Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist
Apr11

Google Features Percy Julian, Legendary African-American Chemist

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

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A View on Scientific American Blogs and Censorship of Dr. Danielle Lee1
Oct13

A View on Scientific American Blogs and Censorship of Dr. Danielle Lee1

For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or from a lower socioeconomic status that folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise, or your energy for free. – Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., video commentary Since Friday night, the science blogosphere and larger media enterprises (Buzzfeed, Business Insider) have been abuzz with discussion over the treatment of biologist and science writer Dr. Danielle Lee by the alleged editor of the Biology-Online blog network and, subsequently, censorship by the editor-in-chief of Scientific American. A recap of the situation is as follows: 1. Danielle receives a query from a person identifying themselves as Ofek, blog editor of Biology-Online.org, which he/she described as “one of the world’s largest biology websites with over 1.6 million visitors per month.” 2. Within 12 hours, Danielle responded that it sounded like a good opportunity but she had questions about the frequency of blogging since it wasn’t exactly clear from Ofek’s original query and another about their payment rate for guest bloggers? (1 and 2 in this correspondence PDF). 3. Ofek responded 10 hours later that he was soliciting a monthly article which Danielle could then repost on her blog after two weeks but that, “Regarding payment, truthfully, we don’t pay guest bloggers.” He/she goes on to say that even Mayo Clinic physician Dr Michael Joyner didn’t receive payment for his one contribution but that one would gain indirect financial benefit from exposure to their 1.6 million monthly visitors. 4. Danielle responded 11 hours later to thank him for his reply, indicated that she would decline his offer, and wished him a good day. (3 and 4 in this correspondence PDF). At this point, the discussion has been cordial with both parties promptly responding to each others’ queries. But then. . . 5. Ofek responded 11 hours later with a two-line email that read, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist [the name of her blog] or an urban whore?” 6. Danielle responds eight hours later (Fri 10th October, 8:41 am EDT) with a one-line question, “Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?” (5 and 6 in this correspondence PDF). 7. Danielle writes a blog post on this exchange that she put up on her Scientific American blog together with a four-minute video that politely explained her stance. 8. Sometime around 10:00 pm on Friday night, the blog post disappears intermittently from Danielle’s blog, and she tweets that she postulates there’s some sort of technical network issue, perhaps due to high traffic. Minutes later, it’s clear that no one can access...

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Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?
Jul31

Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

  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...

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Daughters and Famous Women Chemists
Jun04

Daughters and Famous Women Chemists

Earlier last month, you may have seen a beautiful set of images by Austin-based wedding and lifestyle photographer Jaime C. Moore. To celebrate the 5th birthday of her daughter Emma, Moore wrote: Set aside the Barbie dolls and Disney princesses for just a moment and let’s show our girls the real women they can be. Moore then had Emma do some five-year-old dressing and posing, but in character of some major female role models throughout history: Susan B. Anthony, Amelia Earhardt, Coco Chanel, Helen Keller, and Jane Goodall. (Commenters politely focused on Chanel’s business acumen and not her less savory political associations.) Moore’s photography is beautiful (and we may have to go down to Austin for a new series of family photos ourselves) and she captures all the promise and aspirations a five-year-old girl might have to do something other than be a helpless damsel-in-distress in psychotherapy because of a cruel and manipulative stepmother. With our PharmKid approaching 11, we still maintain a large house collection of costumes and various get-ups that began with Disney princesses and has now progressed to characters she and her friends concoct (now writing screenplays to accompany their stories while Dad is drafted for filming purposes). But I wish that we had instead been overrun with role-playing costumes for our daughter to emulate women of strong character and high intellect. So I got to thinking: Why don’t we have costumes for our girls to dress up as famous women scientists, especially female chemists? And with all due respect to Marie Curie and Irene Joilot-Curie, perhaps we might find more contemporary characters for our daughters. For me, as a North Carolinian and cancer pharmacologist, the chemist character I’d most love to see around here is the late Nobel laureate and Burroughs-Wellcome chemist, Gertrude (Trudy) Elion – in a single, striking royal blue gown. But here, even I fall into the trap of thinking of a deceased character. How about Ada Yonath, ribosome structural chemist and 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry? Therefore, I turn to you, Dear Reader. If we were to, say, launch a Kickstarter campaign for the manufacture of famous women costume sets for young girls, who of today’s women chemists would be ones you’d like to see your daughter personify?...

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Amy Harmon’s “Navigating Love and Autism”
Dec26

Amy Harmon’s “Navigating Love and Autism”

I can’t gush enough about today’s page one story by Amy Harmon in The New York Times. As part of her continuing series, Love on the Spectrum, Amy follows a college couple who are emblematic of the relationship and intimacy challenges of young adults with Asperger syndrome or other forms of autism. I thought that CENtral Science readers would be interested in both Kirsten Lindsmith and Jack Robison, the latter having an intense interest and facility in chemistry. The article leads with a warm and well-edited, five-minute video of the couple (by Sean Patrick Farrell) but I’d encourage you to read the whole piece first, as I did. But when you do watch it, pay attention to Kirsten’s closing statement on the definition of love. I left the story seeing glimpses of myself and my own relationships, although I’ve not been diagnosed with any spectrum syndromes. In fact, I’d venture to say that many readers here might see some commonalities with Kirsten and Jack. I absolutely loved these two kids and seeing the video has me cheering that they do indeed successfully navigate the challenges we all face between our scientific passions and personal relationships. While Harmon’s article isn’t open to comments at the NYT, I’d welcome any thoughts here that folks might have after reading her brilliant piece. Source: Harmon, Amy. Navigating Love and Autism. The New York Times, 26 December 2011. Twitter: Amy Harmon @amy_harmon Sean Patrick Farrell @spatrickfarrell...

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Reddit AMA with Neil deGrasse Tyson
Dec04

Reddit AMA with Neil deGrasse Tyson

I don’t know how many of you tune-in to these “Ask Me Anything” discussion threads at Reddit but I’ve been grooving on them since our colleague Derek Lowe did one back in March. In general, people of note can either propose their own session or be nominated to do so. Folks can ask them any question and the Reddit thread reflect their responses and discussion by others. Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the giants in public communication of science. An astrophysicist who has been been the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium for the last 15 years, Tyson will soon re-launch Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series. The complete thread of Tyson’s AMA can be found here. Here’s one of his answers that may hold special appeal to our C&EN readers: Question: If you think 5 and 10 years from now, what are you most looking forward to in science? Any expectations? Tyson: Cure for Cancer. Fully funded space exploration. Physics recognized as the foundation of chemistry. Chemistry recognized as the foundation of biology. And free market structured in a way that brings these discoveries to market efficiently and effectively. The whole thing is pure gold (Or platinum. Or rhodium, actually.) But this one was my favorite – a reflection of the paucity of critical thinking skills in the American populace: Question: If you could add one course to a student’s curriculum, what would it be? Tyson: Course title every university should offer: “How to tell when someone else is full of shit” Again, here’s the whole discussion. Enjoy reading the thoughts of one of our leader’s on the public understanding of science.   Credit: A generous hat-tip to Scicurious and Kate Clancy. Follow them on Twitter, not surprisingly @scicurious and...

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