Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Chem Coach Carnival: Late to the Party, Still Invited

Technically, it's still 'National Chemistry Week' as I write this (in that a week stretches Sunday-Saturday, although I'd guess there's precious few outreach activities still going on!). Thus, although I attempted to "cap" the carnival on Friday, a few (really cool) entries have straggled in. Without further ado, let's give them their due.

Update (10/30/12) - Apologies this didn't go live several nights back, but there was a storm situation that needed 'sorting out' in the interim...

56. MJ, postdoc, East Coast USA. MJ blogs at Interfacial Digressions. I don't really have to tell you how MJ spends his day since he does it himself: "a mix of physical chemistry, biochemistry, and spectroscopy, along with dashes of molecular biology, computation, and misery." MJ finds that sometimes advisors attempt truly ambitious swing-for-the-fences-type work, and leave the details up to the student. He may be the first person I've seen use the expression "honest-to-Buddha."

57. Tom, grad student, Imperial College London. Tom blogs at A Chemical Education. Like most superheroes, mild-mannered Tom can often be found working part-time in bookshops, while Super-Tom cooks up nanoparticles in miniature ovens, builds flow reactors, and troubleshoots MATLAB for undergrads. Coffee and cycling keep him sane. He's got a "...try-anything, get-on-with-it attitude," a must for scientific work nowadays.

58. Sarah, chemist or writer? Sarah blogs at Webb of Science (I get it!). Sarah reminds us that freelance writing - essentially running a small business - means great freedom and great responsibility. For her, that's taxes and paperwork :) Sarah bounced back-and-forth between NYC and LA, in a series of internships, an AAAS fellowship, and museum work at the Griffith Observatory. But which is she? Scientist, Writer? She leans towards "writer," but I think she's still on the fence - that's a good thing.

59. Bran, Organic Geochemistry Technician IV, OK. Bran, a self-described "metal-rocker / sports geek #TechLabLife," clearly wins for best-illustrated post thus far. Her entire entry published below:

So as usual, if this #ChemCoach Blog Carnival was a real life event, I would be late to the party. Not because I think that is hip or anything, I literally find myself having no extra attention to give towards anything. Why? Let’s talk about that. I am a research/lab technician IV for the University of Oklahoma (which has recently turned into the ESPN version of Vegas due to our scheduled Football Powerhouse clash with Notre Dame tomorrow). At this university I work in the department of Geology and Geophysics in the Energy Center as a chemist. Yes. Geochemistry is a term I learned AFTER I got the job. Amazing field of science, rarely spoken about unless, you are well, in the oil and gas industry. Oklahoma is and continues to be a power player in that industry.

Behind any successful industry is academia and research used as resources to manpower their company and well your life. Cutting out all the confusing political canvas that surrounds this field, petroleum organic geochemistry is the name of my game.  I graduated with my bachelors of science in chemistry from a small town south of here. I didn’t even attend the university I work at. I did undergrad research at a nearby one that gained me some momentum out of college.  It had a downside for me though. That little bit of “undergrad research” drained me, jaded me and made me nervous. I never wanted to put any effort TO THAT EXTENT ever again unless I knew it was in a career that came with a guaranteed return investment called STABILITY. My path to my degree was not easy and detours were made. You can refer to my I am Science post to get a complete assessment of me regarding my now career. Anyways, I refused to apply to any grad schools. I didn’t want to be stuck with some jerk I would have had to literally impress so he could employ me as his Fulltime Failure. I simply was not ready for a scientific version of 50 Shades of Grey in which I got no pleasure out of the deal. Fast forward to my various part time jobs and here we are: lab technician in a research group that is BUSY BUSY BUSY.
Me working after attending Metal Show, 11PM
By busy, I mean not only do we perform petroleum related research, we do environmental forensics and the projects come from ALL OVER THE WORLD. As of right now, we have five labs, four technicians and various numbers of postdocs along with graduate students.
Geochemistry work. Source Rock extract with a surprise. 
Here is a typical work week breakdown. It consists of these various responsibilities:

Instrument care and upkeep (HPLC, GC, HTGC, GC-MS) 
                *I am considered the “in-house expert” regarding HPLC and HTGC.

Creating methods for said instruments depending on parameters/demands of the customer
                *Pleasing the boss and pleasing the lab manager become two very different things. Learn how to do things well in a fast manner without screwing up any equipment.

Training graduate students on said instruments
                *On THEIR time of course because well they are “extremely busy” due to classes and tests and I think something called sleep or whatever.

Data compilation on projects

Anything and everything done in the wet lab
                *Here is where my time is spent. Breaking down crude oil and/or source rock needs a chemist’s touch. Depending on sample, common extraction techniques are employed. Also, if you are a geologist entering chemistry, please respect it as an art. In chemistry, your data speaks volumes to your lab performance. It shows how well you translate the science in seeking answers to the questions asked. People forget chemistry is in the details. On a molecular level, if you messed up, it shows. Those who wear rubber gloves and handle source rock will understand that statement. Not including my PI and one grad student, I am the lab go-to chemistry person.

Emails, Emails, Emails!!
*Boss is in demand which means boss is gone. Boss emails. YOU MUST ALWAYS ANSWER. This includes when he is 4 timezones away. Being computer literate and efficient means you can communicate project progress via email. I get 110 emails a week.

Culture Troubleshooting
*Ha. New additions to the group need help with apartment hunting, DMV registration, HR paperwork, travel between sites and an American who can deal with our awful customer service to internationals. I am that chick. I get -ISH done for them. I do paper edits for those whose English is a second language. This includes everything from rental agreements to their PhD dissertation to their latest journal submittal from another lab. I still do this for postdocs who have since left the lab but trust only me to edit their English. I don’t mind. I sometimes get methods in their language and then translate it to save their time.  Oh and yes, I introduce them to Oklahoma culture which so far basically involves ranch dressing and home game tailgates. I’ve made the best friends out of foreign postdocs who I keep in touch with. They are dear to me.

Time management
*Priority means priority if you want your lab to have money. Science takes time when you are breaking down long chained hydrocarbons. Sometimes sleep is not part of that. You will run into problems and how you work around them quickly determines the chemistry you have with your chemistry skills.

I love my lab because of its diversity depth. I love hearing other languages and learning new things. After living in Italy, I can use that experience at work and I HAVE MANY TIMES. I did get co-authored by my Brazilian postdoc in last project. They have all been and continue to be great mentors in my chemistry career transition. She and other postdocs constantly push me towards my PhD. They regard me as an equal to them and only want the best for me. I get it. I know.


I have no time to myself. I applied to graduate school and forgot to turn in papers because of my schedule. I decided to be unclassified to utilize staff discount on tuition, benefits AND stay close to my projects. As of now, I am not even ready to do that. I think I owe myself more time to enjoy life. My chemE postdoc told me the other day “You are always funny. It’s a good thing despite us working so hard. You remind me that life is short and sometimes this [insert sample] isn’t what life is about. It’s good I can do this every day but we need balance.”  Want to know the real reason why graduate students hate their lives? They know they have a choice to walk away and they accept that *this* project *may* or *may not* make up for everything they sacrificed to get there. Being a technician gives me a privilege. I have to be trained. I am not thrown to the wolves. I may not know what is in your fancy textbook but I guarantee you that classroom work is fantasy land. You read and almost always pseudo diagnose already solved scientific problems. I see my data passed out in classrooms.  On a daily basis I am handed some WTH-object and expected to come up with the right answer by the end of the day using the resources we have. It’s stressful and time-consuming but I operate best under those conditions. The more I succeed at, the more I get.

Me and "mi tesoro" Polish Physicist
Until I have the need for my PhD, I will gladly respond to the chemistry mysteries that surround us with “CHALLENGE ACCEPTED.”

Work Hard, Play Harder.

PS. I have gotten no sleep at all due to work deadlines and the common life setbacks, but I WILL STILL SPEND ALL DAY DOING OKLAHOMA SOONER FOOTBALL. I promise you that. BOOMER SOONER.

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