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Sunday, December 29, 2013

What, Who, Why?

Before a ship's maiden voyage, it is customary to break a bottle of champagne on the hull and share a toast. That's not likely to work very well with this laptop, so I guess I'll just jump right in.

My vision for Tree Town Chemistry is to provide a casual, comfortable space for scientists and students of science alike to discuss new developments in research. I aim to put a strong focus on the social aspects of laboratory environments, particularly in academic laboratories. This blog will feature interviews with academic researchers and their students at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, reviews of scientific documentaries, and reflections on the squishy personal aspects of being a scientist. I believe that, by putting the spotlight on student researchers and young professionals, the blog will offer insight into the academic life for undergraduates and other graduate students.

My name is Jimmy Brancho, and I am a graduate student studying inorganic chemistry at the University of Michigan. I entered graduate school in 2011 hoping to obtain a Ph. D. and pursue a professorship, but have started to consider other directions for my career.

Writing has always been dear to me. Since I could spell, I have been scrawling out everything from little short stories to poems, and more recently, attempts at full-length novels. (My mother recently showed me one of the earliest attempts - hysterical!) However, I've viewed the author as my secret alter ego who takes a back seat to the scientist, the breadwinner rooted in the rational world.

It's pretty miserable - you can imagine how seldom the alter ego gets a chance to come out.

This year I came to the realization that I can use my skill - and more importantly, my determination - as a writer to contribute to the scientific community through journalism. The vast majority of journal articles do not reach a broad audience because of high subscription fees - the "paywall" - so the average person relies on science journalists to report what breakthroughs are happening in science. What I have found, however, is that often the articles are written (intentionally or otherwise) in such a way that the findings in the original research are distorted or misinterpreted. This isn't a new notion, but it is a particularly infuriating one for me because it results in the distrust of scientists themselves - and then we get climate change deniers, for example. To me, science journalism is an outlet both for my desire to teach about science and for my motivations as a writer. Part of the driving force for this blog is to practice science writing and develop a portfolio in case I choose to push my career in that direction. (For anyone else thinking along these lines, there are great resources here and here!)

Another important reason that I've pursued Tree Town Chemistry is to serve as a resource for people who are in the formative stages of their careers - particularly undergraduates and young graduate students in the sciences and elsewhere. Graduate school is competitive and difficult, and the social climate is complicated in ways that I did not initially expect. We tend to make decisions on our future based on strictly professional factors. For example, when applying to schools, we are encouraged to pick the schools with the best reputations, where the staff publish papers with high impact. The idea is that by doing so, we give ourselves the best chances to have an awesome career ourselves. I do not doubt that working with an accomplished advisor will increase your chances for accomplishment. However, what I have noticed is a strict business-first mentality in graduate education. Even informal gatherings center on conversations about research or teaching. In my experience, social issues - what to do when you disagree with your advisor, how to deal with not being able to communicate your research with your family, why life is hard for women in science, etc. - are limited to conversations with individual confidantes or even therapists. My intention is to provide articles exploring these topics to reach people with similar problems.

In short...
This blog is a personal experiment. I hope to gain some experience, learn a thing or two, and communicate some cool information to those of you out there reading. Maybe we can all have a little fun in the process. I do still have that bottle of champagne...