Archive for the ‘Musings’ Category

So, now that you’ve survived freshman and sophomore year and you’re still a chemistry major, congratulations! Junior year is when things really suck…

6) Junior Year

This is a difficult year. Physical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, analytical chemistry, biochemistry, (insert chemistry elective here). Back in undergrad, we needed two semesters of all these classes, so we usually distributed this amongst junior and senior year, especially since the labs that came with them were especially difficult.

If your school offers a technical writing class. TAKE it. Writing lab reports is not sufficient in learning how to write technically.

Pay attention to your classes. This is very important stuff as it’s general chemistry come back to haunt you in a more difficult and indepth form. I really liked pchem, inorganic and I was meh about analytical. Biochem was fun though, it was okay.

At this point, you should be in a research group, if you want to go to graduate schools. Hopefully you have REU experience underneath your belt as well, so just keep up the studying. Try to go to an ACS meeting and present some of the research you’ve done before. It’s a fun experience and always looks good on grad school apps. If your school has the Beckman Scholars program, apply for it. It’s competitive but it’s really good as well. If you’re an organiker, try to go for the Pfizer Undergrad Scholar program as well. Apply for undergrad research fellowships at your institution as they can go to travel as well. Also, apply for a Goldwater if you want. It’s a hella prestigious scholarship, and people who win these often go on to win NSFs, Hertzes, etc.

The summer of your junior year, if you’re interested in graduate school, start making your list. Start studying for the Chem GREs. If you’re apping for the NSF your senior year, make sure you get the waiver so the NSF can pay for your GREs instead.

7) Senior Year

Ahhh, senior year! You’re almost done. Some people go supersenior year as well, but the same advice applies. Hopefully, you’ve made your list of graduate schools. Put them into three categories: Wishlist, Reasonable, and Safety. Have most of your schools be in the Reasonable category and you’ll be fine. If you are applying, make sure that you ask your letter recommenders early. Since most grad school apps are due in December, start asking your letter recommenders in August/September.

Dont get senioritis! Finish off your classes but have fun as well, it’s your last year to really take a spring break, as there is no spring break in grad school and the real world. Treasure your friends, and dont slack off. You can slack off in the summer after graduation!

This year, make sure you apply for fellowships. As my advisors (both in undergrad and in grad school said), you definitely wont win any fellowships if you dont apply. It’s a good exercise to write the proposals even though very few people win in chemistry. It’s tough out there, and it’s good practice for future scientific writing.

Well, with all that said and done, you’ve hopefully graduated with your chem degree. Congratulations, you are a chemist! As I’m only a grad student, I dont feel that comfortable putting stuff down for grad school..perhaps when I graduate I’ll do it. But once you graduate with your B.S. or B.A. you’re a chemist! Congratulations!


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So I remember reading the “So you want to be a physicist” back in the days that I did want to be a physicist. I still do, to an extent, but solid state sciences have become quite interdisciplinary with chemistry and physics, hence I’m studying both. I digress.

I’ve looked around and havent been able to find any entries or anything of the like with chemistry, and since my adorable little niece told me the other day, she wants to be a chemist like me (awwww, isnt that cute?), I figured I’d right up a piece. So Jessica, this goes to you my dear little niece.

So You Want To Be a Chemist, Part 1: Elementary, middle and high school

1) Elementary

My niece is only six, so I’m starting early. We have to train her afterall, and any other young budding chemists out there. I know from experience, cause well, my parents are both involved in the chemical sciences, so I think that’s why I probably ended up where I am.

So you /think/ you want to be a chemist! That’s really cute at the elementary school age, and so at this point, the parentals should be exposing all young children to the wonders that is science. Physics, chemistry and biology and even engineering should be taken in, and there are wonderful shows out there that kids can watch on PBS. Back in the day, I had Mr. Wizard and 3-2-1 contact, but alas, those are gone. I dont know what the current shows are, but I still highly recommend the Discovery channel for some good parent-children TV watching. My favorites are still especially Shark Week, Dinosaur Week and any good astrophysics stuff.

Back when I was a kid, Nova on PBS was a delightful source of edu-tainment. Parents, if you’re not involved in the sciences, you can learn a lot from these shows as well, as they arent specifically made for us geeks. In fact, they’re made to reach out to the masses to get a growing interest in the sciences, so make sure your children watch, I know I make Jessica and my own siblings watch. Ha!

At the elementary and middle school ages, museums are always a wonderful option. Start off with children’s museums that show the wonders of science. There are always demos, lots of games children can play, and of course, the demos.

There are lots of books out there that show neat little demos and tricks that can be made with science. Right now, for instance, there is a book called “Inexpensive Experiments for Young Children”. Back when I did demos for young kids as an undergrad, we used a lot of tricks in that book and a series of other books that were simply fun and awesome.

Here’s one that kids generally like, and it’s easy to do.


“Make your own GAK”

Ingredients: Disposable cups, Elmer’s glue, food coloring, and Borax (you can get this in the dishwashing aisle of your grocery store)

Procedure: In a disposable paper cup, pour in Elmer’s glue and food coloring. Mix well with a toothpic until desired color is achieved. For extra coolness, simply swirl different colors in with a toothpic for a tie-dye effect. Meanwhile, prepare a supersaturated solution of Borax and cold water. (Take a cup of borax and mix it in half a gallon of water). Once the Borax is nice and dissolved, mix the solution in with the Elmer’s glue mix. Polymerization and crosslinking will occur to produce ‘gak’, and have your little one mix with his/her little hands in the disposable cup. The glue wont stick to the little one’s fingers and will instead continue the polymerization process. Decant the excess Borax solution and play with your gak!

(Parents, it’s easy clean up if you get it on the carpet. Use soapy water to clean off and use a little Borax solution to make sure there wasnt any glue in there. Then vacuum).


See! That’s one of the experiments we did with ACS. All the little kids loved it. Speaking of ACS, if you’re a parent who has a budding little chemist, bring them out to local OPEN HOUSES in different universities. My undergrad alma mater always had an open house for the locals where all the student organizations would have booths and generally try to get kids to go to college and encourage their parents to start saving up for it.

With ACS, we always did the GAK experiments and made liquid nitrogen icecream. It was a treat for everyone, and the kids became excited. The SPS (Societyof Physics Students) collaborated with us, and we showed the YBCO and BSCO superconductors as well, so it was fun for all the student affiliates and the families.

2) Middle School

So all that stuff is good for elementary school, but what about middle school? My own siblings are in that age, and this is what we do to encourage their inner geekyness. Science fairs! Oh, yes there’s science fairs starting at kinder, but at the middle school level, you can start doing neater stuff.

We’re not talking about high level experiments, but simplethings can and should be done to promote your budding chemist’s interests and experimental skills. At this stage in the game, just general training in critical thinking and analytical skills and the introduction to the scientific method should still be used. That way, your budding scientist can go off to be an engineer, or a biologist, chemist, geologist, physicist or mathematician.

Take your Pre-AP courses. Challenge yourself. Take Prealgebra in 7th grade, and Algebra in 8th. If you’re really good at math, take it early, and definitely go for the TIP (Talent Identification Program) at your local school. This is essentially taking the SAT in the 7th grade to see if you qualify for some special summer programs at Duke, Stanford, John Hopkins, Northwestern, and a fine variety of other schools. If you manage to get into the program, take a science or math related course and inundate yourself in a pre-college experience by staying at the dorm and actually learning in the summer. I know these programs continue after the 7th grade, so if you can afford it, go for it. Scholarships based on need are offered, so dont feel like this is a program only for the rich. Here’s the DUKE TIP website. Apparently, they have a 4th-5th grade program now starting in 2009! http://www.tip.duke.edu/

3) High School

So, you’ve done what you can in elementary and middle school. High school is where you can actually start being a real scientist in training, if you feel that’s your passion. That’s when I started anyway. Make sure you take advantage of the Pre-AP and AP Curriculum at this level. This curriculum is always good. Pre-AP Biology, Chemistry, and Physics are good, and if you can, double up with some AP Biology, AP Chemistry and AP Physics. Back at my high school, I was able to take AP Physics and AP Biology my senior year, and I took AP Chemistry with Pre-AP Physics my junior year. It was a sweet deal. Of course, make sure you take AP Calculus AB and AP Calculus BC if your school offers it. Take advantage of what you can.

If your school doesnt have extensive AP curriculum, look into a dual credit program. Local community colleges often partner up with high schoolers so that you can take classes (usually for free) at a local community college. If you’re going to a public school for college (like I did), these classes typically transfer. Even if you dont, they’re a good foundation that you can use to further your learning once you are in college. In addition, look at the different curriula your school has to offer. We had a minimum, regular and distinguished plan. The distinguished plan required AP tests (minimum score of 4), and you needed 3 of them. In addition, we had the independent study option where you could find a mentor to work under (some people interned in journalism, while I and a couple of my friends went to the local colleges to do research. I did it for the experience, not to try to get a SIEMENS Westinghouse Competition. That’s what other programs are for ^_^). It’s a good experience, so if your school has it, look into it.

Science fairs are your friend. Science fairs are also where people start differentiating themselves. I noticed that those kids with parents in academia, engineering or generally had money, sent their kids off to various professors at nearby colleges to do their science fair projects. As one of the kids who didnt do that, I HATED those kids, but if you can go for it try. Most professors dont hire high schoolers, and in all honesty, as a high schooler, you’ll be doing the really simple stuff, but it’s good training anyway. Back in undergrad, we had one of those high schoolers who wanted to go for the SIEMENS Westinghouse Competition, and I was his undergrad mentor. He helped me on my project and he got to do a presentation on it.

My experience with my high schooler was not a good one. He wanted to do it for the money. HE wasnt passionate about the science and I’m pretty sure his overbearing parents made him do it. Do not be one of these kids. Your mentor will only get angry and frustrated. Trust me, we can tell if you’re doing it for the wrong reason.

HOWEVER, if you are passionate, there are some programs that are good to try. In Texas, I was part of the Welch Summer High School Scholars program. These are all the kids who wanted to do experiments and learn. We were all passionate and we all ended up SIEMENS Westinghouse types and went on to International Science Fairs at some point. This was a fun experience, but generally, other states have programs like these as well. There’s one program at MIT that accepts high schoolers from all over and is quite competitive. It’s an international program, so really only the top of the top get in, but I’ll look up the information and post it at a later date.

If you really want to be a chemist, I’d do these types of programs. But remember, do it because you want to, not because anyone else wants you to. If you do it for the wrong reasons, you might get burned out at a young age and then not want to join a STEM field later on. I’ve seen it happen to friends of mine and it’s a waste of potential, IMHO, as they ended up being business majors who make way more money than me now…(waittaminute)

Well that’s all for part 1. Later on, I’ll do pt 2. College.

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I had a really interesting conversation with one of cohort the other day about a few things, primarily our students’ views of us. We got on the topic of assertion versus bitchyness. We could both act the same way, but by virtue of her being a woman, she’d be all the b-word and I’d just be called assertive because I’m a dude. This, made me laugh, cause well, I’ve heard myself be called the b-word, but well a different one. Or I’ve also been called a phallic object of sorts. Either way, I didnt let it bother me because I knew that me not giving out high grades would affect my students’ perception of me. Come on, there’s that whole thing about being sensitive to your students’ needs afterall.

I did change this year. Tremendously, actually, but I think that’s due to my situation. I was a lot more sensitive, and while I kept up the same rigorous grading standards I had before (trust me, I graded difficulty and was generally nitpicky), my students liked me this year. They thought I was fair and tough, and they felt like I actually cared about their progress, which I did. I taught fellow graduate students this year and it was a delight to have them. I got to lecture in a class, and I think the main difference between my transformation from dick to awesome TA was well, humility.

Last year, I taught undergrads. I did the whole “I am your TA, I have a degree you dont” approach, and I could see why I came off as a dick. I still did the same things I did this year, smiling, joking around, trying to be accessible, but since my students were just first year grad students, I didnt have a sense of lording over them and I think my hard grading and actually wanting people to learn were seen as passion for teaching instead of being a jerk.

Now, my students also had my friend’s class. However, more colorful things were said about her. I think the difference though is the way we might have approached the students. I told them I had office hours and to please only come then, as I had other responsibilities as well. I also told them I could be emailed if something was really needed. I also told them I would be available after lectures to discuss issues, and of course, I did what all good lecture TAs do and that’s give review sessions.

She did the same thing, but she was called things like the b-word. Her students were even well, scared of her. I felt bad for her, cause that’s how I know some of my undergrads felt about me last year. She thought it was because she was a woman in a position of power and went on about sexism in our society. She went on how it was okay cause I was a man in a position of power and how that was accepted, and while she was a woman and so she’d always be called a b.

Please, get over yourself. Some of my undergrads hated me and called me worse names. Sometimes a b is just a b. While our teaching styles were similar, our interactions with the students were different. She still went through it as a “I am the TA, you are my student. Respect mah authoritah!”.

Solid, but you’re a hardass, you didnt sing kumbaya with them or hold hands as their TA did you? Heck flipping no. I dont believe in mollycoddling (again, a mistake when it comes to teaching undergrads, they like mollycoddling), and I didnt plan on doing it with the graduate students. I also had the “I am the TA, you are my student. Respect mah authoritah!”. But the difference is I did it with a smile.

I know it sounds wierd, but every interaction with my student was with a smile. Even when inside, I was going “OMGWTFBBQ, why dont you know this?!?!?” in my head, I just smiled and apologized for /MY/ oversight and assumption that they new material. When there were mistakes on exams, I’d announce, “Oh, due to /my/ bad, problem so-and-so should have blah in addition to blah.”

Basically, I was humble. That’s difficult in grad school on some level with one-uppers and your own insecurities plaguing you, but you know what, humility is a good thing. I think I’ll stick with it for a while. Let’s see where it takes me.

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Entitlement and grades

Now that I’m done TAing and all my evaluations are in, I can vent a little. Back when I was a scared little undergrad, I never had a sense of entitlement for my grades. Yes, I turned in subpar and mediocre stuff. But yes, I got C and Ds for it as well. I knew that when I didnt put in the work, it would be reflected on my GPA, and that’s why my undergraduate transcript still haunts me today. As a grad student though, I worked hard and did what I could, and I earned the As that I have. For the subquality work I did do in graduate school, well the B- (and in my department, if you have two you’re automatically on academic probation) on my transcript scared the shit out of me so I put myself together.

In both of my experiences, I never thought I had deserved a good grade. When I took my advisor’s class, I didnt expect an A since I was in his group. In fact, I worked hard because I didnt want to look bad in front of my advisor. but the past two years has been a nightmare in terms of grading.

Most people I know tend to have a crappy outlook on undergrads in really high priced institutions. I didnt, as I’m a public state school kid myself, but now that I am a grad student at one of those ritzy institutions, I can sort of understand why people stereotype these undergrads the way they do.

For instance, the tuition here for undergrads is $55k a year. That was more than my four years in undergrad put together. Students here have a huge sense of entitlement, and as one instructor, who shall remain nameless told me:

“The students are consumer and you are the product. If they dont like the product, they have every right to complain.”

I worked hard as a TA damnit. I knew all my students names within the first week, I graded labs and homeworks and exams more than once, and I wanted my kids to learn. Yes, I might have been a hardass when it came to perfection and quality work, but I wanted them to see that they were capable of doing so much more. That was my first quarter. It completely backfired on me. While I was still an idealistic graduate student back then, I sent out a mid quarter evaluation with questions rating me from 1-5 and then a miscellaneous comments section. I essentially ripped off the course evaluations, cause I wanted to know how I was doing. Boy, that was a bad idea.

To this day, I still remember the response of one student.

“[whine bitch groan about how hard a grader I am]….My parents pay $$$$$$ so that I dont have a C in my intro chemistry class.”

That threw me into a conniption fit. I was pissed. I ranted and raved and punched things. And well, it’s that kind of entitlement, that sense of entitlement that pisses me off.

Then there was another student I had. She was a sorority girl. I’ve had lots of Greek kids in my classes, and they always tended to do fine, but this one was..awful. She’s a legacy student and was a constant one-upper, but never showed anything for it. She wanted to leave my lab that I was teaching 4 hours early to attend a sorority event cause she wanted to get prettied up. I said okay, but you’re going to lose this much of your grade. She threw a fit and still left.

The lab instructor for that class threw me under the bus. I got disciplined by the professors in the department, and well, that’s when I got told about the consumer nature. I feel that since students now have teaching evaluations, which are highly dependent on the grades we give them, grades have gone up.

Instead of the teacher having the power, the student feels they have the power because they somehow think our careers are in their hands, which on some level is true due to the tenuring process. All this is just messed up. And yeah..I’m annoyed. As much as I want to be a professor someday, maybe this will turn me away from it.

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I’m now finished teaching

This is a glorious feeling, kind of sort of. I finished TAing now, as I finished grading the finals for a class that I was doing. On one side, it feels good that I dont have to grade papers, hold office hours, and do all those things. But on the other hand, I enjoyed teaching the class.

I was a TA for a lecture class, and well, I liked it a lot more than having to TA for a lab. There’s a huge difference in TAing for lab and lecture. That much I learned. So, I guess here are some lessons I learned. I’m posting it more for myself. I want to become a professor, and I dont want to forget these lessons. That would be bad.

1) There are no stupid questions
There really arent. Questions need to be answered. Even the obvious questions that show the student has not paid attention should be answered or else they can screw up the experiment. Questions that seem very basic shouldnt be looked at from a “OMGWTF why dont they know this?!?!?” type angle. People come from different places and have different experiences. They may have not learned the same thing you did. Which leads to the next thing I learned…

2) Dont compare them to others
Dont compare them to yourself. That is bad. Dont compare them to previous students. That is also bad. Dont compare them to each other. That is bad. All this will lead to frustration on all parties involved and can end up in some hurt feelings if you’re not careful.

3) Dont ever hold office hours in your office
I learned this the hard way. Have someplace else. It’s also annoying that when they find your office, they feel like they can just stop by anytime. Why the hell is that anyway?

4) Dont date your students or former students
Okay, so I didnt do this, but I know people who did. It turns out to be very awkward. I know from the grad student/authority figure type, it’s way awkward, especially when it happens. So yeah..just had to get that out there. Fraternizing is frowned upon. For the love of God, wait until they graduate or something. Dont make it awkward for your friends. GEEEEEZ!

5) Dont be afraid to lay down the law
Sometimes, students are just a huge pain in the ass. They need to get checked. Badly. But at at the same time, dont be a dick about it. Grad students always complain and bitch about undergrads. I think it’s a rule or some change of mentality. I’m sure our TAs did it about us. But I digress, if you’re going to check your student, dont be a HUGE dick about it. Just be firm and fair. Not a bastard.

And those are the lessons I learned.

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My first post

Wow, this is my first post and my foray into the chemical blogosphere. I decided that I might as well try this thing, since I’m working on preparing for qualifiers anyway. That means lots of reading, oh so much reading, that makes my mind boggle. Oh well, let’s do it then..

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