Tag Archives: chemistry

Chemist or Writer? My Chem Coach Carnival Contribution

Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m late. See Ar Oh started the Chem Coach Carnival for National Chemistry Week last week. While I was at the ScienceWriters meeting this weekend, Chemjobber nudged me to participate. So here’s mine. Better late than never, right?

Your current job. I’m a freelance science writer and editor.

What you do in a standard “work day.” I spend a lot of time in front of my computer, occasionally on the phone. My best days are when I get the chance to meet with scientists in person and hear about what they’re working on. Though I do a lot of reading, writing, and editing, I also spend a lot of time planning and managing my projects and thinking about new clients and my business as a whole.  I also have to do a lot of basic paperwork to deal with billing, checks and taxes.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there? While I was getting my Ph.D. at Indiana University (in bio-organic chemistry, now chemical biology, I realized that my interests were much broader than the slice of science I was studying. And my slice of science wasn’t even particularly small: I was constantly reading about organic chemistry, biochemistry, analytical techniques, and cell biology. So after 5 years, I decided to look beyond the lab. As I explored options, I took a master’s level science journalism course at Indiana University. That course helped me learn basic interviewing skills and how to write for multiple audiences. At the same time, I also started volunteering at WonderLab, a hands-on science museum, which helped me see how the lay public, particularly kids engage with science topics of all kinds.

I decided to head toward a science writing career and wrote enough articles for my campus newspaper to land a couple of internships in New York City. First I was an editorial intern at Discover magazine, and then I worked briefly in television, as a AAAS Mass Media Fellow at WNBC. I preferred print over broadcast, and while I was trying to stay in NYC, I started to freelance and worked part-time as a freelance fact checker for Popular Science. The museum work eventually came back– I worked with a graphic design firm for almost a year on a large astronomy exhibit project for Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. I developed content for the exhibits, using my science writing and research skills to get images and background information that the designers and the exhibit writer used to produce the exhibits.

For the last 6 years, I’ve worked primarily from my home office on a variety of writing and editing projects. I write for a whole range of audiences: scientists, the general public, and children.

How does chemistry inform your work? While my advanced degree isn’t essential for most of my work, having a broad and deep science background helps me learn about new science topics quickly. I don’t write exclusively about chemistry, but my work often covers research with a molecular component, anything from nanotechnology and even planetary science to neuroscience and biology. Because I have broad interests and a chemistry background, I’m often well-prepared to cover topics that are outside of other writers’ comfort zones.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career A few years ago, I gave a talk about my work to a group of undergraduate students in an honor’s symposium course. They were students majoring in a variety of subjects, mostly the natural and social sciences. I think I confused them, because one asked me about half way through my talk, “Do you consider yourself a writer or a scientist?” At this point, I consider myself a writer. But I think about chemistry and science. A lot.


The Nobel Prize and Fuzziness Between Chemistry and Biology

“When you get into University, you learn that Biology is really Chemistry, Chemistry is really Physics, Physics is really Math.”*

Many years ago, a friend sent me a version of that quote among a whole host of other quotes that he’d collected over the years. When I first read it as a chemistry undergraduate, I liked the way it broke down barriers. Because even though I studying chemistry, I secretly wanted to understand how life worked.
But even though biology motivated me, I never took a single undergraduate biology course. That choice haunted me, particularly when I chose to go to graduate school and work in a biochemistry lab. During my first year of graduate school, I struggled understand the nuts and bolts of gene transcription, while still memorizing nucleic acid and amino acid structures. My note to readers out there: If you’re interested in life, you’d be well served to take some biology even if you don’t want to major in it.

But during Nobel Prize season, chemists sometimes get cranky when a biological topic gets the prize, like this year with the award for G-protein coupled receptors to Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University and Brian Kobilka of Stanford University. Derek Lowe described the work and his own take on this divide on his blog. “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.

Even the field I studied in graduate school, then known as bioorganic chemistry, has evolved into chemical biology. As I tried to synthesize my understanding of molecules with an understanding of how cells worked, I hated those shape pathway diagrams in cell biology papers. I didn’t want to understand biology in the context of red circles, blue squares, or green triangles– I wanted to know what that meant chemically. When I was in high school, the last formal biology course I took, I frustrated my mother as I tried to learn glycolysis because I couldn’t just memorize the steps, I wanted to learn something about what was actually going on. A nurse, she dug through her old textbooks to find information that might satisfy me. I soon forgot what we found, but it was the foundation for my chemical curiosity about biology.

Science has to move where the questions are, and some of the greatest questions out there come down to the fundamentals of how life came to be and how it works.  From one perspective, you might say that chemistry could (or even has) become a toolkit for biology. But really it’s more than that. Chemistry has to be part of the biological question, and the GPCR discovery helped to make that fundamental connection between the two.

The names of the prizes are part of the problem, but I really hate the walls that some scientists like to put up around their work. Creativity and innovation can be messy, and it often happens at those  fringes of a field rather than within the safety of the center. Drawing lines in the sand provides some organization and context. Categories are useful, and researchers can easily cross them. But organizational lines sometimes grow into concrete barriers, and the minute that scientists have to pull out heavy machinery to scale those walls, we’ve all lost out.

*Some versions of this also include “and Math is really Hard.” The Math=Hard stereotype has always bugged me.


Notes on the leaky pipeline: realism or disillusionment? [Updated]

[Update in italics: May 3, 2012] After I wrote this post PLoS ONE published a paper that fits nicely with the points I was making.] 

Beryl Benderly’s blog post over at Science Careers caught my eye yesterday because she mentions a 2008 report from the UK about the retention of women  chemistry PhDs in academia. As expected, the women are moving away from academe. By the end of their PhDs only 12% of women want academic research careers in chemistry compared with 70% who are in the first year of the PhD. Those are compared with a drop from 60% to 21% for men.  (A disclaimer: I write regularly for Science Careers, but I wasn’t involved in this blog post in any way.)

Beryl takes a positive spin on this data:

The figures are still way above the percentage of new Ph.D.s who have any realistic chance of landing a job on the tenure track (at least in the United States). Thinking about the welfare of the young scientists who have devoted many years to preparing for their careers and are about to begin them, it does not appear “alarming” to me that they have traded in their formerly unrealistic notion about the possibility of landing an academic post.

I’m not so positive based on my anecdotal experiences. As a female chemistry PhD who flew the academic coop immediately after graduation (more on that here, here, and here), I’m one of those safe people, someone who walked away from the bench and hasn’t looked back. So as soon as young PhDs hear my story, they often delve into their own questions about the research life. What do I often hear? Confusion, disillusionment, and questions about how they can use their science in productive ways. A realistic picture of their academic prospects is a first step, but I’m not sure that the awareness provides a  bridge between their PhD and how they might use it in the workforce.

This particular report talks about the role of isolation in the choice to leave academia. If you’re in an academic setting and plotting a nontraditional career move, that decision often increases that feeling of isolation. So in some cases, a young scientist has to make their immediate professional social situation worse in order to make it better.  So step one is often finding a mentor or a like-minded support system and learning new skills, but all while you’re trying to maintain a presence in your laboratory. That’s easier said than done.

I realize that young PhDs who are happy in academia are not seeking me out, so I probably have an unusually gloomy picture. But I don’t think the academic system has addressed how it can broaden the career skills of young PhDs and support skilled scientists who become interested in policy, business, law, or education. I recognize that building a satisfying career involves incredibly personal decisions, and no career counselor or academic department can map that out for you. But better support for career development could help more PhDs who opt out of academia or research feel like extensions of their scientific community rather than renegades.

The PLoS ONE paper describes trends that I’ve noticed anecdotally. PhD students are less interested in the traditional academic research track by the end of their degrees. At the same time, they aren’t necessarily prepared for,  interested in, or aware of the jobs that might be available that would capitalize on their skills. Faculty members seem to be relatively neutral about alternative paths, and what I’ve noticed talking with some young scientists is this general sense that they want to do “something else” but without any sense of what “something else” might look like.

Figure 5. Share of students finding particular work activities interesting/uninteresting. Respondents indicated how interesting they would find each of six kinds of work when thinking about the future.


And if you don’t want to take my word for it, here’s what the researchers have to say about the way that student interests, encouragement, and career opportunities aren’t lining up.  (Emphasis is mine).

Second, respondents across all three major fields feel that their advisors and departments strongly encourage academic research careers while being less encouraging of other career paths. Such strong encouragement of academic careers may be dysfunctional if it exacerbates labor market imbalances or creates stress for students who feel that their career aspirations do not live up to the expectations of their advisors. In the context of prior findings that students feel well-informed about the characteristics of academic careers but less so about careers outside of academia [17], our results suggest that PhD programs should more actively provide information and training experiences that allow students to learn about a broader range of career options, including those that are currently less encouraged. Richer information and a more neutral stance by advisors and departments will likely improve career decision-making and has the potential to simultaneously improve labor market imbalances as well as future career satisfaction [23], [24]. Advisors’ apparent emphasis on encouraging academic careers does not necessarily reflect an intentional bias, however. Rather, it may reflect that advisors themselves chose an academic career and have less experience with other career options. Thus, administrators, policy makers, and professional associations may have to complement the career guidance students’ advisors and departments provide.

So let’s figure out how to bridge the disillusionment. I can’t think of a bigger waste of scientific talent than to have young researchers floundering because they don’t know how to bring their skills into a useful and productive career.

As a postscript, check out my fellow blogger Chemjobber, who doesn’t pull any punches about all things job- and chemistry-related.


Seeing the forest for the Birch reduction

This post is a part of the Chemistry Carnival hosted by Chemical & Engineering News in celebration of the International Year of Chemistry. Check there later in the week to see what others have blogged or look for the #chemcarnival hashtag on Twitter.


I spent nearly a decade of my life doing organic chemistry. Sometimes I defied the norm and carried out reactions in water. But I never quite got over my first. My first real reaction in a research laboratory was a Birch reduction.

This is a simplified scheme (and I lost my last working copy of ChemDraw when my computer before last crashed). I was doing the reaction on a steroid, converting the aromatic A ring of an estrogen to an androgen. But if you’re interested in the reaction details, other websites can tell you all you ever wanted to know about aromaticity, ammonia, lithium, and the quench with ethanol.

What sticks in my mind was the process of setting up and carrying out that reaction. I careful prepared dry glassware, I assembly of the glassware from the bottom up.  I made sure I had enough dry ice and liquid nitrogen, and made sure that the flow of nitrogen gas was both slow and steady. Most of the techniques I had to learn to run every other reaction in my chemistry career started with that Birch reduction.

I tried to be patient as ammonia gas slowly condensed in my reaction mixture. I added bits of soft lithium metal that had yielded to snips of the scissors. I watched the solution deepen to brilliant blue as unpaired electrons worked their magic. Little did I know that the rest of my chemistry career would be filled with white powders or vaguely yellow goo.

Fortunately, my adviser watched me like a hawk, making sure I didn’t quench the reaction with ethanol too soon or too quickly. I’d learn that lesson the hard way in my next laboratory, when I got impatient from waiting hours for a reaction mixture to warm to room temperature. I assume that most chemists learn the hard way at least once?

Occasionally my former chemistry colleagues and friends will ask me, “Do you miss the lab? Do you miss doing reactions?” Day-to-day, I don’t. I’m pretty happy in front of my computer. But occasionally I am nostalgic for the rhythm and physical ritual of setting up a Birch reduction. At the end of the day, I always felt satisfied that I’d both worked hard and produced a white, fluffy powder.

Image Credits: birch forest photo by tumpikuja via iStockphoto; synthetic scheme by V8rik via Wikimedia Commons


Marvelous milk

Cow suckling her calf

Most of my news articles don’t have a back story. But my most recent chemistry story combined food, molecules, animals. . .  and a little bit of family.

Dairy runs in my family. My grandfather ran a small dairy for more than 30 years, in and around his day job. My father has worked in dairy science, as a university professor, but mostly working in Extension, working with dairy farmers and tools that keep track of milk data and production. My uncle, a large animal veterinarian, does embryo transfers in cattle.

So, when an editor approaches me with a milk story, I’m game.

Though I knew that milk provides a way for moms to provide antibodies to babies, I’m intrigued by the possibility that there are a mixture of enzymes that may both activate milk proteins within the stomach and then shield them from being shredded into amino acids. This chemical and biological marvel mixes fats, proteins, and sugars and even whole cells. Researchers now have a pretty good picture of what’s in there, but plenty of work remains to figure out how it all works together.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


Almost Saturday Science Videos and more: Playing with the periodic table

Somehow Facebook, Twitter and my ongoing addiction to NPR have all pointed to fun chemistry science media today. This morning, I was just about to get out of bed when I heard this segment on NPR’s Morning Edition: Planet Money: Why Gold? Planet Money and a Columbia University chemical engineer play bingo with the periodic table to cleverly explain the origin of gold as the metallic basis of wealth.

Then there’s chemistry at a party: a fun little promotional video for science career put together by Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission Research (Hat tip: The Scientist‘s Naturally Selected blog). My favorite segue:  Hydrogen and Neon have  “No Attraction,” but Carbon enters the room to attract four happy Hydrogens. Those poor noble gases are just destined to die alone.

Finally, I picked this up via Facebook: your periodic table tie-in to Harry Potter mania this weekend. Enjoy “The Elements” courtesy of Daniel Radcliffe. Awesome.


The kitchen laboratory

Molecular gastronomy in action: strawberry ravioli on a spoon before being dropped into a liquid nitrogen bath. Credit: iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign

These days the kitchen is my chemistry lab, and if I were back in college I’d probably be one of the students beating down the door to get in to a cooking science class like this one at Harvard.

Despite my experience with chemical gadgets, the wildest item in my kitchen is a food processor. Watching what molecular gastronomy folks cook up next soothes my strange secret longing for a rotary evaporator and a supply of liquid nitrogen. So last month, I headed over to the Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting to find out about a chemical kitchen topic, flavor pairings.

Bernard Larousse started with a fascinating side note about the partnerships that he and his colleagues are building between chefs and scientists with the Flemish Primitives. Chefs used ultrasound to make stock, but my favorite funky food gadget had to be the fluidic plate (my term, not his). Researchers developed plates that work like microfluidic chips (see earlier post), electrical circuits within the plates allow chefs to deliver water droplets to the food at a defined point in time. Sure, this isn’t really practical at home (Yes, I want one). But this plate has the right mix of posh and geeky food style.

But back to the flavor chemistry. Eighty percent of taste comes from the sense of smell, as most of us notice when we have a cold and all food tastes like cardboard. But what makes two flavors work together? Researchers have analyzed the flavor components and compared them. A good match is all about having a similar mixture of component flavor compounds. This doesn’t take into account other issues such as texture. If you have two foods where the flavors don’t overlap, you can bridge between them with a food with flavor components that overlap between the other two: cheese and vanilla don’t match, but they work fine if you add coffee.

The website maps these chemical relationships on a wheel. Like foods are grouped together on branches, and the distance from the central food indicates how well it matches. Take this one for strawberries: I don’t think I every would have matched them with mussels. Not only can you make new matches, you can also figure out how to replace a flavor with other components with related flavor profiles.

That last piece seems to be particularly useful for vegetarian foodies, who’d like to replicate the robust flavor of meat. Larousse also points out that it can be a way for locavores to replace non-local ingredients. Replacing an ingredient like citrus with other natural ingredients still seems a bit more like a science project at this point– something that molecular gastronomers might try for fun. Ultimately, it’s probably easier for most of us to go buy an orange.


MotW: Nobel Prizes all about the carbon

Carbon is the big star among the science Nobel Prizes this week. Sure, IVF is a big deal, too. But, today, I’m all about the element that ruled my life as an organic chemist. Carbon more than math is the universal common denominator of ‘O-chem. “As my undergraduate professor once quipped , “You just have to be able to count to four: four bonds to carbon.”

, from Wikimedia Commons”]But otherwise the two prizes aren’t all that similar. The physics prize for the discovery of graphene– sheets of carbon the thickness of a single atom– recognizes a discovery just a handful of years old. It’s superstrong, transparent, incredibly dense– fascinating properties that have scientists excited about what we might be able to do with it. But what has it done for the world lately? Not much, at least not yet. Some scientists think the award is premature.

The chemistry prize was awarded for classic organic synthesis: using palladium, a matchmaker metal with the remarkable ability to help chemists link together complicated patterns of carbon atoms. Although the enzymes between living cells are gifted at making these types of connections,  stringing carbon atoms together in precise ways  within a flask in a traditional chemistry lab is both art and science (and often an exercise in frustration).

But this is one elegant solution. The scientists discovered the reactions in the 1970s, but the chemistry that had come into its own by the time I started graduate school in the late 1990s.  As a result, my chemist mind thought, “oh, really, they haven’t awarded a Nobel for this yet?” But there’s no question that this science has touched people all over the world.  The pain reliever I took yesterday (Naproxen, the active compound in Aleve), cancer drugs, plastics,  compounds in TVs and other displays and flexible screens all result from chemists using these techniques on an industrial scale.

Naproxen structure via Wikimedia Commons

The Origin of this Science Writer

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.