Sciencegeist: #ChemCoach Carnival

Originally posted October 25, 2012

See Arr Oh is hosting a ChemCoach blogging carnival over at his site. The hope is that someone, somewhere will find some useful helps and hints as they are pushing for their degrees in chemistry.

So … Here goes …

Your Current Job I am an assistant professor of chemistry at American University. No, really, I am. They actually gave me my own lab and let me teach this stuff. I have proof. Here and here.

What do you do in a standard work day? I think, one of the recurring themes from this blogging carnival is that there is no standard work day. Recently I’ve been devoting 95% of my waking hours to two grants that I am writing. But, I also teach. (Normally, it’s two classes a semester. But, I have this semester off for a research release!) I have undergraduates who work with me in lab. I do research on my own. I maintain a budget for my expenses. I write. I mentor. I serve on committees (at the university, college, and department level). I try to help the university improve their reputation in the sciences. I also drink a lot of Coca-cola.

What kind of school/training/experience helped you to get here? As many of you know. It is no easy task landing a tenure track professorship. That doesn’t mean that I worked harder than everyone else to get here, or that I am naturally brilliant, or anything like that. What I’m trying to get at is that getting a TT job requires some amount of luck. Having served on faculty search committees and having gone through the process myself, there is a lot of what goes on that makes even getting an interview a complete crapshoot. But, there are certainly things you can do to prepare yourself. Number 1: Publish. A lot. A wise person once said “Faculty search committees may be dumb. They may not be able to read very well. But they can certainly count.” A good publication record implies that you know how to get research accomplished and that you understand how to craft a research program. This may not be true. But it is certainly an indicator. Number 2: Get your own funding. Whenever we go through applications for our search committee, people who have their own funding (most likely a postdoctoral fellowship) go right to the top of the pile. Universities want to see that you can write and be awarded external funding. In fact, I would say that getting external funding is my primary requirement, at the moment, for moving up the tenure ladder. Number 3: Brand yourself and your research. Become “THE” expert in your specialty within your sub-discipline. And it is not just important to be an expert. It is MORE important to bee seen by others as THE expert.

So that’s how I got the job. What training was important for what I actually do? My research experience (from undergraduate, to PhD, to postdoc) informs what I do everyday in the projects that I choose and the manner in which I train the undergraduates in my lab. I was never truly prepared for teaching. Sure, I was a TA in graduate school. But that doesn’t count. Making lesson plans and crafting lectures is an enormous task. Having gone through this, I have am infinitely more respectful for the work that K-12 teachers and professional lecturers do every day. For most postdocs transitioning into a tenure track position, that first course that you teach is a trial by fire. Thankfully, I’ve found my own little niche in my teaching style.

How does chemistry inform your work? Obviously, I am constantly teaching the theory and practice of chemistry. In order to be relevant to my students and in my research and to the granting agencies, I need to be keenly focused and aware and of the current trends in chemistry. This focus, however, must be grounded in what the field has developed over the course of its history. That is to say, I read a lot. I suppose that I could say that reading is the one single thing that I do every day. No matter what other things I have on my plate. I am always reading.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career It was my first semester of lecturing. Actually, it was within the first two months of my first semester lecturing. As I said earlier, I really didn’t know what I was doing. In order to cover that blemish, I would do a lot of demonstrations. Because, everybody loves demos … and who really wants to listen to me talk for an hour and fifteen minutes?

I was teaching the first semester of general chemistry. We were covering reactions and were specifically talking about combustion. Now … our building is … well … old. Perhaps old isn’t the right word. What I mean to say is that our building doesn’t have the most up to date air handling system. The hoods are just OK. And the lecture hall certainly doesn’t have any fume hoods. But, I’m teaching combustion. And how can you teach combustion without burning something. So, I decide to burn some magnesium strips. Its a really nice reaction. There is a brilliant white flame. And, importantly, there is almost no smoke. Win-win! So, I start setting up my demo. There are no lab tables in the lecture hall. Only an old desk. So, I place a ring stand on the dest. Place a watch glass on the ring stand. Add some magnesium to the watch glass. Light the torch. Start the reaction. It is all going beautifully until the watch glass cracks and shatters. The (burning) magnesium strips fall onto the desk … which has a plastic top. The desk bursts into flames. Thankfully I have my wits about me. I run and get the fire extinguisher before the smoke gets out of hand. I put the fire out quickly. Only the fire extinguisher is particulate-based. A haze from the extinguisher fills the room. And sets off the fire alarm.

And that’s why the department chair calls me Smokey.