I’ll get around to procrastinating later
Jan26

I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Do you tend to put things off until the last minute? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes this urge to procrastinate makes us behave in ways that are detrimental to our future well being, yet this happens all the time. In science, we find ourselves waiting until the last minute studying for an exam, preparing a presentation to our peers or writing a grant proposal. In a broader scope, we fail to save early and/or often enough for retirement. We delay changing less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or deliberately abandoned by February. Why do we make decisions that may endanger our future well-being? A recent article in Nautilus by Alisa Opar entitled “Why We Procrastinate” has a compelling explanation—we sometimes fail to identify with that future version of ourselves. It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us. In other words, the subconscious rationale is something like: “Why should I exert myself and do it now? Someone else will take care of it later.” That “someone else” being an abstract, future self. I think that goes both ways: I know I tend to look at foolish acts or decisions I’ve made in the past with the observation: “Who was that person?” As an added bonus, this rationale absolves me from some of the blame for a past act, since now I’m clearly a better, more evolved version of my past self. Clearly. A possible consequence of this lack of identification with our future self is to delay or even fail to act in the present in ways that will benefit our future selves. The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores. This view of the future self as “other” originated in the realm of philosophy, particularly in the writings of Derek Parfit. In recent years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have produced a body of data that appears to support it. Some fMRI studies by Hal Hershfield at NYU’s Stern School of Business looked at the differences in brain activity when someone considers their present and their future selves: They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more...

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#ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor
Apr18

#ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor

Chemistry has made many appearances in films—sometimes depicted accurately, more often not so much. This week, there’s a blog carnival devoted to chemistry’s role in movies. The carnival is being curated by @SeeArrOh over at Just Like Cooking, and can be followed at #ChemMovieCarnival. I’m going to go way back to my youth for my offering, as this movie is partly to thank/blame for my interest in science. It’s Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor, from 1961. Here’s a promo:   Now, I didn’t see this when it was first released—at least, not that I remember. Back then, my concerns were limited to crying for food, producing its various end products, then crying some more. My first memory of seeing the film was on TV, on The Wonderful World of Disney or one of its incarnations, on a Sunday evening in the late Sixties. Let’s say I was seven or eight. The films stars Fred MacMurray as our protagonist, Ned Brainard, a professor at fictional Medfield College, a campus which was the setting of several other films from Disney Studios. In addition to his teaching duties, Prof. Brainard is enthusiastically engaged in a little garage chemistry. He becomes far too engrossed in his work one evening  and forgets (absent-minded, remember?) his other engagement and his scheduled wedding. There’s a mildly destructive but non-injurious explosion, which serendipitously creates the real star of the film, a bouncy, levitating polymer soon to be known as flubber. This material has 1001 uses! Well, it probably does, but we only get to see a few. Like make super bouncy balls! Iron it onto sneakers so you can fix a basketball game! Make a car fly! Have a rival arrested on suspicion of a DUI! Secure a potentially lucrative Defense contract! Flubber is even used to thwart the villain, Alonzo Hawk (Who shows up as the baddie in several Disney films, and is portrayed by Keenan Wynn. Alonzo Hawk holds the distinction of being Wynn’s second-most-awesomely-named character, after—naturally—Colonel “Bat” Guano.) I haven’t seen, and don’t intend to ever see, the colorized version of  The Absent-Minded Professor or the retitled remake with Robin Williams, because I am a pain in the a purist. Interestingly, the main inspiration for MacMurray’s portrayal of Ned Brainard was Hubert Alyea, professor emeritus at Princeton. Dr. Alyea, who died in 1996, was renowned for his demonstrations of chemistry principles. The sometimes explosive nature of these demonstrations earned Professor Alyea the nickname, “Dr. Boom.” As an added video bonus, here’s a version of Professor Alyea’s popular lecture on the nature of scientific discovery, entitled “Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind,” given in 1985:   Finally, and sadly, I have yet...

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ACS Webinar: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection
Apr03

ACS Webinar: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A quick head’s up: tomorrow (and soon to be today), April 4, 2013, from 2:00-3:00 PM EDT, there will be an ACS Webinar regarding what might be considered a nontraditional chemistry career—working as a chemist for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This webinar is entitled “From Lab Hoods to Front Lines: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.” Registration is free, and is available here. CBP chemists and scientists “have been critical in classification and valuation of imported goods, enforcing trade laws, performing forensic science, and providing expertise in technical security programs.” The webinar features Chris Mocella, a tenured chemist with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Laboratories, and Patricia Simpson, Director of Academic Advising and Career Services for students in Chemistry and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Among the topics included in the discussion will be “the history and role of chemists at CBP, including both traditional “wet chemistry” work at lab hoods to front-line field work in support of CBP’s mission.” Sorry for the short notice. If you can’t catch it in real time, remember that past ACS Webinars are archived and can be watched at your leisure. (Without the interactive capacity, of course. But you can always talk back to the replay. Like I do.)...

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Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers
Mar31

Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers

The lack of women pursuing science careers has been a perennial hot topic. Unfortunately, scant progress has been observed in spite of a vast amount of effort on many fronts to address this inequality. Earlier this month, a special issue of Nature was devoted to the subject. Coincidentally, an attempt to unearth possible causes of this disparity was a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science, entitled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” by Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny, from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan. Although I’m likely to give this study short shrift by not going into enough detail, let’s focus on the source material. Here’s the full abstract of the original paper: The pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers, in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM fields, compared with males. The current study tested whether individuals with high math and high verbal ability in 12th grade were more or less likely to choose STEM occupations than those with high math and moderate verbal ability. The 1,490 subjects participated in two waves of a national longitudinal study; one wave was when the subjects were in 12th grade, and the other was when they were 33 years old. Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males. Many previous studies by other researchers were cited as motivators behind some of the key questions this study poses. The study contains a number of controls that, to me at least, seem sensible and appropriate: We controlled for several important confounds that are highly related to individual career choices in math-intensive fields: family socioeconomic status, math courses taken, and motivational beliefs and values. Ability was measured by using the associated sections of the SAT taken by the study participants when they were high school seniors. The participants were then binned into three groups—high, moderate, and low for math and verbal ability, considered separately. I have a lot of skepticism regarding whether a person’s abilities are accurately gauged by standardized testing, even though (or maybe because) I personally benefitted from my performance on such testing back in the day. But the test results are probably the most easily attainable and least subjective data out there (though...

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A troubling shift in tradition

Many past profiles here at JAEP have been written about individuals in careers labeled as nontraditional or alternative. The positions are implicitly juxtaposed to ones that are deemed traditional. Tradition, naturally, is a subjective term. It is a function of many variables such as culture, local environment, etc., and any consensus of its definition (if one even exists) changes over time. The bulk of my career was in an industrial R&D setting. This seemed, to me, to be the norm. My tradition. Imagine my surprise when I began to encounter the fairly widespread viewpoint, that, in science, anything outside of academia was considered nontraditional. But this may be changing, and, perhaps, not for the better. A term describing a shift in tradition regarding science careers may be have recently coined. An Inside Higher Education article last month, by Scott Jaschik, describes the impact of the worsening job market for people with new doctoral degrees in the sciences, based on research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which was held in February. The data “suggested that the job market for those in many scientific fields is also taking a beating.” Jaschik continues, And this is so much the case that tenure-track jobs should now be considered “alt-ac” positions (or alternative academic careers) because they are not the norm anymore for new Ph.D.s, in the words of Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who specializes in the intersection of economics and science. To me, “alt-ac” sounds like a keyboard shortcut, or an engine warning light. Maybe the latter is an appropriate analogy, as it may signal a symptom of a more systemic problem. Jaschik describes how Stephan presented data for three scientific disciplines: biology, physics and computer science. The data suggests a shift among those earning relatively recent doctoral degrees—a shift away from full-time faculty positions and toward careers comprised of serial postdoctoral gigs. Taken together, these statistics are going to discourage people from pursuing graduate education and careers in academic science, Stephan said. She said that research universities need to rethink the way postdocs are used — and to improve their pay and working conditions — to create the kinds of career paths that will attract the best people to research careers. Stephan is clearly not happy with how academia appears to be taking advantage of the surplus of science PhDs, creating an atmosphere bordering on abuse (emphasis mine): But increasingly a postdoc doesn’t lead (certainly not quickly) to an independent, tenure-track position, Stephan said. And postdocs are being used, not trained, she said. “Postdocs have become...

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