Chemistry picture of the week: #altchemjobs

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This desk is not the desk I work at at the University of Melbourne. This is a totally different desk in a totally different building! This post will be the story of how I got to this desk and what I do there, permeated with how excited I am about it all.

I joined the Royal Australian Chemical Institute (RACI) late last year in order to be involved in the Victorian Young Chemists Group, also formed last year. I was skimming the national newsletter for RACI early this year, when I came across a small section asking for volunteers to write parts of a coffee table book planned to be released as a part of the RACI centenary celebrations next year. As evident from this blog, science communication and writing are major loves of mine and a possible career path to follow after my graduation, so I penned an e-mail to the CEO stating my willingness to help, “despite only being a student.” I included a link to this very blog as an example of a more casual writing project.

What I wasn’t expecting was a call the very next day from a woman at the RACI national office who informed me that they would like to offer me a job, would I be available to come in for an interview?

Turns out, RACI had recently lost the student (thankfully not literally) who had been in control of their social media accounts. Several employees and committee members of RACI had since taken it upon themselves to post a little on these accounts, but since they also had other, arguably more important duties, the accounts were suffering. The national office was keen to employ someone with the specific purpose to control the social media accounts, with the aim to engage the wider chemistry community.

I went to the interview, and honestly, it was a little awkward. I had had a couple of hours to prepare relevant questions, which was helpful, but I don’t think either my employers or I really knew what we were looking for. Although I’m very active on social media daily in my personal life, I became irrationally afraid that doing social media for a corporation would be very different from what I do as an individual, and that I don’t have the necessary qualifications for the job. I’m also still very Finnish at heart, and although I’ve learnt to sell myself on paper, I tend to be very modest about my skills in person. Despite all of this, my employers still decided they would like to have me on board. We agreed that I would start after my confirmation.

When my first day arrived on the third of March, I was still a little afraid that I just wouldn’t know what I was doing. Once I was done with admin stuff and actually got to sit down at my desk and log on to the social media accounts, all of those doubts evaporated. I spend more time on Twitter than I’d really like to admit, and I’m pretty familiar with how social media operates. In just a couple of minutes, I found I was really just feeding my addiction and enjoying myself.

What totally blows my mind, though, is that I have a job now. I have a chemistry job! An #altchemjob! It feels good.

Do you have an #altchemjob? Do you want an #altchemjob? Let me know in the comments or on chemistryintersection@gmail.com. You can also tweet @Lady_Beaker.

 

Chemistry picture of the week: Ugrad-postgrad relations

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Lest I offend through the assumption that I’m referring to undergraduates as pigs (albeit really cute ones), I should begin by explaining the relation of this week’s picture to the title of this post. As a part of orientation week at the University of Melbourne, there were several activities around campus. I personally avoid the O-week activities with the attitude that they’re not really meant for me, but walking past this petting zoo, I just couldn’t resist. It was late in the day so the crowds had dissipated, and the tiny, pudgy piggies were too much for my poor softie heart.

O-week marks the beginning of the first teaching semester. For postgraduates, this is the time we re-adjust to the reality of sharing our campus with thousands of undergraduates. Virtually from November to March, we’ve only shared the campus with academics, administrators and summer semester undergraduates, who are but a small fraction of the whole student body. It’s been blissfully quiet. The commute to campus from the city centre has been swift and comfortable, the walkways have been empty and the lines to food outlets have been short. In the chemistry building specifically, the instruments in the teaching labs have been available at any hour of the day. Starting Monday, all of that will change.

I grudgingly admit to myself that I resent the undergraduates. Firstly, it’s difficult not to feel a little possessive of our habitat, the campus. We’re here every day for most of the year, while most undergrads only share our campus for 24 weeks per year. Surely, that means we have more right to it than they do? Realistically, that’s not true at all — those undergraduates have gained entrance by their own merit, and more than that, are accumulating significant debt just to come here every year. They pay for the operation of the university, and we benefit from the facilities that money buys. If anything, they have more right to this place than we do.

Secondly, a part of my resentment arises from the sheer volume of undergraduate students passing through these buildings yearly. Navigating crowds is unpleasant at best; at its worst, it triggers my anxiety, which can make me a flustered, unproductive mess for the rest of the day. When the vast majority of that crowd is made up of undergraduates, it’s hard not to blame them for that.

The volume of students also makes this resentment easier to cultivate. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that all of those faces in the crowd belong to individuals. Instead, they blur together, lumped into that broad category of “undergrads”. As we know from any sort of discrimination, it is much easier to project your negative feelings onto a group of people if you don’t associate with them personally. Even if unintentional, it’s really about dehumanisation — about talking about a group of people as an abstract label.

I would argue that this detachment between the students and faculty is to some extent cultivated by the modern university system. I feel like instead of being a part of the institution, the undergraduates simply pass through the turning cogs of a degree factory. When tertiary degrees are becoming increasingly common, the volume of students is becoming unmanageable. There is no way we can form personal connections with even just the thousands of first year chemistry students passing through our lecture halls each year. We do make a cursory attempt at it by having those smaller lab classes and tutorials with face-to-face time with postgraduate students as demonstrators or tutors. The postgraduate is still a teacher, though, and holds the undergraduate’s grades in their hands, which makes the relationship loaded. For the undergraduates, it may even cultivate resentment, if they feel that the teacher is not being fair or doing their job adequately.

There are two ways this gap between undergraduates and faculty could be bridged, I think. The first is by a social connection. A chemistry society — or, at the very least, a series of events through the postgraduate society — that involves all of faculty, postgraduates and undergraduates would form a community where communication between each group is encouraged.

The second is more personal, and it’s through humility. Remembering that the reason I’m a postgraduate student is because I’m passionate about chemistry and that I want to share that passion with others. The chemistry undergraduates are a perfect audience for that, really, since they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have at least the tiniest interest in science. If I don’t take advantage of a captive audience, well, that makes me a bad science communicator, doesn’t it?

You can leave your opinions in the comments below, contact me at chemistryintersection@gmail.com or find me on Twitter as @Lady_Beaker.