Org Prep Daily

January 23, 2008

Awful Seminars

Filed under: industry life — milkshake @ 11:18 pm

When sitting through job interview seminars sometimes one gets a speaker who struggles with the language, presents messy slides or his chemistry seems unremarkable. Please be tolerant - it is the speaker in this case who suffers more than his audience. (I still remember the shivers during my own initial presentations. When I came to US nobody could understand a word of what I was saying- except for the “beta sheet” which was causing people to giggle).

The worst speakers are experienced men - It takes plenty stubborn practice and vanity to arrive at your very own terrible presentation style. Famous men are just as susceptible to the PowerPoint bad habits (5 different font sizes in 5 mismatching colors including the “invisible yellow” favorite, with the bullet points, campy clip-art and artful themes) - and they usualy take themself seriously so they invite you to be awed, by re-emphasizing every aspect and detail of their contributions. Some people are naturally uninspiring or disorganised speakers - but the essence of giving truly awful lecture lies in one’s preparedness to be selfish and inconsiderate. When I hear “First let me very briefly outline” a FEAR strikes me because when the speaker is already apologetic at the beginning of the seminar he is most likely going to mumble through twenty introductory slides and read them out verbatim. Then after 50 minutes of incessant dribble he would look at his watch and say: “Since we don’t have much time if there are no questions I will quickly move onto the second part of my talk…”

The most nauseating seminar I have seen was given by a junior chemistry prof at a Ivy League University: His work was nice and logically presented but he tried hard to connect every tiny detail of his presentation to the precedents from his ilustrious colleagues who were about to decide on his tenure  – and who all happened to be in the audience. He would loudly and frequently praise every single one of them and then again all of them collectively - for their sheer brilliancy and fatherly guidance. This level of sycophancy would be perhaps great during award acceptance speech in Pyongyang - but on this chemistry seminar with the student audience interested in the synthesis talk the outright servility was making one cringe. (Yes it worked. He got his tenure).  Another memorable speaker that I remember listening to in despair was La Clair giving his non-hexacyclinol presentation at ACS in San Francisco in 2006.

Credit: Chad Orzel has a post on terrible seminars in physics. For the bad speakers who want to become more terrible the guidelines can be found here.


  1. KC Nicolaou has visually nauseating powerpoint slides, made for him, apparently, by a graphic designer who doesn’t have to sit through his goddamn talks. I was literally nauseated, seasick, by it by the time he was finished. It wasn’t even a very good talk.

    Comment by excimer — January 24, 2008 @ 2:31 am

  2. Too bad if the bleeding eye graphic design was the last thing you ever see.

    Comment by milkshake — January 24, 2008 @ 2:39 am

  3. Barry Sharpless is, by his own admission, difficult to understand. His talk flitted from idea to idea leaving sentences unfinished, but they were great ideas and I actually really enjoyed hearing him speak.

    Comment by Handles — January 24, 2008 @ 3:09 am

  4. this reminds me: We had a lovely old lady for a highschool chemistry teacher and she could talk about five unrelated things at the same time – sailing from one subject into another and then back again without getting lost in her nutty expose; there were eddies and deep undercurents in her thought process; sometimes one had to compete for attention with the voices in her head. To me it was enjoyable but my nerdy friends summarised her: “The decoherence is manifest”

    (One of her off-hand comments – after everybody just precipitated CuS without a fume hood: “The reason why you didn’t find out on yourself that H2S gas is very poisonous is because you got too little of it”)

    Comment by milkshake — January 24, 2008 @ 3:20 am

  5. I’ve attended to a seminar of Paul Wender. He is a very good and motivated speaker and his presentation was very rich. However, he should have shorten his talk, 2.5 hours is more than enough

    Comment by vasili — January 24, 2008 @ 8:32 am

  6. It is always entertaining to watch Sam Danishefsky talk. He is brilliant, but his thoughts (and everything else about him) is disorganized and random to an extreme.

    His slides are usually out of order, mismatched, and he always seems surprised at what slide actually pops up next. He pauses, figures out what the slide is about, goes off on multiple tangents, and if you are lucky meanders back to the point. Then the next slide arrives and the process starts again.

    The content is good, so the talk is entertaining. But if you are looking for a “story” with some degree of organization, you will be sorely disappointed.

    He and Barry Sharpless are similar in the total chaotic nature of the presentation.

    Comment by Tom — January 24, 2008 @ 11:26 am


    KISS for meaningful communication: Keep It Simple, Stupid

    Comment by Uncle Al — January 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  8. EJ is stunningly bad, while Baran is the polar opposite. And KCN, with his bizarre graphics in the Angew reviews (esp the Greek mythological hero theme) should maybe “listen” to the graphic designer!

    Comment by Jose — January 24, 2008 @ 2:09 pm

  9. hi,

    i am chem grad student. i am facing problem with alcohol oxidation. i have alcohol and acetate both groups in the substrate. i tried DMP, PCC but desired prod is not forming. can u give some suggestion what i have to do? i appreciate your help and please email me if you have any literature kind of pointer.

    Comment by star — January 24, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

  10. I like the TEMPO/bleach oxidation a lot, when it works!. U can try Swern conditions DMSO/(CO)2Cl2/NEt3 but your will hate you becouse of the stink.

    There are a lot of procedures for alcohol oxidations but these are the cleanest, in my opinion.

    Comment by vasili — January 24, 2008 @ 5:51 pm

  11. I liked Baran, although the humility wore a little thin. I didn’t think Corey was all that bad, just a little slow for my taste. Wender just kept going and going, at some point I had to stay just to see how long he could talk. Nearly three hours on your feet and giving a talk is pretty amazing from a stamina standpoint. I think the worst talk I’ve been to hade to be Suzuki at ACS San Fran. Gave a presentation using PDF viewer, and kept asking for someone to advance the next slide, even though no one was there. Maybe I should wait till I’m that old to pass judgement, but objectively, that was the worst I’ve seen, before or since.

    Comment by Dieckmann Doer — January 24, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  12. i have been having really great luck lately with IBX in DMSO.. it works quite well whereas DMP, PCC, swern, all failed.

    IBX also does well in heated solvents like acetone, thf, ether at like 50-80C even though it won’t dissolve. There was a paper on this in organic letters I think.. pretty recent(last 2-3years).

    There is an AWESOME text out there which pretty much explains everything you ever wanted to know about oxidations…

    It is heavily reference, well written, comprehensive, and so on..


    Comment by tom — January 24, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

  13. Fukuyama is pretty hard to understand I think… EJ is pretty boring (and probably makes numbers up… every slide I saw was like 99% ee on the asymmetric diels alder reactions)…

    Danifshiyioyuehky is really boring as well.. I saw him at the NOS in 2007 and he talked for like 3 hours.. read verbatim from his slides, and talked really slowly.

    Scott Denmark was pretty good, along with David Liu from Harvard..Phil Baran and Dale Boger were also pretty good.

    Comment by tom — January 24, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

  14. Anybody do that TEMPO/bleach oxidation with any moderately complex compound? I’ve got a styrenic double bond in my molecule, and I’m a little worried about the bleach eating it, but I was thinking if I added the bleach slow enough, the TEMPO should eat the bleach before the bleach got to my styrene. Any thoughts? This is at step 5, so a nice large-scale oxidation would be nice (one that doesn’t smell would be preferable, Doering oxidation works fine).

    Comment by Dieckmann Doer — January 24, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  15. I think you should consider Ley oxidation with TPAP and NMO – it is very mild and easy to do. Even milder is Swern (but wait with the workup for late night so that your coworkers wont hate you)

    Comment by milkshake — January 24, 2008 @ 8:39 pm

  16. Milkshake,

    You’ve probably seen this, but I thought it was great. I’ll raise a Budvar to these fellows:

    Comment by Dude — January 25, 2008 @ 1:51 am

  17. I have seen it last month on Your Tube and it was done quite well, in the best tradition of student pranks. Lets hope they get no jail time for it.

    Comment by milkshake — January 25, 2008 @ 5:11 am

  18. Thanks for all suggestions. I will try all these methods. Hope that atleast one will work. I am struck at 13 th step. thats frustrating me..thanks

    Comment by star — January 25, 2008 @ 1:27 pm

  19. Similar to #7, well presented.

    Comment by XRAY — January 26, 2008 @ 1:15 am

  20. For an example of KCN’s atrocious color schemes (plus putting the “ego” back in “egomaniac” :))

    Comment by Jose — February 1, 2008 @ 4:16 pm

  21. ah, coloriferous – I need bandage for my eyes now.

    Comment by milkshake — February 1, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

  22. Hello, I am a french student in Biochemistry and I have seen on your february 2007 page the synthesis of ethanolamine-o-phosphate. I am looking for information and formal litterature about this reaction.
    Could you give me some details please?

    Thank you very much


    Comment by francois — February 1, 2008 @ 5:35 pm

  23. francois,

    I don’t have a complete literature reference unfortunately. But the procedure was repeated from a chapter on phosphate esters from the Houben-Weyl monograph. I found the complete procedure re-published there and I used it for my thesis work. That was around 1990, in Prague. If you go to any large chemistry university library you should be able to find the Houben-Weyl giant monograph there

    Comment by milkshake — February 2, 2008 @ 10:34 am

  24. Dennis Dougherty’s talk at an ACS was one of the most entertaining and yet informative scientific talks I have ever heard.

    Comment by Wavefunction — February 4, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

  25. hai,

    I wonder if anyone could give me a pointer for selectively how to do hydrolysis of methyl vinyl ether without using HCl or any base K2CO3.

    Comment by pari — February 14, 2008 @ 5:15 pm

  26. Don’t tell me we’ve lost yet another esteemed blogger? Milkshake, we need you man!


    Comment by Javaslinger — February 18, 2008 @ 5:07 pm

  27. since mid December I am producing series of final compounds for testing, by coupling amines with substituted benzoic acis. My hope is that eventually – once the simple sidechain chemistry is exhausted – I will be working on something that I can use here. But because of the problem with IP, the final compounds and the key scaffold as well as anything genuinely useful for our project are out. (Some of the procedures I had here in the past were only tangentially related to my current project, and many of them were not, they came from 4-10 years ago).

    Comment by milkshake — February 19, 2008 @ 8:25 am

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