Friday, December 11, 2009

Scientific Peer Review Process

This will be funny if it isn't true. I go through the same whole charade all the time whenever I submit my manuscripts to the journals. Some reviewers are just plain sadistic assholes hiding behind a cloak of anonymity in asking me to "run more control experiments", while others are clueless idiots who don't know shit about anything in the field yet still want me to "strongly suggest that" I cite their irrelevant papers in my work if I want to get the paper accepted. But hey, we live in an imperfect world, and academia has too many egoistic jerks masquerading as professors and journal editors.

Sometimes I feel myself becoming one of those I despised when I am asked to peer review manuscripts. Oh the irony!

(2 Mar 2010): Cover Letter with Manuscript Revision (Humor for Academics if you haven't yet realized)

Dear Sir, Madame, or Other:

Enclosed is our latest version of MS #85-02-22-RRRRR, that is, the re-re-re-revised version of our paper. Choke on it. We have again rewritten the entire manuscript from start to finish. We even changed the goddamned running head! Hopefully we have suffered enough by now to satisfy even your bloodthirsty reviewers.

I shall skip the usual point-by-point description of every single change we made in response to the critiques. After all, it is fairly clear that your reviewers are less interested in details of scientific procedure than in working out their personality problems and sexual frustrations by seeking some sort of demented glee in the sadistic and arbitrary exercise of tyrannical power over hapless authors like ourselves who happen to fall into their clutches. We do understand that, in view of the misanthropic psychopaths you have on your editorial board, you need to keep sending them papers, for if they weren't reviewing manuscripts they'd probably be out mugging old ladies or clubbing baby seals to death. Still, from this batch of reviewers, C was clearly the most hostile, and we request that you not ask her or him to review this revision. Indeed, we have mailed letter bombs to four or five people we suspected of being reviewer C, so if you send the manuscript back to them the review process could be unduly delayed.

Some of the reviewers comments we couldn't do anything about. For example, if (as reviewer C suggested), several of my ancestry were indeed drawn from other species, it is too late to change that. Other suggestions were implemented, however, and the paper has improved and benefited. Thus, you suggested that we shorten the manuscript by 5 pages, and we were able to do this very effectively by altering the margins and printing the paper in a different font with a smaller typeface. We agree with you that the paper is much better this way.

One perplexing problem was dealing with suggestions #13-28 by reviewer B. As you may recall (that is, if you even bother reading the reviews before doing your decision letter), that reviewer listed 16 works the he/she felt we should cite in this paper. These were on a variety of different topics, none of which had any relevance to our work that we could see. Indeed, one was an essay on the Spanish-American War from a high school literary magazine. the only common thread was that all 16 were by the same author, presumably someone reviewer B greatly admires and feels should be more widely cited. To handle this, we have modified the introduction and added, after the review of relevant literature, a subsection entitled "Review of Irrelevant Literature" that discusses these articles and also duly addresses some of the more asinine suggestions by other reviewers.

We hope that you will be pleased with this revision and finally recognize how urgently deserving of publication this work is. If not, then you are an unscrupulous, depraved monster with no shred of human decency. You ought to be in a cage. May whatever heritage you come from be the butt of the next round of ethnic jokes. If you do accept it, however, we wish to thank you for your patience and wisdom throughout this process and to express our appreciation of you scholarly insights. To repay you, we would be happy to review some manuscripts for you; please send us the next manuscript that any of these reviewers sends to your journal.

Assuming you accept this paper, we would also like to add a footnote acknowledging your help with this manuscript and to point out that we liked this paper much better the way we originally wrote it but you held the editorial shotgun to our heads and forced us to chop, reshuffle, restate, hedge, expand, shorten, and in general convert a meaty paper into stir-fried vegetables. We couldn't or wouldn't, have done it without your input.

[Name Removed for Blind Review]

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Difference between going to Business School vs going to Graduate School

A JC classmate and I graduated from college the same year. He went on to Business School two years after I started Grad School, and received the MBA 2 years before I got my PhD.

He is now at a major investment bank that survived the bank failures of 2008 and is set to receive record bonuses for this year. I am an academic postdoc, and have just received email from Payroll that my income for the next year 'may be subject to a temporary reduction due to the extreme financial emergency facing the University'.

His base salary alone is about 4 - 5 times what I am earning now. Sure we can both say our work suck, but hey at least he's better compensated than me, and he has bonus payouts. I will be lucky if I don't get a paycut.

We had identical O- and A-level grades. Such is life and the options we chose earlier have financial consequences.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Selecting undergraduates to mentor

A few weeks ago, I made the decision to take in a couple of undergrads and have them work directly under me in the lab. Regular readers of this blog might be able to guess my reason for doing so. It is not altrusic intent on my part, although I must state that this arrangement will be a win-win situation for all of us involved (if the research results and their lab performance turn out well). They will get the research experience along with strong recommendation letters for grad school and a small stipend, and I will get some help in my experimental work and substantially more to write about in my Teaching Statement. I am fortunate the advisor is agreeable and supportive of my decision, and sees this as a necessary step for my professional development as a future faculty.

That said, I set a relatively high bar for my applicants. I did not want any average Joe or Jane - I used the GPA (imperfect as it may be) as the first cut-off, basically restricting myself to the top 20% or so of the cohort. This group is also the one which is most likely to get admitted to the top-ranked departments. Then, to sieve out those who weren't serious about working or putting on their thinking caps in the lab, my applicants had to submit and complete a written exercise along with a resume listing the relevant coursework taken and grades obtained. Finally, they had to pass my interview. I focused on their academic ability, motivation, and commitment to put in time and effort in their work. I want them to succeed, and their success will reflect my success as a mentor.

A fellow postdoc friend in the neighboring lab thought I was crazy to set so many conditions. He operates on more of an open-door policy - basically allowing any interested undergraduates (GPA > 3.0) to volunteer in his lab for a few weeks and then offering those who do a good job the option to get research credits or for a lucky few - to become paid undergraduate research assistants. "You won't get anyone!" he howled, but I got the students who met my criteria within a week of putting out the advertisement. Too many in fact, and I had to reject some excellent candidates. I felt weird to be sitting on the other side - deciding on who gets into the group or not.


Many moons ago, I worked in an organic chemistry group in my undergraduate institution for 3 semesters. The postdoc I worked under was a hard driver. I remember spending my first few months in the lab just washing glassware, and this was a few years before Philip Yeo's now infamous comment that people with basic science degrees would qualify only as test-tube washers in A*star. I progressed from just doing the washing to doing the grunt work in mixing reactant solutions, preparing suspensions, purifying and separating intermediates using a rotovap and packed silica columns, and analysing the samples using TLC and 1H NMR. In return for my (hard) work, I got an A for the research credits that counted towards my major GPA, strong recommendations for grad school and a stint in another university for a summer of more research work.

Part of my labor went into a Science paper that the postdoc published with the professor a year after I graduated. There were just the 2 of them in the list of authors. My name did not even appear in the 'Acknowledgement' section, although to be fair I did not make any intellectual contribution to the publication. I was just a 'lab tech' following the postdoc's instructions.

Sometimes I look back and wonder - I was this close in getting my name to a Science paper as an undergraduate.


Note: To those of you who have never heard of Nature or Science, Jorge Cham does a good job illustrating scientists' obsession with having at least one paper published in either one: I, II, III.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Harvard University Spoof Commercial

Contrast with NBC's University of Westfield:

Monday, November 09, 2009

Of Syntax and Grammar from English to Math and Science II

Oftentimes we become too comfortable in our own little cocoon of scientific terminology that we forget that there are laypersons in the lab.


'Utramicrotome' was misinterpreted as a very small book, and the lab member (an undergrad) proceeded to point out that the term is contradictory - doesn't 'tome' mean a large book? How can it be very small?

Undergrads...Sometimes they try too hard to impress.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Are you a thinker or do-er?

Many of the grad students I have encountered over the years can be broadly classified into 2 types - the thinkers and the do-ers. Thinkers refer to those who are typically strong in the academic theoretical concepts, and are very much at home playing with complex mathematical equations and the like. Do-ers on the hand, are more comfortable building machines/equipments from the ground up and are very much hands-on, somewhat like those 'garage scientists' we used to read about when young. The research groups that the grad students choose to join very often mirror their status as a 'thinker' or a 'do-er'. Rare are the few who are both 'thinker' and 'do-er'.

Most of the Singaporean students I met here in the US are more of the 'thinker' type, and I suspect it has a lot to do with our academic background (majority with 'A' level qualifications) - the 'A' levels stress more on theory than practicals and the fact that most Singaporeans don't have the luxury of having a 'workshop' room in their house. Plus we are more used to buying what we need off the shelf.

Using myself as an example - as an 'engineer' I did not build my first working machine (a unique 3-flow heat exchanger) until my undergrad senior year capstone project as part of a 2-person team. It was a steep learning curve to say the least - we were given only 5 weeks to

1. get a prototype up and running
2. provide analytical solutions that predict the steady state temperature profiles of all 3 fluid streams and
3. verify the temperatures experimentally.

You can imagine the sense of accomplishment I felt when everything worked as it should (which is not always the case in research).

That said, I am still more of a thinker than a do-er although the years of being a grad student and now a postdoc have made me into more of a do-er.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Killer Bean is back!

The earlier version totally blew me away (back in college). This is even better.

Friday, October 09, 2009

If the Nobel Prizes in the Sciences are like the Peace Award...

You can be a laureate in your first year of Graduate School (and with no publications yet to your name)!

Parody taken from Greg Mankiw's blog:

First-Year Grad Student Wins Nobel Prize in Economics!
From the Associated Press (with some light editing):

Pfuffnick's Nobel Economics Prize triumph hailed by many

LONDON — The surprise choice of first-year graduate student Quintus Pfuffnick for the Nobel Prize in Economics drew praise from much of the world Friday even as many pointed out the youthful economist has not yet published anything in scholarly journals.

The new PhD candidate was hailed for his willingness to tackle difficult problems, his commitment to improving the economic system, and his goal of bringing efficiency and equality into harmony.

Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton, who won the prize in 2008, said Pfuffnick's award shows great things are expected from him in the coming years.

"In a way, it's an award coming near the beginning of the first year in grad school of a relatively young economist that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our economy a better place for all," he said. "It is an award that speaks to the promise of Mr Pfuffnick's message of hope."

He said the prize is a "wonderful recognition of Pfuffnick's essay in his grad school application."

Saturday, October 03, 2009



- 唐朝詩人李白 (701AD to 762AD)

Monday, September 28, 2009

No prizes for coming second

I got my first rejection for an academic faculty position. It is a brutal world in academia, and there is no difference between the 2nd place or last (especially when there is only ONE opening). At least I got a rather detailed rejection letter, instead of the generic thank you for your application type. I wonder if it is so because of my PhD advisor (they are friends).

To: takchek
Subject: Re: My application

Hi takchek,

I am sorry to have not communicated with you earlier, but we were still in the process of making decisions. Your application made it to the final top five (out of about 650 candidates), but we had only money to bring in one person from out of state (Ed: seriously?!), unfortunately, so I was not able to invite you up for the final campus interview and visit.

Your application was very strong and the committee was quite impressed by it, and especially by the relevance of your previous research work and your proposed plans fit nicely the focus areas that the department has targeted. Ultimately the final decision was made based on both research experience and the candidates' clear commitment and evidence of excellence to undergraduate teaching (Ed: my Achilles' heel) at a leading liberal arts college.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.

Chair, Faculty Search Comittee

The section below pertains to Philosophy, but it applies to the physical sciences and engineering as well (to the best of my knowledge). I was most likely penalized for the 3rd point, and will need to improve on this to be competitive.

How did we prune our field from 637 to 27? An important selection criterion was holding a Ph.D. from a good university. Members of our department earned their Ph.D.s at Columbia, Harvard, Oxford, and University of London. Additionally, City College is known as the “Harvard of the Proletariat,” with distinguished alumni that include nine Nobel Laureates, more than any other public institution in America. Our faculty members are expected to live up to this legacy.

A second criterion was research and publication. We looked not only for quality and promise of quantity, but also for originality. Creativity and individuality are assets for philosophers. We did not want candidates who merely parroted back what they had been taught at graduate school.

Third, we needed evidence of undergraduate teaching ability as well as versatility. We offer a broad range of electives to a diverse student body; a narrow focus does not serve our pedagogic needs well. Most applicants submitted extensive teaching portfolios including syllabuses, reading lists, student evaluations, and observations by senior professors. We looked for evidence of outstanding teaching ability, variety, and potential for curriculum development.

Finally, we wanted evidence of administrative service. Ideally, the candidate would also possess some ability to raise research funds, although this is not too prevalent among philosophers. Even so, a good many applicants had raised funds: either minimally in the form of postdoctoral fellowships, more broadly for organizing conferences, or most notably for research projects (either solo or collaborative).


A Dunman High Love Story

This is such a sweet wedding video.

The youtube version.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Do you list declined honors/fellowships/scholarships on your CV/resume?

I wonder the rationale of people listing the fellowships/scholarships that they declined. Is it show that they are smart? Or arrogant?

I came across 2 examples (anonymously of course):

Hertz Foundation Graduate Fellowship, 199X-200X
NSF Graduate Research Fellowship (declined for Hertz award), 199X


XX University Presidential Graduate Research Fellowship, 200X - 200Y
Singapore National Science (PhD) Scholarship (declined for Presidential Fellowship), 200X

Thursday, September 03, 2009

US Public Sector Employees' Salary Data

Feels kinda weird when one's salary is available for the whole wide world to see. Information on University of California employee salaries as well as that of the other states can be found here.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Of Decision Making and Scientific Integrity

Taken from the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", and mainly for my own future reference.

...That was tremendously exciting and very important – that was a fundamental discovery. And I realized, as I finally got to my office, that this is where I’ve got to be. Where people from all fields of science would tell me stuff, and it was all exciting. It was exactly what I wanted, really.

So when Cornell called me a little later, and said they were setting everything up, and it was nearly ready, I said, “I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind again.” But I decided then never to decide again. Nothing – absolutely nothing – would ever change my mind again.

When you’re young, you have all these things to worry about – should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It’s much easier to just plain decide. Nevermind – nothing is going to change your mind. I did that once when I was a student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again – I had the solution to that problem. Anyway, I decided it would always be Caltech.
- pp 235.


(An outgoing Director of the Institute of Parapsychology) in telling (instructors) what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is to be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent – not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching – to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.

So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.
- pp 346.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Tales from the Lab IV

Two emails make me feel like...a brain on a stick...or a monkey.

Publication of our findings is vital to the group – this is how we are evaluated by our peers, our funding sources, and by our potential employers. Although we have had several of our papers appear in 2009, all were submitted in 2008. So far, in the first half of 2009, we have submitted only a single paper. I suspect we have been focused on proposals, and that is necessary, but now I would like to urge each of you to press forward on moving our projects towards publication and writing and submitting papers.


I just walked past the break room and found the door open and food strewn about. This is completely unacceptable, and really sends the wrong message to anyone walking by – whether they be faculty and students from other groups or schools, or visitors or funding opportunities. The room must be closed and locked when unoccupied. Food must not be visible. Unless we adhere to such limitations, we can no longer have a break room.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Moving on

I almost forgot that Singapore's birthday is round the corner. Do I feel anything about that? No.

Interpret it however you like.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Choose One, or None

How do I to tell her (A) that I am not so keen to continue the relationship anymore? The past week had been one hell of a roller-coaster ride, and my heart is wavering.

She could sense from the facebook pics I put up. How this particular girl (B) kept appearing next to me.

An aunt looked at my palms more than a decade ago and told me I will go through many relationships before eventually settling down with one. Much as I hate to admit it, I think she's right.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Quidditch for Muggles

Started in 2005 at Middlebury college. There is even an Intercollegiate Quidditch Association.

I have faint memories of my early childhood days of riding astride a broomstick while holding and/or throwing balls. Back then broomsticks were imagined to be horses...

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Strong wings, deep roots?

MORE than one in five of the top students from the 1996-1999 A level graduating cohorts are not working in Singapore today. And of those from the same batches who went on to universities overseas without a scholarship bond, more than one in three are today carving out careers outside the country.

Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong gave these statistics on Saturday to illustrate the urgency of getting young Singaporeans to sink roots here even as they become more entrepreneurial and break out into the global economy.

'If more and more of our bright students do not return, this begs the question whether our success in giving them wings to fly far and high will result in our eventual decline as a nation, especially as we are not even reproducing ourselves.

'No nation will be able to sustain its growth and prosperity without sufficient talent, much less a small country like Singapore without natural resources,' said Mr Goh.

He was speaking to more than 1,000 guests at the 70th anniversary dinner of Chung Cheng High School last night. He urged schools to help students retain their emotional bonds to Singapore, 'so that they think of Singapore as the home which nurtured them, and want to contribute in some ways to the country of their birth'.

To do this, he suggested that schools inculcate in the young certain values, such as being appreciative of those who help them advance in life; and not taking for granted the academic, sports and arts programmes they can enjoy here and abroad, when many children elsewhere cannot.

Mr Goh hoped that the end result of such teaching would be students who have strong links with their schools, close ties with their friends and a strong sense of responsibility to their families - even if they choose to live, work and even settle down overseas.

Switching to Mandarin, Mr Goh said: 'I hope Chung Cheng and our schools will give two lasting bequests to our children. One is strong wings; the other, deep roots.

'Like wild geese that migrate each fall, young Singaporeans should be equipped with the courage, strength and adaptability to venture to distant lands in search of opportunities. But when spring returns, they will come back, as this is their home.'

Indeed, Mr Goh further argued in English, helping young Singaporeans stay rooted here was the most important challenge facing the Education Ministry. This is because the number of young Singaporeans working overseas will grow, given that the education system is producing more and more students equipped with the right skills to go global. - Goh Chin Lian, Straits Times, 28 June 2009

Goh Chok Tong is at it again. These guys at the top still have yet to get it, haven't they? To digress a little, it is nice to see my batch being one of the highlighted ones. LOL.

In addition to the numerous comments posted elsewhere on this issue, I have another one for the Men-in-White. Tell your underlings in the Civil Service/TLCs there has been a mis-communication between the top and middle management levels.

Some overseas Singaporeans are invited to apply for positions back home. Apparently one has to apply at that particular time 'cos the head honchos who are on the campus visit team will be collecting the resumes personally and then passing them on to their HR staffs for priority processing. If you apply outside of this particular time window, your resume goes to a black hole and nobody knows anything about the status of your application.

Meanwhile, the persons in question get offers from the overseas companies/universities which offer much, much better opportunities for their personal growth and career development (even in the current difficult economic conditions).

I can already provide a few real-life examples - Google vs. NUS; Microsoft vs. NUS/A-star; UC-Berkeley vs. NUS/A-star. (A-star in these cases refers to their RIs)

Talent appreciation? Phui! Go on, continue bringing in your planeloads of Indians and PRCs; most of whom see Singapore anyway as a stepping stone to the West and I daresay not exactly 'foreign talents'.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Choosing a Graduate School/Postdoc Advisor

A friend of mine, M., went to see his graduate faculty adviser regarding the search for a postdoc position. Like many of his fellow competitive overachievers coming out of that group, he wanted to go on to an equally 'hot' lab and suggested several possible names to his adviser.

A few names on the list were immediately crossed out. Not because they are doing bad science, but rather they are well known to be lousy mentors. The adviser then listed out two well-known examples (in chemistry) of how choosing the wrong type of adviser (no matter how eminent in the field he/she is) can potentially lead to devastating consequences - Hellinga at Duke and E.J. Corey of Harvard.

And we should know better. Last fall, one of our classmates hanged himself. His death was a shock to everyone in the department ("shock" is an understatement), and his adviser later sent out an email to the department graduate student body:

Dear Graduate Students,

You have already received the sad news regarding the death of our colleague and friend C. I was informed last night, and this morning the department chair informed the graduate students, staff, and faculty.

I wanted to follow up further with you, since many of you have expressed your kind sympathies and concern in this regard.

This tragedy occurred at C’s home most likely over the weekend but was only discovered yesterday. I will let you know any additional information if his family feels it appropriate to do so.

As you may be aware, C was doing well in our group. He successfully defended his PhD proposal last year and became a PhD Candidate. He had just returned from the [subfield] symposium in Michigan, and was getting ready to present his latest results at the [national conference] in November. This tragedy therefore cuts short a promising career.

We should all keep C and his family in our thoughts and prayers. I will be in touch with C’s family after I receive information from the Dean of Students. We shall inform you of memorial services, as well as how we may express condolences to his family. We are already planning to do so both as a department and through my research group.


C got his BS from MIT, and like Jason Altom, he was "bright, outgoing, likably confident, intellectually mature, and with an inner reserve of self-reliance that is indispensable to any researcher working on the cutting edge." Another friend A. who was in the same group as C but who has since graduated and now a postdoc elsewhere recalled crying almost every week in her first two years and feeling depressed after the group meetings. Apparently getting called 'stupid', 'idiot' and screamed at during such meetings was to be expected.

...And the fundamental inequality in power between an adviser and a student requires responsibility and even psychological astuteness on both sides. The graduate student is agreeing to be pushed to his intellectual and physical limits by someone he barely knows.

A paragraph in the NYT piece puts it so succinctly:

Graduate study in the sciences, however, is a very unsentimental education. It requires the intellectual evolution from undergrad who can ace tests of textbook knowledge to original thinker who can initiate and execute research about which the textbooks have yet to be written. What is less often acknowledged is that this intense education involves an equally arduous psychological transition, almost a second rebellious adolescence. The passage from callow, eager-to-please first-year student in awe of an often-famous faculty adviser to confident, independent-minded researcher willing to challenge, and sometimes defy, a mentor is a requisite part of the journey.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Modern Science is One Big Pig Trough

And not just academia (administrators, faculty, postdocs/grad students) is beholden to it. There is also a huge related industry (annual sales in the billions of dollars) led by the lab equipment suppliers. So if you are one such company, how do you go about getting some of that stimulus money?

You trawl the top-ranked academic journals and send out unsolicited advertising emails to the authors of recent publications.

Dear Dr. takchek,

I read your paper in (kick-ass high impact factor in its subfield journal), and I wanted to send you a short note on recent technology that may be of interest.

We have been working with a number of research leaders in Nanomedicine and nano-drug delivery research looking to quantify nanoparticles in live cells. This effort led to the development of a novel system called "complicated-sounding name that only specialists in the sub-field understand (with acronym)"...Insert the advantages and coolness of this new technology...and must end with your targeted audience in mind...This technology has been specifically designed for use in nanomedicine, nanotox and related nanoscale investigations.

We are actively involved in supporting funding and grant submittals for the NEW (April 2009) Obama funding at NIH and NSF. If you are considering applying for some of the NEW $8.2 billion of grants for equipment PLEASE let us know. We can help!

Best regards,

On the other hand:

NIH received ~21,000 applications for the stimulus funds. They expected 1,500 and predicted 200 Challenge Awards will be offered. So the rejection rate could reach 99%. (Science, 2009, 324, 5925, pp. 318 - 319)

Amazing Depressing eh? I think it is easier to get into Harvard college than to win one of these NIH Challenge Grants.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Reach for the Sky? Nah, Go for the Low Hanging Fruit Instead

I am getting disillusioned with Science. Apparently I have not seen the 'light' despite ~5 years of Grad School. There is only one metric to measure productivity and success at this stage: number of publications. So no high-risk, high-reward/failure "fishing expeditions". Go for already established projects which will pay some quick dividends. All the more so if I am a young postdoc still trying to land my first faculty job or a research position in a National Lab (with the field getting so ridiculously competitive and crowded) anywhere.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Socialeconomic gulf in school

I came across a Boston Globe article on low income students attending elite, private (and expensive) colleges in the US, and a link to a Stanford undergraduate honors thesis on the same topic.

Class and Inequality

If applicable, please describe a situation where interacting with others from a different social class background made you feel out of place:

"Students complaining about how they don’t have any money." - Student at Yale University, Class of 2008

"When I came to Stanford, everyone asked me where my parents went to college, just assuming that they did, and it’s really awkward to say ’nowhere.’ It’s also awkward to talk about family - like the cousins on Welfare who dropped out of high school - to peers." - Student at Stanford University, Class of 2009

"Knowing I don’t have enough money to do the things everyone talks about. Knowing I can’t afford to spend money at the rates others do (shopping, going out to dinner often, etc.)" - Student at Princeton University, Class of 2011

"When I was hanging out with my girlfriend and her family, they took me to a country club they were a member of and her mother said something about how she 'couldn’t understand how people can live without country clubs'. She went on to comment on trips to the Caribbean and various other topics that made me feel QUITE inadequate." - Student at the University of Virginia, Class of 2011

"My roommate’s family is far more affluent than mine. When he mentions his vacations, car, etc. it sometimes makes me uncomfortable." - Student at Yale University, Class of 2010

"Talking about what people did over summer break - I don’t go on vacation." - Student at Brown University, Class of 2010

"When interacting with those clearly from a more upper-class background - say, when someone is very well-versed in stock trading, or when someone has a lot of expensive electronic equipment in their room - I’m very aware of my relatively humble origins and my very different ambitions." - Student at Princeton University, Class of 2011

"While out at a fancy dinner, I recognized that everyone else was used to the setting/had been informed of how to act. It was completely different from my norm, and I felt out of place." - Student at Stanford University, Class of 2011

"Sometimes when discussing my application to law school (and undergrad for that matter), I am struck by how foreign my situation is for most people. My parents can’t afford to pay for any of my education, so I’ve had to make a lot of decisions based on how much I can make at part-time jobs and how much I’m willing to borrow. I feel awkward when I have to say that I’m not even aiming for top schools, not because I’m not qualified, but because I can’t afford it." - Student at University of California, Berkeley, Class of 2008


I know of 2 main types of responses:

a. one will either borrow (by hook or by crook) to keep up with the Joneses,


b. leave the social circle to find another more aligned to their socioeconomic backgrounds.

The first will most likely lead to financial ruin, while the second requires some sort of courage to make the break. Critics of the second will point out that the main purpose of going to such elite schools is to network with the rich and powerful.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Love Interrupted

Boy and girl were classmates at DHS.
Boy and girl had good impressions of each other in class.
Boy and girl went to different JCs and lost touch.
Boy and girl reconnected in Singapore last year after more than 15 years (thanks to facebook).
Boy and girl started dating.
Girl is applying to US universities for PhD study.
What will be the outcome of their relationship?


The ex has just given birth. The news (and the baby pics) came through facebook, even though we are not 'friends' on the networking site. We have too many mutual friends.

The feeling is neutral. I am happy for them.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Economic Stimulus Job Opportunities in Academia

The money is getting out. If you want to do research in your dream school, now it's the best time to grab the opportunity.

From my department's Secretary for Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Scholars:

Subject: Economic Stimulus Postdoctoral Job Opportunities at Duke

Duke University anticipates receipt of award funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), also known as the Economic Stimulus Act. Postdoctoral positions may be available as a result of this funding. If you would like to express interest in a potential postdoctoral appointment at Duke, please visit:

Postdoctoral position listings may also be found at

If you are interested in applying for the positions and meet the
eligibility requirements, please activate your application soon. If you know of other colleagues who might be interested in this Economic Stimulus opportunity, please forward this email to them.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Tales from the Lab III

Someone stuck this bumper sticker to the lab door's window:

Biodiversity is Nature's way of telling us it's OK to be different.


My lab has an Aldrich bottle labelled "Synthetic Sea Water". I am more familiar with seeing "Distilled water" or "Deionized water" bottles lying around.


A couple of grad students and postdocs in my department and allied ones are starting an "Organic Reaction Mechanisms" club.

Dear colleagues,

In order to keep our synthetic chemistry skills sharp, Dr. X is going to start a mechanism club. The point is to broaden our synthesis knowledge through mechanisms. It will be an informal thing, and we will try to make it fun. If necessary, we may even lure you with beer.

Several of you have already expressed interest, and I would like to invite all of you to join. It seems that Wednesday evening would be a good day/time, but I encourage input from all of you. Please let me know if you are interested, and if Wed. evening would work for you (of course I'm not talking about tomorrow). I know that there are people that I forgot to include, so feel free to tell your coworkers.


Imagine that. A group of students and postdocs starting a club that attempts to make understanding reaction mechanisms fun. Talk about having geeky fun.


Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Happy Square Root Day!

Happy Square root day, to all of my engineering/math friends! :-)

Granted, it's not as much fun as mole day, but it's more rare (only 9 a century).

Just so you know, Square Root Day isn't the only humorous holiday celebrated in the math world. Pi Day is observed each March 14 (3.14), while Pi Approximation Day falls on July 22 (roughly equal to 22/7). The first Pi Day was observed in 1988 by staff at the San Francisco Exploratorium, who walked around in circles.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Some thoughts on the current economic crisis and science

1. I get a little miffed whenever I hear people say that solar energy is a renewable energy resource. It isn't. Our sun will go out one day like a blown light bulb, in the far distant future.

2. I wish politicians had taken a course in thermodynamics (or at least remembered the subject matter).The current global (capitalist) economic system builds on the "permagrowth" model - one that requires endless growth — in demand, in consumption, in population. Given the finite resources on earth, this is a physical impossibility. Much like the perpetual motion machine question I saw in one of the A levels physics 'S' paper.

3. For economics students a similar concept is 'scarcity'.

4. I like hellasiou's blog because I can relate to his views from a scientific viewpoint.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama's New Deal for Academia

I will be honest upfront - things were really looking bad for us folks in academia (and pretty much everyone else too) in last few months. Well, they still are, but things are looking up with the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the economic stimulus package) signed by President Obama on Feb 17.

In an email last semester, my PhD advisor actually had to send out a letter to the group (in addition to a pep talk during the regular group meetings) with encouraging words:

Dear group,

This (financial crisis) is a good opportunity to clarify and reinforce the positive things about our group. First of all, my primary concern is, and will continue to be, the welfare of my students. I will do anything (legally of course) and everything to keep your work going and with the best resources possible, and to help you make the most of your time here.

I know that situations like this can cause stress to rise and may lead to uncertainty among the group. First, I want to assure you that this will not fundamentally alter our ongoing research plans.

Secondly, it is obvious that the composition of our group is changing rapidly…mainly because of graduations. This is a good thing and it is normal. People are supposed to graduate and leave. So, there will be turnover in any organization. I wish that the group number were not fluctuating so largely, but that is only partially within my control. Grants get funded at unpredictable times, and about 5 years ago I had a lot of grants get funded all at once. I had a bunch of students join the group. Now those students (you know who you are) have finished or close to finishing.

The group size is small right now, and it’s going to get smaller temporarily, and this is intentional.

Let me explain:

In order to avoid this type of fluctuation in the future I have been attempting to take on only 1 student a year for the past two years. I have been writing only enough proposals to support this rate of growth (so I don’t have to take 3-4 people at once). So, this is part of a greater plan to provide more stability in the future.

Thirdly, about funding: Professors who have been in this business for 40 years (like the department chair) will tell you that they have never seen funding as tight as it is right now. So, writing only a few new proposals to grow the group 1 student per year is risky, which is why I was not planning originally to take on 2 this year. Another issue is that my current projects are non-overlapping –purely by chance – the main projects get renewed at the same time (January) each year. This means that at the end of the year I have to be careful – just like you do at the end of each month. So, if I look over your orders more carefully it is simply for this reason. It doesn’t mean that support for your project is going away and should not be a cause for your concern. I’ll take care of, and worry about, the funding. You guys (and gals) can worry about the research.

The quantity and quality of research output, and the type of job you get, and how long it takes you to graduate is rarely a direct function of the quantity or type of funding anyway. It is true! Some of the most highly-cited papers have come from poorly-funded research, not only in my group but in general throughout science. And some of the most well-funded work has produced few papers. I have other sources of funding to keep ideas afloat between big grants. It is not an impediment and I have always gotten the funding I sought.

When you go on a job interview, no one will ask how much funding your advisor had! What is important are the indicators of the quality and quantity of your work: how many papers, presentations and in what journals / conferences.

I am confident that our research is on the cutting edge and that each of your projects is going to lead you to an exciting career. For example, the number of citations of previous students’ work from my group is at an all-time high. It is among the highest of any associate professor at this university. My h-index is 20.

I will talk more about these things at our next group meeting, and until then my door is of course open to speak about this.


Prof X

Yesterday my postdoc advisor had the whole group summoned:

Congress had given federal granting agencies (NSF, NIH, DOE) stimulus money for colleges to spend. There are opportunities for us in getting some of that package money. I want to help Congress spend those money and I want each and everyone of you to come up with ideas by Friday on how to tack on our existing NSF, NIH and DOE grants with more funding.

Focus on the "near-term" and ready to start projects, as these are especially advantaged in this environment.

Government-Wide Timeline

All agencies are under significant pressure to begin distributing the funding in the stimulus bill to States, organizations, and individuals as quickly as possible. The overall timeline announced by the Administration for the next few months is:
• February 19, 2009: Federal Agencies to begin reporting their formula block grant awards.
• March 3, 2009: Federal Agencies to begin reporting uses of funds.
• May 3, 2009: Federal agencies to make performance plans publically available; to begin reporting on their allocations for entitlement programs.
• May 15, 2009: Detailed agency financial reports to become available.
• May 20, 2009: Federal agencies to begin reporting their competitive grants and contracts.
• July 15, 2009: Recipients of Federal funding to begin reporting on their use of funds.

In addition, the Office of Management and Budget has set targets for implementation of programs by the agencies. Individual agencies have additional deadlines; for example, NSF, NIST, and NASA have been directed to deliver a spending plan to Congress by April 18, 2009.

I live in exciting it helps that I am in involved in the development of new, clean, renewable energy sources, one of the hottest areas (pun unintended) of research right now.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Presidential namesake

One of the new grad students in my current group has the same last name as a former US president (from the 20th century, now deceased), although I am not sure if they are related. There might be a chance though, given that she attended the same highly selective university (for undergrad) as him, hailed from the same state, and that the surname is quite rare in this country.

No Secret Service agents hanging around though, and I doubt federal protection will cover the great-grandchildren.

Hmm...I will ask soon, once I get an opportunity to do so.

Edit (9.30pm): Turns out she is not.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lab Safety - Ignore at your own peril

Once again, a life was needlessly lost because of poor safety procedures in the lab.

Researcher Dies After Lab Fire

UCLA research assistant burned in incident with tert-butyl lithium
By Jyllian Kemsley

A research assistant in the University of California, Los Angeles, department of chemistry and biochemistry died on Jan. 16 from injuries sustained in a laboratory fire that occurred in December, the university has confirmed.

UCLA officials declined to provide C&EN with specific details of the incident, pending an investigation. But according to a Dec. 30, 2008, e-mail to C&EN from department chair Albert J. Courey, university investigators believe that on Dec. 29, Sheharbano Sangji, 22, was drawing tert-butyl lithium (t-BuLi) from a bottle into a syringe when the plunger came out of the syringe barrel. The chemical, which ignites spontaneously in air, splashed onto Sangji's clothes and set them on fire. Sangji was burned on her hands, arms, and upper torso, for a total of 40% of her body. After initial treatment at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, she was transferred to the Grossman Burn Center in Sherman Oaks, Calif., where she died.

An unconfirmed description of the accident was posted on Jan. 7 to the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety e-mail list by Debbie M. Decker, a member of the division and a UC Davis chemical safety officer. It says that Sangji was wearing safety glasses, a sweater made of synthetic material, nitrile gloves, and no lab coat and that the t-BuLi ignited her sweater and gloves.

Synthetic materials such as polyester are "analogous to solid gasoline," says Neal Langerman, the founder of the company Advanced Chemical Safety and a consultant to the ACS Committee on Chemical Safety. "Once it ignites, it burns just like a hydrocarbon, so it really is inappropriate lab apparel by itself." A lab coat might have prevented the sweater from igniting and reduced the extent of Sangji's injuries, he says, although he emphasizes that he is speculating. Fire-resistant gloves are also available, Langerman says, although they are bulky and reduce dexterity, which can also lead to accidents. "That problem hasn't been adequately solved," he adds.

Sangji graduated from Pomona College in May 2008. She was working at UCLA while applying to law school, says her former adviser at Pomona, chemistry professor Daniel J. O'Leary, who is now at Bowdoin College. Sangji spent three years working on peptide chemistry in O'Leary's lab. "She was just a wonderful person," O'Leary says. "Many, many people are mourning her loss."

When asked whether he is reconsidering safety procedures in his lab at Bowdoin, O'Leary says, "Just about every organic chemist works with hazardous and dangerous things. This can only serve as a wake-up call to redouble efforts to be safe."

The incident remains under investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health and the Office of the State Fire Marshal, says James Gibson, director of UCLA's Office of Environment, Health & Safety.

January 22, 2009

I wonder why she did not do the extraction inside a glove box under an inert atmosphere like argon, which is SOP in all the labs I had worked in if one is handling energetic materials. Even wikipedia has it under the safety section (about handling butyllithium).

I also cannot believe she did not wear a lab coat. That's cardinal sin number 1. More details here.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Change we can believe in

The crowd was silent, and all eyes in the room were transfixed on a white screen projecting live images of a ceremony hundreds of miles away heralding the change that has come to Washington, DC. Students, faculty and staff alike - there were even cheers and applause when he appeared and when he stepped up to give his inauguration speech.


I find the following two bits most captivating:

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.


To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.


Compare that to the politicians and senior civil servants of a little red dot half a globe away, and they pale in comparison.

When a government has lost touch with its people, what right does it have to continue to lord over them?


Dear President Obama,

Welcome to the White House and good luck. You will need it, and I hope you succeed.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The shift in mindset has already started

It's been about a month since the start of my new job. I am still in school, but my status has changed somewhat. The new group is nice and I am trying to settle in as quickly as I can. I am still single, and can still afford a few more years of being poor and be dedicated to the pursuit of my craft.

However, the contentment of living a graduate student's lifestyle has been replaced by a lust for a proper dwelling fit for yuppies and an appreciation for a well-done kitchen. Somehow I feel the days of surviving with cheap pizzas and sodas are over.

Yes, I like the fact that my group is working on scientific problems which are intellectually intense and challenging but I have started to think about life beyond the lab. And of course, what I miss/need most now is a partner. If things work out the way they are supposed to be, she might be joining me next year from Singapore.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Fiscalis - NBR's Fiscal Stimulus Commercial

Saw this on TV yesterday. Self-explanatory...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009