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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

You don't want none of this. Credit: DNLee.

You don’t want none of this. Credit: DNLee.

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 the blog post.

9. At 10:14 am on Saturday morning, a tweet is posted by Editor in Chief and Senior VP of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, that read, “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”

10. Much rancor and speculation ensues, in part because Scientific American appears to be selectively penalizing Danielle’s content relative to other bloggers there who post similar kinds of protests or appeals for equity in science and science writing. Biology-Online.org is also listed as a “partner” of Scientific American.

 

Why, exactly, was the post removed?

So what about Danielle’s post was worthy of censorship by Scientific American? Other women at SciAmBlogs have noted their writing on issues of equity and experiences in the professions. So it can’t be that.

Is it because, out of all her writing and video dialogue, she used one borderline vulgarity (“butt-hurt”)?

Well, then, let’s search SciAm for the f-word.

It’s found in various conjugations in other blogposts and even a Fast Company article that SciAm posted. And I’d have to say that its use serves the story and the reader in all the cases where I see it appear.

Now, C&EN prefers that I not use any of George Carlin’s seven words here. But they give me great latitude in writing about topics that affect almost any scientific or personal issue. In fact, I just checked my contract: I’m a non-staff freelancer who has been contracted, “to expand the breadth of coverage and diversity of voices at CENtral Science.”

As for content, the only stipulations are that my work must be my own (other than explicitly-credited guest posts) and that, “the materials produced hereunder do not infringe any copyright violate any property rights or contain any scandalous, libelous or unlawful matter.”

(I double-checked the dictionary to be sure that this post isn’t scandalous, or, “causing general public outrage by a perceived offense against morality or law.”)

CENtral Science blog network is not the 90-year-old magazine that C&EN is – the official organ of the American Chemical Society. CENtral Science is a modern genre extension of the magazine where bloggers who are mostly magazine staff writers can spread their wings and write in a style that doesn’t fit in the magazine yet still serves a subset of their readers.

Some of that content is cleverly fun. Former laser chemist Dr. Lauren Wolf pees in the ocean. She convinced her niece that it’s okay to pee in the ocean. They are now trying to convince her husband that it’s okay to pee in the ocean.

Her post on the concept was a blockbuster here, having some truly superb scientific content and getting picked up by larger and more broad online sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel. So proud were we of Lauren’s levity that fellow chemist and C&EN reporter Dr. Carmen Drahl did a five-minute interview with Lauren that had a similar, tongue-in-cheek tone. (Postscript: I can personally vouch for the fact that Dr. Wolf doesn’t pee in the wide-open desert of northern New Mexico.)

Hence, I submit that the blog media is different from the more staid, older publications like C&EN, 90 years old this year, and Scientific American, now 168. But it’s the host’s prerogative to define what tone and voice is permitted on the blog network they host (yes, yes, I understand that it’s difficult to fully define contractually.). One would expect, however, that such editorial decisions are applied equally across the network

Where I write at Forbes.com, it’s made very clear that they want me to write on topics within my “swim lane” – pharmaceuticals and drug safety, education, and general science. The one time that I flailed four lanes over – on a weekend – I was politely but firmly told by an editor (within eight hours) that the post was inconsistent with our agreement and that it hadn’t been a problem in the past and they were sure it wouldn’t happen again.

But they did not remove the post.

 

Why professionals who are men and white still need to stand up for professionals who are women, from other underrepresented groups or, in general, not part of the dominant demographic

In the case of Danielle Lee, it appears that the editorial appropriateness of a post was defined for her differently than for other bloggers at the SciAmBlogs network. Our chemist colleague, Dr. Rubidium, raised the point last night at the irrepressible JAYFK that she feared rules were being inconsistently applied to Danielle because of her being a scientist of color. Dr. Rubidium speaks to this issue from the standpoint of being a chemist who is a woman and a person of color.

I tend to agree with Dr. Rubidium, but for somewhat different reasons. I fear that the selective application of censorship to Danielle’s SciAmBlogs piece was that she wrote in a tone of black, Southern vernacular, with or without an unconscious editorial view of her “blackness.” Danielle herself calls it, “inner city anthropology.” (We can speak elsewhere about acceptable modern terminology to describe people of color as black, Black, brown, or, still in some older parts of my community, yes, Negro.)

I am unapologetically black and urban and female. Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people. But if the academia doesn’t have representation or at least people who understand these students, then how do they gain access to higher education or STEM?. . .

. . .If I, as a PhD scientist with credentials, cannot call my fellow scientists to task on the role privilege and prejudices play in academia, then who can? Better yet, who else will?

– Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., The Urban Scientist, 24 January 2013

I’m a middle-aged man of only moderate intelligence (1100 math and reading SAT score, 1120 GRE) from a northeastern US white, middle-class family who was fortunate to be given an opportunity for education that I might not have had without the support of a few crucial champions. Whatever that did to me, consciously and unconsciously, is that I’ve spent my independent professional career working on minority scholarships and career development in pharmacy, had a laboratory environment that disproportionately attracted trainees who were women, and spent four years as a pharmaceutical sciences professor at an HBCU in the American South, a region where I’ve now lived for one-third of my life.

So one wouldn’t be surprised to know that I’ve been working on ScienceOnline sessions diversity in the science blogosphere and scientific community for several years. I’ve worked specifically with Danielle Lee since ScienceOnline2011 when she, Alberto Roca (MinorityPostdoc.org) and I co-moderated a session on the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM discplines and science communications community (in fact, my original proposal for a diversity session held in 2010 included Danielle and the now-silent blogger, AcmeGirl). We subsequently did a similar session in San Jose, California, at the 2011 annual meeting of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).

And most recently, I worked with Danielle on a Science Journalism 101 panel for the 2013 annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in Orlando, Florida. Together with SciAm editor Robin Lloyd, MedPage Today executive editor Ivan Oransky, and Washington, DC, radio host Jamila Bey, we discussed ways that black-specialty publications might improve their coverage of science and health while encouraging up-and-coming writers of color to pitch science stories.

I shall refer here to the JAYFK’s publication of Danielle’s original post as it appeared on Friday at her SciAm blog, The Urban Scientist.

1. Danielle launches the post about a wrap cloth called a khanga that she wore in Tanzania during her last three-month stint of research there. The English translation of the quote on the khanga is, “Give trouble to others, not me.” This was, in my view, a wonderful metaphor with which to lead the post.

2. She relates this African saying to a 21st century ghetto proverb she learned from growing up in inner South Memphis, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”

3. She then wrote this paragraph after introducing that Ofek had called her a whore:

My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”

4. After embedding her video response that lacked such vernacular and discussing why anyone would decide not to write compensation-free, she wrote:

But the fact is told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.

5. She closed with a beautifully classic photo of herself giving what I would call the ever-so-slight mal ojo, and this:

Thanks to everyone who helped me focus my righteous anger on these less-celebrated equines. I appreciate your support, words of encouragement, and offers to ride down on his *$$.

I’m concerned that the censorship of her post related to editorial discomfort over a woman of color using (mild) inner city language. If that’s one of the reasons, it reflects northern, white discomfort with the way non-northern, non-whites speak.

Two of the most-resonant things Danielle ever said were that when talking to young, black kids about her science, mostly when she was getting her Ph.D. in St. Louis, is that they said she “wasn’t black enough” to be authentic in her call for them to be interested in science – to which she then broke into some good ghetto language that she used to respond to the students.

Second was that she felt we in the sciences tend to underestimate or even disrespect the role that the church plays in the lives of African-Americans. Rather than demonizing religion, as some bloggers and academic do, she felt that reaching out to the religious community would be an effective strategy for scientists to cultivate minority students into our disciplines. Here at CENtral Science, I have to say that I’m proud of some ACS chapters that do just that – a Philadelphia ACS group ran a series of outreach activities at African-American churches to tell the story of the renowned black chemist, Percy Julian.

And while teaching at an HBCU, I fielded scholarship applications where students would unapologetically profess that their pursuit of a pharmaceutical sciences and biotechnology career was a call from God and a way for them to live their faith by doing good works to benefit others.

These kinds of experiences, so common to Danielle and those I have come to understand and appreciate over the last 20 years, lead to a writing style and cultural environment that often makes some white folks uncomfortable.

But for us to be truly inclusive in science – both with regard to recruiting and retaining minority scientists and effectively engaging with underrepresented public audiences – we need to be culturally-sensitive and respectful of the manner in which non-white, non-northern US communities communicate.

Yes, in academic contexts, we are all expected to speak and write in a relatively standardized manner regardless of our backgrounds. But as I mentioned earlier, the blog medium is generally much more informal and inclusive of the thoughts, views, and values that we bring to science communication. The decision to censor Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s blogpost was inconsistent with the medium and, more importantly, the manner in which the writings of other network bloggers are treated.

Note added: It’s been brought to my attention that Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds wrote yesterday on this issue of code-switching and the perception of Danielle’s writing. My apologies for not noticing it until now.

 

Editorial response update

While I was writing this post, in fits and spurts since 6:15 am, a full explanation was offered by SciAm’s editor in chief, Mariette DiChristina, that Danielle’s post was perceived as a personal issue and, “unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post.” DiChristina then goes on to justify the lack of advance notification of Danielle about the post’s removal with the harried weekend activities. But if one had enough access to remove the post, one would also have the wherewithal to send a three line email to Danielle that they were taking the post down for the weekend, why, and that they would discuss the issue in further detail with her and SciAm bloggers on Monday.

 

Where’s Bora?

While I read more about the discussion that ensued the rest of Sunday, let me say one thing about the founder and blog editor of SciAm blogs, Bora Zivkovic, in part because he is a local friend and usually a vociferous commentator on a great many issues. I have had no contact with Bora other than to drop him a Twitter DM saying that I would be posting a defense of Danielle and that I would be briefly defending him.

So I can only postulate that he has been working behind the scenes to keep the SciAm blog community informed, unified, and assured that he was working as much as he could on a decision that was probably made up the supervisory chain. Because Bora, like me, left ScienceBlogs.com during the ethical lapse known as Pepsigate, one would expect him to be outraged at the editorial treatment of Danielle’s post. If lawyers became involved, as DiChristina notes, I suspect that Bora had to work very hard to keep his opinions out of the public space.

Bora’s relative silence speaks volumes about how the censorship of Danielle’s post was out of his hands. In fact, I would offer that Scientific American should be very thankful that Bora is their blog network editor because most commentators have given the network the benefit of the doubt because of his integrity. While this episode has blown up, I believe it could be even worse for Scientific American if Bora had not been their blog editor.

Comments and alternative interpretations are always welcome below.

Update: 5:24 am, 14 October – Alan Weisleder of Keebali, the company that operates Biology-Online.org, sent an apology (JPEG screenshot) to Danielle Lee overnight. On their discussion board, a slightly extended apology is directed to the community. Weisleder notes that Ofek was a new employee and has since been terminated.

 

Yes, I know this was a long post. Follow me instead on Twitter @DavidKroll.

 

 

 

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.
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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.

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Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

A cool idea! Photo: Arctic, Inc.

We’re about to close up the world headquarters of Terra Sigillata to head out and convene with the PharmFamily in points north for Easter (but, thankfully, not a Nor’easter.)

Before we do, I’d like to draw your attention to a short but astute editorial in The Chronicle of Higher Education by chemist Gina Stewart. Stewart launches her essay with a concise description of a dichotomy that’s giving all of us agita:

The STEM paradox: At a time when we have a national dialogue about the dearth of students pursuing these degrees, newly minted Ph.D.’s are having a harder time landing academic jobs.

She then talks about her career and what she considers to be the shortest postdoc on record (believe me, Gina, I know of many shorter) in the UNC-Chapel Hill laboratory of Joe DeSimone. There, the seeds were planted for entrepreurship and a fascination with the practical applications of carbon dioxide.

Years later, Stewart is now CEO of Arctic, Inc., a company that uses sustainable weed control methods by selectively freezing these nasty invasive threats to biodiversity – her company site is appropriately named frostkills.com.

Her experience is one example where one takes a different approach to a chemistry career than following in the traditional academic progression. The first commenter already admonished her for saying that she was pursuing an alternative career. Based on percentages, being a tenure-track faculty member is now the alternative.

It’s a great read so enjoy. I was also delighted to learn that she and her husband live just west of the Research Triangle and base their company in Clemmons, NC.

Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development

Maryn McKenna.

SUPERBUG author, Maryn McKenna.

One of science journalism’s expert voices, author Maryn McKenna, will be the guest on this Thursday’s ACS Webinar Joy of Science series at 2:00 – 3:00 pm Eastern time.

Free, as always, you can sign up to participate at this link.

McKenna’s book, SUPERBUG: The Fatal Menace of MRSA, is a thorough and accessible investigation of the reemergence of lethal bacterial infections while new drug development lags.

The book, now in paperback, received the 2011 Science in Society Award from the the National Association of Science Writers.

McKenna had spent much of her career at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution as the only U.S. reporter assigned full time to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, her first book, Beating Back the Devil, detailed her experiences with CDC’s Epidemic Investigation Service (EIS), the team dispatched anywhere in the world that’s experiencing an unusual infectious disease event.

From her book’s website:

I was following a group of disease detectives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC, through an investigation of bizarre skin infections in Los Angeles. The CDC wanted to know where men were picking them up. I wanted to know something more fundamental: How could a minor problem — something that the victims all described as looking like a tiny spider bite — blow up into massive infections that ate away at skin and muscle, put people into the hospital for weeks and drained their health and their bank accounts? Where had it come from? And if it could do that, what else was it capable of?

A multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) plushy from GiantMicrobes.com, personalized for the author by Maryn McKenna. Photo credit: DJ Kroll

A multidrug-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) plushy from GiantMicrobes.com, personalized for the author by Maryn McKenna. Photo credit: DJ Kroll

Maryn’s one of the best science writers in the world in terms of mastering her subject and making it widely accessible.

Of course, her webinar will be of interest to anyone concerned about the proliferation of drug-resistant infectious diseases and how to design drugs to stay a step ahead of evolution.

But she’s also a great model to emulate for anyone trying to make their scientific work more approachable to non-experts. You might even learn a thing or two about telling a gripping story.

And, thanks to your American Chemical Society, dialing into the webinar is FREE. Go here to register.

You don’t even need to be an ACS member!

You can thank me later.

The webinar will be archived but you can also hear from Maryn McKenna on a regular basis at her Wired Science blog, Superbug and on Twitter @marynmck.

Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?

This question came to me as I read last week’s C&EN cover story by Dr. Lauren K. Wolf on caffeine toxicity entitled, “Caffeine Jitters.”

By the way, read it if you haven’t — it’s open-access on C&EN right now and remains the most-read (last 7 days), most-commented (last 30 days), and most-shared (last 30 days) article since it appeared. Lauren did a terrific job of sifting through decades of information on the physiological effects of caffeine to make sense out of the true health hazards of caffeine consumption at “normal” and excessive doses.

Caffeine, a natural alkaloid found predominantly in coffee beans, is 1,3,7-trimethylxanthine (not IUPAC, but you get it). In the body, the hepatic cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to theophylline, theobromine, and paraxanthine.

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN

The cytochrome P450 CYP1A2 catalyzes the N-demethylation of caffeine to one of three dimethylxanthines, with paraxanthine predominating. Credit: C&EN

 

Divine chemicals

Of note, theobromine and theophylline also occur in nature. Theobromine is found in cacao beans. Because chocolate is heavenly, it was given the Greek name for “food of the gods”: theos – god; broma – food.

Correct, theobromine contains no bromine. Had it contained bromine, the name might have been the same but would have been derived from the Greek bromos, or “stench” – “stench of the gods,” which, clearly, it is not.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Stimulant of the Gods. Available now at the Pharmacopolis store at Zazzle.

Theophylline also occurs naturally and had been extensively used as a bronchodilator for folks with asthma. Primatene tablets used to contain theophylline but today are ephedrine. Again, theophylline has the godly theo- prefix while the -phylline suffix indicated that it comes from leaves.

And apologies to paraxanthine. It’s known historically for having first been isolated from urine in 1883. Not until the 1980s was it shown to occur in some plants. In any case, the biosynthesis of the di- and tri-methylxanthines originate with xanthosine from purine metabolism.

So to my question. . .

Because caffeine is so widely worshiped, why is it not known as theoanaleptine? The Greek analeptikos means stimulant and the English term analeptic is defined as a stimulant drug.

So, why not?

My best guess is because caffeine was described in the literature prior to theophylline and theobromine. From M.J. Arnaud’s chapter in Caffeine (Springer, 1984):

The isolation of caffeine from green coffee beans was described in Germany in 1820 by Runge and confirmed the same year by von Giese. In France, Robiquet in 1823 and then Pelletier in 1826 independently discovered a white and volatile crystalline substance. The name “cofeina” appeared in 1823 in the “Dictionaire des termes de medécine” and the word “caffein” or “coffein” was used by Fechner in 1826.

Arnaud goes on to say that theobromine was discovered in cocoa beans in 1842 and theophylline in tea leaves in 1888.

So, caffeine had about a two-decade headstart in being named for its presence in coffee before related methylxanthines took on their divine monikers.

Sure, sure, caffeine is a well-recognized name that derives predictably from its source. But let’s live a little. Wouldn’t you rather be drinking the stimulant of the gods?

If you’re as excited about this as I am, you may purchase theoanaleptine coffee mugs here. They’ll set you apart from ever Tom, Dick, and Harriet who think they’re clever with their caffeine coffee mugs.

And even with accepting the new colloquial name of theoanaleptine, our friend Scicurious can still keep her tattoo unchanged.

 

 

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.

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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.

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Tucson clinical pharmacist does primary diabetes care

Those of you who do chemistry in colleges of pharmacy are used to discussions of how your graduates can truly use their Doctor of Pharmacy training. You’ve probably often wondered why your students spend so much time in clinical pharmacy when more than half of them end up in community pharmacy, a model that has largely kept its sweatshop-like workflow (the “counseling booth” at my local pharmacy has cobwebs for the simple reason that pharmacists cannot be reimbursed for cognitive services.)

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Al Malkinson the Scientist: Eulogy by Dr. Lori Dwyer-Nield

Lori Dwyer-Nield, PhD, Associate Research Professor, School of Pharmacy, University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus; Investigator, Eastern Colorado Veterans Hospital

In this second part of my remembrance of lung cancer biochemical pharmacologist, Colorado’s Dr. Al Malkinson, I’d like to share with readers some recollections by Lori Dwyer-Nield, PhD. I’ve known Lori since my appointment to Colorado’s faculty in 1992 when she had already been a postdoctoral fellow of Al’s. Dr. Dwyer-Nield continued on as research faculty at the CU School of Pharmacy and co-authored over 40 publications with Al.

At Al’s memorial service last Saturday in Boulder, Lori was asked by Al’s wife, Lynn, to eulogize Al on behalf of all his scientific colleagues. Her thoughts were so warmly received that I wanted to share them more widely, especially with members of the scientific community who knew Al but were unable to attend the memorial. Moreover, I had reflected in my previous post how supportive Al was of his women trainees in balancing career and family. This eulogy provides a glimpse into this philosophy of Al’s directly from someone who lived it for over 20 years.

My tremendous thanks go out to Lori for agreeing to share with us this text of her eulogy.

 


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