Chem Coach: a career outside of science with more chemistry than you might expect.

In honor of National Chemistry Week, See Arr Oh is spearheading the Chem Coach Carnival, which he describes as an "online repository of chemistry job success stories". The posts from the first two days make for interesting and inspiring reading.

Given that, by official reckoning, I leaked out of the science pipeline, it wasn't obvious to me that I had a chemistry job success story to share. But See Arr Oh asked me to share, and I love my job, and it turns out that chemistry has more than a little to do with how I do it. So, here we go:

My current job:
Associate professor of philosophy at a teaching-focused university, with my teaching and research focused on philosophy of science and ethics in science.

What I do in a standard "work day":
Let's skip over the parts that make it "work" (i.e., grading, committee meetings, getting swallowed up by bureaucracy) since I imagine those are pretty similar to what chemistry professors get to do. Instead, I'll tell you about the teaching and research.

In the classroom, I teach mostly upper division students (juniors and seniors, but with some masters students in the mix). About half of my teaching ends up being an "Ethics in Science" course (multiple sections each year) that is required of our chemistry majored, heavily enrolled by other science majors, but also taken by a good handful of non-scientists who are curious about what's involved in doing good science, and in scientists and non-scientists successfully sharing a world. You can peek at the current syllabus to get a feel for the sweep of the topics we discuss. The other half of my teaching assignment is usually "Philosophy of Science" (again, multiple sections each year), a straight-ahead intro to the subject with the usual philosophical discussions of how the scientific knowledge gets built, whether we have good grounds for believing the scientific method can deliver on its promises, what attitude we should take towards our best scientific theories (approaching literally true, or merely empirically adequate), and so forth. The interesting twist is that a lot of the population taking "Philosophy of Science" is there to fulfill the upper division general education science requirement. (Yeah, I know.) So, basically, this is an opportunity to take a whole bunch of people who are kind of scared of science and get them a basic understanding of where scientific knowledge comes from.

The research I do focuses a lot on the different conceptual and methodological toolboxes different scientific disciplines use to build science (philosophers of science of yore loved physics but really neglected chemistry), and on saying useful things about how to understand "ethical practice of science" in the particular circumstances in which scientists and scientific trainees find themselves in our world.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there?:
As an undergraduate, I double-majored in chemistry and philosophy. Then I got my Ph.D. in chemistry because I kind of thought I'd just read philosophy at home after work. Well ... it didn't turn out that way. The philosophical questions about science kept squeaking for my attention, and when I recognized that pursuing those was probably what would make me happy, I got another Ph.D. in philosophy, with a focus on the history and philosophy of science.

I should tell you that I got my chemistry Ph.D. relatively quickly (4.25 years), which made re-upping for another Ph.D.-length stint in grad school far more palatable than it would have been otherwise. If I had taken more like 8 years to get the first Ph.D., I think I would have been more likely just to get an M.A. in philosophy, or to do a "Ph.D. minor" in philosophy (that was an option my graduate institution had that I didn't find out about until I was well into the second Ph.D.).

How does chemistry inform my work?
In my research (in philosophy, this looks an awful lot like reading and writing!), my experience with chemical methodology and the "forms of life" of scientists who do chemistry ends up being really useful when I read someone making sweeping generalizations on how all good science must work based on a close examination of physics. Chemistry differs from physics in interesting ways, which means a careful philosopher of science needs to build a model of science that can accommodate chemical practice too -- or else dismiss chemistry as an "immature" science or some hogwash like that. Indeed, philosophers have been working on developing an interesting subfield in philosophy of chemistry.

The ethical practice of science part of my research is more informed by the types of human interactions in knowledge-building that I observed during my misspent scientific youth, but some of the issues that are especially important to chemists (like safety, so the knowledge-building doesn't kill you) are of special interest to me.

You can probably guess how that misspent scientific youth is important in providing examples for discussion with my "Ethics in Science" students. It also helps me frame discussions of strategies for being ethical in situations where one is decidedly on the low end of the community power gradient. In my "Philosophy of Science" class, of course, I sneak in examples from chemistry whenever I can!

A unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career: 
I've been on conference panels a couple times with a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, but only after I started doing philosophy. (Once was at a philosophy of science meeting, the other was at a chemistry meeting.)

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2 responses so far

  • ecologist says:

    Fascinating. Thanks for posting this.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    Very interesting. I have the feeling that philosophers who pontificate on the kind of science I do would have profited from having done actual work in the field. I am pleased to know of your background.

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