Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Warning Letter of the Week: Huey Lewis edition

Tell me, doctor
What results do we want this time?
Purity of 50, or 99.99%?
All I wanted to do was make my compounds and cha-ching!*

From our friends at the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, a real gem of a 483 for API manufacturer Tai Heng Industry, located in Shanghai, China:

2.     Failure to prevent unauthorized access or changes to data, and to provide adequate controls to prevent manipulation and omission of data.
During the inspection, an FDA investigator discovered a lack of basic laboratory controls to prevent changes to your firm’s electronically stored data and paper records. Your firm relied on incomplete records to evaluate the quality of your drugs and to determine whether your drugs conformed with established specifications and standards.

Our investigator found that your firm routinely re-tested samples without justification, and deleted analytical data. We observed systemic data manipulation across your facility, including actions taken by multiple analysts and on multiple pieces of testing equipment.

Specifically, your Quality Control (QC) analysts used administrator privileges and passwords to manipulate your high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) computer clock to alter the recorded chronology of laboratory testing events.
Oh, the FDA inspectors will never notice that!

*with apologies to Huey Lewis and the News.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Postdoc opening: Nano Terra, Cambridge, MA

Nano Terra is a product development accelerator headquartered in Cambridge, MA, USA. We leverage our expertise in surface science, printing and patterning, advanced materials, chemistry and polymers, rapid prototyping, and engineering and modeling as we work with our partners to develop revolutionary new products. We have worked on joint development programs in a range of industries, including consumer goods, aerospace, automotive, oil and gas, materials, chemicals, packaging, life sciences, and electronics. Our past and present customers include innovative industry leaders such as 3M, Boeing, Honeywell, Motorola Mobility, Merck, ITW, Infineum, and various agencies in the US government. We are looking for individuals who are dedicated, passionate, and creative to join our team. 
Nano Terra is seeking candidates for 1 year Post-Doctoral Appointments. These are entry level positions for Ph.D. level organic chemists who have just completed their degrees, and are looking for industrial experience.
More details here. Best wishes to those interested.  

"Athletic transferable skills"

From my weekly dose of pain (a Google Alert for the term "transferable skills"), this gem from an article about former high school athletes:
Identify and parlay athletic transferable skills!  Athletic transferable skills are skills learned in sports that can be transferred to other areas of human development and life experiences.  For example, kids who learn through sports how to set goals, manage their schedule, work successfully with teammates, and develop leadership skills need to be specifically encouraged and shown how to use those skills in the classroom, their future careers, and practically every imaginable aspect of life.
Don't get me wrong, it's fairly clear to me that high school athletics provides fantastic training for basic life and job skills. It's just funny to me how this term ('transferable skills') gets used to justify not only graduate school, but also high school basketball. 

Interested in a mechanism-teaching organic chemistry game?

Julia Winter is a high school chemistry teacher and a chemistry game entrepreneur - she'd like some help from you, if you're interested: 
We* have completed development of the first iteration of the Mechanisms Game for organic chemistry with the NSF SBIR Phase I grant. 
We now move into the research phase, gathering feedback from professors and instructors.  
Here's how it works: You will have access to the mobile application (on iOS at this time only), and then do a 20-minute interview about the potential for using the application in an organic chemistry classroom. 
We hope to wrap up this research phase by mid-June. Our NSF report is due June 30. (They hold final payment until the report is in!) 
If you are interested in helping with this study, please email Julia Winter, or message her at @OChemJulie 
*Alchemie, @LearnAlchemie
Mobile games are an interesting way to teach chemistry; best wishes to Julie and her company.  

Monday, May 23, 2016

2013 SDR: 13% of postdocs in the physical sciences are 6 years or longer

Around these parts, I tend to focus on the Survey of Earned Doctorates, just because it's an annual survey and it's considered to be quite accurate. The National Science Foundation also administers the Survey of Doctoral Recipients, which is a longitudinal study which surveys the same group of Ph.D.-holders year-after-year, with a new batch of Ph.D. holders every year. It surveys about 40,000 Ph.D.s a year. 

I am happy to find that the SDR collects data on postdocs, and appears to track how long postdoctoral appointments last in this table, with the title of "Table 76. Status of postdoctoral appointments among doctoral scientists and engineers, by years since doctorate and broad field of doctorate: 2013." From this, I was able to extract that there were 5400 postdocs in the physical sciences in 2013. Here's their respective years since their doctorates: 

Physical sciences postdocs: 

≤ 5 years since doctorate: 87.0% (4700 postdocs)
6–10 years since doctorate: 9.3% (500 postdocs) 
11–15 years since doctorate: 3.7% (200 postdocs) 

And for the comparison that everyone is wondering about: 

Biological/agricultural/environmental life sciences

Total: 15,100 postdocs

≤ 5 years since doctorate: 80.1% (12,100 postdocs)
6–10 years since doctorate: 17.2% (2,600 postdocs) 
11–15 years since doctorate: 2.0% (300 postdocs) 

You can check my work here. Worth noting a couple of things: 
Readers, this is relatively new data to me, so I invite you to offer your interpretations. 

This week's C&EN

A few of the stories from this week's C&EN:

Friday, May 20, 2016

A priceless quote from Chad Mirkin

At the bottom of a Science article about the new overtime rule, a fascinating quote from Northwestern professor Chad Mirkin:
Chemist Chad Mirkin of Northwesthern University in Evanston, Illinois, who sits on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, worries that not only will positions dry up, but perceptions of the postdoc as an “all-out work commitment” that prepares young scientists for a faculty position will change. “When I did a postdoc, money was not my prime motivator—the experience for me (and most who I know) was priceless,” he says.
It's hard to know what to say to such a comment. "Tone-deaf" is a good start - I'll supply my own quote, which is "out of touch with the likely reality of the median postdoc."

I suspect (although I don't have a lot of data) that the median postdoc is a life scientist, who is somewhere slightly older than 30 years old, and has family commitments, or is looking to start some. Could that person use some overtime, a raise (if the PI chooses the exempt status route) or some free time? Yeah, I'm going to guess they could. 

Do I wish that the overtime, the raise or the free time came on my dime (putting my taxpayer hat on), rather than the PI's dime? Yeah, I wish that were true. One more time: I'm in very strong sympathy with PIs who have had this new federal (as of yet, unfunded) mandate foisted upon them. If I were the Emperor of the American scientific research enterprise, I would have phased this rule in over 3 or 4 years. But, I'm not. 

How not to do the rainbow flame demo, Woodson High School edition

Both DC area station WJLA and the Washington Post have the reports from the Woodson High School fire from last year. The details from Post reporter Moriah Balingit aren't pretty (emphasis mine): 
...The school system, which said little about the accident in the fall, confirmed this week that the teacher violated safety protocols because neither she nor her students were wearing safety goggles during the demonstration, which involved her pouring the flammable liquid onto a table. The demonstration created what one student described as a “splash of fire” that burned students nearby. 
While a ventilation hood would not have been required, an expert said it should have been used and could have prevented or mitigated the fireball that burned five students and the teacher. Two students had to be flown to hospitals with serious burns.... 
The Virginia Occupational Safety and Health found no workplace safety violations at Woodson as a result of an investigation that concluded in December. WJLA first reported on that agency’s findings last week. 
According to the investigative report obtained by The Washington Post via the Freedom of Information Act, the teacher told investigators that she poured ethyl alcohol from a beaker out onto a demonstration table and ignited it. She then introduced different kinds of salts to the flame. 
When the flames began to die down, according to the report, she lifted a large jug of the flammable liquid by its mid-section and dumped it onto the table. The bottle compressed, creating what officials called a “bellows effect” that shot a plume of flammable vapor out of the bottle. A burst of air from an HVAC vent might also have propelled the vapors. 
The vapor ignited, generating a large fireball that burned nearby students. The blaze melted plastic chairs and charred a backpack, according to investigative photos. 
The report notes that the classroom had a bevy of safety equipment, including lab gloves, aprons, safety goggles and a ventilation hood. Though the safety equipment was not in use, investigators concluded that no citations were warranted because of a lack of classroom guidelines. 
“The school curriculum for this demonstration does not provide any detailed instructions on how a teacher should perform the demonstration,” investigators wrote.
Once again, we have the bulk container of the flammable solvent playing the key role in the injury of chemistry students during the rainbow flame demonstration.

Now is a good time to note a previous set of rainbow flame demo injuries has resulted in a $1.5 million dollar settlement from a Georgia school district. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Maybe we're the last humanists

"How about a research assistant professorship in the Yukon?"
Credit: jmount43
For this to work right, you gotta imagine Pacino's gravelly voice:
"Let me give you a little inside information about the job market. The job market likes to watch. It's a voyeur. Think about it. It knows chemists have needs. You have this extraordinary love for your science, and you need to pay the rent.  
What does it do, I swear for its own amusement, its own private, cosmic gag reel, it changes what it wants every two years. It's the goof of all time. We want chemists! We want biologists! How about a postdoc? How about a postdoc in chemical biology? 
We want big data folks! Total synthesis is dead! Total synthesis is great problem solving! Do research at the bench but don't forget the soft skills! Learn to communicate, but don't forget to be productive! Do methodology! Learn some computational skills! Be productive, but don't be too narrow. Specialize, become an expert! Ahaha!  
And while you're jumpin' from one foot to the next, what is the job market doing? It's laughin' its sick, [rear-end] off! It's a SADIST! It's an absentee landlord!" 
(With apologies to Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy)

Will postdocs get overtime, if they are under $47,476? Looks like it

As people can tell, I was busy today, but I did want to comment on something that has been brewing quite a while, but was announced today. From the New York Times (article by Noam Scheiber):
WASHINGTON — The Obama administration, in a far-reaching effort to improve the lot of workers that has ignited criticism from business groups, announced on Tuesday that it was making millions more employees eligible for overtime pay. 
Under the new regulation to be issued by the Labor Department on Wednesday, most salaried workers earning up to $47,476 a year must receive time-and-a-half overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours during a week. The previous cutoff for overtime pay, set in 2004, was $23,660. 
“This is a big deal to be able to help that many working people without Congress having to pass a new law,” said Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute, an early voice in urging the administration to take up the issue. “It’s really restoring rights that people had for decades and lost.” 
The change is expected to play out in a variety of ways. Once the rule goes into effect on Dec. 1, many workers will receive more pay when they work overtime, but others may end up working fewer hours if employers move to limit their time at work. In other cases, employers may decide to increase the salaries of some workers to push them over the cutoff so that the employers will not have to pay overtime or hire additional workers after limiting hours for existing employees...
Just in case you were wondering, Mr. Scheiber directly addresses the point that most of you are thinking (emphasis mine):
Certain categories of workers, like teachers, doctors and outside sales representatives, continue to be exempt from the regulation, though academics primarily engaged in research are not. 
Over at the Huffington Post, Francis Collins (director of the NIH) and Thomas Perez (the Secretary of Labor) co-wrote a piece, with the final concluding policy announcement (emphasis mine):
In response to the proposed FLSA revisions, NIH will increase the awards for postdoctoral NRSA recipients to levels above the threshold. At the same time, we recognize that research institutions that employ postdocs will need to readjust the salaries they pay to postdocs that are supported through other means, including other types of NIH research grants. While supporting the increased salaries will no doubt present financial challenges to NIH and the rest of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, we plan to work closely with leaders in the postdoc and research communities to find creative solutions to ensure a smooth transition.
This is a pretty darn big deal, in my opinion. It sure sounds like there are many, many universities who are lobbying the White House very, very hard to make sure that this policy gets delayed (and who knows if a President Trump or a President Clinton would change President Obama's rule?). It is also unclear to me how this set of policies gets enforced. However, if it does, here's my set of predicted policy ramifications:
  • If you're a postdoc who is making less than $47,476, you will be eligible for time-and-a-half for any hours that you work over 40 hours a week. 
  • If you're a PI that is paying your postdocs less than $47,476, you will have to track your employees time and either 1) pay them overtime, or 2) bar them from working more than 40 hours a week (which, yes, includes checking work e-mail from home.) 
  • Postdocs will either get paid more, or work less. 
    • Hard to say that getting paid more is bad, but...
  • I cannot take 100% pleasure in this, because this is the problem with regulation - there will always be someone stuck with a terrible dilemma, assuming actual compliance: postdocs (who may have limited time to do their work) will be forced to work only 40 hours a week, or PIs who had budgeted for postdoc salaries of (hypothetically speaking) $39,000 a year will be forced to either cough up an extra eight thousand bucks, or cut back the hours of their direct reports. This is a non-ideal way to implement a regulation, I feel. 
It will be interesting to see how this will affect the ~4000 postdocs in chemistry (will it? I presume that most make under $47,476, but I dunno), but I suspect that it's the US biomedical research enterprise that just got a very unpleasant (for employers) shock. Readers, what do you think? 

Monday, May 16, 2016

What chemists hear, when physicians talk about chemicals

Also in this week's C&EN, Jessica Morrison looks at PFOA and PFOS in drinking water. Here's a quote from prominent critic of the chemical industry, Dr. Phillippe Grandjean, a physician and adjunct professor of environmental health at the Harvard School of Public Health: 
“People started looking over the last 10 years for adverse effects” from exposure to PFOA and related compounds, says Philippe Grandjean, an environmental health scientist at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health who studied immunotoxicity in children and found a link between exposure to perfluorinated compounds and weakened response to vaccines. “We were thinking in the beginning that a carbon chain wrapped in fluoride ions seems like it won’t do anything. It’s certainly very stable, but the question is, will it interact with biological molecules and cause any adverse effects?”
It's not completely fair to criticize Dr. Grandjean for not quite getting the terminology right for perfluorinated alkyl compounds*, but it sure does grate on my ears.

*"a carbon chain bonded to fluorines" would have been perfectly fine, for example.

Department of "You Can't Please All The People All the Time"

In the letters to the editor in this week's C&EN:
The use in this article of the photo of the bloody lab jacket draped over the chair is unnecessary and tasteless. Unless I’m missing something, there isn’t anything from that photo that can be taken as a learning tool to prevent future accidents. 
Jeffrey Earnest via C&EN’s website 
I would like to thank the poster [of this story] for including the picture of the bloodied lab coat. It does justice to the extent of this tragedy. Lab safety isn’t just a video game where you can just press the reset button and start over. There are real-life consequences. 
Tom Bauer via C&EN’s website
For what it is worth, I thought the photo of the lab jacket was appropriate to post. 

This week's C&EN

A few articles from this week's issue of C&EN:

Friday, May 13, 2016

Goofy idea of the morning: oral histories of senior antibiotics scientists

This morning's In the Pipeline post is on a new Pew roadmap for antibiotic discovery, and there was this passage in the Pew report which will be familiar to any readers of the blog:
There is growing concern that as industry teams are downsized or shuttered, antibiotic scientists have moved to other firms, shifted to different biomedical areas, or retired, leading to the loss of valuable institutional knowledge and expertise. Antibiotic discovery has a long history, but much of the published research is buried in old journal issues or out-of-print books, and other research never makes it to publication. Organizing this body of research and making it accessible to the scientists who need it is critical for advancing discovery. Valuable knowledge may include compilations of screens that have been run before and information on past research programs. While much of this information is publicly available, what may be most useful is an account of what projects failed, and why.
If we deployed 5 or so scientists to go and interview the men and women who worked in antibiotic drug discovery over the last 20 or 30 years, and get them to tell about their projects and what worked and what didn't, I think it may uncover some important insights for the future.

Like any good Gen Xer, I could fill many pages of blog comments about the faults of the Baby Boomers. That said, they are probably the most scientifically advanced and technically knowledgeable generation in the history of humankind. Knowledge that hasn't been published or written down somewhere about antibiotic medicinal chemistry is, over the long run, likely worth the ~$10 million bucks it would be to get a couple of smart people to get them to talk about their scientific stories.