Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image
Jan25

Promoting Chemistry’s Positive Public Image

I had an opportunity earlier this month to write a short “Inside Science” piece for the Charlotte Observer and Raleigh News & Observer newspapers. These two publications are among those under the McClatchy Company umbrella of 30 U.S. newspapers with a history dating back to 1857 and the founding of what is now The Sacramento Bee. I was offered great latitude in writing a piece that was to run between 401 and 426 words. Our chemblogging community has been debating how best to address public chemophobia – or whether to even use the term “chemophobia” – in emphasizing to general audiences that not all chemicals are toxic at levels to which one is normally exposed. I decided to write about the most central and, if you will, magical chemistry that happens around us everyday and sustains our very existence: photosynthesis. You can read, “Chemistry? It’s a Natural” here in the Charlotte paper, or “Life depends on the chemical reactions of plants, algae and microbes,” in the Raleigh paper. Just look up and around you. Virtually all life on Earth depends on plants, algae and specialized microbes performing chemical reactions – photosynthesis – that capture the light energy from the sun to produce life-giving chemicals – the unlocking of oxygen from water and the capturing of carbon dioxide from the air to create glucose and other carbohydrates. In most cases, this light-capturing conversion begins with a green pigment in chloroplasts called chlorophyll, itself a magnesium-containing chemical with similarities to heme in our hemoglobin. I go on to speak, of course, about the massive amount of photosynthesis carried out by phytoplankton and the estimation that about half of the planet’s oxygen results from marine photosynthetic reactions. And your dear natural products pharmacologist couldn’t resist the urge to speak about secondary metabolites such as indigo and the opiates. I didn’t count at the time, but the words “chemical” or “chemistry” appeared 16 times in the articles, approximately 4% of the word count. Writing with a short word limit is very challenging, unlike writing blogposts. Including my self-quote above, this piece runs 463 words without even trying. Unfortunately for my efforts, these articles received far less attention than I had hoped owing to the West Virginia (4-methylcyclohexane)methanol release a few days later. But I’d like for these articles to represent how I’m going to approach chemistry education this year. I’ve taken to heart last June’s post by Janet Stemwedel – someone I’ve been learning from since 2005 – that making fun of people who are not well-versed in chemistry or risk assessment is not the best way for us scientists to build trust...

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Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?
Jul31

Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

  My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health. But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty. During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath. Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964. As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists? I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation. The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes. Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a...

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Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education
Apr15

Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance. Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history. My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison). Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following: It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth. Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example. But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university. Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments: 1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences. 2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy. 3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation. 4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a...

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Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship
Mar28

Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

We’re about to close up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata to head out and convene with the PharmFamily in points north for Easter (but, thankfully, not a Nor’easter.) Before we do, I’d like to draw your attention to a short but astute editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by chemist Gina Stewart. Stewart launches her essay with a concise description of a dichotomy that’s giving all of us agita: The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs. She then talks about her career and what she considers to be the shortest postdoc on record (believe me, Gina, I know of many shorter) in the UNC-Chapel Hill laboratory of Joe DeSimone. There, the seeds were planted for entrepreurship and a fascination with the practical applications of carbon dioxide. Years later, Stewart is now CEO of Arctic, Inc., a company that uses sustainable weed control methods by selectively freezing these nasty invasive threats to biodiversity – her company site is appropriately named frostkills.com. Her experience is one example where one takes a different approach to a chemistry career than following in the traditional academic progression. The first commenter already admonished her for saying that she was pursuing an alternative career. Based on percentages, being a tenure-track faculty member is now the alternative. It’s a great read so enjoy. I was also delighted to learn that she and her husband live just west of the Research Triangle and base their company in Clemmons,...

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Watch Twitter on Saturday for #Chemophobia
Feb01

Watch Twitter on Saturday for #Chemophobia

This week, the Research Triangle area is hosting ScienceOnline2013, an international science communications unconference that draws Pulitzer Prize-winning science writers, big media, graduate students, new media, science teachers, old media – pretty much anyone who’s involved in communicating science to diverse audiences via digital media. The gathering began as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference in 2007 (and probably before that) and has grown to be a highly-competitive ticket for 450 attendees. So popular are the conversations there that “watch parties” are being held in cities worldwide – London, Paris, Adelaide, Denver, Dublin, Belgrade, and others. But the conversation can also be easily accessed via Twitter by following the hashtag #scio13. I’d love to draw the C&EN and CENtral Science crowd to a superb session that will be held Saturday, 2 February, with our own Dr. Carmen Drahl and chemistry professor/former ACS intern Dr. Rubidium on chemophobia: the public aversion to anything that carries the label of “chemical.” Here’s the description from the unconference wiki for tomorrow’s 10:30 am EST session: Description: In today’s advertising and pop culture, words like “chemical”, “synthetic” and “artificial” are synonyms for harmful, toxic and carcinogenic, while words like “natural” and “organic” imply a product is wholesome and good for the environment. This widespread misconception colors public perceptions of chemistry and its role in the modern world. Chemophobia may not be as direct a threat to our future as, say, climate change denialism or the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it clouds public understanding of real and very important issues we face (e.g., how to boost agricultural productivity) and plays into the hands of quacks and cranks. How can bloggers and the media effectively combat chemophobia? How much chemistry does the public need to know to be well-informed and make good decisions, and what’s the most effective avenue for disseminating that kind of information? Proposed session hashtag: #chemophobia Over the past year, several folks in the blogosphere and chemistry education realm have been providing folks like Carmen, DrR, and author Deborah Blum with examples of chemicals being portrayed as “bad.” Yet, each of us are a glorious bag of chemicals (thankfully). Where does the negative perception arise and how can we in chemistry-related fields better communicate with the public? Carmen and DrRubidium have asked us to follow the #chemophobia hashtag on Saturday 10:30-11:30 am EST. Here’s a world clock so you can plan when to follow the discussion on Twitter....

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The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!
Jan10

The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!

  As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University. In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.). As I was packing up my recorder, camera, and notebook, he pointed over at the sofa across his office where this framed photograph sat: On October 19th, a week or so after the Nobel announcement, Lefkowitz was invited to Duke’s legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium for the men’s basketball season kickoff/pep rally called Countdown to Craziness. Lefkowitz was called out to center court where Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the 2012-13 men’s team presented him with his own Duke basketball jersey embroidered with his name and the number 1. Lefkowitz’s lab group framed the photo and had the entire team and Coach K autograph the matte. After packing up his Nobel medal and diploma, Bob pointed over to the picture and said, “How do you like that picture? My lab gave me this framed photograph – signed by the whole team – and Coach K. Which’ll really be something if they win the championship this year. Yeah, I’ll really have something.” Uh, yeah. But you’ll still have the Nobel prize regardless.   Here’s a low-res video of the event. The commentators babbled about basketball until 1:13 when they finally told their audience what they were watching. But listen to the crowd as the team left Lefkowitz at center court. For me, the scene was reminiscent of a story I remember being told by the Southern “Grit Lit” writer and University of Florida writing professor, Harry Crews. Crews passed away last May at age 76 and had been beloved on the UF campus. But he was never as popular as the Florida Gators football team. I can’t find the precise reference right now but I recall him speaking of a dream he had where he was sitting with his typewriter at the 50-yard line of Florida Field (“The Swamp”). He then typed what he thought was...

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