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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 13, 2005

Arcadia's Furnishings

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Posted by Derek

I haven't worked in a US academic chemistry lab since 1988, so you'll have to take that into account as you read today's post. But I don't think that things have changed enough to invalidate this observation: many grad-school science labs are so depressing as to defy belief. This isn't universal, but I've seen enough examples to convince me. The atmosphere doesn't correlate well with the amount of money around, either, because I've seen some lower-level departments that weren't so bad, and a couple of Ivy League lab corridors that would pull the serotonin right out of your brain just to walk down them.

Many of the students and post-docs working at these places don't realize this, though, which is surely to their benefit. It's only after you've gone out into the Real World for a while and come back for a visit that it hits you. That's certainly how it dawned on me. I believe it says over there to the left that I went to Duke: maybe someone there could tell me if that second-floor "graduate student lounge" in the chemistry building is still there? I sure hope not.

This was one of the most cheerless rooms I've ever seen; it made laundromats seem warm and inviting. There was no ceiling as such, just the fluorescent lights hanging down from the industrial clutter above. Some scuffed paneling on the walls surrounded an assortment of worn, stained, mismatched thrift-store furniture. A small damaged table in the middle of a couple of sprung couches held an assortment of torn, dogeared cycling magazines, some of which had been there when I arrived and were still sitting there when I defended my PhD. A scarred counter held a 1970s-vintage microwave, which might as well have had "X-1 Prototype" stenciled on it. A bike frame without wheels, furry with dust, was chained to a rack in one corner. That was still there when I left, too.

You feel bad enough at 3 AM on a Sunday morning up in the lab, running a reaction for the twenty-third time. Taking a break by wandering down to a dingy room full of junk is not the recommended antidote. Why more people didn't just decide to end it all after a session in there is a real mystery.

Update: Reader LNT, in the comments to this post, passes on this news:

"I graduated from Duke in 2001 and the graduate student lounge hadn't changed from what you described. I don't know why university chemistry departments can't budget a couple thousand bucks a year to keep a decent communal area for their slave labor pool..."

Oh, dear.

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. Neema on November 14, 2005 1:25 AM writes...

You should find an excuse to visit UC San Francisco's new campus at Mission Bay. We all know we have it wonderful as grad students, maybe that's why we average 6 years or so.

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2. JSinger on November 14, 2005 11:00 AM writes...

David Baltimore explained (I think it was in an interview with him in Natural Obsessions) that when they designed the Whitehead Institute, it was with the goal of making it as comfortable as possible, to maximize the amount of work to be had out of grad students and postdocs. He noted something to the effect that "A lot of institutions believe that fluorescent lights and peeling paint are necessary for the soul of the scientist."

Having postdoc-ed at Whitehead -- it's an incredibly well-designed, efficient building that's more attractive to spend time in than is the average junior researcher's Cambridge home.

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3. milo on November 14, 2005 12:05 PM writes...

I have actually gotten emails from my boss that said "There are some nice chairs by the dumpster. You might want to get a few for the lab...". I am not kidding.

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4. LNT on November 14, 2005 12:52 PM writes...

Derek, I graduated from Duke in 2001 and the graduate student lounge hadn't changed from what you described. I don't know why university chemistry departments can't budget a couple thousand bucks a year to keep a decent communal area for thier slave labor pool...

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5. milo on November 14, 2005 1:46 PM writes...

So, do the folks who read this notice that the "quality" of their working environment really does affect how they work? My office as a 10x20 (10 tiles by 20 tiles...I think they ar 10 inch tiles) room with 4 people in it. I find it awfully hard to think when I am in there, even if everyone is nice and quiet.

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6. otis on November 14, 2005 4:55 PM writes...

Derek, you will pleased to hear that Duke is spending some of their endowment money with the help of some friends to replace the old Gross Chemistry labs. Duke is constructing the French Science Center (quite large, looks to be 4 stories) in the parking lot between Gross Chem and the Biology dept. Now, the $64,000 question: who is this 'French' person? (Hint: they always say you should marry money. Well, this person did.)

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7. Lou on November 15, 2005 7:23 AM writes...

Over here in good ol' England, in the Deparment of Chemistry at a College of the London University, the postgrad lounge was the most depressing place ever. Well, I think it was the postgrad lounge. It was some room in the end of the corridor with a microwave in the kitchen. I think the one light bulb that lit the place was broken anyway, and all the sofas/chairs had dodgy stains on them (no doubt from the gallons of coffee drunk by desperate students). The windows were high up on the walls, making you feel like you were in a prison cell. It was dark, and damp, and smelled really musty. Not exactly the place you want to eat your lunch in, but I remember seeing three Chinese postdocs having lunch and laughing.
I always wondered what they were talking about...

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8. Derek Lowe on November 15, 2005 8:41 AM writes...

Otis, the idea of the P.M. Gross Chemistry building being turned into a pile of rubble is very appealing indeed. Oh, and the fact the the grad students will have a new place to work is nice, too!

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9. Bill Tozier on November 15, 2005 12:04 PM writes...

I am at this very moment sitting in my rat-warren of an "office" (being a first-year graduate student, again). My desk is shoddier and more broken than the ones I can buy for $30 at Property Disposition; the air conditioner (Michigan? November? Snow tomorrow?) is blowing at speed down upon my head; the suspended ceiling gives every indication of losing its suspension in the next few days, especially in the middle, where the shreds of old Christmas? Grover Cleveland election night? decorations still dangle.

We are a pretty rich department, as it happens.

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10. Kim on November 15, 2005 2:05 PM writes...

What? You guys have a lounge? With a microwave and fridge? Back in the stone age (early 1980s) when I was in grad school at the University of Detroit, we had 4 grad students in an office (about 10 ft x 10 ft), dropped ceilings that allowed the escaped lab mice to run from one end of the building to the other (unless we propped the tiles up, then we got little furry visitors dropping in late at night while running experiments), no fridge, no microwave. Oh yeah, we could walk across campus to get coffee from a vending machine... Wonder why I'm a freelance medical writer/editor working from my home office? At least I don't need quarters for the vending machine any more!

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11. bronxite on November 15, 2005 11:08 PM writes...

A poignant quote comes to mind: "Trying to change a university is like trying to move a cemetery" -- Gerd Gigerenzer, Adaptive Thinking.

Others might be interested in a book called Leaving Science: Occupational Exit from Scientific Careers by Anne Preston.

Still another poignant quote comes to mind, overheard at a dinner I attended a couple of weeks ago: "It's amazing anything gets done in academics."

I got my start as a chemist, gravitated towards physics, and then gravitated toward life sciences after getting my PhD. I've now gravitated away from science altogether. Physics definitely holds the warmest memories along this journey. The closer I got to real research in life science, the more it appeared as barbarity. Will this change in my lifetime? I'm not betting on it.

It seems like a real tragedy, as the potential is enormous. But then again, there is huge potential is all sorts of other walks of life.

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12. Anonymous Coward on November 22, 2005 5:25 PM writes...

Harvard had two fairly high profile chemistry grad student suicides around 2001. In one case, the suicide note was a critique of the grad student advising system. This is really a non-negligible problem and disincentive for bright Americans to go into the sciences, vs. the sumptuous settings of law or business schools and the high salaries that follow.

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13. Dan on November 23, 2005 2:44 PM writes...

Gross chem was a good place for undergrads (except for those stairs that only Howard Strobel could ascend comfortably). But I can certainly see why the grad students hated it...

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