↓ Expand ↓

Category → Academia

Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist

What a fantastic surprise this morning on the 115th anniversary of Percy Julian’s birth:

 

Screenshot of Google search page on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. Credit: Google

Screenshot of Google Doodle on 11 April 2014 features chemist, Percy Julian. (Credit: Google)

 

I’m beside myself with joy to see this pioneering chemist be recognized by the most prominent search engine in the world.

I don’t know where to begin about Julian but I’m sure that many of you have seen The Forgotten Genius, the PBS-produced NOVA life story of the chemist. Julian suffered many indignities in his training, from being denied dormitory residence while earning his B.S. at DePauw University to progression to racial issues limiting him to a M.S. at Harvard. He later completed his Ph.D. work at the University of Vienna in 1931.

Julian is probably best known for using natural products as a template for making drugs. His first major feat, the synthesis of physostigmine, a cholinesterase inhibitor from the Calabar bean used to treat glaucoma has been recognized by ACS as a National Historic Chemical Landmark at DePauw University. This 11-step synthesis from phenacetin, the active metabolite of acetaminophen, was completed with his Vienna colleague, Josef Pikl, and students in the laboratory.

Julian synthesized cortisone, estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from the Calabar bean compound, stigmasterol. Later, at Glidden Paint Company, a happy accident led Julian to find that soybean extract (soya oil) also contained the 17-member sterol nucleus, a much more accessible source. At this time, we had absolutely no treatments for rheumatoid arthritis. But cortisone, then made by Merck in a laborious 36-step synthesis, was found in 1949 to transform the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis. However, Merck’s starting material was deoxycholic acid from bovine bile. Julian’s synthetic work beginning with sigmasterol.

I could go on. So I strongly suggest that readers consult the ACS National Historic Chemical Landmark dedication and, please, watch The Forgotten Genius. You should buy the DVD, as I did for teaching in my pharmacology classes, but you can watch it in segments at the PBS NOVA page.

Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

Yes, gender still matters. "In shock from seeing Gov. Pat McCrory, center, hand deliver her a plate of cookies, Jamie Sohn, of Chapel Hill, turns back to her group across the street. 'I was absolutely stunned,' she said of the experience. Opponents of the abortion bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed on Monday continued their second day of protests across the street from the Executive Mansion on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Just after 1pm, the Governor himself walked across the street to give the 17 women a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Incensed, they immediate put the cookies back at the main gate of the mansion with a sign that read, 'Will take women's health over cookies!'" Credit: Irene Godinez and the News & Observer.

Yes, gender still matters. “In shock from seeing Gov. Pat McCrory, center, hand deliver her a plate of cookies, Jamie Sohn, of Chapel Hill, turns back to her group across the street. ‘I was absolutely stunned,’ she said of the experience. Opponents of the abortion bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed on Monday continued their second day of protests across the street from the Executive Mansion on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Just after 1pm, the Governor himself walked across the street to give the 17 women a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Incensed, they immediate put the cookies back at the main gate of the mansion with a sign that read, ‘Will take women’s health over cookies!’” Credit: Irene Godinez and the News & Observer.

 

My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health.

But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty.

Kathleen Raven. Follow her on Twitter at @sci2mrow. Credit: University of Georgia.

Kathleen Raven. Follow her on Twitter at @sci2mrow. Credit: University of Georgia.

During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath.

Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.

As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists?

Yours truly with Dr. Ada Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Credit: McGraw.

Yours truly with Dr. Ada Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, 16 October 2009. Credit: Steven R. McCaw.

I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation.

The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes.

Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a vigil marking his signature of restrictive abortion legislation: He stepped out of the governor’s mansion to give protestors a plate of cookies and quickly returned behind the iron gates without any substantive engagement.

I’d be interested to hear from CENtral Science and C&EN readers after reading my own interview with Ada Yonath. Should we still be making an issue of advances in race, gender, and sexual orientation in chemistry?

I think yes, and it’s never been more important.


 

This post appeared originally on 14 December 2009 at the ScienceBlogs.com home of Terra Sigillata.

Last week in Stockholm (and Oslo), the 2009 Nobel Prize winners were gloriously hosted while giving their lectures and receiving their medals and diplomas. In Chemistry this year, the Nobel was shared by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A Steitz, and Ada E Yonath for their studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, a remarkable nucleoprotein complex that catalyzes the rapid, coordinated formation of peptide bonds as instructed by messenger RNA. My post on the day of the announcement in October was designed to counter the inevitable (and now realized) criticisms that the prize was not for “real” chemistry.

Only ten days later, we in the NC Research Triangle area were very fortunate to host Dr Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center for the Symposium on RNA Biology VIII, sponsored by The RNA Society of North Carolina.

Among the many noteworthy speakers was Dr Greg Hannon from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a scientist who some feel was overlooked for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, one where Andrew Fire and Craig Mello were recognized for RNA interference and gene silencing.

NC Biotech’s Senior Director of Corporate Communication, Robin Deacle, kindly invited me to an audience with Dr Yonath and two science reporters following Dr Yonath’s lecture. As you might suspect, I was quite honored to visit for awhile with the woman who defied the naysayers and successfully crystallized a bacterial ribosome, then used X-ray crystallography to determine its structure below three angstroms resolution. The fact that she also used natural product antibiotics to stabilize ribosomal structure added to my magnitude of admiration.
Continue reading →

Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance.

Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history.

My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison).

Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following:

It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth.

Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example.

But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university.

Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments:

1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences.

2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy.

3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a chemist to debunk Kekule’s dream in conceptualizing benzene’s structure.

5 . . . .

 

I’m looking forward to your own contributions.

 

Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

We’re about to close up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata to head out and convene with the PharmFamily in points north for Easter (but, thankfully, not a Nor’easter.)

Before we do, I’d like to draw your attention to a short but astute editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by chemist Gina Stewart. Stewart launches her essay with a concise description of a dichotomy that’s giving all of us agita:

The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs.

She then talks about her career and what she considers to be the shortest postdoc on record (believe me, Gina, I know of many shorter) in the UNC-Chapel Hill laboratory of Joe DeSimone. There, the seeds were planted for entrepreurship and a fascination with the practical applications of carbon dioxide.

Years later, Stewart is now CEO of Arctic, Inc., a company that uses sustainable weed control methods by selectively freezing these nasty invasive threats to biodiversity – her company site is appropriately named frostkills.com.

Her experience is one example where one takes a different approach to a chemistry career than following in the traditional academic progression. The first commenter already admonished her for saying that she was pursuing an alternative career. Based on percentages, being a tenure-track faculty member is now the alternative.

It’s a great read so enjoy. I was also delighted to learn that she and her husband live just west of the Research Triangle and base their company in Clemmons, NC.

Are Popes and Chemistry Immiscible?

Well, leave it to the British to put together one of the most enjoyable exercises of the day, at least for those of us with even a few remaining molecules of Catholicism.

With apologies to my calculus teacher, Sister Agnes Mary of St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford, New Jersey, I present to you the UK Guardian‘s Pontifficator.

Choose your own pope – with our interactive Pontifficator

This week, 115 cardinals will be secreted in the Sistine Chapel to select one of their number as the next head of the Catholic church. You can’t get in to see them but you can use our interactive to explore their views on issues from contraception to relations with other faiths, peruse their CVs, and choose the man you think is best qualified for the job. Tap the pictures to read more about the candidates. There’s a note on how we categorised them here

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Finding a pontiff who meets all of one’s criteria is tougher than finding an apartment in New York City. But my selection ended up being Archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga.

The clincher? Of the 10 academic candidates, he’s taught chemistry and physics.

Of course, I’m not keen on his rating for handling the sex abuse scandals in the church and, shockingly, his agreement with the current pope that condoms will not prevent the global HIV/AIDS crisis.

Umm, I don’t know what kind of chemistry and physics he taught.

So if I still were a churchgoer, I’d have to pass on Rodríguez Maradiaga. Italy’s “tech-savvy” Gianfranco Ravasi is notable for having hosted the 2009 Vatican conference on evolution. But something tells me that this time won’t break the latest string of non-Italian popes.

For those of you interested in the outcome of the papal conclave, who are your favorites?

I’m hoping it’s someone from South America or Africa.

“Suicide Before PhD Defense”

I just received two hits to my PhD defense post using this search phrase.

To the reader: If you are in such dire straits of stress before your defense, please call 911 immediately or get yourself to your local emergency room. The specter of the dissertation defense can amplify self-doubt and if you are considering suicide, you and your family and friends would be better served by you postponing your defense and checking into a hospital for a couple of weeks.

If I can be of any help, please Gmail me at abelpharmboy call me at 919.564.9564. But first call 911.

Screenshot of today's search terms.

Screenshot of today’s search terms.

The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!

Bob Lefkowitz proudly displays his Nobel Prize medal (and diploma on the desk) at his Duke University Medical Center office, 20 December 2012. Photo: David Kroll

 

As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University.

In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.).

Continue reading →

Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes

The 9 January 2013 edition of the Research Triangle area’s alternative weekly newspaper, INDY Week. Photo: D.L. Anderson/INDY Week. Click on the photo to go the online article.

I was fortunate to be able to tell the story of Duke University biochemist and cardiologist Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz in the 9 January 2013 issue of the Research Triangle’s award-winning alt-weekly, INDY Week.

Even with editor Lisa Sorg graciously offering 3,000+ words for the story on one of the 2012 Nobel laureates in chemistry, some terrific bits of my interviews with Bob and major players in his story didn’t make it into the final version.

Over the next few days, I’ll post some of these gems. This page will index the running list of those posts.

The Nobel’s Great, But Take a Look at This! – Lefkowitz reveals where Duke men’s basketball sits in his list of priorities

 

Thoughts on the “Doctoral Glut Dilemma” Webinar

As I wrote last Thursday, ACS Webinars featured an hour-long discussion on the perceived overabundance of PhD-level chemists and potential solutions to employment challenges. The site should have the entire discussion archived within a week.

I participated in the session and ended up posting my thoughts at the new Forbes.com home of my other blog, Take As Directed. I’m hoping to get comments from a wider group of readers over there who might have impact on hiring of chemistry PhDs.

One of the major points that struck me was the view by Harvard economist, Dr. Richard Freeman, that the chemistry job market might bounce back more quickly than the biosciences. But he views this comeback to occur slowly over the next three to four years.

Freeman attributes chemistry’s upper hand to two factors. First, US doctoral chemistry programs have had a fairly constant PhD supply rate over the last 40 years of approximately 2,000/year. In contrast, the biosciences have exploded from about 3,000 PhDs/year in the 1970s to 15,000 during 2010.

Second, Freeman states that chemistry is far less dependent on federal research funding since 50% to 75% of chemistry PhDs ultimately go on to work in industry. As such, he expects the recovering economy to help chemists far more than those in the biological and biomedical sciences.

I’d love to hear your feedback now or after the webinar is posted later this week. In the meantime, check out my thoughts over at Forbes.com.

Addendum: I’ve since learned that chemistry bloggers Chemjobber and See Arr Oh have posted a podcast discussing this ACS webinar.

 

Well, How Did I Get Here?

To celebrate National Chemistry Week, the esteemed synthetic chemist blogger See Arr Oh put out a call for folks to describe to younger folks how they got where there are in the broad field of chemistry:

What do you do all day? What chemistry skills do you use in your line of work? How do you move up the ladder in chemistry? What do I need to do to be in your shoes?

The resulting answers from other bloggers — and any respondents, for that matter — will be compiled at his blog, Just Like Cooking, in what’s called a blog carnival. Specifically, contributors to blog carnivals are asked to respond to a theme or a series of questions. In this particular case, we are tagging our posts with the hashtag, #ChemCoach.

Here’s the list and below are my responses. You may find it helpful to play this Talking Heads video while reading my answers.

Your current job.

What you do in a standard “work day.”

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

How does chemistry inform your work?

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*

The most important question to ask yourself - If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?

Continue reading →