Advice for ‘Hunting Season’

Merry Christmas to all of my followers!

For those of you, like me, who may need a bit of festive cheer through job-hunting season, I suggest you take a look at this article in ACS Central Science. It encourages us not to seek out box-ticking experience and training in order to reach a career goal which may not be relevant when the time comes, and to instead carry out work which inspires you, and solve problems that you genuinely want to solve.

The article’s author, Carolyn Bertozzi of Stanford University, encourages to learn the skill of recognising an opportunity and making the most of it. After all, employers will respond more to someone who shows genuine drive, passion and problem-solving ability, than someone who has gone through their career simply doing what they think is necessary to satisfy a set of apparent requirements for their ideal job.

I don’t know about you, but it perked me up about some recent job-seeking disappointments, and I’m determined to plough through ‘hunting season’ with renewed vigour in the New Year.

Don’t let job-hunting mar your holiday season. Use the time off to regroup and prepare yourself to go at it from a new angle in January. Above all, make sure you take time out and relax!

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Reproducibility – how important is it?

I came across an interesting post on the Science News website which explores the concept of reproducibility in all science – and how we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves if we struggle with it.

It’s common amongst all areas of science that published work is often found difficult to reproduce by other researchers, but how much of a problem is this, and should the scientists who published the work be punished for it?

Adam Fetterman, a social psychologist from the University of Essex, thinks issues with replication of work often become too personal, when “It should be about the research and not about researcher”. He also comments that “There are always going to be things that are wrong in our science. No one should be blamed for having things be wrong or demonized for trying to correct them”.

He has a fair point. As a researcher myself, I know how difficult it can be to replicate work, and how the nature of science itself often means that the tiniest difference can have a dramatic effect on the outcome of an experiment. Sometimes the slight variance in result makes very little difference – such as a higher or lower yield of compound – but sometimes the entire findings can be put into question. This can lead researchers to feeling like frauds, or fretting over how their reputation will be affected. Should they feel this way, or is this merely part of the process? They’ve carried out their work and reported what they found, is it their fault that this result is anomalous?

Fetterman and his colleagues carried out a study to delve more into these ideas, and it appears that we assume far worse consequences of our work being unable to be replicated than is necessary. It would seem that scientists would not judge other researchers as harshly as we’d expect when their work came into question, and they viewed academics who admitted any issues much more favourably than those who stood by their questionable results.

The nature of science and of research in general often means that unusual answers are thrown at us, and we can’t always be sure we’ve got it right the first time. The irreproducibility of some results can in fact be interesting in their own right. If the same experiment keeps throwing up different results, we might be interested in why this is, and this leads to the development and improvement of a procedure, or to the discovery of entirely new science.

I myself have a colleague who has carried out the same reaction 22 times. Around half of those times he has successfully synthesised his desired product in high conversion, the others he has apparently randomly had significantly less success, with lower conversions and unseparable mixtures. If the first two or three of those reactions hadn’t have worked, he’d have given up altogether and assumed the reaction didn’t work. It just so happens that the first reaction worked perfectly, so he knew it could be done, but nothing seems to explain the variable results. This is just one example of how seemingly perfectly replicated experiments can give completely different results, and it would be really interesting to find out why.

We’ve all had fluke experiments which we’ve discounted as anomalous, but the issue of reproducibility is something that continues to penetrate all scientific research, and we need to decide how we’re going to view it if we want to continue moving forward.

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The Chemistry of Chocolate

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If you’ve got a sweet tooth, like me, you’ll be interested in this article published in Chemistry World this month outlining the chemistry behind perfectly tempered chocolate.

Tempering of chocolate involves the alteration of the crystal structure of the cocoa butter within chocolate to the highly desired V polymorph, and maintaining this high-gloss state means tempering must be carried out every time chocolate is heated and manipulated.

With cocoa butter being able to crystallise in 7 different polymorphs, the temperature of the chocolate must be carefully controlled and held between 27 and 35 degrees Celsius to achieve the desired effect. The process sounds simple, but is in fact terribly tricky.

Indeed, Matt Hartings, who teaches the chemistry of cooking classes at  American University, Washington DC, states that ‘Chocolate is one of the more demanding things chemically to work with.’

The changing crystal structures of cocoa butter explains why chocolate tends to go white over time, as the more stable polymorph VI is formed, which diffuse light and give the paler, less glossy colour. They can even explain how flavour can be changed, as smaller crystals release flavour more slowly into the mouth. It’s then down to the organic molecules within the chocolate to fully define what the flavour will be like.

The article goes on to describe how water emulsions can be used instead of traditional chocolate fillings such as creams and butter to give a creamy sensation in the mouth without taking over the chocolate flavour and giving the chocolates fewer calories.

The chemistry of chocolate is more complex and more intricate than I’m sure many of us imagined, and I found it fascinating reading about the level of control and thought required to make high-quality chocolate.

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The Big Lab Move – a Bumpy Road

It seems quite timely, given the fact that two large research groups from our chemistry department here at Nottingham have just left for pastures new, that the Nature Jobs website have posted this article about lab moves, and their difficulties.

It’s a tricky situation that very few employees in other sectors have to consider – when your supervisor decides to move, you have to move too.

Indeed, I can think of no other obvious role that would require an entire team and instrumental setup to be relocated simply on the decision of the person in charge to pack up and move on. In academia, however, it seems surprisingly commonplace. Here at Nottingham we’ve not only had two large groups move this summer, but over the past year or two we’ve had several researchers come to us – and bring their students with them.

It’s certainly not an easy experience for the PhD students and post-docs involved. Many have moved partners with them and settled down for at least the next few years together, only to be told they have to be uprooted all over again. Some have even purchased houses where they study/work, and have to go through the lengthy and often difficult process of selling up and moving.

Moving can be a particular problem for bioscience researchers, as it involves moving live animals and cultures, but chemists can have their share of problems with transport, too. One of our ex-professors had to arrange the transport of a significant number of Uranium compounds, which required extensive risk assessment and paperwork to be completed.

Practicalities and logistics of moving aside, there’s also the impact of this significant interruption to your work. For some students, their research can simply be halted and picked up after the move, but others may lose access to valuable equipment, resources and expertise, have issues with funding or find work needing to be redone, or new courseworks to complete.

It would seem, from the experiences shared in the article, that moving can be character building, with the stresses and challenges faced leaving researchers more confident and able to take on problems in the future. Nevertheless, they offer advice to anyone about to take on the hassle of moving labs, including to keep lab staff in the loop – an issue which comes up time and time again as supervisors keep their students in the dark for months before announcing an imminent move. Researchers are also advised to create back-up plans and resources – in case something unexpected happens to precious cargo en route to your new place of work/study.

Certainly, a move to another lab – whether to a nearby town, another county/state or another country altogether – is often an unwanted surprise. However, they don’t happen for nothing – often the move isn’t only enhancing your supervisor’s career, but can move you onto bigger and better things as well. A new challenge is often a new opportunity, so make the most of it!

Have you had to move your research to another place? How did it go?

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