Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Where was this app in 2009?

It's never too late for just a little fun.

(courtesy of Pic Monkey)

This is immature...

Based on this blogpost

...but quite satisfying to me, anyway.

Look -- there's a lot to be criticized about modern industrial agriculture and how it does things. But chemophobia and fear, uncertainty and doubt attacks are really annoying. 

But what do I know? I'm one of the people who makes money from chemicals. 

P.S. Bittman's "Minimalist" recipes are, indeed, pretty great. I like them a lot. 

NPR covers #chemjobs in the RTP area

Listening to All Things Considered on the way home yesterday, a fascinating #chemjobs story in the middle of a series on financial success (and lack thereof). It's based out of North Carolina's Research Triangle area, so it's not a surprise that there are pharma/chemical industry ties:
Donald Zepp, 67, and his wife, Carmen — 26 years his junior — have a 4-year-old son together. Both have been married before and both were well-employed before. Donald taught at Cornell and worked for the multinational agrichemical company Rhone-Poulenc until he was downsized. Carmen worked in the finance department of the pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline but quit after surviving ovarian cancer. 
"It was eight years before I joined the legion of people who on getting out of corporate America say, 'That was the best that ever happened to me,' " Donald says. "It took eight years, but I did reach that point where one day I said, 'You know, I'm really happy, this beats the hell out of working.' " 
The Zepps live in Wendell, N.C., 20 miles east of Raleigh, where they bought the local music store. Together, they've gone into business selling banjos. [snip] The Zepps cheerfully describe their economic situation as "dismal" and say they get by, for the most part, on his pension and Social Security. [snip]
...Phil Luby is another refugee from corporate life who struck out on his own. He says he used to make $200,000 a year marketing pharmaceuticals. When he was downsized in 2008, he rolled the dice on the used car business. It was a tough business to get into then, but he says things are improving.
Dr. Zepp appears to have been laid off from Rhone-Poulenc from a position as a Ph.D. entomologist. I don't wish to speculate too much on Dr. Zepp's career, but one imagines that he tried at least a little bit to find other work in his field. The same goes for Mr. Luby, I'll bet.

That two of three people formerly connected with the chemical/pharma industries were laid off is no surprise, I suppose. While both people seem to have landed on their feet (and Dr. Zepp seems genuinely happy about his new job), one wonders if, in better economic times for our sector, whether they would have stayed in their positions.

Best wishes to all of us. 

Process Wednesday: data comes from the weirdest places

There sure seem to be a lot of articles about working with hydrazoic acid safely in Organic Process Research and Development recently; all to the good! In the latest one (González-Bobes et al. [1]), the authors perform an "enantioselective palladium-catalyzed desymmetrization of a meso-bis-ester using TMS-N3. They do quite a bit of work towards making sure that there's not too much hydrazoic acid in the headspace -- after all, it's both terribly toxic and explosive. From the article:
To maintain safety during downstream processing, a high pH and/or near complete reaction conversion must be achieved. Since the process required an acidification for intermediate stabilization (approximate pH 3.5), our control strategy relies on achieveing high reaction conversions (low residual free azide.) Therefore, the next step in the quantitative analysis becames the determination of the accetable residual free azide level after the palladium-catalyzed desymmetrization reaction. To accomplish this, we first interpreted data from the PUREX process, a nuclear fuel reprocessing method which forms HN3 as a byproduct. Using this data, we established a gas phase limit of 0.625 vol % which is based on the enriched condensate LEL in equilibrium wit the solution and gas phases. 
As a relative youngster, I'm not really aware of the PUREX process, so I thought I would take a look at it. It's pretty remarkable stuff, being able to extract out uranium and plutonium from spent nuclear fuel with tributylphosphate. Here's an excerpt from a random ORNL paper from 1977 on using hydrazine (the source of the hydrazoic acid) in the PUREX process:
In order to separate uranium and plutonium from each other in PUREX processing of nuclear reactor fuelds, advantage is taken of the fact that uranium (VI) is readily extracted from nitric acid solutions into the tributylphosphate-diluent organic phase while plutonium (III) is relatively inextractable. The uranium and plutonium are usually coextracted from the nitric acid fuel dissolver solution as uranium (VI) and plutonium (IV) and are then differentially stripped. The plutonium is reduced to plutonium (III) which strips into a dilute nitric acid solution leaving the uranium (VI) in the organic phase to be subsequently stripped with water. In some flowsheets, the plutonium is reduced prior to the uranium extraction in order to achieve the desired separation.  
Plutonium (III) is not stable in nitric acid and, without the addition of a holding redtctant, rapid and complete reoxidation to plutonium (IV) may occur. This can lead to reextraction of the plutonium during reductive stripping and plutonium recycled within the countercurrent contacting apparatus... Holding reductants are routinely added to solutions of plutonium (III) to destroy the nitrous acid which is continously formed by radiolytic decomposition of nitric acid. Very few reagents have proven useful as holding reductants... 
Hydrazine rapidly reactions with nitrous acid, and the favorable kinetics of this reaction make hydrazine a practical holding reductant. With excess hydrazine present, the condition prevailing when hydrazine is used as a holding reductant, the fast reaction  
N2H4 + HNO2 -> HN3 + 2H2O 
occurs which stoichiometrically yields hydrazoic acid, HN3. Hydrazoic acid is relatively stable in nitric acid solutions. 
There's something amusing about a situation in which rocket fuel gets added to nuclear waste to generate a "relatively stable" explosive waste product. My (figurative) hat's off to Kelmers and Browning for an education in nuclear fuel reprocessing, and to González-Bobes et al. for leading me there.

[1] González-Bobes, F.; Kopp, N.; Li, L.; Deerberg, J.; Sharma, P.; Leung, S.; Davies, M.; Bush, J.; Hamm, J.; Hrytsak. M. "Scale-up of Azide Chemistry: A Case Study." Org. Process. Res. Dev. ASAP. DOI: 10.1021/op3002646

Some terrifying psychology links for Halloween

Wishing you a thriller of a Halloween! 

How to make a Halloween brain cake (ht @mocost).

What do young children know about managing fear?

How to make a zombie brain (See also this related video).

The Lure of Horror, where I explore horror's appeal and why it takes the form it does.

From BBC Radio 4 (now on iPlayer) - The Sound of Fear.

Why fear is fun: Halloween special from Psychology Today.

Why you should watch a horror film before going to the art gallery.

Some people urinate when they're frightened. Other people can't urinate when they're nervous. What's going on?

At what age do babies enter the uncanny valley?

How to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse Using Science (Wired)

Brain dread.

Terror in the night: article on sleep paralysis.

Snakes in a brain scanner!

Horror Director Eli Roth Explores What Makes Good People Do Evil Things in TV Special

Six reasons we're so fascinated by zombies (Psych files podcast).

Fear really does have a smell.

The Neurocritic discusses the pathological fear of being buried alive.

What spooks the masters of horror? Top horror movie makers say which films scared them the most.

Yikes! Thoughts of death increase the appeal of Intelligent Design.

Reminders of disease prime the body and mind to repel other people.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Daily Pump Trap: 10/30/12 edition

Between September 25 and September 29, 91 new positions were posted on C&EN Jobs. Of these, 21 (23%) are academically connected and 62 (68%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Sigh: More Kelly, more academic positions. When the academic positions go away, it's going to be all Kelly, all the time, if things don't pick up.

Cincinnati, OH: Shepherd Chemical Company is looking for a Ph.D. synthetic inorganic chemist for a product development position. I suspect it's entry-level to mid-career, but I can't quite tell.

Hmmm: TSG is a company that performs regulatory consulting for chemical companies; they're looking for a Ph.D. chemist with 5+ years experience to be a "senior managing chemist." Looks TSCA-related. (I wonder if the "Safer Chemicals Act" will never get nff the ground to replace TSCA; unlikely, I'll bet.)

Berkeley, CA: The Pesticide Research Institute is searching for a Ph.D. chemist to be an associate scientist.  Looks to be risk assessments on pesticides -- you know, the exact thing that gets drinks bought for you in the Bay Area. The pay looks a little paltry (50-70k), but maybe that was just to fill out the form.

Tips, angry comments, suggestions wanted

I don't often say this, but it's true. My e-mail address (chemjobber -at- gmaildotcom) is at the top left hand part of this page, and if you want to talk to me directly, feel free to e-mail.

I'm thinking of putting "coaching carousel" feature in the Ivory Filter Flask, to note the holes that are created by professors moving between schools. So, if you have gossip to share, I'm all ears. Confidentiality, of course, is guaranteed. 

Ivory Filter Flask: 10/30/12 edition

Between September 23 and September 29, there were 33 academic positions posted on the ACS website. The numbers:

Total number of ads: 33
- Postdocs: 2
- Tenure-track faculty:  29
- Temporary faculty: 1
- Lecturer positions:  0
- Staff positions:  1
- US/non-US: 29/4

Davenport, IA: The St. Ambrose University is looking for an assistant professor, looking mainly at the analytical side. 

Plattsburgh, NY: SUNY College at Plattsburgh is hiring an assistant professor of organic and general chemistry. 50k minimum -- woowoo! (Holy cow, never mind -- the median household income in the town is 28k. You should be just fine.)

Huntingdon, PA: Juniata College is looking for an assistant professor of physical chemistry.

Nanjing, China: It's rather interesting that Nanjing University is touting its new institute through ACS Careers, and its connection with a Nobel Laureate:
The Institute of Chemistry and BioMedical Sciences (ICBMS) which is led by Drs. Aaron Ciechanover (the 2004 Nobel Laureate in Chemistry) and Guigen Li, seeks applications for 4-6 tenure track and tenured faculty positions in chemistry and biology at all levels. 
When will the first name-brand US professor of chemistry get handed an institute in China? It's coming, I'll bet.

Router down; CJ cut off

Our wireless is not behaving. Back ASAP. DPT/IFF and more to come.

Paranormal believers and religious people are more prone to seeing faces that aren't really there

Our brains are so adept at detecting faces that we often see them in random patterns, such as clouds or the gnarled bark of a tree. Occasionally one of these illusory faces comes along that resembles a celebrity and the story ends up in the news - like when Michael Jackson's face appeared on the surface of a piece of toast. A new study asks whether some people are more prone than others to perceiving these illusory faces.

Tapani Riekki and his team collected dozens of photos that judges in pilot work agreed did or did not have the appearance of faces in them (this included pictures of furniture, places, and natural scenes, such as a rock-face). The researchers then used two adverts to recruit their participants - they were identical except that one requested people who "view the paranormal positively or believe that there is an invisible spiritual world," while the other requested people who are "sceptical about paranormal phenomena".

Forty-seven people were eventually selected to take part, based on their being particularly paranormal-believing, religious, sceptical or atheist (there was a lot of overlap in membership between the first two and final two categories). The participants were shown the photos and had to indicate whether a "face-like area" was present, where it was in the image, and they had to say how face-like the image was, and how emotional.

The key finding is that people who scored high in paranormal belief or religiosity were more likely to see face-like areas in the pictures compared with the sceptics and atheists. They weren't more sensitive to the illusory faces as such, because they also scored a lot of false alarms - saying there was a face when there wasn't. However, when they spotted a face-like pattern correctly, they were more accurate than sceptics and atheists at saying where exactly in the pictures the illusory faces were located. Finally, the paranormal believers rated the illusory faces as more face-like and emotional than the sceptics.

The researchers said their findings are consistent with past research showing that belief in the paranormal tends to go hand-in-hand with a tendency to jump to conclusions based on inadequate evidence. They added that the results support the idea that religious people and paranormal believers have the habit of seeing human-like attributes, including mental states, in "inappropriate realms."

"We may all be biased to perceive human characteristics where none exist," Riekki and his team concluded, "but religious and paranormal believers perceive them even more than do others."


Riekki, T., Lindeman, M., Aleneff, M., Halme, A., and Nuortimo, A. (2012). Paranormal and Religious Believers Are More Prone to Illusory Face Perception than Skeptics and Non-believers. Applied Cognitive Psychology DOI: 10.1002/acp.2874

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Best wishes to East Coast readers all my East Coast readers, riding out Hurricane Sandy. Hope all is well, and that you and yours are safe. 

My one clever comment of the day: "Somewhere on the East Coast in a chemistry building, there's a foreign postdoc in the lab, wondering "Where is everybody?"

"Academic publishes anti-cancer tool compound, details at 11"

Just got my new copy of The Atlantic Weekly, with the "Brave Thinkers" section. In it, there's an interesting and slightly hagiographic short profile of Professor Jay Bradner, a physician and chemical biologist (emphasis mine):
Two years ago, after Jay Bradner made a remarkable breakthrough—the discovery of a molecule that, in mice, appeared to trick certain cancer cells into becoming normal cells—he did something unusual. Instead of huddling with lawyers to file for a patent on the molecule, Bradner simply gave his work away. Hoping to get the discovery into the hands of any scientist who could advance it, he published the structure of the compound (called JQ1) and mailed samples to labs around the world. The move, he says, felt like “the more efficient way to do science—and maybe the more honorable way.” 
The open-source approach Bradner adopted is revolutionary in a culture where discoveries are kept secret, often until they can be tested, manufactured, and sold as treatments—a cruelly long process in the face of the cancers he studies. 
The monopoly on developing the molecule that Bradner walked away from would likely have been worth a fortune (last year, the median value for U.S.-based biotech companies was $370 million). Now four companies are building on his discovery—which delights Bradner, who this year released four new molecules. “For years, drug discovery has been a dark art performed behind closed doors with the shades pulled,” he says. “I would be greatly satisfied if the example of this research contributed to a change in the culture of drug discovery.”
Walked away! A fortune!

I was even more amused to read a somewhat different description of the compound from C&EN's Carmen Drahl in 2010: "We consider JQ1 a tool compound,” Knapp says. “It allows us to study how these readers participate in the development of disease.” Dana-Farber has filed for patents on (+)-JQ1 derivatives that might inspire drugs to treat diseases." Recent readers of C&EN will remember that JQ1 has other bioactivity as well: "In a paper published last month, the scientists showed that JQ1 causes reversible infertility in male mice (Cell, DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2012.06.045). Now Bradner and Matzuk plan to use JQ1 as a lead compound to produce a second generation of compounds that are specific to BRDT."

I believe (and hope!) that most of the tone of this profile comes from Dan Morrell, the author of the piece, who may not be familiar with the unlikely odds and various hurdles (oral bioavailability issues, as noted in Prof. Bradner's TED talk on JQ1) that any one particular compound faces on its way to becoming a drug.

Prof. Bradner should be commended for his science and his willingness to rapidly publish his work*, but he need not be praised for walking away from a pile o' pharma cash. It may not have been there in the first place.

*As well as providing samples of JQ1! For one reason or another, this long-time aspect of biology (the mailing of plasmids and the like) has not penetrated broadly into chemistry. (Of course, it probably has something to do with our culture of I-can-make-it-myself.)

C&EN on flame retardants

This week in C&EN, a great set of articles on (drumroll) flame retardants. It makes for some pretty interesting reading, especially William Schulz's profile of Dr. Arlene Blum, one of the most prominent activists (and chemists -- she did her doctorate with Bruce Ames) against brominated flame retardants:
Fire-safety experts and other people who oppose Blum’s campaign—and who have called for a more reasoned analysis of the fire-safety science on flame retardants—say she brushes them aside as disqualified to provide expert opinion because of current, previous, or inconsequential chemical industry ties. They say Blum and her supporters shout them down at public workshops or refuse to engage in dialogue over the issues and the science. Worse, they say, Blum is promoting false information about fire safety from flame retardants via a high-visibility media campaign that stokes fear of chemicals that have been used for decades and have saved the lives of tens of thousands of people in the U.S. who have been the victims of home fires... 
[snip] Blum and other scientists insist that a growing body of evidence indicates that the brominated flame-retardant chemicals used in upholstered furniture may, in some cases, be endocrine disrupters or have neurological and other health effects that make them unacceptable for use in everyday objects like sofas and chairs. Such flame retardants, she says, tend to accumulate in tissues and have been detected in the blood of adults and children. 
“There are some 3,700 peer-reviewed papers on flame-retardant chemicals’ toxicity,” Blum says emphatically. Children especially, she says, should have very limited—if any—exposure to compounds that might damage their physical and intellectual development or leave them more vulnerable to other chronic health problems...
[snip] When asked if there could be differing interpretations of what is a large and complex body of data on the efficacy of flame retardants, Blum snaps, “I am not a fire scientist. This is such a broad field. There are about 10 disciplines involved.” 
Blum says that other ways to prevent deaths from upholstered-furniture fires—improved building codes, reduced cigarette smoking, and increased use of sprinkler systems, for example— undermine the case for using flame-retardant chemicals.
Similar to Dr. Blum, I don't really fully understand all the fire science behind flame retardants. Certainly, it would seem that both cigarette smoking and fire incidents are being statistically reduced over time, and that maybe flame retardant use could follow. It also doesn't help the situation when the chemical industry has resorted to less-than-honest tactics when promoting flame retardants.

However, I'm less than convinced by the evidence of toxicity (I would say that, wouldn't I?). But that hasn't stopped activists from making bold claims about neurotoxicity of flame retardants or making suggestions that sound like terrible tradeoffs (from Cheryl Hogue's article on EPA's approach to BFRs):
“Alternatives abound,” says Kathleen A. Curtis, national coordinator for the Alliance for Toxic-Free Fire Safety. The group is a coalition of activists who support techniques to reduce or eliminate the need to add flame-retardant compounds to products. Alternatives include increased use of sprinklers and smoke detectors, fire-safe cigarettes, and hiring more firefighters, she says. Improvements in product design are also an option, such as use of inherently fire-resistant materials—nonwoven polyester fibers, for example—or barriers between highly flammable materials such as foams and the outer fabric coverings of furniture, Curtis tells C&EN.
Urrrr? That sounds quite expensive, and unlikely to happen (what's the likelihood over the next 20 years that we (as a country) are going to be hiring more, as opposed to less firefighters?)

Readers, been igniting your couches recently? What are your thoughts on flame retardants?

When not to pat someone on the shoulder

Physical touch can be surprisingly persuasive. From diners giving larger tips to waiters who touch them, to people being more helpful to strangers who pat them lightly on the arm, the literature has tended to paint a positive picture of the emotional influence of social touch. But now a study out of Belgium has documented what you might call the dark side of social touching. This isn't about unwanted groping, which is always inappropriate. It's about the fact that context is everything for light social touches, with the new research showing that even a friendly pat on the shoulder can have an adverse effect if it's performed in the wrong situation.

Jeroen Camps and his colleagues had 74 student participants perform a maze challenge in a race against a partner. The outcome was fixed so the participant won by a tiny margin, and then, as the pair left the room, the partner (actually a male or female stooge planted by the researchers) patted the participant on the shoulder lightly three times, smiled gently and wished them good luck for the next task. For participants in the control condition, all this was the same but without the shoulder patting. Next, the participants and their partner went to another room and completed "the dictator game", a simple economic game that involved the participant choosing how many movie-prize credits to share with their partner.

The revealing finding was that participants who'd been patted on the shoulder shared fewer credits with their partner, suggesting that touch can backfire when it's performed in a competitive context, perhaps because it's interpreted as a gesture of dominance. Interestingly, there was no link between participants' awareness of whether they'd been touched and their sharing behaviour; participants who remembered the touch rated it as neutral; and the partner wasn't rated as more unpleasant in the touch condition. All of which suggests the adverse effect of touch on later cooperation was probably non-conscious.

A second study was similar but this time participants and their partner (another stooge, always female) either competed against each other on a puzzle or they cooperated. Again, afterwards, the partner wished them luck, smiled, and either did or didn't pat them on the shoulder at the end, before they both moved to another room to play the dictator game. The results were clear - in a competitive context, touched participants subsequently shared fewer movie-prize credits with their partner, compared with those participants who weren't touched. By contrast, in the cooperative context, touched participants went on to be more generous with their partner, as compared with participants who weren't touched.

"Despite what some people might think, touching someone else may thus not always have desirable social consequences," the researchers said. "A simple tap on the shoulder, even with the best intent, will do nothing but harm when used in the wrong place at the wrong time."

A limitation of the research is the use of a shoulder pat. It could be argued that this is a form of touch with specific connotations, depending on the context. For instance, maybe it is construed as condescending in a competitive situation. By contrast, a lot of the earlier research on the benefits of touch have tended to use a simple, light touch on the arm, which is perhaps a more neutral gesture.

What do you think? Are there any instances when you've been touched lightly (in a non-sexual way) and it's irritated you? Or times that it's endeared you to the toucher? Was it the context that made the difference?


Camps, J., Tuteleers, C., Stouten, J., and Nelissen, J. (2012). A situational touch: How touch affects people's decision behaviour. Social Influence, 1-14 DOI: 10.1080/15534510.2012.719479

--Further reading--
The power of a light touch on the arm
Why is a touch on the arm so persuasive?

Post written by Christian Jarrett for the BPS Research Digest.

5 chances to win Total Addiction The Life of an Eclipse Chaser

This competition is now closed and the winners contacted - thanks for your entries. We have five copies to give away of Total Addiction The Life of an Eclipse Chaser, by Kate Russo. Here's a teaser from the news pages of The Psychologist magazine
"For a few eerie minutes on Wednesday14 November local time, just after sunrise, people living in Northern Australia will be shrouded in darkness as the Moon falls into perfect alignment with the Sun.
One person who will be returning to her homeland to witness this total eclipse is the Chartered Psychologist Kate Russo, of Queens University Belfast. Since 1999, when she experienced her first total eclipse, Russo has become hooked. Like other ‘eclipse chasers’, Russo travels the world in search of these darkest of shadows. November’s experience will be her eighth total eclipse.
Recently Russo has applied her professional skills to her hobby, in search of an answer to why total eclipses have such a profound, awe-inspiring effect on some people. ‘There is a recognition that the experience is significant, although it is difficult to make sense of, and difficult to communicate to others,’ says Russo. ‘We feel we are at the edge of our language abilities. We come to understand that this cannot be a one-off event. We are hooked. Another eclipse chaser is born.’"
For your chance to win a copy of Total Addiction, simply post a comment to this blog entry telling us what you do to experience awe in your life. Winners will be picked at random at the end of the week. Please leave a way for us to contact you.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Woodward's Last Route

(Context: Jeff Seeman's real and truly amazing collection of personal notes from famous professors of chemistry in Professor Tetsuo Nozoe's autograph books. Also, this.

Death of A Project

Does anyone have a good way to cope with the sudden loss of a big project? We all know that it can happen in this business: IP doesn't work out, if trials fail, or customers change suppliers. I am reminded (depressingly, of course) of Robert Scott's comments after he found that Amundsen has made it to the South Pole first:
It is a terrible disappointment, and I am very sorry for my loyal companions. Many thoughts come and much discussion have we had. To-morrow we must march on to the Pole and then hasten home with all the speed we can compass. All the day dreams must go; it will be a wearisome return.
Readers, what can I learn from the loss of a big project? Before I start tossing my samples in the Big Red Can, anything that I should be doing? Also, which Kubler-Ross stages should I be dealing with? (Kidding!)  

#ChemCoach: Over 40 entries!

If you haven't already, I really encourage you to go look at See Arr Oh's #ChemCoach carnival  It's been a really interesting mix of people, both students and people who have long since graduated. Here's Day 1, Day 2, Day 3 and Day 4. Don't forget a note from amazing chemist and chemical historian Jeff Seeman.

It has been interesting for me to note how many of these people are former, not current, Big Pharma-employed. Those personally affected by layoffs at some point in their career is non-zero (20%?); I'll bet the number that have seen layoffs in their organization is basically 100%. It's a sobering reality of the economic times that we live in.

[Of course, there's probably quite a bit of sampling bias going on here; it's heavy on folks who read blogs  or who are on Twitter, which is probably not representative of the overall population of working chemists.]

Also, friend of the blog Janet Stemwedel has made a good suggestion. Like any of the #ChemCoach entries? For each one you like, consider giving a $1 to the DonorsChoose Chembloggers challenge to further chemical education in K-12.

Again, if you haven't already, head over there and give it a read. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Why "Change the Equation" is wrong-headed about its definition of STEM

Thanks to a posting from the Chemistry Grad Student and Postdoc Blog, I was introduced to the interesting organization "Change the Equation", which is dedicated to increasing U.S. standards in STEM education. I would have happily supported or ignored this older Huffington Post blogpost about the issue, except for these interesting comments from their CEO, Linda Rosen:
But for those with a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) background the picture is much brighter. Across the STEM fields, job postings outnumbered unemployed people by almost 2-to-1. Even in a tough economy, STEM is where the jobs are. 
...The demand for STEM skills extends well beyond STEM-specific jobs, and the number of jobs requiring a STEM background is expected to have grown 17 percent between 2008 and 2018, far faster than the 10 percent growth projected for overall employment.
Ms. Rosen is referencing the data in their report "STEM Help Wanted", where they reveal an interesting and unusual definition of "STEM" (emphasis mine):
There is no single, universally accepted definition of what constitutes a STEM-specific job. Our definition is broader than some, in that it encompasses those healthcare and management occupations that require strong STEM skills. We feel this broader definition allows us to offer a fuller account of the demand for STEM talent. 
Our definition includes Computer and Mathematical occupations, Architecture and Engineering occupations, Life and Physical Science occupations, several Management occupations in STEM fields, and select Healthcare Practitioner and Technical occupations. In 2011, there were about 13.6 million people in these jobs, and they comprised about 11 percent of the total workforce.
I find this to be a terribly problematic redefinition. Here is their methodology table; I broke it down in this Google spreadsheet. If you look at the numbers of current STEM occupation holders, CtQ has basically doubled the size of the available pool, from around 7 million positions to close to 14 million. It should also be pointed out that it appears to me that their definition of STEM jobs in healthcare appears to encompass 85% of health occupation job holders.* Also, according to their own numbers (see above), the introduction of the healthcare field dramatically changes the ratio of STEM openings to STEM unemployed.

(Am I crazy, or is that a completely meaningless ratio? Am I wrong in thinking that, according to their ratio, an unemployed chemist is being measured against an job opening for cardiac surgery? It's also remarkable that they're associating job growth in some STEM fields (i.e. chemistry, or physics) with the completely ridonkulous increases in some health care fields that are going to be required to keep up with our aging population.)

I am sympathetic to people who are concerned about the quality of the American workforce and their level of STEM expertise. It seems self-evident to me that better STEM education is worthwhile. However, that doesn't justify questionable categorizing by Change the Equation, or the confusion that it will engender on the part of their audiences. While health care is important and contains some science and mathematics skills, I believe that it falls well outside the definition of "STEM."

*Look, you might need some math and some biology to be a licensed practical nurse (probably just solid arithmetic, really), but it doesn't make it a STEM job. 

Daily Pump Trap: 10/25/12 edition

Good morning! Between October 23 and October 24, there were 38 new positions posted on the C&EN Jobs database. Of these, 14 (37%) are academically connected and 16 (42%) are from Kelly Scientific Resources.

Memphis, TN: St. Jude Research Children's Hospital is searching for a B.S./M.S./Ph.D. research technologist; protein biochemistry expertise desired.

Columbus, OH: Ashland is looking for a principal scientist for polymer chemistry research; Ph.D. desired, but not required.

Naperville, IL: Cabot Microelectronics is looking for a senior research scientist; Ph.D. and 8 years of experience is desired. Also desired: "understanding the fundamental science of colloidal science, inorganic chemistry, surface science, particles, or polymers and their chemical reactions."

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 249, 705, 2588 and 9 positions for the search term "chemist."

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

On earnings reports, DuPont, Dow to cut 4,000 jobs

After some optimistic comments, comes the reality of earnings season. From Chemistry World's Andrew Turley:
The chemical industry was hit by news of nearly 4000 planned job cuts, and multiple site closures, yesterday as two iconic firms, DuPont and Dow, announced dramatic restructuring plans alongside their financial results for the third quarter (Q3) of 2012. Sales from continuing operations fell 9% to $7.4 billion in Q3 as a result of weaker than expected demand in the markets for titanium dioxide and photovoltaic materials, said chief executive Ellen Kullman. 
DuPont said it would reduce its global workforce by 1500 (2%) over the next 12–18 months with the aim of saving $450 million (£280 million) in annual costs. The move will cost the company $152 million in 2012. 
[snip] Meanwhile, Dow said it would cut 2400 jobs, representing 5% of its global workforce, and close 20 manufacturing plants, in a bid to shave $500 million off its annual costs over the next two years. Sales at Dow fell 10% – 7% when adjusted for recently sold business activity – to $13.6 billion in Q3, with economic instability in Europe leading to lower prices cited as a key factor.
The DuPont press release does not mention the actual cuts to come, while the Dow press release actually delivers the butcher's bill:
Dow will shut down a high density polyethylene facility in Tessenderlo, Belgium, a sodium borhidrate [CJ's note: sic] plant in Delfzijl, the Netherlands, as well as a number of Performance Materials manufacturing facilities, including: an Automotive Systems Diesel Particulate Filters manufacturing facility in Midland, Michigan; Formulated Systems manufacturing facilities in Ribaforada, Spain, Birch Vale, United Kingdom and Solon, Ohio; and an Epoxy resins facility in Kina Ura, Japan. Additionally, the Company will record an impairment charge related to the write-down of Dow Kokam LLC’s assets, reflecting weak global demand for lithium-ion batteries; and will consolidate certain assets in its Oxygenated Solvents business, as well as shut down a number of other small manufacturing facilities. These actions are expected to take place over the next two years.
While I'd like to take a moment to kick Andrew Liveris in the shins a bit, I just don't have the heart to do that. Suffice it to say that it is broadly confusing to me what is going on in the global economy right now. Things in the US economy seem to be bumping along fine (for example, both consumer sentiment and the ACC's Chemical Activity Barometer are up), Europe is still more or less hurting and Asia seems to be slowing. I have my skepticisms about Paul Hodges and his economic predictions, but his insistence that we live in a world defined by uncertainty and unpredictability rings true to me.

To those people who are going to lose their jobs, best wishes to them, and to all of us.

Process Wednesday: the peril of scaling up catalyzed reactions

Kilomentor has a fascinating post on "catastrophic failure" in the plant and goes on this interesting tangent about the dangers of scaling up a catalyzed reaction: 
The probability of catastrophic failure is increased for catalyzed reactions of which, for example, enantioselective reactions are a prominent contemporary class. The special additional risk is that the catalytic system may be more easily shut down by small, even trace, impurities that are difficult to measure much less control. Put another way, a catalyzed reaction is susceptible to poisoning and this can lead to catastrophic failure of conversion with no easily identifiable cause.  
Catalyzed reactions are inherently less rugged than the uncatalyzed because the catalytic substance by definition is used in lower than stoichiometric quantity and so would be disproportionately affected by a particular quantity of a catalyst poison. Impurities in the inputs to a catalytic process can also accelerate reaction. When they are not added, as after a switch to a different source of an input, the performance may deteriorate or fail. Neal G. Anderson wrote in Practical Process Research & Development, First Edition, pg. 194: “The importance of trace beneficial impurities may become evident only by failure of the reaction when using different lots of starting materials, reagents, or solvents.” Thus the recommendation to perform laboratory experiments with the same materials to be used in the plant goes double for batalyzed reactions and this includes chemicals used to wash and prep the reactor.
That last part is a healthy reminder to me -- do I think that the plant uses Dawn soap and acetone to clean out the reactors? No? Hmmmm....

(What are examples of reactions that can be accelerated through impurities? I suppose there's the classic serendipity of the Nozaki-Hiyama-Kishi...) 



Tuesday, October 23, 2012

#ChemCoach: Process chemist

SeeArrOh is running a really excellent carnival over at his blog, Just Like Cooking. It's called #ChemCoach, and it's oriented towards showing people the different jobs that chemists have, and how they got there. (Does it really need a picture of Pete Carroll?) It's excellent, and I wish I had thought of it myself.

Here's my (very mundane) contribution -- I think you should go over there and see what others have to offer.

My current job: Process development chemist. I work at a small chemical manufacturing plant in the R&D department.

What I do in a standard "work day": Since we're such a small company, everyone does a little bit of everything. I try to think of myself  as a lab chemist first -- I have a hood, I run reactions, I work them up, etc. It's the pretty standard stuff. We try to develop processes for large orders of whatever organic compound our customers desire.

What is unusual about my job is that it's connected to a small chemical manufacturing plant. Because of this, we get to do all the things that would be usually handled by other departments. Once it is decided (and sometimes it is VERY quickly decided) that a process is ready to take to the plant, we write up our procedure as a batch production record, we edit it, send it through the approval process and train our operators to run the process. We are on call nearly 24 hours a day to monitor the progress and quality of the reactions and provide chemistry-related troubleshooting. (Ever been woken up in the middle of the night to have someone ask you about filtration? I have.)

The old saw about "long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror" really seems to apply to what I do. There's nothing quite like slowly, slowly watching the peaks show up (or not show up!) on the HPLC, or to input a bunch of data into an Excel spreadsheet and cringe while hitting "Enter" to see if your purity/assay is high enough. It can be just as intense as watching a kid being born (okay, maybe not.) That lots of money and lots of time ride on the results of in-process checks or quality analyses is something I'll never quite get over.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?: I have an undergraduate degree and a doctoral degree in chemistry. Boooooring. What probably helped me get my current position is that I served a 2 year sentence worked 2 years at an even smaller company doing kilo-scale synthesis, quite often lugging the 20L rotovap bulbs and moving drums of hazardous waste myself. Want to know what it's like to help ship a couple thousand gallons of flammable waste by hand (and hand truck?) I'm your guy. Want to know what it's like to load a 55 gallon reactor with a double diaphragm pump like you're a man on a firehose? I'm your fella.

How does chemistry inform my work? Well, I'm a chemist, so it permeates everything I do. For me, the question should almost be written as "what somewhat irrelevant things do I get asked, because I'm a chemist and I'm the closest thing to an expert?" In that vein, I get asked about equipment a lot. Very rarely, I have a good answer. Mostly, I shrug and I ask the engineers.

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: First, all the really excellent anecdotes about my very checkered career cannot be told on the internet.

There's a real joy to using the simple tools of chemistry to make decisions. A while back, I had the opportunity to change a process to make it work a little faster. To monitor the reaction in a 1000+ gallon reactor, we would pull a sample to check its progress. To do so, I would... run a TLC.

The reaction check finally came up in the batch production record at about 1 am (of course.) I was able to bring my TLC plates, chamber, mobile phase and run the TLC out in the plant, basically next to huge reactors actually doing the chemistry. It was funny to be doing a TLC in the middle of the night, waiting for this piece of 1930s technology to tell me what to do next.