A Royal Encounter in Thailand
Jan15

A Royal Encounter in Thailand

A Royal Encounter in Thailand Chemists from 10 countries gathered on Jan. 11-13 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, to participate in Pure & Applied Chemistry International Conference 2012 (PACCON 2012). Organized by Chiang Mai University and the Chemical Society of Thailand, PACCON 2012 attracted about 1,400 participants and featured a keynote lecture by Her Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Mahidol and three plenary lectures (including one by yours truly). The organizers structured the conference around the theme “Chemistry Beyond Boundaries” to highlight chemistry’s interface with other disciplines and how the combinations are expanding scientific horizons.  Consistent with the theme, 36 invited talks and dozens of oral presentations were delivered in multidisciplinary sessions such as Chemistry for Global Warming, Green Energy & Environment; Chemistry for Health Science & Technology; Chemistry for Engineering & Industry; Chemistry for Materials & Nanotechnology; and Chemistry for Spa & Cosmetics.  Four poster sessions accommodated scores of poster presentations. Princess Chulabhorn set a high bar for the scientific talks by giving the audience a flavor of the work at the natural products institute she founded, the Chulabhorn Research Institute, in Bangkok. First she gave a detailed account of CRI’s work, spanning almost a decade, on a group of bioactive natural products called lamellarins. According to the princess, the contributions of CRI to the body of knowledge about lamellarins include synthesis, profiling of biological activity, and structure-activity relationships. Then she also discussed CRI’s work on natural products from food plants, marine organisms, and microorganisms. Surprisingly, at the end of her lecture, the princess apologized for taking off her shoes for the lecture, which I and others didn’t notice and wouldn’t have known otherwise. It seems that taking off one’s shoes in front of others is considered impolite in Thailand. She explained that she has an injured femur that is taking long to heal. She left the conference on a wheel chair. Later, I found that she came to the conference door also on a wheel chair but came to her feet to enter the conference hall. The presence of Thai royalty made the first morning of the conference highly unusual. Everyone who wanted to attend the opening ceremony needed to be in the conference hall by 8 AM and were “advised to complete their personal business” before entering the hall as “opportunities to leave after 8 AM will be restricted.” Participants also were asked to “sit politely and refrain from talking off your shoes or sitting cross-legged” and refrain from asking questions after the princess’s lecture. Photography was banned; only the entourage of official photographers could take photos. While everyone waited, those of us who were to receive plaques...

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CPhI Lite
Oct26

CPhI Lite

CPhI Worldwide is taking place this week in Frankfurt, Germany. Senior Correspondent Ann Thayer, Senior Editor Rick Mullin, and I have been in the city since Monday to attend this annual conference on pharmaceutical ingredients held in Europe. C&EN’s formal coverage will include a news item from Thayer in the Oct. 31 issue and a review from Mullin in the Nov. 14 issue. To whet your appetite for my colleagues’ stories, here are some tidbits from my roamings and company visits in Frankfurt’s massive Messe. First stop: Evonik, where Jurgen Krauter, vice president of communications, told me how the company hopes to change its image from old industry to provocative. The latest pharma brochure, “We love your problems,” features some offbeat photos, including of someone that reminded me of Lady Gaga:   Evonik seems to be serious in thinking out of the box in its messaging. Here’s an ad on a taxi:   Next: Roquette, where Sophie Chesnoy, pharma project development and marketing manager, briefed me on the company’s advances in formulations. One technology Roquette is touting is called Kleptose, cyclodextrins that, among other uses, masks the bitterness of APIs by trapping the molecules inside the cyclodextrin helix. When a tablet is in the mouth, only the cyclodextrin contacts the taste sensors, Chesnoy explained.   On my way to my third stop, I chanced upon David Ager and Andre H.M. de Vries, of DSM. I noticed a prominent embellishment on the DSM logo, as shown in this photo of the logo embroidered on Ager’s green DSM shirt: The logo looks like a hat of multicolored feathers to me. Dave dutifully pointed out that in the middle of the colored arcs is the hexagon, an icon of organic chemistry. Dave also called my attention to the new tag line: Bright Science, Brighter Living. Sounds like they’re making light bulbs, I thought. DSM’s marketing and communications director, Guy Tiene, explained that DSM is moving away from an image of industrial, heavily petroleum-based chemistry to life sciences, and the logo aims to send the message of novelty, freshness, health, and sustainability.     My third stop was AllessaChemie, where I met Thomas Buttner, the president and CEO, and Michael Hassler, director of marketing and business development for exclusive synthesis. Both conveyed confidence in the company’s growth despite the economic unease especially in Europe.  They credit three factors for the steady course the company is now taking after the economic downturn of 2008: a good management team, a good workforce, and an owner who is not out for quick money in the next quarter. That owner is Karl-Gerhard Seifert. When he retired at...

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Two Harpswell alumni move on

During my trip to Cambodia in early September, my first stop was Siem Reap, the site of Cambodia’s world-famous ruins of Angkor, including Angkor Wat. For me, however, the main draw was two alumni of the Harpswell Foundation dormitories in Phnom Penh:  Suon Raksmey and So Dany. They completed their college degrees in 2010: Suon majored in biology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, and So completed a law degree at Royal University of Law & Economics, in Phnom Penh. (For a taste of life at the Harpswell dorms, go here; to meet some of the science majors at the Harpswell dorms, go here) The two young women are now teachers at the Jay Pritzker Academy, located near Tachet village in Siem Reap. JPA is a pre-K-to-12, English-language college-preparatory school with a goal of enabling all its graduates to qualify for admission in U.S. universities. Students at JPA come from the surrounding poor communities. They receive free education, uniforms, books, materials, three meals a day, and even hygiene kits. Suon and So have a special mission at JPA. They are helping the first batch of college-bound JPA students prepare for the Cambodian national college entrance exams. As JPA director and principal Hedi Belkaoui explained, even though the school’s goal is to prepare all students to be admissible to U.S. colleges and universities, JPA needs to prepare for the possibility that some students won’t make the cut. Students therefore need also to be admissible to Cambodian universities as a backup plan. Instruction in JPA is in both English and Khmer. But the Cambodian national college entrance exam is only in Khmer. JPA therefore needs to ensure that students, especially those who would like to apply for admission to science degrees, have the same mastery of subjects in Khmer as they do in English. Suon and So are teaching chemistry, biology, math, and physics in Khmer to JPA’s eleventh-grade students. Suon and So fulfill their roles at JPA with seriousness, confidence, and discipline, but also with joy in helping  Cambodian children from poor families take advantage of unique opportunities similar to what they themselves  enjoyed through the Harpswell Foundation. Already they are manifesting the leadership potential that got them admitted to the Harpswell dorms in the first...

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Young Cambodian women’s aspirations–in their own words

I was in Cambodia last week to visit the Harpswell Foundation Dormitory & Leadership Institute in Phnom Penh. I wanted to see what it was doing to achieve its mission of empowering a new generation of women leaders. Specifically, the foundation’s two dormitories enable young women with leadership potential to go to college in Cambodia’s capital, where the universities are located. In the dorms, the young women receive not only free accommodation but also free meals and training in leadership and the English language. Many residents come from farming families in far-flung provinces, too poor to support a daughter’s education in the capital. All the young women have a palpable desire to master their chosen fields of study and learn about the world around them. All have confidence in their ability to help Cambodia rebuild after the devastation of the Pol Pot regime. All are driven to push their country forward in development. Through the gleam in their eyes, one can easily envision them leading government ministries and building businesses 10 or 15 years from now. I spoke at length with some residents who are studying for science degrees about how they aim to help their country. The accompanying video clips are their responses to this question: How do you hope to help Cambodia advance? CHORN SOKUNTHEARY is a fourth-year biology major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the oldest of four sisters. Cambodia has a lot of environmental problems, she says, including people just cutting forests to make way for farms. “We need to learn to protect nature to avoid disasters,” she says. “People living in rural areas depend on the forests and rivers. If the forests and rivers have problems, those people cannot make a living.” Chorn wants to be a teacher or to work with environmental organizations. She has an internship with the nongovernmental organization Culture & Environment Preservation Association. She is working with ethnic groups living in the forests near the Mekong River who may be threatened by Laos’ plan to build a hydroelectric power plant on the river BUT KANHA is a fourth-year chemistry major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. She is the sixth child in a family of seven, the youngest among four sisters. All her older sisters are farmers. While in 10th grade, But’s interest in chemistry was sparked by a “nice and kind teacher” who inspired her to aspire to become her school’s top student in chemistry. “Everything around us is all chemistry,” But says. Green chemistry fascinates But. She wants to learn ways to reduce chemical hazards in products, to recycle waste, and to protect...

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Dorm Life
Sep03

Dorm Life

Life in a Phnom Penh dormitory is unlike any dorm life I’ve seen before. The young women at the Harpswell Foundation dormitory in Teuk Thla are all college students, sharing rooms and chores. Chores? Yes, chores, as in cooking and cleaning. Cooking is communal, with teams deciding the menu, purchasing ingredients, and preparing lunch and dinner three meals each day of the week. Everyone has cleaning assignments, ensuring that common areas are maintained and kept clean. Residents manually wash their own clothes. Tap water can stop running at any time; water for bathing is tepid at best. Residents must be inside the premises by 8 PM. Sounds like a place the average student in the developed world won’t go near. Yet the young women who live here consider themselves extremely lucky and privileged. In this dorm, they take part in regularly held English classes, current events discussions based on news from the Cambodia Daily, and leadership training right where they live, for free. They have access to a library, to the Internet, and to resident teachers. It’s a dream place for anyone with high aspirations but whose college education was never a certainty in the first place for financial reasons. Classes for the 2011-2012 school year have not yet begun, yet the dorm is bustling. Many residents are here, using vacation time to continue studying English or take part in internships. And residents call each other sister and treat each other as sisters in the best sense of the word. The dorm transforms its residents, many of whom come from farm families in far-flung provinces of Cambodia. As Rous Sreypov tells me, “I have changed a lot since I lived in Harpswell. I have confidence, I can say what I think.” Rous’ parents, who are farmers, studied only until seventh grade. She is about to begin her second year studying economic development. Like many of the residents I spoke to, Rous sees herself as a potential leader in Cambodia’s development. The vision imposes responsibilities that may seem enormous but all residents embrace, such as older residents sharing time and knowledge to help younger residents, especially those studying in their same field. “Harpswell does not require us to do this,” says Chhon Sophea, a biochemistry major at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “We’re sharing out of love; we are doing this by...

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