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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.”

Continue reading →

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.

A simple sit-down meal with professors during a job interview taught Selina Wang a lesson she'll never forget. Image courtesy of Prof. Dean Tantillo, UC Davis.

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 weaknesses and since I’ve enjoyed doing research and teaching, I applied for tenure-track faculty positions.

What I didn’t expect was a particular interviewing incident that reminded me what matters to me and why I chose to pursue higher education.

Sometimes being in grad school makes you feel like a newly hatched chick, wondering what you'll be when you grow up. Photo credit: flick user dux_carvajal.

During an interview lunch at one school, a faculty member started on a rant about a reviewer’s comments on a paper she recently submitted. Other faculty members also shared their experiences with the peer-review process. This conversation lasted a while before one faculty member threw her hands in the air in frustration and said she should not have to listen to anyone’s comments given the reputation of the school where she worked.

Sitting quietly, I was reminded of Einstein who said, ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” I wondered when they were going to ask interview-like questions or simply acknowledge my presence. They didn’t. I was simply having lunch with a know-it-all-self-righteous person, who even pointed out that the only reason she came to lunch was because the restaurant had nice offerings. I thought I was the one that was poor and liked to take advantage of free food.

The word “faculty” is defined as teaching members or power/authority. Maybe that was the confusion?  They thought they were authorities rather than teachers?

I received similar impressions from many of the faculty, thus despite how this department looks on paper, it was not where I belonged. However, in addition to my bruised ego, I didn’t walk away from this experience empty-handed. After thinking, and over-thinking, I got the answer to a question that has been haunting me since I was five. What do I want to do when I grow up?  It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it – how it makes me come alive.

Isn’t that why we went to graduate school? To feed our passion for discovering the unknown and to take a chance on what we believe. With all the pressure associated with grants, publications and political moves, it is easy to be skeptical and lose sight of what is important to our internal self. But what are we good for if we don’t take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes? Failures in research have led to many of the most exciting and unexpected results, in a serendipitous way. The discovery of things not looked for has lead to wonderful products such as Post-It Notes, Teflon, the pacemaker, and even the microwave (Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, noticed that emission from a vacuum tube caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt).

What marks a successful failure? Perhaps, it’s our perspective. We are not know-it-alls, we all are barely know-its spending our lifetimes on figuring “it” out. With a passionate heart, a purposeful mind, and a focused attitude – I no longer feel loss. Thanks to this great lesson from my “failed” job interview.

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.

Photo of Ayala credit: Drahl/C&EN

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. Continue reading →

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 programs in science and technology policy. There are a surprisingly large number of programs that offer programs in various fields within science policy. In the area of environmental policy, there are programs such as Columbia University’s program in Environmental Science and Policy, and UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management (ESPM). If you’re more interested in international science policy, George Washington University Center for International Science and Technology Policy and MIT’s Technology and Policy program are both great options. There are also programs that focus on science and international security such as Princeton University’s program in Science and Global Security. These types of programs seem to be the most viable route for international students to get experience in specific fields within policy without being limited by citizenship status.

As I looked for information on how to transition into science policy, the most helpful resource for me was advice from friends who had already made this same transition. I have been fortunate enough to make connections with people who were fellows of two of the three fellowships previously mentioned, as well as some others in the private sector. They essentially gave me the same advice: there is no path laid out for you, so be creative and take every opportunity that comes your way.  Ultimately, there is no defined way of entering science policy, whether you’re an American or international student. Though opportunities may be limited, and we may have to take a couple extra turns along the way, I am hopeful that international students such as myself will still be able to find a way to successfully begin a career in science policy.

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.

A scientist turned science policy dude that you may have heard of: DOE Secretary Steven Chu. He's flanked in this picture by Congresswoman Anna Eshoo and former California State Controller Steve Westly. Image by flickr user jurveston.

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.

Go into science policy and you too can meet interesting people in government. Jinormous belt buckles are optional.

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 a fairly complete listing of institutions offering such programs here. These are a great way to gain policy skills and backgrounds while demonstrating to potential employers that you have an interest in the world outside of your individual research area.


AAAS offers the prestigious Science and Technology Fellowship program. This year-long fellowship is open to all social and physical sciences, but requires you to have obtained a terminal degree in your field of study before applying. The fellows are placed in a number of different administrative offices, covering defense, energy, agriculture, and health services.

The National Academies offer the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Graduate Fellowship Program. They look for graduate students in a broad range of fields and fellows work with a mentor within the Academies on various policy projects. It is only a 12 week program, making it ideal for current graduate students.

Hi, this is Leigh again: I found one more–the ACS Public Policy fellowship. You have to be done with your degree and an ACS member to apply. Applications are due December 31, so get on it!

Thanks to Paul for a great post. I’m going to be profiling someone who received the ACS fellowship in the next couple of weeks, keep your eyes peeled for that.

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.”

Alan Marnett, courtesy photo

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 Marnett got to work. It took about 10 months to get BenchFly off the ground, officially launching in 2009. “I find I get much less sleep these days than I did as a postdoc, but I love it.”

BenchFly’s mission is to “provide researchers with the community and tools they need to develop both professionally and personally in order to make research a better career today and for future generations of scientists,” he said. “Science is about much more than just performing experiments, so we try to tackle issues both in and out of the lab that affect our lives as researchers.”

Informed scientists are happy scientists! Although please be more informed than this and use proper personal protective equipment. Image by flickr user laimagendelmundo.

During development, Marnett realized that scientists and entrepreneurs have a lot in common.

“In science, we identify a problem that interests us and that we think, if answered, will be a significant contribution to science/health/society/etc. Then we go about systematically figuring out how to solve the problem. Entrepreneurs do the same thing. I think scientists make great entrepreneurs in part because of our critical thinking skills. As a result, many of the skills you need to succeed as an entrepreneur, you probably already have,” he said.

However, the freedom of entrepreneurship can also be a bit scary.

“Starting out as an entrepreneur, it can be very difficult to know which decisions may end up setting you back and since there are lots of choices to make, the independence can also be stressful.”

To aid the process, Marnett recruited a support network, including a scientific advisory board. He knew the importance of having mentors to provide advice and guidance in the lab and realized that he would need the same in this entrepreneurial venture.

“What may seem like a bullet-proof idea at first may have serious unforeseen challenges that could ultimately bring it down,” he said.

Fortunately for Marnett, that hasn’t happened. And he’s not done building yet. “We’re working on a number of features for the site as well as some really fun projects that are not Internet-related that I wish I could talk about, but you know the old saying—‘I could tell you, but I’d have to…’”

In the meantime, there’s plenty to see and share at www.BenchFly.com via commenting, submitting guest articles or uploading videos. “Topics range from professional to personal to recipes to, well–Chuck Norris,” he said.

And despite the stress and lost sleep, Marnett said, “I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to realize my dream and work towards creating a resource I hope will have a positive impact on scientists worldwide.”

Thanks so much to Biochembelle for the great guest post!

These alternative careers? Maybe not so much.

Today for your reading pleasure, we’ve got a guest post from the ever witty Chemjobber. According to him, not all alternative jobs are good ideas.
Leigh’s always writing about good alternative careers for chemists; here, I suggest a few bad ones for those of you contemplating leaving graduate school or a postdoc for something, anything else. Don’t try any of these:
1. Counselor/psychotherapist: I can only imagine it: “Hey, dude — your Dad doesn’t like you? Cry me a river — I worked for a guy for five back-breakin’ years and all I got was this lousy sheepskin and a postdoc at East Butterfinger State College.” Chemists just aren’t big on sympathy.
2. Singer: Sure there are some pretty decent folks who can sing along to the radio, but for every one of those, there’s ten people screeching “Every Rose Has A Thorn” at the top of their lungs while running a column. Face it, none of us are going to Hollywood.

3. Traffic cop: “Yeah, I don’t really know how fast you were going, either. Probably 45 mph, plus or minus 5 or 10. What is the margin of error on this thing, anyway?”


Organic farming + organic chemist? Image by flickr user tori.tori.tori.

4. Organic farmer: The confusion between organic food and organic chemistry would be enough to make your head explode. Don’t even attempt it, especially if you snicker every time you see “organic” written at the grocery store.
5. Nurse: See #1.
6. Temperance campaigner: Have you ever seen us before a departmental seminar or a Friday happy hour? Keep moving, folks.
7. Diplomat: “You see, Senor Presidente, the reason we’re invading you is, well, we just don’t like you. And you rejected our paper a couple years back. Yeah, no, we haven’t forgotten. Enjoy!”
8. Motivational speaker: “So the reason that you should live your dreams and strive for excellence is… is… is… ’cause I’ve been here 5 years and I desperately need a job! Kids, I’m your role model!”
9. Dancer: It’s Thursday night, the chemists are out drinkin’ and jerking their bodies around dancin’ , and well, not really doing the field any favors. Cutting a rug, so to speak, isn’t something chemists are good at (even though there are rare exceptions).
10. Fashion designer: “So for this year’s spring fashions, T-shirts! In all different colors: blue, blue, blue and blue. Don’t forget these awesome acid holes! This one, that’ll get them talking in Milan!”
Thanks so much to Chemjobber for his infinite wisdom. Oh, and this blog post. And speaking of thanks, if you’re American, have a great Thanksgiving tomorrow! If you’re not, have a great Thursday.

Profile: Chemistry Librarian

If I had to do it all over again, I think I’d be a librarian. They just tend to kind of awesome, you know? (If you don’t believe me, check out the winners of last year’s ALA Book Cart Drill Team World Championship.) Today we have a guest post by librarian Donna Wrublewski, who’s in charge of the chemical sciences collection at the University of Florida. She may not play with book carts, but I think how she got interested in science qualifies her for the awesome badge as well.

Donna Wrublewski, courtesy photo.

It all started when my mom and I discovered Doctor Who when I was about 5 or 6. I wanted to be a “mad scientist” who ran around saving the world. Science in general, and astrophysics in particular, captured my imagination. When I learned that fireworks were the result of chemical reactions, I was sold on chemistry. I felt an engineering degree would be more practical than a chemistry degree so I studied chemical engineering as an undergrad at MIT. However, all the pipes and numbers didn’t really agree with me, but my polymer science classes did, so that’s the direction I went in for graduate school. I went to the University of Massachusetts Amherst for my master’s and doctorate degrees, and worked mainly on mechanics of polymers. I learned all aspects of polymer chemistry, physics, and engineering, which made me very well suited for my current position – a librarian!

I had been considering information science for a while, particularly after having experience with traditional academia and industry – neither one felt a perfect fit. Academia felt too “cut-throat” and single-track. I took time off from graduate school to work in industry, and it felt equally as single-track, as well as too dependent on the economy. I found my current job posting on Twitter, which was a perfect metaphor for my job talk (Chemistry and Web 2.0 technology, and how it applies to libraries).

I learned all the resources I am now teaching to my patrons by actually being a graduate student in chemistry. I know where to direct them for reference questions and help them find the info they need, because chances are, I once needed the same thing. When I started, I immediately had a good rapport with graduate students because at the time, I technically still was one (I just finished my PhD this summer, after starting at UF in January). Having advanced degrees in chemistry has helped me interact with the faculty as they value the subject expertise I bring to this position. And the library faculty and staff are wonderful, especially because now they can refer people to me when they want to learn SciFinder.

Librarians with PhDs in science fields are becoming more common. Many librarians that I met at the last ACS conference also have advanced degrees. Librarians are becoming more than just collection curators, we’re the information gatekeepers. Having subject knowledge is becoming more valuable, and the field of “library science” will gradually become more “information science” as knowledge access and learning are increasingly taking place outside traditional library and school settings.

Being a tenure-track faculty librarian, I have all the benefits of being a faculty member, plus the freedom to explore pretty much whatever suits my fancy in the chemical or information science fields. Library research tends to be more social science-based than lab work. However, working with faculty in your field is something the library highly encourages, so there’s always the chance to get back into the lab should I so desire.

A little light reading, photo by flickr user audreym.

In addition to research, I’m responsible for the chemistry, chemical engineering, materials science & engineering, and nanotechnology library collections at UF. I provide both general library and subject-specific training and reference services. I’m also a book buyer, contract negotiator, question answerer, chemistry teacher, faculty advisor, committee member, freshman mentor, and whatever else comes my way. Typically I spend a few hours a day providing general reference service and taking chemistry-specific referrals from other librarians. At the beginning of the semester I’m teaching, either specific classes for chemistry students, general library instruction, or citation management software. Instead of saving the world, I save graduate students’ sanities! The fact that I don’t have a library degree means that I try to attend webinars and workshops to learn about how libraries actually work and trust me, it’s not as simple as you think.

I definitely recommend getting to know your librarian and library if you want to consider a career in this field. Know what kinds of information are out there and know how to access them. Be technology-savvy – know what the new platforms and developments are because chances are you will be using them and teaching them to others. Teaching experience is a huge plus as you will need to show people what resources are available to them and how to use them. I couldn’t be happier with the choice I’ve made for a career, even if it is outside the norm. Don’t be afraid to try something just because it’s different or you think you might not like it – you will always learn from the experience.

Thanks to Donna for the great guest post!

Chemist as cook

Hi ho there folks. This is the first of a two-part series about cooking and chemistry, a lovely guest post by the illustrious Chemjobber. So without further ado…

Imagine, setting stuff on fire and that not being a bad thing. Perk. Image by flickr user 7bikeframesweldedtogether.

Leigh’s profiles of people are typically folks who use the problem-solving or thinking skills they learned from being chemists and applying them to other equally cerebral tasks. But what about the equally important hand skills that chemists develop? The hands that can pull TLC spotters, poke them through a tiny 18-gauge needle into a reaction and spot them on a TLC plate can surely do something equally complex, no?

One of my favorite books of all time is Bill Buford’s Heat, where Buford tells about his adventures in being a prep and line cook at Babbo, the flagship restaurant of celebrity chef Mario Batali. In it, Buford goes from complete newbie (slicing himself while deboning duck leg quarters) to being able to hold his own in the middle of a rushed meal service; to me, that sounds like the process of becoming a chemist in a busy laboratory. Buford mentions a few things common to cooking and chemistry:

Repetition: “I was reminded of something Andy (a more senior chef) had told me. ‘You don’t learn knife schools in cooking school, because they only give you six onions, and no matter how hard you focus on those six onions there are only six, and you’re not going to learn as much as when you cut up a hundred.’ One day I was given a hundred and fifty lamb tongues. I had never held a lamb’s tongue, which I found greasy and unnervingly humanlike. But after cooking, trimming, peeling and slicing a hundred and fifty lamb’s tongues I was an expert.”

Complexity in combinations: Buford describes the grill station prep: “There were 33 different ingredients, and most had to be prepared before the service started, including red onions (cooked in beet juice and red wine vinegar), salsify (braised in sambuca), and farotta (cooked in a beet puree). There were six different squirter bottles, two balsamic vinegars, two olive oils, plus vin santo, vin cotto, and saba, not to mention the Brussels sprouts and braised fennel and rabbit pate – and damn! Today, I look at the map and am astonished I had any of it in my head.”

Image by flickr user staxnet.

The joy of creating: “I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy. If, on a busy night, I made, say, fifty good-looking plates, I had fifty little buzz moments, and by the end of service I felt pretty good.”

Cooks, of course, need to please their customer’s tastes; chemists, I suspect, are subject to less pressure there. Batali mentions that in his explanation to Buford about what he’ll learn: “As a home cook, you can prepare anything any way anytime… Here people want exactly what they had last time. Consistency under pressure. And that’s the reality: a lot of pressure.”

Now I’m obviously not saying that a chemist could jump into a busy 3-star Manhattan kitchen and start pitching in. There are differences in the hours (can be brutal), the pay (may be really low) and the lifestyle — and you might have to go to culinary school. But I suspect that line cooking is something that would be familiar and even a bit homey to an experienced bench chemist.

Super-duper thanks to CJ for both writing this post, and bringing up the topic. In part 2, I’ll be breaking down the sames and differents between a synthetic chemist and a line cook, via an in-depth exclusive interview with a self-taught chef with over 20 years in the biz. Stay tuned.