grad school microloans

March 25, 2009 at 2:19 pm | | grad life, open thread, stipends

Despite the fact that we are very expensive to our PIs, we graduate students receive a stipend that just barely pays for our living expenses. In fact, according to Stanford’s own estimate, our expenditures are a couple hundred dollars more than our annual income.

Coin JarOne result of this is that many of my fellow students live paycheck-to-paycheck, and do not have adequate savings to buffer against large expenses. This means that many students end up carrying a balance on their credit card, taking out a loan, or applying for another card to pay for unexpected peaks in spending (e.g. buying a plane ticket home, paying a rental deposit,  or while waiting to be reimbursed for a conference). Having a small amount of interest-free borrowable money could help some students keep their heads above the water.

So, basically, I want to start a microcredit account for Stanford Chemistry grad students. This could be as simple as a checking account with a couple thousand dollars that could serve as a source of small, interest-free loans to students in need of some cash before their next paycheck or while they are waiting for reimbursement to clear.*

I envision a system in which individuals who contribute even a small amount to the account could withdraw a couple hundred dollars to pay for emergency expenses, then pay back the money in a month or so.

Here are some problems:

  • Will People Contribute to the Fund? If 25 people contribute $25 each, and 50 more contribute a dollar, that’s already approaching a grand. If there a few angel investors—maybe grad students who are married to people with real jobs—contribute a few hundred each, you could reach a few thousand dollars. That doesn’t mean that people will actually be interested in joining the cause, or risking their money. Even if the account were interest-bearing, a few percent of a couple thousand spread among many isn’t a big motivator.
  • Will People Borrow from the Fund? This is probably the biggest problem. Borrowing would probably mean contacting the person who holds the debit card, filling out a form, etc. That might be too much work for just for a few hundred bucks. I suspect this getting people to actually borrow would be the real problem with the idea.
  • Will Borrowers be Forced to Grovel? If one person is the official owner of the account, then borrowers would have to go to that person to get the debit card. That might feel like groveling. Or it might be embarrassing. And that’s assuming that the account owner is nice and responsible.
  • Should the Loans be Public or Secret? Making the loan amounts and borrowers “public”—even if only among the people who have contributed to the fund—might cause borrowers to feel embarrassed. Conversely, if the loans are kept secret, then there’s less encouragement to repay loans quickly and fully. A compromise might be to only announce names and amounts when repayments are late. That would encourage delinquent accounts to be repaid.
  • Will People Repay? I think this wouldn’t be a problem. Because the fund is community-sponsored, and because the funders and borrowers all know each other, and because the loans will be small and we do have incomes, I think that almost all the loans would be paid back in full. Peer pressure can be effective at encouraging repayments.
  • Other Logistics? This can be complicated. Do you have one responsible person open a checking account, or are there group accounts available? Google Spreadsheets and Forms, or even just Excel, could be useful for much of the logistics (contribution and loan amounts, repayment dates, etc.). What about when the owner graduates? They’d have to pass the account on to another student, which could be messy. How do you distribute interest and losses to the contributors?

Any suggestions?

UPDATE: Using PayPal might help a lot of the logistics, and even reduce the face-to-face groveling required to get money.


* I don’t know how it works elsewhere, but grad students at Stanford are required to pay their own way to conferences and flights, then get reimbursed. The poor students are basically giving the rich University an interest-free loan while waiting for reimbursement to clear. For some reason, we can’t be preimbursed for our conference expenses. Usually, you are reimbursed before you have to pay your credit card bill, but it still is a stupid system that puts undue burden on the students. The microcredit account could serve as a low-bureaucracy alternative to the stupid reimbursement system when a student is very short on cash or has already maxed out their credit card.

Space Storms, 2012, and End of the World?

March 24, 2009 at 4:39 pm | | everyday science, literature, science and the public

A recent article in New Science magazine suggests that a severe solar storm may destroy the electrical infrastructure of the Western World (source).

Apparently from time to time, giant plasma fireballs known as coronal mass ejections escape the sun’s surface on a solar wind.  If one of those ejections should hit the Earth’s magnetic shield, it would cause rapid short-lived changes in the configuration of the Earth’s magnetic field which would induce DC currents in the long wires of modern power grids.  This increased DC current in turn would induce strong magnetic fields that would saturate a transformer’s magnetic core, which would result in a runaway current that would cause the transformer’s wiring to heat up and actually melt.

Read more of this post…

Dr. Chu goes to Washington

March 23, 2009 at 11:28 am | | science and the public

I was reading the New York Times’ write-up of Steve Chu’s adjustment to DC culture when I came across this quote:

Yet as he takes on one of the toughest policy and management challenges in government, Dr. Chu brings certain assets that none of his peers or predecessors have had: a Nobel Prize, a YouTube following (for his lectures on climate change) and an unofficial theme song (“Dr. Wu” by Steely Dan).

So I had to go look up that theme song and I don’t get it.  Anybody know what the connection is (other than the name of the song)?

on-time is not enough!

March 20, 2009 at 9:05 am | | single molecules, tutorial

jablonksi-diagramI’ve seen a few papers recently that attempt to characterize the effect oxygen scavengers or triplet quenchers have on the photostability of single molecules. The main parameters they measure and compare across systems and fluorophores is the “on time”—the average time single molecules are fluorescent before they photobleach—and “off time”—the time spent in transient dark states.

Here’s my question: What about the emission rate? It’s not enough to report and compare only times. Photostability (either regarding bleaching or blinking) is related to a probability that a molecule will enter a permanent (or transient) dark state for every photon absorbed. The “on time” is only relevant when you also know the rate of photon absorption.

Moreover very fast excursions into transient dark states (i.e. triplet lifetimes are typically us or ms—much faster than the camera integration time) will appear as a dimming of the fluorescence, a decrease in the photon emission rate. By removing molecular oxygen (an effective triplet quencher) from solution, fluorophores often become dimmer because the triplet lifetimes increase. Thus, removing oxygen might make your dye last a longer time, but at the expense of brightness. This could more effectively be acheived by just turning down the excitation intensity (with lower background, too)!

So it makes me want to pull my hair out when I read long, detailed articles in prestigious journals that fail to mention even once the rates of photon absorption or emission when they report “on times” as photostability parameters.

Total number of photons is a more fundamental measure of photostability, but it still not enough for the full picture (it doesn’t report on blinkiness, for instance). Total photons plus “on times” is sufficient; or “on times” and emission rates; or enough variables to define the frikkin’ system.

UPDATE: Here’s a good paper that tests specific hypotheses about number and duration of off times. On the Mechanism of Trolox as Antiblinking and Antibleaching Reagent. JACS 2009, ASAP.

So that’s how you make a laser work

March 19, 2009 at 5:25 pm | | scientific integrity, wild web



This image is from a Wired! article on a 100kW mobile laser defense system that was recently tested.  I guess they’re planning on just airbrushing out the warheads faster than the Iranians can photoshop them in.

grad students on spring break

March 19, 2009 at 2:14 pm | | grad life

Here’s a great video about spring break for grad students. I love the idea that grad students are sophisticated and dress well. But I guess they got the arrogance correct. I think I know someone with that thesis title. Seriously.

please repeat the question

March 14, 2009 at 2:01 pm | | conferences, science community

I always appreciate when a speaker repeats the questions before answering. It can really enhance the Q&A. But I understand how easy it is to forget to repeat the questions, even if you had the intention to before you stood up in front of everybody.

I’m at a little conference on campus today. It’s being filmed for a video archive, so the moderators regularly remind speakers to repeat the questions (lest the context be lost in the video). One speaker forgot to repeat each and every question, and the moderator was very persistent at reminding the speaker. It was all in good spirits, and people chuckled each time the moderator needed to remind the speaker.

An hour or so later, the previous moderator gave a talk. After his presentation, he proceeded to forget to repeat each and every question, and the audience and new moderator were quick to gently remind him! Very cute.

what to do about supporting information

March 9, 2009 at 3:54 pm | | literature, open thread, science community, wild web

I met with David Martinsen from ACS Pubs today to discuss the interface between publishing and technology (internet, Kindle, Facebook, CiteULike, etc.). Interesting discussion. One topic that came up a few times was the supporting information (SI) for articles.

Page limits as well as increasingly complex experimental methods have caused SIs to balloon to sometimes ridiculous lengths. Combine this with the fact that SIs are often barely readable, marginally refereed (if at all), and crammed with unexplained figures, and SIs become ridiculous. Sometime, “see the SI” is a ploy to lull readers and referees into feeling that a statement is supported by data, even when the data is total crap. I’ve seen spectra in SIs that wouldn’t pass muster an undergrad lab, much less a peer-reviewed journal, but they were the primary data of the letter. Nevertheless, much of the core scientific information is often buried in these monstrosities.

Authors need to be encouraged to compile their SIs to be coherent, clean, correct, and scientific supplements to their papers. I have some suggestions. I start with simple suggestions, and move to more fundamental ones:

  1. Offer a single-PDF option. Have an option to download a single PDF that contains all the content for the articles (i.e. the main text as well as the SI). Because the SI often contains vital information to interpret or repeat the results, it’s important to have this data (or synthesis) along with the main text. ACS already has two PDF options (hi-res PDF and PDF with links), so it would be as simple as adding a third link to the page.
  2. Format SIs. This can be as simple as providing a Word template just like there is available for the main text and figures of the article. This shouldn’t increase the editors’ responsibilities, but would make SIs more readable.
  3. Referee SIs. Encourage referees to carefully read and scrutinize the SI, just as they do the main text. If something is unscientific, sloppy, or wrong in the SI, it should not be included. Referees should be encouraged to request SI data or methods be clarified, tested, eliminated, or repeated if necessary as a condition for publication.
  4. Include raw data. Provide space for authors to present raw data if they wish (e.g. structure, NMR, crystallographic, spectral, etc.) in the SI. I personally don’t think this is as important as careful writing, editing, and refereeing of the SI; however, providing raw data could be another level of evidence for the authors’ claims. I don’t think this should be a requirement, because we should be able to trust researchers and not spend all our time redoing someone else’s analysis.
  5. Offer full articles online. Putting 1-3 together, there could be a “full” article form of any paper, which includes all information from the SI, but formatted and organized like a lengthy paper. That way, the paper form of the journal could stay short, while online forms could be complete, yet still professional, readable, and cogent. However, this would add some burden to editors, referees, authors, copy-editors, etc. Paper journals could become more of a collection of executive summaries, with the full scientific data online. (I believe that some Nature journals do this to some extent: having a short Methods section added to the PDF form but not in the paper journal. But there’s still an SI in addition.)

I think #5 is where journals should be going. True, it will add expense to publishers, but that will help them justify the subscription fees when no one receives paper journals anymore.

Other ideas?

UPDATE: Here are some other ideas, which I’ll update as needed:

  • Allow authors to republish. Make it easier for authors to republish the data and figures that are in a SI again in the main text of a subsequent paper. This would permit the SI data to someday be published in a fully refereed form in a follow-up paper. Otherwise, data and figures in the SI will never be properly reported. Of course, there may be a lot of complications with copyright and getting all authors to agree.

rainbow of DNA oligo excimers

March 5, 2009 at 3:16 pm | | literature

My friend Yin Nah over in the Kool lab just published a cool paper in JACS. By attaching fluorophores to deoxyriboside monomers (what they call “fluorosides”), they can then assemble different oligos. Because different sequences have different fluorophores close to each other in different orders, they can make exciplexes that fluoresce at a variety of colors … all pumped at the same (albeit UV) wavelength.


The Kool lab has been working with pyrene and others in the past, but this recent paper expands the fluorophores and colors the oligos produce. And they’ve been doing some cell and zebrafish embryo labeling, too.

Very beautiful.

reversible mechanochromic luminescence is cool

March 4, 2009 at 5:30 pm | | literature

The recent JACS Beta Image Challenge has a really cool video involved:


(Click the image to watch a movie!)

The crystalline form is quenched and blue-shifted. But grinding or scraping the powder breaks apart the crystal and the separated chromophores fluoresce in the green. Neateo.

You can check out the details in the original paper: Ito, et al. JACS 2008, 130, 10044-10045.  I’m not thrilled with the quality of some of the spectra (comeon JACS!), but a fun paper, nonetheless.

why are email clients dumb?

March 2, 2009 at 11:06 am | | software, stupid technology, wild web

Why does Thunderbird not recognize the word “inbox”?


It seems to me that it should.

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