I am currently running a marathon

Dear all,

I have made the questionable decision to participate in the Illinois Marathon today back in Champaign, IL (home of my alma mater). I say “participate” because I “run” much in the way that a wounded water buffalo “runs” from a lion, but I digress.

By the time this post goes live, the race will have started, or will have nearly started, and so if you would like to tweet at me (@organometallica) or send text messages, I will be able to view these on my smart watch during the run. I can’t promise that I’ll respond in a timely fashion, but I will read them.

Wish me luck, as I think I’ll need some quantity of it. More to come later.

Magic: the Gathering

[[Happy April Fool’s Day everyone! I’ll be resuming making decisions on Nature Chemistry papers that are not at all based on the outcomes of digital card games on Monday. Have a nice weekend!]]

Let’s talk card games—specifically Magic: the Gathering. At this point, I imagine some number of my readers/Twitter followers have discovered that I do enjoy playing the nearly 25 year old card game. Magic is one of the most popular card games worldwide, and so it’s not entirely surprising that I’ve built a deck or two. In fact, I have had the opportunity  to attend major tournaments in multiple countries and have had modest success at these events. My connection with the game is a bit deeper than that, though.

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In particular, I got really into Magic about the same time that my career in chemistry was just barely kicking off. While I had played as a child on the school bus, it was April 2013 when my now-colleague David Schilter bumped into me in the UIUC NMR room and casually asked me if I would like to go play some Magic over the weekend — at the time I thought he meant he was going to a magic show, but I had jack all to do and really, really needed to get out of the lab, so I agreed to go. After getting past the initial confusion, I was hooked. Over the next few years, Magic went from being a way to socialize and blow off steam to a real competitive endeavor and an actual revenue stream, as it turns out people are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for individual Magic cards. While most people characterize the game as a needlessly complex diversion from Dungeons & Dragons, I believe that it is really an important distraction from life itself — I mean, seriously, if your reaction doesn’t work, what’s more satisfying than using a giant, book-loving Elder Dragon to kill a legendary flying hippo?

So, given my tradition of announcing career transitions on this blog,  I am proud to announce that I am leaving my position as Editor of Nature Chemistry to become a professional Magic: the Gathering player. I realized that this announcement was important to deliver before the ACS meeting, for the sake of transparency (and the hope of the odd pick-up game of Commander). The transition really makes sense for me; upon reflection, my favorite part of my transition to editorial work is the increased amount of time I had available to play Magic. Indeed, most of my decisions recently have been made by logging into Magic: the Gathering Online and playing a game of Legacy with Goblin Charbelcher — if I win, the paper goes out to review, and if I lose, the authors get a reject letter. By taking on Magic full-time, I realize that I can detach my success rate from this fickle game called “science” and really focus on honing my craft, a craft which I expect will bring me far more recognition than I ever had for my endeavors in chemistry. I look forward to working with the Magic community and you, dear readers, in this new role. I hope you’ll take a moment to visit the website for my newly formed Magic team (I’m still looking for new members, if you’d like to join Team FeCoNi!) and leave a comment here.

Tweet up at ACS San Francisco!

Hey everyone,

If you’ll be at the ACS National Meeting next week, consider dropping by Ginto (gintosf.com) on 658 Market Street on Monday April 3rd Sunday April 2nd at 7 pm. Some of us from the chemistry Twitter/Blogosphere will be getting drinks and chow and would love to meet some of you guys in person.

EDIT: By popular demand, moved to Sunday! Sorry for any confusion!

If you think you’ll go, drop a comment here or message me on Twitter so I can get a head count and I’ll see if they can reserve a table for us. Don’t be shy about dropping in, though!

I’ll be around the ACS Meeting all week, so if you want to chat and can’t make the tweet up, just hit me up and we can see if we can sort something out!

One year as a doctor

Hey all,

I’m emerging from my now-typical silence to mark a special occasion. If you have wondered why the blog hasn’t been getting all sorts of new content to accompany my newfound free time, it’s largely because the topics I would have otherwise been writing about here are now appearing with some amount of frequency over at Nature Chemistry. I’m still interested in keeping this blog going, but I think I might change up the format a bit so that it is a little more philosophically separate from my day job. Keep your eyes peeled, I suppose!

So the special occasion – as I mentioned on Twitter the other day, today is the one-year anniversary of my PhD defence1.

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Nature Chemistry

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.

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Hello from Postdoc Land (And some grad school pro-tips)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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[1] 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).
  5. 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.
  6. Never talk yourself out of a reaction that opens up new things!
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

[1] 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 a funny thing came in the mail today…

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…

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Interesting. At first I thought someone’s diaper delivery had been misdelivered.

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Nope, definitely me.

Then came the moment of truth:

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THE TORCH HAS BEEN PASSED. LONG LIVE THE DUCK.

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