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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Gearing up for #scio13 Session 8A: Chemophobia & chemistry in the modern world
Jan09

Gearing up for #scio13 Session 8A: Chemophobia & chemistry in the modern world

ScienceOnline2013 is but three short weeks away. Dr. Rubidium and I will be there to make sure that a major chemistry talking point gets a good airing. I'm talking, of course, about chemophobia - the idea that everything "synthetic" or "chemical" is somehow other, somehow less desirable and less safe than what's "natural" or "organic". (And the gulf between how chemists and the rest of the world define the word organic? Well, that is a whole 'nother kettle of fish.) Our session is on Sat, Feb 2, 10:30-11:30 am, Room 3 CHECK OUT THE SESSION WIKI: We've posted a slew of links there to spark discussion. What have we missed? Tell us in the comments here or on the wiki itself. You don't have to be registered for the conference to comment there. You'll see from those links that we've shared many a facepalm moment about "chemical-free" this-or-that. I can't help but feel that our conversations have a little bit of that dreaded echo-chamber quality. We folks having the conversations are affirming one another. But are we changing any minds? Are we reaching any influencers? I'm not sure. I'll quote Forbes contributor Trevor Butterworth, who said what I'm getting at quite eloquently last August in regard to a particular mainstream media chemophobia flap. Last May, Deborah Blum, a Pulitzer-winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin, published a column pleading with the New York Times’ opinion columnist Nick Kristof to stop writing about chemical risk. ... Blum’s column got a lot of positive coverage, with many commenters further “fisking” Kristof’s apocalyptic claims and the politics behind them. It made, alas, not a blind bit of difference. At the bookend of summer, Kristof is at it again. No one ever said that changing minds is easy. In fact, I think it's one of the hardest things to do. I hope that some of what will emerge from our discussion are some guidelines, some rules of engagement if you will. Chemophobia isn't just happening in NYTimes op-eds. It happens during work hours and off-hours. Maybe by starting small, we can take back the...

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The Guy With The Questions At NOS: Albert S. Matlack
Jun07

The Guy With The Questions At NOS: Albert S. Matlack

If you're attending this year's National Organic Symposium at Princeton University, you know him as the elderly gentleman who's stood up to ask multiple seminar speakers about their catalyst loadings during question and answer periods. But there's much more to Albert S. Matlack besides his inquisitive nature. Matlack is an adjunct professor of chemistry at the University of Delaware, but he didn't start his chemistry career there. Before his time in academe he held a research position at the Hercules Powder Company, where he worked right across the hall from none other than 2010 chemistry Nobel laureate Richard Heck. Though Matlack survived the round of layoffs that affected Heck, he remembers those days well. "After World War II, it was a boom time for chemists," he recalls. "People believed you could solve all sorts of problems through chemistry." But by the 1970's and 80's, with the U.S. economy in the doldrums, layoffs seemed to be the solution to financial troubles to companies including Hercules, he says. In his later days at Hercules, Matlack's main project involved polymerization of dicyclopentadiene to give a polymer with the tradename Metton. But eventually, "the company cut off Metton and they didn't know what to do with me," he says. He left Hercules in 1994, after securing a teaching gig at Delaware with the help of chemistry professor John L. Burmeister. "The first course I taught was industrial chemistry," Matlack says. But an article in C&EN (Matlack is an avid reader and a 63-year ACS member) convinced him to try something else-- to combine his passions for chemistry and environmentalism and develop a course in green chemistry. He's been teaching that course ever since. By the late 1990s he decided to write a textbook, but had a hard time finding a publisher for a green chemistry text. "Publishers didn't think the field was going anywhere," he says. Today "Introduction to Green Chemistry" is in its second edition. Even though Matlack has a few other things keeping him busy besides green chemistry-- his presidency of the Society of Natural History of Delaware and his two grandchildren-- chemistry education is still very important to him. "Many people get turned off from chemistry in their first year learning about it," he says. "But there are still many problems for chemists to solve, and chemistry can be fun." More Matlack:A Delaware News Journal Article about Matlack's environmentalism...

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A Meeting-within-the-meeting
Aug25

A Meeting-within-the-meeting

I've attended ACS national meetings as both a graduate student and a reporter, and though those are two very different meeting experiences overall, there is a common thread-- the ACS meeting is so big you sometimes feel a little overwhelmed. Where do you begin to find the cool science? How can I even attempt to network in a sea of faces? This week I had the pleasure of hanging out with the folks in the Division of Chemical Toxicology. And I think these folks have mastered fostering an intimate environment at a big conference. Here are a few of the highlights of my experiences and the division's programming: The division has only one session running at a time, and it only has programming in the fall. I showed up to three events- their Young Investigators talks, their session on food-drug interactions, and their poster sessions. The sessions were held in small rooms and were well attended. And folks asked plenty of questions after all the talks. Speakers in a session asked each other questions. And there was plenty of interaction between organizers and program chairs for the division- the scientists were from academe and industry, and I also met a few government lab researchers in the division as well. The young investigators talks and the evening poster session were judged by leading researchers in the division. A $500 cash prize was up for grabs. The poster session was in a smaller room, with free food (it arrived late but did eventually got there!). Professors made the rounds and asked questions to poster presenters, who were a mix of postdocs and grad students. (This reminded me of the National Organic Symposium I attended last year). Folks stayed until the end to hear the $500 winner announced, including professors. (I can't find the cocktail napkin where I scribbled the winners' names. But I will contact the division folks for that info and update.) UPDATE 8/27: Here are the winners' names and affiliations (Congrats everyone!): Graduate oral presentation: Winner: Yan Zhong (Advisor: Stephen Hecht; University of Minnesota) Post-doc oral presentation: Winner: Kok-Seong Lim (Advisor: Peter Dedon; Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Graduate posters: First: Sankha Basu (Advisor: Ian Blair; University of Pennsylvania) Second: Anna Urban (Advisor: Lisa Peterson; University of Minnesota) Third: Linlin Zhao (Advisors: James F. Rusling and John B. Schenkman; University of Connecticut) Post-doc posters: First: Plamen Christov (Advisor: Carmelo Rizzo; Vanderbilt UniversityGreg Thatcher; University of Illinois) Second: Janel Warmka (Advisor: Lisa Peterson; University of Minnesota) Third: Wan Chan (Advisor: Peter Dedon; Massachusetts Institute of Technology) I love the excitement of a packed session in a big lecture hall, like the...

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C&EN Editors in Boston, Day 1
Aug21

C&EN Editors in Boston, Day 1

After several attempts, I'm delighted to post the first blog item from the ACS national meeting in Boston. The meeting of C&EN’s editorial advisory board ended at 8:35 AM yesterday, Aug. 20, much earlier than usual. This meeting is scheduled for two hours, 7:30-9:30 AM on the Friday before every ACS national meeting. It is the venue through which C&EN’s editor-in-chief informs ACS governance about the state of the magazine. The board is chaired by the chair of ACS’s Joint Board-Council Committee on Publications, and its members include the chair of the ACS Board of Directors and the ACS president. C&EN Editor-in-chief Rudy Baum reported several items of good news, including C&EN’s extensive coverage of the BP oil spill leading up to the June 14 cover story, which has elicited much positive feedback from readers. Traffic to C&EN Online is increasing; a major driver is C&EN’s Latest News postings, which now have significantly increased to about 20 per week. C&EN launched the Environmental SCENE in July, the first of a series of news feeds to the web sites of ACS journals aimed at enlivening and adding relevant content to the homepage. Four ACS journals are now receiving this news feed: Environmental Science & Technology, Energy & Fuels, Chemical Research in Toxicology, and the Journal of Agriculture & Food Chemistry. According to preliminary statistics, this news feed has tripled traffic to ES&T’s home page Every year C&EN conducts a survey to gauge how well the magazine is doing. I described major findings of C&EN’s 2010 annual survey of reader satisfaction: Overall, satisfaction remains high, with respondents saying they strongly agree that C&EN is generally well written and presented, keeps them abreast of significant news, and keeps them adequately informed of ACS. Respondents continue to rate us highly in the tasks we do to fulfill C&EN’s mission. The survey respondents’ demographics caused some lively discussion: 87% are male, 48% work in industry, 39% work in academia, 80% have a Ph.D., 84% are age 45 or older, mean age is 54, 78% subscribe to the print edition. Where were women, the B.S. and M.S. readers, and those younger than 45? If you belong to any of these underrepresented groups in our survey, we would like to know what we can do to encourage you to participate. Another survey result that caused considerable discussion was the differences between subscribers to the print and the electronic edition: Those receiving the print were more likely to have higher satisfaction, to have read the past four issues, and to regard C&EN as good as or superior to other profession-related publications. We speculated about the causes of...

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