Sunday, August 29, 2010

Research Incest - It's a Game the Whole Research Group can Enjoy

Research ethics, you want to talk about ethics?

It seems that people recently have been concerned about the omnipresent PI and how a supervisor is responsible for things that occur when they have their back turned. The whole “the PI has responsibilities for everything that occurs in their lab” issue got me to thinking about a friend of mine.


My friend was (and is) one of the best set of hands in Main Group synthetic chemistry. He had just started as an independent researcher and spent all of his available funds on two graduate students and a post-doc. Things were going very, very well for about six months. Then, one day in the late fall, my friend walked into the lab to discover his post-doc and one of his graduate students, on the floor, on top of a pile of lab coats recreating the more disturbing parts of “Monsters Ball”.

The post-doc and graduate student were married … just not to each other.

I just hope they used a safety shield.

He called them both in the next day to have a chat about the proper use of lab coats. Suffice it to say within the week he had lost both the post-doc and the grad student, leaving him with a relatively weak Masters student to start his research career. In a lesser person this would have crippled a researcher but not this guy. Did I mention he was the best hands in synthetic Main Group chemistry? What he did was move out of his office and into the lab. He taught his courses, worked at the bench, trained his remaining grad student and wrote papers and grants in the evening. It was quite possibly one of the most heroic efforts I have ever witnessed.

And it worked.

Given the tone of the recent discussion on the role of the PI one has to wonder if my friend had any business addressing the issue at all. There are all kinds of sloppy behaviors leading to all kinds of explosions that can wreck a career.

When we discussed the whole situation at a conference my friend said that he really had no moral objections to what they were doing but he felt that he was not in control of his research group.

So what about it? We have all experienced the “Love Amongst the Beakers Syndrome”. I mean really, long hours, limited socialization and no one really gets your obsession except your chemical family. Reseach incest … is it another PI responsibility?

Of course the mid-life crisis / PI – French post-doc adulterous affair is so common to be banal but that is different aspect of the same phenomenon.

Friday, August 27, 2010

If Hemingway were a Chemist ...

So, from the shadows of self imposed exile the sleeping chembloggers of the early 2000's awaken and realize that the intertubes are dangerously low on chem research gossip, Nobel prize in Biology speculations and inter vs intra chemistry department politics (with cathartic posts made and then unmade). Even Homebrew has lifted his head from his desk and contributed if only to say "meh".

The chembloggers all seem to recently have had a weird nerdgasm about energetic materials, even the redoubtable Gandalf of the chemblogosphere, Lowe the Grey, greatest of all chembloggersTM, has made mention about a specific researcher.

Friends, I got my first job as a summer research assistant because a graduate student sheared the ends of his fingers off when a 10 mg sample of tellurium azide exploded inside a metal can reaction vessel. They needed "fresh fingers". We changed to large volume, glass reaction vessels so that the lower bursting pressure of glass would fail at lower energies and bagged the X-ray structure of that sucker. We routinely made and worked with gram quantities of pure S4N4 the true "left hand of Satan". To prepare it for chemistry we had to grind crystals of the stuff into a powder (if it wasn't kinda "crackly" it wasn't pure enough).

There is a reason why some reagents and some chemical reactions have not been reported yet. When it comes to some binary and trinary combinations of elements the path to the chemistry textbooks is very ... Darwinian. And let's face it boys and girls, the true measure of success in chemistry is not measured in prizes. True impact is when your research makes them change the content of the second year sub-discipline textbooks. If the teaching community believes that your research has to be mentioned to second year chemistry students then you have made an impact. Anything else just says that you have enough friends to throw a party.

When Thomas Klapotke joined our lab he was making piano stool metal carbonyl complexes in beakers on the benchtop. We taught him how to make and handle energetic materials. In fact, he watched over our shoulders while we did it. He was amazing to work with. He would work a full day in the lab and then put in at least a six hour shift on his own research (which I helped him with from time to time). That way, when he finished his post-doc with us he had three papers under his own name, on his own research, ready to submit. But don't think that he was all work. He arrived in North America and looked at the local cars then decided that he would have his own car shipped from Germany rather than ride was was available here. I remember reading the German on the side of his tires "these winter tires are not recommended for speeds above 180 km/hr."

Now to be fair to our little branch of Main Group Chemistry, the prevailing attitude towards lab accidents had a Hemingway / Nietzsche flair to them. I mean when you are working with explosives and elemental fluorine confidence mixed with fatalism is the only worldview that allows you to slip on your codpiece in the morning and face your supervisor.

Our conferences were always dodgy when it came to first time, face to face meetings. Handshakes were fumbled because of missing fingers (you ever shake the hand of someone missing a thumb?). I remember a conference in Banff where a bunch of Old School Main Group Chemists re-enacted the scene from "Jaws" where they compared scars from chemical explosions. The winner would have to be a chemist from Germany who must have had the skin flayed his arm and the scar tissue went on, and on, and on ...

Therefore it was not astonishing that a few years after he left us Thomas sent us a letter with some enclosed photos. I will let his wry comment close this post.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Back to the Future

In celebration of the return of ChemBark and Propter Doc I must pop up this tiny offering on my series on chemistry used to sell things. I see Future Shop in Canada is trying to convince people to buy flat screen TVs with images of chemistry.

It is a bit confused, but internally correct. There are two balanced chemical reactions listed one of the reaction of nitric acid with copper and the second appears to be an acid with carbonic acid. There is a dilution calculation and a freezing point depression calculation, a correct statement of the molar mass of hexachloroethane and parts of a larger organic molecule. As far as I can see the individual bits are correct.


Chemistry doesn't need to be cool when it functions iconically as something within the practical world of the general population that is "useful" but also advanced and capable of creating a better future. In reality that is all that advertising really sells ... a better future if you buy what we are selling. Chemistry doesn't need to be understood when it delivers a meta-narrative of progress.


I see that when they needed something to symbolize the quality of the image and technology they did not go to biology (too low and muddy) or physics (too arid and mathematical).
Chemistry sells. Now if we could just get a commemorative posting from HomeBrew we could rock out like it was 2005 all over again.

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For a while it was all about research and then it was all about teaching and now it's all about trying to find a balance while teaching at a small liberal arts and science university.