Archive for 'School shit'

For a period in graduate school, I would work from 8 until 7, generally without lunch, in something I thought was approximating a 12 hour day.  I don’t know what it is about working that much, but it’s exhausting and soul draining and not fun.  The people around me, who didn’t work that much, were generally in more pleasant moods, which was probably what kept me from going E.J- Corey-student on my ass.

At some point in my PhD I revolted, mostly against myself, but it was also against the precept that someone who works 12 hours is 33% more productive than someone who works 8.  No scientific studies have suggested that longer hours help and many of them show a deterioration in both quantity and quality of work being preformed.   My boss at the time worked regular family-hours of 9-6, so that’s what I started working and not only was the quality of my work better, but I was spending less time doing it.

In other words, as I laid off on the hours, my focus became more clear.  I started to take walks on my beautiful campus during the day to think about my chemistry and my future.  I had, at that point, cut the string with my adviser and was doing my own thing, more or less.  I was also competently managing my own group of undergraduates who were, finally, performing like chemists.  I had one summer in which 5 papers worth of data were mined from this technique – the fruits of one still going through the CommuNazi European Journal of Chemistry review process.  I also worked closely with a younger graduate student in a very fruitful effort.

I don’t really know what I would do if I had a research group of my own.  I’d venture to guess that I wouldn’t restrict student hours but I’d be very sensitive about my students’ happiness in lab.  Unhappy but exceptional people will still produce the results you need (maybe not the results you expect) but who has a group filled with exceptional people?  Now having been a part of multiple research groups from a range of (granted, high quality) departments, I can say that most people have groups comprised of at least one retard that requires a  baby leash to keep them from destroying the lab.  The admission process is a funny indicator of who will be successful (but that’s a whole different post).

I know some advisers would cringe at that idea, some demanding a minimum of 10 hours per day plus weekends (and I came in either a Saturday or a Sunday the whole time I was there) but… why?  There’s no data to support that working those hours will be productive.  There’s plenty to show that they go bug nuts fucking crazy and burn out and quit.

Bad Writing

One of the most confounding things I have discovered is how horrible some of the smartest people I know write.  While they can effectively spin yarns on the research they do with both clarity and poise yet they cannot put pen to paper and produce a single cogent product worthy of reading.  The single gravest sin, as I see it, is that they write like they speak and have no sense for punctuation.

While it’s probably too late to teach grammar, it’s never too late to convert someone’s hideous writing style to something more in line with a readable manuscript.  Allow me to suggest a few cardinal sins in writing a scientific paper, if I may:

  1. Using similes and metaphors.
  2. Writing in the passive voice.
  3. Switching verb tenses.
  4. Using unnecessary words.

Each of these rules, in particular the first one, are inviolable offenses.  The first one, of course, is self explanatory.  There should be no reason to use a figure of speach since they do not translate well and are usually corny.  The other three, on the other hand, require a bit of ‘esplanin.

The active voice in scientific writing can be difficult because it requires you to overcome a rule which was ingrained at some point into your head: the use of pronouns.  I had to go back and check if this advice was kosher with the Whitesides’ method and it appears as though it is – surprisingly.  The sentences taken:

Passive: It was observed that the solution turned red.
Active: We observed that the solution turned red.
Sexually Active: I fucked the solution until it was red.

Writing in the active form, while it may force a pronoun every here and again, forces you to keep your sentences short and to the point.  Alternatively, that sentence could have simply stated:  The solution turned red.  The fewer words, the better (if I may generalize) almost to the point that you’re generating paragraphs of bullet points.  After all, the point of a scientific document is to state all pertinent details in a readable narrative.

Verb tense somehow gets fucked up every now and then, even in the hands of seasoned writers.  As it typically happens, multiple drafts end up with multiple tenses and before you know it you have added a reagent in both the present and past tense.  How can I really do more than tell you to avoid it?  I dunno.  Just try.

Using unnecessary words is as noisome as it is common.  “For instance,” “also,”  “additionally,”  and “then” are added to sentences for no apparent reason.  Let me give you an example of a sentence:

In order to look at the binding of substrate 1 we initially studied the spectra of both uncomplexed and complexed substrate and then preformed a titration on both substrates at room temperature to give a Kd of 3.1 nM.

Too many fucking words.  Allow me to truncate:

After analysis of reactant and product spectra, titration of substrate 1 gave a Kd of 3.1nM at room temperature.

DONE.  In the top sentence, some of those words are screaming “DELETE ME!”  “In order to…” is meaningless and look, a superfluous “then!”  Why?  Why fill your sentences with so much shit when you can have such a nice pretty sentence that says everything you want it to.

The problem with effective writing is infrequently the use of too few words.  To the contrary, it is using too many which have no point.

img00027-20090424-1552Every department has one. The one grad student who’s made it to upper years while building a reputation for being a complete klutz in the lab and although he’s nearly burned the whole fucking place down a few times, has innumerous scars and has become a living legend in the department, still seems to get better fucking data than you! We have a huge mobile fire cart on wheels here in the department that acts as a giant badge of shame; parked outside the offenders lab until the next retarded inorganic chair moistener forgets how to adequately quench a block of sodium.

Since I have really nothing to do here except sleep on the lobby couch, golf and generally piss off foreign exchange students until the time when I take up my postdoc, I figured I’d bring you some tales of others from my department.

I was recently talking to my local frostback, TheCanuck, (you remember him http://www.thechemblog.com/?p=1101), when the discussion of lab fires came up. TheCanuck’s experiment had recently experienced a fire. He works with baking soda and water, so how was able to spark that bitch up is beyond me. Apparently he was passivating his high temperature stop-flow cell with 100% pressurized O2 at 400°C and a leak in the tubing developed, saturating the insulation with O2, leading to the fire. He told me as he was reaching for the fire extinguisher, he actually stopped, fearing for his experiment. It got me thinking: how far would you go to save time and salvage your equipment and experiment. Can you imagine the havoc a dry chemical fire extinguisher would release upon your hood? The BC type leaves a corrosive baking soda film that needs to be cleaned immediately to prevent damage to materials, where the ABC type leaves a sticky yellow residue that damages electrical appliances. Fuck it, I’ll take my chances and let it burn itself out … the bottle of dry ether isn’t that close anyway!

As new details emerge in the fatal UCLA lab fire that killed Sheri Sangji, a research assistant in Patrick Harran’s lab, it becomes more evident that UCLA is a dysfunctional department in an environment where the burden of responsibility is placed upon everyone and everything other than that of the university or the department.  The slow decline of UCLA and recent high profile departures suggest a department of infighting and low morale.  From the LA Times:

In electronic missives to university colleagues, Harran complained that UCLA had all but hung him out to dry in the press. In one e-mail, he said that reports in two chemical industry publications “read like an indictment, without having the facts.”

In another, he took issue with a UCLA investigator’s report, which was detailed in a March 1 story in The Times. The report, citing previous lab deficiencies that had gone unfixed, made it “sound like I deliberately did not adhere to policy” and was part of a “culture of neglect,” he wrote.

According to the same article a similar, though non-lethal, incident occurred at the school not but a few weeks ago.

While I pick on UCLA (rightly so) the issue is far more systematic and, as anyone who has gone through graduate school knows, safety training is almost non existent.  I rarely see lab coats on in my own lab, though it’s hypothetically required.  I generally never wore a lab coat until I got an asskickity one as a gift from my boss for making a website for him.  If custom lab coats get people to wear them, then that’s what schools should offer!

I contacted my senator about this issue.  I’ve had good relations with his office and am a strong supporter, but he was unreceptive to the idea.  If you could, for just a moment, pull your cell phone out and call these senators and reference the LA Times article above about the need for universities, who receive federal research grants for science, to provide comprehensive training to all laboratory workers.  You may well do something to help prevent this shit from happening again.  Indeed, maybe even to yourself:

Boxer, Barbara – (D – CA) Senator of CA
112 HART SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-3553
Feinstein, Dianne – (D – CA) Senator of CA
331 HART SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-3841
The Following are members of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
Hutchison, Kay Bailey – (R – TX) Ranking Member
284 RUSSELL SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-5922
Rockefeller, John D., IV – (D – WV) Chairman
531 HART SENATE OFFICE BUILDING WASHINGTON DC 20510
(202) 224-6472

The first time you contact an “almighty” senator, you will likely hear the voice of one of his or her staff members. This is quite fine, they’ll dutifully report to the senator any grievances you have so long as they aren’t too grandpa Simpson.

For tips, you would start like you were calling an insurance office asking for information. Introduce yourself, tell them what you do and how you are relevant and then, quite politely, say something like:

I’m not sure if you’re aware of the recent laboratory fire that killed a 23 year old UCLA lab assistant, but having gone/been/are in graduate school I can attest that the safety measures that surrounded this death are all too common. I feel as though because these schools all receive federal funding, it should be within the purview of the senate to require, as a condition of receiving federal funding, to provide life saving training to students and employees. You can read the latest in a recent LA Times article…

Hutchison’s people will likely ponder if that’s really within the purview of the feds and wonder if it’s even worth considering (such is the stalwart nature of Republicans). I would anticipate little to no static from any of the other Democratic senators. You will likely not hear back, but you will still be heard, I assure you. I have spoken with the offices of my senators many times.

NOW DO IT! Or I’ll give you swine flu.

UPDATE:  Answer this poll question!

Tetrabutylammonium acetate is a(n)

  • base (80%, 288 Votes)
  • acid (20%, 72 Votes)

Total Voters: 360

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So, the time to upgrade my laptop is coming around.  I have a nice little Toshiba with a 1.6 GHz processor running Windows XP.  It’s a nice machine, really, and will be retired to the at-home internet laptop that sits under the ottoman when it isn’t needed to check emails, surf the interwebs and do that sort of stuff. That current computer is an ancient Compaq 600 MHz – and it blows.

Trying to decide what to do, however, is a bit touchy. It seems that everyone in chemistry, with few exceptions, use Macs.  I don’t understand this.  I appreciate, historically, that ChemDraw or some other software was only on Mac at one point and that’s why old chemists use Macs, but at this stage it doesn’t make sense that a computer that at one point held a 3% market share should still hold well over 50% in chemistry with a stead stream of new PC to Mac converts.

That being said, I like the new Macbooks.  They are really pretty, but they’re also really overpriced.  I could build a comparable Lenovo for $400 less, which would be enough to buy myself a large flat screen monitor and USB dock.   *BUT* I’m really tired of incompatibility issues when sending Powerpoint slides and word documents to Apple users who don’t use Microsoft products (not that MS ever really made a full attempt to make cross platform files very compatible in the first place – even now that Macs are, for all intents and purposes, PCs.)  NOOOOO… I have to contend with documents being shuttled by iWork or presentations in Keynote. It doesn’t help that both present and future boss’ use Macs as do half of current and future labs.

And there is no better citation management software that Papers, which is only on Mac.  *SO* I have created a chart to help me decide.  Feel Free to chime in (suggest corrections and features I should take into mind). I don’t figure I’ll be getting one for a few months (at least until Cancer Steve introduces the latest MacBook at MacExpo in late summer and/or the next gen of Intel mobile processors are released.)

Shit I need Mac PC (Lenovo)
Intel >2.6 GHz Yup Yup
Dedicated Grapihcs Yup Yup
Windows Support Yup Yup
USB dock Nope Yup
Software:    
ChemDraw Some Yup
Bruker Shell Nope Yup
Chimera Yup Yup
ACD Labs Nope Yup
ImageJ Yup Yup
MS Office Yup* Yup
Keynote Yup Nope
Papers Yup Nope
Hot Unibody Yup Nope
Not Overpriced Nope Yup
Dual Boot Yup Nope
Origin Nope Yup
Total: 10 12

*Cross platform use often blows due to metafile copy and paste being retarded and some other stupid bugs.

The point has been made (as I indicate in the above chart) that Macs run Windows.  This is true, but that would require I boot into windows and if I were to do that, why the fuck would I get an overpriced mac if not for the OS?  Then there are programs that let you run Windows in Mac OS like Parallels or something.  That’s not disagreeable with me, really, but it will invariably cause the windows programs to run slower, since they’re competing for processes with, you know, a second fucking OS running at the same time.  Therefore, software incompatibilities are way more trivial for the Mac than the PC, but it’s a certain negative that you can’t run many science software programs native in Mac OS.