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Guest Repost: “A Chemical Imbalance- Gender and Chemistry in Academia” by Biochem Belle

I’m pleased to bring you another guest re-post from Biochem Belle. She’s previously shared her writings about letting up on the pressures we place on ourselves in science professions. This time, her post is about A Chemical Imbalance, a new 15-minute documentary that looks at gender parity in academe through the lens of one university. This post originally appeared at Biochem Belle’s blog, Ever On & On.

As an undergrad preparing for med school, I fell in love with chemistry, thanks in large part to a quirky gen chem professor. He convinced me that a biochem major would be great for pre-med. That department became my home for 3 years. It was fantastic, and I found my true interest in science. And I never felt that there was anything unusual about being a woman pursuing chemistry. In grad school, that changed.

I’ve often wondered what flipped the switch. Perhaps the first clue was the fellowship offer that had the goal of increasing representation of women and minorities in the field. That initiated higher awareness of the disparities in my field, which expanded as I talked to peers and just took a look around. There were several women in my grad school class (going through the group in my head, 10 years later, I think we were pushing 40%). But at the time, there was one woman on tenure-track in the department. Another joined the department after my first year. Scanning through the faculty listings today, my undergrad department (undergrad focus with M.S. and small Ph.D. programs) is more than 25% women; my grad program looks to be around 10-15%.

My Ph.D. department is fairly representative of the faculty breakdown in physical sciences, according to the most recent NSF data. Life sciences perform better, with about 30% female faculty. Across disciplines, it’s not just that there are far fewer female faculty, but they earn less than their male colleagues. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US. A Chemical Imbalance is a short documentary and e-book looking at the history of female chemists at the University of Edinburgh. In the UK, less than 10% of STEM faculty are women. The Department of Chemistry at Edinburgh boasts 25%.

The film, less than 15 minutes long, looks at the milestones of the department’s female faculty. It also takes a brief look at the two big questions: Why do numbers of women in the faculty ranks remain low (and drop off further at upper levels), and what should be done to change the landscape? The creators provide four action points for a start. Here’s why I think they matter.

Monitor our numbers.

Paying attention to the numbers is not about establishing quotas. It’s about removing a perception bias. The issue of gender parity in STEM receives a great deal of attention. Many institutions respond, in part, by saying, “Hey, look at all these great female faculty we have here!” I think this gives many individuals the idea that there are far more female faculty than there actually are.

Periodically, for one reason or another, my boss and I will end up on the topic of gender bias in science. My boss is very supportive of women in science, but inevitably he asks the question, “Do you really think that gender bias is still a problem?” I always respond with an unequivocal “yes”. Recently he responded, “But what about department at [Top Research U]? And I’m sure that our [molecular department] must be getting close to 50%.” I crunched the numbers. The department is almost perfectly average: 28% female faculty.

We are making progress, but it is slow and incremental. It is not proceeding in the leaps and bounds that we perceive from our institutions’ press and from our own inherent biases. We are scientists. We consider data before making claims in our research. Let’s do the same elsewhere.

Mentor our people and make sure the best are applying.

In biochemistry, women are selecting out at the faculty application phase. The factors most often cited are family and work-life balance issues. I don’t doubt these are real concerns, but I think there are much deeper issues. We know that there is gender bias. We keep hearing that, as women, we have to work harder, publish more, win more grants, etc. to compete with men – and then we’ll likely get less money for it. Some of us have run up against either implicit or explicit bias, which can make the environment feel hostile. Owing in part to socialization, women negotiate differently – and less – and I suspect that this extends seeking out mentoring. Oh, and then, there’s impostor syndrome. Mix all this together, and maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that women are stepping off the tenure track. Maybe this should be a wake-up call to mentoring.

But it’s not just prospective applicants that need mentoring. Hiring and promotions committees could use some guidance too. Every one of us, regardless of gender, carry some form of bias. Studies in multiple fields consistently show gender bias in hiring decisions, and the sciences are no exception. It’s important to be aware of our biases so that we can combat them. Departments need to make sure that they are giving equal consideration regardless of gender.

Create a workplace that supports everyone and allows flexibility.

This doesn’t focus on family or on women, and I think it’s all the more important for that reason. Shockingly scientists are people, complete with all the messy, complicated lives of people. Health, family, mental wellness… we all have things that aren’t science that command time and attention. Science is a long, slow process. Allowing flexibility to deal with the rest of life might just keep scientists more engaged and make their science better.

Reclaim the meaning of feminism.

For a long time, I never considered myself a feminist. It wasn’t that the word carried a negative connotation. It just wasn’t exactly part of my vocabulary. It wasn’t until I delved in the blogosphere and Twitterverse that I began to understand what feminism means. And why it matters so much. Feminism is not about quotas and misandry. It’s about equal rights and opportunities. We still have to talk about this because, despite our sense of enlightenment, we simply do not view the same work by a man and woman equally. This needs to change.

And there are even larger disparities to address with regard to underrepresented minorities, who account for less than 5% of full professors at research universities. Some of the issues are different, some may be similar. But if we’re going to address parity, we need to work towards parity for all.

A final note

The documentary focuses on gender parity in chemistry in academia. But the issues extend to other fields and sectors. Without serious consideration to these issues, the sciences will continue to lose talent and a major investment of time and money. Institutions should take steps to make their processes and departments more balanced and supportive. Mentors contribute to the environment and should be invested in making sure their best trainees are applying. However, it’s important that mentors don’t overcompensate and (unintentionally) leave women feeling guilty for leaving academia, if that is their ultimate choice. The goal is for scientists, both male and female, to apply for the best position for them

and to be given equal consideration, regardless of gender, race, or ethnicity. Like much of science, the process is slow and long, but we just need to keep chipping away at it.

Don’t forget to check out the documentary A Chemical Imbalance.

Guest Post: “Google Glass and Twitter for Chemistry Education” by Arash Soheili

Today’s guest post is from Arash Soheili, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Texas, Southwestern Medical Center. As curator of the Twitter account @Total_Synthesis, which is turning 2 this month, no new total synthesis in the journals escapes his watchful eye. He’s passionate about teaching chemistry. And we’re jealous of him because he got to visit Google’s NYC offices to pick up his very own Google Glass. Check out his tech musings at Android Cowboy.

Arash Soheili wearing Google Glass

He has Google Glass. Do you?
(Courtesy Arash Soheili)

I love organic chemistry and have been practicing it in academia and industry for over a decade. I’m also a huge fan of technology and strongly believe that there is a place for it in chemistry education. In fact, I would even say that in the next decade it will become a necessity to incorporate technology as part of the formal teaching toolkit. That process is already happening informally with so many educational videos on YouTube from enthusiasts and educators. But so many technology tools are constantly changing and it will take a strong effort on educators to find the methods that work best. Just like running an experiment in the lab, it will take planning, as well as some trial and error, to get the best results.

My personal experience with chemistry and education started about two years ago. I wanted to find a way to reach more people and introduce new and interesting topics in chemistry using existing social networks. My passion for natural product synthesis led me to start a total synthesis Twitter feed. I check all the major organic chemistry journals daily and tweet any completed total synthesis of a natural product that I find. If you are interested in natural product synthesis then you can easily follow the Twitter feed and be up to date. You can also join the conversation by using the hashtag #totalsynthesis. The idea was very simple, but it had yet to be executed. Now in two years there are close to 1000 followers and it serves as an archive of over 400 natural product syntheses in all the major journals. This information would be hard to collect and very laborious using the typical search methods like Google, ACS, SciFinder, etc. It is an idea that can be duplicated for any other topic of interest in science and can be even tried in a formal class setting. Similar ideas include the online Twitter #chemclub by Andrew Bissette.

Social media tools are far from the only game in town. Hardware tools have huge potential for application in chemistry education. One example is Google Glass which is basically a head mounted computer with the ability to take pictures, videos, and more. One of the great features of Glass is the ability to video chat (Hangouts) with a first person point of view. This was used very effectively by Andrew Vanden Heuvel when he took Google Glass to the CERN Hadron Collider and taught his students from his point of view. It was an experience that his students will probably never forget and was a unique way to inspire them. As a Glass owner myself, I’m thinking about the potential applications to teach chemistry. One unique way of teaching chemistry using Glass can be by giving students a first-person vantage point of a live experiment. This will also give students access to reactions that explain difficult concepts that they themselves may not be able to complete by seeing them through the eyes of a trained professional. Another example would be to record lectures from the educators point of view. This can be made available for students to and can also be used to help train young educators in effective teaching. I think the potential for Glass and chemistry education is huge and it will only take our imagination to make it happen.

It’s clear many people think social media and technology is just a fad and has no place in education. But go anywhere in public, and you’ll see how every kid or young person is on their phone or tablet browsing social media. Technology is the new language that young people speak and to reach them we need to teach in their language. It will take a concerted effort by all educators but I’m very hopeful and very excited to see what comes next.

Guest Post: “#Chemclub” by Andrew Bissette

Last month’s guest re-post from Andrew Bissette generated quite the great conversation. So we’re excited to share an original post from Andrew today. We asked him to talk about #chemclub, the online community he co-founded, how it complements other communities like #RealTimeChem, and about what’s in store for #chemclub next.

What’s it like to be a chemist?

Regular C&EN readers hopefully got a good idea from Carmen Drahl’s great article about #RealTimeChem. This growing project, led primarily by Jason Woolford, encourages chemists to share their lives, whether by blogging about it, or taking photos, or even remixing it with some dubstep.

#RealTimeChem Week took place in the last week of April. For one week, chemists from across the world blogged and tweeted intensively about their work and lives. This was a great chance to meet other chemists and hopefully to show the human face of chemistry to the outside world. Perhaps in the popular imagination we all wear labcoats and handle beakers of dry ice, but in reality we are diverse. Even within a particular field, two chemists will have very different labs and lives. #RealTimeChem is a fantastic way to showcase that diversity.

However, diversity has a downside. It is so easy to get absorbed in the details of your own narrow field that keeping up with even closely-related areas can be challenging. What’s worse is that this can be a vicious cycle: the less you know about a subject, the harder it is to keep abreast of things and to identify the really promising new findings.

Since reading as widely and thoughtfully as possible will always be essential, several aids for this purpose have appeared. For example, some reference managers suggest new papers, and journals regularly highlight important publications. My preferred solution is to ask a friend.

That’s why I started #chemclub.

We chemists are lucky to have a strong and enthusiastic online community, as #RealTimeChem week demonstrated. We’re a diverse lot, including everyone from undergraduates to professors, from a range of specialities. Being chemists, naturally every single one of these people is a shining beacon of genius.

#chemclub aims to draw on that collective wisdom. First and foremost we ask people to highlight the papers they’re reading. It’s very simple: anyone can post papers to Twitter with the hashtag #chemclub for public discussion, and every week I round up a selection on my blog, Behind NMR Lines.

The idea of #chemclub is to complement your reading with some papers you might otherwise have skipped, giving you an appreciation for new developments in other fields. Hopefully this will make it that little bit easier to build up a broad knowledge from across chemistry.

To this end we’re expanding #chemclub beyond just the hashtag. The first baby step is to include blogs in the regular round-up; there are plenty of great chemistry blogs out there, and many discuss recent papers in some detail. We’ll be focusing on those that offer context which the casual reader might miss.

Long-term, we’re looking at other ways to help chemists. Our next big thing will be #chemclub reviews: short, coffee-break reviews aimed at giving the reader a quick overview of a subject. Naturally these will lack the gory detail of an academic review, but hopefully will benefit your own reading by providing easily-digestible context and from someone who knows the subject intimately.

Ultimately, #chemclub is much like #RealTimeChem: it’s about community. We’re slowly building an online, ongoing literature meeting that users can dip in and out of, helping chemists to stay current with the literature, meet others from across the world, and broaden their knowledge.

Get involved by posting to the #chemclub hashtag on Twitter.

Guest Re-post: “In defense of chemphobia” by Andrew Bissette

Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.

#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.

One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.

Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:

Chemphobia is reactive

Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.

Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.

Material does not equal chemical

As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.

This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.

Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.


Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.

What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.

Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.

Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.

Guest Post: “Screw anonymous—Maybe? Reclaim synthesis—Definitely!” by Fredrik von Kieseritzky

Today’s guest poster is Fredrik von Kieseritzky, whose sense of humor is evident in his posts at Synthetic Remarks. You may recall his open letter to a certain Scripps Research Institute organic chemist. Today, Fredrik writes about anonymity on blogs. It’s a familiar discussion point to followers of the chemistry blogosphere, but it takes on new dimensions given current events.

Right before turning off the computer and getting ready to hit the sack last night, in the middle of brushing my teeth, I got sucked in reading Anonymous Science and the Survival of Blog Syn over at Rich Apodaca’s blog Depth-First—and it got me thinking. In fact, it left me sleepless for most the night. Thank you very much, Rich.

For those of you who haven’t read it yet or know what Blog Syn is all about in the first place, allow me to start off with a recap of the action: For a considerable amount of time, chemists have been complaining on social media and elsewhere that many published syntheses are difficult to reproduce, and that we are seeing a worrying decline in quality of the experimental details. This is partly attributed to the fact that experimentals tend to be buried in the supporting information of the articles. This goes for almost all of today’s foremost chemistry journals. Not good!

Another important factor: How likely is it that an editor, reviewer or referee will scrutinize 50 or so pages of supporting information as vividly as the jam-packed 3-4 pages that make up the main act? Rhetorical question.

These unfortunate developments are indisputable facts, and the onus is on all of us to fix it. As everyone is painfully aware, organic synthesis has taken a couple of serious blows over the past decade, and we could all benefit from positive news in our field for a change.

I say: Reclaim synthesis! Put the experimental details back where they belong. Nature Publishing Group, Wiley, Elsevier, RSC and ACS—do you read me? Does everybody understand how important this is? And of course, we authors must become much better at reporting exactly how we performed our reactions. We may never ever do the same reaction again, but if what we write is good and true, then of course others will want to apply our new and awesome methodologies. That’s a no-brainer.

To tackle the main issue—reproducibility, a cornerstone of science—a team of already well-established chemistry bloggers decided to finally do something about it, and a couple of months ago they came up with and executed the most brilliant plan. They would take recently reported reactions from pristine journals, especially demanding ones with (suspiciously) high yields, and try to reproduce these in their own hands. They would post their findings online for everyone to see and comment on, not the least the authors themselves. The result is a blog named Blog Syn, if it has escaped anyone’s attention.

So far, so very good, I thought. Apparently, so did Derek Lowe and Nature Chemistry too. I had few if any objections until I read Rich’s post. Since I have been in close contact with the guys behind the scenes for a long time, it just never occurred to me that three out of four Blog Synners (sinners?) are using pen names.

Now, herein lies the huge problem, and I agree with parts of what Rich says. Anonymous witnesses are for good reasons not allowed in courts of law (in civilized countries). Authors are never anonymous, obviously, so why should they have to respond to accusations put forth by nameless plaintiffs?

If only things were that simple, though. There exists many a good reason for not using your own name when blogging. Instead of turning this into another list thread, I will name just one, speaking from own experience: Corporate oppression and excessively restrictive non-disclosure agreements are the main culprits. The typical big company today is scared out of its mind of what their employees say or do on their own time, on the verge of clinical paranoia, if I may say so.

Moreover, I am sure academic researchers have equally good reasons for not wanting to go full disclosure online. There are probably as many reasons as there are anonymous blogs and bloggers. As long as you don’t break the law, everyone has the right to free speech, anonymous or not.

But—science is different from most other things we humans do. Science reaches its full potential only in an open and fully transparent environment. If you want to engage in science, in a blog or anywhere, believe me, you will get so much more cred and attention if you take off your masks. Think about it. I mean, already in the third post, Blog Syn got action from the Big Kahuna, Phil Baran. I must say I admire his courage and desire to set things right, even when he can’t be perfectly sure who he is talking to.

I said I agreed with parts of Rich’s post. I totally get the take-home message, but it came out a little harsh, didn’t it? It is easy for you and I to say everybody should use their real names when engaging in scientific discussion, be it on- or off-line, because, you and I had already decided to have it that way when we ventured out into the unknown. But please, show some respect to others who might not enjoy the same liberty and still wish to contribute.

This is my main message: I have personally never had to regret blogging under my real name. It was a little scary at first, but for me it has worked out just fine. I wholeheartedly recommend it!

To wrap up:

* Hey Phil, write better experimentals in the first place.

* Anonymous science writers, at least consider going public. It’s probably worth it.

* Corporate America, you need to relax. Seriously.

* Everybody, insist on having your experimentals included in the main part of the next article you submit. Supporting information is for spectra. Synthesis is core.

Guest Post: “Science, the human endeavor” by Biochem Belle

A blog network’s not a network without connections to the world outside. So I’m reviving guest posts to GlobCasino, starting with a fantastic re-post. “Science, the human endeavor” originally appeared at Ever On & On, the blog of postdoc/multidisciplinary scientist Biochem Belle. The post sparked an intense conversation about work-life balance, with a good helping of jokes, at the Twitter hashtag #RealHardcoreScientists. “There are times in life we need to let up on the pressure we place on ourselves,” Belle writes. That’s advice that chemists and journalists should heed.

From astrophysics to microbiology to behavioral science, one common thread runs through all research – the human element.

Science is an intrinsically human endeavor. It takes human curiosity to ask the questions, human logic to design the experiments, human ingenuity to incorporate the results into an evolving model. Despite tropes portraying science as a purely logical enterprise executed by cold automatons, it is wonderfully, woefully, beautifully, messily human.

Yet sometimes it feels as though we’re expected to be both more and less than human. More in that we need to work longer hours at higher efficiency, through health and illness. More research, more papers, more grants – sleep is for the weak! Less in that we should not allow little things like stress and emotions and events outside the lab to influence our pace and focus. Chop, chop, no time for distractions – science waits for no human!

Sometimes the pressure to be more and less than human comes from external sources – those above us in rank or, more often in my experience, those at our own level. But much of the pressure to perform is internal. We see funding woes and dire job prospects and competitors’ papers, or maybe we just see an unanswered question, one that we know we can resolve if only we work hard enough. We dial up the pressure to be “better”. That compulsion drives us and can be a constructive force. We also use it to build unreasonable expectations we set for ourselves.

Sometimes we try to keep our lives outside the lab compartmentalized, to keep it from interfering with our work. But you know how we’re fond of saying that science isn’t 9-to-5? Well, life isn’t 5-to-9. It isn’t so easily contained, packed into a box and placed onto a shelf, to be taken down at a less disruptive time. We must take care of ourselves and the lives we have – lives that bring change and crises and good fortunes that demand our time, focus, and attention.

There are times in life we need to let up on the pressure we place on ourselves. If we’re really lucky (or choose very wisely), then we surround ourselves with people who help us accomplish that. We circulate the stories of the departments and supervisors who set forth maniacal models of how science should be done. We perpetuate illusions of the excessive standards of Real Hardcore Scientists(TM). Do these people and places really exist? Sure. But there are also real scientists doing good work who believe it’s important to have a full life, who do not expect themselves or anyone else to place elements of their lives in suspended animation for the sake of science.

Science demands that we work hard, but our lives demand, on occasion, that we cut ourselves some slack. Science has always been and, unless we are one day converted into cyborgs, shall ever remain a human endeavor, complete with all its humany wumany madness. And in spite of this (or perhaps with its aid), science has marched forward and shall continue to do so with mere humans making the way.