stupid move of the year

April 30, 2009 at 8:09 pm | | grad life

My wife’s coworker came back from a vacation in Mexico. Today this coworker was sick and sneezing … and still at work! My wife had to tell her coworker to go home.

If we get swine flu, I’m suing that numb-scull and my their employer. (I like over-reacting.)

some light reading

April 17, 2009 at 7:31 am | | everyday science, grad life, literature, nerd, science community

What do you read…


…while on the toilet?


April 13, 2009 at 10:03 am | | grad life, stipends

scmf-thumbI’ve started the Stanford Chemistry Microloan Fund.

With fees increasing and stipends not growing, it seems that now is a perfect time to add a safety net.

The concept is simple: contribute a small amount to the fund, then you have the opportunity to borrow interest-free. The idea is to help each other when we need a little cash between paychecks. When Stanford decides to raise fees by an order of magnitude. When we have to pay for conferences and airfare with our own credit cards, and hope we get reimbursed before our next payment is due. When living paycheck-to-paycheck gets a little nerve-racking.

Currently, SCMF is open to all graduate students in the Stanford Department of Chemistry, with exceptions made on a case-by-case basis. By keeping contributions and loans within the immediate community, I hope to maintain trust and transparency. (Of course, if someone outside the community wishes to donate to the fund, I’d be more than happy to take their donation.)

I’ll let you all know how it goes. So far, we have a handful of contributors, and a couple hundred in the “bank.” With several more small contributions, and some large ones from some angel investors (e.g. grad students married to someone with a real job), we should have a fund.

If it works out, I’ll suggest you start something similar at your own school.

just a minor fee increase…

April 8, 2009 at 12:21 pm | | grad life, stipends

I received this email today:

We are writing to inform you that beginning in the fall of 2009, Stanford University will implement a Campus Health Service Fee of $167 per quarter.  The fee will cover many services provided by Vaden Health Center, including primary care medical visits, psychological evaluation and short-term therapy at Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and access to health and wellness programs.

The mandatory fee will apply to all undergraduate and graduate students enrolled on the Stanford campus, including visiting researchers and students participating in high school summer programs that result in course credit at Stanford.

Wha? An increase in fees of $167 per quarter?!? Right now, I’m paying $30 in fees. Now it will be almost $200. That’s nearly an order-of-magnitude increase!

There are 17,833 students at Stanford, so that means an increase in well over $10 million in yearly revenue from fees. Holy shit!

So let me get this straight. In these hard economic times, the best idea is to squeeze millions of dollars out of the poorest people on campus? Without warning and in the middle of their schooling?

Bullshit. There should be a boycott.

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.

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.

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.

i am not an NMR

February 4, 2009 at 3:49 pm | | grad life

I am a physical chemist.

My office is directly across from the NMR room. Students (undergrads? first-years? I dunno) keep knocking on my door and asking me if I have a key—of if someone is coming to train them—or if this is the NMR room. WTF?

I’ve never used the NMRs alone and I’m not trained on them and I don’t have a key.

Leave me alone.

jobs anyone?

January 26, 2009 at 3:03 pm | | grad life, job search, science community

I need to start looking for a job.

W. E. Moerner, a chemistry professor at Stanford University, says he has a couple of Ph.D. students aiming to graduate later this year, and he is worried about their ability to find positions. “This is only a concern right now, as they have most of the year to finish,” he says. (C&E News)


Meet Data

January 21, 2009 at 4:36 pm | | grad life

My wife and I recently adopted this little guy.  Originally my wife was shopping scientist names for him, but I’ve always thought that was a little too cliche.  Were it up to me, he’d be named Yossarian, but you’re supposed to go 2 syllables.  After hitting all the obvious candidates, we had reach a soft agreement on “Fermi,” since I’ve always wanted a white cat named Fermi.  And about $3.50.


It was about that time I realized the Fermi idea originated from the eminent Lt. Commander Data’s own cat Fermi, at which point the choice of naming was clear.  They’re both pale white, frequently cock their heads and stare blankly, and I can only imagine an android also relieves himself in postures a contortionist would find impossible to achieve.


While formally named after the TNG character, our choice of alias also satisfied an ulteriour motive.  In the incidence where I get caught going home early, I can confidently tell my boss, “Don’t worry, I’m going home to play with my Data.”

structured mouthfeel

January 13, 2009 at 11:04 am | | grad life

My bag coffee beans reads the following:

Rwanda. Dusty sweet. Dry yet juicy complexity delivers a well balanced flavor experience. Nice mouthfeel with structure. Acidity is full but not overblown. Tight citrus blossom and muscavado sugar aromas.

Whoa. I don’t taste any tight blossoms or structure. My labmate suggested that maybe they used Penta Water for the structure. I think that the structure comes from the coffee matrix being below its glass transition temperature.

Anyway, the coffee is really good.

The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research

January 4, 2009 at 3:06 pm | | grad life, literature, science community


I came across an interesting essay about the scientific process.  I agree with the author that students are generally shielded from the  difficulty of doing research until graduate school.  I think that the reality of lab work can be made clear if modern lab classes were less “cook book” and more research-like.  Your thoughts?

electronics cleanup

December 19, 2008 at 2:27 pm | | everyday science, grad life, great finds, hardware

We needed to move several pieces of electronic equipment from a table because they were “blocking” some circuit-breaker boxes. So we discarded of all the spare monitors that were stored under laser tables to make room for the no homeless equipment:


In the process, we found some desiccated rats. W.E. found one that had a frikkin’ wasp nest growing inside it.


Weird. And very gross.

room for moms

November 10, 2008 at 11:48 am | | EDSELs, grad life

A few years ago, our Department Chair (Dick Zare) extended the maternaty leave for students. That was nice. But the Chemistry Department doesn’t have any lactation rooms, so students were forced to go to the biology building (gross).

Now Zare has found a room. Therefore, I award Richard N. Zare an EDSEL Award for his current and previous efforts for pregnant students in the Stanford Department of Chemistry.

I really do think that Stanford Chemistry treats its graduate students quite well. I suggest all you undergrads out there apply to Stanford. It’s a wonderful place (most of the time).

attila szabo’s autobiography

August 30, 2008 at 6:37 pm | | grad life, history, literature, nerd, science community

If you want a fun and inspiring story, read Attila Szabo‘s autobiography for his JPCB Festschrift (here). It’s only 4 pages.

Here’s a great except:

How could I get my hands on a little red phosphorus? Who would sell some to a 14 year old boy? Well, Fisher Scientific would.


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