Let’s talk journals—specifically Nature Chemistry. At this point, I imagine those who have kept up with my writing would not be surprised by the high regard in which I hold the publication. While it’s easy to cite the impact of Nature Chemistry on the basis of its publications, citations, and general reputation, my relationship with the journal is more difficult to quantify. I have had the honor of having my writing appear in the journal on more than one occasion, and having access to Stu and the gang for impromptu discussions was an important aspect of my graduate education. My connection with the journal is a bit deeper than that, though.
Dear faithful readers of Colorblind Chemistry,
Thank you for sticking with me all these years. I realize that posts here are sporadic (at best) and lately they have been non-existent. I want to apologize for the radio static and reassure you that more content is coming–I promise.
So what has happened recently? Since I last wrote, my graduate career went into overdrive. Around last Christmas, my advisor and I set the timeline for my graduation, which was suddenly in the early Fall. I was very excited to finish my degree (in nearly record time, I might add), but it definitely imposed different time constraints on me, particularly when writing for CBC. Many don’t realize that I wrote the majority of my posts in bits and pieces on my phone in the WordPress app while cycling my glovebox antechamber, only to finish them with figures/pictures/etc over lunch. I have maybe a half dozen nearly-finished articles that hit an abrupt halt when my time shifted from the lab to the desk to actually write my thesis.
So I defended and all was well–so where’s the content? Well, I started a postdoctoral fellowship almost immediately after defending. In addition to the general struggle of adjusting to a new place (being a postdoc in a very different part of the country is weird. I will try to expound upon this at another time), my workflow has changed dramatically. Those 10 minute chunks of time throughout the day where typing with my right hand and cycling an antechamber with my left was totally acceptable? Mostly gone. I do use a glovebox these days, but there’s one box for twenty people, as opposed to my last group’s four for ten people. As a result, I do a lot more bench chemistry than box chemistry, and when I’m cycling the box, it’s usually in a treaty-level negotiation with the person actively using it, so we tend to use fewer-but-longer cycles now as opposed to the many-but-shorter cycles that we used in grad school.
Nevertheless, my life has begun to stabilize a bit, and I’m going to make an active effort to write on Sundays. Writing whole posts in one sitting is not my typical style, but it’s a skill that I should foster anyway. In the near future, I plan to bring you some interesting topics–a brief review of copper oxo chemistry, some fun with “mezo” compounds and pseudoasymmetry, and even some thoughts on Derek Lowe’s new book. In addition, I will be following up with some of the people who wrote in for the grad school guidance post back in the spring to see if we can get some perspective on how struggles in higher learning pan out long term (and if my advice was any good in practice).
Now, in the interest of giving you some content, rather than just excuses, here are my “grad school pro-tips” as derived from my graduate experience as a synthetic/physical organometallic chemist. Your mileage may vary, and note that my own adherence to these varied wildly while I was in school.
Grad school pro-tips:
- Try everything that makes sense. Occasionally try things that don’t make sense, too; often they will fail, but when they don’t, they can be truly interesting.
- As a corollary of (1), learn to enjoy failure as much as success, or at least be able to shrug it off. Things don’t work a lot of the time, and so you have to give them time to make them work. If your self-esteem rides on how well the reaction went, you’re in for a very long, emotionally-exhausting ride through your entire chemical career.
- A day in the library saves a week in the lab, and a week of testing routes saves a month of backtracking. That is, plan out your experiments ahead by reading the relevant literature—never start a reaction until you’ve looked at SciFinder to see if anyone has made a similar molecule before—and then come up with more than one plan of attack and try them in parallel. If you know what you’re looking for in a successful experiment, you should be able to judge which route was the best without too much overhead, and then you can repeat just that one.
- If a reaction fails, don’t just call it “failed” and move on. What happened? Nearly every time I’ve ever had a stumbling point, the answer came in taking the afternoon to figure out what my side product was. It usually either led to the solution or a totally unexpected result. Being very precise and thoughtful about your reactions—whether they did what you want or not—is critical to making progress. Remember: courtesy of the law of conservation of mass, the mass had to go somewhere. Calling something intractable is giving up; sometimes it’s necessary, but not nearly as often as one might think. Note: This also feeds back on (2).
- Channel laziness into innovation. Make nifty tools and “lab hacks.” If lab work is easier for you, it will get done faster. Hate that horrible purification? Figure out the simplest way to do it without sacrificing quality and not only will you be happier, the people who go to reproduce it will be much happier as well.
- Never talk yourself out of a reaction that opens up new things!
- However, never talk yourself into a reaction that doesn’t (ie, getting the yield up on a starting material synthesis). Get the big things out of the way first, then sweat the small stuff. Getting 99% yield on your starting material is irrelevant if it doesn’t work in the reaction.
- Most importantly, try to have fun. Insert your favorite cliché here: grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, etc. However, the thing that gets lost in the confines of academia is that you don’t have to be unhappy to be successful. Sure, everyone’s situation is different, but remember that suffering through something you don’t enjoy because it’s “how it works” or “it’s for the greater good” or—worst of all—to “prove how tough you are” is not solving the problem, or even likely healthy. Ask and ye shall receive—take the same approach to your professional life and happiness that you do with your research.
 Note the difference between a SIDE product (unwanted, unrelated to the mechanism of interest) and a Byproduct (a necessary consequence of the desired reaction as a function of balancing, ie loss of water from an aldehyde/amine condensations)
So I get home from lab today and checked the mail. Bill, junk mail and… a key?! Well, I live in an apartment complex now, so it was just to a parcel locker.
Needless to say I was a little confused about what was in there…
Interesting. At first I thought someone’s diaper delivery had been misdelivered.
Then came the moment of truth:
THE TORCH HAS BEEN PASSED. LONG LIVE THE DUCK.
Dear all who will be at the National Meeting next week:
If you’re interested in hearing about some sweet, sweet low-valent cobalt chemistry, you will have three (3!) separate opportunities to visit me and hear about my graduate work.
Editor’s note: Autocorrect does not play well with chemistry terms. Thanks to E for pointing out that I had no intention of commenting on the latent talent of my complexes!😉
I am giving two posters on the role of temperature-gated conformational dynamics in Co(I) catalysis on Monday night at Sci-Mix and again at the INOR poster session on Wednesday evening (poster # INOR 774, probably true for both poster sessions but certainly the latter). Come see me at Sci-Mix–there’s beer at that one!!!
I am also giving a talk on our newest work in forming wildly encumbered C–C bonds with cobalt catalysts (seriously, you should see some of these products I’ve made. They’re bonkers) during the Division of Inorganic Chemistry’s Organometallic Chemistry: Catalysis session. I’ll be the first talk up after lunch at 1:30p in Room 160A.
Stay tuned, if my CBC-themed swag comes in before I leave for Boston, I’ll try to arrange a give-away at my posters!
Just a note to anyone who is using or was on the fence about using Findings after my review earlier this year, they have just updated the software with some new features, the most prominent of which include being able to include tables (a welcome addition) and set timers on the fly within the text, which also allows for timestamping updates and other actions. More features are still promised, and I’m still very happy with the software. If you haven’t checked it out yet, go on over to their website. For the record, I’m not being compensated for this plug in anyway; they didn’t even tell me about this update, so you can take this as an unbiased recommendation, as are all of my reviews.
Stay tuned for the first of my “grad school mediator” posts, coming up soon. For those that ask for privacy during the process, I’ve been letting things resolve themselves as best as possible with some additional time to help protect anonymity before posting, so I’m only now getting to the point where the first one is in a position to be published.
Dear readers of Colorblind Chemistry:
Not to suggest that posts to this blog have been especially frequent, but in the immediate future my blogging presence (here and elsewhere) will be tailing off as I finish my PhD. I hope this is a reasonable excuse, but even if it isn’t, it’s an inevitability more than anything.
That said, I do have some posts scheduled for this summer and fall that will be meant as a retrospective on my grad school experience. Some of these will be more whimsical–my “top 10 grad school pro-tips” have been brewing for a while, and I would expect the list to probably extend to “top 20” by the time I’m done. Others will be a little more realistic. Even with a reasonably successful record under my belt, grad school has kind of sucked in ways that I probably could have, and maybe should have, anticipated. Either way, I expect to close off the circle of posts started with the “grad school mental health” piece in 2012.
In the meantime, I’d like to multitask the act of filling this blog with posts and deluding myself into believing that writing my thesis is a good thing. While Chemjobber has been posting success stories for grad school dropouts,
I would like to host the stories of those who touched it out and succeeded. I’m not advocating one stance over the other, but I think the juxtaposition between the two camps would be worthwhile, especially to folks who are in the position of deciding whether a PhD is worth finishing, where it can be easy for doom and gloom to shroud what is a salvageable situation. Edit: Chemjobber is already planning a series of these, please direct your stories to him (find his contact info at the link above). Read on, though:
If you are someone seeking anonymous advice, feel free to send that too, and I will attempt to facilitate that discussion discreetly for you. While I might not be in a position to answer many of those questions, sometimes you just “need an adult” and I can tell you from experience that the chem blogosphere has plenty of sympathetic ears. One of the major hurdles to jump over emotionally is to know when to ask for help, which is sometimes difficult to seek from your peers. So, if you would like to talk about your struggles and perhaps seek some advice, please email me at email@example.com and I will anonymize and post here. The issue with solving grad school problems is that not everyone goes through the same ordeals and advice for one situation is seldom valid for another. I hope this will offer folks another avenue when grappling with something troublesome.
Thanks for reading for all these years, and here’s to many more once my degree is complete!
As chemists, we rely on our lab notebooks for quite a number of things. They are how we keep track of our own results, how other people subsequently repeat things, and, perhaps most importantly, how we organize thoughts and results for later analysis. The number of times I’ve made key advances in research by a timely re-reading of an old notebook has me convinced that proper organization and research efficiency have a direct correlation. Moreover, having a reliable way of making sure those results last as long as possible–ideally forever–is important. A loss of research documents to a “lab fire” or “lab flood” is inexcusable in the modern age.
Speaking of the modern age, since the day I first started doing lab work, I have sought to find a good electronic lab notebook (eLN) solution. When I worked in the pharmaceutical industry, we had an eLN that was alright–not great, but alright. I assume that, since then, that software has improved (I would love some feedback from anyone who has experience with a modern pharma eLN), but what certainly hasn’t is the price: the average eLN either costs enormous amounts of money or is mostly useless in terms of its feature set. As a result, the barrier to trying a given piece of software is staggeringly high; in fact, usually the less trouble or expense you have to go through to try out an eLN, the lower the odds are that you’ll actually like it enough to use it. Most of the biggest offenses in “useful” lab notebooks come down to a lack of features (glorified text editor versus a scientific data editor), lack of integration with experimentation (how does this software fit into my work flow? Is it fundamentally as easy to use in the lab as a paper notebook?), and a lack of back-up and sharing features (I need my data to be safe, and ideally I should be able to send it to my coworkers). Honestly, the best solution I had for a long time was an Excel document that I would keep in a Dropbox folder, but maintaining that became too cumbersome after a short while.
With all of this in mind, I was intrigued to see that Mekentosj was advertising a new eLN-type software called Findings. Mekentosj is a company that I have a huge amount of respect for; they’re responsible for Papers, the software that revolutionized how I read and keep track of the literature, so I really looked forward to seeing if they could solve my eLN problem, too. I’ve spent the past month using Findings as my primary lab notebook in an effort to evaluate it as an eLN option and I’d like to share with you my… findings. If you’re short on time, suffice it to say that I thoroughly like what I see and look forward to where they take the software in the future.