Friday, May 31, 2013

$100 Million? That's a Lot of Science

This recent Wired article is fascinating: Mailbox, a tiny, barely-two-and-a-half-year-old company in San Francisco, makes a killer app. A month later, Dropbox drops in $100 million dollars.

Stop for just a moment, and I'll say it again: One Hundred Million Dollars.

Holy Toledo! Let's imagine for a moment that Mailbox was a chemical compound, and that the company hired chemists. You've likely heard the old saw of ~$200K / FTE (overhead & chemicals included).

Well, ignoring inflation, that up-front money could support a staff of 10 chemists for 50 years
Job security? You betcha.

Even more amazing, look down to the fourth bold interview question, about hiring vs. supply/ demand for mobile engineers in the Bay Area. According to CEO Underwood, they cannot find enough bodies to fill the seats; interesting parallels, I'm sure, with Cambridge or Palo Alto for chemists, ca. 1980 or so (Biotech? What the heck is that?). The Dropbox parent site? Currently trying to fill 47 jobs, at a company where all meals are included, 4 weeks' vacation, and dedicated game rooms on-site. 

Try selling that to a biotech start-up. Dang.

Exactly Like Cooking - Review of "Yes, Chef"

It's been a while since I've read a book I couldn't put down. Especially one that blends two of my favorite subjects: cooking, and indentured servitude "making your bones" in a tradition-bound hierarchy.

Marcus Samuelsson's Yes, Chef: A Memoir reads like a grad school recap...(in a good way!)

Credit: Random House
For those unfamiliar with Chef Samuelsson - owner of the Red Rooster in Harlem and former executive chef of Aquavit - his story reads like a modern fairy tale. Adopted from Ethiopia at 5, into a white-collar Swedish home outside Goteborg. Attended a technical school (Mosesson), where he fell in love with culinary arts. As a journeyman chef, he cooked his way through a series of European restaurants (Belle Avenue, Victoria Jungfrau, Elisabethpark, Georges Blanc), some cruise ships, and a long stint in New York City, where he finally decided to land. Along the way, he's taken some turns on TV, first on Top Chef: Masters and recently as a judge on Chopped. He's cooked at a State Dinner for President Obama.

Samuelsson's writing, humble yet descriptive, makes you truly see the food in front of you. You can feel the pain and grind of kitchen life, from cuts, burns, and scrapes to the deeper emotional wounds wrought by oppressive managers and head chefs with attitude. Samuelsson emerges from the book less a 'foodie hero' than a grizzled vet of the restaurant scene.

Of course, the parts I most appreciated paralleled my life as a bench-bound synthetic chemist. Kitchen shifts, like lab work, demand long hours, dedication, and a willingness to learn every facet of the job, from "front of house" to garde manger, herb garden to chef de partie. Chemists, too, find their jobs easier when they make a point of practicing skills to the point of subconscious performance - filleting fish or de-boning duck become as automatic as pulling pipettors or running rotovaps.

I enjoyed the concept of a stage, a tradition between restaurants (p.74):
"To be sent away was the highest honor: It meant that you would be sent off to spend a week, a month, or a season doing a stage, which was an unpaid apprenticeship ...the idea was that you'd either come back, bringing those new techniques and skills you'd picked up with you, or or your boss's kindness would come back to him someday."
(Doesn't this sound like a visiting researcher position, or perhaps a short postdoc?)

Less amusing, though, was the metric for success in moving up the cooking ladder (p. 165):
"Don't draw attention to yourself. I know it sucks, but try to be as small as possible."
" get ahead in that culture, you have to completely give yourself up to the place. Your time, your ego, your social life, your relationships, they are all sacrificed. It's a daily dose of humility most Americans find difficult to swallow."
(Uncomfortably close to graduate school, right there).

Finally, Samuelsson does not understate the role luck and failure play in shaping one's career. Multiple random events, albeit tragic ones - car accidents, deaths, missed contacts - propelled him into his current life. As with progress through a long total synthesis, failure too can drive you to seek out new ideas, or at least discard the bad ones fast.

I'd recommend this book to anyone with the dual food / chemistry interest; I think you'll find a lot of familiar territory. A real page-turner.

Happy Reading, Happy Eating, Happy Friday!
See Arr Oh

Friday Fun - Superlative Publishers

Who's got the highest total # of published papers among living synthetic chemists?

Criteria: The person runs a group that makes things - sorry, no theorists this round - and works principally in some sub-field of synthetic chemistry (organic, organometallic, inorganic, photochem, med-chem, polymers, etc). 

I opened the discussion up on Twitter this morning, and used SciFinder, backed up with [cough] group websites that often need updating [cough]. 

Here's the list, as of 10:00 CST...

(All counts rounded to nearest 100 for convenience. SciFinder is an imperfect metric, since it includes abstracts and some duplicate entries. Please refer to caveats, below, for more detail.)

Alan Katritzky: 2,200 website; 2600 SciFinder

Robert S. Langer: 2000 SciFinder
George Whitesides: 1,200 website; 1900 SciFinder
Leo Paquette: 1500 SciFinder
*E. J. Corey: 1,000 website; 1500 SciFinder
J. Fraser Stoddart: 1,000 website; 1400 SciFinder
Tobin J. Marks: 1,000 website, 1600 SciFinder
Paul v. Rague Schleyer: 1,300 website; 1600 SciFinder
Jean Frechet: 800 website; 1300 SciFinder
Irina Beletskaya: 1300 SciFinder
Barry Trost: 900 website; 1200 SciFinder
K.C. Nicolaou: 700 website; 1200 SciFinder
D. Reinhoudt: 1200 SciFinder
J. S. Yadav: 1,000 website; 1200 SciFinder
Ben Feringa: 1100 SciFinder
J-M. Lehn: 1100 SciFinder
E.W. "Bert" Meijer: 1000 SciFinder
Robert "Bob" Grubbs: 1000 SciFinder
Virgil Percec: 1000 SciFinder
Samuel "Sam" Danishefsky: 700 website; 1000 SciFinder
Ryoji Noyori: 800 SciFinder
Steven Ley: 900 SciFinder
Amos B. Smith: 900 SciFinder
James Tour: 500 website; 900 SciFinder
Stuart Scheiber: 500 website; 800 SciFinder
Karen Wooley: 700 SciFinder
Peter Langer: 700 SciFinder
Carolyn Bertozzi: 700 SciFinder
Jean'ne M. Shreeve: 500 website; 700 SciFinder
JoAnn Stubbe: 600 SciFinder
John Hartwig: 300 website; 600 SciFinder
K. Barry Sharpless: 600 SciFinder
Jacqueline Barton: 300 website; 600 SciFinder
Gautam Desiraju: 500 SciFinder
J.K.M. Sanders: 500 SciFinder
Ted Taylor: 500 SciFinder
Laura Kiessling: 400 SciFinder
M. Joullie: 400 SciFinder
Cynthia Burrows: 300 SciFinder
Melanie Sanford: 200 SciFinder

(Update: 1PM - Added Tobin Marks, Virgil Percec. 6PM - Added top-author women chemists. 7PM - Added Frechet, Desiraju, Sanders. 12AM 6/1 - Added Shreeve, Beletskaya)

Some caveats: I know it's folly to attempt correlating total publication count : scientific 'genius.'
If you only publish one paper, but you cure a major disease or invent a top-selling polymer additive, you're doing just fine! 

Also, I note that not everyone agrees that folks on this list belong in the "synthetic chemist" bucket - see ScienceGeist's (noted) exceptions here. (Update: P-O. Norrby noted another exception...)

Importantly, graduate students shouldn't feel down and out about this list. You can have a perfectly fine career with just a handful of papers; these superstars are the exception rather than the rule.

Curious thought: Publications in large synthetic groups certainly seem to follow a power law** - it takes ~15 years to get those first 100 papers, then about 8 for 100 more, and then the pace picks up dramatically. Presumably, this represents added hands and minds, along with building respect and excitement for one's work. I don't know how many other factors (prizes, location, grants, "buzz") are involved, but they probably belong to another post.

Readers, what say you? Have another person I've missed on the list?

*Who knew E.J. pwned (show of hands?) I think I smell a fantastic cyber-squatting campaign, anyone?

**An example we discussed on Twitter: Phil Baran. It took him 15 yrs (1997-2011) to get 100 pubs. Next 25 or so have only taken 2 yrs. If power law holds, he'll have >400 pubs by age 50.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Tracking Reactions? AFM FTW

Thanks to @slugnads at Wired for pointing out this story!
Update 5/31/13 - Derek's also got a great review going at Pipeline.

Remember 2009, when you gasped for a moment at the beautiful IBM structure of pentacene

Credit: BBC News | IBM | Science
In 2012, just in time for the 2012 London Olympics, the same team helped to image "olympicene."

Credit: BBC | IBM
And now, just 5 months into 2013, a team of researchers from UC-Berkeley / LBNL and several physics institutes in Spain have watched cyclizations occur on silver surfaces, using AFM tips to detect the ghostly products in stunning resolution:

Credit: Science | LBNL | UC-Berkeley | Wired

As if this couldn't sound any more amazing, the researchers were able to predict and visualize several products previously predicted by theory, but never directly observed (stabilized diradicals, anyone?). 

So, will this be a standard technique for the practicing chemist? I'm guessing not for quite a few years, since the hardware involved still isn't commonplace, and the technique probably works best at prohibitively high dilutions with flat molecules. Med chem? Sure, you could watch a Suzuki coupling occur, or watch a Cope rearrangement, but for "3D" molecules (read: alkaloids, vitamins, sugars, etc...) I think NMR and X-ray crystallography will still be your best bets. 

But to paraphrase the futurists, predictions ironically suffer from poor foresight - after all, just over a month ago, a Japanese group disclosed how to take on-demand crystal structures of just about anything. So, I'm sure someone will invent a "rugged" surface capable of guiding the AFM tip around points and curves to monitor, say, real-time Pictet-Spengler reactions. Can't wait!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Bluth Family Chemistry

*WARNING - Spoilers below! If you haven't seen these episodes, skip this post!*

To celebrate the recent release of the new Arrested Development episodes on Netflix, I've rounded up a short list of the witty, chem-inspired scenes from Season 4.

George Michael's dorm room, Episode 9

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Poste-docke Limerick

(This post was written as part of the BRSM Blog Party. For more worldly wisdom, check out Jess's entry, Stu's, Vittorio's, and Freda's...)

There once was a chap from the UK,
Who wanted to study in Ussay.
He said "I know what,
I'll get scuttlebutt,
And figure out how to be OK."

His mates on thine Twitter doth proclaim,
That the Yankee chem kids are most profane.
They 'colour' incorrectly,
Forget 'football' and 'high tea,'
Those Yanks just love coffee and ballgames.

Dollars - not pounds - will buy groceries,
Pounds - and not stone - for the weights, please.
In lab, we know grams,
Kilos and drams,
But don't order 'litres' of gas, geez!

Driving's best done on the right,
Try not to run the red lights.
I'd recommend bussing,
But I'm not quite trusting,
No double-deckers in sight.

Remember your relative youth,
You're prob'ly much further in truth.
Our 'Docs' start too late,
Feel put off and irate,
Student loans and long programs are uncouth.

Keep your head down and do good work,
Take on new skills and avoid jerks.
Get a paper or two,
Make some new friends to boot,
And never say no to some pub perks.

Good luck, B.R.S.M. Come see us sometime, we'll buy you a pint.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Speak Up!

Know what drives me nuts?

Louder, Yorick, I can't hear you!
Source: RSC
Sitting in the back of a seminar room after a fantastic talk.

I can never hear anyone's questions! 

We scientists aren't always the most talkative types, but you'd think we could eke out some volume when it counts, right?

Wrong. I can't tell you how often I've cupped my hand to my ear, leaned so far forward I'm nearly doubled over, and all I get are vague "Charlie Brown's teacher" noises directed at the seminar speaker.

Thoughts race through my head: "Was that my question? Will the speaker repeat it? Don't we have a microphone around???"

Well, let's try to set some ground rules to follow before the next occurrence.

Physiology - Ever take voice or speech classes? There's some easy steps to take to project your voice:

1. Prepare. Don't fumble for words or go 'round in logical circles. One of my colleagues writes his question down on paper before he asks, and then reads from the script. Try it.

2. Breathe. Before you speak, take a deep breath, filling bottom-to-top (diaphragm to chest). Your air supply governs your voice, so fill up!

3. Open up. Your soft palate, the tissue near the back and top of your mouth, needs to be open to allow your voice to resonate in your nasal cavities. One trick to accessing this space? Pretend to yawn, but stop yourself before you do. Feel that heightened, awake moment? That's the soft palate moving, permitting increased air flow.

4. Speak. Use full sentences, and make sure you're communicating the central point of your question. The goal is for the speaker - and the audience - to hear and understand what you're asking. Pause as necessary, using measured spaces between words to drive home important points.

Etiquette - Never just shout out your question, or attempt to cut someone else off while asking theirs.

It's not necessary to overly praise the speaker for his unbelievable oh-my-gosh best talk I've ever heard in my life so thoughtful and well-arranged, etc, etc. The speaker knows they're competent, or they wouldn't be at the front of the room, lecturing...

It's also unnecessary to show your wittiness and intellect by recounting your personal lab highlights, or how much literature you've read on the topic. It's the speaker's moment, not yours.

Always use common courtesy: "Please," "Thank You," "You're Welcome," "Professor," "Dr," "Sir," "Miss / Madame," "Excuse Me," "May I." A few gracious words in the right circumstance could catch the eye of a future collaborator or postdoc advisor.

All else fails? Ask the speaker after the talk, when you can get them one-on-one.

Readers: Have more tips for our seminar questioners? Talk to me in the comments!

Friday Fun: Who Should be Science Laureate?

Perhaps this little tidbit from ScienceInsider got lost in the shuffle yesterday:

Looks like Washington wants a Science Laureate, a travelling scientist "national spokesman for science" to rove about the country drumming up support and excitement. From Sen. Hirono's (HI) office:
"This new honorary position would be appointed by the President from nominees recommended by the National Academy of Sciences and serve for a term of 1-2 years. Using this national platform, the Science Laureate would be empowered to speak to Americans on the importance of science broadly and scientific issues of the day..."
"So, should we rock-paper-scissors for it, then?"
Credit: Solar San Antonio | Hayden Planetarium
“...Establishing honorary U.S. Science Laureates would send a clear message to young people about the value of science and technology in our society, and the importance of scientific research to both economic progress and our quality of life,” said Alan I. Leshner Chief Executive Officer of the AAAS and Executive Publisher of Science." 
OK, I'm all in favor of increasing exposure and public awareness of science, even if most of the politicians quoted in the article keep beating the STEM STEM STEM horse to death.
So, what does this gig pay, anyway?
"Like the Poet Laureate, the Science Laureate would be an unpaid, honorary post. The scientist would also be encouraged to continue their important scientific work."
Tough break. Guess you'd be expected to write those R01's on the road, then.

Happy Friday!

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Helium: Heavy Demand, Light Supply

From NPR News this morning, an intriguing news tidbit regarding the ongoing helium shortage:
"There's a global shortage of refined helium, and it could get worse if the [U.S.] government doesn't stay in the business of selling helium. To understand how we got here, we need to go back to nearly a century ago to World War I. Germany started building huge inflatable aircraft, and to keep up, the U.S. started stockpiling helium. That federal helium reserve is located outside Amarillo, Texas. [snip]
Hope you can hold off on that overnight 13C
Source: Bruker
. . .there are now 10 billion cubic feet of the gas stored in this federal reservoir — enough to fill about 50,000 Goodyear blimps. And it's all kept under a wide-open prairie dotted with coyotes and jack rabbits."
Hang on, let me catch up here. Federal Helium Program? Strategic reserve? I mean, I've heard about the shortage (SciAm, Science, Marketplace), but I didn't realize the situation had grown so dire. (On a micro-econ level, I had noticed that the Airgas truck doesn't stop by to refill the NMRs quite so often, and hourly billing rates are climbing...)

Most of the articles indicate private refineries and exploration firms will bear the supply brunt if Congress doesn't act. 

Perhaps #chemjobs' future isn't in fracking after all - ever thought about 'helium hunting?' Failing that, maybe you could "catch a falling star" and then list it on eBay.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Justice = Served

Friend of the blog Stu Cantrill sends along a long-awaited decision, courtesy of our pals over at Retraction Watch. Blogizens may recall I wrote (strongly) in favor of this outcome back in February.

I applaud the editors of Chemistry: A European Journal for righting this ship. Well done.

Did you see how that worked out, Dalton Transactions?
Hope you reconsider for next time.


Saturday, May 4, 2013

Special Delivery

Look what arrived by mail in the post this morning:

As seen in several celebrity photo-shoots
OK, so I'm no Charles Atlas (or even Phil Baran) yet, but I'm getting there...
Thanks to the hard-working, fun-loving staff at Nature Chemistry!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Scientific Misadventures

Did you hear about the Florida teen expelled from school for her unsupervised chemical forays?

Reading Ash and DNLee's posts over at SciAm made me furious, too. So, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane, recounting all the stupid (but important!) things I tried in science labs, Kindergarten through College.

Disclaimer: Don't try these on school grounds. Given today's educational climate, you'd likely be in serious trouble for any of these activities.

1. I learned about acidic corrosion by testing small drops of concentrated HCl on coins, nails, paper clips, wood - basically anything that changed color or smoked.

2. Particle size controls reaction rate? I cut up a bunch of hand warmers to play with thermite.

3. I examined anything and everything under our high-powered class microscopes. Including pus, blood, urine, mucus, skin, hair, tears, and spit. All from me.

4. I figured out how to catch asbestos-lined 3-prong clamp sleeves on fire.

5. When I heard about the halogen flame-test, I didn't stop at the required substrates. Turns out, lots of things from your lunch-box will give a positive test.

6. I explored salt bridges and solution conductance using lantern batteries and light bulbs.

7. I cultivated fruit flies in an old pasta jar in my dorm room. Never did see a white-eyed one...

8. Many things will catch fire using a magnifying glass + sunshine.

9. Sometimes, heating something just a bit more will produce beautiful crystals. And sometimes multiple grams of bright blue copper complexes end up all over your smock, the bench, and the floor.

10. My "wilderness survival" kit contained a flint and steel. I did not use these exclusively for survival.

11. Best way to learn about peroxides? Drop some liver into them (or some blood).

12. The experiment to extract luciferin from fireflies did not go as planned.

13. Fun with food chemistry: Just start mixing things from the cupboard and see what happens!

14. You cannot remove urushiol (poison ivy oil) with rubbing alcohol. It just seeps deeper into your skin.

15. Iodine starch tests work on bread, paper, and clothes...

I'm sure there are many, many more. End result? Proud Ph.D. chemist.