Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 5 December, 2014 - 13:34

Emily Stephens writes about the how and why of her piece on gene doping, which was selected for the runner-up prize in the 2012 Chemistry World science communication competition.

I started writing my article for the 2012 competition just after the London Olympics had finished. There was a lot of controversy surrounding the legitimacy of some of the competing athletes’ achievements, in particular Nadzeya Ostapchuk, who was stripped of her gold medal following a drug test. While doping has been prevalent in competitive sport since the 1960s, I found the relatively new concept of gene doping fascinating.

Gene doping is extremely hard to detect, so future sporting events could potentially be won based on which country is most advanced in genetic medicine rather than the athletes’ natural sporting ability.

However, despite finding this topic really interesting, after sending off my entry I got caught up in university life and completely forgot about the competition until I received an invitation to join the other shortlisted candidates for the prize giving evening at Burlington House in London.

The event provided a fantastic opportunity to chat to the competition judges and several others working the field of science communication, from journalists to those running higher education courses. They talked about their career paths as well as giving general tips for entering the industry. The resounding advice seemed to be ‘Just start writing!’ and the competition had given me an excellent opportunity to do this.

The winning article was a really interesting piece on the diode laser, and I was fortunate to be the runner-up. The £100 cash prize was an excellent bonus but the highlight of the experience was seeing my article published in Chemistry World (see Chemistry World, December 2012, p41). I’d definitely recommend entering the competition to all aspiring science writers. It was a great opportunity to research and write about an interesting topic, learn from a variety of experts and have a very enjoyable evening. I’m already working on my entry for this year!

Emily Stephens studied natural sciences, specialising in biochemistry, at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, UK. She was in her final year when writing the article for the 2012 competition. Since graduating she has been working in medical communications.


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

Academic family – Robert Burns Woodward

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 4 December, 2014 - 16:25

Guest post by JessTheChemist

In 1965 Robert Burns Woodward won the Nobel prize for chemistry for the synthesis of complex organic molecules, including natural products such as cholesterol, strychnine, chlorophyll, cephalosporin, and colchicine. Unusually, Woodward won the prize for excellence in the field of organic chemistry, and not for a specific chemical reaction. Not unlike many organic chemists I know, Woodward was extremely dedicated to his work. Rumour has it that Woodward first crystallized the steroid Christmasterol on Christmas day. I commend the work ethic but I really hope that none of you are working on Christmas day!

Woodward began his university life in 1933 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A year later he was excluded because he neglected his studies. Another year later he was readmitted and in 1936 he received his Bachelor of Science degree. Astonishingly, it took just one more year for him to gain his doctorate from the same institution.

Avery A. Ashdown was Woodward’s graduate advisor, although it is said that Woodward took little direction from his superior. Ashdown also supervised Charles Pedersen during his Master’s degree and, although his professors encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D. at MIT, Pedersen decided to begin a career in industry at DuPont instead. Pedersen was very successful at Dupont and during his time there he carried out research in to the syntheses of crown ethers. This work led to a Nobel prize in chemistry in 1987 with Donald J. Cram and Jean-Marie Lehn for their work on molecules with structure specific interactions. Interestingly, Pedersen is one of a few people to win a Nobel prize in the sciences without having a PhD.

Another of Woodward’s Nobel connections is Ronald Breslow who he advised during his PhD at Harvard University. Among Breslow’s former graduate students is Robert Grubbs who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2005, along with Richard R. Schrock and Yves Chauvin, for his work in the field of olefin metathesis. Through Grubbs, Woodward is also connected to K. Barry Sharpless, who won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 2001 with William S. Knowles and Ryōji Noyori for their work on stereoselective chemical reactions.

As an undergraduate chemist, the first time I came across the name Woodward was during a lecture on pericylic chemistry where the Woodward-Hoffman rules were being described. These rules were based on observations that Woodward had made during synthesis of vitamin B12. Woodward presented his ideas based on his experiences as a synthetic organic chemist and his colleague, Roald Hoffman, confirmed these ideas with theoretical calculations. In 1981 Hoffmann won the Nobel prize in chemistry along with Kenichi Fukuifor their theories, developed independently, concerning the course of chemical reactions’.Many believe that Woodward would have won a second Nobel for his contribution to these rules, but he passed away just two years earlier and Nobel prizes cannot be awarded posthumously.

As you can see, Woodward is connected to many great scientists, too many to mention here! if you want a further insight into the world of Woodward, head over to the B.R.S.M. blog (a fellow contributor to Chemistry World) for this post on Woodward’s work. Finally, to find out if Woodward or any other laureates are connected to you, have a peek at and find your connections.

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Categories: Education

Peering into Peer Review

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 3 December, 2014 - 17:23

‘I do not think it should appear in its present form’. Many a dejected researcher has read those words when their paper is summarily rejected by a journal. Rest assured, however, even the greatest scientific minds have read them on occasion.

Issue one of the Philosophical Transactions
© The Royal Society

In 1839, Charles Darwin submitted a paper on the geology of Glen Roy in the Scottish Highlands to the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He received a response from Adam Sedgwick, who would later become one of Darwin’s greatest critics. The Society Fellow admired Darwin’s insight but bemoaned his long-winded explanations, rejecting the paper in its present form. It was the only paper Darwin submitted to the journal.

Sedgwick’s critique of Darwin’s work forms part of a new exhibition at the Royal Society about the history of the Philosophical Transactions. Detailing the turbulent beginnings of the journal – which was first published during the Great Plague of London in 1665 – through to the modern publication, the exhibit shines a light on its colourful history. The extensive display, developed by the Royal Society and researchers at the University of St. Andrews, UK, also reveals the birth of the modern peer review process.

Although Darwin’s referee report highlights the humbling nature of a referee’s comments, it’s the correspondence of Sir George Stokes, the pioneer of fluid dynamics, which reveals new details about the nature of peer review. Stokes’ letters look rather mundane when compared to the more prominent pieces in the collection, such as Maxwell’s original paper on the electromagnetic field, but the monotonous language belies a crucial contribution to the scientific method.

Sir George Gabriel Stokes was secretary of the Royal Society from 1854 to 1885
© The Royal Society

Stokes’ letter is a simple clerical note asking a referee for their professional opinion and recommendation for a paper. The piece displays a staunch professionalism in the review process, which may have been lacking in the previous centuries: the work of Anton van Leeuwenhook on single-cell organisms in the 1600s, for instance, was published by the Royal Society even when they could not replicate his results.

Stokes also discussed papers at length with their authors during the submission process. He structured the review process by ensuring referees did not renege their responsibilities and edited the majority of papers published in the journal, becoming in the process the first modern scientific editor.  For want of a better phrase, he appears to have been a one-man band, having a fundamental impact on the way in which we conduct scientific research. Not bad for a chap who was also Lucasian Professor at the University of Cambridge at the same time.

The Philosophical Transactions: 350 years of publishing at the Royal Society exhibition is open to the public between 2 December 2014 and 23 June 2015 at the Royal Society, London. The exhibit forms part of a project called Publishing the Philosophical Transactions: the economic, social and cultural history of a learned journal, 1665-2015 led by Dr. Aileen Fyfe at the University of St. Andrews.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 1 December, 2014 - 14:06

Philip Ball, science writer and one of the judges for the upcoming Chemistry World science communication competition writes about the art of chemistry.

Philip BallOf all the sciences, chemistry has always seemed to me to be closest to the arts. It appeals directly to the senses: the shapes and colours of molecules, the smells, the tactile aspects of materials and instrumentation. It draws on intuitions and craft skills, for example in the practice of forming crystals or getting a reaction to work. And most of all, it demands creativity and imagination: ‘chemistry creates its own object’, as Marcellin Berthelot puts it.

Most of chemistry is not about discovering pre-existing forms and objects, but deciding what to make and how to make it. Molecular targets express ideas. Can we make something that fits into this hole or onto that surface? Can we create new atomic unions, unusual topologies, surprising bulk properties, new oxidation states? Can we design molecules to assemble themselves into new and useful (or simply pleasing or amusing) superstructures? The questions aren’t limited to what the natural world provides, but are circumscribed by our imaginations, which in principle need have no boundaries.

For these reasons, chemistry is perhaps the science most shaped by the personal styles of its practitioners, who are often regarded by their peers as artists of some description: Robert Woodward or Vladimir Prelog spring to mind, but everyone will have their own favourite stylists, whether they work on organics, inorganics, organometallics, polymers or whatever. There is a great deal of creative expression in the theoretical side of chemistry too: it is a science complex enough to depend on finding the right approximations, analogies and perspectives, on extracting concepts and approaches that are meaningful rather than being correct in some absolute sense. All of this makes chemistry thrillingly human, with all the argument, dissent, idiosyncrasy and flair that this entails.

Chemistry ought by rights therefore to enjoy the same kind of criticism and appreciation afforded to art – we can have views about what we like, even about what moves us. I suppose that this sort of subjective evaluation is not often encouraged because chemistry is a science. But it would be great to see some of it in this competition. The theme of ‘chemistry and art’ might be interpreted as ‘chemistry of art’, and there is plenty of interest in that. But it can also be read as ‘chemistry as art’. I look forward to seeing both perspectives explored in the entries.

Philip Ball is a freelance writer. He previously worked for over 20 years as an editor for the international science journal Nature. He writes regularly in the scientific and popular media, and has authored many books on the interactions of science, arts and culture. Philip also writes for Chemistry World and has a regular column – ‘The Crucible‘.


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

November 2014: Colliding worlds

Royal Society R.Science - 1 December, 2014 - 10:17

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Categories: Education

Practised procrastination

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 27 November, 2014 - 18:01

Guest post by Heather Cassell

It’s an inevitability – there’s a task that should be doing but you can’t build up the enthusiasm. Normally mundane jobs can suddenly seem much more interesting to do.

A suspiciously tidy lab bench
Image by Jean-Pierre from Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire, France CC-BY-SA

For me it is always report writing. Although I love putting all of my results into order and writing it up succinctly for my colleagues and collaborators, I find I can rapidly lose focus. This is when the procrastination sets in. It never seems to matter how near the deadline is, how interesting my results are, or how important the document is – I feel an overwhelming desire to tidy my desk. ‘It’s important,’ I tell myself, ‘because if my desk is tidy I’ll have easy access to the papers and results I need to finish my report’. Just as a teenager’s room is never tidier than exam time, a researcher’s desk might only ever be clear when there’s a report to write.

Oh, but there are so many temptations! I’ve learned that when I’m meant to be writing a report it is best if I avoid the internet (see my previous post on the things you can discover while trawling twitter), so to physically remove the temptation often I’ll head into the lab.

But even the lab is full of potential distractions and procrastinatory aids, as there are always a diverse range of things to do! There is that pile of tip boxes that need refilling (it may have been gathering dust for weeks, but it seems urgent that they are to be filled and taken to autoclave). There are the consumables that need restocking, the buffers that need to be made, and stock solutions that need to be prepared. To the procrastinating mind, they all become more important than the task in hand. ‘If I’m not organised in the lab,’ I justify to myself, ‘then how can I work efficiently when I have finished my report?’

I try to reason with myself. I set targets and deadlines, promising myself a break if I can just reach the end of this section. As with exam dates and revision, eventually the deadline becomes so pressing that the level of stress rises and I actually buckle down to get on with the report.

It feels so good when it’s done that I consistently make promises to myself: ‘next time it will be different’; ‘next time I’ll just get it done without the distractions’. But the urge to procrastinate always returns. Who knows, without that urge my desk may never be clear.

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Categories: Education

Countdown to the 2014 Chemistry World science communication competition

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 21 November, 2014 - 11:05

In this first of a series of guest posts, Elizabeth Tasker writes about the how and why of her piece on cosmic chemistry, which was shortlisted in the 2013 Chemistry World science communication competition.

Elizabeth TaskerThere are some stories that beg to be written. When you find an experimental astrophysicist building a star-forming cloud in his laboratory, there is practically a moral obligation to remind the world that there are no boxes for ideas.

Astrophysicists usually come in three flavours: observers (telescope kids), theorists (‘The Matrix’ universes) and instrument builders (hand me a hammer). We cannot typically perform laboratory experiments since putting a star (or planet or black hole) on a workbench is distinctly problematic. The closest we come to hands-on experiments is through computer models, which is the toolkit I use when studying the formation of star-forming clouds. However, Naoki Watanabe had gone ahead and built his own cloud  in a super-cooled vacuum chamber.

What I liked most about Naoki’s work was the science question that was the heart of his project. Rather than take the tools of a given discipline and ask what could be learned, Naoki had picked the question and then drew knowledge he needed from astronomy, atomic physics and chemistry. This mingling of traditionally discrete subjects also made it a great fit for Chemistry World’s 2013 science communication competition theme of ‘openness’.

Discovering I’d been shortlisted was amazing. This feeling was briefly replaced by terror, since I was asked to produce a video clip describing my article as I was unable to attend the prize ceremony itself.

I recorded and re-recorded the video 10 times. All of them were identical. I feel there is a lesson to be learned about perfectionism that I likely failed to entirely grasp.

It was great to know that the judges had both enjoyed my article and were as excited as me about interdisciplinary work. Perhaps it is time to stop calling myself an ‘astrophysicist’ and simply say ‘scientist’.

Elizabeth Tasker is an assistant professor in astrophysics at Hokkaido University in Japan, where she explores star formation though computational modeling. Originally from the UK, Elizabeth completed her MSci in theoretical physics at Durham University, before pursuing her doctorate at the University of Oxford. Elizabeth keeps her own blog. She is working on a book on exoplanets (The planet factory), which will be published in 2016.


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

From Mould to Medicine

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 November, 2014 - 10:29

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Excited, Mary Hunt tipped out the produce of her shopping: a large moulded cantaloupe. She had come across the cantaloupe by chance, and the ‘pretty, golden mould’ had proved irresistible. She had discovered the Penicillium chrysogeum fungus, a species that turned out to produce 200 times the volume of penicillin as Fleming’s variety. It was a serendipitous discovery, and vital at a time when the greatest challenge facing medicine was producing enough of the antibiotic to treat all of the people who needed it.

Hunt’s finding has been barely noticed beside the original accidental discovery: Fleming’s return from holiday to find a ‘fluffy white mass’ on one of his staphylococcus culture petri dishes. Fleming was often scorned as a careless lab technician, so perhaps the contamination of one of his dishes – which had been balanced in a teetering microbial tower in order to free up bench space – was not that unexpected. But Fleming had the presence of mind to not simply dispose of the petri dish, but to first stick it beneath a microscope, where he observed how the mould inhibited the staphylococcus bacteria. Competition between bacteria and fungi was well known and, in fact, when Fleming published in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology in June 1929, the potential medical applications of penicillin were only speculative.

In 1897, a 23 year old French scientist, Ernest Duchesne, published his doctoral thesis on antagonism between moulds and microbes – specifically, Penicillium glaucum versus Escherichia coli. His insight into the healing power of penicillin extended as far as curing guinea pigs of typhoid, but his research was never recognised.

Fleming lacked the resources and chemical training to isolate and test the active ingredient in penicillin, so he handed his research over to pathologist Howard Florey in 1938. Florey quickly transformed his Oxford lab into a penicillin factory. However, even with the discovery of Penicillium chrysogeum, production was slow.

The first patients to formally trial penicillin were a cluster of 25 streptococcus-infected mice. Unlike their 25 less fortunate friends who were not given the new medicine, they made a full and swift recovery. In 1940, Oxford policeman Albert Alexander became the first human to take penicillin. Alexander was suffering from fatal septicaemia, but within 5 days of treatment he began to recover. Sadly, the penicillin ran out and as techniques at the time were unable to produce enough, Alexander died. Although it was widely administered amongst the troops during World War II, once again, production was limiting.

The real breakthroughs in penicillin production began shortly after the establishment of a new American lab; in particular, the casual introduction of corn-steep liquor, a by-product of the corn wet milling process. This was being mixed with a wide variety of substances in an effort to find a use for it, and was seen to significantly increase penicillin yields.

In 1942, Anne Miller, suffering blood poisoning after a miscarriage, became the first successful civilian recipient, but further tests were still needed to explore the range of diseases treatable by penicillin.

Horrifically, in 1946-8, the Public Health Service, Guatemalan government, National Institutes of Health and the Pan American Health Sanitary Bureau approved a study to infect prison inmates, asylum patients, and Guatemalan soldiers with STDs and treat them with penicillin. Over 1300 people were infected, and 83 died.

Today, penicillin is the most used antibiotic in the world, treating large numbers of dangerous diseases. It also has many derivatives, the discovery of which began in 1957, when John Sheehan developed the first total synthesis. Although the synthesis proved difficult to upscale, it nevertheless produced a 6-aminopenicillanic acid intermediate – the starting material for a whole new class of antibiotics. Although the penicillin you and I take is manufactured in a lab, the battle between fungi and bacteria continues, and you can still come across this world-changing substance naturally growing in its parent mould.

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Categories: Education

Take 1… minute for chemistry in health

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 17 November, 2014 - 10:00

Guest post by Isobel Hogg, Royal Society of Chemistry

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

The chemical sciences will be fundamental in helping us meet the healthcare challenges of the future, and we at the Royal Society of Chemistry are committed to ensuring that they contribute to their full potential. As part of our work in this area, we are inviting undergraduate and PhD students, post-docs and those starting out their career in industry to produce an original video that demonstrates the importance of chemistry in health.

We are looking for imaginative ways of showcasing 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.

Good luck!

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Categories: Education

How to win a Nobel Prize, cover by cover

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 13 November, 2014 - 05:15

Guest post from Tom Branson

Last month’s Nobel prizes gave the world some new chemical heroes, but have also given me an opportunity to delve into the art of how to become a winner. Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner shared the prize in chemistry for ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’, which sounds, and indeed is, a very photogenic area of chemistry.

Through my exhaustive research of the prize winners’ websites, I found a handy list of journal covers on the Moerner group site. The other prize winners show off impressive lists of publications, but no helpful collection of cover art for me to plunder. So my apologies to Betzig and Hell: you may have Nobel prizes, but that doesn’t quite cut it here. Instead, let’s concentrate on Moerner and see what journal cover art can teach us about becoming a champion of science.

Moerner’s website shows nine journal covers, although it is not clear if this is an exhaustive list of the group’s artistic career. From this list, we can see that Moerner has a rough average of one journal cover per 38 articles published. Just for comparison, I’ve published a whopping three articles and had one featured on a journal cover, a much better conversion rate than Moerner. So does this totally non-scientific analysis suggest that I might be a dark horse for next year’s prize?

The most recent cover shown on Moerner’s website is from an article published last year in Nano Letters. A rather powerful magnifying glass is shown looking down at some fluorescing molecules and a large shaking arrow. A simple image that illustrates the crux of the work very nicely. There is more to see here than just pretty colours: the paper stresses the importance of analysing the oscillating behaviour of the molecules in order to achieve the best resolution with your magnifying glass microscope.

Another image from the Moerner group made it to the front of Nature Chemistry in 2010. Now this one, I really like. A pile of film rolls is shown with proteins captured in a new position on each frame, firing off bright reds and yellows. This is pretty much exactly what actually happens in the experiments. The camera-friendly proteins are very elegantly portrayed here on old Kodak film roll, probably because this is somewhat easier to imagine and more iconic than the digital storage relied upon in today’s techniques. The specific protein shown is allophycocyanin, a photosynthetic antenna protein that the group tracked, monitoring changes in florescence by using an anti-Brownian electrokinetic trap.

That same issue of Nature Chemistry features an editorial all about cover art. The editorial gave some tips as to what makes an attractive image and are open enough to admit that what really matters ‘is that you impress the editorial and production teams, who all get to have their say – and, in particular, the art editor.’ So just like the Nobel prizes themselves, where everyone has their own opinion, what counts in the end is to impress the judges.

The Nature Chemistry masterpiece wasn’t Moerner’s first high impact cover. Research from his group featured on the front of Science back in 1999 where some less-than-groundbreaking graphics, were used to highlight some definitely-groundbreaking research. His work has also featured on the covers of Nature Structural Biology and the Biophysical journal.

As for my own Nobel prize aspirations, I should aim to see my work on the front of a few more journals, for which I think I’ll need to publish a few more articles. I also assume the Nobel selection committee are not as easily dazzled by pretty pictures as I am. The road to Nobel prizedom may not be paved with covers, but showing off your artwork surely helps along the way.

If you come across some cover art that you believe to be prize winning material, or are simply seeking shameless self-promotion, then please get in touch with me in the comments or on Twitter (@TRBranson).

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Categories: Education

Academic Family – Dorothy Hodgkin

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 6 November, 2014 - 10:10

Guest post by JessTheChemist

A few months ago I wrote a blog post about the first British Nobel prize winner, Sir William Ramsay, so I thought it was about time that I wrote about Britain’s first (and only) female winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. I first heard about Dorothy Hodgkin while I was studying at Durham University, through my ex-head of department and an amazing lecturer, Judith Howard. My most vivid memory of her is a second year lecture where she taught us about space groups using balloons, sticks and potatoes. As a postgraduate student in Dorothy Hodgkin’s lab, she carried out postgraduate research on neutron diffraction (mostly under the supervision of Terry Willis from the UK Atomic Energy Authority).

Dorothy Hodgkin was an inspiring woman. She broke boundaries in many ways, not least by joining in the boys’ chemistry lessons at school. Through help from her auntie, she was able to attend university and developed a passion for biochemistry. She completed postgraduate studies on x-ray crystallography at the University of Cambridge under the supervision of John Bernal. Bernal was, himself, an interesting and controversial scientist. During World War II, he rescued Max Perutz from internment, getting him to perform experiments in a meat store freezer below Smithfield Meat Market.1 Pertuz also won the Nobel prize for chemistry for studies of the structures of haemoglobin and myoglobin in 1962.

After her postgraduate studies, Hodgkin moved to the University of Oxford, where her research focussed on protein crystallography. During this time, she became acquainted with James Watson, Francis Crick and Rosalind Franklin, and as a result, she was one of the first people invited to see the model of the double helix structure of DNA. Her research achievements are many but include the confirmation of the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12 and it was for these achievements that she won the Nobel prize in chemistry in 1964 for ‘her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances’.

Apart from Judith Howard, Dorothy Hodgkin had other famous female academic descendants. Of particular note is Margaret Thatcher, who was a student in her Oxford lab in the 1940s. Of course, Thatcher famously went on to be Britain’s first (and so far only) female Prime Minister and not a scientist. There are many other famous scientists in Hodgkin’s family tree. Through Bernal, Hodgkin is connected to famous father and son duo, Sir William H. Bragg and Sir W. Lawrence Bragg ,who shared the Nobel prize in physics in 1915 ‘for their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of x-rays. As an alumnus of the University of Leeds, I was excited to discover that William H. Bragg was Cavendish chair of physics there. Further links to the University of Leeds can be found through John Bernal, who is connected to William Astbury, a former chair in biomolecular structure at Leeds, who pioneered x-ray diffraction studies of biological molecules.

As you can see, Dorothy Hodgkin is connected to a large number of influential scientists, both male and female. What is most striking about this particular academic family tree is that it is based around Britain’s only female Nobel prize winner in chemistry. This was awarded 50 years ago, and I think it’s about time we added to that tally. So come on ladies, get researching!



1: J. D. Bernal: The Sage of Science. Andrew Brown, Oxford University Press, 2005

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Categories: Education

October 2014: The Royal Society at the Party conferences

Royal Society R.Science - 3 November, 2014 - 13:05

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Sleep deprivation and science

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 30 October, 2014 - 11:30

Guest post by Heather Cassell

This blog post is inspired by my 3 month old and 6 year old who are both suffering from a cold and not letting me get much sleep.

Over the years I have found sleep deprivation can have a significant impact on my work in the lab. There are many ways to end up overly tired: a child could be keeping you awake, you may be unlucky enough to have insomnia, or you might have been up late doing something much more fun (in which case you get less sympathy). The sensible approach would be to take some time and get some sleep, knowing you will be more productive tomorrow. But often you simply don’t have that luxury, as there is important science to be done.

Sleeping on the job – not a good idea in the lab

Sleep deprivation often hits at the least opportune moment, when you most need the sleep. It’s often a deadline that you really need to get results for – be it a conference, a report, or a meeting with your collaborators. ‘If only I can get these experiments finished then my data will be much more convincing! (As long as they agree with the previous results)’. When you have an experiment to do that needs careful set up, has a complicated protocol to follow and many time points to take, or takes many days to run, luck will have it that you will be sleep deprived at the crucial moment.

In situations like this you need to carefully consider what to do – start the experiment now and risk mistakes, or postpone it until you’re less dozy and miss out on the data? If you decide to work through the tiredness, then I recommend you make a detailed, foolproof plan. This will ensure that you don’t need to think, just to do. Also, drink as much tea as you dare before you head to the lab to get started – you’ll need to find your own balance of under-caffeinated versus excessive toilet trips. At times like this, I’m tempted to smuggle a cup of tea into the lab, just to help get through the day.

I’m not proud to say that I have reached the point where I’m so sleep deprived that I go into denial – I believe that I can work normally on a small amount of sleep – and that is when the serious mistakes creep in. My tales of woe include throwing away a solution containing the protein that I had spent two days purifying; or using the wrong antibiotic, and so preventing the growth of my cells. It may have reached my nadir when I only put labels on the lids of a stack of 96 well plates: I put them to one side while adding something to the plates, only to realise that I could no longer tell one plate from another. Analysis of the results was impossible; I had wasted time and resources, all because I refused to acknowledge my limits.

These slip-ups are frustrations, but other mistakes could potentially be much more serious. There are hazards in a lab that we are all trained to understand and risks that we’re equipped with the tools to mitigate. Safe lab work requires each of us to be fully conscious – if we fail to assess risks properly because we’re tired, we put far more than some experimental data at risk. A lab full of zombie-like sleepwalking scientists is not a safe lab to work in.

Every time I’ve made one of these mistakes, I’ve realised that it’s time to get out of the lab and do something else, maybe write up my lab book, skim a few journals or make another cup of tea. But sometimes an extra hour in bed is justified – the results can wait until another day.

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Categories: Education

ISACS winners 2014

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 24 October, 2014 - 11:11

Congratulations to all of our ISACS Chemistry World poster prize winners this year. Here’s a run-down of the winners:

Katie-Louise Finney receiving her prize from Chemistry World features editor, Neil Withers

Katie-Louise Finney, a second year PhD student in David Parker’s group at the University of Durham, UK, was the winner at ISACS 13 (Challenges in Inorganic and Materials Chemistry), held in Dublin, Ireland. Katie’s poster was titled ‘Development of 1H PARASHIFT probes for magnetic resonance spectroscopy and imaging‘.

Katie explains her work: ‘Our 1H PARASHIFT probes possess a tert-butyl reporter group that can be shifted well away from the water and fat signals at 4.7 and 1.3ppm. We have succeeded in shifting the tert-butyl reporter group as far as +65 and –75ppm. This means that in imaging experiments, we gain two orders of magnitude of sensitivity due to 1) the lack of background signal in vivo and 2) the enhanced reporter group relaxation by the proximal lanthanide ion. As a result, our probes have been imaged in live mice within minutes, at concentrations of 0.1mmol/kg.’

We’ve actually featured Katie’s MRI work in Chemistry World before in our article Moving the goalposts for MRI.

Baihua Ye

Baihua Ye, a doctoral assistant in the laboratory of asymmetric catalysis and synthesis at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, was the winner at ISACS 14 (Challenges in Organic Chemistry), held in Shanghai, China.

Baihua’s poster was titled ‘Development of chiral cyclopentadienyl ligands for Rh(III)-catalysed asymmetric C-H functionalisations‘.

Baihua explains his poster: ‘My PhD thesis under the supervision of Nicolai Cramer was devoted to the investigation of novel cyclopentadienyl (Cp) ligand as a stepping stone for the asymmetric rhodium(III)-catalyzed C-H functionalizations. The challenge to achieve the high level of enantioselectivity basically stems from the spatial arrangement of the three coordinating components around the metal center. The Cp derivative, thus, acts as the sole source of chirality. From the year of 2012, we have pioneered on the design of chiral Cp ligands and elaborated two complementary families of the CpRh(I) complexes. Upon the facile oxidation in situ of the Rh(I) species, the resulting chiral CpRh(III) have been successfully applied in the C-H functionalizations of aryl hydroxamates coupled with olefins, allenes as well as diazo esters. The corresponding heterocyclic products are generally obtained in good yields with high levels of regio- and stereo-selectivity. In the future, we believe that our effort would provide more variant on enantioselective Cp-based metal catalysis.’

David Ordinario

David Ordinario, a graduate research assistant in Alon Gorodetsky’s group at the University of California at Irvine, was the winner at ISACS 15 (Challenges in Nanoscience), held in San Diego, US. David’s poster was titled ‘Protonic devices from a cephalopod structural protein‘.

David explains his poster: ‘In my poster, I first introduced the reflectin protein, explained where it comes from, and described some of its unusual but interesting properties. Next, I explained our electrical characterisation work on thin films from the reflectin protein. We performed tests such as two- and three-terminal IV measurements and electrochemical impedance spectroscopy (EIS). Finally, I showed and explained the protonic transistor devices we fabricated which uses reflectin as the active material. I focused on explaining the underlying mechanisms by which the reflectin-based protonic transistors function, as well as a couple of methods we developed to optimise the performance of the transistors.’

The next ISACS, ISACS 16: Challenges in Chemical Biology, will held be in Zurich, Switzerland, from 15–18 June 2014. See the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ISACS 16 event page for details.

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Categories: Education

The Devil’s Element

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 23 October, 2014 - 16:05

Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

‘The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers’ – Joseph Wright of Derby

Hennig Brand was known as ‘the last of the alchemists’, even though Isaac Newton, possibly the most famous alchemist, outlived him by between 17 and 35 years. This number is vague for a reason: strangely enough for a man who spent his time searching for eternal life, there is no record of when or how Brand died. Like his alchemy, he appears to have disappeared into a puff of mysticism.

Although alchemy had been around since at least 500BC, it had never had any luck with its most famous quests: transmutation of metals and the hunt for the elixir of life, both thought to be capacities of the mysterious philosopher’s stone. A secretive practice, (alchemists often wrote their recipes in arcane code) it seems ironic that its last legacy was illumination: the unnatural glow of a strange, white, waxy and translucent material, the first element to be chemically discovered, and the 13th known to man. It was called the Devil’s element. And its method of discovery in 1669 is certainly something best reserved for horror stories. Brand wasn’t trying to make the luminous substance he originally dubbed ‘cold fire’, of course: he was trying to turn lead into gold.

Using valuable techniques later appropriated into modern science, he followed a procedure typical of alchemy. This involved boiling, filtering and purifying as many as 60 buckets of bodily fluids in attempts to understand the ‘essence’ of living things. His fluid of choice was urine, which he allowed to rot for several days until it became powerfully pungent. Just as the smell became unbearable, Brand distilled his urine down to a black paste and left it to fester for months. Later, he heated it with sand to vaporise off the oily components, which he trapped and condensed with water to give the material he hoped was gold.

It wasn’t. But it did have some unusual properties. It glowed an eerie green in the dark but, left in a stoppered jar, eventually extinguished. In open air, it would ignite spontaneously, producing acrid flames and a brilliant light; under vacuum, it sublimed to a gas upon light exposure. It melted at just 44°C and was highly toxic, burning skin upon contact. Brand had accidentally discovered white phosphorus, and two other allotropic forms, red and black, would later be identified.

The name phosphorus derives from phosphoros mirabilis – ‘miraculous bearer of light’.

Always a good alchemist, Brand originally tried to keep his discovery a secret, although he readily gave away his supplies of phosphorus. He finally sold the secret of his synthesis to three alchemists, including Johann Daniel Kraft, who toured much of Europe with it. The secret escaped – first it leaked from Johann Kunckel in Sweden, and two years later from Robert Boyle in England, who had met with Kraft during his travels and heard how phosphorus was derived from ‘somewhat that belonged to the body of man’. Boyle followed the clues, synthesised and published on phosphorus (discovering meanwhile that the urine didn’t need to rot at all), and became the first person to use it to ignite sulfur-tipped wooden splints.

In later years, the ‘unnatural’ glow of phosphorus was explained by an excruciatingly slow surface reaction with oxygen, producing short-lived HPO and P2O2 emitters of visible light.

In the 1770s, Carl Wilhelm Scheele procured phosphorus from bone. Today, it is mostly prepared from calcium phosphate rock and used in the manufacture of phosphoric acid for fertilizers. It is also used for cleaning agents, water softeners, baking powder and fluorescent light bulbs. Red phosphorus is a starting material for safety matches, explosives, poisons and pyrotechnics. If you like, Brand’s alchemy has gone up in flames.

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Categories: Education

What can Sugru do for scientists?

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 20 October, 2014 - 12:33

Looking around Form Form Form’s laboratory in Hackney, London, you can’t help but notice that the standard lab equipment has been modified, tweaked, personalised and adjusted using Sugru – the mouldable silicone rubber adhesive they manufacture. When I went to visit them with Phillip Broadwith, Chemistry World‘s business editor, to learn about the history and chemistry of Sugru, we asked a simple question: ‘what can Sugru do for scientists?’

Jude Pullen, head of R&D, took us through a handful of ‘lab hacks’ – quick and simple ways to make lab equipment safer, more efficient and easier to use:

Can you think of a way to use Sugru in the lab? Let us know by commenting below, or find us on Twitter: @ChemistryWorld

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Categories: Education

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Raney Cobalt-man!

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 16 October, 2014 - 15:46

Guest post from Tom Branson

In a bold move by Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry, the journal has unveiled the latest superhero in the fight to save the common scientist from the ruthlessness of today’s laboratories.

With great power comes great selectivity

Standing firm with test tube in hand, Raney Cobalt-man is a new character from Catalyst Comics. The star wears a rather tight, bright cobalt blue coloured outfit, reflecting one of the element’s most notorious uses. How Raney Cobalt-man gained his powers, we will never know. But perhaps it was in a careless lab accident, and if so, he has certainly learnt his lesson. Now with goggles and elbow-length gloves (not to mention a full body suit and special groin area protection), Raney Cobalt-man is a true ambassador for PPE.

This first adventure takes our hero into the domain of the domino reaction where he’s be helped by his trusty sidekick, Dihydrogen Boy. The young assistant plays an essential role in their joint mission to catalyse peace and his support is needed even more as the hero ages. Here in the domino reaction, they join forces to selectively bring harmony cascading through the scientific community.

But where are the other great chemical heroes of today? Well, I suppose there is the elementally named Iron Man – a brilliant scientist, although he was actually more of an engineer. The Flash was first a forensic scientist who came by his powers after a lightning bolt hit his lab. This mishap is, of course, one of the many dangers of working alone late at night. The lovable Chemist Hulk may also be familiar to those folks on Twitter, this mean green scientist likes nothing better than to tweet about ‘SMASHING PUNY MOLECULES’.

Raney Cobalt-man is the hero that chemists deserve, but is it the one they need right now?

In this edition of the Raney Cobalt-man comics, the eponymous hero is helped by Martin Banwell and colleagues from the Australian National University. Together they review an underappreciated reagent and compare its powers to that of its nemesis, Raney Nickel-man. The story tells that high pressure from Dihydrogen Boy can often be off-putting for those wanting to call upon Raney Cobalt-man’s selective powers. But these drawbacks are simply overcome by using a larger amount of Raney Cobalt-man and therefore less of his annoying sidekick.

Comic book and science fans alike may be waiting a while before Raney Cobalt-man’s next adventure hits our book shelves, but be sure to pick up the first edition over at OBC.

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Categories: Education

With this ring…

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 16 October, 2014 - 10:22

Guest post by Jen Dougan

I attended five weddings this year, between February and October, making 2014 most definitely the Year of the Wedding. Each day was unique and reflected closely the couple, their relationship, vision and hopes for the future.  And while there was a broad range of traditions at each, whether religious or humanist approaches, one tradition – the exchange of rings – provided a common element throughout.

The element is, of course, gold. But what is the chemistry of this symbol that is ritually shared as a sign of commitment and lasting love?

© Murray Robertson / Visual Elements

Gold is the most noble of metals, it doesn’t corrode or oxidise in the Earth’s moist, oxygen-rich atmosphere. Ductile and malleable, it can be fashioned at will and, since it doesn’t tarnish, is an ideal material for producing jewellery. The decorative attributes of gold have long been coveted – examples of gold jewellery have been found in the tombs of the Queens of Egypt and Sumeria, 3000 years BC.

Gold is one of only three coloured elemental metals (the others being copper and caesium). Most metals appear whitish-grey as they reflect all wavelengths of visible light. Gold, on the other hand, due to its electronic configuration exhibits a reduction in reflectivity efficiency in the blue region of the visible spectrum. It has, in the pure form, a striking yellow colour and brilliant lustre for which it became known by the latin Aurum, meaning ‘shining dawn’ (depicted by artist Murray Robertson in the image above).

Today the purity of gold jewellery is expressed in terms of ‘karat’. Pure gold is 24 karat, where, K = 24(Masspure/Masstotal), meaning 24/24 parts of the material are gold, by weight. In practice, even 24K gold is often stated as 99.99% pure due to residual impurities from the extraction process. Although 24K gold can be used for jewellery, the softness of pure gold means that alloying the metal to improve its physical properties or to design colour variants is a popular approach. The European standard, for instance, is 18 karat, meaning 18/24 parts are gold (75% pure by weight). The other 25 % of the weight is made up of another material (in the case of jewellery, a second metal) to make an alloy, which is typically stronger than the pure metal.

The improved strength of gold alloys occurs when, having melted two or more metals together, a new structural phase is formed on cooling. The precipitation of the added metal atoms reduces slippage of the original atoms across one another.

Ternary plot of approximate colours of Ag–Au–Cu alloys, which are commonly used in jewellery making.
Original image: Metallos [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Common alloys of gold for jewellery fall into the yellow gold or white gold categories. Most jewellery alloys of yellow gold, including that of rose and green-shade gold, fall within the Au-Ag-Cu system (see image above). Zn is sometimes added to further increase the alloy strength and to change the red colour of high Cu alloys to a paler rose.

For white gold, Au-Pd-Ag is a common alloy system, where Pd is used as a bleaching agent. Nickel, another metal capable of producing the desired bleaching effect to produce white gold, is a known skin sensitiser and has become less popular in jewellery making.

The bleaching effect occurs due to the added material changing the reflectivity of the alloy in the low energy part of the visible spectrum. In all cases, the relative ratio of the alloy’s components dictate the resulting hue and mechanical characteristics.  The alloy systems allow the characteristics to be achieved such that the design lasts the length of a marriage and beyond.

A word of warning/advice to the newlyweds: although your gold is stable, it is not chemically inert. Avoid exposure to mercury, with which the gold will form an amalgam; cyanide salts, which will react with your band; and aqua regia* in which it will dissolve. Of course, if you encounter any of these three materials by accident, you have greater worries than the integrity of your wedding ring!

The chemical susceptibility of gold for these reagents has proven useful. Mercury and cyanide salts have been used to extract gold from its ore. In fact, gold cyanidation, developed industrially in the 1880s by Glaswegian chemists John Stewart McArthur and Robert and William Forrest is still the main method of gold extraction – and the biggest use of sodium cyanide – globally. The ability of aqua regia to dissolve gold helped foil the Nazis during World War II. Two German Nobel laureates had placed their medals (23K gold) at the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for safe-keeping. But removing gold from Nazi Germany was a grievous offense and with the laureates names inscribed on the medal, this was an incriminating piece of evidence. ‘While the invading forces marched in the streets’, George de Hevesy – a (future) Nobel laureate himself – dissolved the medals in aqua regia. While the laboratories were laboriously searched by the Nazis, the medals remained dissolved, but undiscovered, on the bench. The metal was recovered after the war and the medals recast and returned to the laureates.

Whatever gold you choose for your wedding band, you add to a rich history of human civilisation fascinated by and adorned with gold. And to the newlywed class of 2014, congratulations!



* Note: Aqua regia is latin for ‘King’s water’, a 1:3 nitric:hydrochloric acid solution, it is known in Russia as Tsar’s vodka and its ability to dissolve gold is shown wonderfully in this Periodic Table of Videos.



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Categories: Education

Academic family: the Nobel prize in Chemistry 2014

Chemistry World blog (RSC) - 14 October, 2014 - 13:29

Guest post by JessTheChemist

‘Where the telescope ends, the microscope begins. Which of the two has a grander view?’ – Victor Hugo

In 1873, German physicist Ernst Abbe reported that the resolution limit of the optical microscope was 0.2 micrometres. Although this still remains true, recent work in the field of microscopy – specifically Stimulated Emission Depletion (STED) microscopy and single-molecule microscopy – has allowed scientists to visualise molecules smaller than this limit. This is accomplished by tagging molecules with fluorescent labels, which allows a more detailed picture to be visualised. On Wednesday 8th October 2014 Eric Betzig, Stefan Hell and William Moerner were awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry for their ground-breaking work in ‘the development of super-resolved fluorescence microscopy’. You can learn more about the ins and outs of the Nobel prize winners’ work by reading the recent Chemistry World article.

I am interested in finding out how chemists are connected to each other, and in particular, investigating whether your likelihood of winning a Nobel prize is increased by having a high number of laureates in your family tree.  It is also interesting to see how closely related, if at all, are the scientists that share a prize.

If we consider his academic pedigree, one might say that Eric Betzig was destined to become a Nobel prize winner. He is connected to a number of notable laureates, including the father of nuclear physics, Ernest Rutherford. Rutherford won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1908 ‘for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances’. Through Rutherford, Betzig is also connected to Niels Bohr, who won the Nobel prize for physics in 1922 for ‘his services in the investigation of the structure of atoms and of the radiation emanating from them’.

Additionally, Betzig is academically related to John William Strutt (Lord Rayleigh) who won the prize for physics for the discovery of argon in 1904, along with his collaborator Sir William Ramsay, who won the 1904 chemistry prize for the same discovery. With ancestry like that, Betzig was always destined for greatness.

Alternatively, William Moerner is closely linked to Dudley Herschbach and Yuan T. Lee, who won the 1986 Nobel prize in chemistry ‘for their contributions to the dynamics of chemical elementary processes’. To find out more about Herschbach and Lee’s academic family connections, check out last month’s blog post about one of their connections, Sir Harry Kroto.

Although Eric Betzig and William Moerner worked independently from one another, they both developed single-molecule microscopy, so it is not a surprise that their lineage is intertwined. As you can see from the tree, they are connected via some of the science greats such as Linus Pauling.

Stefan Hell worked in a slightly different field to Betzig and Moerner and, amongst others, is connected to biochemists Robert Huber and Johann Deisenhofer, who won the 1988 Nobel prize for chemistry ‘for the determination of the three-dimensional structure of a photosynthetic reaction centre’.  As predicted, however, all three of the prize winners can be connected through their academic relations – via Deisenhofer, Hell can be connected to Moerner and, therefore, Betzig.

As you can see, all three winners have a rich Nobel history but what I found particularly interesting about this academic family tree is that it contains scientists from all sorts of backgrounds – from nuclear physics to biochemistry to organic chemistry. This led me to think, what kind of scientists am I connected to? To find out what kind of scientists you are connected to, head to, where you can add yourself to the website and start creating your very own tree.  You never know who you may be connected to.

And don’t forget to tweet me (@Jessthechemist) with suggestions for the focus of next month’s blog post!

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Categories: Education

September 2014: Newton, sun and ice

Royal Society R.Science - 6 October, 2014 - 15:56

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