The Almighty Review – Life Update #3

Update #3 - Things intensify

Every time I write a life update post, I always think that the next one will be less interesting – nothing could top this right? Turns out this semester, although I expected it to be dull & boring, has been one of the most challenging and exciting so far. This is a long one, so here’s a table of contents for a laugh.

Table of Contents

  • A lab teaching Job!
    • I am inspired to inspire
    • I love pure chemistry and am a little outspoken
  • My semester courses
    • …are boring
  • The review paper
    • I was not expecting much
    • I learnt fast and climbed fast
    • Fell off the ladder, broke an arm, fixed using duct tape kept climbing
    • Reached top of ladder, climbed onto roof the birds are circling and they want my flesh
    • Finished exams, turns out I’m only halfway up and there’s another ladder
    • Weeks of climbing
    • Reached the top, curled into a ball, and will sleep long time
  • A quote to end

A Lab Teaching Job!

During the last semester, I was lucky enough to be offered a job as a teaching assistant (TA) for the Organic Chemistry Lab Course. I was quite surprised that I was chosen, and naturally was excited to teach. If this website shows anything, it’s that I love to teach and talk too much (case in point). I will never forget my time as a student in that very same lab course. Once, a TA came over and saw that I was struggling to crystalize my product and by simply touching the surface of the solution with a stir rod, the entire flask crystallized in a flash before my eyes. That moment was, I think, the final confirmation that I wanted to pursue Organic Chemistry. So yeah, I was thrilled to be a TA to say the least.

My goal for the lab course was to try and inspire as many of the students as possible to follow chemistry as a career path. The Chemistry major at my university has had historically low student numbers as students flock to more ‘interesting’ and shiny majors – most of which lead the students down similar paths as the pure sciences would. These low numbers have prompted the university to stop offering pure Chemistry in favour of a new major – Chemistry and Biotechnology.

With all these shiny new names and courses it’s easy to overlook Chemistry and to just think of it as another rung in the ladder that leads to something more shiny. But often, the grass is not much greener on the other side. Most if not all of my classmates know of my strong opposition to the new Chemistry & Biotechnology course. I do not yet know if I am right or wrong, I just know that no one has been able to convince me that this move to Chemistry and Biotechnology is a good thing. Whatever the opposite of rose tinted glasses are, I probably have a pair of them on.

What about my courses?

Booooooooooring. By the end of my 1st year I pretty much knew I wanted to spend the rest of my life doing Organic Chemistry, so taking other classes proved dull. The one exception to this was Pharmaceutical Chemistry, likely because it was taught by an Organic Chemist which made it really interesting.

If I hadn’t been distracted by other things, admittedly more shiny things (more on that later…), I would likely have had more patience for my remaining courses but I found them dry and dull in comparison to Organic Chemistry. Imagine: Organic Chemistry brings you pharmaceuticals, beautiful structures, creative synthesis. Physical chemistry brings you bubbles, membranes and the occasional polymer.

Meanwhile inorganic chemistry is chaotic and unorganised. Imagine Lego. Inorganic chemistry is like taking the red & yellow bricks, throwing them into a box and shaking them around a little until they settle into a reasonably uniform lattice. Organic chemistry is like taking the red & yellow blocks and using them to make a car, a house, a dinosaur, heck you can even build the eiffel tower.

So when my body is found floating in the nearby Weser River, you know who’s responsible right?

The Shiny Thing: The Almighty Review!

Early this year, my professor asked me if I would like to contribute a little to a review paper he was writing. The idea was that I would perform some minor literature searches under close supervision, and if I did really well I might even be added as the last student author to the paper. Of course I accepted, and was determined to work hard to make sure I counterbalanced the burden of being an inexperienced undergrad among PhD students & my professor.

What the hell is a review paper?

When you do research and report something new, you then write a research paper and publish it to a journal. However, research papers alone are not useful if you’re looking for the bigger picture of an extensively researched topic. This is why professors write review papers in their relevant fields to summarise or provide more qualitative information on subjects. So for example, you could write a research paper about a promising new antibiotic you found, but your colleague could then write a review paper on all the different types of antibiotics similar to yours and all of their different features & nuances.

The beginning of a unexpectedly long road...

In the beginning, I spent a lot of time asking my professor questions and going through sections with him but as time went on, I gradually learnt the ropes and I was trusted with bigger and bigger sections. The work began to pile up to the extent that I was spending more than 95% of my free time on it.

After putting in so much effort to complete my sections to a high standard, my professor informed me he would be giving me the third student author position. I was thrilled – I danced around my room in celebration. I never thought I’d get that far. With plenty of work ahead before submission, I put my head down and worked all through spring break perfecting my sections and cleaning up others.

and then it (temporarily) came crashing down

As I mentioned earlier, this semester in terms of classes was especially boring for me. So with the opportunity to work on this interesting paper about organic chemistry, I pushed my academics aside. I worked hard and clocked the most hours on the project alongside my professor, so about a week before submission he told me he would be awarding me the first student author position. Considering I started just with the faint hope of last author – this was mind blowing.

As you can imagine though, continuously working so hard on the paper was unsustainable and eventually, after suffering a panic attack in one of my lab courses due to exhaustion, I was reminded of the need to manage the paper around my life, and not vice versa. After taking two days off to recover (as opposed to the week I probably needed), I pushed on to the first submission. We had a deadline with the journal to submit by the end of April and for three days before submission, I spent from 7am in the morning, to 11pm at night in the study area working exclusively on the paper taking breaks only for coffee. I am not exaggerating, my best friend literally brought me food.

The first submission

After working non-stop for weeks, the first draft was finally submitted to the journal on the 29th of April. That gave me about 10 days to study for my end of semester exams. Having no break between working so hard, I struggled to study for my exams and was forced to delay two of my exams to salvage my grades in the other three (don’t worry, it worked).

It's not over for a while yet

When a first draft for a paper is submitted to the journal, it goes out to reviewers (other researchers) for a round of comments. For review papers, these usually come back within 3-4 weeks from submission. With our luck, they came back within 11 days, so as soon as I finished exams, I took 5 days to move house and then got straight back to work.

Due to many different circumstances, our paper, not for a lack of trying, needed extensive revision to some sections. This work was thrown to me as a part of my summer internship, and involved repeating the literature searches for the entire paper and going through all the literature again to make sure we had not missed anything. This work alone, which took about 2 weeks, involved opening more than 1,000 research papers to make sure we had caught the best results to showcase in our review.

After that, every single piece of data in the paper needed to be double checked & confirmed, including references. The paper currently sits at 69 pages.

I plan to come out of hibernation in mid-August

On July 28th we finally submitted the 2nd draft for another round of reviewer comments. This time, the paper is at the 95% level – so there is relatively little work to be done before publishing compared to the first draft, which in retrospect was at the ~60% level.

Once the paper has been published, I will post the link & a more detailed post

This whole thing was so unexpected and such a fantastic journey. When I first signed on I never believed I’d ever be able to contribute to the extent I did – I had even planned to speak to my professor and tell him not to involve me because I would be too much of a burden. Fast forward 6 months I have become responsible for a large amount of the data and am the first student author. If you had told me that 5 months ago, I would have said laughed and called you a fool.

I know it’s cheesy, but I want to end with a quote. In a suspicious coincidence, it was featured in the Nature Briefing email newsletter on the day after the 2nd submission which also happened to be my 20th birthday. It’s a nicely phrased version of what my professor said to me once during our work together. The quote, in the wider context of the article, is meant in a negative way but I see it as a positive. No one has ever achieved anything sitting on their backsides. A good professor is one who will push you to your limits. It is your job to know how much you can take.

I don’t know exactly when the paper will be published to the Journal in it’s final form, but once it is I will write a post here explaining more in depth about my experience and the paper itself. Keep an eye out!

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Pete de Vos

    Fantastic Alice! So well written.I’m sure the paper will be well received and your very hard work will be rewarded.Love and best wishes 👏👏👏

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