Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science
Sep09

Alan Alda At #ACSIndy: The Public’s Blind Date With Science

Actor Alan Alda might be best known for his portrayal of Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H, but these days he’s also becoming well-known in another capacity—as a science communicator. For those who lost track of him after his time sparring with Hot Lips Houlihan, this might seem odd. (And if you did, you simply must watch the movie “The Four Seasons”—you won’t regret it). But since 2009, Alda has been on the advisory board of the Center For Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. In fact, he helped found CCS and has become a passionate advocate for helping scientists interact more effectively with the public. Yesterday at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Indianapolis, Alda bonded with a standing-room-only crowd (“I’m so glad to be in this huge beaker with you,” he said) and shared his views on why scientists need to do better. Right now, he theorized, “the public is on a blind date with science.” They’re wondering, can I trust this stranger? Will I be attracted to this stranger when we meet? To the public, Alda explained, it’s an uncomfortable, slightly scary, situation, just like those awkward setups friends force upon one another. To drive home his point, he showed a man-on-the-street video in which a film crew asked a random assortment of folks to define a few terms: “element” and “organic compound.” Let’s just say they had a lot of problems with the latter and made some vague grumblings about the former belonging in a table. I cringed when one woman suggested the identity of one element: “fire.” I’m sure there are many factors contributing to why the public has trouble even defining the word element. But Alda contends that one reason might be that scientists have what’s called “the curse of knowledge.” To illustrate this problem, he took a volunteer from the audience in Indianapolis and asked her to silently choose a song from a list he had in his pocket. Then he instructed her to tap it out for the audience. She predicted that at least 80% of the viewers would figure out the tune from her microphone tappings, but after her performance, only 25% were able to name it (“My Country ‘Tis Of Thee”). Scientists have knowledge in their heads, and it seems perfectly clear to them, but it doesn’t always translate well to others, Alda explained. After years of hosting Scientific American Frontiers on PBS (1993 to 2005), Alda has gathered a number of tips on communicating science. Using a conversational tone is one, of course. Story telling is another, he told the crowd in Indianapolis. But not just telling any story....

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19th-Century Medicine In New Orleans
Apr22

19th-Century Medicine In New Orleans

Strolling around the French Quarter on my last day attending the spring ACS national meeting in New Orleans, I stumbled across the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, a 19th-century apothecary shop filled from floor to ceiling with bottles and jars containing crude drugs, herbal medicines, and even voodoo potions. For those of you who didn't get a chance to visit this gem of a place, check out this virtual tour I put together--and be sure to visit the next time ACS visits New Orleans in spring...

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Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101
Apr19

Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101

At last week’s American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, a group of chemists came together to discuss the latest and greatest in alcohol. No, this wasn’t on Bourbon Street. And karaoke, to-go cups, and beaded necklaces weren’t involved (as far as I know). Instead, these folks shared stories about cocktails and hangovers at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center during a symposium called “Chemistry of the Bar.” This week’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News features a column I wrote about one of the session’s presentations. Neil C. Da Costa, a researcher at International Flavors & Fragrances, in New Jersey, entertained the audience with tales of the hurricane, that rum-based drink the Big Easy is famous for. I featured Da Costa’s studies of the hurricane because of the soft spot I have for the cocktail: The first time I drank one was during my undergraduate years at, you guessed it, my first national ACS meeting. But I gave short shrift to other “Chemistry of the Bar” presentations. One particularly interesting talk was given by Jerry Zweigenbaum, a researcher at Agilent Technologies, in Delaware. Along with Alyson E. Mitchell and coworkers at the University of California, Davis, Zweigenbaum investigated the ingredients of the after-dinner liquor amaretto. If you’re like me, you might have thought that because amaretto smells like almonds, it’s made from them. Zweigenbaum says that’s not necessarily the case. According to legend, amaretto was first made in 1525 by soaking apricot kernels in alcohol. You can see the tale, conveniently located on the website of amaretto maker Disaronno, here. Apparently, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s star pupils was asked to paint a fresco of the Madonna in the Italian city Saronno. His model was a local innkeeper who showed her gratitude by gifting the fellow a drink made from the infamous kernels. Today, Disaronno says its amaretto contains “herbs and fruits soaked in apricot kernel oil.” But the problem with alcohols like amaretto, Zweigenbaum says, is they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives here in the U.S., rather than by FDA. That means companies don’t have to list the beverages’ ingredients or nutritional content. So what exactly Disaronno and other amaretto companies are putting in their wares remains a mystery. Zweigenbaum decided to find out. The Agilent researcher purchased seven different brands of amaretto (he won’t divulge which ones) and tested them with various analytical techniques—headspace gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and quadrupole time-of-flight liquid chromatography (Q-TOF LC), to name a few. One volatile compound stood out in all seven amaretto brands: benzaldehyde. This is the chemical that gives amaretto its sweet, yet...

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Looking Back On Philadelphia (#ACSPhilly)
Sep05

Looking Back On Philadelphia (#ACSPhilly)

The American Chemical Society meeting in Philly is now fading into our long-term memories. Chemists accomplished a lot in the City of Brotherly Love: They shared ideas, reported their chemical discoveries, and made new connections. Be sure to check out Monday’s issue of C&EN for stories from the meeting as well as photo highlights. In the meantime, here’s a look back on our time in Philly, told in pictures. And as we say goodbye to Philly, we look toward next spring’s gathering in New Orleans. The beleaguered region and its residents once again have a cleanup ahead of them, after facing Hurricane Isaac. Our hearts go out to everyone there who is dealing with the consequences of this natural disaster--it reminds us just how fragile life can...

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Liveblogging New Drug Candidates This Sunday
Mar19

Liveblogging New Drug Candidates This Sunday

The spring ACS national meeting is just around the corner, and with it, as always, comes the unveiling of a few drug candidates' structures. This symposium is always held in a big ballroom, and it's always packed. I'll be liveblogging the "First Disclosures of Clinical Candidates" symposium, which is this Sunday, March 21, from 2PM to 5PM Pacific. You can follow my updates at C&EN's new pharma blog, The Haystack. (Link will be live Sunday). My updates will also appear on Twitter. You don’t have to have a twitter account to see these updates. But if you do use twitter just follow me @carmendrahl To read the abstracts, visit the ACS meeting technical program, click on the 'divisions' tab, select the MEDI division, and then select "First Time Disclosures". Some food for thought before Sunday: 4 of the 6 talks appear to be about targeting G-protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). Last year the stat was two out of six. It always makes for a good talk when GPCRs and other membrane-bound proteins are involved. Since it's unlikely that there will be detailed structural information on the target (like an X-ray crystal structure) for teams to go on when optimizing their drug candidate, teams have to be...

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Rocking The Expo
Sep01

Rocking The Expo

Even though David Schurer jokes that he “would watch TV and eat ice cream” all day if he could, he was working hard on the Expo floor at the ACS national meeting last month. And he was loving it. As vice president and co-owner of Sorbent Technologies, an Atlanta-based chromatography materials and supply company, Schurer was working the crowd to drum up new business for his small company. Working the crowd at the Expo means luring them your way, and to do that, Schurer would often sling his Mini Martin guitar around his shoulder and do what he loves to do most. “I always do Louis Armstrong tunes, like 'Ain’t Misbehaving,' ” Schurer told me recently. "I usually play a Beatles tune, 'Blackbird.' And 'Foxy Lady,' ” usually at selective moments when the context matches the song. Says Schurer, “the ladies always like a little Hendrix.” Also in the mix are improvisations that conjure Hank Williams and Dave Matthews and music and lyrics that he makes up on the spot. “In D.C., I was just burning it and pretty much did what I had to do,” Schurer said. I had a brief conversation with him at the Expo and took a picture of him, but it took me a while to get back to him to find out if his musical approach to marketing and his leading role in chromatography had anything to do with one another. Schurer didn’t expect to be the bard of the Expo, but there have been signs that he could be for a long time. Let’s just say that music is in this guy enough that he dropped out of Emory University in the mid-1970s to give music a go. He played in bands and did solo gigs, but it wasn’t looking promising. Besides, he recalled, “I was getting parental pressure up the wazoo” to go back to school. Which he did, earning a business degree at Emory. But the musical life kept beckoning. “I hit the road after graduation,” he said, playing everything from “rock to pop,” solo or in bands, wherever and whenever he could. “I backed an Elvis impersonator,” he recalled, adding that sometimes things got a bit hairy. “I played in a bar where a girl got shot. It was kind of weird.” It was between the music gigs where Schurer got his feet into the laboratory supplies industry. His dad owed the Linden, N.J.-based Ace Scientific Supply Company, and he asked David to spend some time in Puerto Rico on a project that was leading edge at the time—developing interfaces between microcomputers and laboratory instruments. That turned into a...

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