February 2015: Science Stories

Royal Society R.Science - 27 February, 2015 - 17:39

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Categories: Education

Prevent problems with proper planning

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 26 February, 2015 - 17:32

Guest post by Heather Cassell

One of the great joys of being in the lab is being in charge of your own experiments, from designing what you want to study to the interpretation of the results. Having responsibility for your work from conception to completion is challenging and ultimately rewarding.

The first step in designing your experiment is to find out what you want to know. That sounds simple and obvious, but it really is key to providing focus when planning your work. You must consider why you are doing this experiment, what it could show, how it fits with your other work, and, importantly, will you be able to interpret the results in a meaningful way, providing answers you can build on?

Inspiration for your experiments can come from diverse sources, beyond the traditional scientific lectures or academic literature, a conversation with a current or former colleague can be all it takes. But whatever the source of the idea, it is always a good idea to check if anyone else has beaten you to it by consulting the literature. Not that repeating existing work is a bad idea – you can see if existing studies are reproducible and if so, embellish or add to the data. Or you can change the design of your experiment to fit with your own previous studies, and may find something new.

Once you know what you want to do, it’s time to plan the details: what samples do you have, how many repeats do you need to make your results significant, and – more importantly – how are you going to tell if your experiment has worked properly? This is where planning the correct controls can make a big difference: I learned the hard way that it is good to include both positive and negative controls for every experiment. I wasted a lot of time trying to get an experiment to work, changing conditions one-by-one, when it was really a denatured enzyme stopping the reaction. A positive control means you always get a result, which is much better than no result. This is especially true when you are doing PCR; there are few sadder sights for a biochemist then a picture of a gel with just a ladder.

But I’ve also had it the other way – where I happily reported what seemed like a great result, only to find out that it was an artefact of the experimental design and my results became insignificant when I included different controls. Proper planning could have prevented that problem.

But that’s it! Once you have your experiment planned, designed and justified to the powers that be, you can return to your natural home in the lab and try it out. Ideally, things will run smoothly and every experiment will go without a hitch. You may encounter problems – but fear not! Every experimental error is an opportunity to learn, get back to the drawing board, then return, freshly inspired, to the bench.

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Categories: Education

The carbon revolution

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 19 February, 2015 - 17:12

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

A carbon nanotube, animated by Schwarzm, and released here under a CC-BY-SA licence

If necessity is the mother of invention, discovery is more than fuelled by fashion. After the 1985 groundbreaking discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, the ground for stable carbon allotropes with interesting shapes and properties was just that – broken. In 1990, Richard Smalley postulated the existence of carbon nanotubes as long, extended hexagon-based versions of C60, or ’buckytubes’. Carbon dirt had never looked so good before, and the mucking about began.

Graphene flakes were first isolated at Manchester University by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov in 2003, when they noticed the technique surface scientists were using to clean graphite samples – peeling off the contaminated upper layer using pieces of sellotape. The pieces of sellotape went in the bin, but Geim and Novoselov fished them out again – and started painstakingly peeling off thinner and thinner layers until they made 1 atom thick graphene. They were awarded the Nobel prize for physics in 2010.

Sumio Iijima, who is often credited with the discovery of carbon nanotubes,  attributes his discovery to serendipity. He had been studying diamond-like carbon, an amorphous diamond phase, using the new arc discharge method developed by Donald Huffman and Wolfgang Krätschmer in 1990. The rod-like carbon dirt surrounding his diamonds captured his attention: carbon tubes 3-30nm in diameter. Later, attempts to introduce transition metals to these tubes would lead him to create single-walled carbon nanotubes, a finding submitted to Nature for publication on 23 April 1993, one month before the US team headed by Bethume submitted exactly the same accidental result.

But whilst Iijima may claim that ’discovery was not simply coincidence – it was the power of serendipity’, it would be fairer to say that carbon nanotubes were rediscovered. Carbon-based filaments were recorded as long ago as 1889 by Robert Bacon when decomposing methane. But back in 1889, there was no such thing as a transmission electron microscope (TEM), and so no nanoscale imaging to view and characterise these filaments. The first TEM appeared in 1939, and the first TEM images of tubular nanoscale carbon tubes was published in 1952 by L. V. Radushkevich and V. M. Lukyanovich – but in a Russian journal, and in Russian. Published during the cold war, this paper went largely unread in the west. Although single-walled carbon nanotubes were first announced in the 1993 issue of Nature, TEM images from Oberlin et al. in 1976 indicate that successful synthesis had already been achieved.

And the carbon fever has not died down. In 2013, carbon ’sea urchins’ were accidentally prepared by researchers at Queen Mary and Kent Universities, growing on the surface of their carbon nanotube equipment. Intentionally roughening the surface accelerated the synthesis of these spiky iron-filled carbon balls with unusual magnetic properties. Although exciting applications such as permanent magnets, cancer therapy and batteries that charge from waste heat have been proposed, it seems likely that, like other carbon nanomaterials, new discoveries will outpace implementation: cheap and efficient production of carbon nanomaterials of a high enough quality has not yet been achieved.

It is only when nanomaterials are of a very high quality that the awesome properties may be observed, such as very high conductivity, luminescence or the ability of graphene sheets to filter hydrogen from the atmosphere for generating electricity. When we speak of the 1991 discovery of carbon nanotubes, it is perhaps the discovery of their properties and future potential to which we refer, rather than simply the creation of a new carbon allotrope. Carbon nanotubes have the highest pressure resistance of any known material, withstanding pressures of up to 63Gpa. They are ultra absorbant, heat-resistant, and at very high temperatures carbon nanotubes shimmer, loose their shape and become almost invisible, just like their origins.


If you are interested in hearing more about nanomaterials, structures and unusual properties, the Environmental Chemistry Interest Group of the Royal Society of Chemistry are holding an event in London on 24 June.

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Categories: Education

The scent of science: our guest bloggers’ memorable smells

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 16 February, 2015 - 17:51

Last week, we heard from Derek Lowe about the evocative smells associated with working in the lab. Inspired by Derek’s olfactory adventures, the Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry teams shared their own experiences.

This week, we hear from our regular guest bloggers Tom Branson, Heather Cassell, JessTheChemist and Rowena Fletcher-Wood about their own smelly memories, along with a few more from the #labsmells hashtag.

@ChemistryWorld For some reason memories of the synthesis of 4-allyl-2-methoxyphenol (eugenol) in 1st year lab has stuck with me #labsmells

— Astril Tifs (@firstilast) February 14, 2015

Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Chemistry has ruined me for marzipan.

Not just marzipan, of course, almonds, almond flavouring, even apricots. If you waft a piece of almond cake under my nose unexpectedly, I will automatically give an sudden and violent sniff, and recoil physically. I can’t help it, it’s an instinct, and that smell is the smell of hydrogen cyanide.

Early on in my chemistry career, when I was still in school, we conducted an electrolysis of brine, rapidly evolving chlorine gas into the lap until I felt woozy and had to go outside. It wasn’t the only time I nearly gassed myself. There were more than a few faulty fume hoods, or ones we had simply forgotten to switch on, and the ammonia gas cylinder that popped its collection flask and started dumping poisonous gas into the lab. We used cyanide during my undergraduate in solutions to create colour chemistry. It was terrifying – the only way you knew it was going wrong was if you smelt the cyanide, and the difference between first smelling it and the toxic effects of it is not much. I bent over the solution, sniffing frantically so as not to miss the first signs. I was so paranoid I was imagining smelling it, confused between reality and expectation. But the smell was never as strong as in marzipan – ergo marzipan must be fatally toxic.

I’ve been doing full time chemistry for eight years now. I think like a chemist. The logic circuits in my brain just can’t accept that marzipan is a safe food. It’s toxic. Step AWAY from the marzipan.

@ChemistryWorld I once isolated chamazulene from chamomile. 28 years on, when I smell chamomile, I am back in that lab. #memory #labsmells — La L (@La_L_NL) February 14, 2015

Heather Cassell

Within the lab there are many smells that I enjoy, such as yeast and agar which remind me of growing E. coli, a bacterium I also like the smell of. I like the smell of acetone and isopropanol used in small amounts in reactions and for cleaning glassware. Dilute acetic acid as it reminds me of the vinegar on fish and chips. Another bacterium, actinomycetes, release geosmin as they are growing – that compound gives soil the particularly earthy smell, especially after a heavy summer shower.

But there are also lab smells I really don’t enjoy, for example the beta-mercaptoethanol that I use to set sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS)-gels for electrophoresis. I now have its use down to a fine art to reduce the exposure time: open the bottle one-handed, pipette the amount needed with the other hand, close the bottle again a quickly as possible whilst adding the liquid to the gel solution. Only once the bottle is closed do I gently mix and pouring the gel mix into the glass plates. Then there’s the smell of chlorine, released from a too concentrated Virkon solution. It’s bad enough when used in solution to clean glassware after growing bacteria, but it is definitely worse if it is in an aspirator trap. As soon as you turn the pump on it fills the room with a chlorine smell that can strip the hairs from your nose, and will linger in your clothes and hair for ages.

@ChemistryWorld nothing can be worse than the 2-bromoskatole I made during my phd! Smelt of it for a week-but got me a seat on the tube! — Adrian Dobbs (@APDobbs) February 15, 2015

Tom Branson

I’m certain that my aversion to the smell of ethanol stems from one overindulgent night. Not one spent sniffing chemicals in the lab but rather one spent drinking chemicals in the pub. Vodka shots used to be my bread and butter, but no longer. My senses are now unable to disassociate the highly alcoholic drink from its active ingredient. Since that fateful night I now grimace every time I have to disinfect a biosafety cabinet. A sharp whiff of ethanol and my mind leaps back to that memory, or at least the after-effects. However, one good thing that has come from my dislike of pure ethanol is a new fondness for gin and tonic.

@ChemistryWorld #labsmells 880 ammonia. The teacher told us all not to inhale near the bottle. Taught me the value of obedience.

— Lee Vousden (@Lee_Vousden) February 13, 2015


As a PhD student, I frequently worked with elemental fluorine, the flammable and highly toxic halogen gas. Fluorine can be smelled at around nine parts per billion, which is a similar odour detection threshold to that of hydrogen sulfide. It is hard to describe the smell of fluorine, but it is unpleasant and vaguely smells like a mixture of ozone and chlorine. Although the smell is remarkably offensive, its pungent odour does mean that the smallest leak in your reaction set-up can be identified very quickly and fixed. So while fluorine was a smelly, unpleasant chemical to work with, its smell was extremely useful from a safety perspective.

I love the #labsmells of Cp* in the morning. Smells like – chemistry.

— John Arnold (@pbn2au) February 13, 2015


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Categories: Education

The scent of science

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 13 February, 2015 - 15:43

M-H Jeeves

In this month’s Chemistry World, Derek Lowe writes about the memorable smells associated with a career in chemistry, including the fragrantly fruity funk of esters and the suspicious seaside stench of amines.

Inspired by Derek’s olfactory adventures, I asked a few of the Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry team to recount their own experiences of lab smells, and opened it up to the twittersphere under the hashtag #labsmells:

@broadwithp @ChemistryWorld being able to navigate chemistry dept corridors by different #labsmells emanating from certain labs

— Alex Sinclair (@Alex_Sinc) February 11, 2015

Philip Robinson, Deputy Editor, Chemistry World

As a PhD student in the ‘dry’ half of a biochemical NMR group, most lab smells were associated with a sense of relief that I was at last free of the chaotic caprice of real chemistry. But on occasional trips down the corridor to see how the other half lived I’d often encounter the bold odour of the yeast cultures that were busily building our proteins.

That heavy, dense aroma, fusty and overripe evokes equal parts revulsion and pleasure and sends me further back, to boyhood, sat in the back of the family car holding my breath to avoid the scent as we drove past Edinburgh’s reeking breweries. But those many years later, my tastes matured, I’d often stand outside the department when the wind blew just right, looking up at the darkening blue of the evening sky and drawing in deep lungfuls of that delicious air. Opening a jar of vegemite brings it all back these days.

@ChemistryWorld H2S. Smelly and deadly.

— Rams (@ramadam09) February 11, 2015


@broadwithp @ChemistryWorld This week I will be introducing my research students to the swern oxidation. #labsmells

— Sarah Zingales (@SKZingales) February 11, 2015

Phillip Broadwith, Business Editor, Chemistry World

One of my most memorable lab aromas is when Paul (Docherty) was using hexanoic acid in the lab. Also known as caproic acid, from capra, the latin name for goats, because that’s exactly what it smells like. In fact, in the listing for caproic acid in The Merck Index, under ‘properties’, you’ll find the sentence ‘Oily liquid, bp 205ºC. Characteristic goat-like odor’.

It’s one of a family of alkyl acids that all have interesting odours, varying as the chain length increases from smelling of pain (formic) through vinegar (acetic), cheese (propanoic), vomit (butanoic) and animal faeces (pentanoic), before the molecules become less volatile as they get heavier.

Fortunately, I didn’t need to raid the chemical store to find out about these smells, because Dylan Stiles (former CW columnist) wrote a brilliant post about it on his (now defunct) Tenderbutton blog. (the archived blog can be accessed using the username tender, password button)

@ChemistryWorld @Dereklowe i love the smell of the lab in the morning. It’s better than coffee, it’s olfactory inspiration.

— Louis Redux (@LouisRedux) February 11, 2015


@chemistryworld @dereklowe These days we’re working with tons of Py, Me2S and MeSH in the lab. They’re disgusting, indeed. Nice article :)

— Fer (@gomobel) February 11, 2015

Katrina Krämer, Graduate trainee, Chemistry World 

In the last half year of my PhD project I started making phosphine ligands using diphenylphosphine as the nucleophile. I got to know phosphines (tertiary ones that is) as tame, usually colour- and odourless powders. Secondary phosphines, however, are a completely different story.

I agree that there are many nasty smells in the lab, but at least I can place those smells – amines smell like rotten fish, thiols like garlic or old cheese. Describing the smell of HPPh2, however, is difficult: somehow sickly sweet, with some rotten carcass thrown into the mixture, a strong metallic aftertaste and extremely potent – I don’t think I ever smelled anything even remotely resembling this, and I don’t think I want to ever again.

After getting a bunch of looks that could kill from my labmates after rotavapping a flask with residual HPPh2 on the bench (we didn’t have a rotavap in a fumehood), I set up a massive bleach bath next to my fumehood, in which I immediately immersed all glassware that had come into contact with the nasty phosphine. But even through the bleach (since diphenylphosphine is stable enough to survive some days of bleaching) I could still smell the phosphine when I opened the bucket. From then on, I started doing all glassware washing inside my fumehood rather than in the sink.

When my supervisor suggested I should try different phosphines, in particular asymmetric ones like HP(Ph)Me, I vehemently declined – having done my homework, I knew that other secondary phosphines were another step down the ladder of evil odours. After sending him some further reading on the topic, my supervisor agreed, so luckily HPPh2 was the nastiest smell I ever encountered.

1 yr on, toluene still makes me heave – MT @ChemistryWorld Lab aromas conjure memories & emotions @Dereklowe

— lauren tedaldi (@LaurenTedaldi) February 11, 2015


@ChemistryWorld ..the smell of benzaldehide semilar to almond juice always remindes me of summer smell♥★

— salwa (@salwayussef) February 11, 2015

Paul MacLellan, Deputy Editor, Education in Chemistry

I had the pleasure of doing a PhD in organo-sulfur chemistry. By far the most onerous compound I had to make was a small thioester substrate. It wasn’t the worst-smelling compound I dealt with – indeed, the next step in the synthesis involved reducing it to a terrifyingly metallic-smelling thiol. But the reduction could be done on a small scale, whereas I had to make several grams of the thioester at a time.

Over a couple of weeks I built up something of a reputation in the surrounding labs (it didn’t help that this was early on in my lab career and I wasn’t perhaps as rigorous in containing the odours as I came to be soon after). Some people commented on the stench of the thioester being reminiscent (in the worst way) of bacon. Others identified marijuana. But to me, the smell inexplicably conjured memories of camping as a kid.

This remained a mystery to me for a year or so until a friend of mine visited my lab. While I was showing her around she picked up a faint background odour. A long-suffering Londoner, she identified it immediately. ‘Fox piss.’ Perhaps my parents should have pitched our tent more carefully.

.@dftchemist @ChemistryWorld undergrad sweat (due to hard work) is every PI’s favorite lab smell, isn’t it?

— FX Coudert (@fxcoudert) February 11, 2015


.@ChemistryWorld Least favorite #labsmell, disc crash in the morning. Like overheated brakepads – burning plastic+metal & vaporized data.

— Preston MacDougall (@ChemicalEyeGuy) February 11, 2015

Matt Gunther, Science Correspondent, Chemistry World

The smell of cyanoacrylate, commonly known as superglue, is a laboratory smell that will forever haunt me. As part of my research I was tasked with imaging invisible organic matter on a steel surface. Inspired by CSI, I decided to form acrylate vapour in an enclosed chamber – the vapour reacts with the organic to produce a white residue.

One day, I opened the chamber and the smell hit me. Before I had to time to react to the smell, I realised I couldn’t see. Turns out I’d superglued my eyes shut.

.@ChemistryWorld Favorite #labsmells are anethole and its derivatives. Remind me of origami at the nanoscale.

— Preston MacDougall (@ChemicalEyeGuy) February 11, 2015


@ChemistryWorld @RealTimeChem I remember the first and only time I smelled phosgene! I bailed real fast! #labsmells #rottenhay

— Dave Belyea (@ve5rb) February 11, 2015


There are many more examples of memorable lab aromas on the #labsmells tag, or you can join in the conversation on Facebook.

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Categories: Education

Secrets from the authors: what makes a good journal cover?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 12 February, 2015 - 14:22

Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month I took a look back at the journal covers from Chemical Science in 2014 and asked the authors why they made these startling images. To follow on from these enlightening insights, I delved a little deeper and sought to find an answer to the ultimate question, which is of course: what makes a good journal cover?

Scientific and public audiences

To answer this question you first have to decide who the target audience(s) are and what you want to show them. Most of the authors I spoke to agreed that the image should be accessible to the general public. Julia Weinstein from the University of Sheffield, UK, whose cover was out last March, expressed the difficulty in also keeping the specialists happy. An image needs to have ‘general importance (for general public), and some fine details which will be of interest to professionals. It is a virtually impossible task!’ she said. However, how many members of the general public ever actually see these masterpieces is a question for another time.

Ultimately, the artwork must be visually appealing. If it does not encourage readers to look further into the paper, then the image has, to some extent, failed. This means making the images eye-catching and interesting. A little sense of humour is also often used to good effect, although Tell Tuttle, of the University of Strathclyde, UK, (whose work featured on the cover of the February 2014 issue), warned that you can go too far with the jokes: ‘you’re likely to be ridiculed for making pretty pictures.’

Layers upon layers

One cover in Chemical Science from 2014 stood out for me more than the others. This was not necessarily because it was the most eye-catching or the most information-rich, but because it piqued my curiousity. This cover from Tony James of the University of Bath, UK, was published last September and featured three stamps on top of a fluorescent image.

James says that good cover art ‘should be simple yet have a strong set of images telling a story related to the research.’ You can’t get much simpler than placing stamps on top of an image taken directly from the actual article. But there is obviously a story behind this image. The stamps featured are from the three countries of the groups involved; China, South Korea and the UK. Stamps also relate to sending messages, a nice (although a little tenuous) link to fluorescent imaging as cellular messaging.

At a casual glance, that is where the layers of information seem to end, but this cover goes further, although as it does so it does become a little obscure.  James understates that ‘the next level may not be so obvious.’  The Chinese stamp is a painting of a tree peony, a native of China and used in traditional medicines as an antioxidant. The article describes the detection of peroxynitrite, which oxidises many biomolecules including DNA and unsaturated phospholipids. See the connection there?

The next stamp, from Korea, depicts the metric system, and the research involved taking measurements. I’ll admit that this link is a bit thin, but final stamp makes up for it. The British stamp shows a picture of Dorothy Hodgkin and celebrates 50 years since her Nobel prize for advances in x-ray crystallography and determining the structure of vitamin B12, another molecule with a role in cell messaging. The other two stamps are also from 50 years ago and 2014 was the year that the three corresponding authors all celebrated turning 50!

I love this level of detail and I have a great deal of respect for the story behind the artwork, even though I doubt that these subtleties are easily apparent to anyone not named in the author list. Nevertheless, special touches like these are certainly what interests me and what I believe make the difference between good covers and great covers.

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Categories: Education

Academic family: Carl Djerassi

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 5 February, 2015 - 13:09

Guest post by JessTheChemist

’I feel like I’d like to lead one more life. I’d like to leave a cultural imprint on society rather than just a technological benefit’ – Carl Djerassi

May you rest in peace, Carl Djerassi (October 29, 1923 – January 30, 2015).

The so-called ’father of the pill’ [he preferred ‘the mother of the pill’, as he saw himself nurturing the chemical ‘egg’ to bring forth the pill], Carl Djerassi, died recently at the age of 91 after a battle with cancer. Djerassi had a varied career involving both the sciences and the arts, contributing in particular to the fields of natural product chemistry, including antihistamines and pesticides, and spectroscopy. In 1951 Djerassi and his co-workers completed the synthesis of the first synthetic oral contraceptive, norethindrone or ’the pill’ and, due to the work by John Rock; by 1960 the pill was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for contraceptive use.

Djerassi was awarded a wealth of accolades for his contributions to the field of chemistry, from the Wolf prize in chemistry (1978) to the Priestley medal (1992); however, the Nobel prize in chemistry is a notable omission. Every year the twittersphere is awash with debates about the next Nobel prize in chemistry winner should be and Djerassi’s name is always top of the list, and my personal front-runner. The last will of Alfred Nobel stated that prizes should be given ’to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind’. To say that the pill is of benefit to man- and womankind is an understatement and Djerassi should have been honoured many years ago by the Nobel Committee. As a small gesture to the man and his ground-breaking work, I shall celebrate him here. This blog series is focussed on the academic relationships of Nobel Prize winners, I’ve made an exception for a man who has had an enormous influence on my life and that of many other women around the world.

As with many other fine chemists, Djerassi is connected to a large number of influential and prize-winning scientists. His closest Nobel relatives are K. Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2001 for his work on chiral catalysis, and Paul Karrer who won the prize in 1937 for this research into carotenoids, flavins and vitamins A and B2. Sharpless was a postdoc for Konrad Bloch who won the physiology and medicine prize in 1964 for his research into fatty acids and cholesterol. More information about Sharpless’ and Bloch’s connections can be found in a previous post about the academic family of Sir William Ramsay. Karrer was a graduate student for Alfred Werner, who himself won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1913 for his research into coordination chemistry. Interestingly, Werner was the first inorganic chemist to win the Nobel prize. Karrer is also connected to George Wald, yet another Nobel laureate. Wald won the prize for physiology or medicine in 1967 for his work on the physiological and chemical visual processes in the eye. Through his graduate student, David Lightner, Djerassi is also connected to the 1930 Nobel prize winner in chemistry, Hans Fischer, a pioneer of haemin and chlorophyll chemistry.

Later in his career, Djerassi decided to become an ‘intellectual smuggler’, communicating scientific concepts through fiction and playwriting. Chemistry World‘s Ben Valsler spoke to him about this last year:

As you can see, Carl Djerassi is connected to a number of influential scientists from a variety of research backgrounds, and many more can be found at It is a travesty that Djerassi himself didn’t win the Nobel prize, but it is my hope that his legacy will continue for years to come.

Don’t forget, if you have a Nobel prize winning chemist that you want to see researched, get in touch with me via twitter (@jessthechemist).

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Categories: Education

January 2015: Scientific anniversaries

Royal Society R.Science - 30 January, 2015 - 15:26

This podcast from the Royal Society has moved.

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Categories: Education

The joy of fluorescent proteins

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 29 January, 2015 - 16:25

Guest post by Heather Cassell

In the lab, you develop a fondness for working with certain things: compliant equipment, pleasant smelling solvents, easy-to-culture bacteria. One of my favourites are fluorescent proteins – their bright colours can make even the dullest day that little bit more cheery. I find them a joy to work with not only because of their beauty, but because the source of that beauty also makes them easy to work with.

A San Diego beach scene drawn with an eight colour palette of bacterial colonies expressing fluorescent proteins derived from GFP and the red-fluorescent coral protein dsRed. The colors include BFP, mTFP1, Emerald, Citrine, mOrange, mApple, mCherry and mGrape. Artwork by Nathan Shaner, photography by Paul Steinbach, created in the lab of Roger Tsien in 2006. (CC-BY-SA)

A good example of this is in protein production. During expression in E. coli, you often cannot tell how well expression of a colourless protein is going, but because fluorescent proteins will produce a colour even at a relatively low concentrations, it can be seen while the cells are still growing. This allows you to keep track of your progress, answering key questions like: do I have any protein? Or did I add the chemical I need to produce the protein? (The latter being a not uncommon mistake for a sleep-deprived scientist.) Getting answers to these visually means no lengthy purification procedure, avoiding the inevitable disappointment.

The colouration continues to be helpful as you go through the protein purification process: you can easily see if your protein has been released from the cells, whether it has bound to the column, if it has been released from the column and so on. Again, each of these steps requires another means of detection in colourless proteins.

Fluorescent proteins can also provide a splash of colour amidst a sea of colourless buffers, which allows you to immediately check you have added your protein. As you gain experience with these colourful concoctions, you begin to get a sense of what concentration they are just from the colour.

Fluorescent proteins not brighten up the lab and make protein purification easier, but they’re vitally useful throughout the sciences. They can be used to track the location and expression levels of other proteins in cells, to help produce difficult to express proteins, in fluorescence microscopy and in biosensors. But beyond their scientific merit, they can also be used to express your artistic side,

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Categories: Education

Time’s running out for your chance to win £500!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 January, 2015 - 12:28

Guest post by Isobel Hogg, Royal Society of Chemistry

Can you explain the importance of chemistry to human health in just 1 minute? If you’re an early-career researcher who is up to the challenge, making a 1 minute video could win you £500.

We are looking for imaginative ways to showcase how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges. Your video should be no longer than one minute, and you can use any approach you like.

The winner will receive a £500 cash prize, with a £250 prize for second place and £150 prize for third place up for grabs too.

Stuck for inspiration? Last year’s winning video is a good place to start. John Gleeson’s video was selected based on the effective use of language, dynamic style, creativity and its accurate content.

The closing date for entries to be submitted is 30 January 2015. Our judging panel will select the top five videos. We will then publish the shortlisted videos online and open the judging to the public to determine the winner and the runners up.

For more details on how to enter the competition and who is eligible, join us at the Take 1… page.

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Categories: Education

Captain of hooks

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 22 January, 2015 - 18:02

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Open your eyes and take a closer look: sometimes that’s all it takes to realise a new invention has been with you all along, stuck, perhaps, to the cuffs of your trousers and the fur of your pointer. Like the burrs of the burdock, evolved to stick to the fur of animals, transporting the seeds far and wide to fall on new ground.

Velcro hooks
Image by Alexander Klink – CC-BY

Swiss amateur mountaineer Georges de Mestral had been hunting in the French Alps one summer evening in 1948, when exactly this occurred. He had obviously encountered burrs before, but for the first time his mind connected an observation (the sticky burrs) and an application (fashion) – it was a scientific portmanteau or ‘blend’ of two ideas, contracting their meanings into a single new commodity: Velcro. The name is a portmanteau too, a combination of the French words velour and crochet: the soft fabric side and the hooked. De Mestral had stumbled upon a new way of fixing clothing, but was it such an accident? Louis Pasteur, scientist and inventor of the Pasteurisation process, famously said ‘in the fields of observation, chance favours only the prepared mind.’ He had a point.

An engineer by trade, de Mestral immediately stuck the intriguing burrs beneath a microscope to observe how they functioned, noting that they consisted of miniature hooks that tangled readily with hairy loops. But to work in fashion, these hooks needed other special properties: they needed the flexibility and longevity that would allow them to straighten out when pulled away from the loopy surface and bounce back into shape upon release, eager to hook again.

Undaunted by their smallness, de Mestral set about constructing the tiny hooks that demonstrated his principle from cotton with the help of a weaver. He created a functioning velcro, but unfortunately the cotton hooks wore out after just a few detachments, bending permanently and losing their ‘stickiness’. But it was the loops or velour which really caused him trouble: velour, itself a cotton-based velvet-like material, is not particularly sticky, and the connection was weak. His colleagues laughed at him, but de Mestral persisted – for nearly eight years.

Then came the invention of nylon.

De Mestral jumped upon it and stuck to it like velcro. He rapidly discovered by trial and error that sewing the hooks under infra-red light make them tough and increased their durability. Furthermore, nylon is inert to rot, mould, or decomposition in the lifetime of a product – de Mestral had found his fabric and patented the invention in 1955 before moving on to creating a loom that could weave velcro hooks and trim them smoothly, initiating mass production.

Today, not all velcro is equal. ‘Industrial velcro’ is made of woven steel wire and used in high temperature applications. Space shuttles use Teflon-looped polyester-hooked velcro fused into glasses. It’s also used to stick tail light covers to cars. Most domestic velcro is made of nylon or polyester, each with benefits and drawbacks. Nylon lasts longer, with a half-life of 10,000 attaching and detaching cycles – equivalent to 27 years of opening and closing once a day. Polyester velcro, meanwhile, only lasts 3,500 cycles, but it is also less sensitive to decomposition under heat, moisture and ultraviolet light.

It’s now become commonplace, but velcro According to Anthony Rubino, Jr’s book Why didn’t I think of that, a 2 inch square unit of velcro can actually take the weight of a 79.4 kg person (is this something to try at home?)

Eventually, many cycles will compromise the velcro, but that’s okay: the internet sports several methods for revitalising it, including rubbing it with a toothbrush, scratching it with a pin, or melting and trimming off the loops. Whilst this may be effective if dirt and debris have depleted your velcro quality, it’s not so good when eventual uncurling of the loops is at fault. You may find this happens faster with some products than others: not all ‘velcro’ today is really velcro. After the patent ran out in 1978, the market became flooded with cheap imitations, some of which have been reported to only last a few months.

Despite what Star Trek says, velcro was not invented by the Vulcans, just an observer with a well prepared mind.

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Categories: Education

LEDs and the International Year of Light

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 January, 2015 - 18:03

Guest post by Jen Dougan

‘May it be a light to you, in dark places. When all other lights go out.’
J. R. R. Tolkien

Yesterday saw the opening ceremony to mark the start of the International Year of Light (IYL). Today scientists and policy makers will meet in Paris for day two of the celebrations. Designated by the United Nations, the IYL aims to increase awareness about the importance of light in our modern and developing world, such is the breadth of light–based technologies – from biological sensing to next generation light emitting diodes (LEDs). Undoubtedly, our world is enriched by harnessing the energy of light, and one of the core aims of IYL is to focus on the plight of 1.5 billion of the world’s inhabitants for whom sunset means darkness.

Blue light emitting diodes (Blue LED). Image by Gussisaurio at wikipedia (CC-BY-SA)

With little or no access to electrical lighting, many rural communities in the developing world have limited ability to read after sundown, have restricted working hours, and hospitals have to power down the lights in the evening – limiting healthcare options. Many families rely on the use of paraffin or kerosene lamps. This isn’t without problems, kerosene is a flammable hydrocarbon producing toxic fumes when burned and is a significant fire-safety hazard. Attempting to address this, the IYL ‘study after sunset’ campaign seeks to promote the use of solar powered LED lights in the communities that need them most.

Anyone who has handled a traditional incandescent lightbulb can attest to its inefficiency. Producing significant amounts of heat (capable of burning fingers!), incandescent bulbs are economically and environmentally wasteful. But alternatives do exist. LEDs generate far more light, measured in lumens per Watt (lm/W), than standard incandescent or fluorescent lighting (Figure 1). Of course, the use of LEDs helps to reduce bills and energy consumption and, considering that lighting accounts for ~25% of electricity usage in developed countries, that presents a significant reduction. It is their efficiency and bulb lifetime of 100,000 hours (an order of magnitude greater than incandescent bulbs) that may enable LEDs to illuminate lives the world over.

Figure 1: Comparative brightness of lighting devices.
Image: © The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

With this potential impact, it’s clear why researchers Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics for the development of blue LEDs, which enable the production of bright white light sources.

How science LED the way

To emit white light, additive colour mixing is employed, which involves combining red, green and blue light (Figure 2). Although red and green LEDs had been developed in the 1950s and 60s, it wasn’t until 1992 that a blue LED was produced, allowing white light to be created from LEDs. Using semiconductor technology, LEDs are much more efficient that traditional lighting – which relies on an electrical current heating a wire (typically tungsten in a white lightbulb) until it glows – because they convert electrical energy directly into light.

Figure 2: Additive colour mixing to produce white light.
Image: Mike Horvath on Wikipedia

Semiconductors can be p-type or n-type, indicating whether they have insufficient electrons (considered as a surplus of ‘holes’, so p for positive) or a surplus of electrons (n for negative). This characteristic of a semiconductor is tuned by increasing the level of doping – that is, the controlled addition of impurity atoms. From the interface between the p-type and n-type materials, in the active layer – where the electrons meet the holes, light is emitted (Figure 3). The energy (or wavelength/colour) of the light produced (or whether it is produced at all) is dictated by the materials used to create the semiconductor. The energy gap, or band gap, between the two materials must be such that light of the desired wavelength is produced. Blue LEDs are principally composed of gallium nitride (GaN) as the semiconductor material (Figure 3). Once GaN crystals of sufficient quality could be grown, and p-type GaN produced by elimination of hydrogen from the surface, LEDs were developed that emitted blue light.

Figure 3: Inside a blue LED (click for full size)
Image: © The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences

With blue LEDs in hand, white light could be produced. This was achieved either by situating blue, red and green LEDs in close proximity, which appear white to the eye, or by applying a phosphor coating to a blue LED. The phosphor is a compound which, when irradiated, causes a shift in wavelength (colour) of light to yellow – this combines with the blue light to appear white. Research into the development of novel phosphors is underway to allow an increased tone palette to be achieved.

Blue LED technology was used for the development of Blu-ray discs and finds use in mobile phones and LCD screens. But it is for the potential to bring light to billions in night-time darkness that we should celebrate the beginning of this International Year of Light.

IYL is a great opportunity to celebrate light and its interaction with chemistry. I hope to focus on a broad range of topics over the coming months on this theme. I’d love to hear about any chemistry related activities going on during IYL and/or any topics you’d be interested in. Drop me a note below or contact me on twitter: @jendtweeting #IYLchemistry

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Categories: Education

Who made these covers and what are they doing here?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 15 January, 2015 - 16:28

Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s a new year and therefore a new set of exciting cover art awaits us. Last year gave us some great examples of artistic flair matched with clear science communication, as well as a good few covers that can be described as nothing but bizarre. Either way, they got my attention.

But why do authors want their work on a front cover and what does it actually mean to the scientists who designed them? Instead of surging ahead with my own opinions, I thought that this time I should get some answers from the creators themselves. Focusing on Chemical Science, I tracked down the corresponding authors responsible for some of the cover art during 2014 and asked them a few simple questions to gather a small insight into the minds of these artists.

Why would anyone want to create a cover image?

Well, what’s the point? My first thought was simply about extra exposure. And yes, the overwhelming response I received was about gaining extra attention, raising the visibility of their work and attracting more readers. Everybody seemed to agree on this fact.

But another popular reason is that using an image is a great way to tell the story. Rafael Luque, of the Universidad de Córdoba, knew it would be an easy step to create a cover image. He said that his ‘work related to MOF design could be nicely represented by a simple image with Lego-like model building’. The cover in October was indeed simple, incorporating sticks and balls, which makes the concept instantly easy to grasp. Pictures are often better than the written word for describing a difficult concept, especially for a non-specialist audience that the cover may help to attract. Once a reader gets the idea from the image, the article becomes more accessible.

Other interesting reasons included use of a cover image at conferences and the simple fact that seeing your image in print gives your confidence a nice boost. But only if the actual research is particularly strong do some decide to go for a cover image. Michael Wong, of Rice University, said that the work must be extra special for him to spend his ‘hard-earned research funds on publication costs’. He also added that creating a cover was a great way to ‘train students on science dissemination’. I definitely agree with this last point.

Who are these artists anyway?

The author list on a paper gives full recognition to the researchers. But should there be recognition for the artists? I believe that those responsible for grabbing our attention with their images deserve an extra mention. So, who are these people?

I was surprised to find that my (unscientific) survey revealed that cover design was mostly done by the professors themselves. Many were also group efforts or at least the group was involved in creating initial ideas. Lowly PhD students were even responsible for their fair share of the cover designs. Wong created his cover from October together with a student and really enjoyed the process. He even stated that ‘my student got so excited he recruited his wife and came up with multiple designs!’.

Site-specific protein labelling was tackled by Jason Chin’s group, from the University of Cambridge, and the cover from last May provided a different medium to tell that story. Stephen Wallace, the designer and a researcher in Chin’s group at the time, knew that a cover would be a great opportunity to convey the environment for his reaction. Wallace had the initial idea for his cover, ‘albeit on paper!’, he says, but it was Paul Margiotta in their visual aids department who assembled the final graphic.

Luque also thinks that this exercise is worthwhile for the students and it encourages them to develop. He said that he ‘nurtures creativity in students in the early stages of their career and these are the results.’ It must be pretty handy for some institutions having professional designers, but a plucky student can definitely put in a pretty good showing too.

Next month I’ll reveal the answer to the life, the universe and everything or as I like to put it: what makes a good cover? Spoiler… it’s actually a whole bunch of contradictory views that come to wildly different conclusions.

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Categories: Education

Alien mothership – from nanoparticles to molecular aesthetics

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 23 December, 2014 - 12:09

Ljiljana Fruk, researching light-activated nanodevices, writes about molecular aesthetics and how a copper nanoparticle became an alien mothership. Ljiljana will speak at this year’s Chemistry World science communication competition prize-giving event in March 2015 about Seeing the invisible.

A few years ago I thought about starting something enjoyable that would inspire the students and researchers in my group to look at the molecules they make and materials they design in a different, more playful way. I wanted them to rethink what they considered failed experiments: batches of irregular nanoparticles, weird looking oils (that should be crystals) or fluorescent cells (that shouldn’t be there).

We started collecting microscopic images and strangely coloured samples, and organised a little internal competition to see who was going to come up with the strangest or most unusual image. Playing and having fun was the key – doing transmission electron microscopy now did not only mean spending some late hours in the lab but also finding that next cool image.

Other things followed: we created a ‘hall of fame’ of molecules that changed the world, started the NanoArt calendar featuring crazy images of real nano things. Suddenly, high school students started approaching us and doing short-term projects in our lab. It was fun seeing these young, energetic people getting excited doing simple tasks like DNA gels. Geeky truly seems to be the new cool.

And then, two years into our projects, some artists became involved in our project. Earlier this year, Chilean artist Martin Kaulen spend three weeks in and around our lab, looking for similarities between crystal structures and architecture, challenging us with his questions. Each of his question made us think and inspired us. Can we explain what we think we already understood? Often, I came to realise, I was at a loss for an answer to the simple question ‘What is this good for?’

The more I let my imagination run wild, went beyond what I would write in a scientific paper, the more I understood what it is all about. Martin compiled some of our conversations in a little booklet. His work made me realise once again that no matter what we call ourselves – artist or scientist – we are driven by the same two things: curiosity about the existing realities and willingness to create new ones.

— What started as a failed copper nanoparticle experiment became the ‘alien mothership’

This year, we joined our smallest and biggest realities to design the Galactic nano calendar. An image of a small copper nanoparticle embedded in a thin film of dry viscous solvent on a mesh copper grid became an alien mothership. It once again amazed me how a tinge of colour could change the emotional response to a scientific image. Suddenly, the image becomes more organic, almost alive. There might not be any aliens on that ship, but I can definitely imagine some. The picture will certainly make me smile all the way through September 2015. If then somebody asks me ‘hey, what are the copper nanoparticles good for?’ I will know that a failed experiment just became a huge success.

Dr Ljiljana Fruk is a scientist and lecturer at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany, working on the development of photosensitive bio nano hybrid systems to design of new catalysts, artificial enzymes and biosensors for medical applications. She actively explores the interface of art and science, in particular the cultural and societal impact of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. Ljiljana co-organised the first symposium on molecular aesthetics, an interactive exhibition on molecules that changed the world, and edited, together with artist Peter Weibel, the book Molecular aesthetics


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World. The ten finalists will have the chance to see Ljiljana talk about Seeing the invisible at the prize-giving event in March 2015.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 19 December, 2014 - 17:16

Tessa Fiorini won last year’s Chemistry World science communication competition. Here, she writes about the inspiration for her article by a holiday in Prague, about her time at the prize-giving event and her winner’s trip.

Tessa Fiorini CohenWhen I heard about Chemistry World’s science communication competition last year, I had just come back from a holiday in Prague. The city is a historical hot spot for all things alchemy-related, and it immersed me in a time when chemistry was dark and murky, poorly understood and carried out in secretive underground labs. With this trip still on my mind and the competition’s theme of openness, I knew I had to write about the transition from alchemy to modern chemistry.

Like many other chemists, I was taught in my undergraduate degree that Antoine Lavoisier is ‘the father of modern chemistry’. I already knew that his open mind was the catalyst for this change, but as I started researching the topic, I realised there was more to it than that – the transition didn’t just happen overnight and open communication with other scientists played an equal part. As my article evolved to include openness’ twofold role, it almost felt like the piece was writing itself. The challenge became whittling it down to the competition’s word limit!

Fast-forward a few months and I’m one of ten finalists, and the eventual winner, at the award ceremony in beautiful Burlington House in London. The event included science speed-dating, discussion panels and hobnobbing with other attendees whilst dining out of mini paint buckets – an artsy touch from one of the event’s sponsors, AkzoNobel. Besides the excitement of winning, it was a great chance to meet other scientists and science communicators, as well as pick up some tips and contacts.

The best however was yet to come – my whirlwind winner’s trip to AkzoNobel’s research site in Stenungsund and P&G in Newcastle, where I learnt all about the complexities of detergent development and had a chance to hone my writing craft with one of Chemistry World’s editors. I managed to squeeze in some sightseeing and was excellently looked after by my hosts in both countries. The super-sized cherry on the cake, however, was having both my articles published in Chemistry World.

I wholeheartedly recommend the Chemistry World science communication competition to all budding science writers and communicators. It was a wonderful experience, remains a great opportunity, and chemistry and art are so beautifully intertwined that inspiration should be easy to come by.

Tessa Fiorini Cohen has a BSc double degree in Biology and Chemistry. After graduating she moved into the pharmaceutical industry, and has over five years’ experience in related research and development. She currently works in pharmaceutical quality assurance, university education and as a freelance writer. Since winning the Chemistry World competition her writing has been published by The Atlantic and Cefic.


If you are passionate about science and science communication, the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition on the topic of chemistry and art offers a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate your skill, win £500 and be published in Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

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