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Archive → July, 2012

DEA jams synthetic marijuana and “bath salts” industry

With all the discord in Washington these days, it’s rare to see several US governmental organizations working together to address a significant public health problem.

This week, the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) mobilized Operation Log Jam, an unusual and highly-coordinated action with six other federal agencies aimed to shut down the synthetic designer drug industry in 109 US cities. The products targeted were of two broad classes: 1) synthetic marijuana “incense” products comprised of naphthoylindole cannabimimetic compounds first synthesized by John W. Huffman’s lab at Clemson in the mid-1990s, and 2) “bath salts” or “plant food” products containing the stimulant/empathogen mephedrone (4-methylmethcathinone) or the stimulant MDPV (3,4-methylenedioxypyrovalerone).

This compilation of posts on synthetic marijuana and, to a lesser extent, “bath salts” serves as a good primer on the subject.

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The Colorado shooting suspect: how “smart?”

Apologies in advance to any readers who might be put off by my writing about the science aspects of the Colorado movie theater tragedy. I was a faculty member at the University of Colorado in Denver from 1992 to 2001 and was in the area during the Columbine High School shooting rampage. I also still have some friends out there and feel a personal connection to the place and people who helped launch my independent research career. Nevertheless, I claim no special knowledge of the current inner workings of the University – all of my sources for this and other posts come from publicly-available information sources.

I write this disclaimer because Marisol Bello (@Marisol_Bello) and Dan Vergano (@dvergano) have an intriguing article today at USA Today on the relative level of specialized intelligence of the Colorado shooting suspect. The suspect was one of six students on a NIH neuroscience training grant – called a T32 Ruth L. Kirschstein Institutional National Research Service Award, or just T32 or NRSA. The specific grant that supported the suspect for his first year of graduate school at University of Colorado Denver is described here at the publicly-accessible NIH RePORTER database.

An “institutional” training grant?
These are training grants awarded to institutions, not specific students, that are noteworthy for having an excellent and comprehensive training environment for predoctoral students. The institutions awarded these grants then have the discretion to appoint the candidates for grant support.

This NIH notice (NOT-OD-12-033) describes the support given to each student appointed to the training grant: a stipend of $22,032 per year (to which Colorado adds to bump it up to $26,000), “training related expenses” of $4,200/year to cover things like health insurance, another $4,200/year to host laboratories to offset the costs of laboratory supplies, and 60% of the trainee’s tuition and fees up to $16,000/year (to which most schools add to completely cover tuition.)

Being appointed to one of these institutional training grants is generally considered to be less prestigious than winning an individual NRSA. These individual grants are awards given to the student’s mentoring professor based on the individual research project and training environment of the individual host laboratory, in addition to institutional considerations.

Still, institutions are judged on the quality of the students they appoint to institutional NRSAs. So, the Colorado shooting suspect had to meet some minimum undergraduate GPA and standardized GRE test scores.

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Did theater shooter use lab address to procure regulated hazardous substances?

This post probably belongs on The Safety Zone blog but I was struck by a comment just made during a news conference in Aurora, Colorado, this afternoon. Aurora Police Chief Dan Oates noted that over the last four months “the suspect had a high volume of packages to both his work and home address.” Oates indicated that these shipments may account for the large amount of ammunition and booby-trap incendiary devices currently being disarmed in the suspect’s apartment.

Work, of course, was the neurosciences PhD program at the University of Colorado School of Medicine on the Anschutz Medical Campus. According to The Scientist, the suspect had done at least two laboratory rotations with faculty in the Department of Pharmacology. (Note: The websites for both the interdisciplinary neuroscience program and the pharmacology department are closed to public access to protect personal contact information for faculty.

While we don’t yet know the precise identity of the explosives in the suspect’s Paris Street apartment building in Aurora, I hypothesize that he took shipments at work of the more eyebrow-raising chemicals. As CU laboratory staff are likely questioned about the suspect’s year in the PhD program, I wonder if anyone might have accidentally opened one of his packages and asked who ordered the [flammable and/or explosive compound].

On a personal note, my heart goes out to the victims of the shootings, their families and other loved ones. I also have immense respect for all of the first-responders and medical staff who have been tending to the victims. I spent ten years of my career at the CU Health Sciences Center in its old location in Denver and have several friends and colleagues in basic science and clinical departments at the Aurora campus. My heart aches for all.
 


 

Update 5:12 pm EDT: I just saw a tweet from Matthew Keys, Reuters Deputy Social Media Manager, quoting Chief Oates as saying there was, “[n]o evidence that shooting suspect had access to “dangerous materials” at Colorado medical school.”

Update 12:21 pm EDT, 22 Jul – Gillian Flaccus and Nicholas Riccardi at AP have confirmed my suspicions:

The University of Colorado said Sunday it was investigating whether mass shooting suspect James Holmes used his position as a graduate student to order materials for the potentially deadly booby traps that police said they found in his apartment.

Holmes, 24, got deliveries over four months to his home and school, authorities have said.

The university is looking into what was received at the school to assist police, said spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery.

 

Update 9:00 pm EDT, 23 Jul – Officials from the University of Colorado Denver | Anschutz Medical Campus held a press conference earlier today to discuss issues of campus security and some questions about the former student. This is the official summary from the University press office. I’m surprised that no one from the national media asked why the campus is called “Denver” when it is fully in Aurora and in another county.

WaPo: Not enough jobs for science PhDs

Tomorrow’s frontpage of The Washington Post will run an article by Brian Vastag (Twitter, WaPo bio) on the employment challenges facing science PhDs. The difficulties are no secret to our readers – whether you are a freshly-minted PhD or a 50-something subjected to downsizing – but I believe that this is the highest profile treatment of the subject in the US print media.

The article even cites the closure of the Roche campus in Nutley that we discussed two weeks ago and, below, employment numbers from the annual ACS survey.

“Scads and scads and scads of people” have been cut free, [former Sanofi-Aventis scientist Kim] Haas said. “Very good chemists with PhDs from Stanford can’t find jobs.”

Largely because of drug industry cuts, the unemployment rate among chemists now stands at its highest mark in 40 years, at 4.6 percent, according to the American Chemical Society, which has 164,000 members. For young chemists, the picture is much worse. Just 38 percent of new PhD chemists were employed in 2011, according to a recent ACS survey.

Although the overall unemployment rate of chemists and other scientists is much lower than the national average, those figures mask an open secret: Many scientists work outside their chosen field.

What amazes me are the number of comments already. I already followed Vastag on Twitter and when he tweeted about the article at 4:44 this afternoon, it had 22 comments. Right now, at 9:50 on Saturday night, the article has accumulated 504 comments. Some of these are nonsensical or non-sequiturs but the bulk are robust and on-topic. I can imagine that the sober assessment of PhD training vs. job market demands will be discussed far and wide on Sunday and in the coming week.

One thing missing from the article was a discussion of the so-called alternative career paths where one uses PhD training but not in an academic or industrial setting. Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers.

I hesitate to say this without complete data but we may indeed be reaching a point where more PhDs are being produced than can be absorbed by both academia/industry and non-laboratory positions.

Source:
Vastag, Brian. U.S. pushes for more scientists but the jobs aren’t there. The Washington Post. 8 July 2012.