John D. Roberts: The Seattle Veteran at NOS
Jun26

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. 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...

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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...

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Chem Coach Carnival – Science Writing
Oct23

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...

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A Nobel In Chemistry, Through The Eyes Of “Families”
Oct11

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

    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. Wow, just found out my dad won the Nobel Prize in chemistry! http://t.co/YpX45dip — Cheryl Herbsman (@cherylherbsman) October 10, 2012 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...

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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...

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