Our Faculty Position Ad: Behind the Scenes

ed_academic_bigOur department is running its first tenure-track faculty search since I was hired last year, so it is my first chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of the process from the other side. Having experienced the joy and frustration of dealing with the academic job market from the side of an applicant, I figured our search is a good opportunity to pull back the curtain on what would otherwise be an opaque process. At the same time, such a post could be used to broadcast our position to as wide an audience as possible. That’s a win–win, baby.

You may have seen our official announcement, which ran in the August 18th edition of C&EN:

Saint Louis University, a Catholic Jesuit institution dedicated to student learning, research, health care, and service seeks applicants for a Tenure-Track Assistant Professor in Chemistry starting Fall 2015. A Ph.D. is required and post-doctoral experience is preferred. Successful candidates will develop an independent research program and be committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry. Successful applicants will have an expertise in bioorganic chemistry, chemical biology or organic chemistry. The Department offers BA/BS degrees in chemistry and biochemistry and MS and PhD degrees in chemistry. Review of applications begins October 15th and will continue until the position is filled. All applications must be made online at https://jobs.slu.edu; also send CV, research plans, teaching philosophy, transcripts, and 3 reference letters to: chemsearch@slu.edu. Saint Louis University is an affirmative action, equal opportunity employer, and encourages nominations and applications of women and underrepresented minorities.

These adverts have always struck me as stuffy, vague, and minimally informative, and ours is no exception. There are actually a couple of reasons for the brevity and stuffiness. First, magazines like C&EN charge handsomely per line—over $1 per character, with a $650 minimum—so you generally want these ads to be concise. Second, all of these announcements have to get cleared by the administration, and HR demands that certain information be included in any job posting. After placement of that information, there is little space for elaboration—just the basic facts.

So, allow me to read between the lines by providing some context and background about our posting. Our department began offering a biochemistry degree a few years ago, and it has become very popular. So popular that it is putting strain on the teaching assignments for our department. We need more professors able to teach biochemistry, and just as importantly, able to provide research opportunities for these majors. Bolstering our biological side will also allow us to offer more graduate courses in this area, which now is essentially impossible due to the scheduling demands of the undergraduate curriculum.

At the same time, the departure of one professor and the promotion of another into an administrative position have created a strain on the organic faculty. As far as organic goes, we offer a sophomore sequence for majors (with ~35 students), a sophomore sequence for non-majors (with ~250 students), a single-semester course for nursing students, an advanced course on organic spectroscopy, and usually two graduate organic courses each year (e.g., synthesis, physical organic, and medicinal). As a result, we are hoping that we can find a candidate who can not only teach biochemistry, but who also has the flexibility to teach organic.

So, that is what we mean when we say “committed to excellence in undergraduate and graduate teaching in the areas of both organic chemistry and biochemistry”. You have probably heard that many candidates get rejected from academic searches not because they lack talent, but because they do not fit the department’s current needs. We are undoubtedly going to be doling out some of those rejections, because we mean it when we say we want to hire someone with expertise in both biochemistry and organic chemistry. We are not simply throwing out these terms to try to cast as wide a net as possible. If you are strongly physical-organic (with no focus on a biological problem), it’s probably not going to work out. But if bioorganic chemistry is your bag, please apply! And the rest of you should be pals and tell your bioorganic/chembio friends about our listing.

The terseness of these job advertisements also prevents our providing more information about the school and our department. The advertisement says that we are a Catholic, Jesuit institution, and I imagine this could lead many applicants to develop preconceptions about the way things work at SLU. Having been here a year, I’d say that the Jesuit influence has more of an effect on the model the college uses for education (e.g., a broad core program weighed towards courses in philosophy and theology) rather than any particular influence on our department. When I was applying, I was concerned that my proposed research on origin-of-life chemistry would disqualify me due to conflict with Catholic beliefs. Obviously, it did not—I was hired—and I have encountered absolutely zero resistance with regard to this issue.

The school is governed by a board of trustees with a layperson majority. In fact, the school itself has argued (in public court records) that it is not a religious institution. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed, stating “The university is not a religious institution simply because it is affiliated with the Jesuits or the Roman Catholic Church. A university’s motivation or aspiration to follow certain teachings does not indicate that it is ‘controlled by a religious creed’ such that religion dictates the corporate management of the university.” While the university takes great pride in its Catholic heritage and affiliation, it does not dominate the politics of the school or our department.

As far as our department goes, it reminds me of the chemistry department at NYU when I was an undergraduate. When I was at NYU, the graduate program was small-to-medium-sized and undergrads were given a lot of leeway in research. At SLU, we have 13 research faculty and we matriculate about 10 new graduate students each year. The most active labs have about 3-6 graduate students each—a very manageable size. This is also an exciting time for the department. We are converting the building adjacent to ours into laboratories, and we will expand into that space in March. Furthermore, the school just inaugurated a new president and we are set to have a major capital campaign to mark our bicentennial in 2018.

As far as people go, the faculty here gets along better than at any other department I’ve seen. I believe that most of the votes we’ve had in faculty meeting during my time here have been unanimous decisions. The graduate students get along with each other, and there is a lot of interaction among groups. This completely contradicts my experience in graduate school, where research groups were massive, faculty were absent for long stretches of time, professors talked incredible smack about each other behind their backs, and each lab was essentially its own island. While such a work environment is tolerable as a graduate student for a limited amount of time, I think my general preference is for something a little less caustic. Of course, the tradeoff is that we lack the resources of a powerhouse department. We have one NMR instrument, not nine. We have two administrative assistants for the department, whereas my graduate advisor had four just for himself.

But I like the balance of SLU. Balance in terms of size—we have a Ph.D. program, but not one so big that you lose touch of students or the lab. Balance in terms of effort—both research and teaching are valued. Balance in terms of students—both undergraduate and graduate students make meaningful contributions to research. Balance in terms of location—St. Louis is a medium-sized Metro area with plenty of culture, but not a megalopolis with an overwhelming cost of living.

And, that’s the whole story, more or less. It is not something any applicant would be expected to glean from our advert alone, but that’s how the system works. I am sure there are similar stories for many other departments who are looking to fill a specific need. While the information may trickle out in the form of personal communication and gossip, social media and the Internet allow free publication of the complete story. And, as longtime readers will know, that is one of the big reasons I love blogs: because they democratize information, making it accessible to everyone instead of people in the Old Boys’ Club who are in the know.

If you think you’d be a good fit for our department, please apply! If you think your labmate would be a good fit, tell her about our opening! And if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.



Predictions for the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

ChemBark MedallionWow, is the announcement really in five hours? Then I guess it is time to post my predictions and official list of odds against winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Incidentally, this is what has become of my life—a never-ending series of nearly missed deadlines. If I get tenure, you can expect my yearly odds to get posted sometime in November, which will also ensure my picks are more accurate.

As is the custom, the candidates are sorted below by discovery/invention rather than by scientist. The treatment of candidate scientists can get complicated. Some are listed more than once. In cases where someone not listed could easily share in the prize for the associated discovery, a “+” is listed. In cases where one of the scientists listed could easily not share in that prize, a “–” is listed.  The odds are reported in “odds against” format. Remember, this list attempts to address who will win the prize this year, not who should win the prize.

Odds Against Winning the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Single-Molecule Spectroscopy & Application of Lasers, Moerner/Orrit/Zare/–, 7-1
Bioinorganic Chemistry, Gray/Lippard/Holm/–, 9-1
Nuclear Hormone Signaling, Chambon/Evans/O’Malley/–, 14-1
Lithium-Ion Batteries, Goodenough, 15-1
The Field (everything not listed), 16-1
Techniques in DNA Synthesis, Caruthers/Hood/+, 19-1
Electrochemistry/Electron Transfer, Bard/Hush/Gray/–, 24-1
Protein Folding, Hartl/Horwich/+, 24-1
Polymer Science, Matyjaszewski/Rizzardo/+/– 24-1
Unfolded Protein Response, Mori/Walter, 29-1
Organic Electronics, Tang/+, 34-1
Instrumentation/Techniques in Genomics, Venter/+, 49-1
Molecular Studies of Gene Recognition, Ptashne, 49-1
Transmission Electron Aberration-Corrected Microscopy, Haider/Rose/Urban, 74-1
Chemically-Amplified Photoresists, Frechet/Willson, 74-1
Development of the Birth Control Pill, Djerassi, 74-1
Drug Delivery/Tissue Engineering, Langer/+, 99-1
Mechanistic Enzymology, Walsh/Stubbe/+/–, 99-1
Solar Cells, Grätzel/+, 99-1
Nanotechnology, Lieber/Whitesides/Alivisatos/Mirkin/Seeman/+/–, 99-1
Applications of NMR Spectroscopy, Waugh/Pines/Roberts/McConnell/+/–, 99-1
Synthetic Biology, Elowitz/Leibler/Collins/+/–, 99-1
Protein Engineering, Arnold/+/–, 149-1
Development of Chemical Biology, Schultz/Schreiber/+, 149-1
Click Chemistry, Sharpless/+, 149-1
Quantum Dots, Brus/+, 149-1
Self-Assembly, Whitesides/Nuzzo/Stang/–, 149-1
Pigments of Life, Battersby/+, 149-1
DNA Methylation, Cedar/Razin/+, 149-1
Small Regulatory RNA, Ambros/Baulcombe/Ruvkun, 149-1
Eukaryotic RNA Polymerases, Roeder, 149-1
Contributions to Theoretical Physical Chemistry, Rice/+, 149-1
Metal-Organic Frameworks, Yaghi/Ferey/Kitagawa/+/–, 149-1
Bio- & Organo-catalysis, List/Lerner/Barbas/+/–, 149-1
Alternative Nucleic Acid Motifs, Rich/+, 149-1
Hydrogen Maser, Kleppner/+, 149-1
Assorted Protein Work, Levitzki/Hunter/+, 149-1
Novel Cancer Therapeutics, Ullrich/+, 149-1
Combinatorial Chemistry/DOS, Schreiber/+, 199-1
Leptin, Coleman/Friedman/Leong, 199-1
Zeolites, Flanigan/+, 199-1
Fluorocarbons, DuPont/Curran/–, 199-1
Dendrimers, Frechet/Tomalia/+, 199-1
Organic Synthesis, Evans/Danishefsky/Nicolaou/Ley/Trost/Stork/Wender/Kishi/+/–, 249-1
Mechanical Bonds and Applications, Sauvage/Stoddart/+, 299-1
Contributions to Bioorganic Chemistry, Breslow/Eschenmoser/+, 299-1
DNA Electrochemistry, Barton, 299-1
Understanding of Organic Stereochemistry, Mislow, 399-1
Molecular Machines, Stoddart/Tour/+/–, 499-1
Molecular Recognition, Dervan/+, 999-1
Astrochemistry, Oka, 999-1

Notes

1. This rundown is meant to approximate fair odds (without a built-in vig). In case you don’t know how this way of reporting odds works, the listed numbers (“m-n”) mean the associated entry has an expected probabilty to win of n/(m+n). Thus, 4-1 odds equates to a 20% expectation of winning. If your pick wins at 4-1 and you’ve bet $1, you get paid $5 ($4 + your $1 bet back) minus the house’s vig.

2. I’m not taking any wagers.

3. The (qualitative) criteria that went into assigning these odds were discussed in a previous post. Results from old predictions were also discussed in a previous post.

4. Let me know if anyone on this list is dead. (It’s important, because awards are not made posthumously.)

5. Last year’s prize went to Karplus, Levitt, and Warshel for their computational work in modeling. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the prize was that it is the closest the Nobel Committee has come to giving a lifetime achievement award (to Karplus) in a long time. Usually, the committee recognizes the work around a single discovery or development, so scientists with fantastic, broad bodies of work often fail to be recognized vis-à-vis scientists with a single, major, fundamental discovery. It is almost as if discoveries win the prize rather than scientists. But after last year, I think there is much more hope for scientists like Whitesides, Gray, Langer, Walsh, and others with fantastic total bodies of work.

6. I still think it’s too early for any nanotechnology prize to an academic. What is the crowning achievement of this field? I also still think it is too early for a solar energy prize (e.g., for DSSCs). The winners of this prize will be the scientists who solve the world’s consumable energy problem, or at least make a solid dent in it.

7. Pre-Nobels awarded in the last year. Kazutoshi Mori and Peter Walter won the 2014 Lasker Award in Basic Research for their work on the unfolded protein response. This must be treated as a serious contender for the Nobel in Chemistry. Chi-Huey Wong won the 2014 Wolf Prize in chemistry for his work in carbohydrate chemistry, but the lack of a single standout discovery probably hurts his chances for a Nobel. There was no Wolf Prize in Physics awarded this year, and the 2015 Priestley Medalist is Jackie Barton. I’ve added Barton to the list.

8. The last five prizes have gone theoretical/computational, biological (GPCRs), physical/materials (quasicrystals), organic (organopalladium chemistry), and biological (ribosome). It has still been a long time since something distinctly inorganic won, unless you are going to count organopalladium (2010) or Grubbs/Schrock (2005). Perhaps inorganic is due?

9. A quick look at the 2014 Nobel Committee reveals somewhat of a physical slant, in my opinion. I think that could possibly bode well for the laser people.

10. And it’s the single-molecule spectroscopy / laser people who I’m officially picking. I think this is an inevitable prize, so why the heck shouldn’t I keep picking it until it wins? On the flip side, last year’s prize was computational/physical, so maybe the Committee would try to mix it up?



La Cucaracha

La cucaracha, la cucaracha,
Ya no puede caminar…

dead_cockroach

I stumbled upon this lovely scene in the men’s room by my lab last night.

At some point in every single laboratory I’ve ever worked, I’ve encountered a dead cockroach lying flat on its back. Without exception, my first thought is always:

What horribly toxic substance has this poor creature encountered to cause her
to die alone and out in the open like this?

After a few seconds of thoughtful reflection, I usually convince myself the cockroach died of natural causes and we are all safe. In other news, I wish I could say that I’ve never seen a labmate do this:

Fortunately, I haven’t had the excitement of seeing a live one racing around the floor in a long time.



The Most Important Lesson from Sheri Sangji’s Death

Chemical Ed with GogglesThis post on The Safety Zone indicates that the community is already forgetting many of the details and lessons of Sheri Sangji’s tragic death. That is a shame, but not a surprise considering the high turnover in academic labs. If I had to pick the most important thing to remember from the tragedy, it is:

When you are covered in hazardous material or flames,
GET IN THE SAFETY SHOWER

It does not matter if the material is pyrophoric. Just get in. Take off your clothes. Don’t rub your skin; simply let the material rinse away. Do not worry about flooding the lab—your department is going to have way bigger problems if you are seriously injured than if you flood the building. Just look at what happened to UCLA.

If you see a labmate covered in flames or hazardous material, physically help him (i.e., drag him) to a safety shower. Chances are he is panicking and not thinking clearly. Don’t think that you can extinguish the flames with a blanket or lab coat. Don’t waste time worrying about what the substance is. Just get the victim in the damn shower and pull the chain, then call for an ambulance. Help him remove his clothes. Keep him in the shower for 15 minutes. Be a good friend and find some spare clothes or a blanket so he can shield his bits and pieces from public view.

For all the time we spend talking about whether a lab coat would have saved Sangji’s life, I think using the safety shower would have made a much bigger difference.



UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.

 

For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.



How to Use an iPad for Orgo Lectures…and Embarrass Yourself

I am not a fan of chalkboards. Chalk is messy and always ends up somewhere on my clothes by the end of class. I also regularly encounter chalkboards that don’t erase well and become unreadable as more and more dust gets smeared across the slate. When I was in grad school, Andy Myers solved this problem by having his teaching assistants clean the board with water and squeegees *during* class. While I am not afforded the benefit of a squeegee team at SLU, I suppose we could hire some adjuncts.

Though I am not a fan of chalkboards, I am a big proponent of drawing structures and working problems during class. In the fall, there were a couple of times I resorted to using transparency film and colored pens. It worked, but it was clunky. In an effort to step up my game, over winter break, I went on eBay and shelled out some cash so that I could ditch the transparencies and use my iPad instead. My tool kit now includes:

1 iPad
1 tablet stylus
1 Apple lightning-to-VGA adapter
1 VGA switch box
2 VGA cables, 6′ long
1 handsome bag for transporting everything in style

ipad_teaching_kit

Prior to class, it usually takes me three or four minutes to turn on the projector, load my PowerPoint slide deck on the room computer, and plug my iPad into the projection system. This involves connecting the iPad to the projector through the lightning-to-VGA adapter and a VGA cable. If the room only has one input servicing the projector, you’ll need to use the VGA switch and a second VGA cable so you can toggle between your slides and the tablet.

Writing with the device is pretty simple. I use the app called Notability, which costs $4.99 and is worth every penny. Before class, I’ll upload PDF files of any quizzes or exams I want to review that day onto Google Drive, then download them into Notability on the tablet. Once you’ve done this, you can write/draw on top of the document and screencast everything through the projector. Here’s a screenshot of a typical session:

notability_example

I love the number of colors to choose from and the fact that you can save the marked PDF and post it for the benefit of the class. I’m still getting the hang of drawing structures as crisply as I would like, and I think part of the problem is the thickness of my stylus. I’m also considering buying a tablet with a wider screen, because things can get kind of cramped on the iPad.

While the overall system was recognized as an improvement by the students in their course evaluations, I should mention one little slip up I had in class. On average, I used the iPad for 5–10 minutes per lecture, and the vast majority of that time, I wasn’t connected to the Internet. On March 7th (the first Friday of Lent), I forgot to load the quiz/exam onto my iPad ahead of time. But the fix was simple: I could just connect to the Internet, download the file off the cloud, and be good to go.

So, that’s exactly what I did. What I forgot to do was to shut off the wireless connection after downloading the document. As I was going over the solution to a problem, the familiar chime of a Facebook message erupted from my iPad along with the following notification:

tarapushalert

The full message (which is truncated in the push alert) was:

tarachadconvo

Funny stuff. One of the many reasons I love my wife is her fantastic sense of humor. But at the time, all I remember seeing was “no meat” as I desperately tried to make the notification go away. The class was laughing pretty hard, but I wasn’t sure if it was at the content of the message or just the fact that a message had unexpectedly interrupted class. My worst fears were confirmed later in the day, when I had Tara re-send the message so I could see exactly how much of it showed up on the screen. I was hoping the worst of it was truncated away. Unfortunately, the worst of it was not.

I was pretty mortified, but I got over it. My main sources of solace were that (i) the students were a pretty cool group, (ii) the statement was a joke, and (iii) it could’ve been much worse considering other subjects Tara and I have discussed by text message.

At least my students were entertained by the exchange. I was able to find the Twitter accounts of a few of them by searching for my name, and sure enough, the incident made their feeds:

twitter_conversation_orgo_censored

Anyway, the take-home message is to put your iPad in “airplane mode” or turn off push alerts (and texts) to avoid disruptions and potential embarrassment during class. Or you can just marry a prude.

Some lessons are learned the hard way.