Chem Coach Carnival: My turn

The call was made for a post and I did heed it. Missed putting it on Mole Day, but what’s an order of magnitude between friends?

Your current job.

I work at RTI International, a non-profit research institute in the RTP area of North Carolina.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

It starts with a cup of tea (I’m a stereotypical Brit in that regard), but encompasses reading, writing and lab work. I am more in the lab than my supervisor, but he expects a certain amount of work on papers or grant proposals from me as well. My primary responsibility is keeping the project moving forward in terms of compound supply, so getting new data or scale-up so we have material for the next phase of the project. I’ll add we are more a basic research group than a drug discovery group, so tool compounds that pharmacologists can use to study receptors with is more our game than making a highly bioavailable drug. But many of the same skills apply – it needs to be soluble, for example.

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

I have a PhD from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. I post doc’d in the US at Georgia Tech. My original plan was to go back to the U.K. after that but jobs were scarce at the time and lining up one trans-Atlantically proved difficult. So I ended up staying. Got a job at a non-profit, then at a small contract research company here in RTP. As much as my qualifications, knowing people and being bold with contacting people got me here – I got an interview at my last job because they had hired a process chemist I knew, then I made a good contact with the recruiter who was hiring for this position, plus a number of former co-workers had post doc’d at RTI.

How does chemistry inform your work?

I work in the lab doing synthesis most of the time so it is pretty central to my job and that is how I like it.

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

I could note how my PhD was book-ended by building evacuations due to ammonia release from the lab next door. But that isn’t really about me.

When in school, we were working on making a Grignard reagent. I forget the details, but it was magnesium turnings, a bromide of some sort, maybe some iodine to activate things. We were heating it. The guy behind me (doing the same thing) suddenly cried out and I turned around at saw his reaction spouting out of the top of his condenser. I chuckled turned around and mine did the same thing, shooting out of the top with enough force to mark the ceiling with a nice brown spot.

If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?

I hope so. The lesson I take from my own journey is that it is rarely as smooth as you imagine, you have to adapt and be flexible, be ready to take on things that you did not expect. But also it is possible to make your career into something you enjoy and want to do long term.

My fractured attention

So I consented to join the 21st century recently when I bought an iPod Touch 4 (the iPhone without the phone). I still don’t have a cell phone, but since I am in 2 places the vast majority of the time (at home, where there is a phone already and at work where the same applies) there has never really been much of a need. But the summary of this rambling introductory paragraph is that I had more spare time and I have been using it learning about my new tool. Ahem.

One of the things it has allowed me to get back into using is Twitter, after an extended hiatus. Aha, say all my readers, now we really know where the time went! I quickly remembered both why I like Twitter and why I stopped following it: such a mass of chatter on all kinds of subjects that you might never have considered. And so much you can never keep up with it all.

Well, first thing I did was cut down my list of follows. I could certainly be more ruthless here, but the rule of thumb is to unfollow anyone who’s tweets you just skip over. Retweets and similar commentary will lead you away from your follows regularly but concentrate on your main interests and if someone is not holding that, then they should be cut.

I really like that I can get little snippets of more general interest science without devoting a lot of time to finding them. I can get notes of the business part of the pharmaceutical industry without going too in-depth – business news tends to make me glaze over.

But other than following the unintelligible ramblings of the internet in 140 characters or less and of course refining my Angry Bird technique, I did go looking for more useful stuff. The list of apps I found was very long indeed – have a browse here – but my cursory look found one showing Named Reactions (my Achilles Heel – I generally know the reaction but only occasionally the scientist that it got named for) and ChemJobber shared that he liked a drawing app called Chirys Draw. I just started playing around with ChemSpider and ChemMobi. And then there is the PeakTrak app for controlling your Isco on your device. All I need now is my Isco connected to the WiFi. Anyone tried this out? Any other recommendations?

I shall leave this now with two things I found in my wanderings, the Chemistry Blog’s intriguing Sigma-Aldrich vending machine and pharmaceutical word play on XKCD which really brings home the bacon.

Edit: comments on the vending machine on Reddit. Seems it is real, after all.

New Look

I’ve been getting some notifications when I log on here that my blog style (Quentin, by the way) has a new and updated version. Apparently, Quentin is elegant but also old-fashioned. Well, I’ve had it on here for a couple of years now, so I thought I’d take the new and improved (but still elegant, of course) Quintus for a spin.

Hopefully, everything still works – I’ll be the first to admit I am not quite au fait with all that I can do with this blog.

XKCD on Cancer

If you don’t read the web comic XKCD, then you are missing out. Here is today’s, on the subject of cancer survival, entitled “Lanes”.

I originally tried to put the comic itself in here but it just didn’t fit well into my blog space. Better see it in its full glory on XKCD’s site and look for the hover text.

Traveling and a Blog Look

I’m going to be traveling for the next couple of weeks, with my brother’s wedding being the trip highlight (and making a 7am flight out of Heathrow a likely low point).The wedding is going to be in the glorious Peak District of central England. Don’t worry, I’m bringing an umbrella.

This seemed like a good point to note how the blog is doing. It is not supposed to be a big voice in the blogosphere and i am not really about pushing it out there to garner more hits. Still, these things do grow organically (how else?) and June was my most hits in a month (1,091) and the second time over 1,000 hit in a month (the previous one was also this year, in March). My best single day remains November 18, 2010, coincidentally the day it was added to the blog roll at In the Pipeline.

OK, now time to relax. See you all in a couple of weeks!

How I Use Twitter

As a follow-up to my previous post, I thought I would take a moment to lay out how I make use of Twitter. This will include how I follow the feed, who I follow and what I post there myself.

First, the basics. I am @davidperrey. I’ve had the account since last summer, I follow 290 people and am in turn followed by 178. I have 456 tweets.

Possibly the most unusual thing about me as a Twitter user is that I don’t own a mobile phone. So, clearly, I don’t tweet when out-and-about, which maybe reduces the life-casting, but my tweets are definitely more about mindcasting anyway (now I learned these terms after the comments of the last post, I am going to use them). I also read my twitter feed on the twitter website. If there’s one thing I am looking to change it is this: a better way to catch up would be nice. I just haven’t gotten around to the investigation of some of the applications that are out there and I get by without changing my approach. That does mean I regularly miss tweets, as I am not going back over the many hours of tweeting that occurred while I am away from the computer. I came to accept that I couldn’t read everything, so I just look at what is in front of me, going back only a little way. More often than not (though I have no actual data to back this up!) I will see a retweet from another person I follow for posts that were particularly interesting. The quality bubbles back to the surface. Well, that is the theory.

Who I follow was part of my previous post, but suffice it to say, I follow those that interest me and those include people tweeting on subjects I myself would be unlikely to tweet about. I consider myself primarily a chemist tweeting about science, the local businesses, the pharmaceutical industry, with only the occasional off-topic post, but I still want to follow what is going on in those hobby areas. Twitter serves as a way to do that.

What I tweet myself are those articles I come across (either via another tweet or some other means) that I think are of interest to my followers; I look to be consistent in that philosophy. Occasional off-topic, silly or even more far-reaching tweets (the disaster in Haiti springs to mind here) are OK, but not excessively. If I want to tweet on my other interests, I would establish another account on Twitter for that purpose. So far I like my mix as it is and the activation energy required to set up and maintain a second account has not been met.

Who do I follow?

Pharma industry tweeters: I am not big into the business side of the industry, but I keep an eye on the state of things, via people like @FiercePharma and @cafepharma. Also @Dereklowe, who tweets links to his blog In The Pipeline, even though he himself is not a fan of twitter. Pharma companies are not very active, but there are good tweets from @Roche_com, @Boehringer, @Novartis and @JNJComm.

General science: Stephen Hawking (@Prof_S_Hawking) has an account but not many tweets. Ah well. I find that my day-to-day specialized reading is best done via other methods to Twitter – I have an email with the contents of my most-often referenced journals. But twitter is very useful for general science. The journal Nature has quite a presence, but as it covers a broad variety of subjects, the twitter feed it puts out alerts me to what I find interesting without the burden of scanning every issue. @NatureNews is quite a prolific (and responsive) twitterer. Have to mention @NatureChemistry as well. Some others: @ChemistryWorld @newscientist @sciencebase @cenmag, plus @nytimesscience has some good stuff in it too.

Networking/career: I originally signed up on Twitter as a networking tool and because I had heard it to be the hot new place for job searching. Not wanting to miss out I joined, but never really got the job search benefit (perhaps more of a boon within the computer industry?). But I do still follow a number of career and networking related folks, including @LinkedIn, @TriangleNetwork, @AlisonDoyle (for advice) and @JobAngels.

Local to RTP: There are quite a few locals on twitter. For business, it is hard to beat @TriangleBIZJrnl. For goings on in and around the Triangle, with some science as well, we have a long list but I’ll mention @TheRTP @ncbiotech @DurhamNC @bullcity @MyNC @SciTri @RDCH but that is only a subset.

This is already longer than I meant it to be (but I am glad that I didn’t include all this in my original post, as was my earlier plan!). I’ll conclude with a note of some things I don’t use it for yet that I would like to, such as the 3rd party application to follow things and I have not made use of the Lists feature yet. Those two are probably related. When I look back at myself from last summer, just getting started, I am amazed at how I’ve progressed. I wonder if I will think the same in another 6 months? I’ll look back and say “I can’t believe I was doing THAT!”

Getting Value From Twitter

I have heard a number of people say that the microblogging site Twitter is largely a waste of time and of little practical value, especially for those who’s time is precious. As a Twitterer myself, I’d like to spend a post defending my ‘waste of time’.

The main complaint against the site is that it has what most scientists would see as a low signal-to-noise ratio: in other words, there are lot of people talking but not so many saying anything very important. And in any case, they only have 140 characters, so can’t say much in any detail anyway. The amount going on is overwhelming, where do you even start? Plus there are all these celebrities twittering away, which surely shows what a shallow undertaking it must be?

These points are all valid and yet I still find value. Let me explain.

The signal-to-noise issue is quite simple. There are indeed people tweeting what they had for breakfast, but I quite simply do not follow those people. Excessive inanity is a quick way to get me to unfollow. In short, I look for people to follow that give me what I looking for in my twitter feed. So that is people talking science, about the pharmaceutical industry, about networking – all professionally-related subjects. I also follow people more for my own entertainment – several news people, and rather more than I expected related to soccer (but given the approaching World Cup, perhaps understandable). I have dropped people from my follow list for going off-subject too often (though I am forgiving of the occasional aside, as I hope those that follow me are as well!). I have become a little more picky about new follows too – will they add to what I am already getting?

So to come back to the signal-to-noise ratio, mine has been tuned to the wavelength I like and thus the signal is strengthened.

The 140 character limit is occasionally restricting, but Twitter is not the place for verbose exposition. The ideal tweet contains, essentially, a headline and a link. If the headline told you all you needed, then move on. If you want to know more, the link will take you to a website where a more complete treatment of the subject can take place. The headline/link combination is important, as I don’t tend to click on Twitter links (which are ubiquitously shortened URLs) if I don’t have a good idea of where it is taking me. There is an amount of trust I put in those I follow to give me links that are valuable – I don’t want to click on a link and find myself somewhere …. unsavory.

When I first got a twitter account, I had no idea at all where to start. What you need are a few people to follow, then you can see who they follow, what they re-tweet. So slowly you can build up a portfolio of twitters. It takes time though. A lot of people lose interest or just give up in frustration before they have established themselves. That’s OK. There are other ways to get what you want.

That last point is important. I see blog posts from In the Pipeline, market news, interesting tid bits from various journals. But I could get those things in other ways. I don’t use Twitter to keep up with my ‘main’ journals – I have those in an email feed. RSS feeds and numerous other methods (even *shock* non-electronic ones!) can all get you the information that you are looking for. Twitter works for me and I like it because of the occasional unexpected things that come up, plus you can interact with the senders of those articles much more easily. People have compared Twitter to a noisy cafe where lots of people are talking about all kinds of things and overhearing what the next table are talking about, then throwing their 2 cents in. It is rather like that, but cutting out some of the background makes it rather easier to cope with.

I will follow this post up with one about how I use Twitter, which is probably quite different to how many others use it, plus some interesting people to follow!