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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The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!
Jan10

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

  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.). As I was packing up my recorder, camera, and notebook, he pointed over at the sofa across his office where this framed photograph sat: On October 19th, a week or so after the Nobel announcement, Lefkowitz was invited to Duke’s legendary Cameron Indoor Stadium for the men’s basketball season kickoff/pep rally called Countdown to Craziness. Lefkowitz was called out to center court where Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the 2012-13 men’s team presented him with his own Duke basketball jersey embroidered with his name and the number 1. Lefkowitz’s lab group framed the photo and had the entire team and Coach K autograph the matte. After packing up his Nobel medal and diploma, Bob pointed over to the picture and said, “How do you like that picture? My lab gave me this framed photograph – signed by the whole team – and Coach K. Which’ll really be something if they win the championship this year. Yeah, I’ll really have something.” Uh, yeah. But you’ll still have the Nobel prize regardless.   Here’s a low-res video of the event. The commentators babbled about basketball until 1:13 when they finally told their audience what they were watching. But listen to the crowd as the team left Lefkowitz at center court. For me, the scene was reminiscent of a story I remember being told by the Southern “Grit Lit” writer and University of Florida writing professor, Harry Crews. Crews passed away last May at age 76 and had been beloved on the UF campus. But he was never as popular as the Florida Gators football team. I can’t find the precise reference right now but I recall him speaking of a dream he had where he was sitting with his typewriter at the 50-yard line of Florida Field (“The Swamp”). He then typed what he thought was...

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Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes
Jan10

Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes

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...

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NCCU Dinner with Discoverers: Chemist, Dr. Mansukh Wani
Nov05

NCCU Dinner with Discoverers: Chemist, Dr. Mansukh Wani

The NCCU Eagles RISE program is a NIH/NIGMS research education program for which I serve as principal investigator at North Carolina Central University in Durham. When I moved to the Research Triangle area, I had the opportunity to work as a pharmacologist with the late Dr. Monroe Wall and Dr. Mansukh Wani, scientists who with colleagues discovered the anticancer compounds, taxol and camptothecin. I first came to know of Dr. Wani while I was a graduate student in 1987 while attending a DNA topoisomerase chemotherapy conference at NYU in Manhattan. To be honest, I was too nervous to even introduce myself to this legend of natural products chemistry. Almost 25 years later, I am now blessed to call him a family friend. One of the other joys I have is sharing the now 86-year-old Dr. Wani and his story with my students. Here’s a recap of our visit with him as posted on our NCCU Eagles RISE blog:   On the evening of October 26th, we had the remarkable pleasure to have dinner with Dr. Mansukh Wani, Chemist Emeritus of RTI International (formerly Research Triangle Institute). Together with his longtime collaborator, the late Dr. Monroe Wall, Dr. Wani and colleagues isolated and determined the structures of the anticancer drugs Taxol and camptothecin. Taxol has been a mainstay in the treatment of breast and ovarian cancer while camptothecin gave rise to two, semi-synthetic FDA-approved drugs: topotecan (Hycamtin) and irinotecan (Camptosar). For these discoveries they received numerous awards culminating in the naming of the RTI Natural Products Laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark of the American Chemical Society in 2003. The landmark application was led by Dr. Nick Oberlies, now in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Nick and I reformulated the application and supplementary historical information into a 2004 review article in the Journal of Natural Products (DOI: 10.1021/np030498t) In this interview for an Indian publication in the Research Triangle, Dr. Wani shares what it was like to move to North Carolina in 1962. He graciously accepted our invitation to tell these and other stories to us at Sitar Indian restaurant, a Durham favorite. Rather than recap his discussion of his career, we thought it would be more valuable to share with you student insights from their evening with this remarkable, warm, and humble man. From Adama Secka, M.S. Candidate, Pharmaceutical Sciences: Wednesday, October 26th 2011 will be a day that I will always remember for the rest of my life; I met the most incredible man in our science world. He was most genuine, kind, patient, and supportive – I mean he is...

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1st Anniversary at CENtral Science!
Aug25

1st Anniversary at CENtral Science!

Many thanks to all of you, Dear Readers and C&EN editors and staff, I have been writing here for one year. Last August 24th, we moved the Terra Sigillata blog here after its purgatory in indie WordPress land following four years at ScienceBlogs. The announcement came at the a ACS Medicinal Chemistry Lunch-and-Learn session on pharmaceutical and chemistry blogging led by Carmen Drahl at last year’s Boston meeting. the setting seemed appropriate for the launch because I was on the panel with two of my own blogging idols, Derek Lowe of In the Pipeline and Ed Silverman of Pharmalot. In my inaugural post here last year, The Right Chemistry, I expressed my sincere thanks to Carmen and C&EN Online Editor Rachel Pepling for taking in this wayward blogger. Although I am technically a biologist, I have appreciated since my undergrad days that chemistry was central to moving forward in this field. As a pharmacologist whose previous pseudonym acknowledged Journal of Biological Chemistry founder, John Jacob Abel, I have always appreciated that my field would not be here without the efforts of synthetic chemists. So, I hope that in the past year I have brought you a biologist’s view of – and reverence for – the discipline of chemistry. I should also note that while Carmen and Rachel are my personal heroes, my extended family at C&EN have also been instrumental in helping me develop as a science writer. Amanda Yarnell has been a constant source of advice and inspiration, offering freely of her time to a guy who isn’t even on staff. I had the delightful pleasure of spending a week with Lauren Wolf at the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop and have been very impressed by how she has worked so hard to go from being a laser chemist to crafting engaging pieces in the neurosciences. C&EN Editor-in-Chief, Rudy Baum, was kind enough to spend one-on-one time with me at the ACS Boston meeting encouraging me in both my writing and chemical education and diversity in chemistry efforts. Lisa Jarvis keeps me keen on pharma & chemistry business with early morning tweets and I often finish the day interacting with Jyllian Kemsley on the Left Coast. Then there are also folks like Linda Wang who remind me that we actually did meet when I write to congratulate them on a great feature and say that I can’t wait to meet them. Carmen even hosted me for a nice visit to the C&EN HQ at ACS in Washington when I was lecturing at Johns Hopkins for Mary Knudson’s faculty writing class earlier this year. Good and patient folks like Stu...

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CENtral Science, represent!
Jun11

CENtral Science, represent!

Yes, I’ve tagged this post in my category, “I Can’t Believe My Life Happens to Me.” During the week of May 30th, I had the pleasure of participating in the Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, a 15-year labor of love run by New Mexico-based science writers, Sandra Blakeslee and George Johnson. This year, about 50 “students” were in attendance, ranging from professional writers like Dr. Wolf at C&EN and Newscripts above to freelancers, public information officers, and other academics like me who are working on improving our skills to communicate science to non-technical audiences. The resident faculty were simply exceptional both in stature and mentoring skills. The workshop began with David Corcoran, editor of the Tuesday Science Times section of The New York Times. Yes, this is the very same David Corcoran who just signed off after 10 years of also reviewing New Jersey restaurants for the Times. David is also a poet who graced us with several of his works during a faculty reading at Santa Fe’s superb indie bookstore, Collected Works. I don’t know if there’s anything David can’t do. Perhaps windows? We were also the beneficiaries of the expertise of Adam Rogers, editor at Wired magazine, who held forth on what its like to work with an editor. Adam is also an excellent writer himself – I urge you to read his fabulous Wired story last month on Canadian mycologist James Scott and this history and chemistry of distillation in The Mystery of the Canadian Distillery Fungus. A lovely breakfast with Adam gave us the opportunity to sing the praises of our mutual friend, the writer and all-around wonderful human being, Steve Silberman. Gareth Cook, Boston Globe columnist, related to us the backstory of his 2005 Pulitzer prize-winning collection of articles for Explanatory Reporting on the stem cell research debate and overseas stem cell clinics. Gareth is a huge advocate of the power of reporting in great science journalism. Being there, Gareth told us, gives you access and insight to stories related to the main story that you could not have possibly known if writing from a distance. Writing about the scene provides an unparalleled richness to any story – science or otherwise. Gareth is also author of a chapter on deadline writing in the excellent National Association of Science Writers (NASW) book, A Field Guide for Science Writers. At the end of the week, I told Gareth that I learned more from him than I would have in a two-year master’s program in science journalism (I’m on the advisory board of such a program and was only half-kidding). With his signature dry wit, Gareth responded...

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