Midnight in Manayunk

309441-frederikaIn approximately 10 minutes my friend’s birthday celebration would begin. I decided to wait until the SEPTA 61 bus had passed all the way through Manayunk before disembarking and walking back. I used to get off at the Leverington/Flat Rock Rd junction stop all the time. Briefly, I detoured down onto the canal towpath – it was the first step of my regular morning bike ride commute at one point. On the other side of the canal were the old industrial sites that once powered Manayunk. It was peaceful and silent. Making my way into Manayunk I passed all the familiar restaurants, bars and shops that I loved to frequent. Lights adorned the trees, and the pavement was packed with people ready to enjoy their evening out.

Manayunk was exactly as I remembered it.

It is strange that something can make you so incredibly happy but also hurt so much at the same fucking time.

I think that if I had received a PhD offer from my top choice Philadelphian university, I would be living back here in Manayunk – the same district where I stayed in 2009 & 2010. And why not? It’s a fantastic place to stay.

It always comes down to this – did I do the right thing? If the universe turned around again, would I do things any differently? New Brunswick is a depressing, dull town. Although I can see trees from my bedroom window, I feel trapped on the university campus all day, every day. My research project has grown into an overwhelming obsession – I work around the clock on it, pushing to get results. The work is slow – this week the result of one reaction took my project 2 steps forward…another result set me 2 steps back. I second-guess myself – am I working efficiently enough? am I working hard enough? am I mismanaging the project and holding it back? – cycling through all possible emotions within the course of 5 new experiments. I am clearly a person who enjoys this level of obsession, otherwise I don’t think I would be doing it.

Walking through Manayunk reminds me of all the things I have given up in pursuit of this PhD, all the things I wanted to reclaim from the 2009-10 years…but realised that I couldn’t. I’m back on the Eastern Seaboard, back within a 90 min radius of Philadelphia…but I can’t turn back the clock to 2009. And the PhD in all its messy, obsessive, emotive glory is what I want to dedicate myself to.

I sat on my burning desire for 3 whole years – 3 years between leaving the USA and coming back. Another desire burns as I work late on weekends in the lab, or start setting up reactions at 7.30am on a Monday morning. I will pass through whatever Hells this PhD can drag me in to, in pursuit of later payoff. The reason I obsess over my project is because I seek the publication, and that will strengthen my CV when it comes to finding postdocs and jobs. It will give me the freedom to move back to somewhere like Manayunk, I hope.

Eventually there will be progress. I just have to keep the faith.

Fall Dreamings

Fall warmth on the Eastern Seaboard.

Fall warmth on the Eastern Seaboard.

I wonder if Fall is my favourite season in America. Summer is too baking hot, Winter is too cold and biting. Spring is more moderate so I can actually go outdoors and appreciate the season…but Spring has less aesthetic pleasure than Fall. Autumn in the UK is just a layer of slick damp leaves on the pavement; a British Spring always has the beautiful snowdrops, crocuses and tulips blooming into life. Fall in the USA is something else, very different.

This week I passed the first half of my PhD candidacy examination – a presented research proposal on a topic outside my field of expertise. I’m pleased with how the talk went, and very glad to have gotten through the first (more difficult, in my opinion) 50% of the candidacy process.

The build-up was stressful. My body is really good at suppressing stress – I can keep calm even when attempting to drive down the motorway for the first time – but when I am stressed (or angry) I really feel it. My concentration is shot to pieces, I can’t focus, sit still or eat a decent meal. There was some of that behaviour evident over the past month, which is bad of course because if I can’t concentrate to study properly, I’m just going to get more stressed and angry at myself for the poor preparation. The night before my presentation I wrote: “my stomach is a knotted lead pipe.” Fortunately, I got it “calmed” mode on the day.

***

This has been a bad semester in the sense that I’ve grinded up to this point with very little time to relax, get into NYC or Philly or disconnect from my academic stuff. I don’t think that is especially helpful – it isn’t good for me, nor is it good for my work productivity. I hope to get things a little bit more balanced out again. If you never fully disconnect, you stop being fully connected.

Time to enjoy Fall, while it is still around.

Grad School Dreamings

I look out of my bedroom window and dream – as I always dream – of possibilities.

It is Autumn, Fall, cutting into winter with every new morning. When it is Autumn I find myself thinking of London: thick piles of leaves on the wide boulevards of South Kensington. Perhaps also of those times I went to the Imperial College gym complex on a Friday evening. I’d head directly to the steam room, sauna and jacuzzi. One time I emerged from the changing rooms into a torrential downpour and had to cycle home across the city in the pitch black rain. Yet it neither frustrated me nor caused discomfort: on the contrary, I recall the experience as invigorating.

Or maybe I dream of other times, other places. As I wait for my qualifying exam perhaps I recall the sensation of when a former boss filled the gap immediately after a practice talk of mine. “Now, where to begin?!” And the feeling that comes when you are the only person in a room who is standing, and you are stripped bare in just a few cutting words. And it doesn’t matter if one hundred people will praise those presentations of yours that follow years, decades down the line…you will still always remember what it felt like to be publicly wounded.

Most of my dreams are not of humiliation, but of freedom. For months I have lived within the tightest, most intricate patterns. Trapped. Three multivitamin pills in the morning. Burning pungent incense until it fills my whole room. Walking across the abandoned car park on a 285-degree angle, curving past the white lines. Freedom become the rush and roar of big cities after dark. The nonchalant offering of your credit card in swanky Manhattan stores – I will hardly notice that this money is gone. That feeling when you arrived as a tourist in a new city just that morning, after a day of excitedly exploring you are now settling down at a nice restaurant to eat a good meal. Cheers for this, you want to tell the city.

Perhaps there are other ways to dream, too. When you think about that friend you hung out with one day, in an exotic city many hours away from where you are now. When you did some stuff that wasn’t too extraordinary, but just felt really good, when you left them with stronger feelings of friendship and a general buzz about life. And yet when you dream to yourself you think: it was great to experience a friendship like that…and I’ve found myself feeling those same feelings *again*…many years later…with different people. When you hear that quiet voice in the back of your head, the one that keeps silent for months and years on end, whispering firmly “These people…are *my* people.”

***

And I know that there will be other times and other dreams to come. Maybe not this week. Many not this year. But they will come. And I will dream some more.

Grad School Grindhouse

The new semester swings right back around. My bike ride to the gym now passes frat houses filled with burly blokes in vests & flip-flops, lounging on their porches to gangsta rap. If I get a craving for bad Mexican-style food at 11pm I only need to walk to the student centre to sort myself out.

This semester will be less hectic. There are no classes that I need to take any more. My teaching assignment is lighter: the lab I’m overseeing is a specialist one that only the more-experienced science students can take.

The main spectre looming on the horizon is my qualifying exams. In the US PhD system the 1st & 2nd year PhDs are more like Masters-level students (in that they do coursework and attend compulsory seminars) – the qualifying exams (AKA ‘Quals’) are what allows the PhD students to advance to ‘PhD Candidacy’. Once you’re a PhD candidate you have done all your coursework and can become a full-time researcher. At our university the Quals are divided into 2 parts, one per semester. They are less intimidating than the Quals at other universities – but there is an oral knowledge exam that can get quite dicey. I would like to avoid messing them up.

*

My research is humming away at a constant tempo. In previous ‘researcher’ incarnations I have been given a single-stream project: develop 1 new reaction, get to Compound C in a total synthesis, make X series of analogues for pharmacological testing. Right now I’m dealing with a more challenging thesis-esque beast: poke around within the loosely defined parameters of a particular subfield (in this case, asymmetric organocatalysis)…and we’ll publish the nice findings as we uncover them.

At times this can be really frustrating as I struggle to balance up all the threads I’m working on. When do I stop to really sink my teeth into a particular reaction? When do I explore broadly? Can I sense which of my strands is going to yield publishable data quickest? In asymmetric organocatalysis, the watershed for “publishable data” is a reaction with >90 %ee (%ee is a quantitative measure of how asymmetric a reaction is, with 99 %ee being the best possible value). When a reaction gets above 70 %ee it probably means that it is publishable with enough fine-tuning…but getting the %ee up to the 70-90 range is the hardest part.

Project management is a bitch, but I feel that I’m currently focussing on the right things. My big fear is that an asymmetric reaction will resist all attempts at optimisation – that I will get stuck at something like 60 %ee and not be able to break past that.

What keeps me going? The thought that gets me out of bed in the morning, that calms me to sleep at night is that if I work hard I’ll get more publications within the next academic year. A publication is solid proof of scientific competence; the currency of academic research. I would need a minimum of two first-author publications to get my PhD – in my subfield 4 or 5 first-author papers prior to the PhD defence is do-able. I already have one first-authorship, it brought a lot of calm and security with it. I hope to build upon that.

Last academic year was a productive one. I’m hoping the same will be true of this.

12 Months Of Grad School

It was 8.30pm. I was sitting on a stone bench on Princes Street Mall, Edinburgh. I had a large 50 litre rucksack and smaller wheeled luggage at my feet. I’d eaten dinner at one of my favourite Edinburgh pubs, phoned my family for a brief chat, and was now sitting peacefully in the heart of Edinburgh, watching the sunset set those beautiful granite buildings on fire. I was feeling happy – I was here in the most beautiful city in the world, grateful for being here. In maybe 10 or 20 minutes I would get up and make my way over to the bus station. I would board the overnight coach to London, and in the morning I would fly to America. In 2 days I would start my Chemistry PhD.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It has been a little over a year since I said goodbye to Scotland. Next week the Graduate Student Orientation Week begins. The week after that I will officially become a 2nd year PhD student.

The decision was the right one. It ended up being 3.5 years between my pro-active decision to go after an American PhD in Organic Chemistry and reaching Orientation Week. That’s a fairly long time to hold on to a decision – especially since I suffered a couple of setbacks in the interim period that extended the gap. While I was sitting on that stone bench I certainly was looking back on those 3+ years. I felt quietly focussed: I had put a lot of time and effort into reaching this point, so I was going to do my best to make the PhD worth it.

***

It *has* been worth it.

***

For most of the past 12 months, I have been happy. Today – after sitting in a coffeeshop for 2 hours writing my diary & people-watching, cycling home to tidy my room and do my laundry – I’m happy, too. It isn’t quite skip-along-singing-calibre happiness, but I feel that I’m getting exactly what I want out of the PhD.

My research project is going OK. The 1st project was given to me with the preliminary studies completed and work on a sister project already polished and published – I was able to hammer the studies out into a publishable form quite quickly. My second project is more of a slow burner: I think this one is higher-risk-higher-rewards. The results so far are OK, but it is going to take time for them to become publishable. The hope is that I will have a good 2nd publication before the end of my 2nd year – which at this point in time is a reasonable expectation.

In any case, I like a bit of stress in my professional life – in fact I think I’m one of those people who needs a dose of stress to feel normal. More importantly, I can disconnect from the professional stress when I get home in the evenings.

The next 12 months will be tricky. In addition to the research challenges, I must pass the exams necessary to advance to PhD Candidacy (in my program, these centre around 2 research proposals). I know for a fact that will be nastily stressful. Second year (and early 3rd year) is where the bulk of attrition seems to occur: full time research is what makes or breaks young grad students, and 2nd year is when you get your first serious exposure to that determinant. I’m going to try my hardest to avoid getting broken.

I hope that in August 2015 I will be writing another blog post, explaining that I still feel happy.

Thoughts On ACS Fall 2014 Meeting

After a great week spent in Columbus, Ohio with the Future Leaders in Chemistry, the cohort continued on to San Francisco for the American Chemical Society (ACS) Fall National Meeting. Here are some of my reflections and thoughts about the experience.

View from the swanky hotel I stayed at, The Westin Market Street

View from the swanky hotel I stayed at, The Westin Market Street


[Having a gameplan is crucial]
The ACS National Meetings are massive. Massive. There were over 15,000 registered attendees at this Meeting – which is bigger than most of their meetings…but not by much. There were 29 ACS Divisions (covering all areas of academic, governmental & industrial chemistry); in the Division of Organic Chemistry alone there were 30 technical sessions spread over 4 days – lasting anywhere between one afternoon and 3 days apiece – most running simultaneously. And that ignores the vitally-important Trade Fair expos, socials, Career Fair, professional development training programs and plenary seminars. It is hard to NOT feel overwhelmed.

For this reason I picked up a paper copy of the full program and carefully circled all the events that I wanted to attend. I had a couple of main goals: absorb as much new, relevant and “hot” synthetic organic chemistry as I could; get some ideas from recruiters about what they looked for in PhD-level job applicants; take a bit of time off to explore San Francisco. Those goals helped me to structure the week to ensure I wouldn’t end up in the airport cursing myself for what I missed.

Immediately after my presentation (by @SciFinder)

Immediately after my presentation (by @SciFinder)


[Give a talk, ask questions]
My own oral presentation went well. It was quite early on the Sunday morning (first day), which had initially worried me. However, attendance was good: by Tuesday and Wednesday I think that everyone was too chemistry-ed out/hungover, and the Big Name Scientists had most of their award symposia & aforementioned hot chemistry sessions later in the week.

I’m bullying myself into the habit of asking questions after talks. It is a useful exercise to make myself think critically about a presentation and look for the bits I don’t understand: when I pay close attention to the talk I usually understand the material more. I also think that it is a positive gesture when you show engagement with a person’s talk – it’s a bit of a shame when NO ONE has anything to ask after somebody’s presentation.

[Dress how you like]
The only difference between the clothes I wore for my presentation and the clothes I usually wear as a PhD student is…that I ironed my top in the morning. I have a variety of everyday business casual clothes that are smarter than jeans & t-shirt, those were OK in the conference setting. I saw the full spectrum of formality, seemingly an even distribution amongst grads/undergrads, faculty and industrial scientists.

Fashion advice from the St Andrews Lynx would therefore be to wear a smart version of what you’re comfortable with. A full black or grey suit would be overkill.

Looking up Lombard Street

Looking up Lombard Street


[Plan your career early]
I would argue that the biggest advantage of attending a mega ACS Meeting as a PhD student (over smaller, more specialised conferences) is to job hunt. The careers fair is a sprawling beast, with a lot of recruiters and slots for interview sessions. Most flavours of industrial science were represented, it appeared.

I visited a couple of company booths and asked them a lot of questions about the type of PhD candidates they recruited, and what (ideally) should be on my CV. I’m fairly jobmarket-smart, but it was better hearing from the recruiters themselves how they recruited, and what an Organic Synthesis PhD needs to have. I don’t want to learn 4 years down the line that my CV is weak (when I’m handing it in to those very same recruiters), I want to be able to take corrective action while I am just starting out.

If and when I want to secure an academic postdoc, I think I would be better going to a smaller specialist conference (e.g. the National Organic Symposium or a Gordon’s Research Conference). It is easier to corner an academic when they don’t have 15 other simultaneous conference-activities to hop between.

View from Fisherman's Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge

View from Fisherman’s Wharf to the Golden Gate Bridge

[It’s supposed to be enjoyable]
The ACS Meeting required plenty of stamina…but its supposed to be challenging in a
*good* way. At my first ACS Meeting I recall being so overwhelmed that I gave up on the whole thing quickly, this time around I felt that I made the most of the experience. I got to meet some new people, hear some great talks and do a bit cool stuff in a cool city.

Making An Impact: SciFinder Future Leaders In Chemistry 2014

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Success as an academic scientist isn’t just about your prowess in the lab. Being able to contextualise your research and place yourself in the bigger academic picture is integral to your success too.

That is why the inter-national, inter-disciplinary young scholar award called the ‘SciFinder Future Leaders in Chemistry‘ is such a great idea. It brings together 15-20 PhD students and postdocs from universities around the world at the Chemical Abstracts Service (CAS) HQ in Columbus, Ohio; giving them an opportunity to share their insights with the team behind SciFinder, but (most importantly to me at least) a chance to interact with their peers.

The SciFinder Future Leaders In Chemistry program was launched 5 years ago. By the time my letter of acceptance arrived, I was 1 of ~400 applicants, of whom only 18 were accepted. We were to be flown out to Ohio for an all-expenses paid residential at CAS, then on to San Francisco for the ACS Fall National Meeting (again, all-expenses). I was excited when I read the program description, and even more excited when I was selected: after the draining process of applying for grad school in two consecutive years, and powering through a stop-by-the-library-at-midnight-on-the-way-home-from-lab kinda first year as a PhD student…I guess it was nice that something came back in return.

**

[Residential – Columbus, Ohio]
Home of flagship Ohio State University, Columbus is more sophisticated than the average college town. CAS and a cluster of tech start-ups and research institutes call this place home.

The Future Leaders in Chemistry at Ohio Stadium

The Future Leaders in Chemistry at Ohio Stadium

The SciFinder Future Leaders program did a lot to give us a taste of the midwest. Outside of the meeting room sessions we were treated to everything from the local foodtrucks to tours of the popular sport stadiums. The views from our “Corner Suite” hotel bathrooms of downtown Columbus were nicer than the views out of most! We watched glassblowing demos in the Botanic Gardens and took a zipline tour through the nearby woodland.

Ready for Business

Ready for Business

That’s not to say we slacked off that week. Quite the opposite. Whilst on-site at CAS we were introduced to everyone from the CEO down. Marketing, product development and the technical staff were all interested in soliciting our thoughts about SciFinder and the process of chemical research. In return, we learned a lot about SciFinder itself: how the data is input, where the data is stored (in a Matrix-style room filled with black consoles as far as the eye could see), and a lot of tricks to make our daily SciFinder usage ten times easier.

What was the best part about the week, though? The company! The Future Leaders were all folk who worked hard, travelled far and laughed loudly. Their backgrounds were very diverse, but they were (on average) people who had studied and worked in different countries, who were skilled at communicating their science to others, but didn’t take themselves too seriously. We were the type of unashamed nerds who found data centres & glassblowing fascinating, and liked asking questions. I’m not a relentless extrovert by any stretch of the imagination, but I knew I clicked well with the Future Leaders by the end of the first evening I’d spent with them.

**

[Advice for future applicants]
Interest in the Future Leaders in Chemistry Program is growing yearly. If there were 400 applicants this year, I would hazard a guess that the number will be a lot higher in 2015.

Academic background does matter, but only to a point. As a first year PhD student I only have 1 publication – and I was accepted alongside scientists who had 20+ publications and H-indeces in the double-digits. An international science career seems to help – even internships or a semester abroad – as does a life outside the lab.

The ability to think originally is also screened for in the Essay component. The task was to write about the importance of SciFinder to your daily research – any format acceptable. Parts of the SciFinder Future Leaders program were in effect focus group sessions: CAS was looking for insight from people who thought about science in an imaginative way, and who had interesting perspectives.

Basically, if you like science…learning…exploring…talking…I think you’d enjoy the Future Leaders Program.

Photographs by @SciFinder and @CAS respectively.
My account of the ACS San Francisco Meeting is coming soon.