Saturday, September 17, 2011

Musings: Who are Chemists, Anyway?

When I’m performing a repetitive lab task (columns, iterative dilutions, etc.), my mind tends to drift. Yesterday, I began thinking about who I actually work with, where they come from, and why they’re in chemistry. Ever heard Jeff Foxworthy perform “You Might be a Redneck if…”? What if someone were to compile a similar list about synthetic chemists?
Thus, a few observations, from the subset of, say, 300 chemists I’ve worked with over the last ten years:
"It's OK, Dom, I'm leaving baseball for grad school"
Credit: AP
They tend to be older siblings: Perhaps there exists out there somewhere a biotech run entirely by younger sibs, but I haven’t found it yet! At my current job, all senior managers are the oldest siblings in their families, and I’m fairly certain most of the bench chemists have younger brothers and sisters. Maybe the old nature / nurture debate surfaces here, where parents encourage older children to pursue medical and scientific careers.
Folks come from all over: I hail from a town that the 2000 Census dubbed >95% Caucasian. Many of my friends went off to school, and then moved immediately back to town. After college, I moved 700 miles away, possibly to escape this exact fate! This "lifestyle inertia" has never occurred at any of the six labs I’ve worked in: the scientific population integrates well (math joke here?). My coworkers have hailed from all over the US, plus every continent except Greenland. It’s fun to watch Russian postdocs tell jokes to Indian coworkers, while French, Chinese, and Iranian labmates listen in and laugh.
Tech-savvy:  The first Blackberry I ever saw was wielded by a chemist. Ditto iPads, USB sticks, and noise-cancelling headphones. In grad school or college, you’ve probably used MacOS, UNIX / Linux, and most of the Microsoft Office suite, and you may have created .pdfs, manipulated graphics files, or solved crystal structures. It comes with the territory.

Merit badges = Future PhD?

Be Prepared? Four of my former coworkers were Eagle Scouts, and several more have EMT and First Responder training. Safety first.
Hobbies? Try second careers: Bench chemists live two lives: they’re passionate about their chemistry, but everyone has a hobby that they could fall back on (maybe a necessary practice in a bum economy). I’ve met semi-professional musicians, day traders, lay pastors, auto mechanics, authors, aerobics instructors, economists, coaches, show promoters, bodybuilders, shop owners, and even professional dancers.
World Travelers: Maybe this makes sense given their international background, but chemists travel all over. Many save up their whole vacation allotment for 2-3 years, and then go to China, France, Australia, or Argentina. Back when large chemical concerns had travel budgets (I know, a novel conceit), chemists could rely on at least one expedition per year, usually to attend a big conference in a far-flung locale.
Not Fashion Plates: You won’t see many chemists dressing like the men and women striding down docks in J.Crew, or taking nighttime strolls like they do in Ralph Lauren catalogs. Perhaps it’s thrift, or comfort, or maybe chemists just realize that their clothes have limited lifetimes in synthetic labs.
Office Pool?  Of course!  Chemists tend to jump at opportunities to participate in NCAA tourneys, fantasy football, or poker nights. Maybe it’s the competition? The odds? The logic? Who knows! I’ve worked in labs where two competing tournaments have been run simultaneously…and both found plenty of participants.
Wanna join our league?
One-Upsmanship: Many of the conversations I’ve had with older chemists invariably come down to competitions over how hard the job once was. Usually, they begin with “Oh yeah? Well, when I was your age, we had to recrystallize everything to purity, we didn’t have working fume hoods, and we actually used the (insert here name of old, dusty apparatus in the corner no one ever uses).” Maybe this speaks to how much synthetic chemists enjoy competition (see above).
War Stories and Battle Scars: No, I’m not talking about actual military service, although I’ve worked with a few chemists who have bravely fought alongside our troops. I refer to tales career chemists always tell at bars, stories where pump traps explode, flames shoot up from flasks, and injury was narrowly avoided. If you work in a synthetic lab long enough, you’ll have a few close calls, and you might even have something to show for it: a bald spot here, a burn there, even some stitches now and again.


  1. Regarding the one-upmanship, what would the chemists' version of the Yorkshiremen sketch include?

  2. @Steve - Awesome! Would you believe I'd never seen that before? It reminds me of the old joke I used to hear as a kid:
    "We had to walk uphill to school, both ways, in the snow, with no shoes, carrying all our books"


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