Saturday, June 6, 2020

Realities of management style

(From Baran lab grad students, opinions entirely our own and may not reflect Phil or Scripps)

I was very proud of Phil & Donna, and the Scripps community today, for their thoughtful counterpoint to the alarming recently-published essay about the field of organic synthesis. It makes me happy to see my mentors stand up for what's right.

And so, I was a bit startled, and more than a bit upset, when my inbox started filling with notes making accusations that this thoughtful counter-essay amounted to nothing more than 'hypocrisy.'

A verbatim text message I received: "How can a slave-driver like Phil Baran be hypocritical enough to condemn slave-driving in an essay, while simultaneously doing exactly that in his own lab?"

This kills me, because it's so far from the truth. Openflask was created to give behind the scenes into our lab, so here it is: Our lab is a pretty nice, chill place to work. We're not slave driven. We work hard when we feel like it, and slack off when we feel like it.

Don't believe me? Here are some emails from the boss (highlighting my own for emphasis):

Was the lab always like this? Probably not. Does it mean we're "going soft?" Almost certainly. Do we still seem to be cranking out papers, and having a happy, healthy time doing so? Yup. I'll take the softness.

As it turns out, I know Phil will too:

Friday, June 5, 2020

Message to Organic Chemists

Dear Scripps Community,

It is self-evident that these are unprecedented times. Compounding the stress we are all feeling, the Organic Chemistry community received a startling blow with an Essay recently published (and then rapidly taken down) in Angew. Chemie, one of our premier journals.  This topic we feel is appropriate for us to address.

First, the Essay offers opinions that are not even relevant to the field of synthesis – odd given its title: “Organic synthesis—Where now?” is thirty years old. A reflection on the current state of affairs,”. How such a treatise, published in a top scientific journal, would include what is essentially an ill-informed social commentary, without any citations or evidence to back up egregious claims, is puzzling to us. The author feels compelled to express sorrow over the lack of rigor in the primary chemistry literature (reproducibility, melting points, combustion analysis) yet feels none of this rigor should apply to the social commentary offered in the guise of a scientific essay. We are scientists, we publish facts and documented evidence. The unsubstantiated comments in this essay have no place in a scientific journal, even in an Essay format. We are troubled that a prestigious Journal like Angew. Chemie would somehow permit such an essay to pass the rigors of peer- and editorial-review. 

Second, the comments about diversity and inclusion (in green below) are at best ill-informed or ignorant, at worst malicious: 

“In the last two decades many groups and/or individuals have been designated with “preferential status”. This in spite of the fact that the percentage of women and minorities in academia and pharmaceutical indutry (sic) has greatly increased.”

Recent essays about women in Med Chem, Process Chem, and academic careers (refs. 1-3) show clearly the discrepancies that still exist as women move up the ladder. One of us (D.B.) has experienced such hurdles personally. Extensive scientific studies in the social science literature also show such notions to be factually inaccurate (ref 4). This “despite the fact” comment clearly ignores these ongoing challenges.

“It follows that, in a social equilibrium, preferrential (sic) treatment of one group leads to disadvantages for another.”

The author of this essay fails to grasp the irony of the above statement. In fact, he himself has been in a group receiving preferential treatment all throughout of his scientific career – it appears that he never thought to speak out about that, though. 

Third, and even more insidiously, we mention a point made by Jake Yeston of Science who said “There’s been some attention towards the lazy unsupported critique of diversity in Prof. Hudlicky’s essay, but less directed at this portion:”

 “The training and mentoring of new generations of professionals must be attended to by proper relationships of “masters and apprentices” without dilution of standards….there must be “an unconditional submission of the apprentice to his/her master.” This applies not only in the sciences but also in art, music, and martial arts.”

The language here is disturbing for several reasons. The word “Master” has a subliminal message that goes beyond scientific mentoring relationships. The invocation of martial arts is also starkly out of place because chemistry is not simply discipline but also involves innovation, discovery, and imagination. But most of all, this quote appears to support an unhealthy work ethic that has in the past pervaded organic chemistry research but that is thankfully much less prevalent today, as younger faculty aim to achieve, and help their research groups achieve, a better work-life balance. It is this macho perception of synthetic chemistry that continues to be a barrier to inclusivity.  Thus, “Master-apprentice” is not the way to think about relationships in a modern laboratory setting. We all learn from mentors, but it should be a holistic, interactive, nurturing relationship. In our own experience, by treating students as independent collaborators rather than apprentices, they grow to become brilliant scientists that think outside of the box and end up teaching us more than we could teach them.  Instead of unconditionally submitting to a “master”, in the modern era of organic chemistry it is the norm to encourage our collaborators to challenge assertions, engage in debate, and work together as a team to achieve a common goal.

We work in organic chemistry research because we are passionate about the science and the positive impact it can have on society. We need to ensure that we can direct this passion towards mentoring our students and postdocs to become the best scientists they can be. We value each and every student and postdoc, individually, for their own special strengths and their own humanity. Although some may think incidents like the publication of this Essay only serve to set us back when we need to move forward, it’s also important that the vestiges of such backwards thinking be brought to light and called out. It is no secret that organic chemistry, synthesis in particular, has a storied history of being a male-dominated, ruthless arena where the celebration of cult personalities and enriching one’s ego often took priority over enriching the science and mentoring students. Many chemists in previous generations did not subscribe to that approach and we contend that the current generation has all but eradicated it. 

At Scripps our groups are proud of the diverse representation which has always been an enabling strength in our research programs. It is a documented fact that vibrant, creative, and wildly imaginative science takes place when people from diverse backgrounds and cultures collaborate to solve important scientific problems.  Doing this in an environment where students and postdocs feel supported as equal collaborators is part of the secret sauce that makes Scripps such a special place to do research. 

We are here to listen and provide support at any time, if anyone would like to reach out to us. Please stay safe, well, sane, and passionate about chemistry during these challenging times! 

Donna Blackmond and Phil Baran


1.     Huryn, D.; Bolognesi, M. L.; Young, W. B. Medicinal Chemistry: Where Are All the Women? ACS Med. Chem. Lett20178, 900−902.
2.     Ruck, R.T.; Faul, M.M. Gender Diversity in Process Chemistry,  OPRD, 201923, 109-113.
3.     Sanford, M.S.; Chiu, P.; Kozlowski, M.C. Celebrating Women in Organic Chemistry. Org. Lett. 202022, 1227-1230.
4.  Thanks to Prof. Tehshik Yoon for this compilation of resources: