Summer research mountain climbing. It’s all about the journey.

In this follow-up to his earlier post. Dr. Hector Palencia reflects on his lab’s summer research journey. At each impasse, they chose to learn through the “mistakes” and “bad data” and move the project forward. Hector’s advice? Think strategically about your projects, adapt, reflect, change direction if necessary, but above all – persevere.


Where did our summer journey take us?

Group pictureSummer goes fast, and now it’s time to review our original goals and what we have accomplished. The team, Isabel, Josh, Liel and I had as a goal to climb a tall mountain, but where did we go? Each in our own way, we had to go through different things. Our original goals were to get data for a paper and a grant, plus having the drafts! That was pretty ambitious, wasn’t it? Yes, but we have to set our goals high in order to motivate ourselves to reach them.

My researchers worked hard and their enthusiasm was my inspiration. I told them stories of scientists working in projects taking more than a decade to accomplish! What is the key? Perseverance, hard work, and motivation!

My researchers worked hard and their enthusiasm was my inspiration. I told them stories of scientists working in projects taking more than a decade to accomplish! What is the key? Perseverance, hard work, and motivation! It’s like climbing a mountain, rain, wind, or snow should not discourage us, they are just temporary setbacks. Our research had ups and downs. Isabel and Josh did a good job with the benzoin reaction organocatalyzed by N-heterocyclic carbenes, Isabel did an impressive job synthesizing more than ten compounds! Isabel Monreal is a good chemist with excellent skills, she also helped Liel and Josh in the lab when I was not there.

JoshJosh, my senior researcher, worked in characterizing the catalysts precursors and training Liel, he is independent and can work by himself with little help. We made good progress and got almost all data that we need for the paper. So, in this regard, I think we are about to reach the peak of the mountain! Now, I must continue working with the writing part, but we are very happy with the results. Things were not perfect though, some substrates did not give good yields but I told to my researchers a story. When I was a graduate student I did not get good results in a project, nothing seemed to work, I was discouraged and talked to my advisor, Dr. Takacs, about it. He told me, “bad data is not bad data at all! It gives you valuable information and tells you where to go!”. I always keep that in mind and tell it to my students. In this case, the “bad data” is part of the discussion in the paper, why it did not work for these substrates and why it worked well for most of them? That’s a limitation of the method and we will explain it, based on our observations and literature precedents. I told them, this is how we, as scientist, do science, we gather data and interpret it. That’s what you see in a paper and that will help others to advance in the field. Moreover, behind a paper there are several trials to develop conditions, even though in every paper you some limitations. That encourage others to find alternatives, explain their own results, or improve the method by developing more efficient conditions. I talk to my students and tell them, without challenges science would be very boring! In research, our motivation is to solve a problem, we pick up one depending on several factors, such as personal interest, funding opportunities, time available for research, number of students working in our group, resources, etc. Perhaps the personal interest is the most important among them because that is key for motivation. If the faculty member is motivated, you can motivate your group.

When I was a graduate student I did not get good results in a project, nothing seemed to work, I was discouraged and talked to my advisor, Dr. Takacs, about it. He told me, “bad data is not bad data at all! It gives you valuable information and tells you where to go!”.

The hardest part of research is to get the data, once you get it, it easier to write a story, ether for a paper or for a grant proposal. However, getting data for a grant proposal it can be very challenging, you must get something new and or interesting, in order that you can convince the founding agencies that your proposal is worth funding. Additionally, you must keep in mind the deadline to submit a proposal and write a nice and convincing story. A new direction takes time to get promising results, whether you try to find a new reaction, a new catalyst, to get some insight of a reaction mechanism, or develop the fundamentals of an area, between planning and make it work there is a long way to go. Patience is the key to keep going.

When the project is new, the science depends not only on hard work but also of knowing the literature well, a lot of imagination, and why not, a bit of luck. I encourage students to think about what they are doing, not to see a reaction like a black box or like a “recipe” where you mix A plus B and get C!! Chemistry is more complex, I teach my students that when doing a reaction, we should think about it in terms of molecules, how they react? Is the steric hindrance a problem? How can we low the activations energy? Thinking about reactions at the molecular level it can be more productive because you can think about what effect the different variables, temperature, solvent, catalysts, can have on them. There are many questions that if we try to answer, they can help to find the proper conditions for a reaction. I also encourage my students that if they have an idea, no matter how crazy they think it is, do not hesitate to share it! Science is full of crazy ideas and we spend our time trying to demonstrate that those ideas are not that crazy.

LielLiel was new to the group but she is very enthusiastic and a hard worker. She worked this summer in the project where we were looking for new reactions and modes of reactivity for our catalysts. Liel’s job was to try new reactions under different conditions and synthesizing a new catalyst precursor. The reactions did not give what we were expecting but the synthesis of the catalyst precursor worked well. She was afraid about doing something wrong but I told her not to blame herself. If you do what you are supposed to and things don’t work, that means we need to look for alternatives. As one of my former student, Dusty Broxterman used to say “that’s science, sometimes works, sometimes not”. When things worked well she was pretty excited! I told her, you have good hands, you can be a chemist or a dentist, as she wants to. Josh also worked in this project using different substrates but with similar results.

The reactions did not give what we were expecting but the synthesis of the catalyst precursor worked well. She was afraid about doing something wrong but I told her not to blame herself. If you do what you are supposed to and things don’t work, that means we need to look for alternatives.

We did not get the expected outcomes but I told my group, doing good science takes time, just persevere and eventually you’ll get it. We were almost at the end of research summer, tried different catalysts, substrates, reaction conditions, and all you can imagine. Temporarily, we have moved away from the project to re-think about what we could do to make it work. I asked my group, does repeating a reaction a thousand times make any difference? They say no! That is the right answer, if things do not work, we must think out of the box. And that’s exactly what we did, the reaction we were looking for was not working, so we tried a different one and bingo! This time it worked! Yields are modest but we got something new! Now the next goal is to optimize the reaction using different conditions. I told my group about a paper I read, where the researchers were looking for a new reaction, the initial yield was … two percent! But once they found it, they were able to optimize it and get high yields. Once more, I stressed to them, this example teaches us that perseverance is essential to research, and Isabel added patience and hard work too! True, a chemist should not give up. My postdoc advisor, Dr. Sibi, told me once “everything works, we just need to find the right conditions!” I agree with him, but sometimes finding the right conditions it can take years! That’s why as he taught me, we have to look for different opportunities. I keep that in mind with my undergraduate students, I cannot ask them to work in a project which will give them nothing in years! That’s why we explore different options.

I asked my group, does repeating a reaction a thousand times make any difference? They say no! That is the right answer, if things do not work, we must think out of the box. And that’s exactly what we did, the reaction we were looking for was not working, so we tried a different one and bingo! This time it worked!

Overall, our summer was fairly productive, we did not get all that we plan at the beginning but we managed to get done most of what we plan for the research part. The goal that was not accomplished was the writing part, but that’s something that now I have to work on it before the fall semester starts and during the semester. Not all our summers have been as good as this one but once again, I want to quote Dusty, “that’s science, sometimes works, sometimes not”!


palenciahector_directory~Dr. Hector Palencia is an Associate Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nebraska at Kearney where he does research with students in oganocatalysis, organometallic chemistry and synthetic methodology.  He also serves in the Chemistry Division of the Council for Undergraduate Research.

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