter of recommendation in the other. And in case you are naive, the chains don’t get unshackled just because you’ve graduated. You’re still going to need that letter of recommendation for future jobs, so if your old boss wants to take 50% of the royalties, what’s to stop him?



Disclosure: I went to Harvard for my graduate work and regularly came into contact with Myers, Charest, and Brubaker, as my desk was right next to the Myers Lab. I know Mark Charest and had several conversations with him over the course of my graduate career. I think I saw him one or two times after he graduated, and I’ve had no interaction with him since I graduated from Harvard.

H/T to A.D. for tipping off ChemBark

Elsewhere: Universal Hub, Chemjobber (analysis of prof-student/postdoc fiduciary relationship), Chemistry Reddit, Chemical & Engineering News, In The Pipeline, The Harvard Crimson.

Nocera on BBC Horizons

Monday, June 24th, 2013



Of course, it’d be even nicer with safety glasses.

Also, beautiful new labs. Yum.

BRSM is Coming to America

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

There’s a chemblog carnival afoot to wish BRSM well on his upcoming postdoc in the U.S. @JessTheChemist is curating the posts on her blog, here. You can check out more info on Twitter with the hashtag #BRSMBlogParty.

BRSM is a synthetic organic chemist with a great blog dedicated to the subject. I know little else about BRSM beyond that he/she is currently based in the UK. (Obviously, I’m not even 100% sure about his/her gender.) That makes answering some of the carnival questions harder, but I’ll give it a shot anyway:

1. What is your message for BRSM?

Best wishes for your upcoming postdoc in the US, wherever it may be and in whatever area of research.

2. What is one postdoc survival tip you would give to BRSM?

Try to be nice to—or at least respectful of—your colleagues. Be especially nice to people like janitors, security guards, secretaries, instrument staff, and administrators. There will be times where you’ll need their help getting out of a bind, and having any of these people as enemies can make your life hell.

3. Do you have a fun story you could share from your postdoc and/or US academic experience?

Well, there was the kitty job interview. There was also the time we (unknowingly) named our high-school science outreach program after a sexual act. Oops.

4. A survival tip for living in the US?

Relative to what you have in the UK, our public transportation is poor. If you are going to live in or near New York City, Boston, or San Francisco, you probably do not want a car—parking stinks. If you are going to live somewhere else, you probably do want a car.

5. What would you like to see on BRSM blog in the future?

Tasteful nude photos.

No, seriously, whatever you want. I would rather you keep blogging about what interests you than burn out blogging about what interests other people. And thanks for posting the Felkin-Ahn slides; I think they make a nice companion to Dave Evans’ Chem 206 notes.

6. Anything else?

Nope. Safe travels!

Quiz: Named Chemical Reagents and Catalysts

Sunday, May 26th, 2013

I made this little ditty on Sporcle. Given a systematic name of a molecule, provide the last name of the chemist for whom the reagent or catalyst is named…

ACS President-Elect Tom Barton Seeks Input on Fracking

Wednesday, May 8th, 2013

Tom Barton won last year’s ACS national election for President (and was kind enough to answer our questionnaire about important issues facing the society). Yesterday, President-Elect Barton asked that I share this message with the readers of the blog:

In my ACS presidential year of 2014 I’m considering hosting a symposium on fracking with, of course, emphasis on the involvement of chemicals.  I would appreciate hearing from anyone suggestions for particular areas for inclusion, and potential speakers.  I seek a balanced set of presentations from experts in the various aspects, and would certainly be interested in any germane research.  I myself am not an expert in this arena, but I am trying to get smart in it.  In advance, I appreciate your assistance.

Feel free to weigh in using the comments. I will leave the first…

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.