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I’ll get around to procrastinating later

Do you tend to put things off until the last minute? I do, and I know I’m not alone. Sometimes this urge to procrastinate makes us behave in ways that are detrimental to our future well being, yet this happens all the time. In science, we find ourselves waiting until the last minute studying for an exam, preparing a presentation to our peers or writing a grant proposal. In a broader scope, we fail to save early and/or often enough for retirement. We delay changing less-than-healthy lifestyle habits. New Year’s resolutions are forgotten or deliberately abandoned by February.

Why do we make decisions that may endanger our future well-being? A recent article in Nautilus by Alisa Opar entitled “Why We Procrastinate” has a compelling explanation—we sometimes fail to identify with that future version of ourselves.

It turns out that we see our future selves as strangers. Though we will inevitably share their fates, the people we will become in a decade, quarter century, or more, are unknown to us.

In other words, the subconscious rationale is something like: “Why should I exert myself and do it now? Someone else will take care of it later.” That “someone else” being an abstract, future self. I think that goes both ways: I know I tend to look at foolish acts or decisions I’ve made in the past with the observation: “Who was

that person?” As an added bonus, this rationale absolves me from some of the blame for a past act, since now I’m clearly a better, more evolved version of my past self. Clearly.

A possible consequence of this lack of identification with our future self is to delay or even fail to act in the present in ways that will benefit our future selves.

The disconnect between our present and time-shifted selves has real implications for how we make decisions. We might choose to procrastinate, and let some other version of our self deal with problems or chores.

This view of the future self as “other” originated in the realm of philosophy, particularly in the writings of Derek Parfit. In recent years, psychologists and behavioral scientists have produced a body of data that appears to support it. Some fMRI studies by Hal Hershfield at NYU’s Stern School of Business looked at the differences in brain activity when someone considers their present and their future selves:

They homed in on two areas of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex, which are more active when a subject thinks about himself than when he thinks of someone else. They found these same areas were more strongly activated when subjects thought of themselves today, than of themselves in the future. Their future self “felt” like somebody else. In fact, their neural activity when they described themselves in a decade was similar to that when they described Matt Damon or Natalie Portman. And subjects whose brain activity changed the most when they spoke about their future selves were the least likely to favor large long-term financial gains over small immediate ones.

Additional research has also suggested that if someone is made to feel more connected to the future self, they can be encouraged to make more prudent and practical choices. One way to establish a better connection is to help someone better visualize themselves in the future, through the use of digitally aged images. Some companies in the finance industry are trying to capitalize on this to encourage people to invest more in their retirement.

Phew! At least I didn't end up looking like the Crypt Keeper.

Images of current and future (+40y) me, Current me tends to put things off. Future me is very upset with current me for the state of his retirement account. And because I’m on his lawn.

Merrill Edge, the online discount unit of Bank of America Merrill Lynch, has taken this approach online, with a service called Face Retirement. Each decade-jumping image is accompanied by startling cost-of-living projections and suggestions to invest in your golden years.

Intrigued, I decided to try out this tool. (Warning: Results are graphic and disturbing. At least to me.)

Of course, a contrary view is that thinking or our future selves as strangers does not necessarily mean we will deliberately make choices that will endanger the future self. If we generally treat other people with respect and consideration, why would our future self expect to be treated differently?

The silver lining of our dissociation from our future self, then, is that it is another reason to practice being good to others. One of them might be you.

If I still have your attention, please let me know other topics you’d like to see covered here at JAEP. Either leave a comment with a topic suggestion, or you can contact me by email at geernst at gmail dot com. But, hey, if you don’t get around to it until later, I’ll understand. Or rather, future me will understand. Well, probably. I’m never quite sure how that guy will react.

#ChemMovieCarnival – The Absent-Minded Professor

Chemistry has made many appearances in films—sometimes depicted accurately, more often not so much. This week, there’s a blog carnival devoted to chemistry’s role in movies. The carnival is being curated by @SeeArrOh over at Just Like Cooking, and can be followed at #ChemMovieCarnival.

I’m going to go way back to my youth for my offering, as this movie is partly to thank/blame for my interest in science.

It’s Disney’s The Absent-Minded Professor

, from 1961. Here’s a promo:


Now, I didn’t see this when it was first released—at least, not that I remember. Back then, my concerns were limited to crying for food, producing its various end products, then crying some more. My first memory of seeing the film was on TV, on The Wonderful World of Disney or one of its incarnations, on a Sunday evening in the late Sixties. Let’s say I was seven or eight.

Apparently, flubber is based on polyvinyl acetate. Check the board for any Texas carbons!

The films stars Fred MacMurray as our protagonist, Ned Brainard, a professor at fictional Medfield College, a campus which was the setting of several other films from Disney Studios.

In addition to his teaching duties, Prof. Brainard is enthusiastically engaged in a little garage chemistry. He becomes far too engrossed in his work one evening  and forgets (absent-minded, remember?) his other engagement and his scheduled wedding. There’s a mildly destructive but non-injurious explosion, which serendipitously creates the real star of the film, a bouncy, levitating polymer soon to be known as flubber.

This material has 1001 uses! Well, it probably does, but we only get to see a few. Like make super bouncy balls! Iron it onto sneakers so you can fix a basketball game! Make a car fly! Have a rival arrested on suspicion of a DUI! Secure a potentially lucrative Defense contract!

NEVER sniff your reactions. And, dude, where’s your PPE?

Flubber is even used to thwart the villain, Alonzo Hawk (Who shows up as the baddie in several Disney films, and is portrayed by Keenan Wynn. Alonzo Hawk holds the distinction of being Wynn’s second-most-awesomely-named character, after—naturally—Colonel “Bat” Guano.)

I haven’t seen, and don’t intend to ever see, the colorized version of  The Absent-Minded Professor or the retitled remake with Robin Williams, because I am a pain in the a purist.

Interestingly, the main inspiration for MacMurray’s portrayal of Ned Brainard was Hubert Alyea, professor emeritus at Princeton. Dr. Alyea, who died in 1996, was renowned for his demonstrations of chemistry principles. The sometimes explosive nature of these demonstrations earned Professor Alyea the nickname, “Dr. Boom.”

As an added video bonus, here’s a version of Professor Alyea’s popular lecture on the nature of scientific discovery, entitled ”Lucky Accidents, Great Discoveries and the Prepared Mind,” given in 1985:


Finally, and sadly, I have yet to make flubber. I still hold out hope, however, that the next reaction I run that gets stupid on me will produce, instead of the usual uncharacterizable, polymeric pile of craptar, something with more flubbery qualities. Thus far, the only flight such material has achieved is while joining the contents of the nearest chemical waste container.

Back to the drawing board.

ACS Webinar: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection

A quick head’s up: tomorrow (and soon to be today), April 4, 2013, from 2:00-3:00 PM EDT, there will be an ACS Webinar regarding what might be considered a nontraditional chemistry career—working as a chemist for the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). This webinar is entitled “From Lab Hoods to Front Lines: Chemists at U.S. Customs and Border Protection.” Registration is free, and is available here.

CBP chemists and scientists “have been critical in classification and valuation of imported goods, enforcing trade laws, performing forensic science, and providing expertise in technical security programs.”

The webinar features Chris Mocella, a tenured chemist with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Laboratories, and Patricia Simpson, Director of Academic Advising and Career Services for students in Chemistry and Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Among the topics included in the discussion will be “the history and role of chemists at CBP, including both traditional “wet chemistry” work at lab hoods to front-line field work in support of CBP’s mission.”

Sorry for the short notice. If you can’t catch it in real time, remember that past ACS Webinars are archived and can be watched at your leisure. (Without the interactive capacity, of course. But you can always talk back to the replay. Like I do.)


Why some women may choose not to enter STEM careers

The lack of women pursuing science careers has been a perennial hot topic. Unfortunately, scant progress has been observed in spite of a vast amount of effort on many fronts to address this inequality. Earlier this month, a special issue of Nature was devoted to the subject.

Coincidentally, an attempt to unearth possible causes of this disparity was a study published earlier this month in Psychological Science, entitled “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics,” by Ming-Te Wang, Jacquelynne S. Eccles, and Sarah Kenny, from the University of Pittsburgh and University of Michigan.

Although I’m likely to give this study short shrift by not going into enough detail, let’s focus on the source material. Here’s the full abstract of the original paper:

The pattern of gender differences in math and verbal ability may result in females having a wider choice of careers, in both science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and non-STEM fields, compared with males. The current study tested whether individuals with high math and high verbal ability in 12th grade were more or less likely to choose STEM occupations than those with high math and moderate verbal ability. The 1,490 subjects participated in two waves of a national longitudinal study; one wave was when the subjects were in 12th grade, and the other was when they were 33 years old. Results revealed that mathematically capable individuals who also had high verbal skills were less likely to pursue STEM careers than were individuals who had high math skills but moderate verbal skills. One notable finding was that the group with high math and high verbal ability included more females than males.

Many previous studies by other researchers were cited as motivators behind some of the key questions this study poses. The study contains a number of controls that, to me at least, seem sensible and appropriate: Continue reading →

A troubling shift in tradition

Many past profiles here at JAEP have been written about individuals in careers labeled as nontraditional or alternative. The positions are implicitly juxtaposed to ones that are deemed traditional. Tradition, naturally, is a subjective term. It is a function of many variables such as culture, local environment, etc., and any consensus of its definition (if one even exists) changes over time.

The bulk of my career was in an industrial R&D setting. This seemed, to me, to be the norm. My tradition. Imagine my surprise when I began to encounter the fairly widespread viewpoint, that, in science, anything outside of academia was considered nontraditional.

But this may be changing, and, perhaps, not for the better. A term describing a shift in tradition regarding science careers may be have recently coined.

An Inside Higher Education article last month, by Scott Jaschik, describes the impact of the worsening job market for people with new doctoral degrees in the sciences, based on research presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which was held in February. The data “suggested that the job market for those in many scientific fields is also taking a beating.”

Jaschik continues,

And this is so much the case that tenure-track jobs should now be considered “alt-ac” positions (or alternative academic careers) because they are not the norm anymore for new Ph.D.s, in the words of Paula Stephan, a professor of economics at Georgia State University who specializes in the intersection of economics and science.

To me, “alt-ac” sounds like a keyboard shortcut, or an engine warning light. Maybe the latter is an appropriate analogy, as it may signal a symptom of a more systemic problem.

Continue reading →

I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?

The bad news, you say?

Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone.

The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past.

Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic.

A devalued bachelor’s degree

First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise:

The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.

An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier.

Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm:

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.

The shortage of scientists is nonexistent

Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite.

Continue reading →

Work, Coworkers, and Love

This is, of course, an appropriate day to talk about love. I feel fortunate that I still love chemistry, and love being in the lab.

But what if find you have a different kind of chemistry with a coworker? This is not uncommon, in any workplace. You work closely alongside people with whom you have common interests—a nice starting point for a relationship. But if you find romance in a laboratory setting, how should the two of you behave on the job?

Hey! Where's my evaporating dish full of chocolates?

Aw, you got me some Erlenmeyer flasks. You must love me!
Courtesy Flickr user James Fraleigh

Such lab relationships are the topic of “Love in the Lab,” a recent article at Science Careers. The focus is primarily on academic laboratories, but many of the concerns could readily apply in other science workplace settings.

Apart from mutual understanding and moral support, a scientist couple can collaborate and help each other scientifically. But living a romance in the laboratory, as in any other workplace, is complicated.

To say the least. Workplace couples often find themselves often under intense scrutiny from their colleagues if they divulge their relationship:

Some laboratory couples may be inclined to keep their romance a secret, especially at first. But whether your relationship is public knowledge in the lab or kept private, it’s important to remain discreet and professional.

Regardless of the quality of the science performed by each individual, the couple can find their career progression viewed by others through a lens of suspicion:

One issue that can be especially damaging to young scientists is the perception by peers that career success is a result of a relationship and not scientific achievements.

The article continues with good advice regarding quite serious concerns of conflict of interest, abuse of trust, sexual harassment, and avoiding fallout after breakups.

In my career, I’ve know a few couples who have worked together in the lab, and all seemed to employ strategies to separate their relationship from their work. One colleague in such a relationship told me that “we never talk about chemistry at home.”

After my initial surprise this made sense, because there have been times, at home, when I’ve tried to describe some chemistry I’d been working on in detail. My wife—not a chemist—would listen attentively until her eyes glazed over a bit. This was, of course, my cue to change the subject. Now I try to keep things on a high level, like “I was able to get some tough chemistry to work today.” Or, more often, sadly, I’m venting about things that didn’t work. But that’s science for you.

Did I mention I love chemistry?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

The “10K BA” — Is it possible in chemistry?

Are you getting the value you expected out of your chemistry education?

twocharts450Earlier this week, Chemjobber blogged about the regrettable employment situation for chemists. The centerpiece of the post was a graphic, which originally appeared in a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report on 2012 employment numbers. The figure represented the unemployment numbers, broken down by highest level of education completed and the associated wages for those employed in each group.

Chemjobber amended the graphic with both the ACS member unemployment numbers (also by degree), plus the BLS numbers in the category “chemists and material scientists.” The result is powerful. Chemjobber summed it up:

As you can note, chemists come out worse in every single apples-to-apples comparison on all equivalent degree holders.

Not. Good.

A further irony is found in the title of the original graphic, which Chemjobber retained: “Education Pays.” Well, yes, if you’re employed, your salary will generally increase with level of education (except for the slight dropoff from “Professional degree” to “Doctoral degree”).

However, if you have the misfortune of being among the unemployed—the numbers are even worse for recent graduates—your return on investment is currently zero. This adds insult to injury, particularly if you attended an expensive private institution and have a seemingly insurmountable student loan debt to pay off. “Education Pays” then sounds derisive.

The soaring cost of higher education was the subject of a recent New York Times op-ed piece, entitled “My Valuable, Cheap College Degree,” by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute and former professor at Syracuse University.

The title refers to an effort to provide more affordable higher education opportunities:

One idea gaining currency is the $10,000 college degree — the so-called 10K-B.A. — which apparently was inspired by a challenge to educators from Bill Gates, and has recently led to efforts to make it a reality by governors in Texas, Florida and Wisconsin, as well as by a state assemblyman in California.

To achieve these cost cuts, there is a reliance on distance learning, such as massive online open courses (MOOC) and other formats. Understandably, this goal has been greeted with a fair amount of skepticism:

Some critics see it as an invitation to charlatans and diploma mills. Even supporters often suggest that this is just an idea to give poor people marginally better life opportunities.

Continue reading →

A glut of chemists with bachelor’s degrees as well?

This past November, C&EN ran a cover story on the employment outlook for chemists.

The coverage consisted of several simultaneously published stories regarding various aspects of the employment outlook. The main focus shared by many of these stories was on chemists already in the workforce, and the effects that recent or impending layoffs have had on their lives. I offered a few thoughts on the topic as it stirred up fresh memories of having gone through similar experiences myself.

The bleak employment outlook for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees in chemistry was also described, but in less detail than given for experienced workers. Those details, plus profiles of some recent graduates, were provided earlier this week, in “New Bachelor-Level Chemists Face Grim Job Market,” an excellent article by C&EN Senior Editor Susan J. Ainsworth. Some thoughtful comments on this story have been provided by Chemjobber this week.

The first paragraph of the C&EN article sets the tone for what is to follow:

The inhospitable employment climate has not spared anyone in the chemical sciences, but many who have recently earned a bachelor’s degree may be in for a particularly tough fight.

Some survey data was provided to accompany the previous qualitative assessment:

In the most recent American Chemical Society survey of new graduates in chemistry and related fields, in 2011, 14% of recent bachelor’s degree recipients reported that they didn’t have a job but were seeking one, up from 12% in 2010 (C&EN, June 4, 2012, page 36). In contrast, 9% of new Ph.D. grads said they were seeking employment in 2011, up from 6% in 2010.

With such limited employment prospects for new graduates, it stands to reason that the bar would be set high to be considered for those opportunities that do exist.

Continue reading →

From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.

First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past.

This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.

“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.

Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:

The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.

Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!

The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.

Continue reading →

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