Archive for the ‘Lab Management’ Category

Interesting Vendor Mail

Friday, August 24th, 2012

It seems that VWR and I have very different opinions as to what constitutes “IMPORTANT Information”:



A dinosaur squishy toy attached to a 15%-off coupon for a new balance only musters an 8.2 out of 10 on my scale of importance, but thanks for writing.

WWWTP? – Nomenclature Edition

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

There is nothing like a trip to my mailbox to bring a nice little blogging hiatus to a crashing halt. While attacking my pile of C&ENs, I caught this ad for TOSOH Organic Chemical Company on page 43 of the 11 June 2012 edition:

I guess the hair net and painter’s mask ensure that—unlike my Orange Chicken at Panda Express—these products arrive free of human hair. Matters of lab attire aside, what actually piqued my interest in the ad were the compounds for sale:

Sigh. That is not how I was taught to name organic compounds. My orgo professor—on the recommendation of IUPAC—told us to start by numbering the longest chain of carbons. Thus, 1-bromo-2-ethylbutane is properly named 3-(bromomethyl)pentane, and 1-bromo-2-ethylhexane should be 3-(bromomethyl)heptane.

Avid readers of ChemBark know that I love trick questions, and structures like the ones above make for great nomenclature practice. Many students will instinctively assume the carbon chain extending from left to right is the longest. When I taught orgo, I had to purchase red pens by the dozen.

Chemical-Free Treason

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Matt at ScienceGeist is hosting a blog carnival this week on “Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals.” The idea is to generate posts about chemicals that have reputations for being toxic, but that also have important applications and non-toxic manifestations (e.g., in low concentrations). All of your favorite chembloggers have posts up, including Excimer, who has returned from a long blog hiatus.

I should have my contribution up by Friday. What I love about this carnival is that the posts will live for eternity, standing ready to drop some knowledge on any curious soul who runs a Google search for one of these molecules.

In other news, I have been busy going around the department in preparation for a visit next week from a very special guest. On my recent travels from office to office, I came upon a number of these signs in the hallway outside of a research lab:


NO labcoats, gloves, tlc plates, NMR samples or other chemical contaminants


The extra exclamation mark lets you know that they mean business. I’ll refrain from identifying the lab to protect my colleagues, but the scene definitely made me cringe. I understand it when marketers raise the “chemical-free” dagger, but a lab of chemists? Et tu, Brute?

In a subsequent discussion on the matter, a member of a different lab pointed out that my concern was probably a trifle, because this building was a laboratory not generally accessed by the public. Under these conditions, the sign is widely understood to succinctly communicate that contaminated items should not be brought into the office space.

While I think such an argument is tenable, it is preferable (and relatively easy) to avoid the controversy completely. If we—chemists—can’t be bothered to find a suitable alternative to “chemical-free”, then why should we expect the same from laymen? It seems like a sign that says “No lab equipment or samples in this room” would get the job done with only a slightly less economical use of words.

And finally, a kind chemical engineer sent me a link to the following paper, in which a freshly-minted Harvard professor railed against “chemical free” in 1995:

Chemistry and the chemical industry often are misunderstood by the general public. It is not uncommon for products to be advertised as “chemical free” or for a product to be labeled dangerous because it contains chemicals. As chemists, we know that these claims are incorrect. Unfortunately, many people in today’s society do not have the chemical training necessary to determine whether or not such claims are valid.

I guess J. Chem. Ed. was where bloggers blogged before there were blogs.

Some Thoughts on Ads

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Part of the fun of having a blog is monitoring its traffic, and more traffic equals more fun. I say this because, eventually, someone is going to read this blog and finally create a respectable chemistry journal where all of the correspondence—including letters to the editor, original submissions, referee reports, responses to referees, editorial decisions, and reader comments—is signed and available online. That post was from 2007. What is the delay, people? Let’s make this happen.

Long ago, I had the fanciful idea of running an ad for ChemBark in C&EN. What better way could there be to reach out to so many chemists? Unfortunately, I quickly learned that I couldn’t even afford a single line in those mind-numbing walls of text at the end of the magazine. If you want an ad in the middle of the magazine, the minimum you’ll have to shell out is $3,560 according to this notice (16 April 2012, p. 54).

And what kind of magic was I expecting from an ad in C&EN, anyway? Oh yes…all 150,000+ readers would be so intrigued by a URL under a head shot of Ed the Dog that they would race to their computers and hit the site. Once they had the chance to read my biting criticism of Swiss department stores and admire my poor skills at Photoshop, they’d fall in love and become addicted to blogs, for sure!

Ummm, no. And it is through such a lens that I have wondered what other advertisers have hoped to achieve with expensive print ads—especially those who list random compounds they have available. I think my bewilderment hit an all-time high last month when this ad from Quanta BioDesign was published in back-to-back issues:

“Non-Quenching Fluorescein!” certainly grabbed my attention, and the first thing I felt compelled to do was look at the structure to see what was different about this fluorescein. That is when I noticed something was terribly wrong. At least, I think.

That’s not fluorescein, right? It has a methylene group where an oxygen should be. Wait, is that why this molecule is special? Wait, that shouldn’t even exist…it would tautomerize (such that one of the methylene hydrogens would move to the carbonyl group to make the ring system aromatic).

I was confused, so I went to the Web site and searched for Product #10885. It turns out, there is no product #10885.

So, let me get this straight…this company paid $6,150 (x at least 2 weeks) to run an ad with a wacky structure for a product that doesn’t exist?! I wish I had that kind of money to throw away. I’d save up and get Ed on the back cover.

I have found so many errors in ads run in C&EN that I could probably make a decent living proofreading them on commission. And I sometimes wonder how much money a chemistry blog could make if it wanted to get serious about selling ads. C&EN has a weekly circulation of ~164k and lists a rate of $6,150 for the ad above. Could a blogger like Derek Lowe, who reports traffic of 15-20k pageviews per day, make $615 from running that ad? Seems reasonable to me, and I’d just as well see people throw money at Derek.

Someone should run the experiment, but it won’t be happening here anytime soon. I purposely make sure I’m losing money on this site in an attempt to show I’m not in this for financial gain. That said, just to be on the safe side, I have still reported the blog to my employer as a potential conflict of interest. My job provides me with access to nice things like journals, which are useful to the blog and would cost a pretty penny if I were a professional journalist working from home. I think you can mount a reasonable argument that a revenue-free ChemBark meshes well with the educational mission of a non-profit research university.

Incidentally, the “ads” that you see running on ChemBark are fake. Several weeks ago, I added space for a 150 x 150 pixel image to the left sidebar and a 500 x 80 pixel image to the footer of the page. The ads that you have seen in these positions—for instance, the one linking to the assistant editor position listed at Nature Chemistry—have all been designed by me, for fun. They were neither solicited nor purchased, and I will continue to use these ads to link to things I like. Click them and warm yourself with the knowledge that no one is making a penny.

Superlabs and the Expendability of Grad Students

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Commenter Eugene has been leaving comments on ChemBark since before it was ChemBark. Last month, he posted some interesting thoughts in the thread about professors who pose for publicity shots doing lab work. I have copied his comment here in its entirety:

Once your group gets to a certain size, you do not really have to worry about the cost of failure anymore. The successes more than make up for it. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just the way it is and not enough chemistry professors who want to be big shots but are at middling chemical departments realize it.

What I mean is someone like Robert Langer takes credit for the successful grad students and the succesful companies, and there are just so many of them, that the ones who fail are forgotten about in light of the success. The better you can manage everything, the bigger your empire will be. Plus it helps to be in a university that attracts students who are very motivated.

If you’re in charge of a small group, then the failure of a graduate student to get any papers will be magnified since you don’t have too many offsetting grad students that are publication machines. In fact, you might have none. I’ve seen a few profs with medium-sized groups that were taking off, but were blinded by their own hubris, forgot that they were not in a top ten school, and decided to ‘fire’ two or three students or postdocs who weren’t performing well enough (not getting a Jackass or Andjewandte or not coming in on the weekend). Not only does this cause potential students in a non top ten school avoid you (since they care more about lifestyle and not monastic scientific pursuit), but it magnifies the failures of your remaining students (should they happen) as your own failures. Automatically, you’re now an average scientist for the rest of your career and not Robert Langer. Not that there is anything wrong with that, as you can do very good science and pay more attention to individual students, but that’s not what some of the more ambitious types wanted before they cannibilized their group. The lesson is get big as fast as possible with as many driven types as possible and then just sit back and manage your success. You have to get rid of someone who creates a bad group dynamic or is lazy or just plain stupid of course, but once it starts being every second person who works for you, then you’re not doing it right (unless you’re in a really crappy department). Once you’re going, you can move to better and better departments and become bigger and bigger and have to worry about failure even less.

The same effect used to work in pharma. If you’re the CEO of a start-up, when your drug fails, your failure is huge. You’re out of business. If you’re the CEO of a big pharma company and a few candidates fail Phase II, it’s no biggie because you’re got good phase III data on that one cholesterol lowering candidate that will pay the cost of failure for the others.

That’s some biting analysis, filled with all of the cynicism and bitterness one expects of a recent product of graduate school in chemistry. Of course, none of the analysis had to do with the topic of that post—pictures of professors working in labs—so just to make sure Eugene’s thoughts didn’t get lost in the shuffle of the other thread, I wanted to unpack them here.

While it’s more than a bit cynical, the point that Eugene makes about large groups’ affording their PIs protection from a degree of failure is absolutely correct. PIs are judged by the magnitude and number of their accomplishments, not by unspectacular failures. In all of the farkakte metrics used to judge research productivity (e.g., paper count, h-index, total citations), I have never seen someone divide the metrics of accomplishment by the number of graduate students and postdocs required to achieve them. The situation is not unique to chemistry. Reggie Jackson is remembered as one of baseball’s greatest hitters, despite the fact that he holds the dubious honor of being the MLB’s all-time leader in career strikeouts. But people don’t remember the 2,597 strikeouts; they remember the handful of home runs he hit in the clutch.

Getting back to chemistry, let me start by stating that I think it’s great when professors establish themselves to the point that they have the flexibility to fail. It is a deserved product of success, and everyone should be so fortunate in their jobs. Getting to this point probably also helps take the heat off of students in the lab. And when students “fail” (or flounder or whatever), I don’t think you can blame the PI solely (or even primarily). A lot of factors influence these outcomes, ranging from things that can be controlled (intelligence, lab skills, motivation, work ethic, design of experiments) to those that can’t (bad luck, family issues, medical issues).

What worries me about “superlabs” is that by their design, one or more students is probably destined to be ignored not because of his or her personal failings in lab, but because the number of available professor-hours in a year is limited. Eugene is making the point that professors in superlabs need only pay attention to a fraction of their students because their accomplishments will be enough to support the machinery of the superlab and ensure its continued existence. In this model, a professor actively makes a decision to ignore some students. That idea is extraordinarily cynical, but I am not at all sure it can be ruled out.

My view is that one needn’t adopt as cynical a view to show what is effectively the same outcome. That is, I will assume that professors want to pay attention to all of their students, but sometimes, they just can’t. I assume that professors sleep, eat, commute, attend to personal hygiene, spend time with their families, watch television, and do other “normal” stuff we expect of human beings. These activities require time, and together, probably account for more than half of the day. Even if you are going to spend the entire balance of time performing “work”, there is a lot of work to get done. You’ve got to teach, prepare for class, hold office hours, write grants, write reports, serve on committees, go to departmental meetings, meet with speakers, referee papers, keep up with the literature, travel to conferences, give talks, and write letters of recommendation. I am sure I have missed some things, but that is already a lot of stuff and it doesn’t even begin to address advising students—or ancillary work such as consulting or running start-ups. It is an absolute miracle that people can do all of these things and run groups of 10+ students and postdocs, let alone 30+ or 40+. In these cases, it’s almost inevitable that some students will fall by the wayside.

In an era where we have a surplus of freshly minted chemists and a dearth of jobs, I think our field should consider whether it wants to encourage the model of superlabs run by single professors. I personally like the idea of incorporating senior investigators into these research groups to serve as “minibosses” that can provide hands-on expertise and advising. In defense of Langer’s superlab, which might be the biggest in all of chemistry, it is my understanding that he does employ a group of senior scientists as lieutenants to oversee his various subgroups. But, by and large, I don’t think this idea is very common in chemistry. I think a lot of people feel the money for one senior scientist is better spent on multiple students and postdocs, and the delegation of authority is something many professors loathe to accept. While every lab is different, as time goes on, professors’ increasingly jammed schedules are bound to take a toll on advising. Graduate schools must watch out for their students, because many overextended professors will not.

A Wheelchair for Chemists?

Friday, March 23rd, 2012

A video of a new wheelchair has been making the rounds this week, and it’s pretty cool. The device allows you to either sit or stand while moving:



The first thing that crossed my mind on seeing this video is how useful such a device would be for someone disabled who wanted to work in a lab. Yes, there are adaptations you can make to laboratories such that someone in a (seated) wheelchair can work, but I have never actually seen a facility with them. And what is to be done about shared instrumentation? Do the able-bodied people in the lab have to work on lower benches, or does the student in the wheelchair need to find a way to elevate himself?

It doesn’t require a stretch of the imagination to see how a wheelchair-bound student could be very successful in computational research without too much difficulty, but it seems like a disabled student who aspires to conduct “wet” chemistry would have a much more difficult time. The experimental work typical of graduate school is inherently solitary, and even with modifications like reduced-height hoods, a wheelchair-bound student is still going to run into all sorts of problems that will hinder independence. For instance, how do you insert samples into an NMR spectrometer? How do you reach the top shelf in the stockroom? How do you swap out an expired nitrogen cylinder? How can you carry things from building to building?

If you are an aspiring basketball player or construction worker, a spinal-cord injury means giving up your dreams. The cold, hard facts dictate that you will not be able to contribute to these endeavors in a significant way. But as far as chemistry goes, being in a wheelchair doesn’t fatally disqualify someone from being a professor or industrial group leader. You can still think, write, talk, and teach just as well in a chair as you can standing. What’s tough is that in order to earn your way into such a position, you are going to have to tackle two phases of solitary, physically-demanding experimental work as a graduate student and postdoc.

In all my years in academia, never have I encountered a single wheelchair-bound undergraduate chemistry major, graduate student in chemistry (experimental or computational), postdoc, or professor under the age of 80. I have heard of one chemist (Todd Blumenkopf of Pfizer) who went through graduate school and a postdoc in wet labs (Berkeley, then Irvine). That isn’t to say there aren’t other examples, but they seem to be very, very rare.

It seems like anyone who wants to be a group leader in an experimental field is going to have to find a way to perform lab work. Maybe assistive devices like the TekRMD will open the door for a class of people who would otherwise be reluctant to attempt to climb the ivory tower or industrial ladder.