October 2012

Over at the Just Like Cooking blog, See Arr Oh is hosting a fun little event… From Just Like Cooking:

In celebration of the 25th National Chemistry Week (Oct 21-27, 2012), I’ve decided to host a blog carnival called the Chem Coach Carnival.

Here’s my contribution. I hope it’s useful reading, I’m not sure how entertaining it is…

Your current job.

I am currently a Professor of Chemistry and the Chair of the Department of Chemistry at a regional state university {Mysterious State University Midwest}. In our system, Department Chairpersons are not administrators or supervisors of faculty, we are faculty leaders of our Departments. We’re still responsible for budgets and schedules and supervising support staff and speaking on behalf of the Department and running meetings and attending meetings and recruiting students and recruiting faculty and hiring staff and… Yikes. But we’re not “administrators”.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

My primary job is to teach chemistry, and that usually occupies at least part of my day. I usually teach General Chemistry, but this semester I’m teaching two classes that are completely new to me, “The Science of Cooking” and “Introduction to Research & Presentation”. These classes are polar opposites and the contract has been an interesting challenge. I typically spend an hour or two (or maybe 5 or 10…) each day putting together notes for class and testing demonstrations or experiments for classes, an hour or two teaching class, and a bit of time grading or doing other class-related paperwork. I also have a couple research students working with me, we typically meet a couple times a week. Between my duties as Department Chair and the various committees on which I serve, I probably average 1-2 hours of meetings every day ranging from “What are we going to do in Gen Chem Lab this week?” to “What are the 1-year, 5-year, and 10-year goals of your Department and the University as we move into the future?”

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

Bachelor of Science (Chemistry, ACS-Approved) from the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point; Masters and PhD from the University of Michigan (Chemistry, Inorganic); Visiting Research Associate (post-doc) at Michigan State University. My education and related experience leans toward the broader/generalist side of the spectrum. My PhD research involved a lot of organic synthesis (making ligands, building chirality, etc), inorganic synthesis (making transition metal coordination complexes) and physical characterization (crystallography, magnetic measurements, solution behavior, etc). The group I was in at UMich was a bioinorganic group, so I was exposed to a lot of the biological side of chemistry, but my project was very materials chemistry oriented (liquid crystals, porous network solids). My post-doc was with a very physical-inorganic group where I learned a little bit of laser spectroscopy and honed some of my synthesis and characterization skills.

How does chemistry inform your work?

Although I’m slowly getting sucked more and more into the administrative side of University duties, all of my teaching responsibilities are in chemistry courses, so I use chemistry every minute of every day. As a chemist, I also try to always keep a broader perspective on things and try to apply established solutions to analogous problems, not just in chemistry, but in everything I do.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

One of the first crystal structures I got in graduate school was of a synthesis that was “wrong”. I had estimated the purity of a ligand and because my estimate was pretty far off I ended up adding a significant excess of copper(II) benzoate to the synthesis. When I started analyzing the X-ray diffraction data, I saw not only the copper complex that I expected, but there was a big old copper benzoate paddlewheel dimer hanging off the side of it. I printed out a copy of the picture, dropped it off on my advisor’s desk with a note that said “Oops, I messed up this synthesis”. It turned out the copper benzoate dimer was bridging between two copper complexes as part of a 2-dimensional coordination polymer that formed pillared layers with an open porous structure. This “mistake” lead to a few publications and over half of my thesis. Sometimes, mistakes can be awesome.

Where do I blog? Well, obviously here, but also at http://msumgenchem.blogspot.com/ for my General Chemistry classes, http://scienceofcooking100.blogspot.com/ for my Science of Cooking class, and starting this semester my research students and I use a blog as a real-time online lab notebook at http://bodwinresearch.wordpress.com/ . Too much? NEVER!!

There’s been a pretty elaborate debate today regarding a Washington Post blog post entitled “Why are you forcing my son to take chemistry?” by David Bernstein {http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2012/10/16/why-are-you-forcing-my-son-to-take-chemistry/}

Mr. Bernstein has been attacked on a number of fronts and because of that his rebuttals have managed to go a little in circles. In some responses, he very clearly states that the problem is not with chemistry, but rather with the restrictive structure a a mandated curriculum. That’s great, but the original post and many of the other replies are very clearly anti-chemistry.

Many others have stepped up in defense of chemistry, and have made some excellent points, so I won’t belabor their arguments. Instead, I’ll explore Mr. Bernstein’s objection to a mandated curriculum. In a perfect world, children would exit the womb with a clearly defined career path and set of interests. Then the artists would devote all their time to art, the economist would study nothing but financial matters, and yes, the chemists would immerse themselves in chemistry. No one would take “wasted” classes. Now, I said “perfect world”, but I’ve seen and read enough science fiction to know that this is far from perfect. A caste system such as this does, in fact, seem to be the opposite of the progressive specialized educational system for which Mr. Bernstein advocates.

I also disagree with the foundational assumption that children are capable of making critical decisions about what is best for their future. Given the choice, will a child choose what is best for himself in the long term, or will he choose the easiest or most fun or sweetest option? I am simply not willing to believe that a child (or an adult in many cases!) will choose the more challenging option if there is no tangible, short term incentive. If my daughter says “I don’t want to do that, it’s too hard!”, should my response be “OK honey, you don’t have to” or should I say “Suck it up, Buttercup, sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do”.

Another challenge here is that in many cases, choice can be paralyzing, or at least confusing. We have had discussions on my college campus about using a mandated curriculum for our incoming freshmen. Giving the incoming freshmen too many choices (“take whatever class you want to take”, “explore your interests and passions”) leads many of them to make poor choices and breeds confusion. We’ve discussed moving to a mandated freshman curriculum as a way to increase student success, satisfaction and retention. Initial anecdotal data from our campus (as well as real studies in other settings)  shows that most students support this idea.

Maybe the best thing to do here would be to turn Mr. Bernstein’s argument into a Mad-libs-style game that any parent can use complain about his or her child’s list of required classes:

My {son/daughter} should have to waste time taking {name an academic discipline you don’t like} when his/her passion lies in {name an academic discipline you like}. My {son/daughter} is going to grow up to be a {name a career related to the academic discipline you like} and will never {name a trivial part of the academic discipline you don’t like}.

Some options (I’ll always use “daughter” in my version}:

engineering/creative writing/famous novelist/build a bridge

band/tax accounting/certified public accountant/be Louis Armstrong

This is kind of fun, feel free to give it a try…

The word “perfect” has a lot to live up to, and although the truly “perfect” spatula may not exist, I think there are a few that come close. The criteria I use to evaluate spatulas are pretty simple.

1. Material – At this point in time, I really don’t see any good reason to buy a spatula that is not heat-resistant. A good silicone spatula is flexible, durable, stable, stain resistant, and should be heat resistant to 600ºF or more. Although a good new rubber spatula might have a few advantages, rubber spatulas are not heat resistant, prone to stains, and can get a bit “gummy” over time. If I had an active enough kitchen that I could take advantage of a wide variety of spatulas, I might be willing to stock a few silicone spatulas and a few rubber spatulas, each for their own unique purpose, but personally, I would greatly prefer to have consistent spatulas that are all good (or at least good enough) for any application

2. Construction – Spatulas (and many other kitchen tools) have the potential to be fertile grounds for contamination and bacteria or mold growth. The best way to prevent this is to clean utensils well, and this is infinitely easier if there are fewer gaps and seams and joints. That means any spatula that is a single piece will be much easier to clean and keep clean. One-piece construction also means that the head of the spatula will never fall off or slip from the handle. There are very few rubber spatulas that offer 1-piece construction, so once again, silicone offers a distinct advantage. Having 1-piece, all-silicone construction also means that when using the spatula for “hot” applications, you never have to worry about melting or scorching the handle of a silicone-headed 2-piece spatula.

3. Price – This is, honestly, a minor consideration. A good quality $10 spatula will usually be much more durable than a $2 spatula, but the difference in price between a “good” spatula and a “cheap” spatula isn’t really that significant. With some kitchen tool, the price range is pretty broad. For example, frying pans can range from $10 to $200+, but even a very high quality spatula with a prestigious brand name probably won’t cost more than $25-30, and a good quality tool can be found quite easily for $10-15.

My favorite spatula is a Chef’n brand 1-piece silicone model similar to this one {http://www.target.com/p/vibe-switchit-spatula/-/A-13385306#prodSlot=medium_1_1 }, although my specific spatula is not colored.

This has been a wonderful tool in my kitchen for quite a few years, but has picked up a couple small nicks and dings, so I’m probably in need of a new one. I’ll probably wander through local stores for a new spatula, but I’d be pretty happy if I could either find the exact same model or perhaps something like this one {http://www.chefn.com/Product.aspx?id=143 }

I would be perfectly content to use a brand other than Chef’n, but my current Chef’n spatula has been a wonderful tool so I’d be happy to display some brand loyalty.

Do I really put this much thought into something as pedestrian and work-a-day as a spatula? Well, yes, but it’s almost by accident. As with many kitchen tools and other things, you don’t really think about preferences or quality until you accidentally buy something that has some very obvious advantages. That was the case with this spatula.

{Re-post of a post originally on http://scienceofcooking100.blogspot.com/}