Issue Date: October 7, 2013 | Web Date: October 4, 2013
Readers’ Choice: What You Asked C&EN To Cover At ACS Indianapolis
Ten stories above the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the observation tower called “The Pagoda” is shady and calm. A single car whips around the track below. I’m enjoying a brief pit stop before returning to ground level, where I’ll be overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the Celebrate Science Indiana festival—cockroach racing, flaming hydrogen balloons, robots throwing Frisbees, and an earthquake simulator the size of a van.
I’m covering the controlled chaos of the festival, which was held in collaboration with ACS, because C&EN’s readers sent me. Just about everything I attended at the ACS national meeting in Indianapolis, held Sept. 8–12, was chosen by reader votes on Facebook.
The idea came from News Editor William Schulz, who months ago wondered what would happen if we asked our readers what I should cover in Indy.
C&EN’s coverage at ACS meetings is usually directed by the magazine’s writers and editors, on the basis of a symposium’s or other meeting activity’s potential interest to readers or relevance to current scientific trends.
Readers tell us time and again that the multitude of symposia at ACS national meetings can be overwhelming. With this three-day experiment, I would cover events readers didn’t want to miss.
Volunteers from the ACS Indiana Section mobilized their members to vote for their Celebrate Science event in C&EN’s poll. Now they’re determined to give me the full experience—race cars and all. I sign up for a lap around the Indy 500’s iconic oval track. “How fast do the drivers go?” I ask Christina Bodurow, a senior director at Eli Lilly & Co. and chair of the local section host committee for this ACS meeting.
“At least 125,” she says. “But if they’re feeling saucy they’ll go upwards of 140.” During a real IndyCar race, drivers will easily top 200 miles per hour. I buckle up in a white Chevy Impala pace car, then shoot video of the experience with my iPhone while the driver burns rubber.
After the speedy ride, I bid Bodurow farewell and walk back toward the festival’s air-conditioned tents filled with science demonstrations.
I end up helping the Notre Dame University Chemistry Demo Team. The group is setting up races between small boats for eager children. Each boat is made from recycled materials and uses a different form of energy—steam, generated by a small flame; wind from blowing into a sail; mechanical/potential energy generated by a crank; and chemical energy from a battery. The chemical energy boat isn’t working. Grad student Karen Antonio has taken it aside and is twiddling with wires when I approach. “Occam’s razor,” I say. “Your battery’s probably dead.” She agrees, but doesn’t have another. I dig into my backpack and pull out one AAA battery. Bingo—the boat is operational again, if a bit finicky.
Michelle Bertke, the team’s leader, thanks me for the battery. She says they designed the demo to combine the ACS meeting’s theme, “Chemistry in Motion,” with this year’s National Chemistry Week theme, “Energy: Now & Forever.” It’s meant to show children that energy comes in many forms, only some of which are renewable.
Kids are never going to remember all that, I say.
“It’s a little idealistic to say you’re going to teach specific facts here,” Bertke agrees. “You want kids to take away an interest in science, or to at least remember that they enjoyed it.” Bertke is a senior graduate student at Notre Dame. Before I move on, I ask about her future plans. “The ideal job would be science outreach coordinator at a children’s museum,” she says, though she knows those jobs are hard to land.
C&EN readers, too, have concerns about the job market. It should come as no surprise to anyone following the troubling chemistry employment situation that career-related events proved popular with readers. I spent my Sunday morning in a session called “What You Need for the First Job, Besides a Ph.D. in Chemistry.”
I could stick around only long enough to hear that session’s first three speakers, but they brought up similar concepts: Traditional Ph.D. training doesn’t build the communication and teamwork abilities employers seek, and changing some well-established traditions in doctoral training programs may be desirable but is difficult.
Yet the message seems to bear repeating, particularly for meeting-goers like Sarah E. Waller and Jennifer E. Mann of Indiana University, Bloomington, and Elizabeth J. Petro of Johns Hopkins University. “We’re here to find information about what to do next,” Waller, who’s nearing completion of her Ph.D., tells me.
Petro, meanwhile, wants to get at the causes of institutional inertia in doctoral programs. “What are the incentives for faculty to make changes to Ph.D. training?” she asks speakers at the symposium. Faculty reap benefits from having students conduct research, in the form of publications, citations, and speaker invitations, she notes, whereas the benefits of sending their students to a communications workshop may be less obvious.
After the race track, I make an exception in my reader-driven calendar to meet with Carmel, Ind., 8th-grader Chris Nardi, whose chemist mom brought the entire family to the meeting. He lets me and fellow C&EN writer Lauren Wolf try out Google Glass, a wearable computer that’s the ultimate in trendy tech.
After a late dinner with C&EN colleagues, I edit a slew of video, post it online, and conk out around 2 AM.
“Oh, did we get enough votes?” asks Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) chemist Carlos Fraga when he notices me arriving for the symposium, “Analytical Methods in Chemical Forensics,” inside the Indiana Convention Center. “I didn’t think it would be appropriate to vote for my own talk,” he says.
Not everyone was so reluctant to engage in a little self-promotion, I jokingly point out. Even William Tolman, the editor-in-chief of the ACS journal Inorganic Chemistry, cast votes for symposia in his home division.
In truth, this forensics session squeaked into my schedule at the last minute. The runaway winner for Monday was the afternoon-only undergraduate speed networking session. I decided to spend my morning at the runner-up vote-getter. To break a tie for second place, I turned to readers on Twitter. The forensics session came out on top.
Fraga and his fellow forensic chemists help law enforcement track down the source materials and makers of illicit substances and chemical weapons. They often profile the impurities that typically turn up in production of substances such as sarin gas—unreacted starting material, trace contaminants in reagents, and degradation products, to name a few. PNNL’s John R. Cort discloses a new NMR advance and I make a note to evaluate it as a potential news item (C&EN, Sept. 16, page 29).
Chemical forensics researchers must work out consistent, reliable ways to analyze bits of chemical evidence smeared on a wall, or something sopped up from the surface of a road.
“We didn’t have many talks focused on sampling issues, but that’s a big challenge,” session organizer Herman Cho, also a chemist at PNNL, told me after the session.
Before C&EN decided on my reader-driven adventure, I had agreed to moderate a panel discussion at the symposium “Role & Value of Social Networking in Advancing the Chemical Sciences.” I figured readers wouldn’t want me to back out of a commitment, so I kept it in my schedule. The session is in full swing when I arrive.
I’ve prepared questions for the panel members in case the audience is shy. I’m curious what social networking tools they think chemists are underutilizing, and why.
Panelist Joseph Sabol, program chair for the ACS Division of Small Chemical Business, tells the room he believes ACS’s own social network hasn’t reached its full potential. On the ACS Network, “discussions among members who do not know each other do happen, and that is good,” he tells me. But he thinks the addition of small-business-friendly features to the network might improve it. “I want to know what a member can do for me as a subcontractor, supplier, or customer,” he explains.
It’s finally time for undergraduate speed networking. The session pairs students with chemistry professionals of all stripes. As in speed dating, each student gets only five minutes to tell potential graduate advisers or employers something about themselves and ask questions before they must move on to someone else.
Soon after the networking starts, it becomes clear that many of the undergrads participating in the session haven’t learned that chemistry careers can fall under categories other than “academia” and “industry.”
“You just blew my mind,” Western Michigan University senior-year undergraduate Noah O. Masika said when I described the reporting career I crafted with a chemistry Ph.D. “Sometimes it sounds like you can only be a chemist if you’re in a lab,” he says.
Intrepid reporter Wolf also attends the networking event, and afterward we hike to Kilroy’s, a pub outside the convention center, for a chemistry “tweetup,” or Twitter meetup.
It’s another late night because I must read papers and obtain feedback on the chemical forensics NMR work from this morning. I put the finishing touches on a story draft before my head hits the pillow.
First thing in the morning, jumbo latte in hand, I stake out a chair next to a power outlet at the symposium “Chemical Frontiers in Solar System Exploration” so I can blog and tweet without battery issues. The dominant topic for the morning session is Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. The heavenly body is one of astrochemists’ favorite places to study as a frame of reference for questions about life’s origins on Earth.
Session speakers describe their work in chemical kinetics and reaction dynamics, all directed at fundamental questions about Titan and other celestial bodies. For example, researchers don’t understand the mechanisms by which molecular nitrogen, held together by one of chemistry’s strongest bonds, somehow breaks apart on Titan and becomes incorporated into organic molecules.
“Let’s eat somewhere healthy,” Kaiser says, as we exit the convention center. Instead, we end up at a fast food joint called Steak ’n Shake, which resembles a 1950s diner. I’ve never eaten at the chain, which apparently is something of a midwestern institution. I use Twitter to get advice about what to order from the masses.
Kaiser is the previous chair of the Division of Physical Chemistry’s new Astrochemistry Subdivision. While we await greasy goodness from the Steak ’n Shake kitchen, he tells me that the subdivision is planning symposia for future national meetings. The topics will include Earth’s solar system, the interstellar medium, and astrobiology.
I’d like to take in research presented about Titan all afternoon, but I must deviate from C&EN readers’ agenda to help behind the scenes at the magazine’s 90th anniversary celebration. My first job is to help escort celebrity chef Alton Brown, C&EN’s guest speaker at the event, to a recording studio, where he will offer tips on science communication and cooking. I must act as discreetly as possible. I don’t want Brown to be mobbed by autograph seekers.
Brown, Wolf, and I wander through a warren of “backstage” corridors in the convention center until we’re only a doorway and 20 paces from the studio. We sneak outside to see whether the coast is clear. Satisfied, we come back and beckon to Brown, who slips into the studio unnoticed.
After the recording session, I take a seat by a microphone in the packed auditorium, where Brown is scheduled to perform. I will be helping with the Q&A after his talk. By sheer coincidence, I am sitting next to Mann and Waller.
I begin to live-tweet Brown’s talk, but at this point, I’m exhausted and figure that readers will forgive me for looking up from my smartphone and simply enjoying the show. I set the phone aside and watch as Brown debunks common food science myths. I resolve, for example, to toss my plastic cutting boards and buy wooden ones, which Brown convinces me harbor fewer bacteria. Then I do a double-take: a friend I met during graduate school has fielded a question from Brown, and his face is now a larger-than-life projection on the room’s massive viewing screens. I pull the phone out again, this time to send my friend a text. We haven’t said hello to each other in at least two years.
“I’m so glad you wrote me!” came his reply. “I wanted to find you but discovered to my dismay I didn’t have your number.” We make plans to meet after C&EN business wraps for the night.
It’s a fitting end to my Indy adventure. Interacting with C&EN’s readers online made this ACS national meeting special, but what has always made these gatherings great has been the opportunity to reconnect with a friend over a glass of wine.
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