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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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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Daughters and Famous Women Chemists
Jun04

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. (Commenters politely focused on Chanel’s business acumen and not her less savory political associations.) Moore’s photography is beautiful (and we may have to go down to Austin for a new series of family photos ourselves) and she captures all the promise and aspirations a five-year-old girl might have to do something other than be a helpless damsel-in-distress in psychotherapy because of a cruel and manipulative stepmother. With our PharmKid approaching 11, we still maintain a large house collection of costumes and various get-ups that began with Disney princesses and has now progressed to characters she and her friends concoct (now writing screenplays to accompany their stories while Dad is drafted for filming purposes). But I wish that we had instead been overrun with role-playing costumes for our daughter to emulate women of strong character and high intellect. So I got to thinking: Why don’t we have costumes for our girls to dress up as famous women scientists, especially female chemists? And with all due respect to Marie Curie and Irene Joilot-Curie, perhaps we might find more contemporary characters for our daughters. For me, as a North Carolinian and cancer pharmacologist, the chemist character I’d most love to see around here is the late Nobel laureate and Burroughs-Wellcome chemist, Gertrude (Trudy) Elion – in a single, striking royal blue gown. But here, even I fall into the trap of thinking of a deceased character. How about Ada Yonath, ribosome structural chemist and 2009 Nobel laureate in chemistry? Therefore, I turn to you, Dear Reader. If we were to, say, launch a Kickstarter campaign for the manufacture of famous women costume sets for young girls, who of today’s women chemists would be ones you’d like to see your daughter personify?...

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Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship
Mar28

Dr. Gina Stewart on Career Flexibility and Entrepreneurship

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,...

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Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development
Feb26

Must-See ACS Webinar: Superbugs and Drug Development

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? 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...

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Why Isn’t Caffeine Called “Theoanaleptine”?
Feb13

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.   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. 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...

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