Monday, March 2, 2015

Why place matters

From an anonymous reader, a Boston-area Amgen recruiting billboard. I have seen this for coders, but never for "biotech professionals."

(Of course, I've only lived in one of BioSpace's "hotbeds.")

(12 "hotbeds"?!?!? You gotta be kidding me.) 

Nice to see

This past August, I took a day to visit the national ACS meeting in San Francisco; I was badged as press, even! I sat in on a portion of the Sunday meeting of the Committee on Economic and Professional Affairs. I thought it was interesting to watch the committee members discuss and debate the ACS policy statement on retirement security. Here's a portion of the final statement:
...A concern is that small companies and businesses, such as chemical or high-tech start-ups, can be disproportionately disadvantaged in establishing such plans for their employees. Complex government regulations for these plans result in high administrative costs that need to be distributed over a small employee base, effectively increasing the costs for small business owners and employees versus larger companies. As a result, many small businesses choose not to offer 401(k)’s. For those that do, the administrative fees are high, and the investment options often limited, thus negatively impacting employee returns on investment. Considering that a significant fraction of the approximately 163,000 members of ACS are employed by small companies (less than 500 employees), this has a substantial impact on our membership. 
Another detrimental component in many 401(k)’s is lengthy vesting periods. According to the 2010 Bureau of Labor Statistics National Survey, 69 percent of 401(k) plans accrue on either ‘cliff’ or ‘graded’ vesting schedules. ‘Cliff’ schedules require employees to remain with an employer for a minimum number of years or they receive no match, and ‘graded’ schedules are plans that slowly increase the employee’s vested portion with years of service. Unlike corporate careers of the past, current careers in the physical sciences are now characterized by multiple shorter-term professional positions. Therefore a professional in the chemical enterprise can be negatively affected by slow vesting 401(k)’s resulting in lack of portability. 
Specifically, in the area of retirement plans and 401(k)’s, Congress needs to take action to
  • Reduce the regulatory complexity of 401(k) plans available to small business owners in order to make them more economically efficient and effective.
  • Enact policies that promote the development of faster vesting and more portable 401(k) programs....
I gotta say, as a statement of desired policy, I agree with most of it. I have worked for an employer who claimed that 401(k) complexity and cost was too high (and of course, they would have never have gone for a match.) But the pre-tax nature of 401(k)s is pretty great, in my opinion.

(I wonder if Vanguard has a small-company 401(k) option? I am going to guess the answer is 'no.')

Glad to see that CEPA (among other ACS committee) has put together a statement -- good stuff. 

Oh, that's all

From the letters to the editor in this week's C&EN:
I don’t know why there was such a flurry of indignant letters about the review of the book “The Birth of the Pill” (C&EN, Sept. 22, 2014, page 32). This is a book for a popular audience by an author whose claims to fame are books about baseball and Al Capone. It might better have been titled “Politics, Religion, and the Pill,” but it certainly was not designed to explore the intricacies of organic synthesis. The author does indeed reference Carl Djerassi and Frank Colton. 
If there is frustration in the chemistry community about the lack of recognition of these outstanding chemists, may I suggest that some charismatic organic chemist design a PBS TV program for “NOVA,” along the lines of what Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson have done for quantum mechanics and cosmology, respectively. 
Ivan E. Leigh
West Chester, Pa.
Heh, there are plenty of charismatic organic chemists, but chemistry just doesn't get producers excited like space and physics. I dunno why.

(Worth noting that Djerassi himself was more world-historical than NdGT, but I don't think he got any (or very many) TV programs.) 

This week's C&EN

Plenty of interesting tidbits in this week's C&EN:

Friday, February 27, 2015

Gotta love George Whitesides

Courtesy of See Arr Oh (who has a very cogent (and funny) post on this), here's George Whitesides criticizing (again) the chemical industry: 
This choice of direction has had several consequences: 1) it has ended (or constrained in scope and character) the unique and mutually beneficial intellectual partnership between industrial and academic chemistry that characterized the 1960s to 1980s (Figure 3). 2) It has increasingly limited the number of jobs for chemists in industry, and made a career in industrial chemistry less attractive for students choosing what to study. 3) It has limited the options for chemistry to explore new areas, since many of these areas (e.g., the materials science of porous media under hydrostatic pressure, or “fracking”; understanding if there is new chemistry—especially chemistry relevant to sequestration—that can be applied to carbon dioxide; the management of flows of material, energy, and information in cities; the development of new strategies for using solar energy) require the kinds of resources and skills in large-scale project management that only industry can provide.  
Industry continues to place a few large-scale bets in research (for example, synthetic biology to make fuels and specialty chemicals), but the number and audacity of these bets have declined sharply. Even the pharmaceutical industry—a long-term contributor to, and user of, sophisticated synthetic organic chemistry—increasingly considers synthesis a valuable, but primarily technical skill, and has turned to organismic and disease biology as the source of new products and services.
I couldn't agree more with Uncle George, but I would, wouldn't I? 

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Now that's an unfortunate title

I suspect this is actually one of those academic drug discovery former-pharma group leader positions, but tagging it with "adjunct professor series" is kinda painful. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/26/15 edition

A few of the positions posted at C&EN Jobs this week:

Cleveland, OH: West-Ward Pharmaceuticals is hiring for 4 positions, including a B.S./M.S. Scientist I position. (0-2 years experience.) (Zeroes!)

Malvern, PA: Progenra (new company?) is looking for 2 experienced medicinal chemists, 1-10 years experience, all levels of education.

Menlo Park, CA: Pacific Biosciences is looking for a surface chemist, M.S./Ph.D., 5 years experience desired.

A broader look: Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed and show (respectively) 260, 1340, 8769 and 22 positions for the search term "chemist." That's way, way up for Careerbuilder and Indeed, I believe. LinkedIn shows 619 results for the job title "chemist", with 37 for "research chemist", 87 for "analytical chemist", 2 for "organic chemist", 3 for "synthetic chemist" and 3 for "medicinal chemist."

What is Global Pharma Tek's business model?

Saw this ad through an Indeed search. What is this about? Global Pharma Tek has a website listing lots of QA/QC-type/GMP positions; something tells me that this is a temp/recruiting service that hires international folks only?

I'm confused.

(Hey, check out their partners - including the "Havard Clinical Research Institute." Something is very fishy here.) 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Bill Carroll: "to get the sharp corners knocked off you"

I have thrown a fair bit of criticism at ACS director-at-large Bill Carroll's way over the years. 

That said, like every experienced industrial chemist (even the ones who have left the lab), he has good tales to tell. He's starting a blog over at the ACS Network. I thought his first post was a good one, where he talks about his first years in industry: 
When I got there, my assignment had been changed from the sexy new polymer to working with impact modifiers for poly(vinyl chloride)—PVC, or vinyl.  Impact modifiers made the material hard to break, and in my case the product would be used in bottles.  But PVC was a commodity polymer, and the whole thing was nowhere near as sexy as I had hoped.  The sexy job went to a new PhD from Berkeley.  I felt like I’d been sent to pull a plow. 
OK, so maybe I was a little upset, I don’t remember exactly.  But I did feel I had to show the company that the Heartland was fully the equivalent of the Left Coast.  I wanted to make a difference in a hurry. 
The chemistry was well-characterized and we needed product improvements in the color of the material and how evenly it dispersed in the PVC matrix.  I got into the literature as best I could, and started out learning to synthesize a cross-linked styrene-butadiene rubber latex, grafted with acrylic and particle size about a tenth of a micron. Here is where my first career mentor enters the picture, and this is really what I wanted to tell you about. 
Tom Loughlin was a technician—a guy who ran the plastic processing equipment in the lab; educated in high school and the military.  After I synthesized the candidate impact modifiers, it was his job to mix my samples in with the standard PVC compound, thermally process them in the extruder and see if I made a difference in color or dispersion. 
Based on what I read, I thought I had a raft of winners. Confidence, they say, is that warm feeling you get just before you screw up. 
Tom processed the samples, and as he put it “Every one was worse than the one before it. And you died a thousand deaths.  I couldn’t help but laugh.”  He was right.   He was also right about this: “I seen a million of you young doctors come in here all full of p**s and vinegar, and it takes you a while to get the sharp corners knocked off you.“

So here’s the truth. If you’re going into industry in an area that’s even reasonably mature, there’s a pretty good chance that finding the answer to a problem is going to take time because the obvious answers have been found already, and there is a large canon of stuff that doesn’t work. Give yourself a little time to learn about what’s going on and make incremental progress.  No one expects you to be a game changer on day 1.  Get to know the people you work with and absorb everything you can.  The rest of the team has had years to come up to speed...
I'd like to think I've had my sharp corners knocked off, but it's hard to say, maybe I have a few more that I don't know about. Folks like Tom Loughlin are truly great and they have a lot of smart things to say.

In regards to "an area that's... reasonably mature", there is a lot of wisdom in that statement, I feel. Truly low-hanging fruit doesn't happen very often - and when it occurs to the novice chemist (like myself), I always wonder "I am sure this has been considered before -- I wonder why it was rejected?"

Either way, I really enjoyed the piece and I hope to see more like it. 

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Job postings: senior scientist II, Abbvie, North Chicago; chemistry project manager, Wuppertal, Germany; senior analytical chemist, Cambridge, MA

From the inbox:

AbbVie: A process chemistry position: B.S./M.S./Ph.D. desired.

Wuppertal, Germany: A chemistry project manager position at Aicuris (new drug discovery firm?). No education requirement.

Cambridge, MA: Another analytical chemistry position at Broad, this time Ph.D. level.

Best wishes to those interested. 

Daily Pump Trap: 2/24/15 edition

A few of the positions posted on C&EN Jobs:

INVISTA: The Koch Brothers are hiring, with 6 positions over the last week.

Pleasanton, CA: Clorox is doing its usual spring hiring -- anyone have any comment about these positions?

Berkeley, CA: LBNL is hiring a "chemist research scientist" to manage its catalysis research facility. Ph.D. and 5 years experience desired.

Long Island, NY: Brookhaven is hiring a chemist/physicist for synchotron work. Ph.D. and 3 years of relevant experience desired.

Greenville, SC: A startup called "NUBAD, LLC" is hiring a synthetic chemist for a postdoctoral position. I would like to know "if this is a postdoctoral position, 1) will I be able to publish my work and 2) what kind of training are you offering?"

Livermore, CA: Assay Technologies is hiring a general manager.

Job posting: 2 visiting assistant professorships, Crawfordsville, IN

From the inbox: 
Visiting Assistant Professor of Analytical Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position in Analytical Chemistry to begin July 1, 2015. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry required. The successful candidate will teach analytical chemistry and contribute to first-year chemistry courses.  
The Chemistry Department is ACS certified, has six full-time faculty, excellent facilities and instrumentation, and support for undergraduate research. Further information about the department can be obtained here.   
Apply here;  and submit a letter of application, vitae, undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. 
Chair, Lon Porter at  
Visiting Assistant Professor of Chemistry 
The Wabash College Chemistry Department invites applications for a one-year position as a Visiting Assistant Professor beginning July 1, 2015. The area of specialization is open with renewal for a second year possible based on department and college needs. Undergraduate and Ph.D. degrees in chemistry or biochemistry required. The teaching assignment of approximately 12 contact hours per semester will be primarily in general chemistry with other courses determined by area of specialization. 
To apply, go here  and submit a letter of application, vitae,  undergraduate and graduate transcripts, statement of teaching principles, and three letters of recommendation. Materials must be received by February 27, 2015.  Questions may be directed to Dept. Chair, Lon Porter at  
Wabash College, a liberal arts college for men, seeks faculty and staff committed to providing quality engagement with students, high levels of academic challenge and support, and meaningful diversity experiences that prepare students for life and leadership in a multicultural global world. We welcome applications from persons of all backgrounds. EOE.
Best wishes to those interested!  

Ivory Filter Flask: 2/24/15 edition

A few of the academic positions posted on the C&EN Jobs website:

Rise of the VAPs: Everyone's looking for visiting assistant professors...

Davidson, NC: Davidson College is looking for a visiting assistant professor of organic chemistry.

Huntsville, TX: Sam Houston State University desires a visiting assistant professor of general chemistry.

Hamilton, NY: Colgate University wishes to hire a visiting assistant professor for a 2-year term, any subject.

Forest Grove, OR: Pacific University seeks 2 visiting assistant professors, one for inorganic and one for analytical.

Hong Kong: The Chinese University of Hong Kong wishes to hire a tenure-track assistant professor of inorganic/organometallic chemistry.

Espoo, Finland: Aalto University is looking for a professor of biochemistry. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

This week's C&EN

Lots of interesting tidbits:

Worthwhile safety warning on nitrogen in plant-scale Grignard quenches

...Performing a “kill reaction” or a quench of a reactive metal at the bench or at scale is always problematic and requires the skill and close attention of the process chemists and operators. I guess what I’d like to pass on is that nitrogen is not an innocent spectator in the presence of finely divided, activated magnesium. Humid nitrogen can support a combustion reaction to produce nitrided magnesium once preheated to an onset temperature. 
If you mean to kill any reactive residues, it is important to apply the quenching agent in such a manner that the heat generated can be readily absorbed in the quenching medium itself. A good example of a quenching agent is water. Often a reactive must be killed slowly due to gas generation or some particular. Adding a quenching agent to a solution or slurry by slow feed or titration may be your best bet. If you have another vessel available, a feed to a chilled quenching agent will also work.  Dribs and drabs of water on a neat reactive material will lead to hotspots that may be incendive.
Huh, worth considering.  

Friday, February 20, 2015

Vox is wrong: the bad actor in Bakken shale is the gases, not benzene

UPDATE: Brad Plumer has made the correction. Thanks, Brad!

Vox's Brad Plumer had a nice explainer on oil trains derailing and exploding (written in light of the latest West Virginia derailment) which contained this line (emphasis mine): 
1) The newer oil is more volatile: Crude oil from the Bakken formation in North Dakota — where much of the new oil-by-rail is coming from — often contains extra chemicals like benzene that make the crude more flammable. The trains in the Lac-M├ęgantic and West Virginia accidents were both carrying crude from this region.
(Extra chemicals! N.B. there's always benzene in crude, I think.)

His source for this is (ultimately) desmogblog, which is better known as a climate change blog, I think. Here's their explanation:
...“Hazardous Air Pollutant (HAP) emissions are expected from the proposed equipment,” explains the Marquis permit. “There will be evaporative losses of Toluene, Xylene, Hexane, and Benzene from the crude oil handled by the installation.” 
Benzene is a carcinogen, while toluene, xylene and hexane are dangerous volatiles that can cause severe illnesses or even death at high levels of exposure.   
Scientific Vindication 
In a December 31 Google Hangout conversation between actor Mark Ruffalo, founder of Water Defense, and the group's chief scientist Scott Smith, Mr. Smith discussed the oil samples he collected on a previous visit to North Dakota's Bakken Shale. 
“What I know from the testing I've done on my own — I went out to the Bakken oil fields and pumped oil from the well — I know there are unprecedented levels of these explosive volatiles: benzene, toluene, xylene,” said Smith. 
“And from the data that I've gotten from third parties and tested myself, 30 to 40 percent of what's going into those rail cars are explosive volatiles, again that are not in typical oils.”
First, to a lab chemist, calling xylene a volatile is sort of odd (it has a boiling point of 140°C!), but everything is relative. When you're used to doing most of your reactions in THF (boiling point of 66°C) or say, heptane (boiling point of 98°C), then 140°C sounds pretty high. That said, EPA counts these aromatic solvents as VOCs, so that seems reasonable.

(Also, when your chief scientist has a degree in economics... I digress.)

But that said, I think there are many, many, many more volatile compounds than benzene in Bakken crude. This has been covered extensively by the Wall Street Journal -- here's a some nice examples of some of their explanations of the chemistry. From a February 2014 article by Russell Gold:
The rapid growth in Bakken production has far outpaced the installation of pipelines, which traditionally had been relied on to move oil from wells to refineries. Most shale oil from Texas moves through pipelines, but about 70% of Bakken crude travels by train.
Bakken crude actually is a mixture of oil, ethane, propane and other gaseous liquids, which are commingled far more than in conventional crude. Unlike conventional oil, which sometimes looks like black syrup, Bakken crude tends to be very light. "You can put it in your gas tank and run it," said Jason Nick, a product manager at testing-instruments company Ametek Inc. "It smells like gasoline."
Here's a July 2014 where Russell Gold and Chester Dawson say the same thing*:
Stabilizers use heat and pressure to force light hydrocarbon molecules—including ethane, butane and propane—to form into vapor and boil out of the liquid crude. The operation can lower the vapor pressure of crude oil, making it less volatile and therefore safer to transport by pipeline or rail tank car.
And yet another great explanation* by Alison Sider and Nicole Friedman:
There are geologic reasons that the new oil is particularly gassy and volatile. Over millions of years, organic material turns into a brew of hydrocarbons: crude oil, natural gas and other gas-infused liquids. The longer that fossil-fuel mixture cooks underground—in intense heat and under tremendous pressure—the more molecules escape from their source rocks and migrate to reservoirs where there is room to move around, says Scott Tinker, the state geologist for Texas. 
In those reservoirs, the oil and gas separate into less-dense gas on top and heavier crude oil below, much like a shaken vinaigrette settles into distinct layers. 
But shale rock is so dense that much less oil and gas escapes from it. The energy industry must frack shale to create tiny fissures so that oil and gas can flow out. Those minuscule pathways let only the smallest molecules rise, which is why large volumes of gas and the lightest liquids are coming out of the ground. 
In most cases, ultralight oil doesn't look like black gold. In fact, it can be as clear as water and some oil from the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas brims with so much dissolved gas that it bubbles, giving the appearance of boiling at room temperature. 
That gas makes ultralight shale oil highly combustible in a way conventional crude is not. In the past year, derailments of trains carrying light crude have resulted in spectacular blowups, including an explosion that killed 47 people in Quebec last July.
Ethane, propane and butane have boiling points of -89°C, -42°C and -1°C respectively. It seems intuitive to this chemist that they'd be far more flammable and more likely to burn and explode than benzene, toluene and xylenes. Vox is wrong, I think, and they should correct this.

(I should note that WSJ itself (and me, I guess) initially fell into this trap. I guess benzene just sounds like a bad actor.)

*How to get around the WSJ paywall -- search for the title of the article.

Oil refinery explosion on Wednesday in Torrance, CA

Refinery units are heavily damaged after an explosion at the Exxon-Mobil refinery in Torrance, California, February 18, 2015.  REUTERS-Bob Riha Jr.
Credit: Reuters
It is difficult for me not to be horrified by this picture of a Torrance, CA oil refinery that had an explosion on Wednesday. 

Here's a preliminary explanation/guess of what happened from Reuters:
Trade publication OPIS, citing an unidentified source, reported that an electrostatic precipitator (ESP), which reduces fluid catalytic cracker particulates, exploded as contract workers were doing maintenance on the nearby fluid catalytic cracking unit, or FCC. 
"Contractors working on the FCC to fix the expanders," the source said, adding that an injection of ammonia on top of the flue gas stream caused a pressure buildup, which resulted in the ESP unit explosion. 
The unit could take up to a year to replace, the source said.
(I confess that I don't understand refinery technology enough to know exactly what that means.)

It's likely a coincidence that the United Steelworkers union has decided to go on strike recently at a number of oil refineries around the country. That said, I think it definitely highlights their emphasis that this strike is about worker safety. I don't know enough of the issues to make a judgment, but that seems like something just as important as wages/benefits.