CV of failures

December 10, 2010 at 12:34 pm | | postdoc life, science community, scientific integrity

Nature Jobs has encouraged folks to spread the word of their failures, as well as their successes. So I made a CV of my failures. I’m probably forgetting a lot of failures, but I’m not really motivated to spend a lot of time trying to remember. Anyone else want to air their dirty laundry?

rip paul barbara

November 10, 2010 at 9:25 am | | science community

Doug at Nanoscale Views brought my attention to the news that Paul Barbara died very recently. That is sad and surprising. He was a fun, exciting, and important scientist. RIP.

JOOT: the journal of one try

November 1, 2010 at 9:43 am | | literature, science community

Today my labmate suggested someone start the Journal of One Try. It could have two sections per issue: “worked” and “didn’t work.”

JOOT would be dedicated to publishing scientific experiments tried only once. It would be an excellent resource for young graduate students to see if they should try an experiment (i.e. if it’s been published in the “worked” section) or try a different route (if it’s been published in “didn’t work”).

This is different than the Journal of Irreproducible Results: The results in JOOT would be reproducible … probably … just no one tried. Because it worked (or didn’t) the first time. Also, it wouldn’t be silly or funny science, simply experiments no one had the patience to try again. And this is different from the Journal of Negative Results, because many of the results would be positive. Well, once.

Maybe I’ll start that journal someday…

nature highlight

October 28, 2010 at 7:41 am | | cool results, literature, science community, single molecules

My colleague’s JACS paper was highlighted in Nature. I’m especially excited about that, because I’m a coauthor. ;)

The strange thing is that, despite our suggestions otherwise, the Nature folks chose a not-the-most-interesting figure from the paper. Of course, I’m more than happy that they showed any of our awesome figures! But, instead of showing one of the super-resolution images that Hsiao-lu made, the highlight shows a proof-of-labeling image, which is diffraction-limited. That said, they did select one of the live-cell images. I suppose it could be worse: they could have picked one of the controls. Or not displayed a figure at all.

Thanks Nature. I don’t mean to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Well, I’ll highlight our paper here. And choose my favorite figure (it’s protein localization in a little-bity bacteria):

should i join the postdoc union?

October 25, 2010 at 8:07 am | | open thread, postdoc life, science community

Postdocs at Berkeley (in fact the whole UC system) formed a union a few years back. Recently, the union negotiated a better contract with UC, which brings the postdoc pay up to … wait for it … the NIH minimum! That’s actually a big step. (Read more about it in Nature.)


  • I can listen to Woody Guthrie without feeling guilty
  • it supports a good cause: I do think that postdocs need someone looking out for their interests
  • it is a relatively small amount of money to ensure that postdocs have representation


  • it costs 0.28% of my paycheck to join (although that’s only around $100)
  • my money might go towards those terrible political ads on TV
  • the general possibility of making my relationship with my PI more adversarial

I’m conflicted. Thoughts?

caveat grumptor

October 13, 2010 at 8:05 am | | blogs, science and the public, science community

Royce Murray doesn’t like blogs.

No that’s an oversimplification of his editorial. Actually, his worry is that science blogs are more fun and easier to read than real science journalism (which, by the way, is hard to find); meanwhile, bloggers have no required credentials, no accountability, and might just be lying to everyone.

Damn straight.

UPDATE: In case it isn’t clear, Royce Murray is one of my favorite chemists and teachers. UNC is my Alma Mater, and I really appreciated his class. While most bloggers are pretty unhappy with Royce’s editorial, I wasn’t offended. I basically agree that neither the public nor scientists should be getting information from blogs without a grain of salt. Especially this blog. I’m sarcastic 83% of the time.

crick’s lost letters

October 1, 2010 at 7:05 am | | history, news, science community

Some revealing letters of Francis Crick have been found—mostly to Maurice Wilkins—and they discuss Rosalind Franklin. Here are some of the excerpts that I found interesting. For instance, this letter from Wilkins to Watson and Crick after they proposed the double-helix model:

My dear Francis,

I gather you have got the coordinates of your model or some worked out. Do you think we could have a copy of what you have?

The crystalline data is clearing up nicely. To think that Rosie had all the 3D data for 9 months & wouldn’t fit a helix to it and there was I taking her word for it that the data was anti-helical. Christ.

We have redone a lot of the 3D more accurately on mouse & will need all the extra accuracy for dealing with some of the finer points.

Regards & to Odile too.



P.S. I think I have a flat.

But “Rosie” had been focusing on the A structure of DNA, which generated clearer crystal diffraction pattern images. Unfortunately for her, crystalline DNA-A wasn’t helical. Crick agreed when he eventually saw her data:

This is the first time I have had an opportunity for a detailed study of the picture of Structure A, and I must say I am glad I didn’t see it earlier, as it would have worried me considerably.

All in all, it sounds like Franklin was generally unfriendly to her colleagues (and competitors). Wilkins wrote to Crick of Franlkin’s leaving King’s College:

I hope the smoke of witchcraft will soon be getting out of our eyes.

It sounds like her colleagues didn’t like her too much. But there was friction from the beginning: Wilkins thought that Franklin was going to work for him … or at least they would work together on DNA … and Franklin had been told that she would work independently. What a mess.

I feel bad for Franklin having to deal with these sexist jerks. Watson and Crick were probably the most annoying, because they didn’t do any experiments; instead, they’d listen to Franklin (and others) present their data, then run off and make a model. Annoying. Intellectual thievery almost. (And Watson and Crick admit as much, referring to it as “burglary” in one of their letters.)

But on the other hand, it seems Franklin made some serious mistakes interpreting her data and was quite abrasive. No angels here. No devils (or witches?) either.

I suspect that if everyone had worked together and been friendly, Watson and Crick would have proposed the correct structure much earlier. Not only that, but I think Franklin would have been given more credit by the boys. But that’s just my speculation. I just know that I’d prefer to collaborate with folks than fight with them.

NRC finally releases updated school rankings

September 28, 2010 at 3:12 pm | | news, science and the public, science community

Phew. That was a long wait. Since 1995.

But the wait wasn’t really worth it. NRC released basically a gimungous table of data, and didn’t actually give departments rankings. I don’t have time to wade through all this data. Someone needs to tell me that my department(s) are better than Harvard.

To make things worse, their spreadsheet doesn’t work on MS Excel 2008 on Mac (only on 2004). Maybe I’ll update sometime if I can wade through the data. In the meantime, see if your school has posted its own analysis. (Berkeley has. It looks like Stanford is still in the process of manipulating the data to make themselves look awesome.)


Here are the top chemistry programs (ranked on research activity):

And programs containing the word “biophysic”:

So there. You can go make your own tables. I find this very confusing.

UPDATE: Not surprisingly, there are some serious errors being found in the piles and piles of numbers being released by the NRC ranking. And come to think of it, since when does Stanford chemistry have 50 faculty members??? Something is very wrong…

NRC should just list schools according to the US News and World Report rankings and keep their data hidden. jk.

the simpsons have their own nobel predictions

September 27, 2010 at 3:19 pm | | nerd, news, nobel, science and the public, science community

This was on The Simpsons last night:

(the screenshot is from 1 min 22 sec on Hulu)

I may update my predictions to reflect the venerated opinions of cartoon writers.

By the way, seeing my PhD advisor and a member of my dissertation committee listed on The Simpsons feels really strange.

(My/our real predictions are here.)

2010 nobel predictions

September 2, 2010 at 11:32 am | | news, nobel, open thread, science and the public, science community

In previous years, I’ve awarded Edsel-Nobels, which no one really cared about. Maybe this is the year I’ll make predictions for the actual Nobel. Paul at Chembark already started his predictions, and everyone else will be buzzing about it soon enough.

In no particular order (and without much forethought):

  1. Solar: Grätzel
  2. Super-resolution optical microscopy: Betzig, Hell, Zhuang, Hess
  3. Cloaking: Pendry
  4. Birth control: Djerassi
  5. Laser-induced fluorescence: Zare
  6. Inorganic: Gray, Lippard
  7. Single-molecule spectroscopy: Moerner, Orrit, Rigler, Xie
  8. Chaperonins and protein folding: Horwich, Hartl, Lindquist, Ellis
  9. DNA fingerprinting: Jefferys
  10. Electrochemistry: Bard, Nocera
  11. Polymer synthesis: Matyjaszewski, Wang
  12. NMR and membranes: McConnell
  13. Discovery of kinesin: Sheetz, Vale, Brady
  14. Nano: Whitesides
  15. Peace: Twitter
  16. Cross-coupling: Suzuki, Heck, Sonogashira
  17. Electron Transfer in DNA/Electrochemical DNA Damage Sensors: Barton, Giese, Schuster
  18. Pd-catalyzed Alkyne/Alkene Coupling and Atom-Economy: Trost
  19. Nuclear hormone receptors: Chambon, Evans, Jensen, O’Malley
  20. Two-photon microscopy: Webb, Denk, Strickler
  21. DNA microarrays: Brown
  22. NLO: Harris (as predicted by The Simpsons)

So there. The only one I’m confident about it Twitter.

Please feel free to add more in the comments. I will probably continue to update this…

UPDATE: Paul now has updated odds. Very impressive. He’s put a lot more thought into this than I. I’ve added cross-coupling to the list. Additions are in italics.

UPDATE: Can you name all the Chemistry Nobel winners?

UPDATE: Thompson has released their predictions.

UPDATE: The Simpsons also have some predictions.


August 23, 2010 at 8:50 am | | crazy figure contest, literature, nerd, science community, wild web

My (very nerdy) friends started a internetted-web-blog to celebrate/mock hilarious/terrible table-of-contents images: TOC ROFL. (In reference to NCBI ROFL.) I might even submit my own once in a while; you can too!

economic stimulus via science

August 16, 2010 at 9:44 am | | news, political science, science and the public, science community

Senators McCain and Coburn (who is a physician!) released a political report complaining about stupid stimulus projects. Now, it’s not surprising that Republicans are calling for cutting science funding and mocking silly-sounding science, so of course there are several science programs funded by stimulus money that this report calls out. Here are a couple:

“A Better Way to Freeze Rat DNA”

[S]cientists at the University of Missouri received stimulus funds ““to develop freezing protocols for epididymal rat sperm which would allow reconstitution of genetics by using standard artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization methods.”” The scientists note that“ “[o]ver the last few years, our laboratory has generated ample amount of data related with optimal sperm handling.”

“Reducing Menopausal Hot Flashes Through Yoga”

“Weather Predictions for Other Planets”

“In a time when jobs are hard to come by, several high school and college students have gotten federal funding to inspire their scientific curiosity.”

OK OK, I understand that some of these seem silly, but when Senators start mocking scientific programs without acknowledging the broader context, those Senators come across as ignorant and foolish. The rat DNA one is especially annoying: Hehe, it says sperm! What, do they get middle-schoolers to write this stuff?

We could make any scientific project sounds silly if we wanted: Scientists try to send light down a tiny glass tube; federal government spending billions to develop satellites that will see where your phone is; some nut is trying to make a horseless carriage.

The point of gov’t stimulus is to get money flowing and jumpstart the economy. Most economists acknowledge that Federal spending has a significant multiplier effect, so spending money on construction projects, scientific research, and infrastructure isn’t really that silly. I can understand how some would question how studying rat DNA could make any money flow back into the economy, but those people would be forgetting about scientific-supply companies like Nalgene (originally of Rochester NY), ThermoFisher (of Waltham MA), Invitrogen (of Carlsbad CA), Sigma-Aldrich (St. Louis MO), etc. I’m sure those and many other companies that employ Americans are very happy about stimulus money going to scientific research!

Still, I do agree that these spending projects should not be beyond reproach. I’m not convinced that science funding is always the most efficient approach to stimulating a national economy in the short run. We should check up on our stimulus funding and try to measure how well each project is benefitting American taxpayers. But what McCain and Coburn have done is lazy—and ignorant. Instead of mocking science because it involves sperm or yoga (or even both), step up and take a mature approach to critiquing our spending policies!

(via Nature)

academic genealogy

July 13, 2010 at 11:02 am | | history, science community

Jeremy over at Chemistryblog posted a few sites with info on academic lineage of many chemists. That inspired me to finish researching my academic genealogy. Kallie’s page at UT’s site was a nice confirmation of the lineage I had independently found. But I actually found links further back (through Rowland to Helmholtz, and eventually back to Leibniz’s dad); I’m not exactly sure why the UT page stops at Mendenhall.

I also explored my lineages from my undergrad and postdoc advisors. Interestingly, those two lines meet up in the mid-1800s (Liebig).

Anyway, below is the entire tree.

(I know this is a little self-indulgent. But whatever.)

Sam’s Academic Genealogy (via PhD advisor)

Samuel Joseph Lord
Postdoctoral research 2010- (under Jay T. Groves)
PhD Stanford 2010 (under W.E. Moerner)
BS University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2004 (under Sergei S. Sheiko)

William Esco Moerner (Stanford)
PhD Cornell 1982 (under A.J. Sievers)
BS Washington University 1975

Albert John Sievers III (Cornell)
PhD Berkeley 1962 (under Michael Tinkham)
BA Berkeley 1958

Michael Tinkham (Berkeley, later Harvard)
PhD MIT 1954 (under M. W. P. Strandberg)
BA Ripon College

Malcom Woodrow Pershing Strandberg (MIT)
PhD MIT 1948 (under A.G. Hill)
BS Harvard 1941

Albert Gordon Hill (MIT)
PhD Rochester 1937 (under Lee Alvin DuBridge)

Lee Alvin DuBridge (Rochester)
PhD University of Wisconsin–Madison 1926 (under Charles Elwood Mendenhall)

Charles Elwood Mendenhall (Wisconsin)
PhD Johns Hopkins 1898 (under Henry Rowland)

Henry Augustus Rowland (Johns Hopkins)
Civil Engineering degree Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 1870
later studied under Helmholtz in Berlin

Hermann von Helmholtz (Berlin)
PhD Royal Friedrich-Wilhelm Institute (under Johannes Peter Müller)

Johannes Peter Müller
Bonn University (under Philipp Franz von Walther & Karl Rudolphi)

Karl Rudolphi … Friedrich Leibniz (1597-1652) [Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s father]
Philipp Franz von Walther … Gerard van Swieten (1700-1772)

Sam’s Academic Genealogy (via postdoc advisor)

Samuel Joseph Lord
Postdoctoral research Berkeley 2010- (under Jay T. Groves)
PhD Stanford 2010 (under W.E. Moerner)
BS University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2004 (under Sergei S. Sheiko)

Jay T. Groves (Berkeley)
PhD Stanford 1998 (under Steve Boxer)
BS Tufts 1992

Steven G. Boxer (Stanford)
PhD Chicago 1976 (under Gerhard L. Closs)
BS Tufts 1969

Gerhard L. Closs
PhD Tübingen 1955 (under Georg Friedrich Karl Wittig)

Georg Friedrich Karl Wittig
PhD Marburg 1923 (under Karl Friedrich von Auwers)

Karl Friedrich von Auwers
Berlin, 1885

August W. von Hofmann
Giessen, 1841

Justus von Liebig
Erlangen, 1822

. . .

Niccolò Leoniceno (1428-1524)

Sam’s Academic Genealogy (via undergraduate advisor)

Samuel Joseph Lord
Postdoctoral research Berkeley 2010- (under Jay T. Groves)
PhD Stanford 2010 (under W.E. Moerner)
BS University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 2004 (under Sergei S. Sheiko)

Sergei S. Sheiko (UNC)
Habilitation University of Ulm 2000 (under Martin Möller)
PhD Institute of Chemical Physics of the Russian Academy of Sciences 1990
MS Moscow Physico-Technical Institute 1986

Martin Möller (Ulm)
Postdoctoral research University of Massachusetts (under Robert W. Lenz)
PhD University of Freiburg 1981 (under Hans-Joachim Cantow)

Hans-Joachim Cantow (Freiburg)
PhD University of Mainz 1950 (under G.V. Schulz)

Gunter Victor Schulz (Mainz)
PhD Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry 1932 (under Herbert Freundlich)

Herbert Freundlich (Kaiser Wilhelm Institute)
PhD University Leipzig 1903 (under Wilhelm Ostwald)

Wilhelm Ostwald (Leipzig)
PhD 1878 Dorpat University (under Carl Schmidt)

Carl Schmidt (Dorpat)
PhD University of Giessen 1844 (under Justus von Liebig)

Justus von Liebig
Erlangen, 1822

. . .

Niccolò Leoniceno (1428-1524)

seminal (hehe)

May 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm | | science community

This has got be be a joke, right? The letter to the editor suggests that the term seminal is “sexist” because it refers to semen (figuratively meaning full of potential).

No way this is serious.

P.S. The letter writer describes the word as “distasteful.” Hehe.

naturally depressed

May 14, 2010 at 10:36 am | | everyday science, grad life, science community

The documentary video “Naturally Obsessed” follows some graduate students at Columbia through their trials and tribulations in science. Personally, I found parts quite depressing. However, it is an interesting video and I wish they would film other labs to round out the picture.

Or watch here:

Here are some of my thoughts (spoiler alert!):

The nature of their research, protein crystallization, is especially depressing: because the results are all-or-nothing, the students work very hard and may see zero reward. In other bench sciences, this can also be true. However, it is often the case that there are many small discoveries and accomplishments along the way. Protein crystallization work, on the other hand, means that if you find the structure, you publish; if the protein doesn’t crystallize well enough to get a structure, you don’t publish. Ouch.

The person I felt the worst for was the blond kid, Kil. He was so positive at the beginning of the film—almost to a fault. Near the middle, he begins complaining about the strains being a graduate student has on his life and relationship with his fianceé. At the end, we learn that Kil and his fianceé broke up (at least partially because of grad school), and he has no interest in academic science. The viewer is at least relieved to discover that Kil gets a good job after graduation!

The ending of the film reminded me of the end of The Graduate: it was bitter, but maybe only intended it to be sweet? Rob, earns his PhD, has a baby, is happy, and becomes a postdoc. But I feel bad for him trying to raise a child on a postdoc’s salary (his wife is also a graduate student). Not to mention the fact that he is already over 30 years old and has several years of a postdoc ahead of him. I’m just not sure it’s the happy ending the film-makers intended. On the other hand, Rob seems really motivated and wants to become a professor, so maybe he’s on his way!

My overall opinion is that the film is interesting, and fairly accurate. However, I think a couple more episodes could really strengthen the documentary. This episodes follows a graduate student as he “succeeds” by toiling away for years, getting a chance success, and then publishing in Science. Instead, I would like to see the day-to-day, week-to-week, year-to-year successes of graduate work: positive interactions and collaborations with fellow students and postdocs, brainstorming in meetings, little “ah-ha!” moments while sitting over a sample, and publishing in J. Phys. Chem. B. In the end, I think this little documentary does a good job of portraying the ups and downs of grad school. However, I think another few episodes in different types of labs would reveal a more realistic overview. Moreover, I think it would be healthy to show students accomplishing smaller steps along the way to their PhD or best paper, instead of the view that students must toil away for 6 years with no rewards until the end.

(via BiteSizeBio)

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