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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 18, 2009

I'll Get Right On That For You, Professor

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Posted by Derek

I was going over some thermodynamics the other day, and it hit me that this was just the sort of thing I always tried to avoid when I was actually taking chemistry courses in college and grad school. And here I was, looking it up voluntarily and even reading it with some pleasure. A couple of professors of mine would have been rather pleasantly surprised at the sight, though, since physical chemistry (especially) tended to exacerbate my often lazy approach to my course work.

When I look back on it, it's a very good thing that my graduate school curriculum only featured classes during the first year. Because I was trying to get away with more and more by doing less and less, and those two trend lines were heading toward an intersection. (Another example of that from my grad-school past can be found here). In the end, the chrome-plated jaws of destiny did not quite snap shut on my academic career, but it was a near thing. I can well recall being assigned problem sets in a course during my first year of grad school, with a strong probability of having to be called up to the board to work out a random one from the list in front of the professor and the class, and just not getting around to doing them.

So more than once, I'd be called upon to present a problem I hadn't actually bothered to look at. A classmate of mine, Bill, had a similar approach to his work, and he and I would sometimes end up side by side at the board, quietly saying things to each other like "You do any of these?" "Nope, me neither. This one look like the Eyring equation to you?" At the same time, I was ceasing to take notes in the class, finding that (for whatever reason) I wasn't getting much out of the lectures, and seemed to be doing OK by reading the material.

The professor involved noticed me sitting there without a notebook day after day, and called me in for a chat. "You seem to have ceased bringing any sort of writing implement to my lectures", he said. "I presume that there's some reason for that?" I stammered out some line about how I found that I was able to concentrate more on the material when I wasn't having to worry about getting it down on paper, and I could tell that he didn't buy that one for a minute. "I see. . ." he said slowly, and let me go. The next lecture (and you knew this sentence would start out that way), he was up at the board talking about More O'Ferrall plots or something of the sort, and in the middle of explaining one said ". . .then when you move into this quadrant the transition state is affected like so and does that look OK to you, Derek?"

Zzzzzip! Some home-security monitor circuit in my brain tripped, and I returned to reality with the unpleasant sensation of having been dropped into my seat from a helicopter. "Umm. . .no mistakes that I can see", I said, which was certainly true, and the professor gave me a narrow-eyed look. "Yes. . .no doubt".

So no, this couldn't have gone on in that style for too much longer, and it was with relief that I moved on to full-time lab work. But I still have little patience for lectures I find uninteresting. I'm just glad that no one's passing out exams afterwards. . .

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. processchemist on November 18, 2009 10:58 AM writes...

In my university days physical chemistry I lectures were boring, boring, boring. The written test of the exam on the other side were far too exciting: suddenly you were requested to take all the theory of multiple phases in equilibrium and use it to solve metallurgical process problems etc

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2. Hap on November 18, 2009 11:09 AM writes...

In grad school, the phys chem grad students had to sit through all of the visitor lectures because their cumes were drawn totally from them. Since I could barely keep awake during the organic ones (first year, mostly bioinorganic - oh look, I have some UV or enzyme active sites, whee!), I can't imagine the phys ones were more fun (probably less, since they had a guaranteed audience).

It would have been fatal to your career, but maybe you should have told your prof to go back to Paper Chase and leave the grad students alone.

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3. snurf on November 18, 2009 12:03 PM writes...

"Die Physikalische Chemie erklaert, was die Welt im Inneren zusammenhaelt!"

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4. milkshake on November 18, 2009 12:43 PM writes...

we had peptide synthesis class in Prague that I tokk because there was not much else to choose from, it was a yawn but I needed the credits.
And the guy who was giving them was nice enough to let me slack off - after first two excruciating early morning classes I stopped going, I figured it all comes down to protecting groups and memorizing the coupling reagents and the aminoacid codes for the test - I let others to take the notes for me. This worked well enough, except that when I graduated and looking for a job in hurry, as to avoid army draft, the only position I could get was in a solid phase peptide synthesis group. From there I got eventually hired away by a combichem startup in US and as a result I ended up doing those god-damned peptides for nearly a decade.

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5. Anne on November 18, 2009 1:30 PM writes...

There's something marvelously ironic about me reading this blog post while my med chem prof is talking about the mechanism of bleomycin causing DNA breakage.

I'm in my first year of grad school and already my attention span for coursework is plunging. I was the model student in high school and college - two time valedictorian - and I LOVED my classes because they were small, interactive, and invigorating, and I had great relationships with all my teachers/profs. But in grad school, it's so much more of a straight lecture format, and I just get bored. The only solution I've found is to take notes on my laptop - I am much less prone to fall asleep if I'm typing and/or able to read blogs while I listen. It's been relatively successful so far.

But for the first time, something else is more interesting - my lab work. I LOVE my lab work. I can't wait for the glorious days of research only, with no course interruptions.

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6. Tok on November 18, 2009 1:59 PM writes...

Ah, to be young and excited again. Post again once you hit year 6, Anne.

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7. Anne on November 18, 2009 2:53 PM writes...

Haha, will do Tok, if I ever hit year 6! My program cuts off funding after year 5 so the hope is that people will actually graduate - untested as of yet, since the program's only 4 years old!

I'm really pleased about the lab/mentor I've found and optimistic about having a successful and exciting project. But obviously that could all change - 5 years is a long ass time (I'm totally showing my age here, aren't I?). I'll enjoy it while it lasts. :)

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8. dearieme on November 18, 2009 3:31 PM writes...

My experience of a chemical education is that lectures are optional, but NEVER miss labs. They teach the real skill, their smells and sights are the real chemistry, and they are the only bit where, it turned out, I found much pleasure. If you want stimulation in lectures, try physics or engineering.

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9. Malcolm on November 18, 2009 5:05 PM writes...

Just to give the computer nerd perspective, I couldn't wait until my later years of undergrad when by special arrangement I could drop the terror and drudgery of organic/phys chem/etc lab work and just enjoy the stat mech and quantum chemistry lectures.

As for thermodynamics, my contention is that it is by nature hateful. Everyone should cut straight to stat mech so they can think about mechanisms and important ideas (like micro vs macro) rather than a bunch of inpenetrable empirical hooha.

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10. Sili on November 18, 2009 5:52 PM writes...

Well, it obviously didn't hurt you, and I on the other hand have not benefited all that much from my notes (they weren't that good anyway).

I loved phys. chem. though. But then again, I loved org. too.

Unfortunately I was more lazy in the lab. Cutting corners and whatnot.

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11. SteveM on November 18, 2009 5:58 PM writes...

My undergrad adviser, Dr. Bob Hutchins (recent RIP, sigh) had a bumper sticker in his office that said:

Honk If You Passed P-Chem

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12. psi*psi on November 18, 2009 7:24 PM writes...

After a year and a half with no classes, I thought I'd go into grad school and work REALLY HARD to get really awesome grades--something I've never been inclined to do. I was wrong. I'm still a slacker...I put a little more effort in than I used to, but I still only do really well in classes where there is no busywork. Not really a fan of grading either. Or...anything else that keeps me out of lab. Maybe I will start sleeping there so I can get more research done around other things.

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13. Anonymous BMS Researcher on November 18, 2009 8:42 PM writes...

My least-favorite undergrad courses were Heat and Mass Transfer (in which the final consisted mostly of a single very ugly multi-mode problem with convection, conduction, radiation, and phase change components) and Advanced Engineering Mathematics (in which I got an A not because I understood the stuff but merely because I was marginally less confused than some of my classmates).

I don't think I have ever made actual work-related use of much content from either course.

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14. bcpmoon on November 19, 2009 2:36 AM writes...

Well... I had some phys.chem. lectures and I loved thermodynamics which I think should be covered already in school. I found it fascinating that you could take these formulas, play with the math and get completely new, testable insights into nature. This interlocking puzzle of nature and math is very intriguing.
On the other hand I hated electrochemistry.
In the final course before concentrating on org.prep., deceivingly called just "the chemical bond", we took the scenic route: Schrödinger, Eigenvalues and the works and again, I found the mathematical representation of nature fascinating.
Even if all this was not really relevant for my future work, I am glad to have learned about the foundations of all those mechanisms and why the little buggers lock in the way they do.

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15. RB Woodweird on November 19, 2009 9:51 AM writes...

For Anne, who writes. "But for the first time, something else is more interesting - my lab work. I LOVE my lab work. I can't wait for the glorious days of research only, with no course interruptions."

an excerpt from S. A. Scoggin's cult classic "A Novel and Efficient Synthesis of Cadaverine".

(The perfect Christmas gift for that chemistry graduate student:

“What the fuck you doing?”
Charlie Travares didn’t turn around upon hearing this challenge. Instead, he reached into another pigeon hole, plucked out a sheet of yellow paper – folded in thirds, sealed with an inch of clear tape, and addressed in longhand pen to Bill Budnick – and tore it open.
“Looking to see who’s teaching with me,” he said. He wasn’t worried about being caught. Adam Winn had been right behind him in the hallway before stopping off for a quick piss.
Adam stepped up beside him and took from another cubicle two envelopes, a stiff red cardboard mailer, and a sheet of paper identical to that addressed to the unpresent Mr. Budnick. The graduate student mail drop was this grime-blackened wooden grid of rectangular holes screwed to the wall. It was one of the only reasons to come into the Graduate Student Lounge, that dark closetlike space in which no one had ever managed to lounge. Twice a year D’Arcy’s secretary, Marylou Hitchman, ventured into the gloom and replaced all the names. Crisp black letters on white sticky tape. It was the only reliable source of information in the whole Department about who had dropped out.
Adam opened his sheet. “101,” he said. “Stringfellow’s section. How about you?”
Charlie patted his breast pocket, from which his folded notice peeked. “310 with Wizened Nuts.”
Charlie read the sheet and shrugged. “No assignment. I didn’t know Hendrickson had summer money.”
“He has to be getting a research grant, though.”
“Not necessarily.” Charlie took out another folded sheet. This was his third year in the program. It felt like ten. Adam, a first year man, had just joined Whisenhut’s group this term and thus still had some innate trust in the goodness of the world and the fairness of the system that was yet to be beaten from him. “Some professors have been known to cast their people loose for the summers.”
“Jesus,” Adam said. “You’d have to get a job. You’d never get any work done.”
“Or maybe you shouldn’t be working for someone who can’t support a group, eh?” Charlie fanned himself with the unopened sheet. “I got research money one term. Fall term two years ago. Some one fell asleep at the ACS and gave Wizened Nuts some Petroleum Research Fund money. They heard he was a greaseball and thought he was a new energy source.”
“That must have been sweet.”
“Fucking A it was. Being able to come in every morning and work straight through the day. No lectures to sit through looking like you were interested. No discussion groups to lead. No whining undergraduates coming by the lab to ask stupid goddamn questions whenever they feel like it. No tests to proctor and grade. Nothing. Just a wide open lab all day every day. You, young feller, don’t appreciate it yet. You’ve only taught one semester when you were also trying to work, and that was a Mulligan. Nobody expects you to get anything done in the lab until your second year anyway. This is what it is for a week of teaching: three hours of lecture, four or five hours of discussion group, two hours of official office hours, and three to five hours wasted outside of those hours answering questions because you’ll not be a big enough bastard until you are into your fourth year to tell the firm-titted wide-eyed blondes to go away. So what’s that? Like fifteen hours a week shot to hell right there. And that’s not even counting preparation time. Reading the text, doing the problems beforehand so you don’t look like an idiot in discussion groups. And that shit isn’t even in a row – that’s a big problem. It’s blocks of time spread out here and there, always in the back of your mind so you really can’t just sit in the library and think or tinker with a reaction at the bench. One eye always on the clock. What a monumental pain in the ass.”
“A friend of mine from college goes to Berkeley. He said he is on a research grant already. He had to teach one year.”
“Then,” Charlie asked, “why didn’t you go to Berkeley?”
Adam looked down.
God damn it, Charlie thought, then said, “A couple of years before I got here, a group got in some trouble. One of them was teaching a big lecture class that happened to have a shit load of premeds in it. They were coming by the lab and asking for this guy every ten minutes. So they closed the lab doors, but the premeds would knock on the door until someone had to come and open it and tell them the guy was not in if he wasn’t. Sometimes when he was. Then one day when the guy really wasn’t there they put up a sign in the window that said: don’t bother knocking, that their TA had passed away, they were all sorry about it, but he was deceased and please don’t knock on the fucking door. The guys in the group hadn’t stopped to think that they were dealing with premeds. Who of course immediately called Mom and Dad. My TA is dead, what am I going to do, this will probably affect my grade in some undeterminable manner. And Mom and Dad call the University and scream bloody tuition nonpayment, which gets the attention of Dean Nash, who comes down on D’Arcy like the Nazis on Poland and the shit rolls down the hallway in a tidal wave.”
Adam blinked. “Geez. What happened to them?”
“Supposedly, D’Arcy delivered them all formal letters of reprimand. In person. They read them en masse, silently, then they took them out into the hall, tossed them in a pile, and lit them on fire. Then pissed on the ashes. Then told D’Arcy if he ever came into their lab again they were going to do the same to him.”
“Come on.” Adam said.
“True story,” Charlie said. “Two of them had been here six years. Motherfuckers like that you better not cross.” He crumpled the paper in his hand and underhanded it in the direction of a dented grey trash can. It bounced off the wall and skittered to a stop on the tiles next to another sheet that was just unfolded enough to show: Geiger, Paul. Chemistry 101. Professor McAllister.

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16. dearieme on November 19, 2009 4:47 PM writes...

Malcolm, "just enjoy the stat mech and quantum chemistry lectures" is pretty consistent with my advice to try Physics. :)

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