Saturday, November 30, 2013

Item 2: On Celebrating Oral Exams (A random walk through how I run my lab)

Doctoral programs around the country tend to have varying requirements. Invariably, they have some kind of oral exam (early in the program) to establish the candidate's proficiency to continue on to write her or his dissertation. Later, the doctoral candidate completes her or his research and thesis. Whether or not she or he "defends" it with yet another oral presentation, it marks the second major and final stage before earning the doctorate. These two critical transitions can be treated as weed-out mechanisms or as teachable moments. I prefer the latter perspective, and I therefore devote a lot of time to help my students flesh out their ideas and practice their presentations. In the end, it's still them being tested so I have no qualms with helping them be better prepared. It's a training program after all!

As with all rituals, I, like most of my colleagues, find a way to include food and drink to mark these successful transitions. Mine has a twist. After successful completions of each, I bring a bottle of bubbly. I offer a domestic sparkling wine for the candidacy exam, and real champagne after the Ph.D. defense. That is, the real bubbles are reserved for the authentic confirmation of the degree… And I'm happy to report that we celebrated my 10th such doctorate just a few weeks ago!

This continues my random walk through how I run my lab. Look for other such posts using the "RandomWalks" tab. The previous item on a different set of rituals (annual lab outings) can be found here.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A random walk through how I run my lab: Item 1 on Annual Events

Academics often scoff at business types for all the seemingly fluffy stuff they do that we don't have time for. Chief among these might be group-bonding or group-building exercises that are meant to teach people how to collaborate and be flexible in the roles that they play. Yet we academics do undertake all sorts or socializing activities, and most of them aren't geeky at all. Invariably, we celebrate annual holiday parties. (These are meant to be nondenominational and inclusive, but the timing of them in mid to late December obviously coincides better with some traditions than others.) My department arranges biannual lunch-time picnics, and attempts to schedule an annual student verses the faculty soccer friendly. (To make the latter fair, some students are recruited to the faculty side.) I hear that Virginia Tech's chemistry department has a student verses faculty cooking competition. Cookies before seminars, and larger buffets around bigger functions also serve to socialize us. Evidently food serves as an aggregating catalyst almost as good as a chemistry seminar. This may not be so surprising when you realize how varied chemistry is across any given department. Equally evident is the fact that collaboration is just as important for us as it is in industry. The difference is that we don't have mad money to go to ropes courses or off-campus retreats...

Nevertheless, most research groups have some kind of annual ritual. Mine is an all-out group bash staged in the club room of my condo from 4:00PM to past midnight. I try to schedule it around the summer so that the pool is literally in play. I also avoid the holiday season during which everyone is overly saturated with parties as it is. (As we face Thanksgiving+Hanukkah, this year's compressed holiday period seems all the more daunting.) Families are also encouraged to attend. and I supply all the food and drink. It's the least that I can do to give back to my group by insisting that they simply come as themselves bringing only what they need to wear for the pool and such. It's a low key event, and brings the group together. It's followed up by other low-key interactions such as our weekly group brown bag lunch. Together this helps create what I hope is an accommodating group culture for all my students, and one in which they can readily learn with each other and me. I like to think that this will make them better leaders and team members in whatever position their career path will take. That's a lot to expect from an annual group party... Or is it?

Happy Thanksgiving and Hag Someach!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Spot the Chemist in Atlanta (#SERMACS2013 #SERMACS @ACSNtlMtg)

The Southeast Regional Meeting of the American Chemical Society (SERMACS 2013) started last night and runs through the rest of the week here in Atlanta. The Georgia Local Section is hosting it, and my colleagues are doing a great job staging it at the Loews Hotel. The last SERMACS held in Atlanta in 2003 broke records for regional attendance. It also left our section with a reserve that has enabled us to initiate and continue several new member and outreach programs in the Atlanta area. The official attendance of SERMACS2013 will likely be between 1500 and 2000 chemists, though there may be many more unregistered attendees. This means that there will be a lot of chemists walking along Peachtree Street in midtown Atlanta over the next few days. (Yes, this is the one *true* Peachtree Street not to be confused with the thousands of other Atlanta roads bearing the name Peachtree in on form or another.)

So this begs the question as to whether a given person walking along Peachtree Street this weekend is a Chemist or not. It's easy when you know them by name or from seeing their picture as you have trolled chemistry departments on the web. It's also cheating if you spot their SERMACS name tag or schwag. It used to be easy to spot us because we formerly wore pocket protectors, carried periodic tables, and occasionally wore our stylish prescription goggles outside the lab. These days, however, it's nearly impossible to play "Spot the Chemist" because we are increasingly representative of the national population. So I challenge you to play Spot the Chemist on Peachtree Street this week without cheating. My guess is that you will be far from batting 500...

Friday, November 8, 2013

@SloanFoundation helping to increase Minority PhD's in STEM Areas

I'm in New York today serving on the Advisory Committee for the Sloan Foundation's Minority Ph.D. STEM grant program. It's an exciting time to be working with their office. They are in the process of re-imagining their investments to address the dearth of Minority Ph.D.'s being produced by the leading research active STEM departments. They have introduced two new funding models: The smaller Program in Exemplary Mentoring (PEM) aimed at promoting accommodating climate in individual departments, and the larger University Centers of Exemplary Mentoring (UCEMs) encompassing several departments and including graduate student fellowships.

It should be obvious from the names of these programs, but I'll hit you with a two by four… The common theme is the emphasis on mentoring. Anecdotal and research-based data both suggest that mentoring is one of the most effective actions for lowering the barriers faced by minority students in pursuing a Ph.D. and beyond. However, not all mentoring is equally good. It also involves people (and increased contact time), and that's expensive. Put this all together and it turns out that it's not so easy to construct sustainable and effective mentoring programs. This is where the funding from the Sloan Foundation plays such a crucial role. It provides both motivation for universities to compete to do it well, and funds that can be leveraged by diversity champions on their campuses.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Vote in the @AmerChemSociety #DistrictIV Director Election (#hernandez4acs)

Just in case you missed the direct mailings to the roughly 25,000 members of District IV of the American Chemical Society (ACS), here's an amalgam of my messages to them…

- - - - - - -
Dear colleague,

I'm writing to ask for your vote in the election for Director representing District IV on the Board of the American Chemical Society. As I don't want to flood your mailbox, I'm keeping this brief (and green.)

If you are like roughly 85% of the ACS membership, then you likely won't vote in this year's election. Every vote counts, though, as just last year, the District V election was settled by 5 votes (out of a total of 3389 votes). So please vote!

For more information about my activities and objectives go to
Follow me on twitter at EveryWhereChem
Read my blog posts at EveryWhereChemistry on
E-mail me at
View my candidate statement at C&EN or at the ACS Election Web Site.

If you selected e-voting, then you may find your ballot instructions by searching your e-mail inbox for a message containing “”. Otherwise, you should have received a paper ballot. Either way, I encourage you to vote for your next ACS President and the District IV Director by the November 15th close of the election.

We all want a better world. Chemistry needs to be part of the solution.
It would be an honor to represent you in helping to advance our world through chemistry.

With kind regards,
Rigoberto Hernandez