Category → Beating Long-Dead Horses
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.
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?
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 →
As many of you are likely to have heard yesterday, a paper from Steven Lipshultz, MD, at the University of Miami appeared in the journal Pediatrics detailing poison control center reports on an adolescent misadventure called The Cinnamon Challenge. The challenge: to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon powder in 60 seconds without any liquids.
The practice has been rummaging about the internet since 2001 but really took off on YouTube over the last three years. Lipshultz’s report discusses the risks of such tomfoolery, particularly due to the inhalation of cinnamon powder while one is choking.
I planned to write about this practice both here and at my Forbes.com blog since I thought both chemists and the general public would be interested in the topic. I wrote the Forbes post earlier this morning and drew a series of comments from a kindly San Diego-area chemist who took issue with my facetious comparison of cinnamaldehyde (cinnamic aldehyde) to formaldehyde.
While Lipshultz states that much of the acute pulmonary toxicity of cinnamon powder is likely due to the cellulose content, I submit that some damage could be due to protein adducts formed by cinnamaldehyde. Yes, yes, it’s not as dangerous as formaldehyde. But even at roughly 1% (w/w) in the powder, I hypothesize that the cinnamaldehyde could cause epithelial damage. Also note that cinnamaldehyde is not just any aldehyde but rather an unsaturated aldehyde. That makes me think of acrolein.
The experiments have not been done. But one animal study has been published showing that intratracheal administration of cinnamon powder — not pure cinnamaldehyde — can cause acute lung injury in rats and trigger pulmonary fibrosis within a month.
Alas, my concerns about cinnamaldehyde rubbed two commenters the wrong way and one, well, sought to chemsplain me.
I was originally trained in toxicology so I know the whole Paracelsan story that the dose makes the poison (to which I’d also add “route of administration”). But do you chemists, especially those in chemical toxicology, think that I’m overreacting (as it were) to the potentially reactive nature of cinnamaldehyde in inhaled cinnamon powder?
I’m willing to be corrected if I appear to suffer from #chemophobia. But I hypothesize that 1% (w/w) cinnamaldehyde can be cytotoxic.
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.
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.
[See addendum at end of post]
Say it ain’t so!
Ever wonder why the public has an irrational fear of anything labeled, “chemical”?
Well. . .
The book section of Guardian Science has been running a contest since 19th November to win six books shortlisted for the Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books 2012.
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
The Information by James Gleick
My Beautiful Genome by Lone Frank
Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
The Hidden Reality by Brian Greene
The Viral Storm by Nathan Wolfe
Lofty books, though I must admit to not having gotten to any yet (I’m currently stuck on Sid Mukherjee’s Pulitzer prize-winning tome, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer).
To enter the contest, one need only answer four “science” questions (and, sadly, be a UK resident.).
Let’s take a lookie-see at one of those questions:
Don’t say ACS have their heads in the sand. A webinar this afternoon will face head-on the reality of training to be a doctoral-level chemist in today’s job market.
Is higher education producing more doctoral scientists than the market can absorb? With the attendance rates at graduate schools increasing, has the private sector’s growth been able to keep up and will there be enough options for tomorrow’s PhDs? Join our two experts Richard Freeman and Paula Stephan as they share their viewpoints on the state of higher education, the economy and how industry and academia can better prepare current and future graduates.
I’m not privy to any other advance information than what’s on the ACS Webinars™ website but others I’ve viewed have been top-quality.
I obviously encourage viewing by current doctoral trainees in chemistry and postdocs. Giving yourself a competitive edge in this market is information anyone can use.
But I particularly urge undergrads currently interviewing for chemistry doctoral programs to tune in. One of the four primary discussion topics will be assessing graduate programs for their ultimate employment record of their trainees.
Take advantage of what your professional society is offering.
Date: Thursday November 8, 2012 (TODAY!)
Time: 2:00-3:00 pm ET
Forgive me for sporting my crankypants today but I had originally intended to be in Islamorada right now, snorkeling and kayaking. Between the PharmKid hurting her wrist in nature camp (4 weeks in a cast) and my 4 weeks in an ankle brace, the PharmFamily took advantage of the wise purchase of trip insurance and stayed home to nurse our wounds.
So, I’m not in much of a happy mood with two of this week’s developments with the American Chemical Society, one of which revisits a longstanding argument over the organization’s pricing of its scholarly journals.
If you haven’t heard, yesterday’s clusterfluster was with regard to the library of the State University of New York at Potsdam (SUNY Potsdam) choosing to forego the purchase of ACS journals this year.
From Jenica’s self-described tl;dr summary:
SUNY Potsdam will not be subscribing to an American Chemical Society online journal package for 2013. We will instead be using a combination of the Royal Society of Chemistry content, ACS single title subscriptions, the ACS backfile, and ScienceDirect from Elsevier** to meet our chemical information needs. We’re doing this because the ACS pricing model is unsustainable for our institution and we were unable to find common ground with the sales team from the ACS. Instead, we explored other options and exercised them. You could do the same if you find yourself in a position similar to ours as ACS standardizes their pricing, and maybe together we can make enough choices to make our voices heard in meaningful ways.