Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Chemists are unique but are very much like each other

It's a curious thing about chemists that most of us like to think of ourselves as rational thinkers making individual decisions that are unlike those made by anyone else. Just like the Apple commercial (and most of us appear to own more than one Apple product) told us to do long ago, we follow the credo "Think Different." The thing is that in our rational choice making, we tend to arrive at the same conclusions, and hence to an outside observer, we appear to all be alike. Many of us walk tangents (exhibiting that we understand geometry better than everyone else.) We buy Apple products because they are sleek, easy to use, and set us apart from corporate types who have to buy the company's choice of PCs. When we travel, we spend our time optimizing how to deal with airplane/airport headaches, and invariably arrive at similar strategies. In short, we are a marketing segment of the population that is as classifiable as any other. In this respect, we probably aren't very distinct from other scientists.

So how do we impart such non-uniqueness onto our students? At first order, we train them to think just like ourselves. Students need to learn how to solve chemical problems of the type that we have become experts at solving. So, of course, we teach them to approach the problems in the same way that we approach them. After a few years working together, our students even start mimicking some of our mannerisms. But what if our students aren't like us to begin with and they simply can't see us in themselves at the beginning (let alone the end) of their research journey? I suppose that they could find a different research advisor. Perhaps a better answer is to look for ways in which we can teach them the tools while letting them personalize them to their own way of thinking? That requires the faculty mentor to bend as well, growing in the process. If successful, we would then be truly imparting a uniqueness onto our students that match their own. In so doing, we can also open up the profession to a more diverse cohort of students. Sadly, the next generation of such scientists would likely still be an easily classifiable marketing segment...

Friday, July 26, 2013

Mentoring New Faculty in the Chemical Sciences, Part II (#ResearchCorp #ACS)

The funny thing about the mentoring of faculty is that it wasn't nearly so much on the radar screen in the recent past. It certainly wasn't formalized like it is today with senior faculty routinely being assigned to mentor junior faculty. The rationale behind this change involves several threads, but all of them have in common the fact that mentoring plays a huge role in increasing success. Given that the costs of starting a new chemistry professor are really high, we simply can't afford to leave things to chance. Meanwhile, assistant professors—and indeed all professors—these days have to do many jobs beyond the science that they were trained to do. This is where mentoring helps. For example, in the long list of tasks that I listed in Part I, you may have noticed that the teaching role was barely mentioned. It's a critical component of our job, but it tends to be given little attention in the struggle to attain tenure. But whether you teach badly or well, the mount it takes is about the same. So why not teach well?

The New Faculty Workshop being held this week focuses on all of the threads confronting starting Assistant Professors. We expose the junior faculty to the use of evidence-based educational techniques in the classroom. That is, we make it easy for starting faculty to use techniques that have been seen to be effective at engaging students in learning. We also go over many of the issues that they are confronting on the research side so as to increase their chances of success. Ultimately it's about integrating their research and education activities. Indeed, we deliver the content—such as how to run a research lab—using active learning techniques rather than through sage-at-the-stage lectures. A new faculty member may be have been lucky so far, but through this fabulous mentoring workshop we're trying to leave chance behind!

Mentoring New Faculty in the Chemical Sciences, Part I (#ResearchCorp #ACS)

So far this summer, I have played a role  in events mentoring graduate students and postdocs planning to enter the professional ranks, training faculty at Primarily Undergraduate Institutions planning to incorporate computational tools in their classrooms, speaking to the public abut the importance of supporting science, supporting science in Santo Domingo, affirming the value of education among my Cottrell Scholar peers, and mentoring my own students. So who else is left to mentor?

How about the lucky few who are just starting faculty positions in chemistry this Fall or last August? Good news is that they have a job. The bad news is that the pressure is truly on them. They have five years to create a research group (that is world-class) from scratch, publish many papers (in high-impact journals), deliver presentations (at the important meetings and several universities), be awarded prizes, obtains small and large grants, and generally be recognized as an expert in something. Meanwhile they must teach their courses, serve on committees in their universities, serve on panels, review articles and grants, organize conferences and workshops, etc. All the while, they should avoid annoying anyone who might sink their case. It might therefore not be surprising that new faculty —no matter how good— need some help in navigating their tenure run. This  is why they need mentoring and the $20,000 question is where do they get it from?

One possible answer for new faculty in the chemical sciences lies in the New Faculty Workshop being held in DC this week for just the second time. I'll say more about it in Part II!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

100 PhD's conferred by Chuck Eckert and counting!

My colleague (and friend), Chuck Eckert, graduated his 100th Ph.D. student in the past few days. Just run the numbers... and it's staggering: It takes 4-5 years for a student to finish her or his Ph.D. So assuming a professor has a 50-year career, that still means only 45 years during which she or he gets to confer a Ph.D. To get to 100 in that span, you would have to average over 2 doctorates/year. Assuming an average of 5-years for graduation, and the fact that there is some attrition... you would need to support a group of about 14 graduate students on average for 50 years. Of course, that doesn't include postdocs or research scientists. Add them to the mix, and you need to support a group in the 20 to 30 people range, again for 50 years. There are a few such groups, and likely they too have produced over 100 PhD's. But this is clearly the exception and not the rule. Little wonder that the story was featured in this Sunday's Milestones in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

There is one other difference that sets Chuck apart. He actually mentors all of his students (and many others too!) His research group isn't simply run as a top-down enterprise in which his students barely see him near the end of their training. Rather, they see him regularly, and are required to be engaged in their weekly group, subgroup and individual meetings with him. At any moment, he might ask them questions beyond their science such as where they expect to be in 10 years or what will they do if the experiments all work as expected. In the end, mentoring doctoral students is about helping them learn how to think and act without you. There's no one path to doing this well because it depends on the student as well as the mentor. It's clear, though, that mentors have to put a lot of thought into how to do this well. And Chuck has figured this out in ways I aspire to emulate even if I have no hope to get to a 100!

Friday, July 19, 2013

What makes a university?

Students and faculty. Simple answer. It's not the administration, though they can affect students and faculty significantly, for the better and the worse. (So you should hire good staff, deans, presidents and such. Just not too many of the latter.) It's not the physical plant, though you do need good facilities. A beautiful location—like one that is next to a beach, a mountain, a fabulous airport, or great restaurants—doesn't hurt. But you can build relatively good facilities given a reasonable amount of money almost anywhere. It's not just having a large endowment though that doesn't hurt. Meanwhile, I'm not forgetting alumni of former faculty. They were once current faculty and students and thereby remain critical to the definition of their university.

So why do I favor students and faculty? It may seem both self-serving and forgetful of the three most important factors in choosing a home: "location, location and location." But the thing is that universities teach students. Students are attracted by the quality of the faculty AND their fellow students. Meanwhile faculty are attracted by the quality of the students AND their fellow faculty. These two groups therefore come and go hand-in-hand. If you lose one, you'll lose the other. The fact that they are people and not bricks-and-mortar doesn't change the equation. Good faculty and students attract the next round of good faculty and students. That is, the individual faces change from year to year, but the nature of the university remains through the continuously refreshed set. This, of course, relies on universities continuing to invest in maintaining the quality of their students and faculty. AND they need to empower the faculty to make good decisions through enlightened self-interest and thereby trust them to refresh themselves well. So why do universities sometimes forget to fill positions as faculty retire rather than maintain or grow their numbers? They are, or course, driven to that direction because doing so appears to save money, at least in the short run. But they are leveraging their future as the degradation of their student and faculty quality redefines their universities. Sadly, often not for the better. When the economy is tough, I would suggest that's the time to invest even more money (because it's less expensive to do it then.) So far Georgia Tech has done this right as we have grown for the past 15 years or so at a dramatic pace while the economy was topsy-turvy. Hopefully, this trend will continue!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mentoring the next generation of chemical and materials scientists

During the past couple of days, I acted as one of the facilitators (as mentor and speaker) at a Future Faculty Workshop hosted at Georgia Tech. The workshop focuses on training senior students and postdocs in Chemistry, Chemical Engineering, Polymer Science, Materials Science and related departments. They sit through a series of informational seminars covering the entire process of getting a job in academia. Equally importantly, they get a lot of one-on-one time with the faculty during frequent breaks and unstructured meals. This is the 7th staging in a series of these workshops founded by Tim Swager (from MIT). Sadly, he still hasn't set-up a full website archiving the materials that have been presented and the many amazing individuals who have contributed as mentors and co-organizers. A vignette of the 2011 Workshop, held at MIT, is available here. The site provides a list of the mentors specifically involved that year, but many of them have been involved multiple years. It's also notable that the 2012 Workshop was held at UCSB. This year's workshop involved approximately 40 participants and 15-20 professors (a few of whom are department chairs, deans, and upper administrators.) Prof. Rosario Gerhardt did a great job of organizing it.

Our community has evidently gotten the memo that mentoring is important! The workshop provides straight talk about what you need to do to make the jump into a position as an Assistant Professor, and what you'll need to do once you're there. Meanwhile, the selection of participants and mentors is weighted toward the broader demographics we find in our students at the present moment, but much more diverse than what we find in our applicant pools. Thus this event, following Isiah Warner's advise that "diversity is a planned event," is truly working to broaden the next generation of faculty members in the chemical sciences. Kudos to Tim for starting and maintaining these workshops!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Research faculty doing teaching the right way (#ResearchCorp Cottrell Scholars)

Every year that I've been fortunate enough to be invited, I've made a pilgrimage to Tucson, AZ, in mid July. There, the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA) hosts an annual conference of their current Cottrell Scholars (CSs), a smattering of CS alumni and several brilliant guests. All of the CSs were selected in a stiff competition which reviewed both our research and our education proposals with nearly equal weight. The odds of success are low enough that many outstanding scientists lose out. Those of us who win a CS award often feel the kind of gratitude that one feels winning a lottery. Not surprisingly, all of my CS colleagues are doing great science and I would be privileged to hear about their latest results. None of them do so during the CS conference. Instead, we spend two days talking about what we do to educate our students, the general public and everyone in between. The invited participants and speakers who are not CSs aren't left out of this either as they are similarly asked to stay focused on this mission.

It may seem odd for a group of faculty at research-active universities to be so focused on education. After all, seemingly, our prime directive is to publish or perish. Not to mention the pressure we are under to secure external research grants from which our universities derive the necessary overhead to make their budgets. But education is clearly a central part of a university's mission, and our jobs in particular. It is not a static process because the ways that humans consume knowledge changes with time. This is compounded by the broad heterogeneity of our students across many factors. As such, we need to continuously reinvent the way we teach our students every year. Of course, we could choose to keep business as usual. The result would simply be reductions in our teaching effectiveness and the types of students that we impact. And this type of failure is not an option for CSs. At the RCSA conference, we discuss ways in which the latest education literature and our own practices inform us to advance the educational experiences of our students. (By students, I mean those in an out of the classroom and those in the myriad of extended settings in which we may reach individuals not otherwise enrolled in our courses.) We don't just talk about active learning, we practice it. The dialogue is so interactive that outside observers are often pleasantly surprised, flabbergasted or both. Regardless we all learn something new, we become re-energized in our efforts to advance education, and above all we have fun!

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Looking inside the black box of computational chemistry

This week, I'm teaching faculty from Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs) about the underlying concepts behind molecular dynamics simulations. This seventh workshop on computational and theoretical chemistry is part of the cCWCS workshops aimed at STEM education dissemination and undergraduate research capacity building. Our first workshop was held in 2002, now more than a decade ago! I cover statistical mechanics, David Sherrill covers electronic structure, and Tricia Shepherd covers the hands-on labs. We alternate (roughly) between holding them in Atlanta and in Salt Lake City. Both have their charms. The Westminster Campus is a great venue because it's an idyllic oasis in the middle of the city. It has the open greens and architectural gems that you would expect from a private undergraduate liberal arts school. It also has the requisite high-caliber undergraduate students and facilities to do first-rate science. Holding the workshop here thus makes it easier for participants to see that the computational tools we sample can be replicated at their home institutions.

This workshop, however, is different than most such computational chemistry workshops because our emphasis is on the underlying theory in the computational codes, and not just on how to run a particular computational package. There's nothing wrong with doing the latter. However, we feel that it's useful to understand when computational chemistry calculations or simulations are meaningful or not. To that end, one needs a bit deeper knowledge of how exactly the algorithms are working within the codes. In part this means knowing the underlying equations. In equal measure, it also means understanding the underlying concepts. So the lectures in our workshop tend to focus (a lot!) on the theory. In like fashion, we also want to help participants understand how the algorithms are implemented. Although the labs are run on Apple laptops (which is known for its fancy graphical user interfaces), we guide them into the unix layer, editing files and running jobs from the command line. Thus our goal is to have participants be more comfortable with what the calculations are doing and how they are being done within software packages, whether they're computing energetics or dynamics. In knowing what's inside these black boxes, they should be in a better position to set-up computational experiments and to mentor their undergraduate students and researchers to do likewise. The fact that the workshop continues to be oversubscribed gives me hope that we are achieving at least some part of this goal.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Doing chemistry on a gondola!? (Parting thoughts on #TellurideSciencestyle)

Practically every TSRC Workshop lecture starts with some quip about how the landscapes of the terrain inspires us to think about our science. In my case, the landscapes are reminiscent of the potential energy surface that governs a chemical reaction. Molecules, like people, look for the shortest path traversing the lowest point on the ridge between the reactant valley and the product valley. Sometimes, the path isn't traversable because there is still snow along it or some other obstacle blocks the way. Or maybe there's something along the path that can accelerate the journey (such as the gondola giving you a lift and sidestepping 1000 feet or so of the vertical rise). Both of these events also occur in chemistry (or biochemistry). You can have steric clashes with other parts of the reacting molecule or the solvent which slows the reaction down, and you can have catalysts (or enzymes) or solvent fluctuations that speed it up. 

More specifically, one of the current debates in chemical reaction rate theory concerns whether transition state theory is sufficiently accurate (or at least, correctable) to make it useful for quantitative description. This debate maps directly to the question of how to compute the rate of crossing from one  valley to another across a torturous mountain range. The mountaineers will likely spend a lot of time discussing whether there is a single col (and which one) affords the best passage. Similarly, chemists debate whether there is a single "transition state" which describes the reaction. Some, including me, argue that accessibility to the transitions state (or col) and the ease to move through it is equally important. That is, it's not just a single point which determines the passage, but also the shape of the surface around it. The debate doesn't stop here because we can start to kibitz about whether or not there exists a second (or more) transition state that is important to describe the passage between the valleys (of the reactants and products). Or perhaps there exist a gondola which takes you over them even faster? While this latter event doesn't actually occur in the chemical context unless you add additional (shuttling) molecules to the system, the analogies between Telluride's landscapes and the energy landscapes over which chemistry takes place are clearly richer than they may appear at first sight. Thus, while this is my last post on Telluride until my next trip there, it will most certainly continue to inspire me.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Are you a spectator or a runner(in #chemistry)? #peachtreeroadrace #ajcprr

At the end of the Peachtree Road Race, the USA 10km Road Race male champion, Matt Tegenkamp, said on air that the event was great, in part, because it included 60,000 spectators. The thing is that the Peachtree Road Race (which doubled as the USA 10 km Road Race Championship) is famous for being the largest 10 km race in the world with 60,000 registered runners. Tegenkamp's slip was that he downgraded the registered runners to spectators because evidently if you can't run like an elite (which is indeed really fast at sub five minute miles!), then you are simply a spectator of the race. While there may be some truth in that, I can tell you that all 60,000 individuals (including me) ran or walked those same 10 km. We also didn't have a chance to see any of the elites who started before us while we hung out in the corrals waiting to start our race. Indeed, if you are talented enough to be a world-class runner, it's a great privilege to get to do it in front of 60,000 people (by whatever name). But you can't forget that all of them did some kind of running.

Similarly, nearly everyone has done some chemistry in their lives. Many of them remember, not so fondly, the labs they did in high school or college. Those labs generally didn't work as expected. Truth is that's the best kind of experiment (because you can learn from it). You've also done chemistry every time you've lit a match, cleaned your contact lenses, turned on your TV, and the list goes on. In this sense, we are all chemists, but only a few of us are lucky enough to do it for a living. Nevertheless, like in running, we need everyone to support chemistry. Otherwise the elites—that is, the basic researchers who are advancing the forefront of chemistry—won't have a chance to set the stage for technological advances driving humankind. So whether you consider yourself a chemist, a spectator or someone in between, we need your support and we appreciate it!