Has #Chemophobia Outgrown Its Use?

The term Chemophobia has gotten a lot of attention this past week, specifically around its use and the perception of its use. If you’ve been following the discussion, skip over the next paragraph which contains the obligatory recap.

[Chris Clarke brought up the subject by branding the dihydrogen monoxide joke and chemophobia unproductive, only serving to mock the ignorant. Andrew Bissette and Janet Stemwedel provide thoughtful responses describing the nuances of why and how chemists use #chemophobia. All are in agreement that condescension and mockery are poor strategies to communicate science. I pretty much agree with all three pieces, except the sentence from Chris’s article that says chemophobia is a “clan marker for the Smarter Than You tribe.” I prefer “clan marker for the people who study chemistry tribe” because I don’t think it’s normally intended the way he suggests.]

A paraphrased tweet from Janet Stemwedel (@docfreeride) sums up the discussion: “The point: if we want [everyone else] to trust science/scientists, we need to be better.” This is where I want to join the conversation. As a self-identified science communicator, I’d like to take a hard look at the hashtag chemophobia, the purpose it serves and if it should have a place in science outreach.

Tweets sharing cases of chemophobia often look like this:

Phrase indicating sadness, frustration, incredulity, sarcasm, disgust or outrage. “Article or product that perpetuates the fear of chemicals and contains inaccurate science.” #chemophobia

Chemists find #chemophobia useful because it’s instantly recognizable and the meaning has been well established in the chemblogosphere. To echo Janet, using #chemophobia is like “sending up the Batsignal, rallying [the] chemical community to fight some kind of crime.” Indeed, the hashtag usually does attract support from the scientific community. This is especially helpful for your sanity if faced with willful ignorance. A search for tweets containing chemophobia shows that the replies come almost exclusively from other chemists.

That brings me to the heart of another recurring conversation within the chemistry community, which is that most science outreach ends up more like science inreach. See this post at The Collapsed Wavefunction for details. I think #chemophobia is really only useful for alerting other scientists with the occasional breakthrough to a willing listener. That’s fine, as long as we acknowledge that it’s not accomplishing much more than that.

So what about that huge group of non-scientists, the ones #scicomm is dying to reach, that can benefit from the chemical knowledge we possess? For that demographic, I propose we devise new hashtags, ones that more accurately target the offensive article/product without condescending to the people who might fall prey to such falsehoods. Whether or not it’s our fault, chemists/scientists have a bad rap and it’s only getting worse. So if we actually want to make a positive impact, I think we have be open to new strategies.

I don’t think that shiny new hashtags are a cure-all, but it is a step in the right direction. That said, I will throw some out there to get the ball rolling: #ShadyChem, #ShoddyChem,  #FakeScience, #ThatsMadeUp, #ThatShitAintRight, #Fearmongering, #FactCheckPlz, #MobilizeTheTroops

These problems won’t be solved overnight but as researchers we should be all too familiar with incremental progress. Happy tweeting!


#Chemsummer – Grilling with Family

Sometimes I get intense cravings for a succulent beautifully medium rare steak. I’m talking about a piece of meat the size of my face.  It has to be seared over an open flame, and if that is not the plan I don’t even bother looking at those rib-eyes, NY strips, and T-bones at the store.

westpointsteakhouse steak

[Image credit: http://www.westpointsteakhouse.com/]

I don’t often succumb to the temptation of buying steaks. My family all agree that I am the cheapest member, so if I’m going to buy a steak it’s going to be done right. I season my steaks with just salt and pepper then sear them to a deep shade of brown. For this effect, I rely on the Maillard reaction. In this reaction high heats cause amino acids and sugars to react then break down into new compounds that give meats the distinct color and flavor. I’m also looking for some nice caramelization which happens when sugars are broken down by heat.

As soon as the steaks hit the grill, they have my undivided attention. Overcooking an expensive piece of meat is not only emotionally tragic, it’s also bad for your health. The National Cancer Institute has identified that heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) found in charred meat, are mutagenic, which mean they cause changes in DNA and increase the likelihood of cancer.

“HCAs are formed when amino acids (the building blocks of proteins), sugars, and creatine (a substance found in muscle) react at high temperatures. PAHs are formed when fat and juices from meat grilled directly over an open fire drip onto the fire, causing flames. These flames contain PAHs that then adhere to the surface of the meat.” – National Cancer Institute

That means if I’m watching a steak on the grill, don’t talk to me.

Last month I had the good fortune of going on a parent sponsored vacation to Portland for my sister Thuy’s graduation from medical school. The trip was an great break from subsisting on a graduate program stipend.  Upon arriving to our AirBnB rental home, equipped with an outdoor grill and lovely backyard, a cookout was immediately suggested and approved, starring steak from a local butcher.

Yo dog all up in my grill

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/181TlJ8, LOVE this cartoon, that makes it relevant ]

We fired up the charcoal grill with my brother-in-law Nolan elected to the helm with three enthusiastic helpers in Thuy, Ryan and I. We each had uninvited but valuable insights to share regarding the cooking of the steak. I commended him for having the foresight to start the fire early. We had to let the lighter fluid, most likely petroleum based, burn off so our precious meats wouldn’t take on an unpleasant taste.

Then there was some serious debate over whether or not to cover the grill while it heated up. Nolan had the lid on with just the flue open to let in air, a member of the fire triangle along with heat and fuel. Like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King, it takes all three to be successful. Thuy was campaigning to go lidless to let more air in for a hotter grill, anxious to get the right sear on the steak. Ryan and I chimed in with our support, oh yes the grill definitely should be hotter and why don’t we add some of these briquettes.

Nolan disagreed but feeling outnumbered, he tried to distract us by telling a story about the origins of charcoal briquettes. Apparently in the 1920s, Henry Ford was amassing tons of excess wood scraps and sawdust as by-products of his assembly line. He decided to form them into briquettes for outdoor cooking and sold the idea to his cousin E. G. Kingsford. So Ford started the popular American tradition of grilling out and the Kingsford Company is still the nation’s leading manufacturer of charcoal.

Ford charcoal

[Image credit: http://bit.ly/182XqAe]

To our advantage, Nolan had to leave to pick up his parents from the airport, and we immediately dumped in the rest of the briquettes. Within ten minutes the fire became so hot that we had to put oven mitts on just to hold the grilling tongs. The Korean BBQ spareribs and the prawns cooked in about thirty seconds flat. I mentioned this was a vacation, right? Finally the steaks hit the grate with three pairs of eyes on them that didn’t quit their gazes until the meat was safely resting on the plate. We agreed never to tell Nolan how close we came to ruining the food. A vow we promptly broke that evening as we all laughed about the story over a delicious family dinner.

You Know You’re in a Chemistry Lab If

Recently I’ve been consuming copious amounts of LOTR and it triggered the memory of a realization I came to about a year ago. I had accompanied my roommate to a party thrown by her lab, overflowing with analytical chemists. The big news circulating the party was that “The Hobbit” would now be released in three parts instead of two. This was received with some trepidation that the story would be unnecessarily drawn out, countered with more intel that actually the footage would include appendices from the LOTR trilogy to beef up the plot. And yes, I did contribute quite a bit to this conversation. That’s mainly because I had participated in the exact same conversation earlier that day with the people in my lab (an organic lab).

This led to the realization that lab conversations, as they are conducted by similarly science minded people, are probably not as unique as I might have thought. In fact maybe my concerns and yet barely contained excitement for the forthcoming “Ender’s Game” movie are being expressed right now in another lab. All of this to say, I’ve been inspired to put this list together:

You know you’re in a chemistry lab if…

-Someone nearby is quoting from Futurama, Arrested Development, The Simpsons, LOTR, Firefly or Battlestar Galactica and at least one other person recognizes it almost immediately

-It takes approximately 3-5 minutes to clear the room when the fire alarm goes off, but only 15 seconds if someone announces “free food” – if you’ve missed the aforementioned announcement no one is coming back for you

-There is a stash of middle-shelf liquor within reach in case you have a really shitty day or the reviews for your manuscript you sent out 29 days ago finally come back or the latter causes the former

-You joke about getting cancer in your old age from exposure to chemicals in lab, but when you accidentally spill half a liter of DCM on your arms, your worry secretly grows

-All of your best glassware mysteriously disappears when you go on vacation – as an older and shrewder member of the lab you have done well to hide that precious 25 mL two-neck round bottom flask

-At least one person in your vicinity is having a meltdown because their cumulative exams/orals/independent proposal/defense is coming soon and they don’t feel nearly prepared enough

-You have at least one skunky beer tucked away in your desk from the last lab happy hour 5 months ago

Beer in desk

Exhibit A – Skunky beer next to emergency shower change of clothes *god forbid*

-Someone makes a compound that smells either really good or really bad and everyone congregates to evaluate and express their opinion – “I think it smells like licorice with a tinge of burnt rubber”

-You feel guilty when you’re not there – more on that here

-Half of the people around you are listening to podcasts in their headphones, and probably the same one

-Survival plans in case of a zombie apocalypse have been seriously discussed, specifically if basic chemistry knowledge will or will not be helpful post-Armageddon

-You’re waiting til after 6PM to post this to your blog 😉

This may vary as I have of course based this off of my own experiences in a single lab space for the past four years with the same people. I’d be delighted to hear your own staples of lab life, pleasant or not, you choose, just comment here or use #youknowyouareinlabif on twitter!

Here We Go Again

For those of you following along, a few weeks ago I decided to go on summer hiatus from blogging. But after some re-evaluation of my engagements and priorities, it became clear that I really wanted to redouble my efforts here. It’s mostly for selfish reasons seeing that I get a lot of pleasure from sharing science-y stuff and hope to one day make a career out of it, so really the more practice the better.

So before I get back to business, a bit of fun. The decent amount of free time on my hands this week, only by grad school standards, has been mostly consumed by LOTR extended version. If you don’t know immediately what LOTR stands for, go fix that. For everyone else’s viewing pleasure..

“One ring to rule them all, One ring to find them, One ring to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them”


[Image: http://www.fanpop.com/clubs/lord-of-the-rings/images/34472844/title/ring-photo]

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.

An analytical approach to unconscious gender bias

No two graduate school experiences have ever been, nor ever will be the same from survivor to survivor. Looking past the fact that individuals have unique responses to any situation, lack of consistency across graduate school experiences is inherent to the research funding scheme at universities. Thus, grant obtaining PIs hold close to complete autonomy over the lives of their graduate students.

Recently, our campus’s Women in Science and Engineering group conducted a very thought-provoking discussion around “what the ideal student looked like” to science faculty based on our own experiences.  Collectively, we agreed that professors value: putting research above all else, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, a high tolerance for neglect (my favorite contribution from someone in the group), assertiveness, confidence, efficiency, self-serving/promotion, leadership skills, intimately familiar with the literature (all your meals are spent reading ASAPS, right?).

We then compiled a list of resources that our advisors possess and can offer to us: mentorship, projects, publications/authorship, undergrads (a blessing or a curse), awards and graduation. Logically, professors can then bestow these gifts on students as they please, likely on persons displaying these “ideal” qualities.

In terms of gender, we identified a couple of characteristics, assertiveness and self-promotion, which seemed to be traits acceptable in men, yet people felt uncomfortable when women displayed the same characteristics. Some even view this negatively. I thought this served as a brilliant exercise to identify potential subtle bias against women in science.  It allowed us to synthesize general cultural sentiments into very well-defined arguments with possible outcomes. My friend Debbie once told me that naming something is a powerful thing, and is especially helpful when engaging in the unconscious gender bias debate. In some situations, I have encountered varying amounts of resistance, either in 1) defensiveness (unfortunate because an accusation is not my goal) or 2) requests for concrete, detailed and reproducible proof of said bias (typical scientist’s reaction to any debate, well, perhaps not the latter given the state of supporting infos, am I right Blog-syn?)

I think being able to recognize and articulate issues that women face in a factual, logical manner is really critical to garner active support. The challenge is that some of the factors that contribute to a “chilly” atmosphere for women may be subtle social cues and perceptions (from either party, i.e., stereotype threat), which are tough to establish.*

Finally, I enjoyed that the session concluded not with cookie-cutter answers but with probing questions that I think would be valuable for any graduate student to ask themselves.  What resources do I need to be successful, am I getting these resources, and what can I do about it? Once you’ve pinpointed these things, you may be able to ask your PI what they want to see from you in order for you to receive these resources.


*[Notice I mention nothing about babies and women in science.  While certainly valid, that topic has been done to death so I’d rather discuss in the more nebulous reasons behind the gender gap.]

#ChemMovieCarnival: BSG – Need I say more?

First, I’d like us all to agree that 1) Battlestar Galactica is a captivating, beautifully crafted series that explores the intricacies and limits of humanity and 2) that no actress has ever fully embodied a character as much as Katee Sackhoff has with Starbuck. However, like most successful works of science fiction, they have taken certain liberties with the laws of physics and science at large. As a dedicated fan of the show I have participated in more than a few discussions of its storyline, logistical and moral quandaries, mostly with my labmate Dale, a post-doc and fellow BSG analyst. Here’s one example of pretty blatant science side-stepping. (FTL travel will be accepted as fact for the purposes of this post).

How are they simulating gravity?  The show never addresses this fundamental force that allows the characters to walk around in their daily lives aboard the ship. Gravity can only be simulated in 3 ways: By a large object with inertial mass (i.e. planet), by rotation of the spaceship which acts through the simultaneous effects of centrifugal and centripetal force (see Newton’s third law), or by linear acceleration. Although it’s possible the fleet could be using this last strategy, the careful viewer will realize that many times the Battlestar has been forced to hold its position as it waits for returning vipers in order to make a jump. And they always seem to jump to specific coordinates, so to use linear acceleration they’d also have to tell the fleet which direction to continue heading upon arrival.


So according to this picture, only the circular ship in the top middle is likely to have full-time gravity. You can sign me up for that one.. bone and muscle deterioration? No thanks.

This just happens to be a pet peeve of mine and there are many more examples so certainly add more as you please! A quick google search turned up this book, an official guide to the science of Battlestar Galactica for those compelled to research this topic further (on my reading list now). The fact that most of the technology supporting the fleet’s survival is currently not in existence, I think takes nothing away from personal enjoyment of the series. Really, it challenges us to test the limits of our imaginations and what we might achieve even beyond the confines of this world.  So say we all.

Update: after sleeping on this post, I realized this was supposed to be chemistry themed not physics..I just got excited about BSG and totally forgot where I started.. hope everyone doesn’t mind too much!