Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Who Cares?

Wednesday, September 9th, 2015

Another summer has come to an end, and we’re already two weeks deep into the fall semester. I spent part of my last day of summer freedom updating my calendar for the semester, and it was not pretty. So many classes, so many office hours, so many meetings.

I’ve seen a variety of approaches that professors take to the first day of class. Some just review the syllabus and call it a day. Some play icebreaking games and have students introduce themselves, while others dive right into the first chapter of the text. For me, I spend most of the first lecture addressing the question:

Why should I care about organic chemistry?

In broad strokes, we go over what we will learn in the class and why this information is important for scientists and health professionals. Here’s the opening slide from the deck:


If you can’t make a strong case why your class is important to students, why should they waste time studying it?

For me, the argument extends beyond why organic chemistry is important in and of itself. While I hope that some of my love of the subject rubs off, I am under no delusions that everyone will enjoy the class. Many students take it simply to fulfill a requirement for their degree or pre-health program. In these cases, I equate the class to Brussels sprouts. While the dish might be hard to stomach, eating it is good for you and necessary for mom to bring dessert. If you want to be a doctor, you’re going to have to do well in organic. So do it. If your career goal is what motivates you, let it motivate you to do well in orgo.

My view on “who cares?” or “why should I care?” extends to attendance. I don’t take attendance, because it’s irrelevant. My job as an instructor is to: (i) teach course material and (ii) judge student mastery of the material. If students see fit to invest their time in something other than my class, that’s just as likely a statement about the ineffectiveness of my lectures than a statement about their lack of motivation. The student is in the best position to judge my value to them as a teacher. If a student believes their time is better spent elsewhere, that’s fine. When grading, I’ll be calling balls and strikes the same way I would for all of the other students. Once again, attendance is irrelevant—except for mine.

Providing a compelling answer to “who cares?” is just as important outside of the classroom. When giving a talk, you need to invest a few minutes at the beginning to help your audience understand why your research is important. If you don’t, what’s going to stop people from checking their phones and tuning you out? If you find yourself having trouble explaining to your audience why your research is interesting or important, perhaps you should work on something else.

And when writing a paper, one of the first things you should address is why anyone should care about your work. If your reader doesn’t think your research is interesting or important, why should she read it? Why do so many papers in chemistry journals open with sentences like “Dullicin B is a toxin produced by the Ithacan slug, Limax cornellicus“?

Who cares?

Is your paper about the isolation of the compound? No. Do chemists care about mollusks? Not especially. So why would you waste prime real estate in your opening paragraph talking about these pieces of trivia? By all means, share these details, but do it later in the paper after you’ve already hooked the reader.

Journalists are taught this approach as the inverted pyramid, and they use it because readers are prone to move to the next story at any moment. Perhaps scientists would use a similar approach if anyone bothered to teach us about writing.

Mission Support

Thursday, August 20th, 2015

I took this photo of the chemistry building at SLU yesterday at 8:15 am. Note that the curb marked “fire lane” and “no parking” is completely full of parked cars.

I tweeted the pic and threw some shade on our Office of Parking and Card Services, because last year, they insisted it would be impossible to allow people in our department to use the curb for short-term loading because of the fire hazard presented by parked cars. True to their word, they have ticketed students and staff in our department who have attempted to run quickly into the building to attend to experiments. Given that none of the cars this morning had parking citations, I can only conclude that vehicles belonging to facilities crews and contractors are special and do not pose the same fire hazard as our cars. Or, perhaps, this is administrative hypocrisy at its finest worst.

At Caltech, parking is treated as a resource meant to support its students and staff. Despite having a campus in densely-populated Los Angeles County, the institute didn’t even charge for parking until around a decade ago, when space started to become limited. My favorite aspect of parking at Caltech was that students and staff could park on yellow-curbed loading zones after 5 p.m. You could drive right up to the door of the lab building! It was wonderfully convenient, and a boon to safety since the walk to your car at night was short.

Given the many benefits of the Caltech system, I thought our department should raise the issue of instituting similar parking policy at SLU. I drafted this letter and sent it up the chain. Unfortunately, little came of it. Our department was granted a few passes that allowed holders to park in a slightly-less-distant parking lot (perhaps, 100 yards away instead of 200) if they need to run inside the building.

The different approaches to parking policy mark a stark contrast in culture between Caltech and SLU. At Caltech, resources are milked to improve the efficiency of students and staff. At SLU, students and staff are milked of financial resources. Perhaps no parking rule illustrates this difference more than how cars are treated at night. Whereas all parking at Caltech is free at night—whether you have a day pass or not—parking at SLU can cost $10, regardless of whether you have a daytime permit. If I attempt to park at the garage closest to the chemistry department on the night of a sports game, SLU will charge me $10. My parking permit is no good. What a wonderful way to treat your researchers!

This picture, from Caltech’s Instagram stream yesterday, illustrates another nice thing that Caltech does:


Must be lunchtime. Caltech ❤️s Ernie’s. #caltech #campus #caltechalumni #summergram #nomnom A photo posted by Caltech (@caltechedu) on


Ernie is a guy who runs a food truck at Caltech. He is an institution within the institution—a legend—serving great food at cheap prices. Caltech could easily boot him off campus and drive students and departments to use campus eateries. But instead, Caltech provides places for Ernie to park his truck, giving students an inexpensive, convenient option to eat. During my official intake meeting with HR at Caltech, the HR representative even took out a photocopied map and highlighted the spots on Ernie’s route. It was awesome.

I would strongly encourage any organization to emulate this behavior and think how it could allocate under-used resources to improve the efficiency and/or morale of its community. Why not let researchers park in loading zones at night? Why not let students use the department’s nice conference room after hours? Or the big-screen of the lecture hall to watch movies?

Why not foster a friendlier, welcoming environment, where your university’s resources are used to support students and staff rather than wring every last penny out of them?

Orgo Thursdays

Monday, August 10th, 2015

ed_academic_bigOne of the nice things about being a professor is that you have the agency necessary to successfully garner support for causes you feel are worthwhile. Earlier this year, I brought to SLU something that I had sorely missed from my time as an undergrad at NYU: organic division problem sessions. These were held once a month during the school year and worked as follows:

Each organic group took turns hosting the sessions. The hosts would be responsible for bringing pizza, beer, and 3 or 4 hard, graduate-level organic problems. The organic students and faculty would gather at 6 pm, eat, drink, and work the problems. Volunteers would put up their answers, the audience would nitpick and argue, the faculty would weigh in with suggestions, and if no one could figure them out, the people who brought the problems would set us straight.

The attendance of organic graduate students was expected, and undergraduates were welcome to attend. In something of a paradoxical twist, I think these sessions were instrumental in both (i) making me appreciate that organic chemistry is hard and (ii) making me feel like organic chemistry was something I could do.

At Harvard, I attended Christina White’s monthly organometallic sessions, even though I was the dumbest participant by far. Each person was responsible for bringing one slide that summarized a recent paper from the literature. While these weren’t problems, there was a fair amount of arguing over mechanisms. The White Lab’s departure to Illinois marked the end of these sessions for me. It’s kind of unfortunate that Harvard had nothing else—that I know of—considering the rich history of late-night organic chemistry seminars at Harvard led by Woodward.

Earlier this year, I decided to champion these blasts from the past and start one at SLU.

On the third Thursday of every month, I host a voluntary organic problem session. I bring pizza and three graduate-level problems, and the students work them over, present ideas, and face my ridicule—or occasionally, approbation. Usually I steal problems from texts, but if I’m feeling saucy, I’ll write them based on interesting papers I’ve come across and stashed away.

While attendance at Orgo Thursdays is completely voluntary—except for my grad students, for whom the session replaces group meeting that week—we’ve averaged 12 participants over the first seven sessions. That’s makes the sessions just a shade smaller than those at NYU, and isn’t too shabby given the size of our department.

Now that I’ve seen these sessions from both sides of the table, I am convinced of their value in a number of areas:

1. For any skill, if you don’t use it, you lose it. The problems keep students and me thinking about fundamental course material long after final grades are in the books. The continued practice is going to help our grad students become better teachers and perform better on their comprehensive exams, which are taken in the summer between their second and third year.

2. There is something to be said for placing students in uncomfortable situations where they have to think on their feet and be brave. This is a life skill that classes often don’t focus on developing.

3. These sessions are a great opportunity for everyone to interact with people from other research groups. I believe strongly that departments should actively foster wide collegiality, where students and faculty have meaningful interactions not only with their labmates, but with people in other labs. Such an environment is so much more enjoyable and supportive than when each group is an island.

4. These sessions help me get to know our students better. It’s never a good situation when a professor has to write a ‘third’ rec-letter for a student he hasn’t talked to since a class four years ago.

5. The problem sessions give undergrad students an opportunity to stay involved in organic chemistry after their sophomore classes in the subject are done. Undergrads also get a taste for what graduate school is like, given they are working graduate-level problems alongside our graduate students. When I was an undergrad, it was empowering to participate in these sessions.

My plan is to keep hosting Orgo Thursdays until I run out of problems or money to buy pizza. So long as people keep coming, I assume they see value in the activity too.

Textbooks Make Me Feel Dirty

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

ChemBark Ed on Dollar BillWe’re three weeks away from the start of the semester at SLU, and this time of year always brings the first wave of e-mails from the next class of students. While these messages vary in length and tone, they can generally be distilled to one question: “Professor, what do I really need to buy for your course?”

Can I use the previous edition of the text? Do I really need a model kit? Do I really need the model kit on sale in the bookstore? Can I share my model kit with a friend? Do I have to buy the subscription for the online homework?

Whenever I read these e-mails, a part of me dies inside. I feel their pain. They’ve just paid their bills for thousands of dollars in tuition, with two more years of it to go. And now, after absorbing that massive hit, they’ve got to scrounge up another $375 dollars for my coursepack. It’s a slap in the face.

The cost of these materials makes me sick, and the prices are rising at an astounding rate. For my college organic text, I paid less than half of what students are asked to pay today. Are today’s books really worth double my book, which remains a valued reference on my office bookcase? Has our understanding of introductory organic chemistry really changed that significantly in the last 15 years? No.

I’ll be teaching Organic Chemistry I for Majors again and using the same coursepack we did when I arrived at SLU.  It contains: (i) the textbook, (ii) the solutions manual, (iii) a plastic model kit, and (iv) a subscription to the online homework assignments. That all costs about $375 when purchased together.

Three hundred and seventy-five American dollars!

While I could easily point the finger at the publishing companies as the villains that they are, ultimately, they are not the problem—I am. After all, I’m the one who assigns the books for my course. And for that, I’m truly sorry, but allow me to explain:

While there are a dozen good organic texts, I think we can all agree that it makes sense for a class to adopt a single textbook. As a teacher, I literally want everyone on the same page, with a precise understanding of what information everyone is responsible for. In the absence of a strong external force, inertia will govern this decision. It makes sense for an instructor or department to stick with the book it used the previous year, because the switching costs of an instructor having to rework the syllabus, slides, and order of practice problems can introduce a lot of unnecessary work. And there are benefits to students when we use the same book as the year before, because they can buy a used version. Furthermore, they can get something out of borrowing their friends’ old notes and exams.

Now, here’s where the publishing industry appears and sinks in its fangs. The used-book market poses a serious threat to their revenue stream, because they only make money by selling new copies. It’s the bookstores and old students who make money from the used-book market. So, what do the publishers do? Release a new edition! By releasing a new edition, the publishers can (i) find professors to drive orders of new books and (ii) stop printing the old edition so colleges can’t find enough used copies of it, forcing adoption of the new edition.

These new editions usually contain few or no substantive changes relative to the previous edition. It can be as silly as shuffling content between chapters, renumbering the practice problems, and adding a few new photos. Case in point is the 4th edition of the text I use now. Anyone with the 3rd edition would have no problem following my class, because hardly anything changed.

Another thing that burns me up is that by the 4th edition of a text, you’d expect all of the errors would have been ferreted out and corrected by now. Have they? No. I maintain a list of errata in the text on my webpage and use it to show my students that organic chemistry must be hard—not even the textbook’s author can get it right.

Textbook publishers erode the used-book market to drive the sale of expensive new editions, but professors are complicit in maintaining this skewed market. Why? Because we are the ones that assign these textbooks as required course materials. And you know why professors don’t especially care? Because we get our textbooks for free. The publishers will just give away a $250 text to us because they want us to force 200 students to buy it. They’ll even sweeten the deal by giving us free lecture slides that correspond to the text. The sales technique is brilliant: make life as easy as possible for the professors and give them free stuff so that they will force their students to buy your product. While it’s not exactly a kickback, it’s not terribly far from it.

So, the textbook market is not a fair one as far as students are concerned. Students can’t shop around for the highest quality book at the best price; they are essentially required to buy whatever textbook their professor decides at whatever price the publisher is charging. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you sick, publishers send instructors e-mails like the one I received a month ago:

From: <Textbook Publisher>
Subject: When it’s required, they’re prepared required_advert_450Disgustingly shameless. I feel gross just reading it.

Hey, instructor buddy! You want your students to learn? Well, then you need to *require* them to purchase our expensive online add-on! And don’t worry—we’ll give instructors free access to the system, of course!

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that authors and publishers perform a valuable service. While our understanding of first-year organic chemistry hasn’t changed in 30 years, our ability to make instructive figures has certainly improved to the point that no one would choose a text from the 1980s over those offered today. So yeah, publishers should be compensated for the materials they produce. But at the same time, there is a limit to what is reasonable. Issuing a ‘new’ edition every three years at $375 a pop is ridiculous.

So, students, please forgive me. I know the system is unfair, but there really isn’t a good alternative at the moment. I would much rather you spend $375 on a nice iPad and download the coursepack for free. Unfortunately, the free organic texts in existence pale in comparison to the expensive texts out there, and the time required for a professor to produce all of the necessary materials for a class is too much to do in one shot. I hope you will believe me when I say that I’m working on it, but it’s going to take some time. Every year I produce a little more material and build towards the goal of obviating the need for an expensive text. Give me 20 years and that should become reality. I hope someone else beats me to it.

Thesis Acknowledgments

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

ed_academic_bigChemjobber has a post up asking readers what information they put in the acknowledgments sections of their dissertations.

I have always been fascinated by whom grad students choose to acknowledge. As a first-year, I used to pull old theses off the shelves of our group room and read the acknowledgments sections from front-to-back. Some were long; some were incredibly terse. Some were over-effusive in praise; some had cutting zingers. But every acknowledgments section was interesting and, I felt, gave me some sense of the personality of the student whose research had helped lead the group to where it was.

About once a year, I would go to the chemistry library and similarly indulge my curiosity on a grander scale. I would climb the stairs to the balcony where old theses were kept and hunt for interesting names: Nobel laureates, current professors, recent friends who’d graduated, and grad students present at remarkable events (e.g., when Corey won the Nobel, when various professors had moved labs, and when Jason Altom took his life). I’d flip through their work, admire the figures, and always finish by reading the entirety of their acknowledgments. It was fascinating, and I cherished the glimpse of what each scientist was feeling at my point in their career.

People often joke that your acknowledgments are the only part of your thesis anyone will read carefully, including the professors on your committee. But that isn’t a joke—it’s the truth. When I was writing my thesis, I viewed writing the acknowledgments section as a wonderful opportunity to thank everyone from my educational career, past and present. It was six-and-a-half pages of joy to write.

And since the dissertation guidelines at my school allowed students to include epigraphs, I twisted a line of a famous poem such that it would serve, in my estimation, as a sufficiently veiled comment on my sentiments at the time.

To this day, I keep a copy of my dissertation on my iPad and I read the acknowledgments section every four months or so. Yes, I’ve almost memorized it by now, but reading it again always brings back a flood of happy, sad, and funny memories.

Sometimes, you need that.