Stereo Chemistry had its recorders rolling for four days during the ACS national meeting in New Orleans in March. Listen to our latest episode to hear what brought a wide range of chemists to the meeting, including a Priestley Medal winner, a hurricane survivor, and an (in)famous duck.
The following is a transcript of this podcast.
Matt Davenport: Hey everyone. Thank you so much for your patience waiting for this episode, which we will get to in just one second. First, I did want to let you know that we are getting on a regular schedule after this and plan to release new episodes of Stereo Chemistry on the third Wednesday of every month moving forward. Also, we are going to mention a ton of stories, videos, etc. in this episode. We will have links to all of it on this episode’s web page. Visit cen.acs.org and search Stereo Chemistry to find it. Thanks again.
Matt Davenport (in New Orleans): So, here goes. We are walking to the registration desk. We’ll see if they want to talk to me.
Matt (in studio): Hey everyone. You’re listening to Stereo Chemistry and that angelic voice you just heard belongs to me, Matt Davenport. A few weeks ago, I went to the national meeting of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans with a microphone and a dream. A dream to talk to as many people as I could. So, in the hour, you’re going to hear from a few of those people and I’ll also explain why we did this really soon. But first, let’s just jump in with the people who I think officially kick off the meeting, the staff at the registration desk.
Matt (in New Orleans): So can I start off by asking your name?
Rah’neisha Bartholomew: Rah’neisha Bartholomew.
Matt: How many conferences do you work in like a month?
Rah’neisha Bartholomew: I’ve worked several.
Matt: Is there anything unique to this one or working with the chemists? Do they have personality traits that you don’t often see other places?
Rah’neisha Bartholomew: No, it’s pretty much the same. They’re all welcoming and they have positive attitudes, things like that. They have a lot of questions, I can say that.
Matt: Is there one experience or like interaction that you’ll remember from this meeting? Has anything stood out?
Rah’neisha Bartholomew: Just calling the person to say, when I’m constantly saying next and they never come. So I’m like, “Come on, come on, next person.” And they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t hear you.” But it’s understandable because they’re in a rush and they’re nervous, so I can understand.
Matt (in studio): So one, it was super fun talking to Rah’neisha, pretending like I wouldn’t be one of the people oblivious to her shouting, “Come on, come on, next person.” And two, she’s totally right, you know?
Every scientific conference feels like an exercise in cramming as many interesting presentations into the exact same time slot as possible. The ACS meeting is no exception. And then you throw in a sprawling expo, poster sessions, committee meetings, and all the receptions. There is just so much going on at any meeting that it’s easy to miss things as you rush around or to be so overwhelmed that you overlook something directly in front of you.
So with this podcast, we wanted to try to slow down and focus on the stories chemists at the meeting have to tell. Before we get to those, though, some housekeeping.
The ACS publishes C&EN and about 50 other scientific publications. C&EN, of course, publishes this podcast. And yeah, I know this is the second story we’ve done about something tied to ACS. The last one was about ChemRxiv and you should totally check it out if you haven’t.
But please don’t worry. This is not a trend. We are not just going to talk about ACS goings-on with this podcast. But this meeting is a big deal for chemistry and it’s our first, best chance to talk with diverse chemists from all over the world. There were more than 16,000 attendees at the New Orleans meeting in March. And there was absolutely no way we were going to hear from all of them. So we’ve tried to capture a cross-section of people there. Sort of like an audio snapshot that maybe you’re seeing for the first time if you weren’t at the meeting, or maybe even if you were there.
And I think it’s worth saying that I believe we are impartial when it comes to covering matters related to our publisher. And you know what? I’m just gonna say it. I think the American Geophysical Union serves better refreshments at its meetings. More importantly, though, we’re not going to censor what people told us about the ACS in this episode, and I think some of that qualifies as critical.
So this episode will be a little different from our first few. You’re about to listen to a number of people we caught up for just a few minutes at the expo, during session breaks, that sort of thing. And we got them reflecting on the conference and what it’s like being there. We wanted to hear from chemists at different stages of their career with different goals for the meeting and different expectations for the society that hosts it. Basically, we wanted to hear the reasons why chemists come to the meeting and what brought them to New Orleans.
Geri Richmond: Getting the Priestley Medal brought me here.
Matt: That’s Geri Richmond. She’s from the University of Oregon, and she won the 2018 Priestley Medal, the highest honor awarded by ACS, for her work studying liquid surfaces. We caught up with her in the expo hall right after a Q&A event she did with my editor, Lauren Wolf.
Geri Richmond: But the real treat of being here and the medal is that you get to see all of these students that you knew at a much earlier time in their career and you get to catch up with where they are today. And for me that’s been the best part of this meeting so far is to hear the science that they’re doing and to realize how lucky I was to have their brain power in my lab at some time in my life.
Matt: One of Geri’s banner discoveries was revealing how water orients itself at the oil-water interface. Her team also showed that the water actually weakly binds to the oil. During the Q&A, I learned that the measurement behind these revelations took three years to make. I could not believe that. I was a grad student once and I can barely imagine focusing one project for three years, let alone one set of measurements. So before I asked Geri about the ACS meeting, I really wanted to know how she kept going on this project and how she kept her students on board.
Geri Richmond: In this case, the student Larry Scatena and I were just egging each other on. And so it was really kind of a team activity to keep us going. But then there were other times I can think of times recently in the lab where we’ve needed to make a shift because I just saw that the student was banging their head against the wall and we should try another track. I it’s like it’s a mix of weather of reading the student as to whether they’re ready to jump ship and whether I think that this is sort of pointless to go this direction after all. I mean, you know, the whole point of experimentation is that some things work and some don’t. If they always worked it’s not an experiment. So you have to acknowledge that sometimes your ideas may have been better going another direction.
Matt (in New Orleans): I think one of the things that’s hard to capture about the meeting is just how big it is and it can be—I think, especially for people that are new to it—just overwhelming, right? How many meetings have you been to and do you have like a sort of a strategy for how not to feel overwhelmed by everything that’s going on?
Geri Richmond: So I’ve probably been to at least one ACS meeting for every year in the last 30 years. So I’ve been to a lot of them. And usually I find out where to go and I just zip to go there and then zip to go someplace else. But yesterday, I have to say that, I was sitting at a table where a lot of people were going by me and it was amazing in the hour that I was sitting there I didn’t know a single person that walked by. And yeah, I’ve been good at these ACS meetings for 30 years. And I was like, “Wow. This is a big meeting.” So actually it was this meeting where I was most amazed at how big it was.
Matt (in studio): This is remarkable because Geri knows a ton of people. In fact, another reason she earned the 2018 Priestley Medal was for her quote extraordinary service to chemistry on a global level. As an example of that, Geri is the founder and director of an organization called COACh, which originally stood for Committee on the Advancement of Women Chemists. Now, it just goes by COACh and it works to promote success and leadership training for women and men in science and engineering. One of the ways the organization does that is by hosting career workshops, which have taken place in the U.S., in China, in India, in Kenya, and in many other countries around the world. So even though this meeting put Geri in a position where she didn’t recognize anyone for a bit, there was no way that was going to last.
Geri Richmond: With regards to our women in science and COACh activities, we’ve worked with thousands of women, and I just I forget who they all are over 20 years. And they’ll come running up and saying, “Oh my goodness. You changed my life and I can’t believe that what COACh did for me.” And so it’s at ACS meetings where a lot of those women I’m able to reconnect with them and so that’s different than I would be at any other meeting because we’ve reached out to so many women chemists.
Matt (in New Orleans): So my last question for you is kind of getting just back to how big the meetings are but I think people come in they know they’re going to see a lot of great science, there’s a lot of great opportunities for networking. Is there anything about the ACS meeting or meetings in general that you think we overlook or undervalue?
Geri Richmond: I think most people understand that it’s a great opportunity to network and I don’t think the younger people realize that enough. I think what we need to have need is to have, because scientists in general tend to be shy, we need to have more coaching at the beginning of the meeting, especially to students on how to get over being shy to go up and network with people and give them your name and so forth. Because I think as you get further in your career that’s a little bit easier and we can take more advantage of the networking opportunities that ACS meetings,—- which is really important. But I think the younger people they need more coaching on to jump in and get that done a lot earlier than waiting later in their career because that’s what’s unique about an ACS meeting is the ability to network.
Matt: Geri then had to zip off to one of the various Hilton properties in the vicinity of the conference center. But if you want to know more about her, you should definitely check out C&EN’s excellent profile of her from March, written by my colleague Sam Lemonick. We have a link to that on our website.
And I actually hadn’t planned on spending too much time in the expo hall for the purposes of this episode, but that was before I got a text from this podcast’s cohost, Kerri Jansen. She said that there was somebody in the expo hall that I needed to talk to. And that’s how I met Jack Lee Hayes.
Matt (in New Orleans): The unfortunate thing about podcasting is it’s not a very visual medium, right? And visually, you have a striking outfit. How how would you describe this to someone listening?
Jack Lee Hayes: Perturbing.
Matt (in studio): Jack is wearing a lot of tie-dye, but in a way that means business. But not super serious business. Like, imagine a Ghillie suit designed for someone trying to hide in a Grateful Dead merch tent. We do actually have a picture of him in the April 2 issue of the magazine on page 35, if you want to see for yourself. We’ll also share a link to that photo.
Anyhow, here’s what you need to know about Jack outside of his outfit. He started coming to ACS meetings in 1995 as an undergrad and he’s had a lot of different jobs since then including serving in the Navy. He’s now a chemistry instructor at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Missouri. And he developed his attire for his educational profession. Here’s the thinking on that. Jack says he’s learned that there are two good ways to educate people. One is to perturb students. The other one?
Jack Lee Hayes: You make somebody really mad at you. The military has a key on that. You can’t really go anywhere and run away. It’s hard to do as a chemistry instructor. They can actually drop your course. So I need to perturb them and let ‘em have fun. If they get comfortable and they just sit in their chairs, their brains start to shut down they don’t even realize it. Being very bright, very peacock-like in nature, it helps them stay involved in the class. I am a rainbow.
Matt: Jack tells us Neil Bastian of Salt Lake Community College invited him to New Orleans to present at a symposium for undergrads called, “Where can my chemistry degree take me?”
Matt (in New Orleans): So what did you what advice or knowledge did you provide to those in attendance?
Jack Lee Hayes: Well, the biggest thing I said was follow your passions. One of the reasons that Neil invited me is I’m a jack of all trades—master of five—and I’ve never worked a day in my life, but I always have a job. If I don’t want to get up in the morning, it’s time to take a vacation and find a new job. So I encourage them to follow their passion. I was 40 before I kind of settled on where I’m at right now. I had been in radioactive material, been in the U.S. Navy, I had done a lot of other things prior to that. So I have had a good career. Oh, don’t forget. Guide in the mountains of Montana. People paid me to go horseback riding and take them hunting and fishing. Oh darn. What a horrible life. I’ve had a lot of fun and I encourage them to do that. They need to be duteous. Chemistry is a very flexible degree. We call it the central science for a reason. With chemistry I can kind of do whatever I want to do.
Matt: Can you talk about what led you to teaching now?
Jack Lee Hayes: What led me to teaching was I was a project manager running multi-million- to hundreds-of-million-dollar projects and I would hire wonderful young men and women but it would take me six months turn them into actual constructive members of society. Through an organizational change, I ended up and I knew it was coming I was going to get laid off and instead of going and staying in my industry. I had job offers before I even got home to tell my wife that I had been laid off. So the industry was strong. It was a good place to stay. Paid really well, but I knew that I could go to and be an instructor and influence the lives of a lot of young people and help them find that the ability to be a contributing member of society whether it’s as an employee or even as a good voting person. Because science majors show up in high percentages at the polls, but we’re grossly outnumbered by the not-science majors. So this is our chance as an instructor to influence them to maybe not be swayed so much by their emotions and the lobbyists. How do we know what we know? They can make a better informed decision. Also at 3:00 in the morning when someone selling them super-oxygenated water, they might keep their credit card in their wallet.
Matt (in studio): Before saying goodbye to Jack, I asked him the same question I asked Geri. Is there anything he thinks people overlook or undervalue when coming to a meeting like this?
Jack Lee Hayes: One of the most underrated things that I didn’t learn the first 10 years I attended ACS meetings was to go out and actually talk to the people that you see and take a minute to get to know them. The networking and the support that we have as an industry, as a society is different. I’ve been in some many industries, member of multiple different societies American Chemical Society really does stand up. And, no I’m not trying to do a commercial for ACS. But I’m proud to be a member of the ACS because they have supported me more than any other society I’ve ever been a member of.
Matt: I’m not sure how practical this advice is, but this meeting taught me a really good way to meet people is to wander into their conversations and stick a microphone directly in their faces. And using that technique, I learned about another method: Organize a symposium.
Matt (in New Orleans): So I guess first, can I have you introduce yourself?
Adeyemi Adeleye: My name is Adeyemi Adeleye and I’m a postdoctoral fellow at the U.S. EPA.
Matt: Were you presenting?
Adeyemi Adeleye: I did present and I also organized a session.
Matt (in studio): Adeyemi was actually talking to a presenter from that session when I interrupted them.
Matt (in New Orleans): All right and can I have you introduce yourself?
Ajith Pattammattel: My name is Ajith Pattammattel and I do a postdoc at the University of California in Merced.
Matt (in studio): Allow me to expound a little. Adeyemi, the postdoc at the Environmental Protection Agency, organized a symposium for the Division of Environmental Chemistry about the effects of carbon-based nanomaterials on the environment. Ajith, the postdoc at UC Merced, delivered a talk within that symposium called “Surface oxidation and iron speciation on carbon nanoparticles for precise air pollution models.” What that means is that they are both interested in what nanoparticles do once they get into the environment. So the two researchers were meeting for the first time thanks to this conference. And there’s more. Also in on meeting this was Ajith’s lab mate, Ugwumsinachi Nwosu, who got his Ph.D. at Louisiana State University, which is about 80 miles from New Orleans.
Matt (in New Orleans): And so being from LSU, did you show them around to like the coolest places?
Ugwumsinachi Nwosu: Yeah, well I showed them around, but I just ran into—
Adeyemi Adeleye: We just met.
Ugwumsinachi Nwosu: Yeah,we just met.
Matt: So you haven’t had a chance yet.
Ugwumsinachi Nwosu: Yeah, yeah.
Matt: So now that you’ve met in person, this is a weird question to ask you right here. But do you plan to keep in contact moving forward?
Ajith Pattammattel: Yeah, yeah.
Adeyemi Adeleye: For sure. At least for the three of us, we’re at a stage in our career where we’re looking for so to say the next opportunity. So we probably feel we can keep in touch and you now share information about those opportunities and how to go for that, you know.
Matt (in studio): If you missed out on Adeyemi’s session in New Orleans, don’t worry. He’s organizing another at the ACS meeting in Boston this fall.
And speaking of sessions, it’s about time we ducked into one of those. Full disclosure, though, I chose the session that I did more for its organization than its scientific content. But let’s start with the latter because this is a science podcast, after all.
The session was in the Division of Biological Chemistry and that was really tough for me. I’m a condensed matter physicist who has never taken a single course in biology. I couldn’t even remember the name of the session if I wasn’t looking at my program and it was an objectively easy name to remember.
Matt (in New Orleans): I forget the name of the actual symposium...
Kate Leamy: It’s “RNA Structure and Function.”
Matt: So that was Kate Leamy and she’s a fifth year graduate student. She works in Phil Bevilacqua’s group at Penn State University. Phil was one of the session’s organizers and both he and Kate gave presentations in it. About what, you ask? I’ll let them take it from here.
Phil Bevilacqua: Well, my lab is focused on RNA chemistry and biology. And at this particular meeting our session is focused on the mechanisms of catalytic RNAs or RNA enzymes. And so I talked about some of the experiments that have been conducted to look at how those enzymes work, as well as to give a kind of a broad overview of some work we’ve been doing recently to compare the active sites of different but related ribozymes to try to look for shared catalytic strategies.
Kate Leamy: My presentation was not actually on a ribozyme, it was on tRNA and how it folds in cellular conditions. But I think that the work I talked about can be related to the RNAs that everybody here really loves.
Matt (in studio): tRNA is shorthand for transfer RNA, which probably means something to the people out there who love RNA. Personally, I don’t get it, but you do you, biochemists.
Now, let’s get back to the organization part of this. Phil and Kate were not the only PI-grad student pairing of presenters. That’s actually how this whole thing was set up by Phil and Shana Kelley of the University of Toronto. First, a PI would present the big-picture research themes for a group, followed by a graduate student who could dive down into a specific project. Phil told us there wasn’t really any precedent for this symposium structure and I checked that informally with Celia Arnaud, who has covered science, education, and ACS meetings for C&EN for nearly 20 years. She’s also who I usually go to with hard questions. Neither one of us could recall a session quite like this, but Celia did point out organizers love getting creative with session design, especially in biological chemistry.
And that wasn’t the only first for the session. This was also Kate’s first time presenting and that got me wondering.
Matt (in New Orleans): Is it at all intimidating following the person that you work under? Maybe I shouldn’t put that slant on it. What was the experience like following, you know, your mentor?
Kate Leamy: Yeah, I think it was great. Normally, if you give a talk somewhere, somebody talked before you that you don’t know. But this is a very friendly environment and the people who are in the session are also very friendly so I think it’s a great way to give a talk.
Matt: And do you have any advice for graduate students preparing to give their first presentation at a very large meeting?
Kate Leamy: I think practice. Definitely. But also you know your work better than anybody else, maybe except for your advisor. So be confident in yourself and what you’re showing.
Phil Bevilacqua: I have one last comment which from an advisor point of view it’s really a pleasure to do this with your students because it’s a chance to really kind of show off what’s going on and senior students are doing such a great job. They’re more like colleagues and students. And so it’s a lot of fun for the idea to have the chance to present with their student.
Matt (in studio): In all seriousness, this session stuck with me and it wasn’t just because of how it was organized. I did actually learn some science. Like, I now feel marginally comfortable using the words ribozyme and turnover.
There was one other session that I did want to call out here. My colleagues Linda Wang and Andrea Widener, along with the Women Chemists Committee, organized a symposium called the “Science of Sexual Harassment.”
Peter Dorhout, the ACS president, made this symposium what’s called a presidential event. Peter selected about a dozen of these at the meeting to emphasize sessions dealing with the meeting’s scientific themes—food, energy, and water—but also events focused on safety, diversity, and inclusion.
We called Peter, who is also the vice president for research at Kansas State University, after the meeting to learn about this choice.
Peter Dorhout: We have to select those things where we’re going to make a difference. And, for me, my activities in the university, as well as within ACS have focused on diversity and on creating an environment on our campuses and in our laboratories that is safe and welcoming for students and faculty that prepares them to be in a progression through their career paths such that they are able to learn new things, advance new ideas, and be able to participate in the chemical enterprise which is something that I love.
Matt: Still, some in the “Science of Sexual Harassment” session called on the ACS and its leadership to step up their effort to change the culture and climate as it relates to sexual harassment in chemistry. Here’s an excerpt from a presentation given by Mary Boyd, provost of Berry College.
Mary Boyd: And finally, I think the one message I want to get across to the ACS is time’s up, ACS. So as I was invited to do this, I was putting my talk together and particularly talking about training and climate and culture of departments. I went into my CV, because we keep all of these things, and I pulled out... So in 2010, I was invited to give a talk at a symposium on how we can keep, by the Women Chemists Committee, staying at the table. I gave the same talk in 2010. And then in 2011 I was invited to another one about how to prevent hostile work environments. And I talked about education and training. So seven years ago and eight years ago, I gave this same talk. It’s time. Time’s up. And I will keep coming back and give this talk as many times...
As many times as you want me to, I will be here. And so, unfortunately, Peter Dorhout, I should have thanked him. So thank you Peter for making this a presidential event and elevating the importance of this work. This is also something, and I said I would do it before he had to leave, this is something an ACS president can take on as their legacy. If Bruce Bursten can create the ACS Fellows Program during his presidency, an ACS president can take this on an be the person to leave this as a legacy going forward, to make a difference in the society for all of the women, for all of the men, for everybody who is here. And I will keep coming back and giving this talk. So I wanted to finish. Thank you, Peter.
Matt: We did ask Peter for his thoughts on Mary’s call to action. And just a couple things to point out before we play his answer. First, he says Mary told him she was going to do that. Secondly, Peter is ACS president, which means has does hold sway in the ACS, but there are limits to what he can do alone. Being president gets him onto the ACS Board of Directors, a roster of 14 leaders that serve as the society’s chief governing body.
Peter Dorhout: We have stated that in our core values, professionalism is important to us. Safety is important to us. Diversity and inclusion are important to us. And this is part of inclusion and creating an inclusive environment. And so this is something that is core to ACS and it will continue part of the conversation that the board has. An ACS president can, in working with the members of the board, identify ways in which can actually play a proactive role here. Whether it’s as straightforward as asking members to look at their institutional policies and how are those institutional policies supportive of women and underrepresented minorities. Policies aren’t necessarily always the way to build inclusive environments, but I think it has to begin with us stating, “Here are the things we’re not going to tolerate.” And then having conversations in our own universities and colleges, for example, about how can we change the environment to make it better for our students, faculty, and staff who are part of our academic families.
Matt: When we come back, we’ve got an extremely resilient biologist, a dreamer, a ceramic duck, and some hazardous waste. Stay tuned.
I know we’re talking about #ACSNOLA, but it’s not too soon to start thinking about ACS Boston, which runs from August 19 through August 23. ACS staff is already getting ready.
Matt (in New Orleans): Question that you probably don’t want to think about right now sitting here in New Orleans, but how long before you start working on Boston?
Beverly Johnson: Sorry, I’ve already started. I definitely have already started. I started by, we went on a site visit and we’re thinking about where to put the posters, which halls we’re going to use. That’s what we’re thinking about right now.
Matt (in studio): That’s Beverly Johnson, lead meetings planner for the ACS. She and her team are on-site at the meetings all day, from like 6:30 in the morning until 9 in the evening making sure everything runs smoothly.
Matt (in New Orleans): So compared to other meetings, has this one gone pretty smoothly?
Beverly Johnson: This has gone really smoothly considering we have a new system, a new meeting-planning system. So this has gone extremely well. I haven’t had no issues or anything yet. So I think that’s good.
Beverly Johnson: It just took a lot of work and there’s still work to do, but we are definitely in a good place.
Matt: Which bodes well for Boston, right? You can already submit your abstracts and meeting registration opens up on May 21. Visit acs.org and click on “Meetings” at the top of the page to learn more. Now back to NOLA.
Matt: When I was a student preparing for a conferences like this, I’d always just think about sitting in the sessions, you know? And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s a totally cerebral, borderline sedentary framing for a conference. What I’m trying to say is I’d think about conferences as learning a lot in a really low-energy setting. That is not how I would describe the scene at the Chem Demo Exchange in New Orleans. The room had some serious energy, which was furnished, of course, by the chemists.
Luis Acevedo-Soto: So I’m actually not a chemist.
Matt (in New Orleans): Whaaaaaat?!
Luis Acevedo-Soto: I’m a biologist.
Matt: Oh man.
Luis Acevedo-Soto: But I’m a biologist in love with chemistry.
Matt: So it’s lunchtime on Sunday. We’re in the ChemDemo Exchange hall and I’m talking with…
Luis Acevedo-Soto: Luis from the University of Puerto Rico at Aguadilla.
Matt (in studio): That’s Luis Acevedo-Soto. And we met him through a Facebook Live Kerri Jansen hosted for C&EN at the ChemDemo Exchange. Just a little bit about the event, I think it honestly elevates both the art and science of the chemistry classroom demonstration. According to the ACS website, ACS chapters from all over set up 40 different demo stations in New Orleans. The demos were developed for K-12 students using household chemicals. The ChemDemo hall was packed and the vibe was electric. If you haven’t been to one or you missed this one, be sure to check out Kerri’s Facebook Live.
So now that we’ve kind of set the scene, let’s get back to Luis and what brought him to the ACS meeting.
Luis Acevedo-Soto: So we’re just here to represent not only our college campus but our country. We’re here doing the demo. We have research presentations, we have student chapter presentations. It’s all about representation and just having fun as well.
Matt: Is this your first ACS meeting?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: It’s my second ACS meeting. I went to San Francisco last year as well, doing research presentations.
Matt: So how does how does New Orleans compare so far?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: It’s been a great and great food. I’ve been gaining some pounds, that’s all I can say.
Matt: So this is your second ACS meeting, between the two, what’s been like your favorite just experience about being in this meeting with all the these thousands of chemists?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: The ChemDemo. I mean, you can see the ingenuity about students and all of the experiments all the ideas. So that’s my favorite part of the whole meeting.
Matt (in studio): You heard Luis talk about representation, so I asked what he hoped his chapter and others from Puerto Rico were representing. He told me that he wanted people to know that Puerto Rico is resilient and has a lot to offer. The New Orleans meeting was taking place just six months after Hurricane Maria tore through the island. As of this recording, thousands of Puerto Ricans were still without power.
For ChemDemo, Luis and his chapter developed demos inspired by the storm and the island’s recovery. One of them looked at the chemistry of Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs. MREs are individual food rations used by the military and by civilians after natural disasters, such as Maria.
We saw a creamy spinach fettuccine MRE at ChemDemo. And to heat it up, you just add water to what’s called a flameless ration heater, which is included with the MRE. Of course, it’s chemistry that makes that possible and the point of the demo was to teach kids that chemistry.
The group dissected the heater and showed that it contains magnesium, along with some iron and sodium salt. When you add water to that metallic mixture, it reacts to form hydrogen and magnesium hydroxide exothermically. The iron and sodium salt help speed up the heating.
Matt (in New Orleans): And why did you pick the MRE chemistry project?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: After the hurricane we were sent the MREs, basically. So we went we were curious behind the chemistry. So that’s what we’re trying to explain and people actually are very receptive to that one actually. So we’ve been having a lot of fun with that.
Matt: Where is your university in Puerto Rico?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: We’re at the northwest location. So, in the UPR system we have 11 campuses and ours is located at the northwest area of the island.
Matt: And how did the hurricane affect you and how is the recovery been going?
Luis Acevedo-Soto: It’s been going really well, you know. We opened up fairly quickly and we lost a little bit over a month and we were able to finish our semester and everything. So it was tough, but we were very resilient and you know we just go back on our feet and you know moving forward.
Matt (in studio): We’re going to take you now from one high-energy event to another, the Sci-Mix poster session. Sci-Mix is a gigantic chemistry nerd party, but like a work party. Listen to how the ACS advertises the fact that there’s free beer there: “Free beer is normally available to help stimulate discussion.”
Seriously, though, it’s a lot of fun. And I was at Sci-Mix with my colleague and perpetual motion machine, Linda Wang, who also enjoys the event.
Linda Wang: So I really like the energy of Sci-Mix because, you know, it’s the one night that pretty much everybody gets together and they chat about chemistry over drinks and popcorn and just really have a good time. Everybody gets to relax and it really is one big mixer. That’s why they call it Sci-Mix.
Matt: And we were there to meet up a graduate student named Antonio Tinoco, somewhere near the posters from the ACS Division of Organic Chemistry or ORG, as the cool kids call it. And we could not find those posters. At all.
Matt (in New Orleans): There’s Polly. I mean maybe. That was MEDI. That’s POLY? Could be...
Matt: Yeah. Right? There were there would be an O between the M and P. As we walk over, do you mind if I put the microphone in your general face area and ask you who are we going to meet and how did you meet him?
Linda: We’re meeting Antonio Tinoco and he is a graduate student at the University of Rochester. And I met him after I wrote cover story last April 2017 about undocumented students in chemistry. He wrote a letter to the editor about his own personal experiences and I was so touched that I reached out to him and then we chatted and then we connected on social media. And ever since then we’ve just been you know continuing to stay in touch and that this is the first time I’m going to be meeting him
Matt: I’m excited. I’m really excited. The only thing we have to overcome first is figuring out where the organic posters are.
Linda: Oh, there he is.
Matt: Is that him?
Linda: There he is.
Matt: We found him
Matt (in studio): Not to brag, but finding a stranger in Sci-Mix is no small feat. Well, I guess the point of saying that out loud was exclusively to brag. At any rate, let’s get back to first impressions.
Linda: Actually, the first time I saw you, I didn’t realize you were so tall.
Antonio Tinoco: I was like, “Oh hi, Linda.” Then just this giant just approaching her.
Linda: I had to look up. In the pictures, you know, you never know how tall people are.
Antonio Tinoco: I get that all the time. Like, I didn’t know I didn’t look tall. Like I didn’t know that was a thing.
Matt: So we chatted for a bit and I learned that Antonio works with Rudi Fasan at the University of Rochester, where Antonio develops catalysts based on myoglobin proteins.
Antonio is also a Dreamer, meaning he’s an undocumented migrant who came to the U.S. as a child. And his right to live and study in the U.S. is protected, for the time being, by DACA, the acronym for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But the future of DACA and hundreds of thousands of Dreamers in the U.S. have been uncertain since Donald Trump took office. Linda wrote about this in that April cover story she mentioned.
In September, the Trump administration announced it would end DACA protections by this March. But federal courts in California, New York, and now D.C. have intervened to keep the program in place for now. So DACA is still in effect, but it’s also very much in limbo. We asked Antonio what it was like living with that uncertainty, not knowing what will happen to the program that keeps him from being deported.
Antonio Tinoco: It’s been very difficult. I think when it was September 5th when the decision to resign DACA was made. And I just felt completely, I felt like abandoned by my country, by the U.S. I couldn’t believe it actually went on with it and proposed to get rid of DACA. I mean it’s not officially gone yet. And since then I’ve been trying not to think about it too much and just stay positive and think of the broader context of what I’m doing. I’m trying to, I’m trying to contribute to science and contribute to a greater good by trying to better the world. I had to think about it. If it means that I’m not going to be able to get my Ph.D., or even be in the U.S., if I have to do it somewhere else, at that moment, that was a reality for me.
Matt (in New Orleans): Tough question, but what does what does that feel like? Like even considering not being able to you know finish your Ph.D. in what I’m sure you see as your home country?
Antonio Tinoco: It was very conflicting because I feel 100% American, like this is my country. It never occurred to me that I would ever have to think of leaving. Obviously, I knew it was going to be tough because I knew as an undocumented person in this country you’re going to have to really fight for certain things that other people take for granted, such as your education or even having a job. But once DACA came around that really you know, “Oh wow.” Like all these possibilities, getting my bachelor’s going to graduate school, they all opened up to me. And then having the rug being pulled under my feet, having all this momentum it felt very conflicting. I also felt a little powerless.
Matt: Has this been something you’ve been able to talk about with your group or your PI? And what’s that been like?
Antonio Tinoco: Right. So actually immediately after a group meeting my PI emailed me to meet with me. And I remember going into his office and just discussing it and he told me that I really shouldn’t worry about it. That there’s no way that this administration is going to get away with you know getting rid of DACA and deporting all the undocumented people that are in this country. It’s just not going to happen and that I should just really focus on my graduate work as also as a means of distraction.
Matt: You talked about to the article coming out and the support being from I guess a broader network of ACS. Have you continued to feel that since the article came out? Or just like maybe the better way of phrasing it is you talked about in that moment after the article feeling like I guess support. Did that feeling last beyond the article?
Antonio Tinoco: It did. It really it felt like there are really people there are people out there that really want to give undocumented students and undocumented people in general a lot of support. And it made me feel even more included. And, you know, they throw out that statistic that the majority of the country is in support of allowing undocumented students to stay in the country and go on with their careers. But then it’s kind of like why if there is a majority, why is this still an issue?
Matt (in studio): A CBS News poll from January that surveyed 1,225 Americans found that 87% supported keeping DACA and Dreamers in the United States.
Matt: To switch gears, how many ACS meetings have you been to?
Antonio Tinoco: That’s a really interesting question. This is actually my sixth. I remember the first ACS meeting that I went to was in 2011 in Anaheim. It’s actually this is very nostalgic because I came to the Sci Mix and I felt completely overwhelmed by all these chemists and all the posters and all the research and everyone just having a good time talking about chemistry. I also felt overwhelmed because I was an undergrad, like kind of clueless. I was still kind of figuring out what I wanted to do. And looking back at it now and where I am now, you know I gave my first graduate presentation at an ACS meeting yesterday. And it’s like wow. Like to kind of like look back in where I started and where I am now it’s really great feeling to feel like I have grown from that moment.
Matt: Seven years from now, you know, that was 2011 you said you’ve come so far to 2018. In 2025, where would you like to be?
Antonio Tinoco: 2025. I mean hoping that everything goes well in terms of, you know, immigration reform, and even if it doesn’t, I would like to be in my independent academic career doing research and teaching at the research university level.
Matt (in studio): Although I’m sure this wasn’t his intent Antonio, had just given me the perfect segue to talk about chemistry employment issues. And the perfect excuse to talk to this guy.
Chemjobber: My name is—my pseudonym is Chemjobber and I am a blogger about the chemistry job market.
Matt (in New Orleans): Can you tell us what brings you to the ACS national meeting in NOLA?
Chemjobber: I’ve been very honored to ask to speak on a panel titled Social Media 101. So that’s a pretty natural fit for me.
I started the blog in December of 2008. And then right around the birth of my second child I started blogging daily. And shortly thereafter I got on Twitter.
Matt (in studio): If you care about chemistry and employment, odds are you already follow Chemjobber. But if you don’t, it’s not too late change that. His avatar is a ceramic duck. And if you’re not on Twitter, I’d encourage you to think about changing that, too.
Matt (in New Orleans): If you had just three words to do it how would you describe chem Twitter?
Chemjobber: I would say it’s really fun. It is lively and friendly.
Matt: Surprisingly friendly for Twitter.
Matt (in studio): But to get back to employment, first let me plug Chemjobber’s column for C&EN called “Bench & Cubicle.” I think it’s really, really good. It deals with things you’ve probably all thought about or struggled with, including working late hours, combating procrastination, and dealing with when to stay at a job versus looking for the next opportunity.
Chemjobber: I think we try to ask questions that almost everybody will have an opinion on. And you know, I’ll give my answers. And most of the time I don’t come down too hard on one side of the fence or the other.
Matt (in New Orleans): Is there one question or topic that you have... What’s the one that you come down the hardest on?
Chemjobber: I’m not sure I remember. Umm …
Matt: Well, let me rephrase the question then. Is there is there something right now in terms of the life of a professional chemist, like a debate or an issue, that you do have really strong feelings about?
Chemjobber: Yeah, absolutely. I have strong feelings about how forward facing the American Chemical Society should be about gathering data about the pathways that chemical professionals will face. I think that we need to have a much better sense of where people end up five years or ten years down the road from graduation. What happens? We still don’t know what happens to what happens to chemists after their first layoff? How many of them stay in chemistry? We have no idea. These are all questions that I think that you know the chemistry community and the American Chemical Society in specific should be spending significant resources attempting to answer these questions. I fully recognize these are very difficult questions. You know, basically Ph.D. theses in and of themselves.
I think that there’s still open debate as to whether or not we have too many or too few Ph.D. chemists and you know what is the nature of Ph.D. education and those are things where I have opinions, but I recognize that it’s I may not necessarily be 100 percent right.
Matt (in studio): One of the best things about interviewing a pseudonymous chemistry blogger is that they’ll give you honest answers about the ACS in the middle of an ACS meetings. And Chemjobber says that, beyond affording a certain degree of candor, being pseudonymous also helps people focus on the message rather than the messenger.
Chemjobber: It allows me a certain degree of freedom to talk about the community and it’s something that I really work hard not to abuse. But you know the vast majority of what I talk about isn’t about me. So it doesn’t matter who I am.
Matt: In the interest of honesty, CJ was pretty stoked to be at this meeting, and to attend ACS meetings in general.
Chemjobber: They’re really really exciting. I can’t I can’t help it. I mean you get to see people that you don’t normally get to see, especially if you’re not in academia and you know the professors don’t visit your institution or whatever and it’s just a really cool vibe. I especially enjoy seeing all the little intricate little parts of ACS that are kind of hidden. It’s a massive volunteer organization and there are so many different little committees that you never knew existed and they’re having their meetings planning out their next year or whatever and it’s just pretty cool.
Matt: Speaking of the intricacies of a massive volunteer organization, we found the perfect person to give us just a little insight into those for our last interview with a conference attendee. And this attendee hasn’t just been an ACS member for a long time, she’s been active within ACS for a long time. She’s served on numerous committees, including my favorite: the Committee on Committees, or ConC. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Allow me to introduce Lydia Hines.
Lydia Hines: My name is Lydia Moissides-Hines. I’m Greek by nationality from the island of Cyprus. I came to this country to go to college and graduate school, finished at the University of Illinois got married and stayed. But ever since undergrad I always have been a member of the American Chemical Society, which makes it now 50 years that I’ve been a member and it’s been a great run in my opinion.
Matt: After graduating, Lydia got a job with Upjohn Company in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She no longer works for Upjohn, which has since been acquired by Pfizer. But she still lives in Kalamazoo, where she teaches chemistry part time at the university level and is very active in ACS locally, regionally, and nationally. I caught up with her just after the ACS council meeting in New Orleans.
But Lydia and I actually connected for the first time a few months before the meeting over email. I wrote a Newscripts column for the magazine about somebody in Iowa who brought 5 kilos of mercury in a bar in Iowa. And then spilled it.
Lydia wrote in to say that she and her late husband had collected stoneware jugs once used for storing mercury from things like broken thermometers. At its peak, their collection had three such jars, and much more.
Lydia Hines: My my husband and I are both chemists and we were both, let’s call it pack rats. My husband was worse than I was. He always wanted to have a chemistry lab. So wherever he worked over the years, he would take whatever they didn’t want or was broken or they didn’t think they could use it anymore, he would collect it and bring it home. I mean that’s we’re talking years and years. So he had a lot of glass items, a lot of old equipment that people were throwing out, old balances that nobody wants to use anymore. And those mercury jars. They are attractive jars because they say mercury on them and you can tell what they are right away at a glance. So he filled them with mercury.
Matt: And Lydia is the first to admit that the chemical safety practices of those days are straight up shocking now. For example, she says her husband used to work at a paint company where employees would wash their hands and neck in benzene before clocking out. In case you haven’t read benzene’s material safety data sheet lately, it’s not something you should be putting on your skin or near your breathing holes.
Then, of course, there was the mercury in the ceramic jugs. Lydia and her husband realized they’d have to do something about that situation when their insurance company brought it up. So the couple transferred the mercury from the ceramic jugs to a covered plastic container. Lydia says she kept that container for a while and would bring it out to show friends and guests so they could experience how dense the metal is. Just for reference, remember that five kilograms of mercury I mentioned earlier? That’s not a lot of mercury by volume—it would just about fit inside a soda can.
At any rate, Lydia decided to move and downsize her labware collection after her husband died. But she did hold on to one of the mercury jugs.
Lydia Hines: So those jars are a remnant after he passed away. So I kept one and I gave the to two as I said to a store that will hopefully sell it for historical purposes I don’t know.
Matt: Lydia would also dispose of the mercury, in a manner befitting of a professional chemist.
Lydia Hines: I took the mercury to the university and I gave it to the person in charge of hazardous materials and this poor gal was a young one. I said, “This is a bottle of mercury.” It was all closed up. And she picked it up and ran back to the area where she has her hazardous materials like she was holding poison in her fingers. I said, “It’s a plastic jar. It won’t cut through.” She went running put it away. Sorry. That was funny. I guess.
Matt (in studio): Lydia had many riveting stories, as you might imagine a lifelong chemist would. And a lot were them pertinent to this podcast, which also makes sense with her being a member of the ACS for 50 years. For example, the first committee she joined was the Women Chemists Committee, or WCC. Back around 1980 she was part of the group when it was trying to come up with a way to provide child care at national meetings. But they never got very far because of liability issues, Lydia said
So the project stalled, but Lydia kept moving. Over the years, she would join other committees, where she would help develop and coordinate outreach activities or help select candidates for the elected leadership of ACS or help study and optimize other committees—that was the Committee on Committees.
Then in 2015, reading an issue of C&EN, she got an unexpected surprise. She saw that work she had been involved in some 35 years ago was paying off through a program known as Camp ACS, a childcare service for kids aged 2-16 at national meetings. A woman named Fiona Case wrote the letter Lydia saw, thanking ACS leadership for providing that service. That moved Lydia to write her own letter to the editor.
Lydia Hines: That was a surprise to me because I hadn’t been on WCC for a long time and then all of a sudden I saw a letter to the editor from a mother who was excited to have camp ACS for her children. And that’s when I wrote a letter to the editor and said how great to see that what we did years ago came to fruition now and you’re happy with it.
Matt: Beverly Johnson—the lead meetings planner for the ACS—tells us that Camp ACS was officially launched in 2009 by the Committee on Meetings & Expositions, or M&E. Incidentally, Lydia now serves on M&E, which studies and makes recommendations for, you guessed it, meetings and expositions. Which brought me to ask her, after all of these years of committee work and service to the ACS, was there was one thing she was most proud of? And her answer caught me totally off guard.
Lydia Hines: One thing I’m proud of is I don’t believe in having committees for the sake of having committees. I was chair of the copyright’s committee at one time and I was very pleased when I found out that the copyright’s committee was no longer. It didn’t happen when I was chair, but somebody decided copyright’s belongs in some other committee so let’s subsume it don’t make a separate committee and have lunches and rooms assigned and so on for expense. I’m very much for controlling expenses. So I was excited when somebody noticed that the copyright’s committee didn’t need to exist as itself. I guess it sounds like a crazy pride but I’m very pleased about that.
Matt: But before you go thinking she’s detached or aloof and looks only at the bottom line, she did then started talking about the work she’s doing now that obviously has her excited. She’s doing things like doing outreach with kids and young chemists in Kalamazoo, as well as mentoring newer ACS committee members. And listen to her describe the ACS in general.
Lydia Hines: So I just love ACS myself. I think of it as family and it’s just great to meet such hardworking folks. I come to meetings just like coming to a reunion. It’s wonderful to have that joy of coming to see friends.
Matt: At the risk of sounding unprofessional, I was out at bar one night in New Orleans and heard this guy say, “What even is a functional society?” And heck if I know. But it stuck with me reporting this podcast for C&EN and the members of the American Chemical Society.
The words would echo in my head when I’d talk to people who’d been donating their time to the ACS for five decades and people who had survived a hurricane or sexual harassment. And people who had decided travel hundreds of miles to open their work up to criticism from peers, friends and strangers alike. All of those people thought it was worth it to end up in the same place, in the same time and just interact and share information.
So I don’t know. I was hoping by now I would have figured out something intelligent or at least interesting to say about that in relation to what ACS is and what it could or should be, but I haven’t. So let me just say thank you for sharing your stories. And please come find us in Boston.
This episode was written and produced by me, Matt Davenport. Hashtag humblebrag. But in all seriousness, so many people helped out with this episode. First, special thanks to Victoria Fuentes, Amber Charlebois, and Frankie Wood-Black for calling upon the collective knowledge of past WCC chairs to give us a bit more context behind the history of Camp ACS. Before M&E was able to establish the formal program, the WCC worked for years with hotels near meeting sites to connect parents with childcare recommendations.
And thanks to Darrin York of Rutgers University, who introduced me to Phil and Kate at the RNA structure and function symposium. I met Darrin when he told me about his team’s work to bring augmented reality to their posters at the meeting, which we checked out in a Facebook Live in New Orleans. You should check out that Facebook Live if you’re into things like the future.
Finally, there’s an extremely gifted reporting staff at C&EN who let me leech off their effort and expertise to put this story together, including Kerri Jansen, Sam Lemonick, Celia Arnaud, Tien Nguyen, and Bethany Halford. Linda Wang, Andrea Widener, and Lauren Wolf were especially helpful, insightful, and patient, especially considering how little airtime I gave them.
The music you heard during the ACS Boston section is “The Confrontation” by Podington Bear. And the music playing now is “Analog” by Jon Luc Hefferman.
If you haven’t already subscribed to Stereo Chemistry be sure to do that right now on iTunes, Google Play, or TuneIn. Kerri’s already working on the next episode and it’s going to be great. I don’t want to give away too much, but it involves a pirate with a black beard.
Thanks for listening.
Here are links to some of the publications we mention in the podcast, as well as some other resources that we found useful, interesting, or just plain fun during our reporting of this episode.
Q&A with Geri Richmond | C&EN on Facebook
COACh | University of Oregon
Advances in the Transformations, Implications & Metrology of Carbonaceous Nanomaterials in the Environment | 255th ACS National Meeting & Exposition
RNA Structure and Function | 255th ACS National Meeting & Exposition
ChemDemo Live! | C&EN on Facebook
ChemDemo Exchange | ACS
Social Media 101 | 255th ACS National Meeting & Exposition
Bench & cubicle | C&EN
What I Learned at Camp ACS | C&EN
Founding Camp ACS | C&EN
Live from the AR posters at #ACSNOLA | C&EN on Facebook
“Analog” by Jon Luc Hefferman is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0.