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).

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Full Circle

Hope everyone had a good Thanksgiving (assuming you live in the US). It was a good time to get together with friends and family.

My last day at work wasn’t as bad as I had expected. Pretty much everyone I knew had taken Wednesday off, so I had done all of my goodbyes the previous day. And since I’ve only been in the new building for about a month, it wasn’t like walking out was all that big a deal. Still, I’ll always remember my last day at work, just as I’ll always remember my first day of work, although for very different reasons. The story I’m about to tell is a lesson on what not to do when leaving school to start a new career….

It was Monday and my PhD still wasn’t finished, despite the fact that it was due in the graduate office on Friday. My thesis advisor had already left town on sabbatical, the movers were showing up in a couple of days, my timetable was inflexible (you’ll see why in a bit), and my fiancée had already made it abundantly clear that I would NOT be missing any of the agreed upon dates. (In the interest of truth, and the fact that my wife might actually read this post, I will point out that this fiancée is not my current wife). The thesis was pretty much done, but I was still fiddling around with the figures, since the thesis examiner was known to be a stickler for thesis formatting rules and if he declined to accept it on Friday, there would be hell to pay.

On Wednesday I discovered my thesis advisor was required to sign my cover page in two different locations. I had had him sign about 10 copies of the cover sheet before he left town (in case I needed backups), but hadn’t noticed the need for the second signature and now he was out of the country. I sweated bullets for a while before I remembered that, as the head of the chemical education program, he had a stamp with his signature on it stored away in his office. After talking with my advisor by phone, and after much practice, I managed to stamp his signature onto the appropriate spot without it obviously appearing to be a stamp. I was hoping the examiner wouldn’t notice.

On Thursday, the movers showed up and after explaining to them which items should be packed and which items should be left alone (I lived in a house with four other people), I went back to working on my thesis. At one point, I left to bring back some fast food, since everything seemed to be going smoothly with the movers. Of course, the instant I left, the movers started packing up my housemates stuff. I spent several hours on Thursday unpacking boxes and returning items which weren’t mine.

After pulling an all-nighter, the thesis was finished by Friday morning and I made all the necessary copies at Kinko’s. I showed up at the thesis examiner’s office with the copies at the designated time, 11:00 am, knowing that the office closed at noon, which meant there would be no time to fix any problems in the thesis should the examiner reject it. I had heard rumors about this guy, who was apparently fond of using rulers to ensure that all formatting rules were followed to the letter.

He accepted the thesis.

Relieved, I drove back to my house, packed up a few things, picked up one of my housemates (who was one of the bridesmaids), and immediately drove 4 hours to southern Illinois for my 5 o’clock wedding rehearsal. Yes, I was trying to squeeze a wedding into the middle of all this. I warned you this was not the way to do things.

Saturday was the wedding, and other than some discomfort in the morning due, I suspect, to a few drinks on Friday night, everything turned out well.

Sunday, picked up a U-Haul trailer and loaded my wife’s things into it.

Monday, left for Detroit, stopping at my house in Urbana to pick up more of my stuff. This made it a 3 day trip, which meant arriving in Detroit on Thursday. Unfortunately, I hadn’t had the time to make hotel reservations, assuming I could just find something on the fly. Not knowing Detroit very well, I ended up stopping at a motel whose reputation turned out to be rather suspect. This suspicion began when, during my check in at the office, some guy appeared, asking if the motel rented rooms by the hour. My suspicion was confirmed when the manager specifically had me park the car so that the doors of the U-Haul would be backed up against a tree, so that no one would be tempted to break open the lock. Needless to say, I must have checked the trailer 10 times over the course of the night.

Friday, I showed up for work on the absolute last day I could have arrived and still been granted vacation days the following year. Thus the rather strict timetable.

Saturday, left for the honeymoon.

That was one hell of a week!

My advice: Make sure to give yourself plenty of time for relaxation before reporting to your new job.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Scary Times, Indeed

Tomorrow -- the 27th day of the 11th month of the 8th year of the 3rd millennium -- is my last day at work.

It's been one hell of a ride. Layoffs, buyouts, spinoffs, promotions, bankruptcy, blue sky research, product development projects. I've seen good times and bad times. And soon, hopefully, I'll be starting it all over again somewhere else.

One of the things you have to deal with in these situations is understanding why YOU had to be (one of) the sacrificial goats. I know WHY the company had to make deep cuts to survive (at least for a while longer), but as I look around at the people who made it past this round of cuts, I'm not sure why I was one of the chosen. For example, one of my coworkers, who was part of my group before a reorganization in January, is now coordinating projects with the national labs. Those were MY projects before the reorganization. Now I'm not trying to take anything away from her, but these projects simply are not in her area of expertise -- they're in mine. They were given to her simply because they needed to find something for her to do. Had I still been working those projects, I might have survived this rounds of cuts. In fact, I can think of several projects I was working on last year which turned out to be safe harbors. Unfortunately, it was my new project assignment which got axed, and me along with it. Apparently it was a matter of being involved on the wrong project at the wrong time. Ironically, the assignment which got me axed involved more chemistry than I had seen in years.

It's also easy to look around and see people just going through the motions, waiting for retirement to come, and wonder why they weren't approached. Part of that is due to having been in their respective business units for a long time. I was originally a part of the R&D labs, which was broken up about 2 years ago and distributed to various parts of the company. Of the 100 of us originally in the R&D labs, only about 5 of us are now left in the company. I had been warned this summer (by someone with connections inside the company) that we R&Ders had targets painted on our backs, and I guess they were right. Needless to say, the company is going to have a difficult time developing new products in the future.

Low level managers also appeared to be particularly immune to the layoffs, even if the product lines in which they were in charge were being dropped, leaving them with no real purpose in the company. Some of these managers are now spending all their time desperately trying to come up with project areas to justify their continued existence. It's not going to be easy.

All this may sound as though I'm somewhat bitter about the whole mess, and a week or two ago, I probably was. But I've come to realize that I was missing the point. As the company has continued to shrink due to a decline in the automotive sector (and unfortunately that target is still continuing to move downwards), it has been forced to shed many of the product areas in which an inorganic chemist (or any kind of chemist for that matter) would be useful. I look over what's left of the company and realize the company didn't really dump me. It's just that the company I joined many years ago no longer exists.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Miscellaneous Monday

A few miscellaneous items today.

A week or so ago, our secretary set up a departmental luncheon for the 5 of us in our group who are being "asked" to leave at the end of the month. This morning she came by to tell me that the going away luncheon has been cancelled for now. There were a variety of reasons, including other commitments by at least 2 of the "honorees", but the first reason she mentioned was "a lack of response/participation" from the rest of the department. Nice way to start a day. We'll probably just all get together informally at a bar somewhere instead.

Ever wonder what might happen if The Matrix was running on Windows XP? Check out this video.

I guess it's a sign of the financial crisis this country (and the rest of the world) is going through, but I've received 2 of those "help us give you millions of dollars" scam emails in the last week. Is it too much to ask these guys to do spellchecking? It's pretty hard to get really worked up over the prospect of getting free money when you keep hitting misspelled words. Here's an example....
Mr. ABDUL SAAZ a well known Philanthropist, before he died, he made a Will in our law firm stating that Five Million, Two Hundred Thousand British Pond-Stealing should be donated to Ten Philanthropist each.
Of course, some of the misspellings might actually be Freudian Slips. Too funny.

Of course, I take this all back if these guys turn out to be legit.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Glass -- Not Just For Inorganic Chemists!

Back in the day, we used glass in the lab. Our glassware was glass, our cuvettes were glass, and our eyedroppers were glass. Even our Bunsen burners were glass. And we liked it! Times were good. Having nice, shiny glass equipment on your lab bench made you feel superior to everyone else. And cleaning glass was easy. You just threw everything into a KOH bath for a couple of hours (or weeks) and they came out as good as new.1 The only reason anyone ever threw glassware away was because of breakage, and even then, if it was only a crack, you kept using it anyway. Or you brought it back to the dorm room/apartment/home office as a showpiece. (Just ask my wife.)

But now you can get almost everything in plastic. Plastic beakers, plastic eyedroppers, plastic volumetric flasks …it’s insidious.2 Not only does this practice decrease our valuable reserves of bisphenol A, but it also facilitates the practice of “throwing out” versus “cleaning up”.3 Even worse, it allows the organikers a foothold into the Hallowed Halls of Inorganic chemistry. Dammit! Inorganic reactions should be performed in Inorganic vessels! And silica is about as inorganic as you can get.4

But evil always loses out in the end. It’s now been reported that certain organic compounds which tend to leach out of plastic labware can influence (read: screw up) certain experiments. Ha! I always knew those plastic testtubes were releasing nasty organic chemicals! Plastic should only be used to store foods and medicines.

I'll write about this more after I finish repairing a cracked beaker of mine with some epoxy.

I'd like to take this opportunity to apologize to those readers who have sent me emails asking for information. Although I've been neglecting this site lately due to employment concerns, I've been totally remiss in actually checking out my emails. I'll try to start answering your questions in the future. Thanks again.

Footnotes – I blame the large number of footnotes on Carbon Based Curiosities and its influence on the blogosphere.

1KOH/ethanol baths work by slowly dissolving the surface of the glass. It’s an excellent way of dealing with stubborn deposits, although it can trash a fritted glass filter if you leave it in there for too long. There are limitations however. In my attempt to decorate my home office with all sorts of exotic glassware, I’ve discovered that while KOH can make laboratory glassware (borosilicate) look like new, it can mar the finish of regular old antique glass bottles. You have been warned!

2Some of those plastic volumetric flasks have no menisci when holding aqueous solutions. I tell you, that’s damned unnatural.

3I’m actually fairly conflicted about this “throwing out” vs “cleaning up” dilemma. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a hoarder. I rarely throw anything away. Yet, I’m really bad about cleaning, so I tend to find myself surrounded by hoards of dirty, unusable stuff. (Just ask my wife.)

4Any evidence (video or otherwise) pertaining to my use of nonglass vessels or equipment is categorically denied.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Attack of the Heavy Metals

As a (mostly) transition metal chemist, I enjoy heavy metals -- the elements, not the bands. Heavy metals should be a part of any self-respecting chemist’s lab. But they shouldn’t be part of our ecosystem, at least not in the levels associated with human use. The health effects can be serious. Industrial waste, residential garbage (you do recycle your Ni-Cd batteries, don’t you?), and certain pesticides all lead to elevated levels of these elements. I now read that heavy metals are a concern in organically grown foods. Not the first place I would have associated with toxic materials. The whole point of organic growing techniques is to be more biofriendly to the environment by using recycled organic matter instead of synthetic fertilizers. Unfortunately, these organic fertilizers, “composted animal manure, rock phosphates, fish emulsions, guano, wood ashes, etc.” can contain significant levels of these metals. Now this does not necessarily mean that heavy metal concentrations are always higher in organically managed soils, but it has been observed and is a concern. Regulations are tightening and research is continuing, but as we release more and more metals into the environment, the differences between organic and nonorganic farming may become smaller and smaller.

Of course, this is an example of unintentional exposure to heavy metals. Some health practitioners actually want you to ingest heavy metals for your own good. For example, Ayurvedic medicine, based on an ancient practice, uses herbal remedies for a wide variety of illnesses. In the practice of Ayurveda, “…a balance of the metals, including lead, copper, gold, iron, mercury, silver, tin, zinc are considered to be essential for normal functioning of the human body and an important component of good health.” So these metals are often added to Ayurvedic medicines. Unfortunately, there have apparently been reports of heavy metal poisoning related to the use of these medicines, especially in the case of lead. Again, regulations are tightening, but it’s hard to control substances you can buy over the Internet.*

I think I’ll just stick with playing with my metals in the lab.

*Why is the Internet always capitalized? Are there religious connotations here?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Back in the Saddle Again

Well, it's been harder to get back into the saddle than I originally expected. Once I stopped my regular routine of web surfing to find snippets of chemistry to post on this blog, it's been too easy to keep putting it off “until tomorrow.” It also doesn’t help that every time I sit down in front of the computer, I feel obliged to visit or tweak my resume or search for more companies to whom I can send resumes.

While searching the web for hints on job hunting, I ran into an old post from the “Lamentations on Chemistry” blog. The author describes a rather frightening trip to a recruiter’s office. I read it just a few days before my first interview with a head hunter and I was not sure what to expect. It’s an interesting read.

Obligatory chemistry snippet (It’s about damn time!)
I’m sure you’ve all heard the warnings about cell phones and their possible (but unlikely) harmful side effects due to the small amount of electromagnetic radiation they emit. You’ve probably even seen the amusingly bogus “cell phones pop popcorn” videos on Youtube. (My 8 year old daughter has, and she’s at that age where she’s just coming to grips with the idea that not everything you see on TV or the computer is true). But a new concern over cell phones is showing up as nickel in the phones can result in contact dermatitis for those people with nickel allergies.

I hadn’t heard of nickel allergies before this, although apparently it’s been well known that the presence of nickel in jewelry often causes skin problems for a certain percentage of the population. Since my company (used to) manufacture platinum catalysts, I was aware that Pt could have the same effect. (Hmmm, Ni and Pt are both d8 metals. Coincidence?) If a worker in the plant began to show signs of a Pt allergy, they were moved to another location. Besides the dermatological problems, Pt allergies can affect the lungs too, producing symptoms rather similar to asthma. So similar, in fact, that one of the PhDs in charge of that catalyst plant theorized that the use of Pt in automotive exhaust catalysts (starting in the 70’s) may explain the rise in asthma cases in the US at the same time. I haven’t seen any of this verified, so take it with a grain of salt.

I’ve enjoyed working with precious metal (Pt, Pd, Rh) salts over the years and I’m fortunate that I have exhibited no such allergies. I would expect it to be rather disappointing to find that you could no longer work in a certain area of chemistry because you were allergic to chemicals.