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 Lee
Oct13

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

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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An apology to my readers

I have changed the title of my previous post to more accurately reflect a comment by Michael Eisen that sharing PDFs of journal articles is an act civil disobedience toward the scientific publishing enterprise. I had previously compared the practice to the Underground Railroad or Napster music file sharing. I deeply regret the use of the analogy of PDF file sharing to the Underground Railroad, a network of abolitionists who facilitated the safe escape of enslaved African-Americans in the southern US to freedom in the North and northward to Canada. I, in particular, should be especially sensitive to making such an ill-considered analogy of one of the most degrading episodes in US history to an intellectual discussion of sharing scientific papers. It was wrong, period. I apologize deeply to my friends, students, colleagues, and any others who were offended by my thoughtless...

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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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Call For Social Media Success Stories in Academia
Oct28

Call For Social Media Success Stories in Academia

We’re packing up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata this afternoon and high-tailing it out to San Jose, California, for the annual meeting of SACNAS – the Society Dedicated to Advancing Hispanics, Chicanos, and Native Americans in Science. It’s a tremendous organization comprised of several of my former students and faculty colleagues from over the years and I’m ecstatic about reconnecting with them. With the initiative of my colleagues – Alberto Roca of MinorityPostdoc.org and Danielle Lee of The Urban Scientist at Scientific American blogs (plus a whole host of online activities) – we pitched and were accepted to present a session on Blogging, Tweeting, & Writing: How an Online Presence Can Impact Science and Your Career. I’ll be discussing how a responsible, online presence on blogs, Twitter, and Facebook can enhance networking opportunities for graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. Specifically, I’ll introduce how I’ve increased the exposure of my students who are RISE Scholars at North Carolina Central University. In this NIGMS-funded grant, I’ve been helping my students capture their research experiences in their own words (with previous review by their P.I.’s of course, to prevent accidental disclosure of unpublished data). The students have been surprised by the level of engagement and support they’ve received in the comments from scientists all around the world. But I know of many other students who use blogs and Twitter to engage with the scientific community in ways that brings them positive recognition outside of their academic and laboratory work. To better prepare for this session, I’d like to gather some advice from you, Dear Reader: Who are some of students, trainees, and junior faculty, who best exemplify the use of social media for career advancement? Are you a student who has had Good Things happen to you because of your social media activities? How did that transpire? If you have any responses, please drop a link in the comments with a brief explanation – or longer if you’d like! And also feel free to recommend the sites and stories of others. I’ll be sure to promote your responses in tomorrow’s talk and direct attendees to this post for future reference. The three of us thank you so much in advance for your...

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Project SEED student having a sweet summer
Jun30

Project SEED student having a sweet summer

One of the lovely pleasures I have as a prof is serving as principal investigator of a NIH-funded program to encourage students from underrepresented backgrounds to pursue doctoral training in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. As one aim of the project to encourage student writing skills and engagement with the public and scientific communities, we keep a blog over at the Scientopia network, NCCU Eagles RISE, to chronicle the progress of these wonderful young folks. Today, NCCU rising sophomore Victoria Jones holds forth on her current research experience at the Penn State Medical Center at Hershey. Why do I write about Victoria here? Well, she is a product of the ACS Project SEED program (Summer Research Internship Program for Economically Disadvantaged High School Students). Project SEED, especially here in North Carolina, is a remarkable cultivation program for high school students to pursue research. The level at which these students perform frankly blows me away, regardless of their background. In terms of presentation skills and depth of understanding of their project, I will put a Project SEED student – high school kids, folks – up at the level of any junior or senior college research student, even at the Research I institution where I started my career. I recently judged science presentations from these students and I’d love to have had some of our first-year graduate students see the poise with which these students answered questions after their presentations. While I’m singing the praises of Project SEED students who’ve come to my U, let me also provide you with a link to an essay by Melony Ochieng. This former Project SEED student wrote about her experiences as a travel award recipient for the American Association for Cancer Research meeting in Orlando this past April. Melony won a third-place award from among the 70+ presenters. Yes, yes, yes – like many professions, being a prof is a thankless business. However, we are often touched by gold and have the opportunity to participate in the development of some truly remarkable young people. When I think back about Christine Herman’s exercise the other day on working on what you are passionate about, I realize that helping young people achieve their dreams is what I’m all...

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