↓ Expand ↓

Category → History of science

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 →

Country of Discovery Periodic Table of the Elements

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

The Periodic Table of the Elements and their Country of Discovery. Clicking to embiggen and make legible will open a new page at Smithsonian.com. Credit: Jaime B Gallagher @jaimebgall/Smithsonian.com

Admit it. You have a Periodic Table of the Elements shower curtain. Don’t you?

Dmitri Mendeleev (and Julius Lothar Meyer, 1870) might have never predicted that his 1869 scientific tool would give rise not only to consumer products for the chemistry enthusiast but also a graphic visual adopted for all manner of non-scientific purposes:

The Periodic Table of Beer Styles

The Periodic Table of Drupal Modules

The Periodic Table of Typefaces

The Periodic Table of Islam

…and, for balance, The Periodic Table of Atheists and Antitheists

(yes, please add your own favorites in the comments below)

Well, my morning coffee Twitter feed brought me a new version that’s 1) about actual chemistry and 2) useful for educational purposes.

A story in this week’s Smithsonian.com Smart News displays the periodic table of the country of element discovery as constructed by Glaswegian chemistry PhD student, science communicator and dancer, Jaime B Gallagher (Twitter @JamieBGall). I’m reminded that the stories behind each element not only tell us history, but also how early chemists differentiated between the elements.

While Gallagher tries to give credit to multiple countries for some of the discoveries, debate will undoubtedly ensue. This is is good thing. It’ll get folks talking about chemistry.

Lithium, for example, was discovered by Swedish chemist Johan Arfwedson who liberated it from petalite ore, discovered by Brazilian Jose Bonifacio de Andrade de Silva while visiting the Swedish countryside. Swede Jans Jacob Berzelius named it lithos (for stone – think lithotrypsy). But it wasn’t isolated until the independent work of Sir Humphrey Davy in England and William Brande in Sweden. So while Gallagher is probably right to fully credit Sweden for lithium, one could make an argument that the UK flag should partially be at position 3.

The story might also get us talking about modern uses of the elements. For example, a large deposit of lithium has just been discovered in Wyoming, a find that’s likely to put the States in a better spot as international demand for lithium grows rapidly.

And while chest-thumping U.S. citizens might want to boast international superiority, we’re only tied for third (or fourth…with France!) for the discovery of 17 elements. The UK is tops with 23 followed by Sweden and Germany with 19 each.

Have fun looking at this table and consider using it in your science and public education efforts. There’s something here for everyone.

And before my graphic designer relatives chime in, yes, Jaime should have enlisted the help of a professional illustrator for color and typeface choices. But, hey, he’s already done the content legwork.

 

 

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.

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

 

“These pernicious anti-scientific trends”

I sauntered over to Duke University this morning to sit in an auditorium and watch the Nobel medal award ceremony via nobelprize.org with some fellow researchers and writers like Anton Zuiker and Eric Ferreri.

Owly Images

Hellooooo, Stockholm! The view this morning from Duke University’s Schiciano Auditorium. Yes, I could’ve watched on my computer anywhere but it felt right to be on the Duke campus. Credit: David Kroll/CENtral Science

As I’ve written ad nauseum, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to watch the goings-on with half of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with Duke’s Dr. Bob Lefkowitz. Lefkowitz shared the prize for the chemistry behind G-protein coupled receptors with his former fellow, Stanford’s Dr. Brian Kobilka.

Continue reading →

Okay, Who’s Huffing Vicks VapoRub?

From the back end of this blog. What are you people doing out there? Credit: DJ Kroll

One of the fun things about having a blog is the traffic analytics feature on the dashboard of WordPress (although I really miss the features of SiteMeter that don’t run on WordPress because it doesn’t accept JavaScript. But I digress.)

Besides the addictive nature of looking at one’s traffic numbers, I always find it interesting to look at the search terms that bring people to our humble little corner of CENtral Science. I became hooked on this way back when I started the original version of Terra Sig on Blogger: in February 2006, I had an unusual spike in traffic originating from the UK via the search term “terra sigillata.” So, I posted this and learned this.

Usually, search term hits tell me that something has come up in the news. But, alas, I cannot find anything recent that would account for Vicks VapoRub to elicit much searching. Perhaps telling is that all 27 searches came via a misspelled search for “vicks vapor rub.”

North Carolina historical marker in Greensboro. Credit: DJ Kroll

(By the way, the search term brought folks here to read this post I wrote on Vicks VapoRub after a 2011 PR snafu with journalists like Ivan Oransky at Reuters Health. I ended up writing a bit more about the North Carolina pharmacy history that brought the world this lovely concoction.)

I do know that misguided youth will huff volatile chemicals for the acute high one might get. Vicks is most commonly used to enhance the experience of MDMA (ecstasy) – I’ve seen kids at raves wearing N95 facemasks inside which they have smeared the VapoRub.

So, what’s with you people wanting to know about Vicks VapoRub?

Naming Genes Unlike Named Reactions

Our best wishes to all of you in the Northeast getting ready for Hurricane Sandy. I understand that even DC is closed today. So if you still have power at home, let me share a bit of levity with you.

Meghan Radford, science writer and NC State graduate student in zoology. Credit: Meghan Radford.

Over the weekend I learned that my science writing student, Meghan Radford (@meradfor), had a clever piece published at mental_floss, the magazine and website, “where knowledge junkies get their fix.”

Megan’s article entitled, “18 Gene Names that Cover the Gamut, From Movies to Pop Culture to Cartoons,” illustrates the comical yet discordant and unscientific process behind naming genes.

Her article reminded me of C&EN’s Carmen Drahl when she wrote about named reactions in both the magazine (C&EN, 17 May 2010) and her Newscripts blog here at CENtral Science.

I’m not familiar with any genes that are named after the person who discovered them but, as Radford points out, a great many have been given interesting colloquial names. International gene nomenclature organizations exist but the standardized rules of these committees still make refer to the less formal names.

Continue reading →

Elion-Hitchings Building Tour: A Storify

  1. As discussed in my post last week, I had the opportunity on Saturday to tour the old Burroughs-Wellcome US headquarters building in Research Triangle Park, NC. Designed in 1969 by architect Paul Rudolph, the building was completed in 1972. The building became known as the Elion-Hitchings Building after BW scientists Trudy Elion and George Hitchings shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicinewith Sir James Black.The building was acquired by Glaxo when they merged with Wellcome in 1995 (Glaxo had built its US headquarters in RTP in 1983, just north of the BW property.).

    Now GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the company began liquidating buildings and consumer products over the last two years. When they announced their intent to sell the Elion-Hitchings Building in April, 2011, I suggested that someone purchase it to fashion into hipster condominiums. My hopes were dashed when United Therapeutics purchased it and two other buildings for $17.5 million in late June of this year. United Therapeutics has a 55-acre lot adjacent to the GSK property where they’ve constructed a new headquarters building of their own.

    What follows is a Storify compilation of my tweets from Saturday with photos that I sent out. I’ll post other photos later.

Burroughs-Wellcome Elion-Hitchings Building Open for Public Tours October 20th Only

I’m not an architect but I absolutely love quirky and creative buildings. During the eight years I lived in the foothills outside of Denver, I passed the clamshell-shaped home featured in Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, “Sleeper” – yes, the home with the Orgasmatron (a prop made from a cylindrical door like those used for research darkrooms).

For you youngsters who may not know what I’m talking about, here’s a two-minute movie clip that’s probably safe for work.

Well, from that era is another futuristic building designed by Paul Rudolph and completed in 1971 — then known as the Burroughs-Wellcome Headquarters Building in Research Triangle Park.

Click on the photo for information about the tour this Saturday, 20th October. Photograph reprinted courtesy of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina.

Continue reading →