The Chem Coach Carnival
October 31, 2012 7:24 AM   Subscribe

What do chemists do in a "work day"? What kind of schooling do they have? How does chemistry inform their work? Do chemists have any funny stories to tell?

Last week chemist See Are Ohh* was wondering what a chemistry life coach would look like. So, he started a blog carnival in honour of Mole day, with fifty-nine chemists chiming in to share their experiences and offer advice to budding scientists.

Announcement, Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Wrapup.

*CRO, contract research organization.
posted by Orange Pamplemousse (17 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
How to recognize a gifted chemist
posted by Egg Shen at 7:30 AM on October 31, 2012

Yeah, between cancer, illicit drugs, and terror fears, it's not a great time for chemistry. I'm not sure which of the three has neutered chemistry sets the worst, but all three at once ain't great.
posted by effugas at 7:54 AM on October 31, 2012

illicit drugs

On the other hand, Breaking Bad will probably inspire more people to pursue chemistry than The Fountainhead inspired people to become architects.
posted by Egg Shen at 7:56 AM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

To build on the link to Derek Lowe's blog (, some of the funniest chemstry-related stories are stored in his "Things I won't work with" category. It's a rare treat when a new entry appears there.

Edit: Oops, previously.
posted by ensign_ricky at 8:08 AM on October 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

My father was a chemist for Coca-Cola's special products division. Though he had several patents for various refinement processes and held an influential position at his plant, what I remember the most about him and his job were the frequent times he'd come home and say, "Hey, kids, smell my feet!" and my sister and I would try to guess what various oils he'd invariably trod in that day. (Usually it was some kind of citrus, but every now and then, there'd be a surprise, like essence of jasmine.)
posted by Wossname at 8:09 AM on October 31, 2012 [6 favorites]

Excellent post. Even though it's been linked to before, In The Pipeline is outstanding for pharma-related chemistry (and often beyond); Derek does a really good job of keeping people up-to-speed (while the posts are readable often by science-literate outsiders, v technical discussions on there, esp in the comments).

Chembark is good as well.
posted by lalochezia at 8:33 AM on October 31, 2012

I could've been a chemist, but chemistry was my most hated subject in high school. It was taught by a great big manatee of a teacher. I don't remember her lecturing about anything scientific, but I do remember the worksheets, countless, repetitive worksheets. We didn't have enough equipment or reagents for that proper "mad science" atmosphere, so we did a lot of our labs on paper. Our teacher was one of those who firmly believed that the main thing you learn in class is obedience, so I got a zero on an assignment for writing answers into the blanks when I was supposed to clip them out from an answer sheet and paste them with a glue stick. Ugh, chemistry. And it was the subject I was looking forward to the most, since I was the kind of kid who pre-read science textbooks several years in advance. I don't think we ever got past ionic bonds in that class.

Oh, and my housemate for a great part of undergrad was a chemist and a libertarian, although in private conversation it was hard to tell him from a fascist. He just believed that in a libertarian world, a just and natural fascism would establish itself.

My favorite science in high school was biology, and I managed to take it twice in four years. Once as "honors" and once as "advanced placement (AP)." Still didn't become a bio major in college. Where I went to school, it seemed that half the entering class was sullen pre-med bio majors who didn't give a damn about what they were studying, and that just felt depressing.
posted by Nomyte at 8:37 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

As I have gotten older, it's clear that chemistry is a fascinating subject with innumerable applications. But my interest in chemistry was killed at conception in high school - the ancient crone who taught the class droned in a nasal monotone that would have put Ben Klein into a vegetative coma. It was all I could do just to escape the class. I was also under the mistaken impression that I wasn't good at math, which didn't help. The fact is, I was just lazy.
posted by Xoebe at 8:59 AM on October 31, 2012

Metafilter: Hey, kids, smell my feet!
posted by CynicalKnight at 9:29 AM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

In my high school annual next to a picture of a crowd scene in a hallway which happened to include me in profile-- since I refused all portrait shots of any kind-- my AP chemistry teacher wrote "you have a great future in chemistry ahead of you so long as you never set foot in a lab again!"

We had a class of eight AP students which met for two consecutive periods every day, with the second period devoted to hands on laboratory exercises usually, and I knew it had been pretty rough on him (think 'trail by fire', but not metaphorically, and not only that), though I didn't realize how rough until that moment.
posted by jamjam at 10:30 AM on October 31, 2012

What do chemists do in a "work day"?

From what I've learned from TV, it mostly involves making meth, wearing hats, and blowing peoples' faces half off.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:21 AM on October 31, 2012

The "funny story" link is great:
Sure, my best one is from undergrad days. Without going into a long preamble, suffice it to say that after a significant ignition noise, with accompanying burst of flames, and subsequent whooshing of CO2 extinguishers, my undergraduate research advisor, C. David Gutsche, was drawn into the lab to find me standing at the sink holding a 3-neck 2 L roundbottom that was blackened and opaque (but at least in one piece!) He leaned over to inspect the situation closely as I stood frozen, then he leaned back and said, "Chris, like many an undergraduate, you have mistaken the well tared flask for the well tarred flask." and then he walked out.
posted by exogenous at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2012

Oh, the excellent stories I have from chem labs. In U2, we had this huge lab that all the chemistry students took, and everyone did 6 major experiments in a year: 2 organic, 4 inorganic. One of the inorganic experiments had mustard gas as a byproduct. Luckily our very old equipment held, especially given that one of the people who chose that lab was the first person in five years to need to use the emergency shower. (Really nice guy. Brilliant. Lazy in labs.)

Or we had the student who, in this same lab, ignored the "add [something, maybe a Grignard?] dropwise into an ice bath of [whatever]" and had the first explosion of the year. This was pretty normal. But not an hour later, a different student, who had seen the first explosion, just poured the reagent into the room temperature whatever because "it takes too long otherwise". Another person did it properly, but poured the very reactive compound down the sink to discard it, setting off a nice torch.

Another time we were working with cyanide solutions, carefully buffered to a high pH. Lab is over, we're cleaning up, and my lab partner decides he can't be bothered to discard cyanide in the appropriate container and begins to pour it into a sink of water. The TA nearly tackled him, and no one died, so all worked out.

My friend who worked in stores had more fun, as she'd watch people take their flasks and fill them with the concentrated NaOH or HCl/H2SO4, often forgetting the crucial step of carefully washing them out in between. (Somehow, no one ever got seriously injured. Except for the person who accidentally dropped pellets of sodium hydroxide down her boot leg.)

I'm not sad I left chemistry; I should have done so earlier than my last year in the program. But I do miss the stories I got.
posted by jeather at 2:01 PM on October 31, 2012

I loved studying chemistry, I just hated doing it. I took general chemistry from this Nobel Prize winner, and barely passed because I skipped the lab. I did really great in organic chemistry, because most of the grade was based on test scores and most of the lab work I fobbed off on my lab partner. I particularly loved the problem solving in organic: Given this molecule as a starting point, how few steps can you take to get to this organic product? How inexpensively can you do it? But getting glassware clean enough to obtain accurate yields was not something I was good at nor enjoyed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:40 PM on October 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

I loved doing chemistry, but disliked studying it. But mostly my recollection is of a series of badly planned labs, combined with lazy and disorganized lab partners who left me to do most of the work.

My favourite was second or third-year organic, when I had the perfect lab partner. She was a great partner: always read the text AND studied the lab manual in advance, and came prepared to work. Between us we could make any experiment work, and we were usually done and out the door an hour before the rest of the class. (Yes, we should have got married, but we never had time for too much chit-chat, and never spent much time with each other outside of the lab.) I remember that lab as being just a whole lot of FUN*. Once we got in trouble for finishing the lab too early. "Nobody could have done ALL the work in that time." Yeah, well here are our notebooks, so piss off.

Also, this article by Don Asher about why he quit being a chemist to become a jazz piano player is pretty great.

*Not to be confused with Botany labs where you spend the afternoon with your head over a tray of plant parts preserved in 70% ethanol, but whatever.
posted by sneebler at 7:41 PM on October 31, 2012

The other thing that sticks in my mind was being told in first year organic about the safety procedures for the Diels-Alder reaction. Every year after that you could tell which week they were doing Diels-Alder because there would be a bunch of people walking around with eye patches because they weren't listening.
posted by sneebler at 7:45 PM on October 31, 2012

Old chemists never die, they just fail to react.
posted by smudgedlens at 9:31 PM on November 1, 2012

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