I have some free time on my hands (okay, a lot of free time, something I should definitely take advantage of while the picking is ripe!), so I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on grad school. Considering that my regular readership consists of about 1 college aged student (plus or minus 3), I don’t see this being very useful to anyone. But at least it will allow me to consolidate my thoughts and leave something for me to look back at in a few years when I’m actually in grad school (hi, future self!).

The very first idea that struck me Tuesday (that was the first real day of this REU program, when I actually met formally with my research advisor and grad student mentor) was that if this is what being an adult is, I don’t want to grow up! Not like I have any other options, but still. In a talk that day, one of the professors (a physical chemist, no less!) warned us that we should expect to work 80+ hour weeks. This after we all thought this was going to be some sort of 9 to 5 type gig. At the time, that scared the bejesus out of me. I mean, I don’t like staying in one place for ONE hour at a time, now you’re telling me I have to stay somewhere for 12+ consecutive hours. That just blows.

But it turns out that his estimate of time is probably a little extreme. At least, it seems to be for my group. My professor basically told me that this summer is meant to teach me something about the field I’m working in (polymer chemistry), get me some experience doing the actual lab work, and possibly get a paper out of it (ha, that would be nice). No pressure, which is much better than ’80+ hour a week!’ man.

So, with all the nasty stuff out of the way, what are some things that I’ve noticed about research so far? The first and foremost is how interesting it is that an idea that sounds so interesting in theory could turn out to be so dull to prove in the lab. But for me to go on, I suppose I should give you some sort of idea of what I’m working on. So here it goes.

I’m working (for now) with the polymer Poly(N-isopropylacrylamide), or PNIPAM for short [even shorter if you pronounce is ‘n-aye-pam’]. It turns out that, because of the unique structure of this polymer (it has both hydrophilic amide and carboxy groups as well as the hydrophobic isopropyl group), PNIPAM goes into solution below 30 ºC [around room temperature] but crashes up when the temperature is raised above that point (that temperature is called the lower critical solution temperature [LCST], for obvious reasons). This means that PNIPAM is a ‘temperature sensitive’ polymer and might have some interesting applications in solutions chemistry. I don’t know what those interesting applications ARE yet, but hopefully I’ll figure that out soon enough!

Anyway, that’s the exciting part (which you may or may not agree with!). The dull part is what I actually do in lab ever day. I’m looking at the effects of salts on the LCST. Basically, some salts cause PNIPAM to crash out at higher temperatures or lower temperatures. Right now, I’m looking at sodium thiocyanate and sodium sulfate, which are basically at opposite ends of the crashing out spectrum (which, if you’re interested, is itself called the Hoffmeister series). To do this, I’m making up tons and tons of 400 μL solutions containing PNIPAM and one of the salt. Then I take 10 μL of that solution, put it into a capillary tube, and melt the top of the tube in to remove the hole (don’t want the solution leaving!). Finally, I put the tubes in a melting point apparatus (an automatic one, thank god!) and have it measure the ‘clouding curve’ of the solution for 20 minutes or so (think of the clouding curve as an S-shaped curve with intensity along the Y-axis and temperature along the X-axis that tells you when the PNIPAM has crashed out).

On the plus side, I get to use a Bunsen burner. On the minus side, I’m basically making up 20 or so solutions a day, and then taking a day+ to measure their LCSTs. Right now, I’m starting to work on mixtures of salts, to see if their effects are additive or synergistic.

Enough about the specific research, now back to basic principles. One of the weird things about research is that you go from being a passive learner of science to an active pursuer of information. From learning to making. What a giant distinction. I feel like it’ll probably be easy to get lost in the minutia of the field. I don’t know if that fits my tastes. I like to learn about broad swaths of things at a time. That’s why school has worked so well for me.

And now to another random observation: while here, all the REU students talks about chemistry. All the time. It’s kind of weird. I’ve never really been somewhere where the number one topic of conversation was chemistry. I guess it’s the one thing that we all have in common. I surmise that as time passes, we’ll start to talk more about normal things…

Another random observation: when you get to grad school, the question ‘where are you from?’ no longer means ‘where were you born and grow up?’ but rather ‘what college are you from?’ Which makes it unfortunate that I have to answer Ursinus, because people in PENNSYLVANIA haven’t even heard of us. Forget about Texas!

Well, that’s all I have to say for now. I sure did ramble on. But hopefully you’ve found this mildly interesting, if nothing else than as a case study of one individuals entrance into the world of (pseudo)grad school.

Now I’ve got to find a way to entertain myself for the rest of the night and tomorrow. No small feat when it’s 90 ºF most of the day and into the night. Eliminates a lot of possibilities…


May 31, 2008

Yet the way that you acquire magical powers is not by being born with them, but by seeing, with a sudden shock, that they really are perfectly normal.

– Eliezer Yudkowsky from Einstein’s Superpowers

Friendship: Talking about the exact same things every day and enjoying it.

I know that many aspiring rationalists seem to run into roadblocks around things like cryonics or many-worlds. Not that they don’t see the logic; they see the logic and wonder, “Can this really be true, when it seems so obvious now, and yet none of the people around me believe it?”

Yes. Welcome to the Earth where ethanol is made from corn and environmentalists oppose nuclear power. I’m sorry.

– from No Safe Defense, Not Even Science by Eliezer Yudkowsky

This is just hilarious. Watch it. You probably won’t learn anything. But you’ll definitely laugh a little.

I don’t really know if this is at all necessary. But I have a new keyboard and feel like typing on it, so this seemed like as good a topic to write on as any.

I don’t have anything particular in mind at the moment. Overall, this semester has been a really, really great one. In every way I can imagine. Something about me just kind of flowers in my sophomore year (here’s looking at you, High School). Let’s just hope that things continue to get better along the way!

The main thing I learned academically this year was that although ‘chemistry’ as it’s traditionally thought of is not for, the world of chemistry is rather large and inclusive. It’s not all about synthesizing some new polymer or mixing together a new catalyst. I can learn lots of cool math (like, who knew, all the things I learned in linear algebra in the fall semester [matrices, eigenvalues, determinants, etc.] would show up the very same semester while learning about quantum mechanics!) and then apply it in a field that seems to be lacking in mathematics. Well, not so much lacking. More that the mathematically minded don’t normally end up in the field. They’re more likely to end up in physics (math, physics, is like, a duh combination).

Which works out well for me, because it leaves open a whole field to explore with less competition than I might find in physics. And really, there isn’t that much of a difference between physics and physical chemistry. As you might guess from the name.

What else did I learn? That I’m still the wallflower that upperclassmen like to ‘adopt.’ That happened on two fronts this year: rugby and the chemistry seniors. It’s kind of funny how that continues to happen. I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Most likely it’s just a neutral thing and I should enjoy it when it happens and work to reconcile it when it doesn’t. I just can’t help but marvel at how certain patterns in my life continue to show up over and over again, like some sort of crazy motif.

Um, I’ve learned a thing or two about teaching. Like the fact that I’m only okay at it (which is kind of sad, because I’m considering it as a possible future profession). And I get easily bored. I tutored Organic Chemistry I this past semester. And I can only teach someone about a substitution reaction so many times before it kind of gets boring. I suppose if I chose teaching as my vocation, I would find enjoyment and variety in teaching the material in a new and more approachable way every year. But for now, meh. I guess I have another two more years to play around with tutoring. And then I’m seriously considering doing a two year stint in Teach for America (I know, it ain’t no Peace Corps, but I think I might be better suited for a less hands-on volunteer activity).

Uh, well, I think that’s it. Now I’ve got that whole summer research program to look forward to. And wonder if I’ll be ‘completely different’ at the end of. Probably not. But stranger things have happened. That’s a certainty!

In a strange way, such bleak forecasts bring a welcome clarity to a discussion long confined to the margins of society. For decades, anyone who argued that humans should be eating less meat, or none at all, did so largely on moral grounds such as animal rights, or for religious reasons—arguments that the rest of society was free to ignore. True, one could make a science-based case for eating less meat, especially the fatty meat that comes from grain-fed livestock. Yet if people wanted to clog their arteries, the damage came at one’s own expense. Now the idea that meat-eating is purely an individual choice, and the costs affect only the individual, has been blown wide open. Just as chuffing on Marlboros or driving a gas-guzzling SUV—as Michael Specter recently put it—have become the modern day equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter, so too has meat-eating graduated from the category of lifestyle choice to that of collective responsibility.

What’s more, it’s clear that the question of how much meat we can or should eat cannot be resolved without a more global scientific approach. As we have with cigarette smoking and automobile preference—things that were once regarded as personal choices but whose societal costs are now precisely quantified—we now need to use science to essentially recalibrate our moral compasses when it comes to meat. What are meat’s true “external” costs? How much meat can we sustainably produce, in the context of a warming climate and dwindling resources? And how rapidly does our meatcentric food economy need to change? These aren’t easy questions. But just as science has shed light on other complex lifestyle issues, it must now offer a new and more pragmatic vision for the future of meat.

– From Carnivores Like Us in Seed Magazine

– From PhD Comics

Oh, so true.

Obama thinks biofuels are dumb. Especially with a looming food crisis! Well, huzzah!

Because, well, they are. Just another way to get the corn industry subsidized (as if it wasn’t enough to have corn in everything you eat [mm mm mm, high fructose corn syrup], now they want you to guzzle it in your car too!).

So, let’s recap. Obama is the only candidate to denounce the gas tax as a hoax. Obama is the only candidate to question our use of biofuels. And, well, he’s just so darn good at speach-giving.

I swear, if this guy doesn’t win, our country deserves whatever we get. At no other time has the choice for president been so obvious.

Please, please. Pretty please?

I’m crossing my fingers.

Moreover, we should be so lucky that our societal problems concern people who are overqualified and hypertalented. It may be, in some sense, unfair to create a class of enhanced people, but that does not mean that it is wrong to do so. If enhancements do work, perhaps they ought not be banned or restricted to prevent inequality but made more readily available. We ought to want more of them, not fewer.

– From The Ethics of Enhancement by David Plotz

Then again, I’ve never understood the fascination with the average. Why do we want everyone to be mediocre?

Here’s to an ‘elitism’ that everyone’s welcome to! You know, like science!