#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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The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?
Feb08

The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education? Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group. Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up: As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders. Not. Good. A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”). However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive. The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University. The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities: One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California. To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism: Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities. Brooks then strongly disagrees with the notion that this effort will only amount to “awarding degrees that are worthless to people.” As he then points out: I possess a 10K-B.A., which I got way back in 1994. And it was the most important intellectual and career move I ever made. He describes how he was able...

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A glut of chemists with bachelor’s degrees as well?

This past November, C&EN ran a cover story on the employment outlook for chemists. The coverage consisted of several simultaneously published stories regarding various aspects of the employment outlook. The main focus shared by many of these stories was on chemists already in the workforce, and the effects that recent or impending layoffs have had on their lives. I offered a few thoughts on the topic as it stirred up fresh memories of having gone through similar experiences myself. The bleak employment outlook for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry was also described, but in less detail than given for experienced workers. Those details, plus profiles of some recent graduates, were provided earlier this week, in “New Bachelor-Level Chemists Face Grim Job Market,” an excellent article by C&EN Senior Editor Susan J. Ainsworth. Some thoughtful comments on this story have been provided by Chemjobber this week. The first paragraph of the C&EN article sets the tone for what is to follow: The inhospitable employment climate has not spared anyone in the chemical sciences, but many who have recently earned a bachelor’s degree may be in for a particularly tough fight. Some survey data was provided to accompany the previous qualitative assessment: In the most recent American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields, in 2011, 14% of recent bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they didn’t have a job but were seeking one, up from 12% in 2010 (C&EN, June 4, 2012, page 36). In contrast, 9% of new Ph.D. grads said they were seeking employment in 2011, up from 6% in 2010. With such limited employment prospects for new graduates, it stands to reason that the bar would be set high to be considered for those opportunities that do exist. However, even as an incremental number of jobs open for new B.S. grads, competition for those opportunities remains fierce. To stand out in a sea of applicants, candidates need to cultivate skills and experience to make their résumés sparkle. Often, it’s not enough to have been an exemplary student or perform undergraduate research: Recruiters also covet students who have exhibited “thought leadership,” which involves more than just serving as president of an on-campus organization, Simpson says. Instead, such students “have taken ownership of a project or come up with a new solution to a problem,” she explains. Several success stories are highlighted—chemists who have gone the extra mile to become attractive candidates for employment and have been rewarded with positions from which to embark upon their careers. The article then returns to those who haven’t been as fortunate, and who are now struggling to...

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