Issue Date: January 12, 2004
Back to school
"Back to school" (C&EN, Nov. 24, 2003, page 47) prompted me to write about my experiences after being laid off from industry, trying to become a public high school chemistry teacher in New Jersey through the alternate teacher program. Regardless of the shortage of science teachers, the application process in Essex County was glacially slow; the application had an unconstitutional oath under a deity on it; and even though I applied in the spring, the certificate came after the beginning of the school year in September and only after I wrote to officials. Schools don't want professionals like me; only when schools were desperate toward the end of the summer did they call me; they didn't think I could teach, only lecture.
The Educational Testing Service's (ETS) Praxis Exam had one online practice question with two correct answers (but only one was acceptable); a second practice question had faulty reasoning in the acceptable answer. I lost all respect for ETS when they wouldn't accept my explanation of their faulty reasoning.
Interviews at several schools revealed pay ranging from $29,000 to $45,000, depending on that community's wealth. A science department head in one poor community told me to use my title because it would impress the students, while a science department head in a wealthy town said my title would not impress anyone because almost every student's parents were Ph.D.s or M.D.s. My industrial experience and my Ph.D. only gave me a few thousand dollars more than a beginning teacher; my status as a veteran, a little more yet. I would not have been able to afford my house on even the top beginning teacher's salary.
To learn about lesson plans, I took a course in substitute teaching, which was given by a school official from one of the bad towns. After hearing about fights, weapons, furniture going out the windows, false fire alarms, and hostile students, I began losing my interest in teaching. I also learned that teaching is a union job; you are monitored closely, there are strikes and picketing, and doing something beyond assigned tasks would make someone rat on you. Fortunately, I was "rescued" by an eleventh-hour industrial offer.
I enjoyed your article about attracting scientists to secondary schools as a second career. After working in the pharmaceutical industry for 10 years, I, too, switched careers and felt I had jumped off a cliff when I entered a classroom. I did not have previous experience teaching science to undergraduate students. Fortunately, I had great colleagues and administrators who showed me the ropes of teaching fun and practical science to middle schoolers.
I agree with Vicki A. Jacobs' statement that laboratory research can be "isolating" and that science people may want "more social interaction." I am so glad I made the career change seven years ago because teaching blends the best of two worlds: using people skills with a love of science. Correcting papers may be daunting some days, but the reward is great when a student shows a spark of interest and asks enthusiastic questions about a new scientific concept.
I am also very fortunate that my former full-time employer continues to employ me part time. When I first started teaching, I needed my old research job because of the pay differential. As I have gained experience in the classroom, the pay scale has increased so that now the second job helps to keep my science skills keen. My mind is stimulated to think about science during the summer, and I am able to work on necessary small projects in the lab, which also benefits my students as I can continue to discuss real-world lab experiences with them.
The other item that keeps my science mind sharp is C&EN. Articles such as in "What's That Stuff" and cover stories on current events enhance my curriculum on a regular basis.
Dust to dust
I fear that the analysts working on the World Trade Center dust are not experts in concrete. The article on this reports that the high pH (9 to 11.5) is mainly due to "cement dust" and, specifically, that CaOH (sic), CaCO3, and CaSO4 came from "cement," wallboard, and the like (C&EN, Oct. 20, 2003, page 26).
Although calcium hydroxide [Ca(OH)2] is a major solid portion of concrete--not cement--the pH of the uncarbonated portion of concrete can be more than 14 (contrary to many textbooks that show a pH scale of 0 to 14), owing primarily to NaOH and KOH.
Depending on the source of the cement used to make the concrete, hexavalent chromium concentrations may be the source of the irritation due to the dust.
William G. Hime
I read about the planned canadian wind farm evaluation by DuPont (C&EN, Dec. 1, 2003, page 10). Harnessing wind power is a great idea, and I applaud the thought that went into such a project, but unfortunately, judging from the picture associated with the article, there will be thousands of birds killed by this wind farm. The tall towers draw raptors like magnets, and the speed of the blades makes them somewhat invisible. The combination is deadly to birds, especially to raptors. The system needs to be made safe for the overall environment and not looked at for the potential energy impact alone. The article quotes Brian Barr, president of Vector Wind Energy, as saying that "There is tremendous opportunity in this sector." One would hope that all aspects of the project are evaluated and optimized prior to implementation and that the plight of the resident birds is one of them.
Science writer in training
Six months ago, I might have been contemplating why a particular Suzuki coupling didn't go the way I expected. These days, I'm deciding if my sentences exude clarity and conciseness and what sort of ethos I am establishing with my audience. This may all sound strange, until you consider it's coming from a former chemist turned prospective science writer.
I recently left a career in medicinal chemistry to pursue a career in science writing--a career possibility for those with chemistry degrees on all levels. As the recent article, "Career Paths Abound in Biotech" (C&EN, Dec. 8, 2003, page 49) notes, chemistry training prepares one for many options other than basic research.
However, I truly believe I would be ill prepared for such a major career change without the four years I spent in the pharmaceutical industry as a medicinal chemist, and more importantly, as a practitioner of science. I also received an excellent undergraduate education at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, that promoted writing-intensive courses, even in the sciences. Perhaps that's why I stayed on to receive a M.S. in chemistry from the same university. It was both my fondness for writing and science that led me to a career change where I now hope to combine the subjects.
I would encourage other chemists who have an aptitude and fondness for writing to consider science and technical writing. There are several programs throughout the U.S. that offer master's degrees in this area. I am in my first year at Northeastern University pursuing a master's in technical and professional writing with a focus on science writing.
But a career change isn't for everyone. While working as a chemist, I took several classes on topics ranging from regulatory affairs to freelance journalism in order to determine what it was I really wanted to do. In any case, who wouldn't be nervous about giving up a great job to return to being a poor graduate student again?
That said, I still look forward to receiving the latest issue of C&EN each week. After all, it is a magazine of science writing, isn't it? Hopefully this former practitioner of science will soon be a writer of science as well.
The headline "Cargill sees corn and soybeans as chemical feedstocks of the future" (C&EN, Dec. 15, 2003, page 17) took me back 65 years to my Missouri boyhood enchantment with a picture of Henry Ford bouncing an ax off a car trunk made of "plastic from soybeans." I then read all about chemurgy--to secure from agriculture products not classified as food or clothing. I immediately decided to become a chemist and have never regretted it.
Do you think that a similar headline will still be news in 2068?
Richard A. Carpenter
Stop the brain drain
I found the story about the export of research to low-cost countries (Dec. 1, 2003, page 15) to be alarming, but not unexpected. But, just as the export of manufacturing signaled a drop in the standard of living for blue-collar workers since 1970, the movement of information technology and now chemical research positions to low-cost countries should alert all white-collar workers to declining incomes over the upcoming decades.
One issue not mentioned in the story is how government support for research will respond. It does not make sense for U.S. taxpayers to bear the vast cost of research and of educating Ph.D. scientists when the resulting economic activity does not generate proportional wealth and income here. To stem the loss, should all government research funds be restricted to support of U.S. citizens?
Admittedly, if this were implemented tomorrow, our academic research system would collapse, but in the long run our economy and taxes should not and cannot sustain research investment that does not feed back into our economy.
Andrew L. Waterhouse
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