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Archive → June, 2011

Proposals to encourage educators to focus on safety

By Russ Phifer, a consultant with WC Environmental and past chair of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety.

Two weekends ago, I attended an informal ACS meeting in Philadelphia that had two functions. One, in which I participated, was a writing session for the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety (CCS) Task Force on Laboratory Chemical & Waste Management to update two of our documents. The second was a mini-summit of ACS groups to talk about safety culture. The two groups met together only during meals and for a brief joint session.

The safety culture meeting, which was essentially an ad-hoc group of CCS and Society Committee on Education members, was there primarily to address concerns over shortcomings in academic safety policies in the U.S. ACS President Nancy Jackson was a special guest, adding her perspective and taking the opportunity to learn more on this issue. Chaired by Dr. Robert Hill, the group appears to have a good handle on safety culture, what it means, and the nature of this culture at a wide variety of academic institutions.

Many organizations have tried to define the term “safety culture”; perhaps the best is one from the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (pdf): “safety culture is how the organization behaves when no one is watching”. The discussion was similar to the National Academies’ Safety Summit last year. While recent laboratory incidents are a major impetus for these and other explorations of (primarily) academic chemical safety, many people have been concerned for some time that colleges and universities don’t do a good job of training and supervising either students or faculty, for various reasons.

Research has been done, stories told, and questionnaires sent. Evaluation and discussion are ongoing. But the real question is where do we go from here? How can we convince colleges and universities to make safety a higher priority? Since industry reportedly most values those graduates with a strong safety background, why aren’t more institutions making this a focus? What can ACS and other organizations do to encourage this?

My proposals:

  • Strengthen the ACS Committee on Professional Training accreditation program for undergraduate chemistry programs. Give it some teeth, perhaps in the form of funds to enable actual audits of college safety programs. More than 300 schools of all sizes participate in that program, and all place value on the accreditation.
  • Continue to seek input and involvement from the Campus Safety Health & Environmental Management Association, the National Association of College & University Business Officers, and other campus safety organizations. Form a consensus on what standards should be applied to laboratory safety in academic institutions, and then apply them.

What are yours?

Chemist-turned-marketing director in the computer software industry

Profile: Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA

Electronic laboratory notebooks are the way of the future for scientific records, and Philip Skinner is helping pave the way for them.

Philip Skinner, Field Marketing Director for PerkinElmer, San Diego, CA. Courtesy photo.

Philip is a field marketing director for PerkinElmer, where his current focus is promoting E-Notebook products to companies and laboratories.

But he wasn’t always in the software industry. He is a trained synthetic organic chemist who received his Ph.D. at the University of Durham in the North East of England and did a postdoc at ETH Zurich before landing a job in med chem.

While working in med chem, Philip helped asses E-Notebooks for his company. This experience helped him develop professional partnerships within the computer software industry. Little did he know that the time and effort invested would eventually develop into a full-time job just when he needed it.

In 2009, the pharmaceutical company where Philip had worked for eight years cut 40 percent of its staff and Philip was left unemployed. He spent nine months actively exploring other career options, including project management and consulting. Finally, the software company developing E-Notebooks decided to expand their sales team, and they offered Philip a job. Shortly after, he moved up in the company into a marketing position and is now a director of field marketing.

Philip said he would not have been so lucky had he not had the training and connections with the folks in the software industry.

“I met a lot of people networking, but I got this job from contacts I had made and nurtured for many years, and people I had actually worked in partnership with,” he said.

For the most part, he works from home, where he spends his time preparing for product demonstrations, participating in conference calls and talking with customers.

“One of my main roles is essentially a translator,” Philip said. “As an experienced lab scientist, I understand the way at least the drug discovery world works. I can speak with the scientists we are working with, but also to our software people.”

Will traditional lab notebooks soon be replaced with electronic lab notebooks? Photo credit: flickr user proteinbiochemist

To expand the company’s client base, Philip demo’s the products at trade shows and visits companies all over the country– so there is a good deal of travel with his job.

Philip said the best and worst part of his job is working from home since he said it makes it very difficult to maintain work/life separation. But he said he is very happy with his career move.

“I enjoy the work, I like the people, it gives me a lot of freedom,” he said. “I feel valued and useful… and I feel that I have somewhere I can actually grow.”

For chemists who may be interested in breaking into the software industry, Philip suggests doing research on both the companies and products, making connections with people in the field, and determining which entry positions into the company are a good place to start. Continue reading →

Project SEED student having a sweet summer

One of the lovely pleasures I have as a prof is serving as principal investigator of a NIH-funded program to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue doctoral training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences.

As one aim of the project to encourage student writing skills and engagement with the public and scientific communities, we keep a blog over at the Scientopia network, NCCU Eagles RISE, to chronicle the progress of these wonderful young folks.

Today, NCCU rising sophomore Victoria Jones holds forth on her current research experience at the Penn State Medical Center at Hershey.

Why do I write about Victoria here?

Well, she is a product of the ACS Project SEED program (Summer Research Internship Program for Economically Disadvantaged High School Students).

Continue reading →

Artful Space Tools

Thank you, Mars, for indirectly giving art researchers a helping hand. Credit: Wikipedia Commons.

When cultural heritage scientists go on the road, one of the most useful tools they take with them is something developed for Mars exploration: a hand-held X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. The Art Institute of Chicago’s Francesca Casadio wrote a snappy little ode to the machine, which NPR awesomely calls a “science gun.”

When researchers point the admittedly weapon-like device at a painting or a sculpture, they are able to find out which elements are present in the artwork. So for example, Casadio has used the machine to discover that about 1000 years ago, Chinese artists used a red, mercury-based paint called vermillion to decorate the lips of a female sculpture.

She also discovered that sometime in the 1800s an over-enthusiastic restorer used a zinc-based paint to give the sculpture “a new coat of lipstick,” Casadio told NPR. Hear the whole NPR piece here.

Casadio launching X-rays with her science gun at the Impressionists. Credit: Art Institute of Chicago.

I heart the space connection. Astrochemists needed rugged and portable equipment to analyze the elemental make-up of the Martian landscape. The X-ray device also doesn’t harm whatever it is analyzing because researchers don’t need to remove a piece of the sample to do the analysis.

Instead, X-rays are directed on to the artwork or Martian rock and they either get scattered or absorbed in a way that reveals which elements are in the sample.

All these characteristics fit the bill for cultural heritage science. These researchers need sturdy, portable, non-invasive devices to study priceless art in caves, at archeological sites or even at a private collector’s home. And that’s why Casadio calls X-ray fluorescence spectrometers “the most exciting high-tech tools you’ve never heard of.”

Amusing News Aliquots

Silly samplings from this week’s science news. Compiled by Bethany Halford and Lauren Wolf.

Jospeh Black/From Wikimedia Commons

Excavation at the University of Edinburgh unearths equipment likely used by 18th century chemist Joseph Black, the discoverer of carbon dioxide. [Scotsman; Bonus video @ NatureNews].

Patrick McGovern has the Newscripts Gang’s dream job: Beer archeologist. [Smithsonian]

Math is getting its own museum. [NYT]

What makes New York bagels so scrumptious? Is it the water chemistry? Whatever it is, we’d like ours with cream cheese and tomatoes, please. [Slate]

As if the rigors of P-Chem weren’t enough, chemist and author Peter Atkins ponders the beginning of the universe in his new book “On Being.” [Brainiac]

Extract from cinnamon bark slows development of Alzheimer’s disease. Frank Herbert was right all along: The spice must flow. [UPI]

“Pi Day” is under attack! “Tau Day” supporters so angry—and they hate lemon meringue. [BBC]

Go. Dream. Read.

I thought I’d get a real blogpost up before getting on a plane to Chicago today. Alas, not.

In the meantime, have you been reading the Just Another Electron Pusher blog across the masthead here at GlobCasino?

You must. Seriously.

Since Leigh Krietsch Boerner left us for greener pastures, Christine Herman and Glen Ernst have been destroying it like a boss.

Go do this dream exercise as Christine suggests. And do play the video to learn about white blood cells – and see her dance!

Then, go congratulate Glen on his rescue from an involuntary hiatus.

Then, tonight, sit down with a glass of wine and read Christine’s profile of Kawal Tandon, a wine industry chemist.

And a hearty “well-done” to our benevolent overlord and C&EN Online Editor, Rachel Pepling, at the home office for putting together these two, fabulous writers to capture life in chemistry from graduate student to formerly-unemployed mid-career chemist.

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share. 

I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate. 

Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it. 

Take a few minutes to dream-- What are you passionate about? Could you find a way to get paid to do that? Photo credit: Flickr user Alaska Young

Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for. 

In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are

Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works. 

  • Causes I am passionate about
  • Activities that get me excited
  • Work environments I thrive in
  • My dream job(s)

For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow. 

Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you’re passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in. 

What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do. 

Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it. 

Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science

A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing. 

So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have more options than you ever knew. Peruse previous blog posts for ideas.

This is all, of course, contingent on finding a job that allows you to do what you want and get paid for it, preferably well. Here’s the thing: People tend to work hard at things they care deeply about. If you have a passion and you work to develop the skill set you need to do it well, there’s almost certainly a market out there for it. Your job is to find out where and how. 

Easier said than done, for certain. And in today’s economy, not everyone has the luxury of finding a job that let’s them do what they love. There are bills to pay and mouths to feed. But I feel that people should never let the reality of a non-ideal situation squelch their passions and dreams for what they want to get out of life and what they want to give back to the world. Continue reading →

Celebrating IYC 2011


The International Year of Chemistry is already half over! And what a year it’s been so far. But there’s more to come. This week’s issue of C&EN is our major contribution to the IYC 2011 celebration. The issue contains five essays by prominent figures in the chemistry enterprise on some of the many ways chemistry is contributing to the welfare of humanity, as well as an essay on the life of Marie Curie, who received her Nobel Prize in Chemistry 100 years ago.

The issue also contains a Comment by ACS President Nancy B. Jackson that focuses on IYC 2011. Jackson outlines some of the challenges humans face, and writes, “Although no one knows exactly how to address these challenges, we all agree that collaboration and chemistry are crucial in our search for solutions.”

For Jackson, “collaboration” means working with chemists from around the world, from developed and developing countries. “Chemical scientists from developing and emerging countries have so much to offer the U.S. chemical community,” Jackson writes. She points, for example, to access to natural products and creative applications of green chemistry.

“But most striking,” Jackson writes, “is the personal and professional inspiration that I consistently find through knowing chemists from Africa and other developing regions of the world. Their dedication, enthusiasm, and vision convince me that chemistry really can make the world a better place.”

C&EN has been taking note of such chemists during IYC 2011 in a series of profiles of ACS members living and working in places where there are only a few such members. The profiles have appeared in the last issue of each month. So far this year, we have profiled members living in Cuba (where there are a total of six members), Fiji (1 member), Lebanon (13), Burkina Faso (2), and Moldova (1). These stories of chemists working as researchers and educators under difficult conditions and with meager resources are truly inspirational.

Continue reading →