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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).
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.
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! cnn.com/2012/10/10/wor…
— 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 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.
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.
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 →
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.
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 →
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.
Still prepping your video audition for that PBS chemistry show hosting gig? Then you might want to glean some tips from an ongoing NASA competition. It’s the NASA Astrobiology FameLab, and it’s essentially a search for the next Carl Sagan.
FameLab, founded in the U.K. in 2005, is all about the power of words to get the public and stakeholders excited about science. No slides, no graphs allowed in your short presentation.
That can be daunting for most scientists, especially the early-career folks FameLab seeks. So FameLab’s organizers include a mentoring and training component in the competition. For Friday’s preliminary FameLab round at National Geographic in D.C., that mentor was Beth Horner, an award-winning professional storyteller. Last Friday afternoon at NASA headquarters, Horner put 25 young astrobiologists through their storytelling paces. I journeyed to NASA to bring you the top five tips for science communication from her workshop. Here they are:
5) “Never do anything off the cuff. Always plan.”
It’s easy to think that you’ll be able to come up with a way to explain your work on the fly, but you’re less likely to forget a part of your message if you structure things in advance, Horner says. She showed workshop attendees how to storyboard and led several exercises in which she asked the scientists to write down three lines about something–themselves, a mentor in their field, or key aspects of their research. “That three-line thing is the start of a structure,” she said. Questions or issues might come up during your talk that may force you to improvise somewhat, she added, but you should let your structure be a guide so you don’t veer off course.
4) “It’s not about you. It’s about this information you’re trying to get across.”
Horner mentioned this mantra as a way of calming nerves onstage or on camera.
3) “Always try out your material on someone else.”
Horner always runs story ideas and analogies by colleagues to see what they think. “I ask them, ‘Do you care about this?’,” she says. “You get in your own head sometimes and it’s hard to get out,” but an outside perspective can give you clues about what might resonate with a listener and what won’t, she says.
2) “Tell a story.”
Every culture on Earth has a storytelling tradition, Horner says. “That means something,” she adds. Stories were a way for people to pass down lessons and traditions, and there’s something about their structure that sticks with you. It isn’t easy to structure science like a story, but the approach is likely to pay off, she says.
Continue reading →