How do you recognize a gifted chemist?
October 19, 2012 11:01 AM   Subscribe

How would a graduate chemistry student distinguish themselves as more gifted than their classmates?

I am not a chemistry student - graduate or otherwise. I'm just a Breaking Bad fan who assumes that there must be some way that a chemistry professor would consider one student more promising than another - but has no idea how it would happen.

Test scores? Accuracy in handling the flasks and fluids and whatnot? Creative approaches to unsolved questions in the field?
posted by Egg Shen to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Off the top of my head (I have some friends who are chemistry grads), I'd guess some of the following:

--They've come up with an innovative research topic, or method, particularly one that will make an impact in a "hot" field.

--They've gotten an early start on research, perhaps working with a professor as an undergraduate or even in high school, such that they can start doing their own work -- or working with less supervision -- sooner than others.

--They can explain their work, or others', in clear and elegant ways (which, in turn, probably makes their own work more elegant and impressive).

--They can make connections between their research (or others') and research in other fields, which can lead to a) some really fruitful collaboration and b) additional sources of funding. (Interdisciplinarity is HUGE -- as is the ability to create a business startup of some sort.)

Here are some phrases from press releases my (major public) university has used in discussing top science performers, including both students and professionals:

Her analytic expertise and organizational savvy are key elements in the X program.

She will, without prompting, initiate innovative changes to scientific techniques that lead either to better data, less time and money (spent), or, most importantly, less effort required of our participants.

He has great mathematical skills, physical insight and an innate ability to pick out the important questions and make progress even on very difficult problems.

Her ability to connect seemingly unrelated ideas "is the kind of thinking that makes breakthroughs, develops significant insights and really advances knowledge on a broad front."

posted by Madamina at 11:17 AM on October 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

- Publish as a first author (names comes first in the list) somewhere high-line like the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Science, or Nature.

- Do the above more than once during their grad career.

- Just publishing a lot.

- Organize a conference with some distinguished guests.

- Get funded on a grant that they personally applied for or contributed to significantly. The NSF Pre-doctoral fellowship is a big deal, for example. It means you're good enough to convince a funding committee to give you money.

- Give a talk at a well-known conference like the Gordon Conferences or one of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers meetings.

- Be adept at a technique that everyone considers really difficult. In structural biology, being able to prepare large biological macromolecules like ribosomes for x-ray crystallography is neigh near witchcraft. There's a certain reverence reserved for those scientists that can do that. I'm sure there are difficult syntheses or analyses that fall into this category.

- Ace your qualifying exams like they're nothing. Everybody frets over these exams which make you eligible for PhD candidacy.

- Talk in classes. Even in graduate level classes, people are reluctant to talk. Engaging and throwing yourself out there would mark you.

- More mundanely, gifted students are driven. You can tell that they want to learn and do research and figure things out. They may not be the smartest or most intuitive, but they keep fighting through to frame the question, understand, and find the answer. These people cannot be stopped. Science is all about failed experiments, intellectual dead-ends, and last-minute scoops. It takes a doggedness to make it through.
posted by Mercaptan at 11:41 AM on October 19, 2012 [9 favorites]

Just publishing a lot

This is the thing that would get faculty to really notice you. In the lab I did my doctorate in, there was one student who published 12 papers in his four years. He was still being talked about 20 years later through the entire department (of a couple hundred grad students, 60 faculty) in hushed tones.

He went on to get full professorship very early (~30), win a whole passel of awards and get appointed to a national research chair, probably the highest academic honour in Canada. His publication record and drive were the things that made him stand out as a grad student though.

A high-profile pub never hurts, but those can be seen as a flash-in-the pan, someone getting lucky on a momentarily sexy subject. Likewise talks at high profile conferences---those can be as much about your supervisor as you.
posted by bonehead at 11:59 AM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

It should also go without saying, publishing important papers. High citation index scores is also a really big deal. Even a publication in Nature or Cell doesn't mean much if it only gets cited by its authors in their future papers. A paper that gets widely cited and used as a landmark in the field is a very big deal. It can take a while, years, for that to become obvious, however.
posted by bonehead at 12:02 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I'd agree with bonehead on publication.

And I think many of the other things that will get a grad student recognized can be categorized as "looking like someone who will publish great things in the future." This boils down to some combination of "noticing interesting patterns," "seeing how to bring new techniques to bear on old problems" and "working their ass off."
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:10 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Lots of hours in the lab.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:12 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

The ability to do everything. Seriously, one of our award winners last year had a baby a few weeks before defending her dissertation and now is in a very nice postdoc position. She runs marathons and mentored new grad students into the department and taught and ... and ... and ...

Leadership skills are also key — be active in the grad student caucus, organize talks, mentor others. These soft skills are great for networking, and look fabulous on grant applications — and grants always make you look like a star student.

And PR skills. Don't be the quiet person who's always in the lab. Do get your story out there, and active on social networks if it's not frowned-upon in your department.
posted by wenat at 2:25 PM on October 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Lots of hours in the lab.

Necessary but not sufficient. Lots of students the mistake of thinking this is enough. It isn't.
posted by bonehead at 2:30 PM on October 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

My boyfriend is a 4th ph.d. student in chem, and according to what he's told me, publications is it. You can spend all the hours in lab you want, but if you're not productive then it doesn't mean much. The professor isn't in the lab all the time, anyway, so he's not seeing you work long hours.
posted by lettuchi at 6:59 PM on October 19, 2012

Depends on what level we are talking about. As a grad student and postdoc, theabove are important, but the skill not stated there are green fingers (aka lab mojo, good hands, practical skills).

Making difficult experiments work, knowing when to try some weird condtions (that you just dug up from an article from 1960), having a wellformed intuition about when a particular daunting/failing practical approach needs dozens of hours at the bench to optimize, and when another equally daunting failing approach should just be given up on. Green fingers and hard work at early grad level, especially in practical science, will do more than being 2nd author on a lot of me-too papers.
posted by lalochezia at 8:25 AM on October 31, 2012

Also related to green fingers: finding the killer 'simple' set of experiments that proves in a week or a month what would take others 6 months or a year.
posted by lalochezia at 8:26 AM on October 31, 2012

Bonehead - 12 first author papers?
posted by Buckt at 8:38 AM on October 31, 2012

Yep. A couple published in the year following his degree, but all work done prior to thesis submission. I know the guy well---I worked in his lab for a year.
posted by bonehead at 9:08 AM on October 31, 2012

Just double-checked on Scopus to be certain. Absolutely: 12 first author papers in 4 years. Good number of citations on them too.
posted by bonehead at 9:13 AM on October 31, 2012

Color me jealous
posted by Mercaptan at 8:36 PM on October 31, 2012

I love the way that doing science makes you think you're pretty good, until you realize you *really*, really aren't.
posted by Buckt at 9:40 AM on November 3, 2012

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