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


May 2, 2008 at 1:33 pm | | grad life

While biking across campus to the main library, I overheard this conversation:

Very young boy (looking at the Stanford Quad): Is it a prison?

Father: Well, not technically a prison, no.


stanford ’89 quake story

April 23, 2008 at 8:32 am | | grad life, lab safety

I recently heard a great story from a faculty member about the 1989 earthquake here at Stanford. The quake started around 5 PM and lasted for about 15 seconds.

Just before the quake, two chemistry grad students who were coming into lab after dinner had parked in an illegal space next to the Old Chemistry building, that had been condemned for being earthquake-unsafe. As they shut off the engine, the quake started. Looking at the run-down stone building directly in front of them, the two decided to get out of the car and try to move away from Old Chem. After the earth stopped shaking, this is what remained of their car:

A chimney from Old Chem had crumbled off the roof and landed on their car! They would have been dead if they hadn’t decided to get out of their car. I had seen that picture before, but I didn’t know that people were so close to being killed, and that they were chemists!

The funniest part is that Harden McConnell gave the two students the Department’s Safety Award for getting out of their car that that had parked in a dangerous illegal spot during an earthquake. Genius!

For more info, you can read the Chemistry Department’s history here, or Stanford’s quake pages here. Interesting stuff.

(Lab) Climate Change

April 13, 2008 at 3:42 pm | | grad life, stupid technology

The centerpiece of operation “Spider Monkey” was a DPSS pump laser to replace our old, post catastrophic cooling loss YAG. Everything was great until it was discovered the chiller lacked a secondary cooling loop to discharge the waste heat into the house cooling water. Needless to say, the 1kW localized heat source and accompanying thermal gradients didn’t help the laser stability. To mitigate the problem until the new chiller arrives, we decided to do a little home HVAC. Behold:

I actually felt a little dirty on this particular jury rigging adventure. We were using duct tape… to tape a duct. I’m sure there is some sort of warning label on the tape stating, opposite to your spray paint and OTC pharmaceuticals, that “Using this product for its intended purpose is a violation of Federal law.” The duct tape functioned rather poorly, I might add. Without the appropriate flashing, the process of sealing the duct to the box involved a round peg / square hole type problem of the duct tape folding over on itself.

The whole apparatus seems to work pretty well. I was finally able to get my Ti:Sapph under control, all while staying within the ambient operating temperature values for the chiller.

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.

thwarted bike theft

February 15, 2008 at 9:06 am | | grad life, hardware

Any moderately good bike is always under threat on Stanford’s campus. Jerks drive around with pickup trucks and just steal any bike they can sell.

I had my first road bike stolen my first year, and I’m still pissed off about it. Now I ride the junkiest beater-bike I can: no derailleurs (poor-man’s fixie), bad brakes, rusty chain, etc. Nevertheless, some idiot stole the rear wheel off this heap; they needed a wrench to remove that piece of crap wheel, and there’s no way they could have sold it for anything more than 12 cents. The crazy thing: there were wheels all over the ground from previous thefts. I just grabbed one that sorta fit, and rode away. WTF?!? Why take the time to steal a crap wheel when there are half a dozen equally crappy wheels sitting on the ground, rife for the taking?

This morning, I saw evidence of some asshole:


The thief didn’t even have time to remove the jack. And they left the crank on the ground:


I hope the person who caught the thief in the act disposed of their body in a place where no one will find it. Or even better, I hope they sold the body on eBay and made enough cash to buy three locks.

I’m tempted to set up some booby traps on a nice bike some night. Nothing fatal, just severely uncomfortable. And something that might lead the police to the thieves. Any suggestions?

Do Not be Shame Because of Your Instrument Size

February 14, 2008 at 9:26 am | | grad life, hardware, nerd, wild web

From an email I received this morning:

Your chick shack up with your mate that is why you are alone.

By reason of of his instrument size. Chicks love huge device.

Do not worry bro. Today you have good possibility to Increase your machine size.

Lots of men the world over have increase. Now its your turn.

What the hell? My delay line is already 5 ft, quadruple passed. That’s a full 40 ns of pump-probe action. What I lack in girth (of pulse bandwidth), I make up for in S/N. Too bad it wasn’t enough to save my marriage.

strange ice

January 17, 2008 at 5:35 pm | | EDSELs, everyday science, grad life

edsel.jpgToday, I became the senior graduate student in my lab. Which is scary, because who do I go to when I have questions?!?! The new students joining the lab tend to come to me with a lot of questions. I’m sure the other senior lab members get a lot of questions, too; and it’s fun to watch the now-second years get all the same questions that they asked me when they joined. I really like helping people with science questions, and I want the new members of the lab to benefit from me just as much as I benefited from my seniors when I joined. But then there are those other questions…

This EDSEL goes for the Best Question from a New Lab Member of 2007. Runner-up is “What is the phone number here in lab?” My answer: “Um, it’s written right there on the phone.” The winner goes to this conversation:

Post Doc: I just got a package that had ice in it to keep the sample cold. What do I do with the ice?

Sam: You can put ice in the sink. It’s just water, so it’s OK to go down the drain.

PD: But it’s strange ice.

Sam: What do you mean, “strange”? Is it dry ice?

PD: I dunno.

Sam: You know, dry ice: solid carbon dioxide?

PD: I dunno.

Sam: Hrumph. Is it smoking?

PD: Yes.

Sam: That’s dry ice. Just leave it in the box and it will sublime.


Now, the post doc isn’t from the US, so maybe he couldn’t remember the word for dry ice. But I thought the “frozen CO2” description would help. I guess not. I’d ask him to post his side of the story, but he’s no longer in the lab.

“Post Doc,” if you’re reading this: Congrats! You won an EDSEL.

Hotel Mauna Kea

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

Sent to me by my research advisor:

what kind of jerk…

September 6, 2007 at 1:30 pm | | everyday science, grad life, lab safety

…would spill some crazy fluorescent* solution on the hallway floor and leave it there?


Well, it’s not nearly as bad as an unreported spill could be (think of this!), but it’s still annoying. I have no idea what this stuff is, and it’s right outside my office door. I’m right next to the NMR facility, so I suspect some jerk dropped their NMR tube and was so distraught—having lost their newly synthesized whatever—to be responsible enough to wipe up their spill with their tear-soaked handkerchief. Jerk

Instead, the Environmental Health and Safety people will have to come out here and do it. In fact, a guy just got here and is trying to clean it off the floor. His orange-cleaner stuff didn’t work, so I gave him toluene, acetone, and methanol—that runs the gamot for polarity. Ah! the acetone worked well (it took off the floor wax, too!).


* Of course, the first thing I did was grab my trusty UV flashlight (385-nm diodes) and see how fluorescent it was. Cool show!


Would have been cooler with the lights off.

From “publish to perish” to “patent and prosper”

July 25, 2007 at 12:35 pm | | everyday science, grad life, literature, news, science community

Hey folks,

I recently came across a very interesting retrospective in the Journal of Biological Chemistry written by Howard Schachman, who’s been engaged in biochemistry research in Berkeley for over 50 years.

Schachman lays out the changing nature of research and academic life as he’s observed them over the past 50+ years. I, for one, am always interested to read about how things have changed and where they’re heading. Here’s a particularly interesting quote:

In 1953, while McCarthyism was rampant, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began screening grantees. Based on FBI reports, Oveta Culp Hobby, as Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in the Eisenhower administration, interceded and ordered the cancellation of grants to Linus Pauling and other prominent scientists.

Read on to find out what happened! I guess that president Rove’s clumsy meddling isn’t as bad as it can get.

Gone for Good: Tales of University Life After the Golden Age

July 20, 2007 at 7:46 am | | grad life, literature

Somebody recently raised the question: would our professors survive as young scientists in today’s competitive academic environment? After all, their Ph.D. was 4 years, and doing a postdoc was unheard of. I’ve asked this question of several established faculty (John Brauman, Mike Fayer, Vijay Pande, Steve Boxer) and I am watching my cousin go through the tenure meat grinder as I prepare for it myself.

To anyone considering a life in academia, I strongly recommend reading this book by Stuart Rojstaczer (available in the Stanford chem library):


From the amazon.com blurb:

During the “golden age,” research money flowed freely. But the end of the cold war reduced competition within the international research community and government dollars diminished correspondingly, forcing schools to seek funding elsewhere. These days, Rojstaczer writes, overburdened professors must deal with making their courses easier for students (who seem more interested in heading out into the job market than in getting a quality education), which in turn increases the teachers’ popularity and assures future full classes. The educators must also contend with writing grant proposals, student athletes, and campus politics. Rojstaczer’s is not a pretty picture, but Gone for Good is an important book that suggests that the halls of ivy are not as green and fresh as one might hope. Ron Kaplan

If you’re seriously considering going into academia, reading this book is a must.

Graduate School Money VI: A Comparison

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

Speaks for itself


Graduate School Money V – Return of the PostDoc

July 19, 2007 at 12:54 pm | | grad life, stipends

To follow up on Charles’ theme, I decided to post what you can expect to make as a postdoc in the sciences. The information below comes from the excellent Sigma Xi postdoc survey. Read it and weep.

The salary increase from graduate student to postdoc is not too bad ( ~35%) but one must not forget that the average postdoc is in his/her early 30s, already has a partner/spouse that may or may not be working, and may be looking forward to starting a family:
Most schools base their postdoc salary from the current NIH postdoc stipend rate. These rates are only marginally adjusted for years of experience and do not reflect the differences in cost of living between, say, Ohio and NYC. Furthermore, most schools do not treat their postdocs as students so on-campus housing, medical, gym, and other “perks” are significantly more expensive.

Graduate School Money IV – Revenge of the PhD

July 19, 2007 at 12:08 pm | | grad life, stipends

After reading Charles’ excellent summary, I ran around our lab @ Columbia and surveyed the grad students:

Subject A – Biochemistry Graduate Student

Base salary: ~$28,000
After taxes: ~$24,000

  • Medical insurance covered by Columbia.
  • Monthly Transportation Cost: $100 for MetroCard and occasional taxi
  • Columbia subsidized studio: $900/mo
  • Basic cell phone plan: $55/mo
  • Monthly food expense: $300

Disposable income: $7,740/yr or $645/mo

Subject B – Biology Graduate Student

Base salary: $27,600
After taxes: ~$23,500

  • Medical insurance covered by Columbia.
  • Monthly Transportation Cost: $90 for MetroCard
  • Columbia subsidized apartment share: $770/mo
  • Basic cell phone plan: $55/mo
  • Monthly food expense: $400

Disposable income: $7,720/yr or $643/mo

There you have it – two very consistent data points. Even though the cost of living in NYC is greater than Palo Alto, generous student housing subsidies and inclusion of medical insurance make their disposable income greater than what you have.

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