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Pushing electrons over to the #ChemCoach Carnival

As you’re now no doubt well aware, after Carmen Drahl’s post, chemistry blogger See Arr Oh of Just Like Cooking (and frequent guest blogger with The Haystack) has challenged the chemistry blognoscienti to a #ChemCoach Chemistry Carnival, in honor of the 25th National Chemistry Week, which happens to coincide with my 25th anniversary as an ACS member. (Coincidence—or conspiracy


My current job.

I’m a medicinal chemist at the Lieber Institute for Brain Development in Baltimore, MD. We’re a nonprofit entity doing drug discovery, basic science and much else. We’re have an association with Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and are located adjacent to the campus. Naturally, as a medicinal chemist, I’m part of the drug discovery division, designing and synthesizing small molecules as potential therapies for central nervous system disorders, such as schizophrenia. Before working here, I was employed in Big Pharma for the majority of my career, working on similar targets, as it happens.

What I do in a standard “work day.”

There’s no such thing. The institute is small, and just getting off the ground, so we all wear a number of different hats in a given day. Most of my time is spent designing and making compounds and then analyzing the data those compounds generate to inform further design modifications. Classic med chem. But I’m also partly responsible for ordering supplies, some equipment maintenance, and I serve as Chemical Hygiene Officer for the institute—in this last role I have a fair amount of responsibility regarding safety, which I take seriously.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?

I have a master’s in organic chemistry and bachelor’s degrees in both chemical engineering and theatre arts. What do you mean, I was unfocused? It was all according to plan—a circuitous, inscrutable plan. After grad school, I went right to a synthetic organic position at a pharmaceuticals company. I had originally planned on working in industry for a few years, then going back to grad school and working toward a PhD. Life happened, and I never looked back. Even though I don’t have a doctorate, I was incredibly fortunate, and given a rare opportunity to move to a team leader position while working in Big Pharma.

How does chemistry inform my work?

Chemistry is central to everything I do, but medicinal chemistry requires having a level of understanding of biological mechanisms (which is still chemistry—that’ll be our little secret). Training, formal and informal, in areas like biology, pharmacology, toxicology, et. al. was undertaken while in industry. I’ve always had a broad base of interests (see educational background above), so medicinal chemistry is a good fit for me. I couldn’t have planned it better if I had tried, but I just followed my interests (much as Christine wrote about last year), and it’s worked out well for me.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career

As a startup nonprofit, we’ve received many generous donations of equipment and reagents (and scientists, it would seem—including myself) from Big Pharma as it downsizes and closes research sites. During week two in my new job, my boss and I rented a truck and went to the site of a recently-closed small biotech to pick up glassware we had purchased at auction. The chemistry lab had about twelve hoods or so, and there was glassware everywhere—some organized and sorted, some not. Many of the round-bottomed flasks still had notebook page numbers, tare weights and/or chemical structures written on them with a Sharpie. We packed up everything we could and left. I felt like a grave robber.

Well, now, that

was a downer. Okay, time to regroup. On a lighter note, a bonus Brush with Greatness—one of my theatre arts advisors was Bill Pullman.

Happy Mole Day!

25 years of American Chemical Society goodness

As I arrived home from work last Friday, awaiting me was a small package from the ACS Membership Affairs Committee. What could it be, I wondered.

“Dear Mr. Ernst,”
Oh, ACS, you’re too formal. Just call me Glen.

I excitedly opened the box. Inside was an even smaller box, and a letter addressed to me. The letter began:

“It is my great privilege to congratulate you on your 25th anniversary as a member of the American Chemical Society.”

They remembered! Well, I am embarrassed. I didn’t get them anything….except 25 years of dues.

Another excerpt:

“In the past several years, we have significantly enhanced your member benefits to offer a wide range of programs designed to enrich your personal and professional life. … For a full picture of all that ACS offers, please visit our interactive website www.acs.org/memberhandbook.”

In the spirit of full disclosure—and partial irony—I must admit I haven’t browsed through the full breadth of available ACS online content. The online version of the Member Handbook is nicely done and easy to navigate, facilitating access to important areas such as ACS Career Programs.

Further on, the letter read:

“As a special token of our gratitude, and in celebration of your 25 years of membership in the Society, please accept this engraved pen. May it serve as a reminder of your contributions and achievements with ACS!”

I mean it. Thank you.

I opened the small box. It was a pen. A shiny, sturdy, blue pen. A pen that cries, Behold, all ye mighty, I am a pen to be reckoned with. Yes, that sort of pen. And as promised, it is indeed engraved—twice. The engravings state, “AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY” and “25 YEARS OF SERVICE.” Bonus—the pen works!

Time to dial down the snarkiness. (Snark is my baseline setting.) It is a nice pen. I will use it. It’s not a 25th anniversary coffee mug depicting the entry for manganese from the periodic table, but, hey, I like it.

My recent criticisms aside, I’m proud to have been a member of this organization for the last 25 years, and look forward to continuing into the future.

The letter concluded:

“Because of your long-term participation in the ACS, we’ve become a richer, more influential organization, providing the highest levels of excellence in our programs and services. Again, congratulations on reaching this membership milestone!”

My contributions and achievements. Flattering, but to be honest, I haven’t done much beyond doing science as honestly as I know how. Regarding the ACS, I don’t feel I’ve really contributed—I’ve consumed. I do vote regularly in ACS elections, broadly, locally and within the divisions of which I am a member. Beyond that, the most I’ve given back has been through some of what I’ve written here at JAEP.

Can a pen cause shame?

So many nontraditional chemistry careers…

A core topic covered here at Just Another Electron Pusher is careers that are deemed by some to be nontraditional for those with a degree in chemistry—away from the bench, generally speaking. I was thinking it would be appropriate, at this time, to list the various nontraditional (or alternative or whatever adjective you prefer) careers that have been covered by current, former and guest electron pushers since this blog’s inception over two years ago.

Pants would be a nice addition to your ensemble.

Wardrobe not to your liking? That’s okay. You can find something else that fits your style.

Yes, this is the blog equivalent of a sitcom clip show, where the characters sit around and reminisce, saying things like, “Remember when such-and-such happened to so-and-so…” Annnd cue the short segment from an earlier season.

“Ooh, I hate these clip shows!” you cry, and shake your fist at the TV. But you end up watching them anyway, don’t you? Admit it—they’re addictive, almost inescapable. That’s what I’m trying to do here—lure you in with the promise of nostalgia, which comforts like the aroma of freshly baked bread, until the trap is sprung. Excellent.

And, in the spirit of altruism, I’m hoping this JAEP retrospective will provide a handy, and perhaps dandy, one-stop shop so you can browse through professions profiled and topics covered. This list will be updated regularly, and permalinked to the sidebar within the JAEP blogroll.

I’ve chosen to list these alphabetically, because, well…I’m a scientist, and we’re anal we prefer order. So, without further ado:

Actor profile
Book Editor / Publisher profile
Career Adviser profile
Cartoonist (Piled Higher & Deeper’s Jorge Cham) profile
Chemical Safety / Chemical Hygiene Officer profile
Chemical Software Marketer profile
Chemistry Librarian profile
Chemjobber profile
Congressional Legislative Assistant profile
Conservation Scientist profile
Cook part one, part two
Cosmetic Chemistry profile
Disney Imagineer profile
Flavor Chemistry profile
K-12 STEM Outreach profile one, profile two
Medical Sales (and Cheerleader!) profile
Medical Writing profile
Molecular Jewelry Designer profile
Optometrist profile
Patent Attorney profile
Project Manager profile
Regulatory Affairs profile
Science Artist / Illustrator profile
Science Policy and Communication profile one, profile two, profile three
Science Writing part one, part two
Scientific Journal Editor profile
Scientific Staffing profile
Technology Transfer profile
Winemaking profile
US Government Jobs overview
Video Producer profile
Web Entrepreneur (BenchFly’s Alan Marnett) profile

So, there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed this recap, and that you’ll revisit regularly.

This list contains only a small fraction of the careers those with chemistry degrees currently enjoy. I’d like to think there are many others, who have a degree in chemistry, but are currently employed in a profession not typically associated with chemistry. Perhaps they’re applying chemistry knowledge and skills in a unique way. If  either description fits you or someone you know, and you or they are also willing to be profiled by Just Another Electron Pusher, please contact me via Twitter (@electron_pusher) or email (geernst AT gmail DOT com).


Awarding nontraditional chemistry

As has been reported at C&EN and elsewhere, the anxiously awaited 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded Wednesday to Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka for their work characterizing the structure and function of G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs).

Here at GlobCasino, giddy Nobel fan boy David Kroll has followed up with two terrific posts (and promises yet another) about this year’s award, and Carmen Drahl, in the context of discussing a researcher’s two “families,” conducted an insightful interview with author Cheryl Renée Herbsman, daughter of Robert Lefkowitz.

The impact of this research cannot be overstated. GPCRs are huge, no question. Easily half the projects I’ve worked on in my career as a medicinal chemist have targeted GPCRs, and many of those that did not still contained one upstream or down in a broader signalling cascade.

In spite of the importance of this research, there has been some complaining about this year’s chemistry Nobel, and others given in recent years. The injured parties argue that the chemistry award is being somehow sullied by including work that isn’t really chemistry—by an overly strict definition. Last year’s award, which was for discovery of quasicrystals by Dan Shechtman, was also criticized by some because it didn’t go to a “real chemist.” This attitude even caught the attention of Nobel laureate Roald Hoffmann, who viewed the Nobel Committee’s recent decisions “as a call to our profession to embrace the far and influential reach of chemistry.”

In the chemistry blogosphere, there were several calls to abandon this chemistry-purist attitude, including a very nice rebuke by Derek Lowe, who succinctly stated, “Biology isn’t invading chemistry – biology is turning into chemistry.” Derek went on:

And that’s the story of molecular biology for you, right there. As it lives up to its name, its practitioners have had to start thinking of their tools and targets as real, distinct molecules. They have shapes, they have functional groups, they have stereochemistry and localized charges and conformations. They’re chemicals.

In his blog, Chemjobber granted this argument, but is still uncomfortable with the notion. He wrote, “My main complaint against this trend of biology/biologists winning recent chemistry Nobel prizes is that it is beginning to distract from the non-life-sciences aspects of chemistry.”

I mention all this grumbling about the Nobel Prize in Chemistry because a topic covered by this blog is so-called nontraditional careers in chemistry. So far be it from me to criticize the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Chemistry to chemistry research that some may view as nontraditional.

The beta-2 adrenergic receptor—a GPCR.

WARNING: Your body contains chemicals. Lots of them.
Credit – Wikimedia Commons

Breakthrough scientific research often occurs at the boundaries of disciplines. A key insight can be made by someone skilled in another field of science as they view an intractable problem from a previously unappreciated perspective.

Those of us who get worked up over media hysteria regarding things containing chemicals (the horror!) and are deeply critical of consumer products described as “chemical free” have long maintained that everything is made of chemicals. True enough. If so, then we can hardly complain if a Nobel Prize in chemistry is awarded for work in biology, because—repeat after me—biology is chemistry. And as David Kroll rightly pointed out, the tools necessary for elucidating the function of the earliest-understood GPCRs were chemical tools.

This is really nothing new. I’ve heard many times in my career that “all biology is chemistry, and all chemistry is physics.” So…maybe there’s some room in the physics Nobel for some chemistry research? If that happens, will physicists grumble that their Nobel didn’t go to a “real physicist?”

How far will you go to stay in science? Let C&EN know!

As I’ve mentioned previously, I went through a job search last year, and had been preparing for the possibility of a career change after 20+ years as a medicinal chemist. I was able to stay surprisingly positive through it all, and managed to land a new position in May of last year as….a medicinal chemist.

So much for the career change, right? Well, not so fast. Because much has changed.

First, there’s the setting. I’ve gone from an industrial setting in Big Pharma to what is essentially an academic setting at a nonprofit research institute. It’s very invigorating here, and I need to wear different hats through a typical day. Translation: Busy. But that’s a good thing.

Yeah. This is fun. Courtesy flickr user fakoman

Second, and perhaps foremost, is the time spent commuting. At my last position, my round-trip daily commute was about an hour on average. While unemployed, when I began my tenure here as an electron pusher, my commute was zero. Okay, maybe a few seconds walking from one room in my house to another. Now however, I typically spend around three hours a day on the road.

The upshot is my days are long, and when I get home, I have at best two good hours before it’s time for sleep—and my brain disengages long before that, I’m afraid. And yes, if you’re wondering, there is a discernible difference, thankyouverymuch.

And, to make matters worse, there were several articles this past May discussing the results of a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine entitled “Commuting Distance, Cardiorespiratory Fitness, and Metabolic Risk,” which examined health effects of long-distance commuting. I’m afraid the data doesn’t look very good.

The data showed statistically significant correlations between commuting distance and increases in blood pressure, waist circumference and body mass index (BMI).

The researchers summarized by stating,

“Daily commuting represents a source of chronic stress that has been correlated positively with physiologic consequences including high blood pressure, self-reported tension, fatigue, and other negative mental or physical health effects in some studies.”


In other words, Long Distance Commute = Bad For Your Health.

I’m striving to be an outlier from this data, but I realize all too well that I’m putting myself at risk, both chronically and acutely, with all the miles I now drive.

However, this is a minor complaint—I know I’m very fortunate to be employed. The job market appears little better, if any, than it did a year ago. I’m still monitoring the situation, as a few of my former colleagues are looking for a job, either due to the same site closure that affected me, or a subsequent one after they were able to land elsewhere.

Tip: When away from home for an extended period, keep a family portrait on your desk. Not this family—yours. Courtesy flickr user Gary M

There’s another long-distance commuting situation that—to me, at least—seems to be more common now than it had previously been. I’m referring to those that have retained their current position, or have found a new one, but have had to move far away from their families. The sad result is they are now only able to be with their families on weekends, or even less frequently. This particular variation on the two-body problem causes a completely different form of heartsickness than from extra sedentary hours per day. This is a situation that I have great difficulty picturing myself doing and have deliberately tried to avoid. That said, you never know what you’re capable of enduring if you have no other options.

This phenomenon has not gone unnoticed by C&EN, which, in the coming months, will publish an article about chemists who have had to relocate while their families remain behind.

If this is a situation in which you find yourself and would be willing to share your experience regarding the pros and cons of your predicament as a contribution to this story, please contact Susan J. Ainsworth, Senior Editor, ACS News & Special Features Group. Her email address is…

S_Ainsworth AT acs DOT org.

Your experience may provide reassurance to others facing this dilemma. Thanks in advance for your help!

On the Continually Bleak Chemistry Job Market

You’ve probably seen the numbers.

On August 3rd, the July unemployment figures for the US were widely reported. Relatively stagnant, again, with an overall unemployment rate of 8.3%

Last month, here at C&EN, Rudy Baum presented his take on unemployment figures for ACS members, which fell from 4.6% in March 2011 to 4.2% for March 2012. He pointed out that this rate was still “well below” the national unemployment rate, which was at 8.2% in March 2012.

This was followed by a commentary by Madeleine Jacobs, CEO and Executive Director of the ACS.

She expressed concern for her membership by stating that “those unemployed chemists are no longer solving critical challenges and creating jobs to ensure sufficient energy, clean water, and food while protecting the environment and curing diseases. Unemployment has both a human and an economic face.”

She was prompted to speak out by Brian Vastag’s article in the Washington Post from July 7th, which covered the lack of available jobs in the sciences. Within that article, a chemist, displaced from her position at a pharmaceuticals company, was quoted as advising her high-school aged daughter to avoid pursuing a career in science. “I tell her, ‘Don’t go into science.’ I’ve made that very clear to her,” she said.

Ms. Jacobs was particularly disturbed by this advice, and felt compelled to call others to action. This is where her initial expression of concern morphed into something else:

“Many people became scientists to fulfill what they saw as their patriotic duty. Let’s not discourage our children who are passionate about chemistry and other sciences by pointing them to other fields.”

She then proceeded to quote, as support for her position, a biology undergraduate, who said, among other things:

“Anyone who would discourage a child who loves math and chemistry from pursuing a career in science because it might be difficult to find employment might not be a scientist for the right reasons.”

I guess there’s room enough for at least two on that particular high horse.

Okay, where to begin?

Among my coworkers, Madeleine Jacobs’ commentary was viewed with something best described as sputtering disbelief. Her rebuke smacks of “nothing worthwhile is ever easy,” or “hard work is its own reward.”

Gee, um, thanks, Mom.

That disbelief was wonderfully crystallized in a subsequent post by Chemjobber. He first pointed out that a straight comparison between the unemployment numbers of ACS members and those of the country at large was a bit misleading:

“Less than 30% of the United States has a college degree. The ACS membership in 2010 consists of 64% Ph.D.s, 18% M.S. holders and 18% bachelors’ degree holders.”

He offered a comparison that still isn’t perfect, but is much better, by limiting the comparison of unemployment numbers to ACS members and nonmembers with college degrees. To summarize—if you break it down by degree, ACS members have higher unemployment than the college educated public at large. Continue reading →

Website helps scientists learn about careers within Federal agencies

As an individual currently employed in the private sector, I must admit to a wide breadth of ignorance regarding what employment opportunities may exist for a scientist within a Federal government agency.

It would I appear that my own personal lack of knowledge regarding government science positions is shared by many others, and this has not gone unnoticed by the very Federal agencies who are in need of top scientists to fill these roles.

Seeking to bring attention to the variety of science and technology (S&T) opportunities available, a pilot website, INSPIREST (careers.science.gov) has been created.

The website was developed through a collaboration of six Federal agencies—the Department of Energy (DOE), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Department of Labor (DOL), Department of State (DOS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)—along with the Partnership for Public Service—and they would like your help in directing its mission to provide useful information to prospective employees at all stages of their careers.

Curious? And how!!

Learn about a variety of science and technology positions available within the Federal goverment. You won't be sorry.

INSPIREST was created in response to a perceived lack of general awareness and understanding of the opportunities in the Federal government for scientists and engineers, but this was not the only factor. Other challenges to nurturing a vital S&T workforce include: increased vacancies of key positions due to growing retirements within the “baby boomer” generation, and competition with the private sector for top talent.

The website’s creators also recognized that USAJOBS.gov—the primary avenue for applying to science and engineering positions for most Federal agencies—had a limited ability to communicate what jobs are available and what these jobs are really like.

I, for one, am grateful that a need was recognized to create a site like this. When I was going through my job search last year, government positions were definitely on my radar, and a few emerged from job search engine queries. I found that gathering information on and applying for these position were long, convoluted ordeals. INSPIREST seeks to demystify that process.

The INSPIREST website currently consists of three main sections. The Profiles section contains interviews with scientists, engineers, and technology specialists (actual people—including chemists and chemical engineers! Here, here and, yes, here) who currently have jobs “related to National priorities such as energy, discovery science, space exploration, national security, international diplomacy, and U.S. competitiveness in the 21st century,” according to the website.

The Resources section contains, not unexpectedly, resources. Okay, about what? Well, you can find information extolling the benefits of public service and the Federal employment experience. There is also key information and resources for finding Federal positions and applying for them.

There is also a section highlighting the six participating Federal agencies. Information is provided regarding the agencies’ respective missions, needs for a highly skilled S&T workforce, and direct links to current employment opportunities.

Uncle Sam can point you to a rewarding S&T career

...to fill out a quick survey...and learn about gov't science careers. That is all. Carry on.

I mentioned that the creators of INSPIRESTwould like your help. To guide the development of the website, they are requesting your feedback through the completion of a brief survey.

This beta site and the opportunity to provide feedback on this pilot will only be available through February 15, 2012. Links to the survey are liberally distributed through all sections of the INSPIREST site, or you can follow this link.

I have taken the survey – it is simple, straightforward and doesn’t take much time to complete. I would urge others to do the same, whether one is considering government S&T positions or not.

This is a chance to influence the creation of what could become a valuable resource for job-seekers. I commend the site’s creators for the transparency of this effort, and hope it continues as the site grows. So, remember, please try to complete the survey by February 15th!

Stay tuned to Just Another Electron Pusher as well over the next few days, as Christine has two upcoming posts, each about individuals with chemistry backgrounds, and who are now in science roles within the Federal government.

Maintaining your personal infrastructure

Recently, Christine announced her return to the lab after her internship. She wrote that she found she had a more positive attitude toward completing her graduate research after her much-needed break.

I find that I’m similarly energized by my own return to the lab, although my circumstances are quite different. Since my current employer is just getting off the ground, there have been some long days, which haven’t left a great deal of time for much else. But it’s well worth it.

The setting for my new position is quite different than my former one within a large chemistry group in Big Pharma. Gone is some of the infrastructure to support the day-to-day functioning of the lab from which I had the luxury of benefiting in my last role.

Walk down to a supply room down the hall to get a box of gloves or pipettes? Nope.

Place a call to laboratory services to have such-and-such piece of equipment sent out for maintenance? Not so much.

Enjoy a leisurely brunch on the deck of my yacht? Not likely. Oh, wait—that never happened.

Those of us in this much smaller group will serve as a significant portion of our infrastructure (once our current arrangement of sharing lab space is complete), along with our other duties. Having more to do is also a welcome change after more than four months of unemployment.

I bring up the notion of infrastructure, as it has been fairly topical in recent years.

In a broader context, it refers to the services, structures, and organizations necessary to support a society. You know, the kind of things one takes for granted every day.

Much of the discussion regarding the infrastructure here in the U.S. has the word “crumbling” appearing with unfortunate frequency, particularly with the current condition of the economy.

Although the topic in this context is very important, I believe each of us has our own personal infrastructure.

Sure, there are the gadgets and conveniences that help us live our lives. I’m more interested in the part that is internal rather than external.

Don’t let this happen to you, within or without.

It’s what keeps us anchored and helps us weather whatever storms come our way….and there will be storms, often without any warning. It’s a good idea to prepare yourself and build up your infrastructure. But how?

Just about anything you do (assuming it’s not to someone else’s detriment) that helps you grow as person and feel positive about yourself can qualify. There are a few somewhat random things, though, that helped me get through my own stormy period, and continue to help me as I continue to acclimate into my new position.

One component is remaining calm if you can help it. Having a hair trigger on your panic button is not terribly conducive to rational thought.

The broader your foundation, the more stable it’s likely to be. You can increase the breadth of your foundation by adding to your transferable skillset.

I should note that, although you are responsible for much of your personal infrastructure, I’m not suggesting some sort of you-versus-everyone-else rugged individualism. Far from it.

I mention that because an essential component is your network, or, as it used to be called, your friends and colleagues. Remember them? And, please, you don’t always have to be “working” your network. Just get together with people and listen.

And, much like our society’s various infrastructures, yours requires maintenance. Keeping it sound and stable can strengthen your ability to focus and be productive

So, keep busy. Go for a walk. Read something. Organize your stuff. Do volunteer work. Write short imperative sentences. Hide Easter eggs.

So, what do you think? What’s the most important component of your personal infrastructure, and how do you keep it from falling apart?