BY Richard Bleil
This (true) story is by request. See I’ve largely unemployed for, oh, a year and a half now. I’ve gotten by doing a series of consulting jobs and selling property. I’ve sent out at least 1,500 applications (and probably closer to 2,000) and scratched and clawed my way to three interviews and no job offers. I’ve applied to chemistry and programming jobs in industry, administrative positions, teaching jobs, but found myself going from university dean to homeless and hopeless.
It is quite a humbling experience.
But, if you believe in God, or destiny, or just dumb luck, recently I’ve accidentally landed a new job. Here’s the story.
It starts about a decade ago. A small company making a dietary supplement asked me to do a little theoretical work for them. I didn’t believe in what they were doing, but I am what I would call a “healthy skeptic”. I understand that, even as a chemist, there are still things that are beyond my understanding. So, I did the work, and quantum theory told me that, yes, in fact, it is possible that their claim was correct. Fortunately, my research also provided me with the information that I needed for using spectroscopy (using absorbed light to explore electron energy levels). So, they paid for additional work in visible light spectroscopy to verify the theoretical results.Low and behold, I found the absorbances necessary to verify the results.
I suggested the next step at the time, but, they were out of research funding. So much for that job.
A few months ago, still seeking a job, they contacted me. They needed more work. So, we began working together once again. Now, they needed to know the exact concentration of the species they have been saying they are producing, but, this species is a free radical.
Electrons, as it turns out, like to “live” in pairs. Can you blame them? So do we. An unpaired electron is called a “Free Radical” (and you thought it had something to do with a wanted terrorist!), and they are very unstable. In fact, flames are largely free radicals in a gaseous state, and we all know how much damage a flame can do. Normally, such free radicals are highly reactive, but there are certain chemical “tricks” that can help make them more stable.
If there is not enough information to determine concentration instrumentally, chemists will perform a technique called a “titration”, which is very labor intensive but is still commonly done because it is, even today, one of the most accurate methods of concentration determination. However, typically you begin by separating out the analyte (the “target” compound) from everything else so there is no interference. Unfortunate, in this free radical, there is no way to separate out the free radical.
There is a new technique for “free radical titration” that’s maybe, oh, about ten years old (or less). Because this species could be unusually stable, I hypothesized that such a free radical titration might work based on kinetics (meaning that the SPEED of formation and recombination will allow the time for the titration to be completed using spectroscopic measurement). Now, as a theoretical chemist, I hypothesized this to be possible, but I’m hardly an expert, and what’s more, the spectrophotometer that I would need would be relatively expensive (they’re quite cheap as far as scientific instruments go, but still expensive for a typical income, especially when, like me, you’re unemployed). We (my company) has a visible light spectrophotometer, but, we need a spectrophotometer that also tests the ultra violet region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Just about any college or university that offers at least organic chemistry will likely have the instrument I need. Of late, I’ve been considering relocating to a new city, so, I looked up colleges and universities in that city. It’s a delicate balance; if a university is too large, they won’t be interested in this opportunity, but too small, and they won’t have it. So, I reached out to two universities. I heard back from one of them. The professor who responded and I planned to meet yesterday.
Now, there are two problems with trying to find an institution with which to work. First, there is the question of compensation; will they want rental? That’s a minor problem, though, since no doubt it would be less than the cost of buying or leasing the equipment. The second issue is one of liability; the college would worry, and rightly so, if I damanged their facilities, or was injured using them, the cost of litigation. I was thinking about this before the meeting, as well as wondering what the professor that responded wanted. There are those faculty who would be willing to help either just to help or out of curiosity (I was one of those), but most might be looking for something; perhaps a consultancy fee, or a project for a student, or maybe a publication, something. This would also be reasonable, but…I was wondering.
One of the first questions he asked was how it is that I found him. It honestly was just the size of the institution and location, but, as it turns out (here is the first really big surprise), he completed his graduate research on free radical titrations.
That’s right; the experimental procedure that I had, as a theoretical chemist, hypothesized turned out to be his exact area of expertise. That was astounding in and of itself. Then we got to talking.
It was a great conversation. He’s a biochemist but with a real appreciation of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. Because his dissertation dealt with free radicals, he spent a lot of his time focusing on quantum theory and electrons. Then he mentioned that he doesn’t like to discuss electrons in class (instead, he describes “electron clouds”) because it gives the illusion that electrons are spheres, which they are not! We spent a goodly amount of time commiserating about this topic.
Then he dropped the bomb shell; what it is that he wanted. As it turns out, they need an adjunct professor to teach chemistry because their current one asked for a year off. With my experience, I am very well qualified. An “adjunct professor” is hired to teach certain courses on an as-needed temporary basis. I truly enjoy teaching, so of course this made me happy, especially since adjunct faculty don’t have to participate in meetings, research, clubs or any of the other “support” duties of a full time professor. Teaching as an adjunct would be a great way to get back into teaching (my first love), give me a flexible schedule to continue working on my company, plus, it would give me access to their equipment since i would be employed by the institution without worrying about liability issues.
Then we started talking about teaching methods. I told him that I never liked teaching presentations or teaching plans because it locks you into a schedule. I like walking into a class, knowing where I left off and where I wanted to end but without knowing how to get from one point to the other. That allows me the flexibility to adapt to questions, mood, or anything else that might come up. That’s when he expressed his agreement with me, and again, we were commiserating on modern teaching approaches.
The funny thing is that he never asked me to apply for a position as an adjunct professor.
Instead, he simply told me to watch my email for the schedule he would like to offer me. He told me that normally he would only offer one course the first semester for new faculty to figure out if it’s a good fit or not, but he told me he would be comfortable giving me two, three or maybe four courses the first semester.
Four courses would be a normal full-time position, by the way.
So there you go. A series of incredible events, and not only will I have access to the equipment I need, but it looks like I will once again be in front of the classroom.