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John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS

The Seattle conference welcomed chemists from near and far. They came from Berkeley, from Harvard, and from everywhere in between. Thirteen of the most eminent among them readied talks about their cutting-edge research, which they hoped would send everyone home inspired to further their own work.

That meeting, the 16th National Organic Chemistry Symposium (NOS), took place fifty-four years ago. This week, the gathering is in its 43rd incarnation, and it’s back in the Emerald City. So is one of the original speakers from that 1959 meeting– John D. Roberts. As a young Caltech faculty member, Roberts gave a presentation entitled “Rearrangement Reactions of Small-Ring Compounds.” It was already his third NOS talk, but he returned as a speaker several more times, collecting organic chemistry’s highest honor, the Roger Adams Award, in 1967.

John D. Roberts

Roberts in Meany Hall, venue for both Seattle NOS meetings. Drahl/C&EN

Roberts, 95, is a pioneer in physical organic chemistry and nuclear magnetic resonance (J. Org. Chem. 2009, DOI:
10.1021/jo900641t). Conference cochair Paul B. Hopkins of the University of Washington made note of Roberts’ presence during opening remarks. “I believe Professor Roberts is the only one of us in attendance who was also there at the 1959 Seattle NOS,” Hopkins said, as the crowd gave Roberts an ovation. “But if I’m wrong about that, you’ll have to let me know during the coffee break.”

Later that evening, this year’s Roger Adams awardee, David A. Evans of Harvard, started his talk by thanking Roberts, who he called “inspirational,” “my teacher,” and “my friend of nearly 50 years.” When Evans was a college student at Oberlin, the school “had just gotten an NMR, so we spent the summer poring over John’s books” about the exciting new instrument, Evans recalled. He would get to know Roberts while earning his Ph.D. at Caltech. So Roberts could attend Evans’ award lecture, NOS organizers broke with decades of tradition and moved the Adams Award Lecture, held on Tuesday nights for as long as anyone can remember, to Monday evening.

Over a cup of black coffee, Roberts told C&EN about his experiences at NOS over the years. He reminisced about some of the scientific feuds that played out at the podium, including the epic cation controversy between Saul Winstein and H. C. Brown. Asked about the history of the meeting, recently published in the Journal of Organic Chemistry (DOI: 10.1021/jo302475j), which notes a decline in talks about his field of physical organic chemistry, Roberts is optimistic. “Physical organic is not dead–it’s just been co-opted by everyone,” he says. Problems in biochemistry, which might involve enzyme mechanisms or noncovalent interactions, are often very appealing to people trained in the field, he adds.

The last time NOS took place in Seattle, Microsoft didn’t exist, nor did ubiquitous Internet. Even in this connected age, though, Roberts values face-to-face contact. “I’m always surprised that some people don’t come to this meeting unless they’re invited to give a talk,” he says. “I just like to come. You have to learn about new things.”

Roberts wishes he could have stayed for the duration of this year’s meeting, but he left to attend to an important matter at Caltech–the arrival of a fresh crop of summer undergraduate researchers.

More: Watch a video interview with Roberts conducted by chemical historian Jeffrey I. Seeman.

Read: J. D. Roberts, “The Right Place at the Right Time” in Profiles, Pathways and Dreams (Ed.: J. I. Seeman), American Chemical Society, Washington, D.C., 1990.

Read: an interview with Roberts from Caltech oral histories.

UPDATED 1:30PM Pacific 6/26 – fixed DOI link to NOS history paper.

GZA Drops Verse (And Science) On The Schools

We’ve spilled plenty of ink about so-called science rappers on the Newscripts blog. But let’s face it, they are all pretenders to the throne. All hail GZA of the kingdom of Wu-Tang, who with the above taste of his upcoming solo project “Dark Matter” takes his rightful place at the top of the heap.

As we wrote last year, GZA’s upcoming album, “Dark Matter,” is inspired by science. On the March 27th episode of the PBS NewsHour, GZA gave Bronx Compass High School a sneak peek at some of his new material. We also heard about Science Genius B.A.T.T.L.E.S., a project GZA’s involved with to help students in struggling school districts learn about science through rap. B.A.T.T.L.E.S. stands for Bring Attention to Transforming Teaching, Learning & Engagement in Science. You can learn more at PBS NewsHour’s GZA story.

Still think you can dethrone the master? PBS is sponsoring a science rap contest on YouTube that anyone can enter. The winner gets a personalized video shout-out from GZA, and other prizes. Entries are due May 3rd. More details at the bottom of PBS’s page.

Here’s the full TV segment for your viewing pleasure (GZA makes his entrance at 3:30).

Chem Coach Carnival – Science Writing

Happy Mole Day, and happy National Chemistry Week! Today, I’m heeding SeeArrOh’s call to contribute a post to his blog carnival, the Chem Coach carnival. The theme is chemistry career paths.

My current job:
I’m a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News magazine. That title is confusing, however. I really am a science writer, not an editor. My home base is the ACS building in downtown Washington DC. (I can see the White House from my office window). I write everything from 1500-word cover stories to 140 character tweets. I also work on videos and other multimedia for C&EN Online.

What I do in a standard “work day”:

I’ve made a pie chart about this for when I give career talks. For someone who makes their living writing, it’s actually not what I spend most of my time doing. I’d classify my most common activity as ‘information gathering’- calling people up, reading the literature, searching grant databases, scanning social media, etc. There is no ‘standard work day’. My week revolves around getting the magazine out, but that’s the basic skeleton around which I fit all my tasks.

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped me get there:
I could tell you how I became a science writer, but that wouldn’t be very useful information in isolation, because just about every science writer I know took a different path to get there. If you’re really interested in doing what I do, go to Ed Yong’s fantastic Not Exactly Rocket Science blog and read all the ‘how I got there’ tales from science writers there. (I’m number 108 on the list). I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that science writing jobs are TOUGH to get these days, especially if you have your heart set on working at a newspaper or newsstand magazine. If your goal is to write for a government agency, university, or institute, you may have more opportunities, though it’s not exactly the land of milk and honey there either. Finally, a lot of my science writer friends have at some point worked as freelancers. Many go back and forth between freelancing and staff gigs. If you are uncomfortable with the idea of running your own business at some point in your career, this may not be the path for you.

How chemistry informs my work:
I once had an editor that likened my chemistry Ph.D. to a language degree. That is the best way I can describe how my training helps me do my job. I’m exposed to corners of chemistry and aspects of chemists’ lives I never encountered in the lab (origin-of-life research, the vagaries of grant overhead, etc.) But at the end of the day I understand the basics of how a lab is run, and how science is done. Great science reporters know these things no matter what their academic background- but I think some chemists I talk to appreciate that I’m “in the club”.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about my career:
Not long after joining C&EN, my dad got a phone call from his mom (my grandma). I hadn’t mentioned my new job to her at that point. Grandma said she’d heard from Eddie, a long-ago neighbor from the 80s, asking if I was writing about chemistry for C&EN. (He remembered meeting 6-year-old me many years ago.) My dad said, “yup, that’s her.” And then my grandma dropped the bombshell– “Eddie” is 1999 ACS President Edel Wasserman. So I can probably say I made contact with ACS at a younger age than any of C&EN’s staff.

A Nobel In Chemistry, Through The Eyes Of “Families”

“Mentoring is extraordinarily important to me.”–Robert Lefkowitz (photo: David Kroll)


Champagne reception at Lefkowitz lab. (photo: David Kroll)


Cake at Lefkowitz lab reception (photo: David Kroll)

Most scientists end up having two families. The first is the one they are born or adopted into. But the second, the lab family, can be every bit as important. I’ve been fortunate to connect with “lab family” members who never overlapped with me at the benchtop, but who share a sense of camaraderie because of our shared mentors. In fact, I credit one of my Sorensen lab siblings, Lucy Stark, with helping me make the “alternative career” connections that put me where I am today.

Robert J. Lefkowitz, who took home half of the 2012 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has both kinds of family in spades. At a Duke press conference, colleagues extolled his talents as a teacher and mentor to hundreds of scientists, including his fellow laureate Brian Kobilka. Intrepid Terra Sig blogger, David Kroll, who had an excellent post about the chemistry Nobel on Wednesday morning, ventured to Duke to capture the celebrations with Lefkowitz’ lab family. (Thank you, David, for sharing your photos!)

And via Twitter, I learned about the reaction to the prize from a member of Lefkowitz’ outside-the-lab family: his daughter, Cheryl Renée Herbsman (née Lefkowitz), an author.

I emailed Herbsman a few questions, which she was gracious enough to answer. I’ve lightly edited this exchange for grammar and content.

CD: Growing up, what kinds of things did you hear from your father about what he worked on?

CRH: Growing up, I don’t think my siblings and I necessarily understood what our father was researching. We knew it had to do with receptors, but that might have been the full extent of our understanding. Sometimes he would talk at dinner about whether the research was going well or not. Occasionally he would take us to the lab with him on a Saturday morning, where we would have wheeled desk-chair races and explore the walk-in refrigerators. Often, we would hear him dictate papers into his Dictaphone. The words didn’t mean much to us. But I remember my younger sister writing up “scientific papers” of her own with a lot of important-sounding made-up words. My dad always ended the dictation by saying, “RJL etc.” So my sister ended hers with her initials, etc., as well.

How much did you and your siblings realize how well-known your dad’s work was? Did you have any idea he might win a Nobel Prize someday?

When we were kids we didn’t realize how important his research would become. But as we got older, and he began winning more recognition for his work, it became more and more clear how much his work mattered. All of us, and my children as well, were lucky enough to attend the ceremony at the White House when he received the National Medal of Science.

Did your dad’s science career have any effect on your relationship with science in school and in life? How so?

I don’t know if it affected my relationship with science. He never pressured any of us to follow in his footsteps. But I think his dedication to his work taught me to work hard, to hang in there when things weren’t going the way I wanted them to, and to never give up.

In the acknowledgements for your novel, “Breathing”, you mentioned your father’s support. That’s interesting to me because others have been talking today about your father’s skills as a mentor. What about your dad do you think makes him a good advice-giver or giver of support?

He has always been someone who can think things through rationally, so he made a great sounding board. He was able to keep his own opinions out of the equation, so he could help us figure out what it was we really wanted to do. He has a way of being reassuring in stressful times, staying calm, trusting that things will work out. In addition, he always encouraged me to go after my dreams. He made me believe that with enough determination I could make them reality.

Is it true you babysat for Brian Kobilka’s kids?

I did babysit for Brian Kobilka’s kids for a week one summer when they needed childcare. I remember watching Nickelodeon with them and making Rice Krispie Treats.

What do you most want the world to know about your dad?

He is a dedicated and passionate man who truly loves what he does. He has often told me that he feels very fortunate that work to him is like play, and some days he can’t believe they pay him to do it. He said he thought this was one of life’s great secrets – that is, to find work one truly loves.

C&EN Picks for ACS Philadelphia #ACSPhilly

What’s the latest research on the environmental impacts of fracking? Why is there an ongoing debate about how forensic chemistry is used in courtrooms? Sessions at next week’s ACS National Meeting in Philadelphia will be covering those timely topics. Watch all of our staff’s picks below. If you’ll be in Philadelphia, you can also see these videos in the convention center.

Specialty Food Chemistry at DC’s Fancy Food Show

Chemistry is everywhere, as we’re fond of saying in the pages of C&EN. So I was excited to let my taste buds partake in the biochemistry at the Fancy Food Show, which rolled into DC this past weekend. Sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, the Show is a mecca for makers of specialty foods such as cheeses, confections, and snacks. It draws the most diverse group of attendees I’ve ever encountered–on the expo floor I ran into folks from nerd gift emporium ThinkGeek, agribusiness giant Cargill, and the U.S. State Department.

Chew on some tidbits of science I picked up at the show, some of which are connected to past C&EN coverage. Continue reading →

More On GZA and “Dark Matter”


GZA takes science songwriting seriously. Credit: Sophia Chang

The e-mail arrived in David Kaiser’s inbox late last year. “Would you like to meet an internationally-renowned hip-hop artist?” the subject beckoned. “There’s only one response to that,” says Kaiser, the Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science at MIT. “And that’s, ‘Yes, how can I help?’”

With that, one of the most interdisciplinary collaborations of Kaiser’s career was born. In December, he made the acquaintance of GZA, a founding member of legendary rap group the Wu-Tang Clan. At the time, GZA was in the planning stages for an album entitled “Dark Matter,” which as reported in this week’s issue is inspired by science in general and the quantum world and the cosmos in particular. GZA and Kaiser have sat down twice for freewheeling conversations about quantum theory and cosmology. Together with three other physicists, they’ve even discussed the similarities and differences in how budding rappers and budding academicians seek out mentors. Kaiser’s just one of the many scientists with whom GZA, a.k.a. Gary Grice, has powwowed about science. The list includes some of the most illustrious names in the business, including MIT marine biologist Penny Chisholm and Hayden Planetarium director Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Of course, it’s far from the first time someone’s rapped about chemistry. We’ve covered chemists who produce tracks with a college-chemistry-major education bent. And as reader Barney Grubbs, an associate professor of chemistry at Stony Brook University, points out, Sacramento hip-hop duo Blackalicious produced a number called “Chemical Calisthenics”.

But that music lacks the public outreach mission that GZA says “Dark Matter” has. When the album drops this fall, it will come with a companion illustrated book, and possibly also a glossary, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Neil DeGrasse Tyson calls himself a ‘popularizer of science,’ ” GZA says. “I would like to be that someday as well.”

Crafting lyrics for “Dark Matter” will be about more than just random utterances of scientific terms to fit a rhythm, GZA adds. In fact, he says words’ meanings have always been integral to his creative process. Nicknamed “The Genius,” GZA is known for lyrics that refer to philosophy and chess in addition to science, and a voracious curiosity about many fields. “I would never force in a term–science-related or not– just because it seems right,” he says.

Still, “Dark Matter” is likely to become a talking point among chemists who get frustrated that science is portrayed inaccurately in the entertainment world. When it comes to balancing scientific accuracy and artistry, GZA says he stands in the middle. “I think it’s important that science be represented but it should be accurate, particularly because shows hire scientists as consultants,” he says. “As an avid chess player, I might notice errors on the screen on a chess board, but it wouldn’t necessarily get under my skin as a viewer. But if I were the director, I would absolutely correct it.”

GZA hasn’t spoken to any chemists– yet. But he’s certainly open to the idea. In other words, Newscripts readers, keep an eye on your e-mail.

The New Species On The Block

Today’s guest post is by C&EN Associate Editor and frequent Newscripts contributor Michael Torrice.

Some of the science stories that thrill me most are ones about researchers traveling to isolated spots on the globe in search of never-before-described species. For that reason, I’m a fan of the annual top 10 list of new species put out by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University. (See my Newscripts column on the 2011 list.)

Since 2008, the institute has published the list as a way to raise people’s awareness of the Earth’s biodiversity. It announces the list each year on May 23, the birthday of Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy.

Botanists, zoologists, entomologists, and other scientists report about 18,000 newly described species every year. The institute solicits nominations for its top 10 from experts and the public via its website. This year, a committee of 13 scientists considered more than 200 nominees.

This year’s top 10 includes a pale yellow poppy that grows at an elevation of 10,000 feet in the Himalayas, an iridescent blue tarantula that crawls along the Amazon River basin, and a Malaysian fungus named after the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants (C&EN Senior Editor Jyllian Kemsley wrote about the fungus for Newscripts back in 2011).

Here are my favorites. Continue reading →

C&EN Picks For #ACSSanDiego

We almost can’t believe how quickly the San Diego ACS National Meeting is coming up. Enjoy the latest round of C&EN Picks to get a taste of which offerings our staff deemed newsworthy.

Chemistry Hashtags And Chemistry Communication-UPDATED

Last week, I sent out a request via Twitter–I asked chemists to send me popular hashtags that they use in their tweets. I don’t know that I need to introduce hashtags to the Newscripts audience, but just in case, hashtags are those words you see on Twitter preceded by the # sign, such as #ACSSanDiego. Folks use them to wade through the morass of tweets because they help classify tweets by topic, conference, location, etc.

I thought I’d share with you why I sent out said request. Part of the reason is to have a handy list of hashtags for chemists in one place. But it also has to do with my upcoming talk at the San Diego ACS national meeting. I’m part of ACS President Bassam Shakhashiri’s symposium, “Communicating Science to the Public”, which takes place Monday afternoon in the convention center. Click on the image to get the full lineup from the meeting program.

I’ll be talking about how C&EN reporters have our collective ears to ground of the chemistry world, and from time to time end up being sources of information for media outlets with a broader reach. For example, C&EN reporter and Fine Line blogger extraordinaire Rick Mullin was a guest on NPR’s Science Friday earlier this month, talking about unusual pharma partnerships. And in January I went on SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio channel to chat about how drugs get their generic names.

We reporters keep tabs on what chemists are talking about in many ways, but I’d like to emphasize Twitter in my talk (even though it is limited to a small group of chemists who are self-selecting to communicate with social media).

That’s where you and your hashtags come in. I could think of a few hashtags that have become symbolic of issues chemists care about.

#chemjobs – chemistry employment
#altchemicalfree – chemophobia in advertising and the mass media
#SheriSangji – everything related to the lab fire that killed UCLA lab assistant Sheri Sangji and the ongoing case, but I’ve also seen it referred to in general discussions of safety in chemistry labs

And so I decided to put out the call to see if any more such hashtags would pop out at me from the big list. Of course, many hashtags come and go, and some are more active than others. And still others are just for fun, like #chemvalentine, which was a collection of chemistry related love missives timed to Valentine’s Day. But I strongly believe that chemists are using social media to talk about issues that matter to them, and the number of issues is only going to go up the longer those channels are around. Anyone in the business of covering or communicating chemistry should be up on those conversations.

I’ll happily take more hashtag suggestions, or suggestions for meaningful conversations happening on Twitter, all the way up to Sunday March 25th. Email meEmail me or send me a message on Twitter @carmendrahl.
In the meantime, here’s the collection of hashtags you sent so far. Please note: I haven’t checked all of these to see whether they are active.

#chemistry (which, as Adam Azman points out, has been co-opted for other purposes as well).
UPDATED March 21:
Thanks to folks who emailed me or sent me a message on Twitter with a few more hashtags.
#polymer or #polymers