Summer Break

While I wholeheartedly intended to maintain this blog with regular posts, it’s become quite clear that I’ve got one too many plates spinning. So I’m putting the blog temporarily on hold and though this site was only just getting started, I’ve really enjoyed it and thanks to any visitors out there!

I will be writing regularly at Catalysis Science & Technology’s blog so check me out there for synopses on their fantastic advance articles. I’m also excited to start a science writing internship at a new women’s website that launches next week so stay tuned for more details on that =) And even though lab can be painful at times, I’ve realized it’s still important to me to put my best efforts into being a diligent researcher and making it work. So long for now.. and we’ll see where this summer takes me!


Rewriting History – The Art of Presenting Research

Chart of seminar attn levels

[Note: attention levels only reach 100% at the very beginning, when people are scoping out the snacks.. ooo teddy grahams, what a nice surprise]

A few weeks ago, my labmate Andrew and I were chatting about grad school reform (a recurring topic) as we rotavapped, and he shared with me some interesting observations about research talks. He began by pointing out that as young graduate students, we are taught that the key to giving a good research talk is to tell a compelling story. We also learn that if it is beneficial to the “story,” it is perfectly acceptable to present results out of chronological order. And it was this common practice of rearranging findings that left him feeling unsettled.

My first instinct was to reply that of course, people do that all the time because logical progressions help the audience absorb large amounts of data and follow the presenter’s thought process. Ah ok now I see what you’re getting at.. the latter part of that statement is not always true. In fact, it’s rare that the sequence of events presented in a seminar reflect the actual timeline. While chemists generally do start off with well precedented and grant worthy hypotheses, a lot of research is still done pretty empirically. And after a reaction has failed about 15 times you start resorting to those random/obscure reagents and hope the chemistry gods will just take pity and reward your perseverance.

Here’s the heart of the matter: is the reorganization of data actually dishonest and who does this really benefit? While this practice doesn’t violate ethical guidelines nearly to the extent of fraudulent data, there is some degree of misrepresentation. Also, let me say that I have seen talks where the presenter is pretty forthright and will admit they took a shot in the dark and were only able to later rationalize the result. I think audiences are receptive to honesty because we’re all too familiar with the process of coming up with an idea, testing it, having it fail and repeating until you arrive at something publishable. So would it be better for people to hear the buttoned up version that flatters someone’s intellectual prowess, or the factual series of events accompanied by real-time interpretations (hit or miss) of the results.

Personally, I’m not sure which I would prefer. Failed reactions don’t always lend themselves to exciting talks, but there is certainly value in sharing this information to save others from the same dead end. I especially enjoy when speakers acknowledge the role of serendipity, because 1) it’s true and 2) it doesn’t perpetuate this image of scientists as all-knowing (which is not true).

I’d be interested to find out if this is a common practice across other scientific fields or if its evolution is specific to organic chemistry. In any case, we shouldn’t accept these norms just because everyone does it; instead we need to be critically assessing the way we communicate and perform science. Scientists seek the truth of natural phenomena through experimentation, but our job doesn’t end once we’ve obtained the data. The federal funding system dictates that we share our knowledge with the community, but how we do so is entirely up to us.

Summit on Women in Science – Cliffnotes

This past Monday I had the pleasure of attending a Summit on Women in Science sponsored by a number of women’s groups on campus (special shout-out to UNC WISE for killing it, really appreciate everyone’s hard work).  It consisted of 3 panel discussions populated by successful and thoughtful women and men scientists fielding questions from an audience still navigating towards futures unknown. The morning was packed with so many insightful and useful sound bites that I was kicking myself for not live tweeting the event.

So here’s a taste of the awesomeness you missed (I’m going to pretend all the speakers use their full name as twitter handles)

Panel 1 (Identifying Mentors, Building Networks, and Developing Leadership Skills):

@sharlinisankaran 2/3 science PhD students end up in a non-science field – you are not alone!

@billkier and @abigailpanter must have healthy publication record to achieve tenure, networks are crucial to keeping you focused on meeting that goal

@sharlinisankaran highly recommends this book – “How remarkable women lead” by Barsh and Cranston

@abigailpanter get your advisor to introduce you to people of interest, need to identify them before arriving at large conferences – smaller conferences are better for making connections

@abigailpanter good leaders really care about their employees and don’t waste their time

Panel 2 (Career Paths in Science):

@rebeccapogue medical writing is a female dominated field (~75%)

@jennifermccafferty my job is kind of like herding cats (on realizing her strength was seeing potential connections and coordinating very diff personalities)

@donnadecapita my meetings are about real stuff #howitshouldbe

@sheilakannapan as an undergrad wrote an essay on how physics is driving women out, put a copy in every faculty’s mailbox, got away with it and realized undergrads were untouchable #sheistheshit

@sheilakannapan astronomy is much more welcoming to women than physics

@donnadecapita men and women have different communication styles, women tend to talk through their thought process, diversity and inclusion needs to be vocally identified as a benefit to everyone – in response to a male audience member’s question “what are we doing that makes women feel uncomfortable?”

@donnadecapita stand your ground when you believe you are correct

@donnadecapita men need to call other men out on the spot if they witness a woman being treated poorly #amen

Panel 3 (Balancing Work and Life):

@ioanapopaburke worked on the original patent for Z-Tamoxifen (basically she’s a rockstar)

@carolarnosti took no maternity leave b/c taking a semester off from teaching also means no health insurance – terrible catch 22 that has since been remedied in UNC’s policies

@ioanapopaburke ask for help when you need it, your colleagues will be more receptive to you asking for their understanding rather than denial of your exhaustion

@petermucha congrats or welcome to hell (before answering a question from a new assistant professor)

Then I posed my own question to the panel – Given the grad school culture of working insane hours, as professors do you think this attitude should change and can it change?

@petermucha there are people who really will work 100 hours/week, and they will probably publish and do more work than you, as long as they exist the culture will remain

@petermucha the magic bullet – the word no – say no to things that do not add to your professional “bank account” of success

@carolarnosti had a student who would come hang up his jacket every Saturday morning and then went kitesurfing, everyone in lab knew – if you want to go kitesurfing, just go, DON’T pretend you’re in lab

@carolarnosti a student can work any form of irregular hours, the key is just that they get the work done

@petermucha work smarter not harder and embrace your own culture!


All in all, it was a great way to spend a morning, glimpsing down the paths others have taken and thinking about how certain aspects align with our own desires. I will say one thing about graduate school, for better or worse, you get 5 years to figure out what you’re going to do when it’s over, and with events like these, you don’t have to do it alone.

That Ever-Present Grad School Guilt

I saw this tweet on Sunday and thought ‘good for you Josh!’.. followed by.. ‘yea, enjoy that rare moment of grad school work/life balance’.. then.. ‘hmm wait but you are still working on a Sunday…’ And for some context, I was thinking all of this while running columns in lab where I spent most of my day. (Note – but of course I had to be there because I didn’t come in Saturday)

While collecting fractions I began to wonder.. why is it that any absence from lab is accompanied by such acute feelings of guilt? Why do we wait at our desks til 6 or 7pm even though we’ve already run the days columns, set up X amount of reactions that have to go overnight, are waiting on compounds to arrive and are too tired to actually absorb another paper? And why was I compelled to add that sidenote about making up for labtime missed on Saturday? (Which I literally cannot bring myself to delete – probably for fear of being called out by a mysterious synthetic watchgroup for misrepresenting my work schedule)

Yes, this guilty behaviour is self-inflicted and in theory we should be able to regulate when and to what extent we experience this annoying emotion. However, I think this reaction is pretty prevalent across graduate students. So what are the underlying factors, real or perceived, that contribute to this pressure that we should be spending an alarming portion of our time in lab.

The lion’s share of expectations probably come from your advisor, who has a vested interest in students working long hours because it should result in papers, grants, tenure and overall strengthen their chemical legacy. PIs are pretty explicit about the amount of hours (reasonable or not) they want you to be in lab, and can tie this to your graduation date, over which they have complete control.  (That sentence screams for grad program reforms, which I look forward to discussing in a separate and future post) So yes, this pressure is real, and it’s pretty much out of your hands so just figure out how to operate at really high stress levels.

That leaves us to consider influences that can actually be dealt with, namely expectations that we perceive from our peers and impose on ourselves.  A certain department’s reputation for back-breaking hours may be perpetuated by students who either have been indoctrinated to this policy or simply do not want to call attention to themselves by bucking the norm.  Perpetuation may take the form of simply adhering to the policies, or going one step further and judging the reputation of others who do not put in the requisite hours. This could effectively make you feel bad, but (and I’ve alluded to this), it can do little else.

As for self-induced standards, that is to be expected among a group of highly ambitious people in graduate programs.  However, the key to avoiding guilt lies in setting respectable yet attainable goals for yourself. We have to recognize that energy spent worrying is energy wasted, and instead find a way to channel this remorse into future productive accomplishments. Lastly, try to take as many Sunday’s off as possible. It is after all the only day you can stay away from lab guilt-free.