Reading Dylan Stiles’s blog yesterday reminded me of a post I wrote last summer about how to approach student talks about synthetic chemistry. Since evil spammers have forced us to turn off comments to the old site, I’ll reproduce the original below the fold:
Summer days are here again, which means the return of the
annual summer student research seminar. There’s a local tradition
of having all the students doing on-campus research give 15-minute
talks to all the other summer students. In principle, I think this
is a very good idea, as it gives the students some practice at
public speaking, and can help form some sense of community among
In practice, I’m less happy about it, because I wind up sitting
through a lot of nearly incomprehensible talks, most of them
dealing with the synthesis of some molecule or another. Over the
past several years, I’ve slowly begun to develop an understanding
of how to interpret these talks, but the students who are new to
summer research are completely at sea. This has a tendency to make
them sort of cynical about the whole business, and undercut the
very sense of community that the talks are supposed to be
Anyway, the following is a somewhat flippant summary of my
conclusions about synthetic chemistry talks by way of (not
entirely serious) guidance for non-chemistry students attending
Recognizing a Synthetic Chemistry Talk
There’s no foolproof way to know for sure what you’re in for
(though the word “synthesis” in the title is a dead giveaway), but
knowing some key classes of words can help you spot talks that are
likely to be about chemical synthesis. Various “-tion” words
(“methylation,” “intercalation,” “purification”) are pretty good
markers, though they occasionally show up in molecular biology
talks as well. Active verbs are likewise a hint.
A good rule of thumb might be: If there’s more than one word in
the title that you’re not sure how to pronounce, odds are good it
will deal with chemical synthesis.
The Four Stages of Synthetic Chemistry Talks
These talks always follow the same basic form, and can be
broken down into four stages:
Stage One: “Here’s this thing we’re trying to
make.” This is usually accompanied by a picture consisting of a
bunch of hexagons, and maybe a ribbon diagram or some other
three-dimensional model. Stage One will occasionally include an
explanation of why they’re trying to make
whatever the thing is, but don’t count on it.
Stage Two: “Here’s the stuff we start with.”
This will include a couple of diagrams showing different
arrangements of hexagons. The jargon will get pretty thick, here,
but almost all the strange words will be names of different parts
and sub-parts of molecules. See the “Guide to Jargon” below.
Stage Three: “Here are the steps in the
process.” This will include at least one slide showing multiple
diagrams of hexagons, with arrows between them. The jargon will
again be pretty thick, but here, all the strange words will refer
to methods of sticking pieces of molecules together. See the
“Guide to Jargon” below.
Stage Four: “Here are some graphs to prove we
ended up what we wanted.” This is the stage with the greatest
variety of slides. Data graphs may include (but are not limited
to) pictures of chart recorder traces, blobby photographs of
electrophoresis gels, or pictures of pencil marks made on
chromatography films. You’ll also get the occasional bar graph or
If you listen carefully, you can easily identify these four
Guide to Jargon
The key here is, don’t sweat the details. The confusing jargon
terms all break down into two categories:
Pieces of Molecules: Words like “ligand” and
“R-group” and “imidazole” and “aromatic ring” all refer to pieces
of molecules. These are things that need to be stuck to other
things in order to get to the end final product. These usually
occur in Stage 2.
You might find it helpful to construct a mental look-up table
mapping chemical terms to bits of apparatus:
“Benzene Ring” ⇒ “Vacuum Chamber”
“Ligand” ⇒ “Vacuum Window”
And so forth. Every time you hear a new term, assign it the
name of another piece of apparatus.
Assembly Methods: Words like “Grignard
reaction” or “ligand exchange” or “catalysis” refer to different
methods for getting the various pieces of molecules to stick to
one another, and indicate that you’re reached Stage 3. Think of
these terms as different tools used to connect the bits of
You might find it helpful to construct a look-up table as you
“Grignard Reaction” ⇒ “Pipe
“Ligand Exchage” ⇒ “Phillips-Head
“Catalysis” ⇒ “Five-Minute Epoxy”
And so forth. Every time you hear a new term,
assign it the name of a new tool.
Using these tables, you can easily translate sentences like “We
attach the imidazole to the aromatic ring with a Grignard
reaction” into “We bolted the ion gauge onto the vacuum chamber
with a pipe wrench.” The resulting constructions might not
actually make sense in experimental-physics terms, but it will get
you the basic idea.
The key thing to remember here is that this information is not
at all essential unless you plan to replicate the experiment.
Hence the analogy: the fact that you bolted the ion gauge to the
vacuum chamber is absolutely critical; the fact that you did it
with a pipe wrench is really interesting only to specialists.
Guide to Data Plots
The key to interpreting the data plots is that they always come
in pairs (at least). There will be one picture showing the signal
from the initial reactants, which will consist of a set of peaks,
or little photographic blobs, or pencil marks. Then there will be
a second set, showing the signal from the same method applied to
the products of the reaction. This will be a different set of
peaks, blobs, or pencil marks.
The entire point of this section of the talk is to note that
the peaks, blobs, or pencil marks in the second picture are in
different places than the peaks, blobs, or pencil marks in the
first picture. Success is defined as the disappearance of the
peaks, blobs, or pencil marks corresponding to the reactants, and
the appearance of the peaks, blobs, or pencil marks corresponding
to the products.
Peaks, blobs, or pencil marks that are in the same places in
both pictures are invariably due to solvents. The speaker will
often pretend that these don’t exist. Humor them.
Guide to Questions
There are innumerable questions of the form “Why did you use
that reaction, rather than this reaction?” that can be asked, and
probably will be asked by somebody. These are functionally
equivalent to “Why did you use a pipe wrench for that? Wouldn’t a
socket wrench be easier?” The answers will be really technical,
and you probably won’t understand them, but if you keep the tool
analogy in mind, you’ll at least have a sense of what’s going on.
If you absolutely need to ask a question,
remember that the crucial figure of merit for these talks is the
“yield,” which basically means “How much product do you get for a
given volume of reactant?” If the speaker hasn’t mentioned the
yield specifically, you can’t go wrong asking “What’s the yield
If they have stated the yield, ask “How does the yield stack up
against other methods of producing this stuff?”
If they have stated the yield, and compared it to existing
methods, and you still feel a need to ask a question, ask about
the solvent peaks/ blobs/ pencil marks.
Questions of the form “Why are you trying to make this stuff in
the first place?” are usually considered unsporting.
(Of course, similar guides could easily be prepared for various
categories of physics talks (as I remarked to some peope at the
Gordon Conference, the Generic Quantum Information Question is
either “What about scalability?” or “What about the decoherence
rates?”). Offended academic chemists should feel free to retaliate
with snarky physics guides.)