This blog is my attempt to reconnect with the world of chemistry. I have a PhD in Inorganic Chemistry and make a living doing research for a large company in Michigan. As times have changed, that company has changed its focus and I no longer have as much chance to do the basic, fundamental research which I most enjoy. Through this blog, I am hoping to recapture the magic which I felt during my graduate (and undergraduate) days in college. Expect topics on chemistry and alchemy along with some non-chemistry related items which I think might be interesting.

"The chymists are a strange class of mortals, impelled by an almost insane impulse to seek their pleasure among smoke and vapour, soot and flame, poisons and poverty; yet among all these evils I seem to live so sweetly that may I die if I would change places with the Persian King."

Johann Joachim Becher (phlogistonist)
Acta Laboratorii Chymica Monacensis, seu Physica Subterranea, (1669).

Friday, August 28, 2009

Post-Doc Stories

When a post-doc joins your group, you’re never sure exactly what you’re going to get. I’ve known both good ones and some not-so-good ones. The following is a story about one of the latter, whom I met during my graduate school days in Illinois.

He was not in my group, but belonged to a research group whose lab space I was sharing. The post-doc, whom I shall call Dr. Orange (only members of the group would understand the significance of that nickname), was from Sweden. His area of expertise was multinuclear NMR of transition metals and that was exactly what the professor desired. Everything seemed to be working out okay with Dr. Orange, until he was asked to prepare some sodium decavanadate (Na6V10O28) for some simple V51 NMR measurements. It is a rather simple prep. You basically dissolve some vanadium(V) in water and manipulate the pH until beautiful orange crystals fall out of solution. I had made this stuff years before as an undergraduate and hadn’t had a problem. Unfortunately this prep was beyond Dr. Orange’s capabilities. Either the crystals failed to appear, or they appeared and then disappeared, or if they stayed around long enough to be filtered, the crystals would quickly decompose. (I think he had neglected to rinse his fritted glass filter after a sulfuric acid washing). I volunteered to do the prep myself, but the professor said no, that it was Dr. Orange’s responsibility.

Things started to turn ugly and he began blaming other members of his group for sabotaging his synthesis. For example, he was sure the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t crystals had been stolen. He believed someone had actually gone through the trouble of filtering out the crystals when he was away, throwing them out (he was convinced he found a trail of orange drops leading to a wastebasket), and then returning everything back the way it was. Of course, he also thought his labmates were stealing his mail too. Rather paranoid if you ask me. Eventually the professor instructed Dr. Orange not to make any more accusations and to just finish the damn prep. We later discovered that the guy had gotten his PhD mostly by grabbing compounds off the shelf, or synthesized by other people, and running them through an NMR. He didn’t know much about chemicals themselves.

Of course, an NMR jock doesn’t have to be good at synthesis, as long as the NMR jock is good with NMRs. Unfortunately, Dr. Orange was not. He was given permission to use the departmental multinuclear NMR, but that ended just as badly as the decavanadate prep. He could never get the instrument to shim properly, he had trouble understanding the software, his spectra were often ugly, and he managed to somehow wipe out the entire operating system. Along with everyone else’s spectra. Twice. That’s a lot of angry grad students. After the second data wiping, he was only allowed to use the instrument during the day, and only under the supervision of one of the NMR techs. You can imagine how embarrassing this was to the professor who had hired him. Besides, all the best NMR data is taken after midnight anyway.

He disappeared at the end of the year, much like his crystals.


Ψ*Ψ said...

wow. I would have changed the locks on the lab doors to keep him out!

Wavefunction said...

Sounds like a real specimen to (not) have around. I too have had mixed experiences with post-docs and especially those who think they are God because they have Dr in front of their name and others don't.

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