How long does it take to make a chemist?

This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN: Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data. Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken. After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business. I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish. And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors. But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.” In the NSF’s survey of Ph.D. recipients in 2003, the median time to the degree in chemistry in the US was six years. In fact, chemists beat out Ph.D.s in math, physics and astronomy, and biological science, who had a median of seven years to completion. It would be wonderful, of course, both for students and for...

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The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD
Nov30

The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD

This guest post was written by Selina Wang, PhD. When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name. I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond. As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far.  Industry, government or academe?  Not sure.  A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend?  I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’. I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job. Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and...

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Profile: Alfredo M. Ayala Jr., Disney Imagineer
Mar30

Profile: Alfredo M. Ayala Jr., Disney Imagineer

Posted on behalf of Carmen Drahl Alfredo M. Ayala Jr. majored in chemistry in college, but these days he dabbles in a very special kind of alchemy. He’s been with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development for over 15 years, where his job is to create new illusions and experiences for Disney park guests. And as he explained Sunday at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, it was organic chemistry that got his foot in the door. Ayala said he fell in love with science as a boy when he saw “Antimatter”, an animated look at the atomic world by Carlos Gutierrez, a UCLA film major turned chemistry major and organic chemistry professor. As it so happened, Gutierrez became Ayala’s mentor when the young Ayala came to Cal State L.A., through Gutierrez’s program for engaging junior high and high school students interested in biomedical sciences. At Cal State L.A., Ayala followed his interests in chemistry and in computers, taking engineering coursework in addition to chemistry. He was an undergraduate researcher in Gutierrez’s organic chemistry lab when he applied for an internship with the Disney company. Disney asked its prospective interns to write a paragraph about why they wanted the gig. But instead of just gushing about how cool it would be to work with the company, Ayala took a different tack. He knew Imagineers were looking to reformulate the skin material for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which at the time contained chromium, a non-chlorine scavenger, as a heat stabilizer. By not having a chlorine scavenger, hydrochloric acid was being produced in reactions with water, which in turn corroded parts that would need to be replaced periodically. Ayala sent Disney three proposals for alternative skin formulas, based on some chemistry he had done forming precursors to analogs of 18-crown-6 ethers in the Gutierrez group. In this 1995 Tet. Lett. paper the group begins with some tin-containing acetals and forms two different crown ether precursors depending on whether they add 1,2-dibromoethane or 2-chloroethanol. “Note we were scavenging chlorine and bromine- this is how I got the idea,” Ayala says. His ingenuity on the application paid off in the form of an interview. “That was what got me in,” he says. He’s been with Disney ever since. “You’d be surprised how much chemistry goes on at Disney,” Ayala says. Building one Disney attraction takes experts in 140 disciplines, from mechanical engineering to art. And chemistry challenges are everywhere at the parks, Ayala says. Research in materials science for skin and other applications is an active area. “The skin formulation I worked on as an intern is obsolete,” he says. An...

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Pursuing a science policy career as an international student

This guest post is from Young In Oh, a Korean grad student in her 5th year at Caltech. As my graduate career progressed, I quickly came to realize that the career I was looking for was one that would move me away from the bench. As exciting as academic research is, I find the slow progress and abstract applications to be somewhat frustrating. Initially, I pursued a career in chemistry because I wanted to make a tangible difference in the world. My personal background also played a significant role in my aspirations of finding a career with real-world impact. I grew up in four different countries in communities devoted to international development, and I believe that continuing down this path may be what I want my “purpose in life” to be. After quite a bit of research and soul searching, I found a career path that not only utilized my science education, but also fulfilled my greater interest of making real-world impact: science policy. If you are an international student such as myself, and want to stay in the U.S., there are a few unique challenges to breaking into a science policy job. The most common way Ph.D. scientists enter the policy realm is through various science and technology policy fellowships. However, very few of these fellowships are offered to non-citizens, and career opportunities seem even more limited in agencies and projects that require US citizenship and/or security clearances. To my knowledge, there are only three mainstream fellowships that accept international students: The Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship Program, based in Washington D.C., is a part of the National Academies Policy and Global Affairs Division, and works to help fellows develop the skills and make the connections that are needed to work in science policy at the federal and state level. However, this program is only 12-weeks long, so it may not be the best option if you do not have something planned ahead for immigration status reasons. The California Science and Technology Policy Fellowship is a one year program based in Sacramento and allows fellows to work directly with California State Legislature in diverse areas of policy making. Similarly, the ACS Science Policy Fellowship is a one to two year program based in Washington D.C. that allows fellows to work in the Office of Public Affairs (OPA). Fellows work with OPA staff to learn the process of providing information and recommendations in areas such as federal funding for scientific research, environmental policy and regulatory policy. JAEP profiled a former fellow last December. The alternative path, one that fewer scientists take, is to enter specialized masters...

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Science Policy and Communication
Dec06

Science Policy and Communication

The post du jour is by Paul Vallett, a grad student in physical chemistry  at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He’s got a shiny new blog called electron cafe where he discusses his research, energy, and science policy (I highly recommend the Explosion Fridays). So true to his usual topics, he wrote a bit for us about science policy. Share and enjoy. When was the last time you attended a talk outside of your specific area of research? I study physical chemistry and recently went to a talk by Dr Paul Nurse, a 2001 Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine. I don’t have a strong background in biochemistry, but background in biochemistry, but how often do you get the chance to hear a Nobel Laureate speak? I went with my whole lab group and found a packed auditorium. After the talk our lab heartily agreed that Dr.Nurse was an excellent speaker but that we all had no idea what he was really talking about. This is not meant to be a slight on Dr. Nurse, because I am sure that if he attended one of our physical chemistry seminars he would have a similar experience. Scientists and researchers typically can easily communicate within their own research community but those outside the community cannot penetrate the barrier of scientific terms, jargon, and basic knowledge of the field needed to achieve full understanding of the work. If this is a problem for scientists who are from somewhat similar scientific disciplines, imagine the difficulty that someone without a scientific background will have when attempting to understand the importance of research results. This is a problem that plagues decision makers that require the findings of scientific research to create sound policy but do not have the time to sift through reams of published papers in an attempt to understand the results. This is where scientists who are able to have a deep understanding of research and can still communicate effectively with a broad audience are extremely valuable. Entering the field of science and technology policy is an option for those who wish to leave the laboratory behind but have a desire to use their technical background in a manner that has direct impact on policy decisions made. Here are a few opportunities in policy that you can explore while enrolled in graduate school and after graduation. Certificate Programs Graduate certificates are earned alongside your normal degree, similar to a minor on an undergraduate degree and are meant to supplement your program’s coursework. Many graduate institutions now offer graduate certificates in the area of science and technology policy. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has...

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Profile: web entrepreneur
Dec01

Profile: web entrepreneur

Today’s post is by the lovely and talented Biochembelle, a postdoc in biochemistry who blogs both at LabSpaces (Ever on & on) and There and (hopefully) back again. Today she leads us down the road of Alan Marnett, creator of BenchFly. Chemist. Entrepreneur. Oh, and he might just save a bit of your sanity. Alan Marnett is the founder of BenchFly, “a web-based resource and holistic, everyday guide for the entire career of a scientist.” Marnett is just the sort of guy you might expect to see in a chemistry lab. He’s a third-generation chemist. “Even as a kid, it appeared my chemistry genes were highly expressed,” Marnett joked. “Actually, it was probably more like my ‘will-these-two-kitchen-items-blow-up-when-I-mix-them’ genes.” He received a Ph.D. in Chemistry and Chemical Biology from UCSF and went on to a postdoctoral position at MIT, intending to eventually go into academia. “However, two years into my postdoc, I began to question whether an academic position was right for me,” Marnett said. “While there were many aspects I loved about becoming a professor, I felt I owed it to myself to at least consider other opportunities–to sort of career date before deciding to marry the lab.” But which career to date? “I found I gravitated toward entrepreneurial opportunities. I like the idea of trying to turn a dream into a reality, whether it’s pursuing a specific research project or starting a web-based resource for scientists.” It was during Marnett’s undergraduate work at Trinity University that the idea for BenchFly first shimmered into being, although he didn’t realize it at the time, he said. There he worked with a postdoc named Chad Peterson, who had both a passion for teaching and “golden hands,” as Marnett put it. “Every reaction he set up seemed to work,” he said. “Chad taught me all of the tips and tricks he’d learned over the years, and it was those techniques that gave me the skills and confidence to continue in research.” But when Marnett got to grad school, he discovered that not everyone was like Peterson. “I realized that whether a student gets properly trained or not is unfortunately pretty random—it depends on the project, the lab, the PI,” he said. “I saw many colleagues end up in bad situations that eventually soured them on research and drove them to leave science altogether.” But Marnett thought that there must be a better way. “I wanted to try to develop a resource that supported scientists and made them feel that they have a mentor and partner committed to their success both in and out of the lab–like a virtual Chad,” he said. So...

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