Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

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?

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.