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Thursday, December 07, 2006

Scientific Reflections

It is not always clear what we learn from each stage of life until they are done.

It is only after completing my undergraduate degree that I realized the most important thing I learned was tolerating pain. I still remember what is was like to sit in an interminable lecture and that is one reason I am happy to provide alternative modes of learning for my students.

It is only after my Ph. D. that I understood it was really about learning how to solve problems. The chemistry skills are certainly useful, but completely impotent without that key understanding.

It is only after my postdocs that I realized the most useful thing I learned was how to network effectively and sell myself.

The students working in my lab are also learning and reflecting on what they have learned. The difference is some of them are choosing to make their thoughts public via our UsefulChem wiki. James had this to say last night:
Yes, chemistry is an art. I received the December 4, 2006 issue of C&ENews in the mail and while I can't seem to link to it, there is a very good article on reproducibility by William G Schulz. Here, Schulz has a good quote from a chemistry Professor from Harvard, George M. Whitesides, who says "Sometimes part of the art of chemistry doesn't get included in published papers". I will admit that the first paper we used to make DOPAL we did not follow to the "T" for safety reasons as perchloric acid was a component used at high temperatures, however, it can be frustrating to attempt something again and again and have it seem like no visible improvement has been made. This is in fact not the case. For every 100 experiments done, there are 100 small things learned and they are 100 experiments closer to that 1 in a 1000 that works. Luckily, it did not take 1000 trials to get DOPAL, and in Exp016, success was had! This also brings back into context the Open source nature of the project. All of the "failed" experiments would never be reported in a published paper.

I came across a similar sentiment this morning in a John Eccles quote from the book "In Search of Memory":
In fact I learned from him [Popper] even to rejoice in the refutation of a cherished hypothesis, because that, too, is a scientific achievement and because much has been learned by the refutation.

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