Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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?

Jean-Luc Picard Failed Orgo

Monday, April 29th, 2013

Yes, you read that title correctly: Jean-Luc Picard, the greatest starship captain of all-time, failed organic chemistry at Starfleet Academy. In his defense, it was probably less to do with intelligence and more to do with being distracted:

I pulled that video clip so I can show it to my students during our opening lecture. It should go well with the “How to Win Orgo” handout.

Update (5/1): Thanks to a tip in the comments from “bad wolf”, I went and pulled a clip from Star Trek: Generations where it is revealed that one of Picard’s ancestors won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It makes his failure in orgo all the more astonishing.

Sarin in Syria

Friday, April 26th, 2013

It looks like someone is using the deadly nerve agent sarin in the ongoing civil war in Syria, which may very well draw the United States into the conflict. I did a project on sarin for a class in my sophomore year of college at NYU. Here is the handout I prepared to accompany my talk.

Looking back on the document, a few things stand out:

1. It’s amazing how simple of a compound sarin is.

2. I had bizarre taste in fonts.

3. I’d forgotten I had written about Osama bin Laden a full year before the attacks on 9-11-01.

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.

WWWTP? – Markovnikov Edition

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

Perfectionists take note: even titans of catalysis make embarrassing mistakes with their chemistry. Just look at this little oopsie that was caught by an astute reader in the Midwest.

It seems like there might be a bit of confusion hanging over the chemists developing methods for anti-Markovnikov hydroamination of alkenes at the Center for Enabling New Technologies Through Catalysis (CENTC):


Ummm….yeah….that’s not the difference between Markovnikov and anti-Markovnikov addition.

Those of you who’ve taken sophomore organic chemistry will remember that Markovnikov’s rule states that protic functional groups (e.g., H-NR’R') will typically add to double bonds such that the hydrogen adds to the less substituted carbon (and the other group, e.g., -NR’R', adds to the more substituted carbon.) What Hartwig and coworkers have drawn as the Markovnikov product is still anti-Markovnikov. The products they’ve drawn might charitably be called conformational isomers, but they’ve failed to note any 3-D structure.

Of course, the true Markovnikov product would place the amine on the same carbon as the R group.