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.). It´s always good to illustrate your novels so that readers can get a best picture of what they are reading about, in this case I recommend using royalty free images which are excellent quality. 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...

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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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Visualizing Chemistry Education with Untamed Science
Jan13

Visualizing Chemistry Education with Untamed Science

Well, I’m coming up on 10 days on my new job at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences working on science communications for our new wing, the Nature Research Center. Beyond my creative and uniformly brilliant co-workers, I’m blown away by how many remarkable people I’ve met from around the state and world by just being at the Museum. Among those were the filmmakers from the visual science education operation, Untamed Science. Co-founders Rob Nelson and Jonas Stenstrom. I learned that I was very fortunate to get an audience with Jonas as he was visiting from Sweden where he coordinates the team’s international science education efforts. He first met Rob, a native Texan & Coloradan, while both were studying in Australia. Joining them was their local documentarian partner, the talented Michelle Lotker. Untamed Science describe themselves as “a group of scientists and filmmakers that have united with one simple goal – communicate science in a fun way to the next generation.” Their portfolio of free video and text content covers the spectrum of biology, physics, chemistry, earth science and technology. Their target audience began as middle-school students but many of the details are those that parents (yes, me) might not know. I had a fabulous time sitting with our nine-year-old daughter last night to go through about a dozen of their videos and podcasts. Bedtime was delayed significantly – thanks, folks. But rather than write text for y’all, here’s a 1:45 video where Rob and Jonas explain what their diverse team does: VIDEO (sorry, I couldn’t embed it) An here’s more from their About page. The Untamed Science gang take apart special topics in video tutoring to pieces around seven to nine minutes that are designed to stand alone or are part of a learning module with text for teachers to use. Some of these are produced as part of educational partnerships such as one with Pearson Publishing for high school biology classes – here’s a great example on cone snail toxins. Each of the team members are multitalented in visually-exciting sports such as spelunking and SCUBA diving. These skills are incorporated into the learning – such as hang-gliding to illustrate atmosphere and air currents. And it’s not lost on me that every segment shows the team members out and about doing something physical, not just extreme things – a great example for our video game-immobilized generation. Chemistry Education The reason I’m bringing this to the attention of C&EN readers is because of their “The Chemistry Calendar: Chemistry Is All Around Us” series developed for the International Year of Chemistry in collaboration with several entities in Sweden including...

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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. You can create amazing things with a co2 laser cutter now a days, of course you will need the equipment and accesories you can get at https://www.bosslaser.com/accessories. 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...

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