Archive for 'Sciency politics'

“If you don’t have a pedigree, don’t apply,” said one of my colleagues after I told him my ambitions about becoming a faculty member at some R1 school….

I decided to consider my pedigree… My undergrad prof  did a lot of good work – essentially inventing the concept of measuring secondary KIEs by NMR.  As you can imagine however, he’s now retired (he was quite old when I was in his lab).  My PhD adviser is, well, wrapped up in his world.  He’s young and has been successful and maybe in 10 years he’ll be someone with clout.  He’s certainly willing to throw down the shit to get me a job – but he’s very focused on getting to the point where his reputation precedes him.  He’s not there yet, though I have faith that he will.

My current boss is famous and award winning and all that… but that’s it.  That’s the extent of my pedigree:  A yesteryear superstar retiree, an ambitious young pup with hardly 200 publications under his belt and a post doc adviser who’s a frequent contender for the Nobel prize (but that cupboard is bare).  I wonder if that’s enough?

Then, there’s industry… but … *sigh*… I don’t want to work for [big phramra] industry.   If working at Eli Lilly taught me one thing it was that R&D was a show.  A distraction.  A way for a drug industry to claim it cost billions of dollars to bring a drug to market.  (Which is funny ’cause I think Zyprexa was the last drug Lilly brought to market from in house and it has cost them billions of dollars just to KEEP IT ON THE MARKET.)

Nevertheless, I won’t be going into big pharma.  I hated pharma research.  I think it’s a horrible place with limited ambitions and, if working retail to get my way through school taught me anything, I’d rather not invent ways to extend the life of obnoxious fat men.  Nature had a plan for fat men:  get depressed, die of congestive heart failure on the couch.  I’d rather not be a part of the team that cured fatness… if only so it wouldn’t deprive me of the pleasure of knowing fat men die on their couch.

Back to academics:  there are about 200 universities that offer PhDs in chemistry.  About 100 of them aren’t even worth applying to.  Of those 100, only a few hire every year.  Each job will consider about 500 candidates – and some of them will not hire a single one.

What wonderful things to be pondering before bed….

UPDATE: Maybe I should be more clear:  I was shitting on working for big pharma.  A job at IBM or some other materials research firm (or, maybe, Altec-Lucent) would be an interesting adventure, I think.  And yes, I do think working for big pharma sucks.  It pays well and lets you spend time with your family, if you own one, but it’s a depressing shithole with management always trying to pound how ever-close we are to being destroyed by a nationalized health care system/drug and price regulation/blah blah blah.

UPDATE II:  I should be clearer – I  wrote that post late at night while on Ambien.  I don’t even have a recollection of writing it.  It was written poorly, confusing and circular.  I’ve tried to clean it up and am tempted to just delete it.  I want to remind everyone:  If you take Ambien GO TO BED.  Don’t dick around on the computer until you get tried.  Ambien is bad juju.  Further, I have no explanation for the shit below.

P.S. You can make your own Kenyan birth certificate.  Look, I found one for that crazy lady lawyer, Oily Taintz:

At a recent conference in Europe eminent European scientists were lamenting the loss of the printed journals by ACS. Actually, lamentations are likely not the correct sentiment – I’m sure they were invectives directed toward the ACS for such a blasphemous act of literally dumping the only method of communicating scientific material in a physically archive capable way. The young Europeans, for their part, appeared to concur – dumping printed journals was a stupid move that does nothing but impugn the character of ACS publications.printisdead

Then again, Europeans are stuffy and slow to accept anything new.

If you’ve read this blog with any amount of consistency, you’ll undoubtedly appreciate that I don’t support this decision for purely gastronomical reasons.  I read while I poop and reading JACS on the jon is better than apple pie.

Nevertheless, the ACS is doing nothing more than taking the next logical step.  This step is essentially a transparent step in the evolution of publication and, while it does have the effect of putting many prestigious ACS journals in the same “league” as the fly-by-night online-only crowd, it’s a step that makes sense in many different directions.

Let’s run down, in bullet point, why this is good for us:

  • No more fucking with color prints.  Printing color is free on the internet.
  • Inclusion of movies, audio and other multimedia embedded in the article itself
  • More devotion to online comes with it the anticipation that the media will vastly improve – such as, improved cross references between journals, dynamic links in high quality PDF files (like, to specific parts of the SI).
  • Greater author control in determining layout of articles – since margins are essentially arbitrary in electronic files
  • faster time from review to publication

Then, as for that last point, what does “publication” mean?  We won’t have page numbers?  That’s not likely true – page numbers and volumes will likely still exist – but the DOI will become more important and the ACS hasn’t done nearly enough to get DOIs into references.  That’s the ACS’s fault.  They shouldn’t be taking steps to go all digital without first mandating the only way digitial shit is indexed:  DOI, be included in the references.

Nevertheless, that last point has never been addressed by the ACS – what is “published”?  Are ASAPs now the published versions?  Once they get into ASAP does that mean I don’t have to write “In Print” on my CV?

I’d like to suggest to our older colleges that are fearing this transition that they consider this transition, not as the regression toward a tawdry and unpleasant method of publication, but as the inevitable advance that it is.  Online publications have superseded print in all meaningful metrics – libraries are filled with empty shelves where journals once were.  Tables where men and (a few) women poured over literature are now occupied by undergraduates listening to their iPods.  The CAS indexes sit on shelves unopened, unread and, in many places, with volumes missing and damaged with no intent for repair.  When I come across a journal not offered online – and only available in the library – I don’t get it.  Sorry if that’s your reference to your initial discovery printed in a journal too expensive (or obscure) to end up in our online catalogs.  That’s YOUR problem now (the next generation of scientists would like to take the time to introduce themselves:  Hi!).  Say it with me now:

Print is dead.

Print is dead.

Print is dead!

In a recent PEW report, scientists rank roughly equal to doctors (those are “real” doctors) and slightly less than teachers in the public’s eye.  In other words, if the public had a giant T-Mobile cell phone their fave-5 would be Military>Teachers>Scientists>Doctors>Engineers.  This is a good thing, I suppose, but I still don’t think we’ll be getting discounts on cars or preferred air travel.

On the other hand, 85% of scientists think the public is full of retards and 50% feel as thought the public has unrealistic expectations of what scientists can do.  I quoth:

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations. Fully 85% see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.

Then there is a section for bellyaching on the lack of funding…

If you follow down that long list of questions two things popped out at me:

87% of scientists believe in natural selection compared to 32% of the general public.  I’m concerned about that number.  87%? 1 out of 10 scientists think God did some magic shit?  hmmm… That’s a fucking shame.  I’d accept 95%, just because people are weird and there’s nothing you can do about that but 87% seems awfully low.  While I can dismiss the public as being horribly educated (thanks teachers – who are more loved than us!) and thus more likely to reject something that has been horribly explained to them, I have a hard time doing the same for quote-end-quote scientists.  Coincidentally, roughly the same number (84%) think the earth is getting warmer due to man’s involvement.    At the very least, we can all agree 84% is a consensus, since, apparently, 13% of “scientists” haven’t yet discovered the first chapter of a biology textbook.

Then, at the very bottom, the partisan breakdown occurs with an astoundingly low 6% calling themselves Republican (so shut up Bill Carroll) with a slightly higher number (9%) calling themselves conservative. (I think they’re mostly engineers.)

The US supreme court ruled a few weeks ago that the chemists that perform tests in forensic analysis are not immune from cross examination by defense attorneys.  It’s not surprising that the American judicial system did not inherently allow for this, since it’s a very biased and fucked up system.  With this tool in the briefs of attorneys, it sets up a very real and very likely chance that a number of methods used in forensic science, as conducted in the state crime labs, will not hold up to scrutiny.  Not because they’re necessarily invalid (though, we shall see about that), but because they’ve not been done with the appropriate controls – an argument mentioned in the majority arguments by Scalia:

He cited one report, for example, that said “there is wide variabiility [sic] across forensic science disciplines with regard to techniques, methodologies, reliability, types and numbers of potential errors, research, general acceptability, and published material.”

Putting the chemist or lab technician on the stand to be tested by cross-examination, the majority said, will help “weed out not only the fraudulent analyst, but the incompetent one as well.

While this is a good thing for people who are accused of crimes they didn’t actually commit, it provides a way for a young, naive lawyer to get unfortunately schooled in a cross examination.  Without knowing the fundamental questions one should ask (and know before you ask) this could be a strategic blunder, making the forensic evidence look all the more compelling.

So, then, what should a young lawyer who suddenly learned they have this new power look for?  Frankly, I don’t know – but I can say there are somethings they should be aware of:

TLC (thin layer chromatography) is not a quantitative method because commercially obtained plates do not contain a consistent density and quality of silica, which means any TLC results are suspect without a co-spot.  Even so, co spotting can be misleading, unless you’re using the correct visualization method, to make sure you don’t have any overlapping spots.  In effect – I’d thing TLC evidence would be the easiest to toss out and make fun of as a method to corroborate a story.  It may be good enough to test purity for a rough guess, but it’s not accepted in the journals as proof – because it’s not.

MS  (mass spectrometry) can be misleading since calibration of the instrument must be done correctly.  Any competent technician will give the method of calibration.  I would guess that state labs use old equipment and they very would could be passing off aberrant noise as a peak of some sort.

Actually, I have to assume most of the stuff they’re doing is done on really old equipment – though that in itself isn’t reason to suspect the results.  Questions regarding the validation of that equipment, however, is appropriate.  Most scientific instrumentation loses some degree of precision as it ages, rendering it less accurate at the extremes of its detection ranges.  External companies are often used (and are usually necessary) to validate the instruments to some specification (I assume NIST standards) and provide proof of that validation.  Equipment that lacks this validation may not necessarily provide reliable evidence.  If a case could result in a very long incarceration of someone who may be innocent, the calibration – even in a reasonable range of detection, should be a concern.

GMP protocols probably will provide a better guide than I could.  I assume if it’s a standard by which drugs are made, it should be a standard by which evidence is measured….

Derek’s recent blog posts, have forced a bit of reflection in me on the  “Chemistry fatigue” often felt by people who file in and out of college classrooms.  The chemistry they encounter is not the chemistry the world does.  The way chemistry is taught in collegiate settings is not the way chemistry is taught in the lab.  Chemistry pedagogy is to blame – often antiquated methods of teaching chemistry with no obvious purpose would (and should) lead anyone to surmise that the subject is (1) hard (2) academic and unpractical and (3) used more to “weed out” kids from premed programs than to teach them fundamental skills on problem solving that will help them later in life.

For instance, not but 9 years ago my chemistry lab course, which was taught by a pioneer in alene chemistry, contained only compound characterization labs using chemical elucidation techniques.  (Tollins, flame tests, etc…)  The class was not useful for me as a chemistry major and it was undoubtedly less useful for those that were taking it for their own purposes.

While the ACS has done their bit to fill the airwaves with “chemistry touches all our lives” commercials, I’m not entirely sure they were effective.  When I sit down to read SciAm, there may be one article devoted to chemistry with a preponderance of bullshit on the latest paradigms used to explain the nonsense of deep space tissue penetration and the obligatory article on some cloned or transgenic critter.  There isn’t much of a market on the wonders of chemical magik; even the more user-friendly chemistry that comes prepackaged with pretty pictures like those out of the labs of Stoddart, Rebek and Anslyn get no attention.  Somehow the uselessness of the deep mysteries of invisible matter in the cosmos is more compelling than the efforts of man right here on Earth.

There may be an absence of a strong voice.  Physics did have charismatic men like Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman who were relentless advocates for science education of the masses.  I have heard suggestions of Carolyn Bertozzi being such an advocate, and I myself could think of few more capable, but hitherto, I have not seen her advocate for chemistry on a national scale, though her advocacy on behalf of women in science and the GLBT community in general has been highly admirable.

So, what’s to be done?

I wonder if the time for a Carl Sagan like figure to appear to children and mesmerize them with a soft voice in their living rooms is passed its time.  Back in the day, we watched PBS because that was one of 10 channels, unless you were lucky to grow up with cable (I wasn’t), it was PBS or daytime soaps.  There are entertainers like Bill Nye, but advocacy for science in general doesn’t really help the cause of making chemistry more accessible, even though it can’t hurt.

In short, I feel as though the problems are many and splendored.  Everything from a lack of advocacy (which has lead to ignorance), to poor pedagogy from high school through college has shaped chemistry to be the monster and bane of premeds and premed dropouts alike.  The subject isn’t inherently easy, but I’d wager it’s no more difficult than physics (if physics were easier, I assume I’d have gone into that) and I’m not suggesting making it dumber (though, I question the amount of sincerity with which it is taught – sophomore organic chemistry should not be the intellectual gate through which all must pass before getting their membership to the Intelligentsia.)