Thursday, September 26, 2013

Alan Alda and communication... Passion and the human element (#ACSIndy @ACSNatlMtg)

On the Monday of this month's ACS meeting, the ACS Board of Directors filled their open meeting with a special guest, Alan Alda. The one-hour lunch meeting typically includes time for members in the Presidential succession to make remarks that might be of interest to the attendees. It's meant to provide a forum for communication between ACS members and the Board. A few years ago, the Board noticed that the open board meeting was drawing too small an audience. They started to offer free lunches and a set of discussion topics with relevance to member needs. This has worked well in that the very large room typically fills, leaving many standing. At Indianapolis, the Board may have done this a bit too well. The featured speaker, Alan Alda, drew something like 700-1000 people. He also had enough material to fill the entire hour. The Board showed admirable flexibility in giving up their platform so as to focus on Alda's message, the importance of communication between scientists and the public.

Alan Alda has some real weight on the issue of science communication well beyond the fact that he played a very smart doctor on M*A*S*H. He founded the Alan Alda Center for Science Communication and has been promoting the Flame Challenge project challenging us all to explain science to an 11-year old. Alda tried to convince the audience of one key point: scientists tend to describe their science in such sterile terms that average people (and also our students) find little to relate to. In his dead-pan style he might have said that one point was about as much as we might remember after his presentation, but he needed an hour to have us remember even that. He encouraged us to connect our science to the human condition and relate it to the public. The latter may not understand how the Schrödinger Equation reveals how one can obtain the relative location of atoms by measuring the signals from nuclear spins, but they can relate to the fact that an MRI gives them information to identify and possibly cure a disease. As scientists, it's our job to advance science, but he reminded us that it's also our job to translate it to society. He warned us, though, that we should not be too dry in our delivery when speaking to the public. This convinced me that I should try to exhibit a bit more passion for my work in my next public talk...

Monday, September 23, 2013

ACS National Meetings… Large is the new small... @AmerChemSociety @ACSNatlMtg #ACSIndy

In my previous post, I implied that the reason for going to ACS meetings is that they are so very large. Trouble is that such size is precisely the reason why many chemists avoid them and advise others to do likewise. So here's my advice on how you can eat your cake and have it too at national meetings (and this isn't restricted to ACS meetings!)...

First and foremost, you have to make choices about where you need to be when. You should just give up, without regret, on those things you just can't do or fail to reach because you stopped for something else along the way. As a beginning graduate student, I would focus only on the technical session closest to my research area, but later I started to hop between sessions to get a better sense of the field. In either case, I was completely oblivious to the rest of the meeting, thereby keeping it manageable. I know of other chemists at that early stage in their careers, who made completely different and equally satisfying choices. For example, they may have jumped in nearly exclusively into the career development training sessions or into the chemical education offerings. Others used their time at the national meeting to jump into technical or professional sessions outside of their core doctoral research area. Regardless, we never failed to present our posters or talks so as to share our work and hear feedback from others.

As a working professional, I now distribute all of these strategies into my meeting days, adding governance and outreach activities too. But my overall algorithm is essentially the same. I look at the meeting as a physical realization of the web. There's no way that I can visit every site. Instead, I surf sites to learn, teach and share chemistry with others. The difference is that at the ACS meeting, I can actually see and interact face-to-face with people. Which is to say that I act as if I'm attending a small meeting filled with all the people that I want to see. Indeed, being at the national ACS meeting with so very many people insures that the cross-cut I see is invariably filled with the ones I was looking for! I do miss some, though, and that's why I come back for the next one.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

post ACS recovery... @AmerChemSociety @ACSNatlMtg #ACSIndy

Yogi Berra apparently said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." He wasn't speaking of ACS meetings, but rather of a St. Louis haunt, Ruggieri's restaurant. There's no doubt, though, that ACS meetings are big. Indeed the American Chemical Society (ACS) holds two national meetings a year, and each includes on the order of 15,000 people. There are many technical sessions running in parallel, governance meetings, outreach events, receptions, and the list goes on. Thanks to pre-registration and the postal mail, at least we can avoid the infamous long lines of days of old at the front end of the meeting. Sadly, many chemists choose not to attend simply because they follow Yogi's advice. So why do I keep going, and more importantly why should you attend an ACS meeting? I suppose that I like the menu! It's huge, and I invariably stumble over unexpected chemistry or old friends. And you can too.

The only down side is that, like me, you may find yourself so busy that you never to stop for a break. While I managed to blog some posts during the recent meeting in Indianapolis, the needed recovery led to my not-so-brief lapse in posting during the past week or so. I had papers to write and submit, papers to review, students to advise, classes to teach, assignments to grade, deliverables to submit, e-mails to write, and many other items on my to-do list. And that's ignoring all the other items on the other side of the work-life balance sheet. I'm sure you're no different. Nevertheless, I find our National meetings as useful to my work, if not more so, than some smaller specialized meetings. I could do a lot worse than needing some recovery time after being supersaturated with chemistry for a week…

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Talking to the Press About Diversity Equity (@ACSpressroom #ACSDiversity #ACSIndy @GT_CHEM)

As part of my participation in the Symposium on "The Impact of Diversity and Inclusion," I was asked to participate in a Press Conference today with some of my fellow speakers. It was the first time that I have done such a thing. It was exciting and scary at the same time. In order to ensure that I kept my remarks to under the allotted 2 minutes, I wrote some Talking Points, which I include below. I will note  the most important thing I learned from this experience: Don't start multiple prompts with the same letter! In my case, OXIDE, OPPORTUNITY and OBJECTIVE got muddled during my remarks and I revisited OPPORTUNITY a second time. I now see how easy it is for people in public positions to make small flubs. Fortunately, mine wasn't too terrible, and it won't hurt anyone!  You can see it at:
    Bringing more diversity to the nation’s… (26:22)
I was the second speaker, and also gave an answer to one of the press questions towards the end of the video.

Here follows the talking points I prepared for my opening remarks:

The tittle of the presentation was "Top-down approach for diversity and inclusion in chemistry departments" and was coauthored with my collaborator, Dr. Shannon Watt.

OXIDE is the Open Chemistry Collaborative in Diversity Equity

OPPORTUNITY: Visible under-representation in the diversity of the chemical faculties with respect to gender, under-represented minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, questioning,  and disabilities in comparison to the nation's broader demographics

OBJECTIVE: We aim to encourage the nation's best minds to enter the field in order to ensure the competitiveness of our nation's science.

TACTICS: Flattening diversity inequities by engaging middle
 management (chemistry departments) to find the solutions
 rather than burdening single agents

KEYS: 1. Inclusive excellence
, 2. Diversity writ large, and 3. Flattening inequities helps everyone

OXIDE enables dialogue between chemistry departments, diversity communities and social science

Monday, September 9, 2013

The power of awards in science (@AmerChemSociety #ACSIndy #ACSAward)

Awards of any kind certainly reward the recipient directly and indirectly. The direct part is obvious in so far as there is some kind of remunerative component. The indirect part is perhaps equally obvious in that it helps the individual to advance their career and sets them to be in a better position for the next award. The Nobel Prize presents a kind of absurd example. It is an extreme in remuneration. It is perhaps an end in so far as there are few prizes in science that exceed it in prestige. It's also an extreme example of the power (and sometimes failure) of awards to impact society well beyond the individual awardee. Namely, awards provide a focus on the scientific work advanced by said individual, and thereby accelerate its adoption and dissemination broadly. For example, the recent Physics Nobel Prize recognizing graphene has clearly accelerated the interest in commercializing the technology as can be seen through the dramatic rise in graphene patents in the last year. It's interesting here that the acceleration of the impact of the work may or may not include a literal boost of the scientific effort of the awardee herself or himself. As such, awards given to individuals, no matter what stage in their careers, can also have very positive impact on advancing and disseminating the science or broader activities for which they are selected.

I am thus very grateful for the recognition that the ACS Award—sponsored by the Dreyfus Foundationfor Encouraging Disadvantaged Students into Careers in the Chemical Sciences (EDSCCS) has just provided. But I am most excited by the fact that it provides visibility to our efforts mentoring students broadly, and in particular on our OXIDE ( activity. As I've posted before, mentoring works, and we should practice it often! Through our OXIDE program, we are working with chemistry departments to change the culture to be more open to everyone. The truth is that such inclusive excellence helps everyone, and makes our chemistry programs better. But the community needs help (from, for example, social scientists) to move in this direction. I'm excited by the fact that the visibility of the award will help us reach more faculty. Such awareness should also highlight our role as a resource for adapting their programs and policies. How else could we leverage the award for EDSCCS to advance diversity in the chemical science? I've got some ideas, but your suggestions are welcome and encouraged!

I'm very grateful to the financial support of the National Science Foundation for the individual research grants that have funded my research projects for both its intellectual and broader impacts (most recently #CHE 1112067). Equally important, I'm grateful to the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry; the Pharmacology, Physiology, and Biological Chemistry Division at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH); and the Office of Basic Energy Sciences (BES) in the Department of Energy (DOE) for support of our OXIDE work (#CHE-1048939).

Saturday, September 7, 2013

49 posts and counting!

This is actually my 53rd post. It's been an interesting jump into the blogging waters, and I'm still treating it as an experiment. The accompanying picture shows a grid of roughly 49 (7 squared) blog pictures that I have used so far. The rough part is that I added a few extra to stand in for the first six entries that I posted without pictures. In that time, I've had about 5,500 page views. That's over 100 views/post which pales by comparison with the long time bloggers out there, but is a lot more than I expected at this point.

So far, I have attempted to (or learned to) follow a formula for my posts so as to make it a manageable task. The formula is a constraint in the same sense as a haiku or a twitter post are bound by the rules of their media. My constraints are:
  1. Keep it to two paragraphs.
  2. If the writing must be longer than two paragraphs, span it over more than one post.
  3. Each post should be (mostly) self-contained.
  4. Include a photo with every post. In my case, they are always square.
  5. Legos make great actors for quick photo shoots.
  6. Write one day, edit on a second sitting, and post on a third.
I probably have others... (My students joke about the fact that I always toss certain phrases into my writing as a matter of course, and I'm sure that I have done the same in my posts.)

As to the look of the blog itself, I have modified it slowly over time. I figure that I need to have enough content to make it useful to navigate. With over 49 posts, I might finally be hitting such a tipping point. I like simple, clean and modern styles. I chose white on black because it's easier for *me* to read, and it emphasizes signal to background. So it was natural for me to use the current style from the blogger defaults.

Entering the fourth paragraph, you can see that I habitually violate my own rules...  And this leads me to my request: Please send suggestions for additional (or different) constraints on blog writing that you think are interesting or fun. Please also suggest how I should better style this blog.

And thank you for reading! My wife still doesn't read my blog.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Why I'm running for ACS District IV Director (#hernandez4acs #district4acs @AmerChemSociety #ACSindy)

Today, my campaign remarks are being recorded just prior to the start of the ACS National Meeting in Indianapolis. I'm not quite sure how the video will be used during the meeting, on the ACS campaign website, or anywhere else. A draft of the transcript that I'll be reading is included below. I'll be a talking head with no audience participation so it won't be too exciting! Feel free to send me suggestions, though, as I've got until about 3:00PM EDT today to change it.

"The American Chemical Society is our fellowship. It provides both physical and virtual meeting places for networking with like-minded chemists. ACS has brilliantly recognized that the meaning of like-minded is both very diverse and evolving. It includes many different flavors of chemistry such as molecule making, measuring, and simulating; it ranges through the fundamental sciences, engineering, and manufacturing. ACS also recognizes that chemistry has a human side and it must be diverse. The challenge lies in continuing to adapt our structure to best serve the needs of our fellowship.

I see three areas of which we must be ever mindful: (1) The value proposition of ACS membership, (2) Education of the chemical workforce, and (3) Science advocacy. The diversity in age, experience, backgrounds, geography, citizenship, race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, and abilities that makes our fellowship stronger must be addressed through everything we do. My championing of diversity equity on task forces, on boards, and as the OXIDE director demonstrates my strong commitment to advancing these critical issues within the chemical workforce.

As members of the ACS, we also have a responsibility to give back to our profession and our world. Chemical tools, chemical analytics and chemical products will solve the challenges that confront our world. But it's the job of the ACS Board to make sure that congress and others make the investments to ensure that we are around to innovate. Given my past work in science advocacy, including serving on the National Academy's Board on Chemical Sciences, I believe that I have the experience to advocate effectively on your behalf as the District IV Director.

We are ONE ACS, but each of us is also an individual chemist with particular interests and needs.
The role of the ACS is to facilitate our interactions, enhance content dissemination, advocate for the chemical sciences, and support anything that advances chemistry. As a member-driven society, none of these things can happen without you. So I ask that you join me in advancing our society. Contact me electronically or personally through the links at, follow me on twitter at EveryWhereChem, or read my posts at VOTE for me so that I may work with you and our fellow members to advance your ACS."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

"Have fun, fail often, don't die." — Mentoring Researchers in the Lab

The title paraphrases the bits of advice that Andrew Ellington gives to his undergraduates upon entering his research laboratory. I altered them slightly in my recent words of advice to a cohort of freshmen at the start of their college careers. The punch line (that is the one that gets the laugh) is "don't die" and that one I definitely kept. It's funny because it echoes the fear many of us have in entering a laboratory. There's real danger there because solutions can spill, equipment can break and chemical reactions can go awry in all sorts of ways. There's also psychic danger because there's the possibility that old dogmas will be shattered by your findings. Both of these require a bit of safety training and a prepared mind.

Students can't allow themselves to be paralyzed by the fear of making some mistake, small or large in a laboratory. In order to motivate my students to move forward, I encourage them to summarize ALL their findings during our meetings, not just the ones that "worked." After all, the ones that didn't work may be just as instructive. If nothing else, a listing of all the failed (numerical) experiments shows me that they were busy doing something useful. The important thing is to understand a given experiment didn't work, at least in hindsight. If you can't explain it based on known theory, then there's the possibility that something new has come about. Doing this level of analysis, not included in the title's advice, is what makes the exploration done in the lab a science.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Tennis, Football, Chess, or Science?

I know.  Chess isn't quite on the list of professions you intend to encourage your kids to take up. (But it's fun and can get her a college scholarship at a few schools!) Many of us do encourage our kids to play tennis, baseball, soccer or other sports. Nothing wrong with encouraging them to be fit. There's also an outside shot that they might be good enough to get a college scholarship. Trouble is that far too many kids are counting not just on that but also on the possibility of getting mad money in the pros. What's the trouble with that? The chances are low. After all, only a few thousand get there. So why not play a game with better odds? I'm not suggesting that they follow the advice of the Music Man and play in a band because sadly the odds aren't great there either.

Instead, on this Labor Day (just like on any other day) I'd suggest a career in science. (Shocking, I know.) The trouble is that it just doesn't seem to be in the same conversation among teens as tennis or football. Clearly science does not have the theatre of the other activities, and thus much less allure. But, a career in science (if you can at least make it to a bachelor's degree) offers a pretty good return no matter how you slice it, and a much higher yield. The question is how to bridge the gap and encourage teens to direct their energy to dreaming about being pros in science and not sports? It's hard to convince teens who see all the money and facilities being invested by cities (that build ever more lavish stadiums) and colleges (that build ever more lavish stadiums) in sports. Truth is that investments are going into science and technology, but teens don't see them because they don't get much press. Or is it that we don't generate enough press? Perhaps this is the place for us scientists to make progress on this windmill?