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Archive → March, 2011

Show me the money: How a Ph.D. chemist is helping corporate America team up with K-12 STEM education programs

We hope this blog is making it abundantly clear that a chemistry degree qualifies you for a lot more than you might think. I mean, who knew

a chemist could land a job at a Disney theme park where he could use his chemical knowledge to help make, for example, a more corrosion-resistant artificial skin?

It seems, therefore, that a reasonable approach to discovering your chemistry dream job is this: Figure out what you’re passionate about and what gets you out of bed in the morning. Then find a job that lets you do that. (Word of caution: Not every job you can dream up will be able to pay the rent, so that’s something important to keep in mind).

Zakiah Pierre, Ph.D. chemist, is a research associate for "Change the Equation", an organization whose goal is to improve the state of K-12 STEM teaching in the U.S. Courtesy photo.

This seems to be the approach Zakiah Pierre is taking in pursuing her career. Although she started grad school thinking she’d go into forensic science, along the way she discovered she was really passionate about “mentoring and paving the way for our future engineers and scientists.”

The more she got more involved in mentoring students, the more she became convinced that a science career that allowed her to have an immediate impact on students was the right path for her.

That line of thinking has led her to where she is today with Change the Equation, an organization focused on improving science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education for every child, with a particular focus on girls and students of color.

One of the ways CTEq strives to accomplish its goals is by identifying innovative programs to advance STEM literary in the United States, measuring the success of these programs through research and analysis and replicating them in communities that need them most.

This is where Zakiah comes in. As a research associate, she gathers data regarding the condition of STEM learning state-by-state and nationwide and assesses the impact of STEM learning programs that receive corporate support.

By evaluating the success of various programs, she helps CTEq make a solid case for why companies should continue funding them—and expanding them to new, underserved sites.

She also writes reports that let their partners know about the needs in STEM learning, with the hope that changes in policy will be made to address those needs.

In addition to research and writing reports, Zakiah also blogs about science education news and programs and occasionally represents the organization at meetings around D.C. on a variety of STEM education topics.

In the future, Zakiah hopes to expand her role to writing short briefs for peer-reviewed journals on current issues in K-12 STEM learning.

It may be apparent by now that Zakiah has had to expand her knowledge base and skill set. The beauty of it all is that the diverse skill set she acquired through grad school provides her with a good foundation for taking on this job.

So while a Ph.D. is not necessarily required for the job she has now, Zakiah said there are so many skills that one acquires in the process that are transferrable to other jobs.

“You also learn how to network, learn all those ways of communication, time management, things to learn that you wouldn’t get working somewhere,” Zakiah said.

Ahh, the beauty of transferable skills…

A little more about CTEq, in case you’re interested:

The 110 companies that are part of CTEq have pledged “to connect and align their work to transform STEM learning in the United States by shining a light on progress and problems; advocating and influencing; leading by example; and acting as catalysts for change.” Continue reading →

Berkshire Exec Resigns (Apparently) Over Lubrizol Bid

Some of you may have heard the news that Berkshire Hathaway executive David L. Sokol has resigned. Sokol bought 100,000 shares of Lubrizol and suggested to Buffett that Berkshire buy the whole company. Here’s the Lubrizol-related excerpt from Buffett’s statement about the resignation:

Finally, Dave brought the idea for purchasing Lubrizol to me on either January 14 or 15. Initially, I was unimpressed, but after his report of a January 25 talk with its CEO, James Hambrick, I quickly warmed to the idea. Though the offer to purchase was entirely my decision, supported by Berkshire’s Board on March 13, it would not have occurred without Dave’s early efforts.

That brings us to our second set of facts. In our first talk about Lubrizol, Dave mentioned that he owned stock in the company. It was a passing remark and I did not ask him about the date of his purchase or the extent of his holdings.

Shortly before I left for Asia on March 19, I learned that Dave first purchased 2,300 shares of Lubrizol on December 14, which he then sold on December 21. Subsequently, on January 5, 6 and 7, he bought 96,060 shares pursuant to a 100,000-share order he had placed with a $104 per share limit price.

Dave’s purchases were made before he had discussed Lubrizol with me and with no knowledge of how I might react to his idea. In addition, of course, he did not know what Lubrizol’s reaction would be if I developed an interest. Furthermore, he knew he would have no voice in Berkshire’s decision once he suggested the idea; it would be up to me and Charlie Munger, subject to ratification by the Berkshire Board of which Dave is not a member.

As late as January 24, I sent Dave a short note indicating my skepticism about making an offer for Lubrizol and my preference for another substantial acquisition for which MidAmerican had made a bid. Only after Dave reported on the January 25 dinner conversation with James Hambrick did I get interested in the acquisition of Lubrizol.

Neither Dave nor I feel his Lubrizol purchases were in any way unlawful. He has told me that they were not a factor in his decision to resign.

Dave’s letter was a total surprise to me, despite the two earlier resignation talks. I had spoken with him the previous day about various operating matters and received no hint of his intention to resign. This time, however, I did not attempt to talk him out of his decision and accepted his resignation.

This seems to me a case of an appearance of conflict of interest rather than a real conflict of interest. Sokol thought Lubrizol was a good investment. He suggested that it would be a good investment for his company, too. Engineering an entire deal to make a tidy—albeit $3 million—profit would be the tail wagging the dog.

Fun With Food Analysis At #ACSAnaheim

If you’ve been in grad school or worked in a lab, you’ve been there: sitting around, waiting for your reaction or experiment to do its thing, bored, listless. Then your eye lights on a can of Sprite. Then the pH meter. Then back to the Sprite. The wheels start turning, and before you know it, you’re testing all of your labmates’ drinks and making bar charts.

Or maybe that’s just me.

For Christopher J. Hudalla, it’s all in a day’s work. Hudalla, a senior scientist at Waters Corp., in Milford, Mass., gave a presentation today at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim about the development of a chromatographic stationary phase for separating a battery of simple sugars. After putting his “bridged ethyl hybrid” phase through the standard paces, demonstrating that it indeed separated a mixture of fructose, glucose, sucrose, lactose, and maltose quite nicely, Hudalla got serious.

Hudalla's lunch tests. Credit: Chris Hudalla/Waters

He wanted to throw everything he could think of at the stationary phase, which is proprietary but has a silane on one end and an amide on the other, to test just how robust it actually is. So he began taking samples of his coworkers’ lunches, he said. Everyday, there was a new food item to test. It became a ritual—a lunchtime club—and Hudalla amassed a “large stack of chromatograms of some very strange things,” he told me. “My colleagues wondered why I had an analysis for Asian dipping sauce.”

Then came the beer. Why not test the components of beer during brewing? Hudalla followed the sugar components of a beer mix during mashing, a process in which malt enzymes break down grain starches into sugars (typically maltose), and during fermentation, when the maltose is fermented by yeast to produce alcohol.

Hudalla's "frivolous" beer tests. Credit: Chris Hudalla/Waters

Turns out that the stationary phase does what it’s supposed to: Hudalla didn’t find any products for which it couldn’t separate those simple sugars cleanly. And although some of the tests seemed frivolous at the time, he said, a major beer manufacturer has since expressed interest in the method.

Got any food and/or strange product tests to share that you’ve carried out in the lab? Post them here.

Seeing IYC 2011 at #acsanaheim

Signs of the International Year of Chemistry were literally everywhere during this national meeting.

They were around the Convention Center …

Continue reading →

Military Undergrads at #ACSAnaheim

This Newscripts post is by Senior Editor Susan Ainsworth:

Wandering the halls of the undergraduate research poster session at the Anaheim Convention Center on Monday, Associate Editor Linda Wang and I noticed that there seemed to be more students from the U.S. armed forces than we had seen in the past. Intrigued by these neatly uniformed undergrads, we stopped by to talk to some of them and to find out about their research and future plans.

Steve Guidry, a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., seemed happy to talk about his poster titled “Composite Armor: Multi-layered Polymer Protection.” He hopes that his research will result in improved armor that may help those who diffuse mines or improvised explosive devices—something he hopes to do for the Navy in Iraq or Afghanistan after he graduates this year. Continue reading →

‘Prudent Practices’ is out, UCLA lab safety center established

I’ve got two safety-related stories out online today:

‘Prudent Practices’ Updated: The new edition of Prudent Practices in the Laboratory is out, at last!

New Center Will Promote Lab Safety: UCLA has established a new UC Center for Laboratory Safety to study the effectiveness of things such as training and inspection programs. I think UCLA is up against two main challenges here: One is to identify metrics to measure effectiveness, especially retrospectively. The other is securing external funding–it’s not like agencies are issuing requests for proposals in the area of lab safety research (to my knowledge, anyway). But the school deserves credit for trying, and I’ll be interested to see how the center develops.

Profile: Alfredo M. Ayala Jr., Disney Imagineer

Posted on behalf of Carmen Drahl

Alfredo M. Ayala Jr. majored in chemistry in college, but these days he dabbles in a very special kind of alchemy. He’s been with Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development for over 15 years, where his job is to create new illusions and experiences for Disney park guests. And as he explained Sunday at the ACS national meeting in Anaheim, it was organic chemistry that got his foot in the door.

Photo of Ayala credit: Drahl/C&EN

Ayala said he fell in love with science as a boy when he saw “Antimatter”, an animated look at the atomic world by Carlos Gutierrez, a UCLA film major turned chemistry major and organic chemistry professor. As it so happened, Gutierrez became Ayala’s mentor when the young Ayala came to Cal State L.A., through Gutierrez’s program for engaging junior high and high school students interested in biomedical sciences. At Cal State L.A., Ayala followed his interests in chemistry and in computers, taking engineering coursework in addition to chemistry. He was an undergraduate researcher in Gutierrez’s organic chemistry lab when he applied for an internship with the Disney company.

Disney asked its prospective interns to write a paragraph about why they wanted the gig. But instead of just gushing about how cool it would be to work with the company, Ayala took a different tack. He knew Imagineers were looking to reformulate the skin material for the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction, which at the time contained chromium, a non-chlorine scavenger, as a heat stabilizer. By not having a chlorine scavenger, hydrochloric acid was being produced in reactions with water, which in turn corroded parts that would need to be replaced periodically.

Ayala sent Disney three proposals for alternative skin formulas, based on some chemistry he had done forming precursors to analogs of 18-crown-6 ethers in the Gutierrez group. In this 1995 Tet. Lett. paper the group begins with some tin-containing acetals and forms two different crown ether precursors depending on whether they add 1,2-dibromoethane or 2-chloroethanol. “Note we were scavenging chlorine and bromine- this is how I got the idea,” Ayala says.

His ingenuity on the application paid off in the form of an interview. “That was what got me in,” he says. He’s been with Disney ever since. Continue reading →

This And That from #acsanaheim

I arrived in Anaheim on Thursday, March 24. As usual everyone has been busy throughout the meeting.

          As it always does at national meetings, the C&EN Editorial Board met at 7:30 a.m. on Friday. The C&EN Editorial Board monitors the editorial health of the magazine and adjudicates disputes between the C&EN editor-in-chief and ACS members, among other duties. Two of the seven members of the board are the ACS president and chair of the board of directors, so the C&EN Editorial Board has to meet early to free them for meetings scheduled throughout the rest of the day.

          Which I love. It means the most important governance meeting I attend is the first thing that happens all week. It’s not that it’s all downhill from there, but it certainly takes some pressure off.

          One of the points I made in my presentation to the board is that C&EN is not just a print publication any more. Yes, about 96,000 ACS members still take the print edition and it is still our flagship product, but consider:

  • The electronic edition of C&EN is increasingly popular, with 67% of members living outside of North America taking it and 16% of members living in North America taking it.
  • C&EN Online had 14.3 million page downloads in 2010, an 11.7% increase over 2009; 28% of those downloads were “Latest News” stories, which means that people are using the site to keep them up to date on developments in the chemistry enterprise.
  • C&EN introduced two news channels to ACS journal home pages in 2010, the Environmental SCENE and the Analytical SCENE; we will introduce two to four more news channels this year.
  • GlobCasino was reinvented in 2010 as a network of focused blogs, now numbering 10, with three—Terra Sigillata, Just Another Electron Pusher, and Transition States—hosted by people not on C&EN’s staff.

There’s more, but I think you get the idea. The C&EN brand includes much more than the magazine you’re familiar with. And there’s more to come. Like C&EN Mobile.

          On Saturday, I attended the Society Committee on Budget & Finance meeting. This committee is a large, serious, august group, as well they should be. ACS had a very good year in 2010, ACS Treasurer Brian Bernstein reported to B&F. The annual audit is now completed, and the net from operations in 2010 was $23.8 million, the highest on record and the seventh consecutive year of positive results. Total revenue was $463.7 million (0.8% growth over 2009), which translates into a return on revenue of 5.3%, the highest since 1984. The society’s unrestricted net assets now stand at $130.3 million, still down from before the Great Recession but moving very much in the right direction.

          Two of the titans of the chemistry enterprise celebrated landmark birthdays in conjunction with the national meeting. On Saturday, I drove from Anaheim to Pasadena to attend the Harry Fest at Caltech, a 75th birthday bash for chemistry professor Harry B. Gray that drew more than 300. On Sunday evening, a slightly smaller but no less enthusiastic group of colleagues and former students gathered for a reception and dinner to mark Columbia University chemistry professor Ronald Breslow’s 80th birthday.

          The ACS Board of Directors held its open meeting on Sunday morning. Several foreign dignitaries visiting ACS at the meeting discussed their chemical societies’ activities during the International Year of Chemistry. Of special note, ACS Board Chair Bonnie Charpentier, ACS Executive Director and CEO Madeleine Jacobs, and Soon Ting-Kueh, the

Charpentier (from left), Soon Ting-Kueh, and Jacobs sign MOU between ACS and FACS during the ACS Board of Directors open meeting in Anaheim

immediate past president of the Federation of Asian Chemical Societies signed a memorandum of understanding committing ACS and FACS to several mutually beneficial activities over the next three years.

          C&EN Assistant Managing Editor Sophie Rovner posted on Newscripts on the presidential event on chemistry and Hollywood. As Rovner notes in her post, the large hall was packed, and what was particularly gratifying was that it was packed with young faces. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many young ACS members in one place at one time. It bodes well for our organization’s future.

          Rovner notes that University of Oklahoma chemistry professor Donna J. Nelson became the science advisor the television series “Breaking Bad” after reading about the dark program in a story in C&EN. What I wanted to stand up and say is that C&EN received several letters to the editor after that story appeared criticizing the magazine for publishing it. C&EN shouldn’t have given any space to such a dark television program about a high school chemistry teacher involved in illegal activities, the letters concluded. I’m still dumbfounded that some ACS members don’t want to acknowledge anything but the bright side of chemistry.

          Monday morning at the opening of the exposition marked the debut of the new, unified ACS Village Booth. Now all elements of ACS who have a stake in the meeting, from CAS and the Publications Division to Meetings & Scientific Advancement, Education, and Member Insurance are all together in one dramatic and impressive booth. At precisely

Massie (from left), Crawford, Jacobs, and Creech cut the ceremonial ribbon at the new unified ACS at the exposition in Anaheim

 10 a.m., ACS Executive Director Madeleine Jacobs, M&SA Division Director Denise Creech, CAS President Robert J. Massie, and Publications Division President Brian D. Crawford cut the ceremonial ribbon opening the booth.

          C&EN hosted its first webinar of 2011 at the Anaheim meeting. C&EN Deputy Editor-in-chief moderated. University of Toronto chemistry professor Andrei K. Yudin presented a lecture on “Aziridine Aldehydes as Reagents for Rapid & Chemoselective Synthesis of Complex Molecules.” More than 200 people tuned in for the webinar.

          That’s it for now.