The Chem Coach Carnival

I’m still waiting for feedback on my science communication video (hurry up, hurry up!). In the meantime I’m contributing an entry to the Chemistry Coach blog carnival, a great initiative for (US) National Chemistry week by chemist  See Arr Oh, of the blog Just Like Cooking.

Your current job.

For the past 3 years I’ve been an Analytical Research Chemist for the Australian Government, working in fuels and lubricants. I’m also studying for my PhD part time. I have a total of 7 years experience working as an analytical chemist in various fields including environmental, food and forensics.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

Apart from starting each day with regular caffeination, I don’t really have a routine or standard set of things I do during the day, it really depends on what is happening at the time. Most of my activities can be captured as:

  • Advanced chemical analysis, including but not limited to;
    • Gas and Liquid Chromatography – this is my main focus, particularly novel applications and multidimensional analysis
    • Mass Spectrometry
    • Infrared Spectroscopy
  • Writing papers or reports
  • Giving lab tours to educational groups and visitors
  • Preparing lab documentation such as risk assessments

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

In terms of formal qualifications I have a Bachelor of Science with a double major in chemistry, and honours in analytical chemistry from the University of Western Australia. Something which I believe helped me a great deal in starting my chemistry career was the work experience and vacation work I did as an undergraduate. I base my successes in the early (1-3) years of my career upon these experiences, which I gained only through my own initiative and the recommendation of a kind Professor. For me it served two valuable purposes; firstly, experience working in a real laboratory helped me confirm when I was still quite unsure about my career that I did in fact want to be a chemist, and it really was what I loved doing. Secondly, I’m certain that gaining industry lab experience before I graduated set me apart from other candidates when I applied for graduate chemist positions and allowed me to successfully pursue positions in workplaces I viewed as desirable.

How does chemistry inform your work?

Most of the work I do is on advanced analytical instruments like IR, HPLC and GC-MS. Understanding the fundamental chemical principles behind their operation allows full exploitation of their analytical power. These kinds of instruments are often viewed as ‘black boxes’ and undervalued even by other chemists who should probably know better (I’m looking at you, synthetic people!). In addition to my ongoing research, another important part of my role is carrying out one-off problem solving type projects, so having a broad and informed knowledge of  analytical techniques, chemical properties, wet chemistry and new developments is essential.

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

Some interesting tidbits from my career:

  • I’ve had police make meth in my hood
  • I’ve analysed air quality in remote Aboriginal communities in the Australian Outback, eg here and here
  • I have more than once saved clients substantial amounts of money (millions) as a result of my analytical work… ugh that sounds really braggy, better finish with something gross,
  • I once managed to cover my face and hair in pureed mussels, which at the time I thought may have been contaminated with toxic bacteria

Happy National United States Chemistry Week!

Communicating Science for PhD Students – Pilot Program

I recently participated in a pilot program in science communication at Monash University for PhD students. The course consisted of 5x 2 hour sessions and was run by Dr Graham Philips, of ABC TV’s science program Catalyst (ZOMG, famous person in da house!).

The 5 sessions were loosely broken up into 1 hour of lecture material, then 1 hour of tutorial/group work/practical activities. Topics covered over the 5 lessons were:

  1. Introduction to science communication and the types of news and media
  2. Broadcast and narrowcast – interview techniques, narration etc
  3. Writing with clarity and brevity – emphasis on traditional newspaper/magazine writing
  4. Media training – more interview techniques and tips
  5. Oral communication – 3 Minute Thesis, elevator pitches

Being a pilot program, there was definitely room for improvement. Graham was a good lecturer, but the overall emphasis was weighted far too heavily towards TV. Of all the media available for us to talk about and promote our research, TV is probably the least likely one for a PhD student to participate in. I also thought it was strange that the use of new and social media like blogging, Facebook, Twitter, podcasting etc. to get our science out and about wasn’t even mentioned. These are really accessible ways to start out in science communication, rather than landing yourself a story on Catalyst straight up.

Apparently once the course is introduced properly, it will be optional and I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, when there is any amount of group work, it is certainly beneficial when everyone is engaged and wants to be there, so in that way it might be better if the course was optional and only taken by those who were interested. Also, the assignment/project was not graded, so you really have to be self-motivated and interested enough in the topic to get the full amount out of the course. On the point of introducing any kind of coursework for PhDs, well, don’t even get me started – that is another topic for another day. On the other hand, those who most need the course would probably not volunteer to take it, and given the importance of science communication, maybe it should be compulsory for everyone. At Deakin University, all students enrolled in the Bachelor of Science must take a unit in Science Communication in their first year. This is great, and something that I think should ideally be introduced at undergraduate level.

Lastly, we were encouraged (although not required) to complete a project as part of the course. Graham suggested we write a media release about our own research, or if we were really feeling it, make a Catalyst-style video. Given my complete lack of experience in filming, editing and starring in videos, of course I chose this option. I’m yet to receive feedback about how (un)successful my efforts were, but I hope to hear back soon. I’ll post the video up in my next post. Stay tuned!