Monday, May 27, 2013

Scientists are Multidimensional

Truth in advertising. I have not been featured in the Tumbler project by Allie Wilkinson on what a scientist looks like. But my former TSTC student, Adam Hiill, was featured on "looks like science" on February 2012. (I never promised breaking news!) Many of us don't venture out to Tumblr, but Millennials do. I favor any such attempt to break down stereotypes of who a scientist is or what a scientist does. If a given potential scientist can't see themselves among the images of a scientist they regularly encounter, then there is a reduced chance that she or he will enter our field. There is also the myth that one needs to have a singularity of purpose in order to succeed in science. Yet I personally know scientists (with tenure!) who play the bagpipes, rock with popular bands, play the piano at symphony halls, win triathlons, climb El Capitan, dive in corral reefs, hang with the President, and the list goes on. The truth is that succesful scientists tend to have broad interests. It's just that we don't often share them with each other!

So if you're a research scientist, do you always keep your conversations with other colleagues strictly on science? Do you have hidden talents or interests that you don't usually share? Not doing so may even have a professional price. Without the personal connection, you may find yourself less connected to your colleagues and less likely to collaborate. Meanwhile, if your students see that you are able to maintain such balance, they might be more willing to perceive science as a rewarding career with some sort of work-life balance.

Friday, May 24, 2013

toasting with espresso cups...

l'chaim, Salud, zum Wohl,... These are expressions that many of us use in celebrating with wine or other alcoholic beverages. Most of us, if we think of it at all, assume that we are engaging in a diluted ritual now divorced from Dionysus or Bacchus. This may be so. For years, I have argued in favor of a different origin. I thought that I remembered a PBS Connections episode that traced the practice through ever advancing military tactics between adjoining kingdoms. Specifically, the tactic was the use of poison to eliminate a neighboring king so as to annex their land without war. Neighboring kings would presumably avert being poisoned when visiting their neighbors by pouring wine between their cups in turn. If one chose not to pour, touching glasses instead, then she or he would be exhibiting trust. (As a chemist, it was also fun to think of this as analytical chemistry in action, albeit somewhat rudimentary.) My conclusion, based on this foundation, has been that we should be at liberty to toast (and clink glasses) with any liquid as a sign of mutual trust.

Only problem with this, as Thomas Huxley said in a Presidential Address at the British Association in 1870, is that "the great tragedy of science [lies in] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."  In this case, if you check out on the subject "Of Drinks and Clinks," they provide evidence (or lack thereof) that the story is entirely false. Instead, it appears that it emanates from the practice of communal drinking out of a common cup or vessel in numerous early cultures. While the question of poison does not enter this cup, the remaining ritual symbolically connects us to each other without the literal sharing of liquids (or germs!) Not surprisingly, I checked back to the PBS Connections episodes, and I can't find any discussion of wine; but more on Connections in a future post... The one good piece of news here is that the common cup did not necessarily cary alcoholic fluids.

So in my house, we will continue to toast over all liquids, including our morning espresso. Salud!

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Iron Man & Scientists...

Lately, it seems that being a scientist is cool. This has been a seesaw over the years. Everyone wanted to be a rocket science during the space race. On the other hand, no one dreams of being Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, or Dr. Strangelove. Engineering of the type that produces 007 gadgets has certainly been popular. But lately it seems that advancing fundamental knowledge about nature—science—is being recognized as a critical driver for technology and our economy. That is scientists aren't far from the ├╝ber cool title of entrepreneur. To wit, in the make-believe world that appears to form our culture's reality, Tony Stark is able to keep himself alive in Iron Man II because he discovers how to create a new high-energy containing element. It's fiction, of course. Nevertheless, it illustrates the present positioning of science in a critical role for advancing/saving our world from the current challenges in the environment, energy and health sectors. It also says that being a scientist is cool again.

Unfortunately most scientists don't have Tony Stark's resources, and they need money to pay for the experiments and the highly-trained human capital required to run them. Meanwhile the nation's science budgets are being cut. So how can we leverage the nation's recognition that science is a critical economic driver to affect our nation's scientific policy and its level of investment therein? Equally importantly, how do we articulate the need for continual investment in such long-term payoffs in favor of say, balancing the budget today? A key idea lies in the fact that today's solutions come from investments made years ago. So those solutions won't be there in 20 years if we don't make the investments now. Again, this is very convincing to a scientist, but how convincing is it to a member of Congress who is looking at reelection in two years?! Sadly, the analogy to Iron Man also holds true here because the fictional politicians are often equally unconvinced...

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Scientists gossip too! (With a shout out to @ChemBark)

In any given academic discipline, there simply aren't that many people in research active departments. In part, this is because there just aren't that many primarily graduate institutions (PGIs) as classified by the Carnegie Institution.  In chemistry, there are well over 100 such departments, with USNews and World Report ranking the top 140. The NSF also keeps track of chemistry departments according to research expenditures using federal research dollars. Not surprisingly, departments with larger expenditures tend to be larger. (At the very least, they need more people to use the money.) In the top 50 of these departments, there are approximately 1600 professors. That number is smaller than the number of students in the high school I attended as a teenager. It's also small enough that it gives rise to all sorts of overlapping social networks, and intrigue....

That's right. Intrigue. The questions include: Who got their first job and where. Who got tenure, and sadly who didn't. Who's moving where. How much money was so and so offered to go where, and why they did or did not take the offer. Who got which prize or honor. Put two chemistry professors in a room who've never met before. First they'll tire themselves out discussing their latest research results and how they might help the other one advance their research projects. Then, they will catch their second wind discussing other chemists that they know in common. Of course, social media has a role to play here too. A very good blog, ChemBark, tracks, among many things, the latest academic hires and poaches in chemistry. It's kept current through blog replies providing information that is used to update the main post. (In a sense the page is a moderated wiki.) As it's impossible to hide who is visiting a given department and when, this crowdsourced updating works remarkably well. That is true as long as the readers of ChemBark span all of chemistry. That's not quite the case as I noticed that several theory hires were missing!! Which isn't necessarily ChemBark's fault; it's just an indication of the breadth of chemistry spanned by his reply-writing readership or my overly sensitive perspective about my own subfield of chemistry. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Driving on the left side of the road

In the States, it's not so advisable to drive on the left side of the road as you will invariably hit an oncoming car. Having found myself in the UK last week for a workshop on reaction rate theory, where I rented a car to make my travel connections work, I can tell you that even without the oncoming cars, driving on the left side remained tricky. Indeed, all of my instincts were wired the wrong way. I had to actively think about entering on the left, not the right, side of a road as I exited from a roundabout. (Don't even try to understand roundabouts!) My left hand was on the stick, but my left foot was still on the clutch pedal. So it wasn't a complete 100% mirror reflection at the controls.

In order to simplify driving, and likely many other decisions in my day, I (and you) evidently do many tasks automatically. In the context of driving on the left side of the road or even just walking across the road in the UK, nearly everyone in the workshop—whether they were from the States or continental Europe—found it difficult to reset our programmed brains. (Look right then left before crossing the road or is it the other way around?) Similarly, how many such decisions are taking place automatically when we grade exams, review proposals, or select faculty candidates? Can we really be sure that we are making the right decision in all of these cases if we don't have complete control or awareness of our own implicit biases?

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Legacy admission for and against diversity

According to the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, this year's admission rate—7.29%—for the class of 2017 was their lowest ever. Rest assured, that is behind Stanford at 5.7%, Harvard at 5.8% and Yale at 6.7%. Those are low odds, and any advantage is clearly welcome. That's one reason why the Fisher v. Texas case before the Supreme Court over the use of affirmative action in college admissions is so compelling. Equally notable, though, is the fact that children of Princeton alumni (so-called legacies) make up 9.7% of admitted students, compared to 9.5% in the previous year. Is a given university merely recording their legacy student demographic or is it using it to create an artificially higher (or perhaps lower) percentage of legacies in their student body?

It's surprising to me that legacy admission is going up (in terms of the percentage of the total) in light of the recent rhetoric arguing against it. Namely, the argument goes that legacy admissions are primarily good for bringing in money (from happy alumni parents), and they keep the demographics of a given campus tuned to that of a generation ago. The former is presumably good for university finances but some argue that it comes at the price of academic quality. The latter has the potential of maintaining the demographics on par with a much less diverse student population of yesteryear, and some argue has the effect of anti-affirmative action policies. For these and other related reasons, there has been significant opposition against legacy admission (including op-eds in the Princeton Alumni Weekly). Yet at Princeton (and likely other places), legacy admission is actually increasing, at least for the moment. Meanwhile, the April 24th issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, also reported that 48.4% of the admitted student class identified themselves as students of color. This suggests that legacy admission may not be entirely coupled to the demographic distribution of the entering class.

So where do you stand on legacy admission? It likely depends on whether or not you are a parent, and whether or not your children stand to benefit from it. Like politics, this can be very local. In my case, my son would obviously stand to lose if legacy admission were to recede. Here also lies a bit of irony; he would be a student-of-color admission. That is, just as the diversity complexion of undergraduate campuses is starting to reflect the broader demographics of this county, is this really the time to remove the alumni privilege of legacy admission?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

On the dynamics of Janus colloids (#JChemPhys)

Janus colloids are particles that like the Roman god, Janus, have two faces. Chemically, the two faces in a Janus colloid correspond to different interactions based on what is coating the surface of each of the two halves. (In principle, they don't have to be spherical. There's some recent work on cylinders emerging as well.) We, and others, have been curious about whether a container of Janus particles would have different structure than spherically attractive particles. We showed in earlier work that, at equilibrium, such containers can indeed be quite similar. This was disappointing, in part, because it meant that you couldn't make new equilibrium structures by carefully making Janus particles. It may not be surprising to you, though, because it simply means that if you are in a room filled with people, then most of the time, you can turn your head so that you are facing someone you like. As such, you can ignore the direction you don't like. Similarly we can, for the most part, ignore the unhappy contacts in a container of Janus colloids (in the fluid regime.)

But what about the motion of this system? It turns out that this is indeed highly dependent on the Janus particle interaction strengths. Equally interesting is the fact that if you try to remove degrees of freedom from this system, you get some crazy results. First of all, if you get rid of them without doing anything else, then the particles move too quickly. (This is a known problem in coarse-graining.) If you trick the system to get the rates of particle diffusion right (as is often done), then other stuff breaks down. We found in the Janus colloids, that the association of the particles (that is which are neighbors are next to which) is highly dependent on the Janus particle interactions strengths. This means that performing coarse-grained molecular dynamics simulations to model the motion of large assemblies of molecules is more difficult to do correctly(!) than we had anticipated...

These latter findings are available, in far too much detail, in our second article on Janus Colloids which just appeared on line in J. Chem. Phys. (doi:10.1063/1.4803864).

Running for the Board... #AmericanChemicalSociety #hernandez4acs #district4acs

According to the ACS Bylaws, candidates for seats on the Board of the American Chemical Society may begin campaigning 30 days after the Council Meeting at the Spring National meeting. This year's Council Meeting in NOLA took place on April 9th. So as of, today, May 9th, my active campaign for the District IV Director has begun. Trouble is that I don't know what I'm supposed to do to actively campaign. So much like on the day I received tenure, I'll just keep doing what I've been doing.

This post is also intended to be a stub for anyone interested in giving me advice on my campaign AND on how I can help you, the ACS or the nation through my Board seat if I were to be elected.

Check out my website

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Politicians don't do science, Scientists do (#NSF #FundScience)

As reported in ScienceInsider, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) would like to draft the "High Quality Research Act" that would rewrite the criteria that the National Science Foundation (NSF) uses to assess research grants. (Look also at an op-ed in the Huffington Post.)  The proposed language suggests a desire for immediacy to the impact of a given scientific effort directly on the public as well as a lack of flexibility in the degree to which the research may be pursued. Moreover, his recent actions also suggest a desire to have a political review of research grants beyond the traditional merit review performed within the scientific community. The NSF has necessarily responded to this political attack by countering with political tactics such as stonewalling. One of their main arguments has been that the review criteria just adopted in the past 6 months had gone through significant vetting, and therefore should not be reconsidered at this time. The NSF is also arguing that piecemeal reevaluation of individual grants by politicians undermines the peer review process, not to mention that they would require Congressional oversight at a microlevel that Congress has presumably empowered the NSF to act on. Clearly such review would be at best pennywise and certainly pound foolish.

To most scientists, such discussion is opaque because it seems to be directing the focus of the discussion from a fundamental academic point. That is, the progress of science is not a straight line. It's a highly connected (likely scale-free) network with new discoveries often dependent on advances in distant arms of science. That's the reason why we need to allow for science discovery broadly rather than attempt to pre-select the winners today. For example, medical schools decades ago would not have funded and did not fund the development of lasers by chemists and physicists or the development of control theories by mathematicians and engineers. Without such advances, we wouldn't have refractive eye surgery or laser scalpels. That is, if we use the current dogma to pick the best new science with immediate impact, we will never break from its paradigm. The fact that this intellectual argument doesn't win with some politicians is simply a reflection that scientists don't do politics.

The irony in all this is that basic science is working for our country. The return on the investment of basic science is at worst even (dollar-for-dollar) and as much as a factor of 100 in GDP per $1 spent on the NSF, depending on how the ROI is calculated. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) specifically states that "federal spending in support of basic research over the years has, on average, had a significantly positive return, according to the best available research." The science in universities is generating countless companies. (For example, according to this Boston Magazine article the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well at universities like MIT which is among the leaders of the digital age. According to Forbes Magazine, my own institution is in the top 10 of incubators as well!) The rest of the world, particularly China, has noticed this, and several countries are increasing—if not outright outspending the U.S.—their investments in basic research (in terms of percentage of their GDP). It's often quoted that peer review is not ideal (and this is particularly true when the system is stressed to funding levels well below 20%), but that it's the best system we have. It's hard to argue against this given our track record for driving the economy.

So please tell politicians to keep doing the politics and to keep funding scientists to do the science. Our nation will continue to advance much better that way!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Blogging Chemists; Everyone is Doing It? (#Chemistry)

You wouldn't be surprised to know that I sometimes find myself in circles of chemists. In those circles, when I mention the fact that I've started blogging, the first thing I hear is "Did you you know that Michelle Francl has a blog?" Indeed, she was the first person I asked about how to do this right! (All of the blame for my mistakes, though, go entirely to me.) Ever since I met Michelle, I've been priviledged to see how quickly she adopts new cyberenabled technologies to communicate her science. She was among the first (if not the first) of us to podcast chemistry lectures. She's maintained chemistry blogs for nearly a decade. Check her out at Culture of Chemistry and on posts at the Sceptical Chymist. (One blog isn't enough for her!)

This naturally leads to the question as to which other chemists blog? Paul Bracher maintains ChemBark that is certainly a blog (and a very good one at that!), but is also part wiki through its comments and re-editing. He'll be starting a faculty position at Saint Louis this fall. A group of chemists aggregate their posts at Chemistry Blog. One of their Staff Bloggers, Kenneth Hanson, is starting a faculty position at Florida State this Fall. In one series of posts, he's currently recounting the process of securing a chemistry faculty position. Though it's "obvious" for us insiders, it is evidently not so for would-be professors. Hanson is leveling the playing field through this series of mentoring posts. It's perhaps not surprising that this new generation is experimenting with social media as a way to advance their science! 

Beyond trailblazing senior faculty members, like Michelle, I'm also curious about the extent to which others are jumping into this pool. Among my own colleagues, Andrew Lyon maintains a blog embedded within his group's website. David Scholl does the same. Of course, most colleges and universities are now paying their press teams to maintain these dissemination channels. So perhaps blogging is the new normal for chemists?! 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

No harm no foul...

It's not hakuna matata, but according to my wife, I use the titular phrase all the time. I suppose that I use it in the context of excusing all the many minor infractions that all of us do in the process of living our lives, but that somehow don't amount to much. For example, the time when I accidentally turned left at the corner of my house, just like I always do, only to find that I turned one block early onto a one-way street, in the wrong direction. Fortunately, the road was completely clear and a simple U-turn took care of the problem. No harm no foul. But what if that had been the moment that the road was filled with oncoming traffic?

On a long hike more than 20 years ago in Telluride, CO, my companion and I got lost and ended up bushwhacking for more than twice the time we had intended. Needless to say, we didn't have enough water so we ended up drinking the water from a stream. I got giardia and thankfully nothing worse. I also didn't die when I slid down the side of the mountain. No harm no foul? More importantly, how pure must the water be for there to be no harm? The water was clear. So at least to the naked eye, it was pure. Pity that I didn't have a microscope on me to see the little bugs. Even then, I might have needed a mass spec to look for contaminants at ppm levels or lower which luckily turned out not to be there. Such an experiment would have resolved my drink or no-drink decision. Perhaps better, and easier, I could have carried a water purification packet that would have made the water potable. That's chemistry in action at the microscale of a single human, but the technology wasn't available back then. The real challenge is making such purification sustainable at the macroscale of our entire planet. That's when the titular phrase will be truly operative for all of us.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The rock is hard.

This post's title was the single line answer given by my young son in a recent science test. He was surprised that it earned him an unsatisfactory mark. After all, his answer was factually correct. His teacher's hint to his failing was that he had not elaborated on the tools he had used to derive his answer. His retort was that he was given no tools to detail.

What is needed, of course, is observation to back up the hypothesis. This is not necessarily that which you see—observe with your eyes—since after all you can't see hardness. You can, however, feel hardness, that is to the extent that it is not soft. But there's not much dynamic range in using your fingers to distinguish between two hard objects such as a rock verses a table. Meanwhile, this has all been predicated on the question of a definition of hardness. When I claimed that it was the lack of softness, this gave us a qualitative scale but not one we could use to distinguish between two different "hard" objects. So how are we to distinguish between two different hard objects using the tools we have at hand in an elementary school classroom? The hint lies in providing a clear statement of the hypothesis by defining "hard" rigorously, and then determining measurements to back up a hypothesis such as the rock is harder than my head.