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Graduate School

The Fox’s Lament

That hedgehog/fox distinction reminds me of my own graduate school experience. I’m a natural fox myself; I’ve always had a lot of interests (scientifically and otherwise). So a constant diet of my PhD project got to be a strain after a while. I was doing a total synthesis of a natural product, and for that last couple of years I was the only person on it. So it was me or nothing; if I didn’t set up some reactions, no reactions got run.
And I don’t mind admitting that I got thoroughly sick of my synthesis and my molecule by the time I was done with it. It really went against my nature to come in and beat on the same thing for that length of time, again and again. I kept starting unrelated things, all of which seemed much more interesting, and then having to kill them off because I knew that they were prolonging my time to the degree. Keep in mind that most of my time was, necessarily, spent making starting material and dragging it up the mountainside. I only spent comparatively brief intervals working up at the frontier of my synthesis, so (outside of any side projects) my time was divided between drudgery and fear.
My doubts about the utility of the whole effort didn’t help, I’m sure. But since coming to industry, I’ve happily worked on many projects whose prospects I was none too sure of. At least in those cases, though, you know that it’s being done in a good cause (Alzheimer’s, cancer, etc.) – it’s just that you may worry that your particular approach has a very low chance of working. In my total synthesis days, I wasn’t too sanguine about the approach, and by the end, I wasn’t so sure that it was in a good cause, either. Except the cause of getting a degree and getting the heck out of grad school, naturally. That one I could really put my back into. As I used to say, “The world does not need another synthesis of a macrolide antibiotic. But I do.”

9 comments on “The Fox’s Lament”

  1. Pharmaheretic says:

    Now that is an odd way for a potential chemist to meet their end.

    A Yale University student from Massachusetts died in an accident Tuesday night at the Sterling Chemistry Laboratory, Yale officials said this morning. Her hair got caught in a lathe, a piece of machinery that spins very quickly, and it pulled her in, sources said.

  2. Jamie says:

    Interesting story on an unfortunate accident at Yale involving a chemistry student.
    Note the article cited “OSHA was reviewing jurisdiction in the case and evaluating whether it would conduct an inspection”
    For those of you have lab safety problems. OSHA will do nothing for you. If anything my experience is that OSHA works with faculty and administrators to suppress any reform and cover up problems.

  3. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    I heard the news from Yale on the radio this morning.
    How tragic. All I know is what has been reported in the news media, but I do hope there will be a very thorough investigation of this tragedy with a comprehensive root cause analysis.
    Working around rotating machinery ought to involve some basic safety rules, such as nobody works alone, no loose clothing, hair longer than a few inches is tucked under a hat or hairnet, the machine should have a conspicuous emergency stop button, and so forth. Every industrial site where I have ever worked enforces such rules, and if Yale has not been enforcing such rules that needs to change.
    One of my professors said most of the rules in various safety codes were learned from tragedies.

  4. Still Scared of Dinosaurs says:

    The rules in safety codes come from horrific accidents (something OSHA bashers need to remember).
    The practice of safety comes from thinking, “THAT was lucky. Don’t wanna take that chance again.”

  5. Pete says:

    This just goes to show that you can’t be a fox at the bottom of the food chain.

  6. newnickname says:

    The machine shop in the Yale chem building is a shared facility used by students in many depts on “Science Hill.” In order to gain access to the shop, students must pass a multi-hour training course, which I assume she did. According to news accounts, the student involved was a physics – astronomy major.

  7. CET says:

    Derek – your post (which rings very true for me as well) begs consideration of whether grad school selects for Hedgehogs, in opposition to working as a PI, which perhaps selects for Foxes.

  8. Rick says:

    There are some good catalysts for the foxhog reaction (fox —> hedgehog). Ritalin and adderall are two.

  9. Fred says:

    Safety rules used to come from horrific accidents. Now they come from bureaucrats at desks who think that something ought to be done to prevent theoretical possibilities (one of my favorites was fire-proof hydraulic fluid).
    And when accidents do happen as a result of people deliberately violating safe procedure, there is still hell to pay.

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