It pays well to be a mad scientist…eventually.

I am now officially a starving grad student!

One of the major perks of going to grad school is the stipend (although people have been known to disagree on the matter). The fact that us grad students are essentially being paid to learn more about our disciplines (i.e., go to class) and have fun in a laboratory is a perk that’s hard to ignore. I mean, I am being given money to read about polymers and solar cells and chemistry and to play with glassware and big expensive spectrometers. That’s the kind of stuff I would be doing anyway in my spare time hobby-wise.
Sounds pretty sweet right? It is! In theory anyway. You see, I did not properly factor in that awkward period between moving up to my school and actually seeing that beautiful check deposited to my account. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of paperwork that needs to be handled by the magic bursar peoples squirreled away in the dark confines of some administrative building hoarding coins and swimming in pools of gold dubloons. I didn’t exactly budget for this lengthy awkward period, so after paying for 1.) airline tickets, 2.) baggage fees (and believe me, there are baggage fees when you’re moving/flying across states), 3.) rent and security deposits…well, I have less than 3-digits in my bank account. And it needs last for the next 2-3 weeks. It is a living experiment in asceticism.
That said, the apartment here is quite nice and looks even more roomy (read: spartan) without the burden of furniture. Take a look:
-The bedroom isn’t too bad as long as I convince myself I’m going for a minimalist vibe. Really. That’s what it is. I swear. Style.
-The bathroom is actually the best furnished room in the place. Likely because it’s got the lowest real estate to begin with.
-And look at what a deal we got! There’s an entire room just for the internet! (Most people would probably put couches and TVs in such rooms, and to them I say psh!)

Holy forged-mass-spectrometer-output, Batman!

Just got sent an interesting article from the Journal of Organic Chemistry written by its editor. He’s got some interesting things to say about their publications (or rather, their rejectied publications):

“In 2008, 15 manuscripts were deactivated because the authors were unable to provide original copies of reports for high-resolutionmass spectra or combustion analyses. By June of 2009, 13 of these manuscripts had been published in other journals. In six cases, the original datawere replaced by a new set that was consistent with the structures. In the other seven publications, the inconsistent data were left unchanged, were removed, or were replaced with another set of inconsistent data or data obtained by another analytical technique was substituted. Four of the manuscripts were submitted to other journals within only a few days after being deactivated by JOC.

While the number of manuscripts that JOC deactivated in 2008 because of unsatisfactory data and were subsequently published elsewhere was small, it is deeply disturbing that about a third of those authors chose to ignore the problems pointed out by JOC and submitted their manuscripts to other journals without adequately resolving the issues surrounding the data they originally reported. All of these manuscripts were submitted from academic institutions. The responsibility for this behavior clearly rests on the senior authors, who are setting a horrible example for their young colleagues.
C. Dale Poulter
I remember we once had a seminar about academic research fraud, which included a bit about data forgery that actually got published. The speaker pulled up a page of an article that had two side-by-side graphs. “See anything weird here?” We didn’t. Especially because it was a luminescence paper, and that prof loved his luminescence. Then he zoomed into the two graphs, pretty small ones if you’re just browsing the full page. “How about now?” They were identical. And we’re not just talking trendlines and major peaks. The tiny little ups-and-downs of the background signal were exactly the same. The guy ctrl-v’d some poor little experimental graph and used it show the similarlity of suppesedly different experimental runs. Busted! But not before he got that nonsense published.
I’m still kind of amazed that crap like this can still be pulled in the digital age. I mean, that’s the whole argument for the current pay system of non-free journals, right? They can afford to pay for better editors, are more reliable, and are thus more prestigious. I’m sure it’s happening less and less, but that seems like that kinda thing that should be caught on the first go-around. Gets me wondering about the free open-access science sometimes.

If only someone can work out the dynamics of that tingling thing

Speaking of gecko stuff from before, Nicola Pungo is one of my favorite people ever.

Not only is he working on really strong adhesive surfaces which can release without, say, ripping the plaster straight from the walls, he’s looking at super-strong invisble cables and even has the calculations for how they can support a person. Not just any person, mind you. We’re talking the Person of Arachno-esque People: Spidey! Most amusingly, all of his papers include the phrase “Spiderman suit” somewhere in them, most often straight in the title. While I am an enormous fan of short, punchy, catchy titles in general, sometimes I can’t help but wondering the sorts of comments he gets from his referees when publishing.
(Latest paper from Pungo: Spiderman Gloves (really, that’s the title))

No, Grandma, I’m not working with Geico

It’s always a little tricky explaining the grad school thing. Not many people remember their high school chemistry, and even fewer remember liking it. Heading off to UMass in a few weeks has prompted a lot of friends and family to ask what I’m going to grad school for. Once they hear it’s for chemistry-ish studies, well, then it’s always “what are you doing that for?” (Note: snark is my own. It’s really not that bad.)

I love talking about my work last summer with Al Crosby’s group because it’s so much better than trying to explain to my grandmother what a polymer is (which invariably leads to one of quoting The Graduate). There’s a time and place talking about long-chains and functional groups, and it’s usually not over dinner with my parents’ friends (although was an awesomely unexpected exception at a fundraising dinner for the National Yiddish Book Center). But gecko feet! Everyone knows geckos; everyone likes geckos! At least they like theoretical geckos. Actual geckos scurrying about the room usually aren’t as welcome. So saying I tried to design synthetic gecko feet, useful for anything that needs super gecko-stickiness to come on and off easily, is a good way to gradually address the fun chemistry bits. (Footnote: I actually gave up on synthetic gecko feet really quickly after A.) it turned out to be way out of my league for a 10-week research stint, and B.) we accidentally stumbled on something much more interesting experimentally but much less interesting to talk to random passers-by about. I’m sure the geckos will enjoy their sticky superiority that much longer).

Hello from the Land of Science!

I’ve always felt a bit weird about scientific writing. I certainly see the point, and I understand why it’s important. Scientific writing has an objective precision that you need when presenting research and experimental techniques to a peer-reviewing audience. It’s just dreadfully boring to read, is all. It’s fun in exactly the same way reading your cell phone manual is fun: you slog through it so that afterwards you can come up to your buddy and go “Hey, look what I just found out I can do!” as you make the phone play Outkast’s “Hey Ya” or you explosively ignite a thermite reaction.

There are plenty of good popular science and technology writers out there. The entire journalistic collective of Wired magazine is a particular favorite of mine, for example, and the annual The Best American Science Writing [insert year here] collections are great places to start. Maybe I’m not looking in the right places (and maybe someone can point me in the right places?), but it seems to me that the catch is that there are precious few popular science writers these days who are still actively engaged in research. There’s a certain reluctance to sit down and write things for pleasure when you could instead be playing with big lasers and impressive glassware in a laboratory like Dr. No’s, I imagine.

“So what’s the deal with this oh-so-cleverly named blog?” those who have not yet figured it out may be asking. I’m starting up my MS/PhD studies in the coming weeks, and already I’m a bit terrified at the prospect of having to solely write things with titles like “Synthetic Strategies Employing Moth Flatulence in the Assembly of Chiral Moieties” for at least the next, oh, five years or so. I envision this as being both an outlet for telling stories about today’s scientific research world and as an opportunity to practice my accessible “popular” science writing. And for anyone wanting to read it, I promise not to say things like “the extrinsic factors of oxidative work-up.” Not much anyway.