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Tweet of the week:
“In discrepancy is discovery” – Lesson learnt from scientific research.
— Curious Wavefunction (@curiouswavefn) May 20, 2013
To the network:
Artful Science: Was antiquity really so tacky?
Cleantech Chemistry: Never Mind All That: Solar on the upswing
The Safety Zone: Dow launches Lab Safety Academy website
The Watch Glass: Teflon: Newcomer to heat exchange and What’s That Stuff? Chicken Eggs and Texas City: Portrait of a Chemical Town and C&EN Talks With Mae Jemison and Chemist tried in Chicago riot case
Tweet of the Week:
There is not enough coffee for both me and America.
— Dr24Hours (@Dr24hours) May 13, 2013
To the network:
Grand CENtral: Guest Post: “#Chemclub” by Andrew Bissette
Last month’s guest re-post from Andrew Bissette generated quite the great conversation. So we’re excited to share an original post from Andrew today. We asked him to talk about #chemclub, the online community he co-founded, how it complements other communities like #RealTimeChem, and about what’s in store for #chemclub next.
What’s it like to be a chemist?
Regular C&EN readers hopefully got a good idea from Carmen Drahl’s great article about #RealTimeChem. This growing project, led primarily by Jason Woolford, encourages chemists to share their lives, whether by blogging about it, or taking photos, or even remixing it with some dubstep.
#RealTimeChem Week took place in the last week of April. For one week, chemists from across the world blogged and tweeted intensively about their work and lives. This was a great chance to meet other chemists and hopefully to show the human face of chemistry to the outside world. Perhaps in the popular imagination we all wear labcoats and handle beakers of dry ice, but in reality we are diverse. Even within a particular field, two chemists will have very different labs and lives. #RealTimeChem is a fantastic way to showcase that diversity.
However, diversity has a downside. It is so easy to get absorbed in the details of your own narrow field that keeping up with even closely-related areas can be challenging. What’s worse is that this can be a vicious cycle: the less you know about a subject, the harder it is to keep abreast of things and to identify the really promising new findings.
Since reading as widely and thoughtfully as possible will always be essential, several aids for this purpose have appeared. For example, some reference managers suggest new papers, and journals regularly highlight important publications. My preferred solution is to ask a friend.
That’s why I started #chemclub.
We chemists are lucky to have a strong and enthusiastic online community, as #RealTimeChem week demonstrated. We’re a diverse lot, including everyone from undergraduates to professors, from a range of specialities. Being chemists, naturally every single one of these people is a shining beacon of genius.
#chemclub aims to draw on that collective wisdom. First and foremost we ask people to highlight the papers they’re reading. It’s very simple: anyone can post papers to Twitter with the hashtag #chemclub for public discussion, and every week I round up a selection on my blog, Behind NMR Lines.
The idea of #chemclub is to complement your reading with some papers you might otherwise have skipped, giving you an appreciation for new developments in other fields. Hopefully this will make it that little bit easier to build up a broad knowledge from across chemistry.
To this end we’re expanding #chemclub beyond just the hashtag. The first baby step is to include blogs in the regular round-up; there are plenty of great chemistry blogs out there, and many discuss recent papers in some detail. We’ll be focusing on those that offer context which the casual reader might miss.
Long-term, we’re looking at other ways to help chemists. Our next big thing will be #chemclub reviews: short, coffee-break reviews aimed at giving the reader a quick overview of a subject. Naturally these will lack the gory detail of an academic review, but hopefully will benefit your own reading by providing easily-digestible context and from someone who knows the subject intimately.
Ultimately, #chemclub is much like #RealTimeChem: it’s about community. We’re slowly building an online, ongoing literature meeting that users can dip in and out of, helping chemists to stay current with the literature, meet others from across the world, and broaden their knowledge.
Get involved by posting to the #chemclub hashtag on Twitter.
I’m out of town today, folks, so I scheduled a roundup for everything we had as of overlord press time.
Tweet of the Week:
No, no, no *closes think geek* I can’t have ALL the things.
— Jamie Gallagher (@JamieBGall) May 9, 2013
And now, to the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: No Magic In China’s Solar Industry
I’m back for the month of May, folks.
Tweet of the Week:
Social media should be a part of the scientific process, just as the manuscript-writing process already is. #sciodc
— Eric Schulze (@SciencEric) May 1, 2013
To the network:
Cleantech Chemistry: Technology (like GMOs) and its Discontents
Grand CENtral: Talking about science online at #sciodc
Newscripts: Looking back at our time in New Orleans and In Print: Horse. It’s What’s For Dinner and “A Boy and His Atom”: The World’s Smallest Movie and Amusing News Aliquots and Flame Challenge 2: The Answers Are In
The Safety Zone: Patrick Harran ordered to stand trial in #SheriSangji case and Ripped from the pages: More on the West Fertilizer explosion in Texas and Hearing scheduled for David Snyder in UC Davis explosives case and Friday chemical safety round up
Today’s guest re-post comes from Andrew Bissette, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines with co-blogger Emma Hooley. They are the keepers of the popular Twitter hashtag #chemclub, where chemists post and discuss interesting papers from the literature. Originally posted exactly one month ago, Andrew’s musings about chemophobia (or chemphobia as he calls it) are timely this week given the discussion at David Kroll’s blogs both at Forbes and here about chemophobia and the cinnamon challenge.
#chemphobia is a pretty popular topic at the moment, and for good reason. We’re often confronted with examples of people selling ‘chemical-free’ products, or articles scare-mongering about the terrible ‘chemicals’ lurking in everyday life. The anti-vaccine movement often takes this angle, blaming traces of chemicals such as mercury for all kinds of horrible effects they attribute to vaccines.
One typical response to this is the claim that all matter is chemical! or something to that effect, accompanied by much eye-rolling. I see the appeal of this response: in the lab, we don’t typically discriminate between different materials. They’re all chemicals to us. I regularly use water as a solvent and SDS as a catalyst – effectively, I do my reactions in shampoo! In the fume hood next to me, exotic Zr complexes and whiffy ethers are routine. Both of us are chemists, both of us are studying chemical reactions. It seems contrived to declare that, say, gold is not a chemical merely because it is familiar to non-chemists.
Naturally, I’m sympathetic to this response, and I find chemphobia as frustrating as anyone – but I think caution is warranted. However, I think this reaction is too strong and unhelpful. Of course, I am not including in this criticism some of the excellent responses to chemphobia out there – such as this by Michelle Francl. I am aiming specifically at the dismissive “all matter is chemical” response, for two reasons:
Chemphobia is reactive
Look at the history of our profession – from tetraethyl lead to thalidomide to Bhopal – and maintain with a straight face that chemphobia is entirely unwarranted and irrational. Much like mistrust of the medical profession, it is unfortunate and unproductive, but it is in part our own fault. Arrogance and paternalism are still all too common across the sciences, and it’s entirely understandable that sections of the public treat us as villains.
Of course it’s silly to tar every chemical and chemist with the same brush, but from the outside we must appear rather esoteric and monolithic. Chemphobia ought to provoke humility, not eye-rolling. If the public are ignorant of chemistry, it’s our job to engage with them – not to lecture or hand down the Truth, but simply to talk and educate. Given that the audience of this blog is largely composed of people who actively engage with the public, I suspect I’m preaching to the converted here. Regardless: I feel like the “water is a chemical!” response risks falling into condescension.
Material does not equal chemical
As I noted above, a common response to chemphobia is to define “chemicals” as something like “any tangible matter”. From the lab this seems natural, and perhaps it is; in daily life, however, I think it’s at best overstatement and at worst dishonest. Drawing a distinction between substances which we encounter daily and are not harmful under those conditions – obvious things like water and air, kitchen ingredients, or common metals – and the more exotic, concentrated, or synthetic compounds we often deal with is useful. The observation that both groups are made of the same stuff is metaphysically profound but practically trivial for most people. We treat them very differently, and the use of the word “chemical” to draw this distinction is common, useful, and not entirely ignorant. Even Wiktionary agrees.
This definition is of course a little fuzzy at the edges. Not all “chemicals” are synthetic, and plenty of commonly-encountered materials are. Regardless, I think we can very broadly use ‘chemical’ to mean the kinds of matter you find in a lab but not in a kitchen, and I think this is how most people use it.
Crucially, this distinction tends to lead to the notion of chemicals as harmful: bleach is a chemical; it has warning stickers, you keep it under the sink, and you wear gloves when using it. Water isn’t! You drink it, you bathe in it, it falls from the sky. Rightly or wrongly, chemphobia emerges from the common usage of the word ‘chemical’.
Dismissing critics of our profession as ignorant, as fear-mongering, or as having an agenda is essentially a grand ad hominem. It’s a sure way to alienate non-chemists, come across as smug and condescending, and to lose the argument. Defining “chemical” as “all stable matter” is begging the question: of course chemphobia is silly under this definition, but nobody actually uses it! Peddlers of chemphobia rightly reject this.
What about responses along these lines that avoid these traps? I think SeeArrOh’s recent post about dyes is exemplary. Confronted with a case-study in chemphobia, SeeArrOh doesn’t facepalm and groan “idiots”. Instead, he engages directly with the authors. He finds common ground and understands their perspective, attacks the weak logic of the petition, and points out the lack of evidence for toxicity. He doesn’t chastise them for being averse to lab-made chemicals, but simply points out the inconsistency of that position, and the poor analogy between these dyes and gasoline.
Anyway. My two cents. Let the rebuttals commence.
Update: Marc has shared a thoughtful post of his own along similar lines. It and the ChemBark post linked therein are worth reading if (like me) you’ve missed them.
Bookmark this page now, folks. On Wednesday, April 10, I will be here, liveblogging the public debut of five drug candidates’ structures. The “First Time Disclosures” Session at the ACS National Meeting in New Orleans runs from 2PM-4:55PM Central time. I am not able to conjure up a permalink to the session program, so here’s a screengrab instead.
1:20PM I’m in hall R02, where the session’s set to begin in about 40 minutes. Found a seat with a power outlet nearby, so I’m good to go!
Company: Bristol-Myers Squibb
Meant to treat: cancers including breast, lung, colon, and leukemia
Mode of action: pan-Notch inhibitor
Medicinal chemistry tidbit: The BMS team used an oxidative enolate heterocoupling en route to the candidate– a procedure from Phil Baran’s lab at Scripps Research Institute. JACS 130, 11546
Status in the pipeline: Phase I
Relevant documents: WO 2012/129353
Company: Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research and Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation
Meant to treat: melanoma with a specific mutation in B-RAF kinase: V600E
Mode of action: selective mutant B-RAF kinase inhibitor
Status in the pipeline: Phase Ib/II
Relevant documents: WO 2011/023773 ; WO 2011/025927
Meant to treat: respiratory diseases, in particular chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Mode of action: non-steroidal glucocorticoid receptor modulators
Medicinal chemistry tidbit: This compound originated in part from a collaboration with Bayer Pharma.
Status in the pipeline: Phase II
Relevant documents: WO 2011/061527 ; WO 2010/008341 ; WO 2009/142568
Birinapant (formerly known as TL32711)
Company: TetraLogic Pharmaceuticals
Meant to treat: cancer
Mode of action: blocks the inhibitor of apoptosis proteins to reinstate cancer cell death
Status in the pipeline: Phase II
Relevant documents: US 8,283,372
MGL-3196 (previously VIA-3196)
Company: Madrigal Pharmaceuticals, acquired from VIA Pharmaceuticals, licensed from Roche
Meant to treat: high cholesterol/high triglycerides
Mode of action: mimics thyroid hormone, targeted to thyroid hormone receptor beta in the liver
Medicinal chemistry tidbit: this molecule was discovered at Roche’s now-shuttered Nutley site.
Status in the pipeline: completed Phase I trials
Relevant documents: WO 2007/009913 ; WO 2009/037172
And that’s it, folks! Watch the April 22nd issue of C&EN for more on this session.
How can chemists mitigate the effects of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina? What are the latest chemistry mobile apps? And how are emulsions making a difference in medical imaging? Sessions at next week’s ACS National Meeting in New Orleans will be covering those timely topics. Watch all of our picks below. If you’ll be in New Orleans, you can also see these videos in the convention center.