Archive for 'Sciency politics'

The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded for discovering that you needn’t have living cells to produce fermentation in 1907 by the notable E. Buchner (who did not, as it turns out, invent the funnel of a similar name).  What were these chemicals?  Hard to say.  I hear Buchner’s NMR wasn’t working at the time so he could only guess, but they were certainly the extracts of whole cells.  (The chemistry Nobel in 1929 would go to the guys who figured out exactly what those chemicals were.. sort of).

Chemists at the time, I’m sure, tossed their bowler hats on the floor and went straight to fisticuffs over the slight.

In 1915, it was awarded for research on chlorophyll – not the synthesis, mind you, just for figuring out that it was there (you’d have to wait until the Nobel in 1930 for the chemistry, again).

In 1946, it was awarded just for crystallizing (and purifying) bioshit.  In 1946 this was a major step… which reminds us how infantile biochemistry was in 1946, considering the first Nobel, 25 years earlier, was awarded for the analysis of chemical dynamics to van’t Hoff… “real” chemistry, it seems, had been… err… established quite a bit more than the ability to purify compounds by 1946.  Chemists would get their Nobel for chromatography a few years later….[shame on us])

In 1947 the prize was given to Robert Robinson for discovering there were chemicals in plants and characterizing a few of them.

1957 – Neucleotides and co-enzymes

1958 – The structure of insulin

1961 – Assimilation of carbon dioxide in plants

1962 – Globular proteins

1964 – X-ray techniques for the determination of biological compounds

1972 – Ribonuclease…

This is getting to a point – the Nobel in chemistry isn’t reserved for proper chemists who work with small synthetic molecules, it’s reserved for people who advance the understanding of chemistry and that makes no distinction between the chemistry done in the flask or chemistry done between a bilayer.  The prize is handed out annually to anyone who produces outstanding work that explains, on a molecular basis, the fundamental actions that occur to transform one substance into another substance, heat or energy.  Consider (if it paints a more obvious picture) that it may have been awarded to the smallest chemist yet and thanks to Yonath, Steitz and Ramakrishnan, we know how that chemist does the chemistry it does.

The structural characterization of the ribosome, an organelle composed of many molecules, may well have fit the glove of the medical prize, but it certainly wasn’t shoehorned (at least when you take history into account) into the chemistry prize.  It was a significant and substantial advancement in the understanding of the chemicals (in this case, large hard-to-crystallize polymers) that compose an organelle.

So, yeah, stomp your feet.  Whatever.  The Nobel, like the Oscar, is an award that is best at glorifying itself, not to highlight the obscure but fascinating fact that you can make retardedly huge branched polymers both convergently or divergently or stick an alkyne to an aromatic halide.  It’s more pomp and circumstance than substance and is probably overrated and biased.  Whatever its defects, it still manages  to end up in the hands of people who do good science.

And Biologists study how fish fuck and birds migrate – proteins are squiggly cartoons to them -  it’s biofuckingchemistry.

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.

Got an email from a lovely person passing on the Thomson Reuters pick(s). They seem to agree that Grätzel has one coming and I’ve been feeling that way myself.  They also have picked Benjamin List for his work using asymmetric catalysts and Barton/Giese/Schuster for electron transfer in DNA.

  • Contributions of single molecule spectroscopy: Zare/Bard/Moerner 10-1
  • Work in solar cells: Grätzel 11-1
  • Computational chemistry: Karp/Goddard 12-1
  • Enamine catalysis: List/Lerner 20-1
  • Discovery and development of transition metal cross coupling: Suzuki/Heck/Sonogashira Buchwald 30-1
  • Development of advanced materials: Matyjaszewski /Gray/Inokuchi 50-1
  • Work on molecular Chaperones: Hartl/Horwich: 60-1
  • Electron transfer in DNA: Barton/Giese/Schuster 100-1
  • Electron transfer process in proteins: Gray 145-1
  • Contributions to bioinorganic chemistry: Solomon/Gray/Holm 200-1
  • Epigenetics: Cedar/Razin: 350-1
  • Molecular Machines: Stoddart/Feringa/Leigh: 400-1
  • Enzyme mimics, Breslow: 1000-1

UPDATED: 09.13.09

UPDATED: 09.15.09 — Replaced Whitesides with Matyjaszewski and lowered odds, added Hartl and Horwich for work on Chaperones (on account of this article [though I still don't think bio will win it this year]) and removed Westheimer, on account of him being dead. Enzyme mimics are now a long shot of long shots.

UPDATED: 09.24.09 – Seriously reconsidered Grätzel and read Thompson’s report.  Changed the topic of what Zare is going to win his Nobel for, such that it makes sense.  Moved Gratzel to number 1 pick.

UPDATED: 09.25.09 – Interesting link sent to me via the Gmail: 10.1007/s11192-009-0035-9. It discusses, in depth, why it is becoming harder to predict who will win the Nobel.  Added Lerner w/ List and changed it to the more apt “Enamine catalysis.”

UPDATED: 10.06.09 – Removed Sonogashira (’cause he’s dead) and replaced him with Buchwald (why not?)

One of the best part of being young is that you don’t have to lament the passing of old timey ways.  Take, if you will, the noble “full article.”  At one point, I am told, to publish a communication or short letter hardly contributed to your total publication count whereas now, it seems, publishing a full article is done when a communication is rejected (it’s worked twice for me!)  Full articles are long, tedious and filled with… data… and shit that only people very interested in exactly that topic will really care about, right?

In the era of Twitter sized attention spans, it’s hard to keep the masses from getting distracted with even abstracts.  Wiley and Sons have taken the clever step of suggesting authors include a snippet (with pun) with your graphical abstract.  Now, you don’t even need to read the heady cerebral real abstract: you can read a dumbed down version that has a fucking pun in it.  Granted, I think it’s cute, but I have to wonder if this is symptomatic to a problem.  At one point (and this much I know) chemistry departments had people in it that studied shit as eye-gougingly boring as the rates of reactivities of aryl radicals and measuring the kinetic isotope effects of Grignard reactions.  Today, the focus on such fundamental experimental chemistry has been so lost, I can think of only a few people that I would consider genuine experimental physical organic chemists…  The loss of interest in this sort of research, with its minutia and detailed analysis and the lack of funding may or may not be a chicken and egg phenomenon, but how many departments are hiring really talented experimental kineticists?

There’s no point in trying to change people.  I honestly think our priorities have changed and we are very easily distracted.   The more I think about it the more it makes sense to include puns so you don’t have to read abstracts which were there so you didn’t have to read a communication, which was likely written without the intention of actually ever following it up with a full article because no one reads those anyway…

Then again, every journal is sticking a review in there to boost their impact factor, so now we can get the cliff’s notes of 200 some papers squeezed into 15 pages… (which is almost like reading an article)

Unless it’s a “microrevew,” the nauseating marriage of a review and a communication.

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So, in an effort to impress the nickers knickerbockers off my boss, I decided to tell him that I would go out to funding agencies and try to find some money for myself.  WELL… fuck that.  Funding agencies have websites but they’re horrible and incomprehensible.

Let’s start with the DOE, since Steve Chu is now the boss, one would expect that his old stomping ground would get a face lift:

Picture 1Never mind that it looks all Drudge Report, some of the listings aren’t even open anymore.  Like, the application deadline is in 3 weeks but you can only apply if you submitted a pre application two months ago.

Lots of good use that’ll make.

If you follow on to Grants.gov, you have the opportunity to search, with very little ability to narrow your search parameters, for grants from every fucking granting agency in the universe for every fucking topic.

In short, searching the DOE website isn’t easy, and finding money for a fellowship isn’t easy either.

SOOO… this brought me to AAAS’s website, which is more palatable and more searchable than the DOE’s.  But, aside from Humboldt fellowships and research on Cancer (not being associated with Germany or cancer, neither do me much good) there haven’t been many strong fellowships for chemists.  Not only that, but the search engine misses fellowships found on the NSF and DOE websites (that I don’t qualify for) making me think it’s rather incomplete.

The NSF is more searchable, but the only fellowships I could find are for arctic research and biology.  I hear I missed the boat on any NSF funding for organic chemistry/material sciences stuff.

Forgive my kvetching, but I’ve been trying to find fellowships just to apply to for two weeks and haven’t found anything.  There may well simply not be any out there, but then, I can’t know because I don’t feel like there’s any meaningful way to find them.