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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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The Cinnamon Challenge: On Being Charged with #Chemophobia

Consider cinnamaldehyde.

Consider cinnamaldehyde.

As many of you are likely to have heard yesterday, a paper from Steven Lipshultz, MD, at the University of Miami appeared in the journal Pediatrics detailing poison control center reports on an adolescent misadventure called The Cinnamon Challenge. The challenge: to swallow a teaspoon of cinnamon powder in 60 seconds without any liquids.

The practice has been rummaging about the internet since 2001 but really took off on YouTube over the last three years. Lipshultz’s report discusses the risks of such tomfoolery, particularly due to the inhalation of cinnamon powder while one is choking.

I planned to write about this practice both here and at my Forbes.com blog since I thought both chemists and the general public would be interested in the topic. I wrote the Forbes post earlier this morning and drew a series of comments from a kindly San Diego-area chemist who took issue with my facetious comparison of cinnamaldehyde (cinnamic aldehyde) to formaldehyde.

While Lipshultz states that much of the acute pulmonary toxicity of cinnamon powder is likely due to the cellulose content, I submit that some damage could be due to protein adducts formed by cinnamaldehyde. Yes, yes, it’s not as dangerous as formaldehyde. But even at roughly 1% (w/w) in the powder, I hypothesize that the cinnamaldehyde could cause epithelial damage. Also note that cinnamaldehyde is not just any aldehyde but rather an unsaturated aldehyde. That makes me think of acrolein.

The experiments have not been done. But one animal study has been published showing that intratracheal administration of cinnamon powder — not pure cinnamaldehyde — can cause acute lung injury in rats and trigger pulmonary fibrosis within a month.

Alas, my concerns about cinnamaldehyde rubbed two commenters the wrong way and one, well, sought to chemsplain me.

I was originally trained in toxicology so I know the whole Paracelsan story that the dose makes the poison (to which I’d also add “route of administration”). But do you chemists, especially those in chemical toxicology, think that I’m overreacting (as it were) to the potentially reactive nature of cinnamaldehyde in inhaled cinnamon powder?

I’m willing to be corrected if I appear to suffer from #chemophobia. But I hypothesize that 1% (w/w) cinnamaldehyde can be cytotoxic.


Why Chemistry Should Care About Humanities Higher Education

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

An appreciation of racial studies and African-American history are essential in placing the accomplishments of Percy Julian in perspective.

The perennial question of the value of humanities education has been rearing its head down here in North Carolina and elsewhere. More often than not, these arguments focus 1) on the allegation that one can’t get a job in [insert humanities discipline] and 2) that education in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) is of far greater importance.

Remarks by our new Republican governor on a conservative talk radio show suggested that his goal was to reallocate state funds from humanities programs toward science disciplines. His stance led to an outpouring of support for the humanities but with considerable criticism of fields such as gender studies and African-American history.

My own students in a newswriting class were split on the governor’s comments. Their opinions were captured in an op-ed writing assignment where I posted the top three peer-ranked pieces over at my Forbes.com blog (by Luke Tompkins, Elizabeth Anthony, and Brian-Anthony Garrison).

Late last week, a call for support of the humanities by the STEM disciplines appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Dr. Kira Hamman, mathematics professor at Penn State Mont Alto. Her essay focuses around three points, one of which is the following:

It is the worst kind of pre-Enlightenment thinking to claim that a thing is only worth doing if it leads to economic gain. No, it is not true that a liberal-arts education decreases a person’s earning potential, but so what if it were? One of the most important things one takes away from a broad education is the understanding that there are many ways to live a good life, and not all of them include material wealth.

Of course, we all need to put food on the table. But having a science degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee employment. Even so-called alternatives to bench science careers are so competitive that jobs are scarce — science writing, for example.

But I want to come out in support of humanities education, and not just because I now have a faculty appointment in English at our state’s land-grant university.

Therefore, I’d like to assemble a list of why the humanities are important in chemistry education and/or being an employed chemist. Here’s a start from me but feel free to add more in the comments:

1.  Writing and oral communication skills are essential in chemistry and other sciences.

2.  The ability to interact with people from other cultures is increasingly important in a global, scientific economy.

3.  The rich history of chemistry is a jumping-off point for discussion of the most important advances of our discipline. Witness the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

4.  Expertise in psychology, for example, allowed a chemist to debunk Kekule’s dream in conceptualizing benzene’s structure.

5 . . . .

 

I’m looking forward to your own contributions.

 


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.


Saturday Morning Natural Products PharmChem Radio!

Listen to me live today at 8-10 AM, EDT, on wknc.org

If you’re up on this lovely Saturday morning and looking for something fun and educational to pass the time, dial up wknc.org for the “Mystery Roach” radio show from 8 am until 10 am Eastern time.

There, I’ll be discussing the discovery of drugs from nature and the differences between herbal remedies and medicines.

The show, hosted by forestry and natural resources doctoral student Damian Maddalena, will be interspersed with psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s.

I’ll be monitoring my Twitter account @davidkroll for questions and comments and you can also post at the Mystery Roach Facebook page.

Maddalena is an experienced scientist-communicator whose show, named after a Frank Zappa song, celebrated five years last November. The Research Triangle’s independent weekly, INDY Week, recognized Maddalena last year as runner-up for both top radio show and radio host, a tremendous accomplishment for a science and music show in a highly-competitive media market.

 

Livestream at this wknc.org page


Are Popes and Chemistry Immiscible?

Well, leave it to the British to put together one of the most enjoyable exercises of the day, at least for those of us with even a few remaining molecules of Catholicism.

With apologies to my calculus teacher, Sister Agnes Mary of St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford, New Jersey, I present to you the UK Guardian‘s Pontifficator.

Choose your own pope – with our interactive Pontifficator

This week, 115 cardinals will be secreted in the Sistine Chapel to select one of their number as the next head of the Catholic church. You can’t get in to see them but you can use our interactive to explore their views on issues from contraception to relations with other faiths, peruse their CVs, and choose the man you think is best qualified for the job. Tap the pictures to read more about the candidates. There’s a note on how we categorised them here

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Finding a pontiff who meets all of one’s criteria is tougher than finding an apartment in New York City. But my selection ended up being Archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga.

The clincher? Of the 10 academic candidates, he’s taught chemistry and physics.

Of course, I’m not keen on his rating for handling the sex abuse scandals in the church and, shockingly, his agreement with the current pope that condoms will not prevent the global HIV/AIDS crisis.

Umm, I don’t know what kind of chemistry and physics he taught.

So if I still were a churchgoer, I’d have to pass on Rodríguez Maradiaga. Italy’s “tech-savvy” Gianfranco Ravasi is notable for having hosted the 2009 Vatican conference on evolution. But something tells me that this time won’t break the latest string of non-Italian popes.

For those of you interested in the outcome of the papal conclave, who are your favorites?

I’m hoping it’s someone from South America or Africa.


“Suicide Before PhD Defense”

I just received two hits to my PhD defense post using this search phrase.

To the reader: If you are in such dire straits of stress before your defense, please call 911 immediately or get yourself to your local emergency room. The specter of the dissertation defense can amplify self-doubt and if you are considering suicide, you and your family and friends would be better served by you postponing your defense and checking into a hospital for a couple of weeks.

If I can be of any help, please Gmail me at abelpharmboy call me at 919.564.9564. But first call 911.

Screenshot of today's search terms.

Screenshot of today’s search terms.


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.

 

 


Watch Twitter on Saturday for #Chemophobia

This week, the Research Triangle area is hosting ScienceOnline2013, an international science communications unconference that draws Pulitzer Prize-winning science writers, big media, graduate students, new media, science teachers, old media – pretty much anyone who’s involved in communicating science to diverse audiences via digital media.

The gathering began as the North Carolina Science Blogging Conference in 2007 (and probably before that) and has grown to be a highly-competitive ticket for 450 attendees. So popular are the conversations there that “watch parties” are being held in cities worldwide – London, Paris, Adelaide, Denver, Dublin, Belgrade, and others.

But the conversation can also be easily accessed via Twitter by following the hashtag #scio13.

I’d love to draw the C&EN and CENtral Science crowd to a superb session that will be held Saturday, 2 February, with our own Dr. Carmen Drahl and chemistry professor/former ACS intern Dr. Rubidium on chemophobia: the public aversion to anything that carries the label of “chemical.”

Here’s the description from the unconference wiki for tomorrow’s 10:30 am EST session:

Description: In today’s advertising and pop culture, words like “chemical”, “synthetic” and “artificial” are synonyms for harmful, toxic and carcinogenic, while words like “natural” and “organic” imply a product is wholesome and good for the environment. This widespread misconception colors public perceptions of chemistry and its role in the modern world. Chemophobia may not be as direct a threat to our future as, say, climate change denialism or the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, but it clouds public understanding of real and very important issues we face (e.g., how to boost agricultural productivity) and plays into the hands of quacks and cranks. How can bloggers and the media effectively combat chemophobia? How much chemistry does the public need to know to be well-informed and make good decisions, and what’s the most effective avenue for disseminating that kind of information? Proposed session hashtag: #chemophobia

Over the past year, several folks in the blogosphere and chemistry education realm have been providing folks like Carmen, DrR, and author Deborah Blum with examples of chemicals being portrayed as “bad.”

Yet, each of us are a glorious bag of chemicals (thankfully).

Where does the negative perception arise and how can we in chemistry-related fields better communicate with the public?

Carmen and DrRubidium have asked us to follow the #chemophobia hashtag on Saturday 10:30-11:30 am EST.

Here’s a world clock so you can plan when to follow the discussion on Twitter.

 



From The CENtral Science Blogs