July 28, 2010 at 3:46 pm | | grad life, nerd, postdoc life, science and the public

One of my labmates attended Comic-Con last week in San Diego and decided to dress up as a TARDIS (a sort of time-machine from Dr. Who) in what can only be described as an epically awesome costume.

While there is a side-on photo of her with writer/director Joss Whedon (Firefly, Serenity, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the Avengers, etc.) that’s been circulating on Twitter, below is an EXCLUSIVE photo from her own camera.

In addition to attracting the attention of the famous and powerful, she also managed to attract the very sketchy. Link

obscure paper

April 6, 2010 at 4:35 pm | | grad life, literature

I was recently looking for a prep for p-bromophenylphosphine, and I found exactly 1 reference for it’s synthetic prep that’s cited by every paper that uses it.

It happens to be in (possibly) the most obscure journal in the world – “Phosphorus and the Related Group V Elements.”  It had all of 6 volumes in the 70’s before it merged with the “International Journal of Sulfur Chemistry” to form “Phosphorous and Sulfur and the Related Elements.”

I finally found TWO places in the world that had hard copies – the North Carolina State University library, and, of course, the National Library of Australia.

I’m beginning to think what I want must be some obvious synthesis, and that I’m just an idiot.  However, I did fail organic chemistry and am now working in a synthesis lab, so the “idiot” part is probably appropriate…

i’m outa here

April 1, 2009 at 7:53 am | | grad life

I’ve decided to master out. The job opportunities right now are just too good to be stuck in grad school.

I told my PI my plan already. He said something along the lines of, “Well, you still have probably two years of work before you can leave with even a masters.” But I’m not listening to him anymore. I’m outa here.

In my almost 5 years in grad school, I’ve seen several of my colleagues master out. At the time, I thought they were fools—they carried themselves as prey, not like a predator, like me—but now I’ve seen the light.

Sayonara, suckers.

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…


July 17, 2008 at 2:38 pm | | grad life, great finds

The undergrads in my lab introduced me to a new phenomena called “rickrolling.”  Follow the link to the wikipedia explanation – weird stuff.  Source

Fuel Economy and A/C

May 18, 2008 at 11:48 am | | everyday science, news, science and the public

So, I’ve heard from several people over the course of my life that it is more fuel efficient to run a car with the windows down rather than use the A/C.

However, a new article on Fuel Economy Myths from CNN-Money suggests that this isn’t so at high speeds.

There’s no question air-conditioning makes extra work for the engine, increasing fuel use. But car air conditioners are much more efficient today than they used to be. In around-town driving, using the A/C will drop fuel economy by about a mile a gallon.

Meanwhile, driving at higher speeds with the windows down greatly increases aerodynamic drag. As speed increases, drag becomes more of an issue, making A/C use the more efficient choice at high speeds.

At most speeds and in most vehicles, A/C use drains slightly more fuel than driving with the windows down, contends David Champion, head of auto testing for Consumer Reports. “My final take on is that it’s very close,” says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor for Edmunds.com. “It’s hard to measure the difference and every vehicle is different.”

The best choice—if temperature and humidity allow—is to keep the windows rolled up and to turn the A/C compressor off. You can keep the fans running to blow in air from the outside, but your car will be as aerodynamic as possible while still letting you breathe. You will save gas, but the fuel economy improvement will be slight.

Other myths include the idea the Premium gas gives you better gas mileage (false in modern cars – the car’s computer can tell the density of the fuel and adjusts the spark plug timing. Lower-octane fuel “slightly” decreases horsepower, but has negligible effect on fuel economy), and that over-inflating tires increase fuel economy (obviously true – less friction, but dangerous due to braking and turning issues).


Stanford Professors Speak Out about Bush’s Climate Strategy

April 17, 2008 at 4:04 pm | | conferences, everyday science, news, science and the public, science community

A few Stanford profs that were attending the GCEP workshop on Carbon Management in Manufacturing are featured in an ABC 7 News story.  This includes one chemistry professor interviewed, and another makes a cameo at the very end.  It’s only 2 minutes long and worth watching.

Watch News Story Here

(If anyone knows how to embed this rather than just linking to it, please let me know).

Are graduate student stipends too low?

March 7, 2008 at 10:37 am | | grad life, news, stipends

According to a article in the Stanford Daily, over 60% of graduate students at Stanford consider finances “stressful,” and over 40% consider graduate school “a financial risk.” Source. These figures are apparently from the Graduate Student Council’s 2007 survey of graduate student life, which unfortunately I could not find a copy of on the GSC website.

I did some investigating myself. According to the Stanford Registrar’s “Guide to Graduate Student Life,” the estimated living costs (per quarter) of a Stanford graduate student are:

Housing (Rent, Utilities, Furnishings): $2,941

Food: $1,835

Personal (toiletries, entertainment, and clothing): $856

Transportations (Fares, Parking, Insurance, and Vehicle Expenses): $300

Medical (Insurance, Co-payments, and Meds): $766

Books (For courses and outside research): $591

Total: $7,289/quarter ($29,156/year)


So, according to the Stanford Registrar’s office, the estimated living expenses for a graduate student are $7,289/quarter ($29,156/year). In chemistry since we generally don’t take classes after our first year and our P.I.’s pay for almost all research expenses, we’ll consider a chemistry (or natural sciences) living expense (minus books) to be $6,698/quarter ($26,792/year).

The minimum graduate Research Assistantship at Stanford (which is what the Chemistry Department pays for us as a stipend) is $6,953/quarter (or $27,812/year). This is between a shorfall of $336/quarter (or $1,344/year) from the registrar’s estimated expenses and a surplus of $255/quarter (or $1,020/year) from the chemist’s expenses.

Of course, we’re TAXED on our stipends, and the amount of federal tax we owe on our standard RAship (based on the 2007 tax tables for $27,812 – $5,350 standard deduction) is $2,587/year. That brings our annual salary down to $25,225. This is a shortfall in either scenario.

Hotel Mauna Kea

January 8, 2008 at 3:51 pm | | grad life, nerd

Sent to me by my research advisor:

Let’s Be Fair to Dow

October 9, 2007 at 1:30 pm | | news, science and the public, science community

[Editor’s note: This is a follow-up of a previous post. Apparently, Charles disagrees with me. -Sam]

Let’s be fair to Dow here.

The Bhopal pesticide plant explosion was a horrible incident by all accounts! The disaster caused around 8,000 immediate deaths. 12,000 deaths have been linked to the disaster, and another 100,000 or so people suffer lingering health risks.

To start with, let’s see what Union Carbide has tried to do to rectify the situation:

  1. The day of the explosion (December 4th, 1984), Union Carbide sent material aid and medical experts to Bhopal to assist with treatment.
  2. Carbide donated an immediate $2 million into the Indian Prime Minister’s disaster relief fund within 1 week after the incident (December 11th, 1984).
  3. 3 months after the incident (February 1985), Carbide established the “Employee’s Bhopal Relief Fund” which raised more than $5 million for immediate relief.
  4. 5 months after the incident (April 1985), Carbide paid for Indian medical experts to take part in training of treatment techniques.
  5. Less than 3 years after the incident (August 1987), made an additional $4.6 million for humanitarian relief.
  6. In 1989, Carbide settled with the Indian Government in the Indian court system for $470 million. The settlement was paid in full almost immediately. In the settlement it was agreed that the state government of Madya Pradesh would take full responsibility for the site cleanup.
  7. In April 1992, Carbide sold 50.9% of it’s shares of UCIL (Union Carbide of India Limited – the subsidiary responsible for the incident) to fund a $90 million trust fund for the establishment of a Bhopal hospital treating heart, lung, and eye ailments. As of 2001, when the hospital opened it’s doors, the trust had amounted an estimated $100 million.
  8. In addition, Carbide provided $2.2 million to Arizona State University to establish a vocational-technical training center in Bhopal (which was later closed) and $5 million to the Indian Red Cross.
  9. Carbide developed the “Responsible Care” system with other members of the chemical community to “help prevent such an event [as Bhopal] in the future by improving community awareness, emergency preparedness, and process safety standards.”

So, over the course of the 20 years between the incident and the purchase of Union Carbide by Dow Chemical, Union Carbide had spent almost $600 million towards the cleanup and relief efforts.

Now, let’s compare the 1989 $470 million dollar settlement ($686.2 million in 2007 dollars) against other U.S. settlements by chemical companies:

The largest Superfund site in the U.S. today is the Hudson River, in which over 500 tons of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have been dumped over the course of 80 years (most by GE in the last 30 years). The estimated cost is $500 million. GE has formed an agreement with the EPA to pay a total of $7.62 million and donate scientists and manpower to the initial sampling and cleanup effort. Unknown population affected over 80 year period. PCB’s have been linked to cancer, although GE denies that there are increased cancer risks in the area.

The 2nd largest settlement in Superfund history, and the largest settlement involving a chemical company, was the Sikes Disposal Pits near Crosby, an illegal toxic waste dump used by a variety of petrochemical companies, which has affected an estimated 10,000 people. 30 chemical companies were sued successfully for an estimated $120 million in cleanup costs.

The Love Canal incident in 1953, which prompted the creation of Superfund, occurred when the Hooker Chemical Company covered area over a toxic dump with dirt and sold it the city of Love Canal for $1 an acre. Numerous houses and a school were built on the site. Unknown numbers of people were affected, but over 221 families were evacuated by 1981. People from the area suffered larger than average rates of birth defects and miscarriages. The government finally sued and won around $129 million for cleanup costs in 1995.

Of course, the scale of the disaster in the Bhopal case makes these other cases pale in comparison. That’s why criminal charges are proceeding against 6 UCIL members (including the former Chairman of UCIL, the Managing Director, the Vice-President Functioning in charge, the Works Manager, and the Production Manager). That’s also why the parent company of Union Carbide paid out so much both to the Indian Government (which it HAS to work through for environmental cleanup) and directly to the victims (around 20% of the money Carbide spent went to medical training, immediate humanitarian aid, and the establishment of hospitals and medical trust funds).

And also, granted, much of the money (specifically the $470 million) did not reach the victims families and was not spent on cleanup, but that’s due to the incompetence and/or corruption of the Indian government. In April 2005, the Indian Supreme Court ruled the government had to release remaining settlement funds to the victims and their families. After taking into account accrued interest, the remaining settlement amount is estimated at $330 million (See NYT article cited below). It is certainly NOT Union Carbide or Dow’s fault that the Indian government and sat on the money instead of using it for cleanup or victims reparations. Remember, part of the $470 million settlement was that the local government be responsible for cleanup (presumably using part of the settlement for cleanup).

Now, Union Carbide can’t take what happened back – I’m sure they would like to if they could. No one wants to be responsible for up to 20,000 deaths. But they can’t, so they spent more on the cleanup efforts than any other single U.S. corporation for a chemical spill or dumping in the short history of corporate environmental responsibility. Not only more, but almost 5 times more (6-7 times more in current dollars).

So where is the justification, legal or moral, for the Indian Government to sue Dow, who was NOT responsible for the incident, for $22 million when they are sitting on $330 million from the initial settlement? Why should Dow pay for the cleanup when Union Carbide already paid for the cleanup as part of it’s 1989 settlement, and paid more than any other single U.S. corporation in history (that I could find) for a chemical spill!

If Dow were to accept any responsibility, it would set a very dangerous precedent. Can you imagine a world where a company is sued by a government and settles: the case is closed. That company is acquired 15 years later. The government now sues the new corporation even though the previous acquisition has already fulfilled its legal and financial obligations. That’s legally and morally irresponsible, especially considering the goverment in question has 70% of the intial settlement still on-hand.

Bhopal Sources:

Wikipedia Article on Bhopal with Citations

Union Carbide Bhopal Information Center

New York Times Article from 2004: “Bhopal Victims Not Fully Paid, Rights Group Says.”

Other Sources:

EPA: Hudson River Superfund Site

EPA: Sikes Disposal Pits Superfund Site

DOJ: Fiscal Year 2001 Accomplishments (Including Sikes Disposal Pits Settlement)

EPA: Love Canal History

DOJ: Press Release on Love Canal Settlement

Graduate School Money VI: A Comparison

July 19, 2007 at 4:31 pm | | grad life, stipends

Speaks for itself


Graduate School Money, Part 3

July 19, 2007 at 7:28 am | | grad life, stipends




Graduate School Money, Part II

July 18, 2007 at 6:41 pm | | grad life, stipends


Graduate School Base Stipend: $26,600


Federal/State Income Taxes at ca. 12.5% : $3,325

Rent at Palo Alto Average* of $904/month (US Census Bureau): $10848

National Average Food Expenditure for Single Male with Moderate Budget of $238/month: $2856

Subsidized Stanford Cardinal Health Care at $342/quarter: $1368

Averge Car Insurance for California at $847/6 mo.: $1694

1/2 Annual Automotive Travel (6250 miles) at average 21 mi/gal at Palo Alto gas price of $3.21/gal: $955

Cell Phone Cost (Cheapest Cingular Plan) at $40/mo: $480

*Note: Stanford Graduate Single Occupancy (i.e. 1 person/room) Housing rent ranges from $640 for Crothers to $994 for the EV studios. The Rate for Rains, Lyman, and EV 2Br is $790. There is an additonal a $27/month mandatory fee for telecommunication and laundry.

Total Income: $26,600

Total Expenditures: $21,526

Estimated Disposable Income: $5074/year or $423/month ($211/paycheck).

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