Monday, April 10, 2017

Even the Woodward group

I don't know why, but I liked this anecdote for Bethany Halford's excellent cover story about R.B. Woodward (on the occasion of his 100th birthday). It's emblematic of something about academia, but I can't quite put my finger on it: 
David M. Lemal, a Dartmouth College chemistry professor, was a graduate student in Woodward’s group from 1955 to 1958. He recalls one particular Thursday-night seminar when another graduate student who seemed to have no good prospect of getting a degree anytime soon presented a large body of work done by German chemist Otto Diels in the early 1900s. It was just a large number of different reactions, as Lemal remembers, and it was clear, with the gains chemistry had made in the intervening decades, that Diels’s interpretation of the chemistry was incorrect. 
After the student’s presentation, Woodward asked everyone in the room to try to figure out what was actually going on. After 90 minutes of silence and furious scribbling, “Woodward got up and went to the blackboard and reinterpreted this body of work from beginning to end with great clarity in his usual blackboard work that you can photograph and put in a textbook,” Lemal says. Woodward sent the graduate student into the lab to repeat the work with modern analytical tools. The student was able to confirm Woodward’s conclusions and in short order wrote his Ph.D. thesis and graduated.
I think that all the tropes of graduate school in chemistry are all there: the group black sheep, the not-so-great group meeting, the extended group meeting and the flash of insight that breaks a grad student free. Not all stories have a happy ending, but this one does. (I wonder what happened to them?)  

8 comments:

  1. Your last paragraph sounds exactly like my grad school experience! Except... there was no flash of insight or sudden upturn. :)

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  2. Wait until professor has idea he considers publishable, then get Ph.D.

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  3. I did a summer internship in a high-profile synthetic group. We got a new catalytic Cu-Box asymmetric glyoxylate ene reaction to work, the bright undergrad who discovered it, and me, found a bench-stable version of the catalyst that gave 99% ee with 1-2% catalyst loading, and we got pretty good papers out of 3 months work so I don't complain. The student who inherited our project was a utterly burned out 4th year senior who needed to graduate. So he repeated our work, wrote his thesis, and the boss let him graduate under the condition that he would not seek job in pharma/biotech or in academia, otherwise he would not be able to give him a recommendation. So the guy went to a hedge fund as analyst. Couple years later, the school was starting a biotech and needed a CEO, and there was this young dynamic hedge fund guy with chemistry background and short but excellent publication record...

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    1. Not sure if you intended on this being anonymous or not, but it's super easy to figure out who you are referring to.

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    2. you can read the story any way you want, not casting aspersion. By the way, after working at Scripps FL some years later, I was shocked to learn that an outstanding synthetic chemist, and all around great guy decided to quit his staff scientist job because he realized his was a dead-end career, and he even gave up his Green Card. He moved to business consulting in Japan, and now he is in charge of biotech mergers and acquisitions of a major bank in Tokyo - Not bad for a young chemist who learned business consulting rather late in his career.
      In the end, it matters very little how good synthetic chemist you are because this skill does not pay, there is over-saturation on the job market. Also, you should appreciate the effort and loyalty of the PI in the preceding story - he let even his weakest student to graduate, and find acceptable solution for everyone. Most other PIs would have just dropped the student and send him off with Masters.

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    3. I can certainly conjure a few cases of impressive chemists turning their back on the bench and never looking back. The idea of going to work in corporate Tokyo does nothing for me personally, but I am glad to hear that this person made a positive change for themselves. I think how good a synthetic chemist you are does matter, but also what matters is your pedigree and your network. Glad to know that it's never too late to jump into a new field!

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    4. I think by the time you are in your 40s it is already too late to jump to a new field, most people who did this that I know had to because of layoffs and being "overqualified" - it means too senior and accomplished to hire for bench-level job. So they ended up doing office work at law firm drafting patent application (if lucky, they could pass the exam to become bonafide patent agent that can represent clients before USPTO). But it is tough. When you switch career and go to finance, you have to go through relatively junior initial position, and being young, blindingly smart and fresh-faced helps.

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    5. Finally I have been able to identify milkshake!

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