Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Sue the “Chemical-Free” Bastards

Monday, June 17th, 2013

Chemical Free Beauty ProductsWhile I’m an idealist at heart, in my old age, I’ve increasingly found myself giving in to apathy and letting things slide more often. In the shower this weekend, I saw another one of my fiancée’s hair-care products advertised as “chemical free” and was soon awash in the same frustration expressed in this old post. The phrase “chemical free” is profoundly stupid, it is damaging to our field, and the problem is getting worse. While a lot of frustration has been expressed by a small group of chemists online, I’ve seen no effective campaign against the stupidity of the term “chemical free.” On the flip side, you’ve got another group of chemists who find the argument against “chemical free” to be pedantic, and some have even embraced the term for use in lab.

While I might be closer to abandoning this cause in favor of apathy, I don’t think the problem is worth giving up on just yet. Previously, I have lobbied bench chemists to become more involved in educating the public, suggested that the ACS develop a “war room” to address misinformation in the mainstream media, and volunteered a first draft of a pro-chemicals ad campaign. But maybe that’s my idealism talking. “Positive” approaches, where we tout the benefits of chemistry, require a lot of effort and take time to bring about change. Perhaps it would be more effective to adopt a negative approach? And, of course, what approach could be more negative than to sue?


Yes, let’s start suing companies that advertise their products as “chemical free”. Make the dummies hurt where it counts: their wallets.

You see, there are laws that require truth-in-advertising, and many of them should be directly applicable to “chemical free” cases. The Federal Trade Commission has explained its policy for how it judges whether or not it will act on potentially deceptive ads:

Certain elements undergird all deception cases. First, there must be a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer. Practices that have been found misleading or deceptive in specific cases include false oral or written representations, misleading price claims, sales of hazardous or systematically defective products or services without adequate disclosures, failure to disclose information regarding pyramid sales, use of bait and switch techniques, failure to perform promised services, and failure to meet warranty obligations.

Second, we examine the practice from the perspective of a consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances. If the representation or practice affects or is directed primarily to a particular group, the Commission examines reasonableness from the perspective of that group.

Third, the representation, omission, or practice must be a “material” one. The basic question is whether the act or practice is likely to affect the consumer’s conduct or decision with regard to a product or service. If so, the practice is material, and consumer injury is likely, because consumers are likely to have chosen differently but for the deception. In many instances, materiality, and hence injury, can be presumed from the nature of the practice. In other instances, evidence of materiality may be necessary.

Thus, the Commission will find deception if there is a representation, omission or practice that is likely to mislead the consumer acting reasonably in the circumstances, to the consumer’s detriment.

So, there are three major criteria for an ad to meet: (i) it must be deceptive, (ii) it must have an impact on a “reasonable” consumer, and (iii) it must induce a material change in behavior on the part of a consumer. Any product which advertises itself as “chemical free” easily meets these three criteria.

First, everything that I have come across as “chemical free” (e.g., cosmetics, fertilizer, sunscreen) has contained chemicals, so the claim is a false written representation of the product. Second, the fear of chemicals is so widespread in society that it is more than reasonable for an average, uneducated consumer to care whether something is “chemical free”. Finally, a “chemical free” label can easily have a material effect in that a chemophobic consumer could choose to purchase a falsely labeled product over a competing product that is not labeled “chemical free” yet contains the same active chemicals.

Unfortunately, it is probably unreasonable for any halfway-decent chemist to claim he was fooled by something as scientifically nonsensical as “chemical free.” But, a class-action lawsuit waged by a group of typical (chemophobic) consumers who’ve purchased a chemical-free product could easily have merit.

Perhaps even more effective would be for a major company (with hefty legal resources) to file lawsuits claiming damages due to unfair business practices. It is unfair to have to compete against rival products that benefit from advertising with false claims. Let’s see these smaller companies have to defend themselves against the giants. Unfortunately, there’s no single chemical-free product on the market that is successful enough to make such a lawsuit a worthwhile cause.

Outside of lawsuits, what can you do? Well, the FTC has an FAQ about what sorts of ads are potentially deceptive, and you can contact them to register a complaint about products making false claims. Some complaints they pursue and some they don’t, but their decisions carry the weight of the law and they can issue cease-and-desist orders as well as fines. You can also register complaints with the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and state/local consumer protection offices.

I’m not saying that lawsuits are the best approach to solving the problem, but in some cases, insisting on the enforcement of existing laws might be an effective solution to the proliferation of all this “chemical free” nonsense.

Lab Entrance Exam

Thursday, May 30th, 2013

ed_baseballcap_150All of a sudden, I’ve started receiving a deluge of e-mail from undergraduate students looking to start research. Given the space limitations, one of my labmates joked that to be fair, I should sponsor a Hunger Games style competition for admission to the lab.

I have never watched or read “The Hunger Games,” but I am somewhat uncomfortable sponsoring any sort of fight to the death. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think of what characteristics you’d like to have in prospective students. Perhaps a proper entrance exam would be more appropriate than mortal combat?


Lab Entrance Exam for Undergraduate Students

The lab entrance exam is held on the first Saturday of each month beginning at 6 am. It is broken down into the following subjects. You may use a calculator. Good luck.

Glassblowing: Given a BBQ grill and a 55-gallon drum of sand, construct a vacuum manifold for your fume hood.

Art of Negotiation: Given a p-card loaded with $50, purchase a stirring hot plate, lab jack, variac, and set of heating mantles for your bench. Hot plate must be IKA-brand or better.

Hazardous Waste Disposal: Using qualitative tests from gen chem and orgo lab, determine whether the unlabeled bottle of frothy orange liquid left in our future lab space should be disposed of as aqueous acidic, aqueous basic, halogenated organic, non-halogenated organic, or heavy metals waste. Fill out an appropriate waste label and carefully move the bottle to the waste collection cabinet.

Visual Acuity: From a distance of two meters, determine absorption maxima for the three solutions of chromophores sitting on the bench. Each chromophore has only one peak in the visible spectrum. Bonus: estimate extinction coefficients.

Safety: Within 15 seconds, locate and activate the lab’s eye wash station after donning a blindfold and being spun around twenty times.

Language/Writing: Translate any article in the journal Tetrahedron into English.

Olfactory Acuity: Given a hard copy of our group inventory, open the stockroom fridge for two seconds and report what bottles are leaking. If you haven’t already fallen unconscious, locate them and tighten the lids.

Skepticism: Write a 2000-word letter detailing the experimental deficiencies of any recent paper by an associate editor or advisory board member of Science, Nature, JACS, or Angewandte. If the editor refuses to publish your letter, upload it to Reddit/chemistry.

Endurance: Collect 1000 10-mL fractions of a streaky porphyrin mixture by flash chromatography. Rotavap each to dryness and collect an NMR spectrum for every 20th fraction.

Shuttle Run: Transport eight 20 L drums of methylene chloride from the VWR stockroom to our lab.

Strength: Steal a belt driven vacuum pump from the lab two floors above ours. Do not use our cart—I don’t want it scratched or stained with oil.

Instrumentation: Using a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves, duct tape, a cylinder of carbon dioxide, and anything you can buy at The Container Store for under $100, construct a glove-box suitable for our work simulating the prebiotic atmosphere.

Manual Dexterity: Replace the regulator on a nitrogen cylinder using no tools but your bare hands. Fastest time wins maximum points, but leaks in the system will result in penalties.


I’d be happy to take any students who could finish these tasks, even if they were lazy and skipped one or two of them.


Major Methane Demo Fail

Sunday, May 19th, 2013

This is how chemistry demos are going to get banned in high schools:

Lab Manuals

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

ChemBark's Orby the InsectI’m always interested to come across instructional documents on chemistry professors’ Web sites. These documents can be great resources, because they often contain very practical advice about safety, direction on how to maintain instruments, and guidance on experimental technique from experts in the field. Taking the time to commit this information to writing also helps prevent “institutional” loss of memory when senior members of the lab graduate without having properly trained the next generation of students.

Unfortunately, you don’t come across that many lab manuals online. Perhaps this is because some of them are distributed in hard copy only. Perhaps, some professors don’t want to explicitly write procedures and safety guidelines in fear they might be used against them in court. My guess, however, is that most people can’t find the time to sit down and write out this information—or they don’t see the value in doing so.

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research” is among my favorite documents. He gets very specific about some of the advice he doles out. For instance, all nitrogen bubblers left on overnight should have a flow rate of one bubble per second or less. Tour provides guidance on how he likes notebooks to be kept, and he also provides expectations about work ethic and vacations. Finally, there is the passage on personal hygiene:

Personal Hygiene: Although not customary in all countries, Americans generally bathe at least several times per week. As a result, many Americans are offended by the infrequent bathing habits of others (whether Americans or internationals). Thus, you may be leaving a negative impression of yourself without ever knowing it. Unfortunately, bad impressions are often difficult to overcome. Likewise, be sure to use an underarm deodorant since most Americans find body odor to be most offensive. I have seen people causing themselves to be ostracized by others simply because of poor personal hygiene habits.

It might seem trifling or overbearing to provide advice on this level, but the info is correct and I wish more people heeded Tour’s advice.

While the idea of writing a manual all at once seems daunting, I think that doing it in pieces seems quite reasonable. In fact, I think you can assemble some really good tidbits of advice from material that is already posted online. These documents are almost like official memoranda to members of professors’ labs. For instance:

The famous “How to Write a Scientific Paper” article in Advanced Materials had its beginnings as a type-written memo from George Whitesides to his lab.

There’s also Ken Suslick’s cool presentation on how to give a talk.

And I like how some professors provide specific instructions on how to ask them for letters of recommendation.

Anyway, before I go writing similar stuff in the future, I wanted to know if you all had come across any great lab manuals or memos. Leave them in the comments, and I’ll compile a list below.

Lab Manuals

Jim Tour’s “Guidelines for Research
Melanie Sanford’s “Group Welcome Kit
Dave Collum’s site
Bart Bartlett’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Turro Group’s site
Watson Group Manual
Tolman Lab’s “Standard Operating Procedures
Armen Zakarian’s site


An Interesting Position at Columbia

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

I don’t know why I find myself writing so many posts about happenings at Columbia, but I do. And the trend continues, thanks to this ad I found on page 84 of the March 18th edition of Chemical & Engineering News:


The ad begins:

THE DEPARTMENT OF CHEMISTRY seeks to appoint an Associate in Discipline beginning July 1, 2013, for our busy undergraduate laboratory programs. This is a full-time special instructional faculty position with multiyear renewals contingent on successful review…

An Associate in Discipline, you say? Great. I can think of a few chemists at Columbia who need to be disciplined (1 2)…

Mistakes from the Job Search: The Kitty Interview

Sunday, May 5th, 2013

Now that my job search is over, I can share all of the stupid things I did and instances where I completely fouled up. This story is, by far, the most mortifying of all my search-related experiences…

After reviewing the application packages they receive for faculty positions, most schools do a round of phone interviews before deciding on which candidates to invite for on-site interviews. Few things are more exciting in your job search than being asked to schedule a phone interview, because it often represents the first meaningful acknowledgment of receipt (and advancement) of your application package. Most of the applications you submit get sucked into a vacuum where you never hear that you’ve been rejected until six months later.

After submitting an application in early October to a school in the Pacific Northwest, I received a phone call three weeks later from the chairman of the department asking to schedule a Skype interview. Great. This was the first time I’d been asked to do a video interview, but I have a Skype account and a computer with a webcam, so everything was ready to go. While I rarely use Skype, I had used it to talk with a friend in China only two months prior.

On the day of the interview, I changed into a dress shirt in my office, logged on to Skype, and awaited the call. When I answered, my video stream popped up normally for a second, but quickly changed to the following:


While I could see the search committee just fine, they saw me as a sad kitten. I know this because (i) I could see my feed in a small box on my screen, and (ii) the professors on the committee were looking at their screen and chuckling. What’s worse is that every time I talked, the kitten’s mouth would open and close. I was mortified.

I started frantically scrolling down all of the menus in Skype trying to remedy the situation. What the hell was happening? No one else ever uses my computer, and I was certain I hadn’t adjusted any of the settings in Skype. It had worked fine just two months earlier.

After trudging through the first three minutes of the interview while trying to fix the stream—a major distraction—the chairman suggested that I just kill the video and proceed on audio only. I guess it is hard to have a serious discussion about chemistry with a talking kitten?

I thought the rest of the interview went well—really well. I made a call sheet for every phoner that summarized the points I wanted to make, and putting that on the screen allowed me to refocus and get my head back into the game.

When the call was over, I resumed the effort of determining what had happened. A friend on Facebook pointed me to this blog post. It turns out that Skype is not to blame; it is some sort of default setting in the webcam software on Dell computers. Why you would set a kitten avatar as a default is beyond my comprehension, but there you go. It turns out that another user had the same experience just a couple of days later.

I sent a follow up e-mail to the chair thanking him for the interview and sharing what I had discovered about the problem.


No worries! It’s an understandable problem and the interview worked well doing it audio only (we still had your Skype profile picture to look at, so it wasn’t actually all that different). It was nice talking to you.



On Oct 30, 2012, at 3:50 PM, “Paul Bracher” <bracher-at-caltech/edu> wrote:


I wanted to thank you and the rest of the committee for taking the time to chat earlier today. I had a great time, aside from the mortification associated with my bizarre video feed. It seems that I am not the first person to fall victim to Dell’s webcam software:

A number of my friends in lab have died laughing, but you have my profound apologies. I would have preferred that you and the committee had been able to see the enthusiasm on my face during our discussion. I remain very excited about the position at —————!

All the best,
Paul “the Kitten” Bracher

The response was gracious, but the damage was done. I think what was especially damaging about the situation was that you have some guy who has put together a decent Web site, runs a blog, and stresses the importance of incorporating new technology into his teaching proposals, yet he can’t figure out how to use Skype properly. In hindsight, I should have done another test run, instead of thinking that my use of Skype two months prior was sufficient.

After radio silence for the next month, I assumed the worst. The stages of the search seem to progress pretty quickly once they’ve started, so when you’ve lost contact for several weeks, it’s usually a bad sign. My suspicions were confirmed in February:

Dear Paul,

It was a pleasure to talk to you a couple months ago. I write to inform you that ————— has offered the Assistant Professor in Organic Chemistry position to another candidate. The decision was very difficult and time consuming (which is why you’re only just hearing back from us), as you were in a field of outstanding candidates.

I would like to convey my appreciation for your interest in —————. Please accept my best wishes for the future development of your career.


Chair, Search Committee

The cold sting of rejection. Oh well. Who knows what could have been were it not for the kitty interview?