Left-handed in the lab

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 21 May, 2015 - 11:20

Guest post by Heather Cassell

Working in the lab over time teaches you many new skills. These include the many specific techniques your research demands as well as the enhanced organisation and time management skills you need to keep things running smoothly. But lab work can also teach you to become fairly ambidextrous.

© Shutterstock

You often need enough strength and agility in your non-dominant hand to handle tricky objects while your dominant hand is busy, such as opening and holding a bottle while using a pipette to remove the amount of liquid you need.

Time and practice lets you build up a good level of dexterity in both hands, but there are still many things in the lab that can be difficult to use (or just annoying) if, like me, you are left handed.

Problems can occur when communal equipment is set up for right-handed people, for example gel running tanks: if you are loading your gel with your left hand you can end up contorting into strange positions in order to achieve the correct angle. Fail to do so and you may get the wrong well! The only other option seems to be moving the equipment every time you need to use it.

But sometimes the problem lies in design: in fume cupboards and some machines, all of the buttons or taps tend to be on the right hand side. We left-handers either have to adapt how we do our experiment so we can reach or just use our right hands instead. Luckily, practice makes perfect!

A major bugbear of mine is the pipette. There are some brands that I just can’t use due to their design: I’ll quite happily put the tip on and start to transfer the small volume of liquid, but somewhere along the way I will have caught the tip release button with the bottom of my thumb and the liquid will slowly be seeping out, not very useful when accuracy is paramount. Other brands are absolutely fine and I can use them without incident, but it can be very frustrating trying to work out which pipettes I can use, so woe betide anyone who takes my special pipettes!

Although being left handed can be a nuisance in the lab, it’s barely a minor inconvenience compared with the problems faced by, for example, wheelchair users. Some labs now have height adjustable fume cupboards that allow people in wheelchairs to work comfortably at the hood, but we still have a long way to go before labs are truly accessible.

For me, once I had overcome the problems associated with being left-handed in the lab, there’s nothing stopping me from getting on with the science and producing some good results!

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Categories: Education

The cost of chemistry: are you spending your own money?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 May, 2015 - 15:43

A guest post from Edward Hind (@edd_hind), an independent researcher specialising in marine sociology and a communications officer at the Society for Conservation Biology, UK

It’s no secret that research costs money – a lot of it. Funding is the fuel that that powers science, and without it we would have no equipment, no supplies and no way to pay our reserch teams.

It’s also no secret that science jobs are hard to come by. It’s a hyper-competitive world, and there’s immense pressure to do everything we can to get ahead in the pursuit of that dream job.

© Shutterstock

So what happens when the need to get ahead conflicts with the availability of funding? When the cupboard is bare and you still need to go to that big conference, do you break open the piggybank? When you need that fancy device to analyse your data, do you pile the purchase onto your student loans?

Our research project is starting to show that on many occasions scientists are using their personal income for these activities.

Brett Favaro and I are marine biologists, and we’re worried that an unsustainable situation may be developing in our field – one in which scientific progress and the dissemination of scientific ideas is contingent on the willingness of our colleagues to sacrifice part of their income to the cause. We’re also worried that the need to spend personal funds on research may be an emerging barrier to a new generation of marine biologists. Furthermore, having started to discuss our concerns openly via social media, we’ve realised this is not an issue confined to our discipline. Progress in the chemical sciences as well as future chemistry careers might also be at risk.

We’ve talked to one friend who has to pay bench fees from her own pocket. If she doesn’t pay them, her biochemistry research simply could not happen. In addition, an early response to our research came from a chemist who claimed to have paid nearly $5000 (£3230) in lab start-up costs and about $2000 per year on rolling research costs. Another early respondent told us she paid for all of her research because she wasn’t allocated time to do it in normal working hours, despite it being a requirement of her role as a chemistry lecturer. She paid childcare costs so she could concentrate on completing research in her ‘spare time’.

We’ve had nearly 1500 responses to our research so far, with each respondent filling in an online survey detailing their personal spending on research (or #scispends, as we’re calling them). Great though that response has been, our research networks are in the biological sciences and more than 75% of responses have come from colleagues in our own discipline. We don’t want to waste an opportunity to assess whether the broader scientific community is also under the same degree of financial pressure, or an even greater one. That’s why we are blogging for Chemistry World: we want to know how much of their own personal income chemists are spending on doing their research.

So please take our survey, and join in the debate by engaging with ‘#scispends’ on Twitter. Your contributions will give us the data we need to resolve the problem and hopefully provide you with information you can use to back requests for funding and support for new trainees. Our results will be reviewed in a later print edition of Chemistry World.

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Categories: Education

The Mysterious X

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 14 May, 2015 - 17:43

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

The x-ray has always been a mysterious thing. An invisible beam of high energy electromagnetic radiation that passes through most kinds of matter, it is even named ‘x’ after the mathematical variable used to denote the unknown. And the x-ray itself isn’t the only unknown thing – so are its origins. Sources suggest it was an accidental discovery, but there aren’t as many sources as there should be, due to a very non-accidental fire.

Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist and discoverer of x-rays, died on 10 February 1923, whereupon all his laboratory records were burnt on his request.

It was an extreme action, but not an unusual one.

While modern science is becoming more and more transparent, not very long ago secrecy was the tool of the inventor’s trade. Through secrecy, successful men were able to preserve their impression of genius, compete against their peers and prevent their ideas from being stolen. The most coveted prize was not scientific elucidation but personal recognition – impossible for those who were too open and lost their ideas to the less scrupulous. It wasn’t just seen amongst scientists; William Howson Taylor, founder of the admired Ruskin pottery, had all his notes burnt at his death in 1935. And so the method was lost with its maker.

We are left with a fuzzy picture, not much easier to illuminate than x-rays themselves, and can only imagine the scene in Röntgen’s laboratory in the winter of 1895…

A dark room, because Röntgen was working with light.

A screen coated with barium platinocyanide.

On the bench top nine feet away, a Crookes cathode-ray tube, a large glass gas-filled bulb that fluoresces when a high-voltage electrical current is discharged through it. But the bulb is not visible, because Röntgen has covered it with thick black cardboard to contain the distracting glow (and because it’s currently switched off.)

Then Röntgen turns on the tube and the screen begins to glow green…

Nine feet was further than the reach of the blocked cathode rays that Röntgen understood, and he quickly concluded that he had made a new, unknown kind of ray that could travel through cardboard. He tried it with aluminium, copper and brick – it travelled through all of those too. In fact, the only material he found that could absorb it was thick lead.

So naturally, he did what any discerning 19th century scientist would do in his position: he stuck his hand in it. On the screen, he could see the image of his own bones, surrounded by a greenish glowing flesh. He seized some photographic film, and took the first x-ray image. When he repeated the procedure to photograph his wife’s hand and rings for his publication on a ‘new kind of rays’, she famously cried, ‘I have seen my own death!’

100 years later, medical physicist Gerrit Kemerink of the Maastricht University Medical Center thought to piece together some of the missing evidence, and recreated the setup of some of the very first x-ray machines. With a hand he borrowed from medical supplies, he set up the experiment just as Röntgen might have done, and tested the results. Horrifyingly, he found that the hand needed a full 90 minutes of exposure to create a clear image, providing a radiation dose 1500 times more than the dose supplied by a modern x-ray procedure. No wonder early x-ray testers reported burns and hair loss!

Modern x-ray production methods also help us understand what was going on in Röntgen’s Crookes tube: he used a hot cathode to produce electrons, which were then accelerated under a voltage, striking a metal target and knocking off more electrons. Not only were electrons emitted, but the metal was left full of electron vacancies, holes from where the AWOL electrons had been knocked. X-rays are emitted when high energy electrons shift into lower energy vacancies, and so the energy of the x-ray is specific to the metal they came from. Today, copper anode metals are mostly used, but Röntgen probably produced x-rays by ionising the gas inside his tube. If so, he would have produced lower energy x-rays and so required the longer measuring times.

Röntgen may have burned the notes and reports, preventing us from ever understanding the precise details of his experiments, but he did publish three papers on these mysterious new rays, and left us with an invaluable scientific and medical tool.

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Categories: Education

Lego chemical constructions

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 7 May, 2015 - 16:17

Guest post from Tom Branson

The famous Lego bricks have invaded almost all walks of life. Not content to remain as just a construction-themed toy, Lego has branched out into theme parks, video games, board games, clothing lines and even a movie. Until recently, however, chemistry remained a relatively unbuilt area. This changed last year with the production of an all female Lego academics lab, which was met by Lego and science fans alike screaming ‘just take my money!’ The set featured an archaeologist, an astronomer and a chemist and was not only super fun but helped to promote women in science. The plastic academic trio shot to stardom with their Twitter account showcasing some of the finer moments of life in the lab. Now, Lego has finally found a place at the pinnacle of scientific achievement on the front cover of the latest issue of Chemical Science.

A Lego chemist on the cover is dashing back into the lab carrying a flask ready for her next experiment. She is already wearing her white coat, blue gloves and glasses showing that even minifigures are safety conscious. Like many lab users she has made good use of the wall space by drawing out her chemical reactions. Although, the lab does seem rather open to the elements with the sun, clouds and rain threatening to ruin or in fact perhaps aid the artificial photosynthesis project taking place.

Lego is an awesome tool for building miniature skyscrapers and racing cars. So why not use it to build miniature or, more realistically, gigantic chemical structures? I think the authors could have used a little more creativity with the Lego for this cover – surely it’s not that difficult to build their cobalt complex out of the little bricks? Excuse me at this point whilst I run up to the attic, dive into my childhood supply and attempt to create a chemical masterpiece…

…actually it is quite difficult after all! Lego may seem like a nice alternative to the old ball and stick modelling kit, but it is not quite so specialised just yet.

The research performed by the group of Erwin Reisner, from the University of Cambridge, tells of their latest work on the development of a cobalt catalyst for H2 evolution. The metal complex they created shows good stability when anchored onto a metal oxide surface and also enhanced activity compared to previously reported cobalt catalysts. For a closer look into how the catalyst was built step by step (or perhaps brick by brick) head over to Chemical Science.

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Categories: Education

April 2015: Writing Science

Royal Society R.Science - 1 May, 2015 - 13:10

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Categories: Education

The great chemical hunt

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 23 April, 2015 - 12:29

Guest post by Heather Cassell

When starting a new experiment, it is great if there is a standard lab protocol (written by someone else in the lab) that you can use. These tried and tested methods usually increase the chance of your experiment working. On receiving the new protocol, the first thing you need to do is read the method carefully so you can plan accordingly; I’ve been caught out before – I found out part way through what I thought was a two hour incubation that it was really 12 hours, so I ended up having to finish off the experiment on Saturday!

Shelf of chemical bottles

— © Shutterstock

The next thing is to check that all the equipment and chemicals you need are in the lab (and in large enough quantities), especially if the protocol is not used often. This allows you to book the equipment if necessary, and means you don’t have to run round trying to find things once you have started. Finding the equipment is relatively easy: it tends to be quite big, and people generally don’t walk off with it without asking; chemicals, on the other hand, can be stored in many different locations around the lab depending on their properties, and occasionally people will put them back in the wrong place.

There are different ways you can approach finding the chemicals you need: you can check the lab’s chemical list (if one exists) to see if there is any and where it is stored; you can ask someone in the lab; you can look up the properties of the chemical to give you an idea of where to look; or you can try and find it yourself using only the name. This last method usually starts with ‘I’ll just have a quick look to see if we have any, it shouldn’t take long’, and often end ups being a great chemical hunt that takes ages.

The first stop on the search is usually the room-temperature chemicals, as there are more of these. They can be split up into communal stores and specific groups’ (or even individuals’) chemicals, and tend to be kept in store cupboards or on shelves around the lab. When venturing into other groups’ stores, be sure to ask permission before you take anything. If this search is fruitless then there are the specialised chemical cabinets (flammables, halogens, poisons) to check, the fridges and freezers (again both communal and individual lab group ones), and finally the deep freeze (–80oC), though not many chemicals are stored there.

If – after searching all these places and exhausting the other methods – you still can’t find what you’re looking for, you’ll have to order it fresh. Sometimes, after putting in the order, someone will point out that the chemical is in some place that you didn’t search, or you’ll stumble across it by accident. But at least next time you know where to find it – well, hopefully you will anyway!


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Categories: Education

Where there’s sludge there’s, um, ferrocene?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 9 April, 2015 - 17:26

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Nobody had thought to study the orange sludge that was scraped off the Union Carbide pipes after manufacturing cyclopentadiene, but perhaps they should have done. When chemists eventually set their gaze on this colourful by product, the ensuing discovery of ferrocene catalysed a branch of research.

Organometallics had proved themselves a hard puzzle to crack, with only a handful developed by the 1950s, including the infamous Grignard reagents. Iron organometallics remained elusive, which is why Thomas Kealy and Peter Pauson, working at Duquesne University in 1951, had no intention of synthesising any. In fact, they were trying to make a totally organic compound: pentafulvalene, a molecule built from two cyclopentadiene rings fused together by a double bond. Samuel Miller, John Tebboth and John Tremaine, chemists at the British Oxygen Company, demonstrated no more interest in organometallics: their aim was to develop a new method of preparing amides from nitrogen and hydrocarbons, including cyclopentadiene. Both threw in iron catalysts – after all, iron was not going to form stable organometallic compounds, was it?

Yes it was. And this time when the orange sludge was produced, the groups did decide to study it, if only because they thought they might have made their target compounds. The composition – C10H10­Fe – proved them both to be wrong.

But what was this new molecule? Whatever it was, it was soluble in all organic solvents, but not in water, and unaffected by 10% NaOH and concentrated HCl, even after boiling. In fact, it remained stable up to 400°C, melting at 173ºC without entertaining the risk of decomposition. The two reports were published in Nature and the Journal of the Chemical Society respectively, with the proposed structure of two cyclopentadiene rings joined by a single bond bisected by Fe2+. That might have been that, if it were not for the amazing power of doubt in driving the advance of research…

In the chemistry department of Harvard University, Robert Burns Woodward was perusing the literature when he came across the Kealy and Pauson paper. He didn’t like it: something niggled at him. So he set his graduate student, Myron Rosenblum, the task of repeating and expanding on the work with the help of Geoffrey Wilkinson. IR and NMR data soon indicated identical ionic-covalent bonding across all of the carbon atoms, and Woodward and Wilkinson formulated the true ferrocene structure: one iron atom sandwiched between two misaligned, flat aromatic pentagons. At the Technische Hochschule, Munich, Ernst Otto Fischer produced x-ray crystallographic images of ferrocene, which led him to the same conclusion. It was a brave first step into a bizarre unknown territory: no such structures had been known before – but soon they would.

With the pioneering concept of aromatic-metal π-bonding and the overhaul of classical ligand theories, organometallics exploded onto the chemical scene. Between them, Woodward, Wilkinson, Fischer and others produced a cascade of new molecules with novel functions, delving deep into d-block chemistry, Friedel-Crafts acylation and other aromatic substitutions. Today, metallocenes have found applications ranging from antiknocking fuel additives to syndioselective polymerisation catalysts and charge-carrying components in diabetic blood sugar monitors.

But what really tops off this story is its shining example of conscientious peer review. All too often, scientists don’t repeat each others’ work. Whether they are demotivated by lack of equipment, resources, time or comprehensible instructions, without repetitions, there is no real way to falsify new findings or shift the paradigms of existing understanding in the light of new discoveries. Indeed, the preparation and characterisation of ferrocene wouldn’t have been repeated if the chemical community hadn’t been so shocked by the discovery. It was hard to believe such a lucky windfall. Amongst others, Oxford crystallographer Jack Dunitz was so unconvinced that he and colleague Leslie Orgel repeated the whole thing once again and proved it to be – correct. ‘There was no doubt about it,’ Dunitz confirmed. Sometimes glorious accidents happen, but often a sludge is, after all, just a sludge.

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Categories: Education

Academic family: Fritz Haber

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 9 April, 2015 - 12:23

Guest post by JessTheChemist

’The field of scientific abstraction encompasses independent kingdoms of ideas and of experiments and within these, rulers whose fame outlasts the centuries. But they are not the only kings in science. He also is a king who guides the spirit of his contemporaries by knowledge and creative work, by teaching and research in the field of applied science, and who conquers for science provinces which have only been raided by craftsmen.’ – Fritz Haber

This month marks the one hundred year anniversary of the first use of chemical warfare as a strategic tool in battle. Fritz Haber was heavily involved in, and a proponent of, gassing with chlorine as a method of warfare. Whilst his work in this area may have resulted in huge loss of life, he also changed the world for the better through the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process.

The Haber-Bosch process, named after Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, was one of the first industrial chemical processes that I learned about at high school. At the time, I found it incredibly interesting that some pressure and some heat, with some iron thrown in for good measure, could turn nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas into malodourous ammonia. The reaction had been known before but the low yields and slow reaction times made it an unattractive prospect for an industrial process. Haber realised that the addition of high temperature and pressure with an iron catalyst could make this a highly efficient process. Haber won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1918 for his identification of the process, while Bosch won the prize in 1931 for his work in scaling up the process.

With cheap access to ammonia, fertilizers were became more readily available and, as such, millions of people around the world benefit from the availability of good quality crops. But the availability of ammonia also led to an proliferation in the use of nitrate-based explosives, as Wilhelm Ostwald discovered that ammonia could be converted relatively simply into nitric acid and nitrates using a platinum catalyst (the Ostwald Process).

Haber’s father owned a dye pigments and paints business, so it is not a surprise that he entered into the field of chemistry. After attending university, a brief period working for his father and various apprenticeships, he took up an academic position at the University of Karlsruhe.

As with the other laureates I’ve researched on this blog, Haber is connected to a number of highly influential scientists, including Walther Nernst, his closest academic relative,. Nernst helped to develop the modern field of physical chemistry, including electrochemistry and thermodynamics. All undergraduate chemists should recognise his name from learning all about the Nernst equation! He won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1920 for his work into thermochemistry. Through Nernst, Haber is also connected to Irving Langmuir who won the Nobel prize in 1932 for his research on surface chemistry.

Haber is related to Adolf von Baeyer, an organic chemist who is famous for the synthesis of indigo. In 1905 he was awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for his research in the field of organic chemistry, particularly organic dyes and hydroaromatic compounds. There is also an academic connection between Haber and Bosch, although they worked independently from one another on the same chemical process. Once Haber had developed the Haber process, it was purchased by the German chemical company BASF, where Carl Bosch managed to scale up the reaction to the industrial level, resulting in the Haber-Bosch process.

Whether you believe Fritz Haber is a great man or not, it cannot be said that his (and Bosch’s) finding was not a great one.

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Categories: Education

Take 1 minute…for your last chance to vote!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 8 April, 2015 - 11:33

Guest post from Holly Salisbury

There’s just one week left to vote for your favourite Take 1… minute for chemistry in health video.

The shortlisted videos are online for one more week – this is your last chance to pick your favourite to win the £500 cash prize!

The chemical sciences play a fundamental role in improving healthcare. We invited undergraduates through to early career researchers to produce an original video that communicated how chemistry helps us address healthcare challenges in an imaginative way. The videos show the use of nanoparticles for drug delivery through to the development of antifreezes useful for long-term blood and organ storage. Others explain the chemistry of fat cells, illustrate the chemistry of toothpaste, and highlight the impact of chemistry in treating cancer and tackling antibiotic resistance.

Want to get involved? Watch our 6 shortlisted videos (below) and vote for your favourite before 11.59pm (GMT) 17 April 2015!

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Categories: Education

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