Friday, June 3, 2016

Q&A on balancing activities in research and #OutsideTheLab

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Antara Dutta from Georgia State University for an on-line story by the ACS Georgia Local Section as part of their series to promote volunteer leaders in the American Chemical Society. The questions and answers are more about how I do what I do, and may be of use to you if you are thinking about balancing your professional and volunteer tasks...

1. What do you like most about your job? What are the most challenging parts of your job?
What I like most about my job is that I can learn something new every day, and that I also can make an impact on the lives of students, colleagues, and beyond. In this sense, the day is never done as there is always something more that I could have done. Thus the challenging part is knowing when to stop.

2. What characteristic do you associate with a good chemist?
Recalling that “chance favors the prepared mind,” it is clear that a good chemist must be both diligent and careful in their preparation, but imaginative in the construction and interpretation of everything they do.

3. How have you grown professionally through your career? How did you choose your professional career growth path?
I have been fortunate to meet great chemists who mentored me and guided me not just on my chemistry, but  also on how to manage my chemistry.  For example, Bob Lichter has been an amazing mentor helping me to integrate my broadening participation efforts with my scientific program.

4. How do you face and overcome your professional challenges?
I ask for help and I work harder.

5. What are your habits have you adopted to ensure professional success? For example, do you have a daily routine or practice that helps you to be successful?
I exercise every day to ensure that my mind and body stay healthy. I also reserve Monday’s and Wednesday’s for after school pickup of my son from his school and rarely schedule something else over them, unless I’m travelling. This ensures that I have quality time with my son.

6. How do you handle failures, either major or min, both professionally and in research?
As an academic, failure is inevitable because noone wins every grant competition. So I look at such failures as an opportunity to grow. That is, I learn from the rejections (by leveraging the written comments from reviewers and discussions with program managers), and I try again.

7. Who has inspired you professionally or personally and why?
My friends, Peter Stang and Dick Zare, are remarkable in their ability to balance their research programs and their activities to advance our profession.  They are living existence proofs that you can both serve others and pursue research, and it helps me to not give up hope that I can do both as well.

8. What are your thoughts on your growth especially in this digital age? What transformation do you see in the field of chemistry from the way you have learned the subject and it is today in this digital age? 
The promise of computers in chemistry is multi-fold. On the one hand, it provides the ability to amass a lot of data for which analytics tools can find unexpected correlations and solutions. On the other hand, it provides a platform on which we can code ever more accurate models of complex chemistry for which calculations and simulations can reveal chemistries that we had not anticipated earlier. Across this range, the power of computers thus offers us an opportunity to do chemistry differently just as, for example, combinatorial chemistry tools have already transformed discovery.

9. What hobbies or activities do you participate in outside of your professional life?
I have been running with my wife since just after I received tenure. In addition, since my son was four years-old, we have been training in Tae Kwon do together, taking all of our belt tests together, and we earned our Kukkiwon-certified 3rd degree black belts together. Running and Tae Kwon Do have been important for my health, but equally importantly they continue to provide me quality time with my family.

10. Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to share?
Much of what I have related involves the importance of interacting with people, both to help them and be helped by them. I have found many of my friends and colleagues through the American Chemical Society, and the value of my membership comes primarily from the fact that we are a society of like-minded chemical scientists and engineers. I encourage you to engage with other members at our local section meetings, our regional meetings, our national meetings, and on various on-line platforms. I am sure that you and I will both benefit from your greater engagement!

Monday, May 23, 2016

Balancing Signal and Noise

How frequently to post is a perennial question for anyone with a footprint in social media. Too frequent and no one pays attention to all the noise. Too seldom and no one bothers to look. In either case, you also risk the possibility that Twitter, Linkedin or Facebook will deprioritize your post when serving it to your followers or friends. Of course, it all depends on how valuable a given post is. It can have value simply because you are popular in whatever sense, and the reader cares only about the fact that you are the one saying it. It can have value in some intrinsic sense because of the concept that is conveyed. Or it can have value somewhere in between. Regardless, readers are being bombarded by so many screaming pieces of content (that is, noise) that it's hard for any piece of truly valuable content (that is, signal) to be noticed.

Interestingly, this question also pertains to data. Is the signal from the device detectable and reproducible from the noise? It is also relevant to the articles that we publish in science. Is the advance incremental and hence within reach of a good guess from past work?! Or is it truly a new signal that advances our understanding? Ultimately, we scientists must find signals well above the noise, and be careful in reporting it so that it doesn't get lost in the noise. There is also the question of what is the noise and what is the signal. Consider the accompanying image with this post. Is the pretty red region the signal that is tainted by the noise of a few bright spots? Or are the bright spots the signals that shine over the noise of the red background?

If you are interested in questions of observation, you may also want to check out some of my old posts on the role of perception and implicit bias: Part I and Part II. (It's relatively timely again because Amy Herman appeared on an NPR broadcast just this week.)

Monday, March 28, 2016

Wandering through campus (as a @PhiBetaKappa Visiting Scholar)

I recently finished the last of my 9 campus visits courtesy of the Phi Beta Kappa Society during the 59th year of the Visiting Scholars Program. Wow! These visits included 6 primarily undergraduate colleges, in order: the College of Wooster, University of the South (Sewanee), College of St. Benedict & St. John's University, Willamette University, Bucknell University, and Hamilton College. The last three were research intensive institutions, in order: Johns Hopkins University, Kansas State University, and the University of Oklahoma. From the Society's marketing materials, the Visiting Scholars Program "sends distinguished scholars in a variety of disciplines to participate for two days in the life of colleges and universities with Phi Beta Kappa chapters. During each two-day visit, a scholar takes part in class discussions, meets informally with students and faculty, and gives a free lecture open to the public." The chapters were sent information about me, my available dates, and possible lectures on topics accessible to undergraduates or the public. After a matching process, I filled my schedule with the nine sites listed above. The only way to make seven two-day visits possible in the Spring was to obtain release from teaching. However the number of contact hours (with over 20 hours per visit) was much greater than the sixty-ish hours I would normally have spent on a single course. Though these numbers didn't make sense form a work load perspective, the experience was transformative and in a word, priceless!

I was routinely asked by the chapters if theirs was the best visit and/or what the other schools did to make the visit special. My answer to them and to you is that all of them were equally outstanding. No jokes about Lake Wobegone, please. Each of my visits included unique and different elements that were special about the individual institutions. My visits to primarily undergraduate institutions allowed me to walk in the shoes of their faculty. The level of interaction and attention to their undergraduate students is amazing and enriching for students and professors alike. My visits to the research intensive institutions differed remarkably from my usual visits. In those, I typically meet almost exclusively with faculty and a few graduate students. As a consequence of the PBK lens, my hosts made sure that I interacted almost exclusively with undergraduate students in classrooms, in small-group discussions, and in one-on-one mentoring events. It was remarkable to see the depth and breadth of the students and the potential we have as educators to reach them if only we stop to say hello.

All of that would be enough to have made it worthwhile. But just as in those cheesy late-night commercials we sometimes stay up too late not to miss, there is more… I had an opportunity to extend my network of friends and colleagues with remarkable faculty across the country. I knew some of my chemistry hosts and their colleagues from previous activities, but most I did not. My bonds with new and old colleagues were much more strongly cemented through the intensity of the programs that they prepared for me. Meanwhile, many members of the PBK chapter hosting teams were from departments outside of chemistry, giving me the opportunity to learn and discuss a broader set of ideas with experts who I would not have seen otherwise. With them and the broad set of students, staff and faculty that attended my talks and sessions, I was able to share my work in theoretical and computational chemistry, and my work to advance diversity in academia. The latter also appear to have sparked many conversations that I believe will have an impact in their efforts to improve campus climate and diversity equity.

All to say that my term as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar was as enriching, if not more so, then a sabbatical concentrated at a single site. If ever you have a chance to do the same, I hope that you will not hesitate in saying yes!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Chemistry's Community Spaces

There was a time when book stores and libraries were the places where you met others. Like in today's universities, in which librarians can't get rid of books fast enough, students still go to libraries to study in their carrels. Unfortunately, the flattening of the printed word through electronic delivery is decreasing the need or motivation for you to physically visit bookstores or public libraries. Meanwhile, next-day (and next-hour!) deliveries de-motivate you from going to retail shops at your local mall. But we still need community spaces, like the Mexican zocalos, to see and meet other people. Coffee houses and fitness centers, necessarily serve products or services that you and others must experience physically, and are increasingly serving the need for community gathering spaces while proving that brick-and-mortar can still be profitable.

So where do chemists gather? Increasingly academic buildings are being created with coffee houses in mind. Sure, it's cheaper for me to make an espresso with the machine in my office. But if I walk down to the coffee shop, I have the extra benefit of running into students and colleagues. The upcoming National Meeting of the ACS in San Diego also serves this need. Going there, I get to hang out with over 15,000 of my closest friends. I can't, obviously, see them all, but I don't have to make many, if any, appointments. The chemists with whom I have common interests naturally attend the same receptions, governance meetings and scientific sessions. These chance run-ins are devilishly short and sweet. The follow-up often occupies my activities and seeds my next innovations over the next six months and beyond.

Of course, old and new gathering mechanisms can overlap. In San Diego, the Multidisciplinary Program Planning Group (MPPG) selected Computers in Chemistry as the theme. Working with my colleagues on the associated symposia, we introduced a special break from 10:00 AM to 10:30AM on mornings from Sunday to Wednesday called "CafĂ© con Ordenadores." We hope to leverage your need for coffee to discuss how computers can enable your chemistry. I look forward to my chance meeting(s) with you in San Diego starting on March 13th!

Check out my old post on some tips for making a large conference, like the ACS meeting, feel exactly like the small conference you want to attend.

This post was reprinted on the Sustainable Nano Blog on March 8, 2016

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Juggling Communication Into My Calendar

It’s about time that I wrote my next Blog Post. As you may recall from one of my old posts on Hallows or Horcruxes, as a researcher, my daily question is whether to spend time on grants or papers. What I neglected to mention is that as a Professor, I also have a long list of other items that I must address in order to keep up my research (and teaching) enterprise moving forward. The fact that I enjoy many of these tasks doesn’t detract from the fact that they take time. Alas my blogging has suffered.

So where's the "chemistry" in the fact that I have been a slacker in not writing on my everywherechemistry blog? Sadly, it partially lies in the fact that all of my chemistry colleagues are equally overburdened. E-mail has become a daily chore with hundreds of messages that must be deleted, responded to immediately, or which require significant deliverables that require even more time. I know that this is no different than what other professionals experience. It is a sign of the times. Electronic communication has increased our ability to share our chemistry with each other, but it has also increased our volume of work. The ease in travel also tempts us to move our bodies, not just electrons, to distant places. It allows me to interact with chemists (and other scientists) directly, and mentor students whom I would not meet otherwise. That human touch provides more substance to the methods and approaches that we are developing and teaching each other.

Thus communication in all its forms is critical to learning and advancing chemistry. This is a fact that may have been lost on you as you learned how to balance chemical reactions, how to name molecules or how to calculate the wave functions associated with chemical bonds. Nevertheless, it's a critical part of doing chemistry... And I'm happy to be back on my blog! Please stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Reimagining the geometry of transition states (in PRL!)

I'm excited to report that my former graduate student, Dr. Galen Craven, and I just published an article in Physical Review Letters (PRL). The critical question in determining the rate between chemical reactants and products relies on knowing when exactly the reactants become products. This is like asking yourself when did you get sick? You might remember when you were healthy and you know when you definitely have a cold, but do you know when you transitioned from being healthy to sick? Presumably, if you could know when this transition happens, then you would know when to take medicine or when not to. For example, if you start feeling a little off but you haven't hit the transition to being sick, you might still not get sick at all and so there would be no need to take a pre-emptive medication. In the same way, chemists need to know when molecular reactions really take place and when exactly they did so. Transition state theory then provides a way to use that transition to obtain the rate of a reaction. And that's also useful because then we know if it will take place in the same time scale as other events such as being fast enough to finish while you are on a quick break or so slow that it won't happen before the universe has ended.

Specifically, we discovered a new way for obtaining the structure of the transition state between reactants and products when the reaction is in a complex solvent. All of the previous methods had obtained this surface by optimization (using variational transition state theory) or through successive approximations (using perturbation theory).The key is a mathematical tool, called the Lagrangian descriptor, that had been developed earlier by Wiggins and his colleagues in the area of fluid mechanics.We were able to use the Lagrangian descriptor to obtain the transition state geometry directly without either optimizing the rate or employing perturbation theory. And this means that we now have a new tool for obtaining reaction rates in nonequilibrium systems.

As with most articles in PRL, it was a tortuous path through the reviewing process. We were pleased that nearly all of the reviewers (and we had 6 in the end!) saw the work as novel and potentially game-changing. The full reference of the article is: G. T. Craven and R. Hernandez, "Lagrangian descriptors of thermalized transition states on time-varying energy surfaces," Phys. Rev. Lett. 115, 148301 (2015). (doi:10.1103/PhysRevLett.115.148301) I'm happy to acknowledge the support from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR).

Monday, August 31, 2015

Sustainable Nanotechnology - Designing green materials in the nanoparticle age

The birth control pill turned 50 recently, and it was a reminder of the great power of a chemical compound, estrogen, to affect social and political change. A little less attention was given to the role that estrogen levels in our water streams have had on fish in water streams. (See for example, a Scientific American article from 2009 on the possible implications of estrogen in waterways. ) There’s some debate as to where the leading sources of estrogen come from. While most studies indicate that the birth control pill is not the major contributor to its presence in the waterways, there is no doubt that estrogen pollution exists. Regardless, when the birth control pill was introduced, I suspect that few even considered the possibility that estrogen would be a factor in the health of fish in waterways such as the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers.

In this century, there is little doubt that nanoparticles comprise a class of chemical compounds that are revolutionizing nearly everything that we touch, see or smell. Indeed, I am tempted to argue that this century might be called the “nanoparticle age” in the same way that history named the last century as the “industrial age.” The challenge to chemists (and material scientists) is not just designing nanoparticles to solve particular problems, but to do so with materials that have no unintended consequences. Anticipating such unknown unknowns is a grand challenge, and the solution requires a team of scientists with expertise in making, measuring, and modeling the nanoparticles in the upstream design side and in biology and ecology on the downstream side. The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) is taking this challenge head-on. I’m happy and exited to say that I have joined the CSN as part of the modeling team!

Please also check out the announcement of the start of the 5-year effort of the CSN through an NSF CCI Phase II grant CHE-1503408.