What I learned about recruiting and hiring new employees: Be prepared.

Yesterday, I found out something about Mary. She was interested in gourmet cooking (just for clarification, I needed to ask what gourmet meant to her), in horseback riding along the escarpment during crisp autumn weekend mornings, and in ballroom dancing so that she can have a great experience when back-packing in Europe. She even said that playing volleyball let her relieve some of the stress built up from all that academic pressure. As you can see, Mary had a wide variety of interests; in fact I would say her interests were quite exceptional for someone interviewing for an entry level position. That got my attention very fast.

Mary was also interested in the research assistant vacancy for which I was interviewing her. It turns out that Mary, unlike some recent graduates applying for their first “real world” job, was extremely well prepared for the hour-long interview process. For starters, she was dressed appropriately for working in a professional environment. I realize that that may mean something different for each of you thinking about what to wear to an interview, but a safe bet is to dress on the conservative side rather than risqué. I am not kidding when I mention that a female candidate actually wore fishnet stockings to an interview for a large multinational company. I like to think there is a time and a place for everything, and that was definitely not the time for fishnets. Another memorable example is when a guy showed up with frayed designer jeans and a Polo t-shirt highlighting his killer forearm tattoos. He was really proud of his ink…maybe he should have applied for a celebrity chef position instead. Dress for success if that is what you are aiming for.

Remember that you worked very hard to land that precious hour-long interview. You spent countless hours in the lab, in the library, in volunteering, in doing whatever made you successful in what you do. So make the time investment in preparing for The Interview; interview preparation is a top priority. How can you keep a straight face during the interview when explaining your prioritization skills when you did very little research on the company and have only a vague recollection of the products they sell? Use your new found company info to help you understand the business needs and challenges that the company is facing and then show how you can help them be more successful. As the Scouts say, “Be Prepared”.

Guest Blogger:
Lorenzo Ferrari
2014-2015 Past President, Canadian Society for Chemistry (CSC)
Manager, Market and Customer Development (MCD) Canada, BASF Canada Inc.

Granting agency honours chemistry’s best and brightest

Whenever anyone is talking about federal funding of science, they are often referring to the work of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). With an annual budget of more than $1 billion, this organization is the government’s key mechanism for supporting a broad spectrum of research and development activities, from providing scholarships for aspiring graduate students to establishing ambitious national networks in strategic fields.

As part of this work, NSERC also administers a series of awards that showcase the country’s most outstanding researchers and their accomplishments. In recent years, the celebration of these top achievers has been carried out as an annual event hosted by none other than the Governor General in the prestigious surroundings of Rideau Hall. The honorees represented fields covering the full gamut of science and technology, but there were some notable examples in chemistry and chemical engineering. Continue reading

Chlorine, an Adaptable Reagent – By Guest Columnist Jean-Marc Lalancette, FCIC

Chlorine and its salts are household commodities, from the shaker and bleach to the vinyl insulation of our electric circuits. But at the exploratory level, chlorine is often approached with suspicion, as the last resort solution. My personal experience with … Continue reading

Ambitious chemistry outreach program ends after 11 years

Chemistry, close calls, and climate change By Tim Lougheed The phrase “chemistry education outreach” sounds sedate and civilized, even when it conjures up images of graduate students wowing elementary school classes with flaming pieces of magnesium. Geoff Rayner-Canham, a chemistry … Continue reading

Biorefineries – what’s old is new again

Pulp and paper has long been a cornerstone of Canada’s chemical engineering community, but these days the industry is undergoing a sea change. In the 21st century, cutting down trees merely to extract a single value-added product — cellulose for paper, boxboard and many other uses — seems unacceptably wasteful. Instead, researchers are spending time and money on finding uses for all the other chemicals that can be extracted from wood, including hemicellulose and lignin. The idea of the ‘forest biorefinery’ that would produce many saleable products from a single woody feedstock is getting increasing attention, and will be the subject of a flagship symposium at the 63rd Canadian Chemical Engineering Conference taking place in Fredericton in just a few weeks.  But according to Khalid Jasim, Technical and Environment Manager at Howe Sound Pulp and Paper Corporation, the idea of the forest biorefinery is older than many realize.

Jasim recently wrote a letter to ACCN on the subject of forest biorefineries. He begins by describing how the level of interest in the subject has increased in recent years (some links have been added):

The Bioenergy Deployment Consortium has already been established in the US and efforts to establish a similar Biorefinery Consortium in Canada are ongoing. Even Environment Canada is encouraging the move in this direction by modifying their GHG monitoring and reporting requirements.

Over many decades, members of the pulp and paper industry such as Tembec and many others have been involved in and financially benefiting from biorefinery processes. In addition, many forest industry-associated research and development programs have been actively pursuing work in the area. For example, since the late 80s and early 90s, PAPRICAN (Presently part of FPInnovations) has published many articles dealing with the technical and economical aspects of lignin separation.

Recently, the January/February 2013 issue of Pulp and Paper Canada magazine reported on page 30 that Frost & Sullivan explain “lignin could become the main renewable aromatic resource for the chemical industry in the future”, and the article goes further to mention that “the industry is just beginning to scratch the surface for lignin potential”.

Last year, Bruno Marcoccia, director of research and development with Domtar, announced the installation of a LignoBoost lignin extraction system in Plymouth, North Carolina. Marcoccia provided an update on the Metso-supplied LignoBoost project for participants at the International Lignin Biochemicals Conference on June 21. He mentioned that the Plymouth mill will produce 50-100 tons per day of lignin, which will initially be used as a fuel, both by the mill and external customers.

The pages of ACCN have also reflected the growing interest in forest biorefineries. We profiled Lignol Innovations, a British Columbia-based lignol extraction company, in the July/August 2012 issue of ACCN. Nanocrystalline cellulose, another emerging wood product, was the subject of the cover story in our April 2011 issue, and forest biorefineries were mentioned in our award-winning article “Nature’s Industrialists” from the November/December 2012 issue.

But if we’re talking about extracting valuable chemicals from wood pulp, there’s one chemical that’s so ubiquitous it often gets overlooked; in fact, there’s a good chance that you may have consumed it several times already today. Give up?  It’s vanillin, originally isolated from vanilla beans, but also plentiful in wood pulp. As Jasim explains, it was the Canadian pulp and paper company Domtar that first discovered how to extract this fragrant chemical from wood pulp (links have been added):

Based on the work carried out by G.H. Tomlinson II and H. Hibbert at McGill University regarding the formation and manufacture of Vanillin from waste sulfite liquor(1,2,3),  Domtar’s (previously Howard Smith until 1963) Vanillin Plant went into production in May 1937 (4) , the first in the world to recover vanillin from acid sulfite lignin on a commercial scale.  This Domtar vanillin process was based on the research and development work lead by Dr. George Tomlinson II (founder of the defunct Domtar Research Centre in Senneville, Quebec). . . .

Ironically, given last year’s announcement regarding Metso’s contribution to the Domtar Plymouth mill’s lignin separation process, it is significant to point out that Howard Smith Mills Ltd. (presently Domtar) had its own lignin separation process and lignin extraction plan starting in 1942 – 71 years ago!. In 1942 and after years of research, Howard Smith Paper Mills Ltd. (Domtar predecessor) first announced the development of a brand new decorative product using pulp resin based on lignin. In 1946, Dr. George Tomlinson II was awarded a US patent for the process of lignin separation from kraft black liquor.

paper published in 1997 by University of Victoria chemist Martin Hocking in the Journal of Chemical Education gives a detailed account of how this process worked.  One fun fact it contains is that in 1981, 60% of the world’s vanillin came from a single pulp and paper plant in Thorold, Ont. Unfortunately, the process also produced large amounts of sodium sulfide, a corrosive substance which is difficult to dispose of. Today, almost all artificial vanillin is made from the precursor guiacol, which in turn comes from petrochemicals.

The days of wood-derived vanillin may be over, but the story reminds us that wood has a rich chemical diversity and could be the source of many other interesting compounds yet to be discovered or exploited.  The researchers presenting at our forest biorefinery symposium might just be the ones who will find the answers.








The poetry of polymers

Proving art and science can be mutually compatible, Adam Dickinson, professor of English language and literature at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., has been nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award for his book of poetry The Polymers, published by House of Anansi Press. Polymers “combines the study of plastic materials with that of the plastic behaviour of our culture,” notes the Canada Council for the Arts, which administers the awards.

Dickinson told The Brock News that, “polymers constitute a form of writing. My book combines the discourses, theories, and experimental methods of the science of plastic materials with the language and culture of plastic behavior.” 

Dickinson is one of five finalists for the prestigious award, which will be announced in Toronto Nov. 13. The winner receives $25,000. The Governor General’s Literary Awards celebrate Canadian English- and French-language writers in seven categories. A ceremony will be held Ottawa on Nov. 28 to honour the finalists and award recipients.

Dickinson was interviewed by ACCN for the January 2012 issue.  He discussed Polymers as well as his project Anatomic: Semiotic Bodies, Chemical Environments, which addresses how our bodies are constantly re-written through contact with both natural and man-made chemicals. As he told ACCN:

I’m just very interested in my relationship to the unseen world around me. And as much as that includes microbes it also includes, as I have come to learn, chemicals. I’ve been interested in studies that identified toxins in waterways, the persistence of chemicals like birth control pills or antibiotics in water systems and problems in fish because of endocrine-disrupting chemicals . . .While I am interested in drawing attention to important questions about pollution, it’s not my intention to produce a knee-jerk screed against these chemicals or to criticize chemists. Instead, I’m interested in the way in which our bodies are being rewritten by the world we live in . . . . I want to look closely at the ‘outside’ that has come ‘inside’ and the problems that we have making such a distinction.

Breaking Bad does good chemistry

If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, be sure to check out this interview with University of British Columbia chemistry professor Michael Wolf. Wolf, who is also is featured in the current issue of ACCN, the Canadian Chemical News, discusses the accuracy of the chemistry presented in the hit crime drama, which airs its long-awaited final episode Sunday, September 29.

The show, in case you’ve been holed up in your lab since 2008 when the show began, tells the story of high school chemistry teacher Walter White who turns to cooking up and selling methamphetamine. White may have lost his moral compass, but not his skills at chemistry.


Update [30-09-13]: It appears that UBC was not the only place where Canadian academics had something to say about TV’s baddest chemist – the folks at Dalhousie have put together a very thorough interview with professors John Gosse, Claude Caldwell and Mark Stradiotto that dissects a number of key chemical moments from the series. Stradiotto was featured in the January/February 2013 issue of ACCN, speaking about his accomplishments in catalysis.

Do chemists need more communications training?

Whether it’s writing a successful grant proposal, presenting research at a conference, or trying to explain to your grandmother what you do in the lab all day, the ability to communicate effectively is a critical skill for chemists and chemical engineers.  Yet when it comes to formal education, training in communications often seems like an afterthought. Raj Dhiman is a recent PhD graduate in chemistry who hopes to change that. Along with his partner Ted Blanchard, he’s begun a pilot program that aims to help chemists and other scientists learn the skills they need to take control of their own stories and successfully communicate them to audiences, both scientific and non-scientific.

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Engineering functional foods for the developing world

It’s called the ‘hidden hunger’ and eliminating it may be the single most cost-effective way to improve health outcomes in poor countries. About a third of humanity suffers deficiencies in micronutrients like iodine, iron and vitamin A. Although they are needed only in small quantities, their absence is a major cause of child mortality, not to mention mental and physical impairment. Nutritional supplements are easy to produce and cost only pennies a dose; the challenge is finding effective ways to distribute these supplements and ensure that they are taken up by those who need them. Levente Diosady is a Canadian chemical engineer with a proven track record in solving this kind of problem. His latest project – a new method of supplementing tea with iron – promises to leverage past success while tackling new chemical and production challenges.

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