MotW: Nobel Prizes all about the carbon

8 Oct

Carbon is the big star among the science Nobel Prizes this week. Sure, IVF is a big deal, too. But, today, I’m all about the element that ruled my life as an organic chemist. Carbon more than math is the universal common denominator of ‘O-chem. “As my undergraduate professor once quipped , “You just have to be able to count to four: four bonds to carbon.”

 

, from Wikimedia Commons”]But otherwise the two prizes aren’t all that similar. The physics prize for the discovery of graphene— sheets of carbon the thickness of a single atom– recognizes a discovery just a handful of years old. It’s superstrong, transparent, incredibly dense– fascinating properties that have scientists excited about what we might be able to do with it. But what has it done for the world lately? Not much, at least not yet. Some scientists think the award is premature.

The chemistry prize was awarded for classic organic synthesis: using palladium, a matchmaker metal with the remarkable ability to help chemists link together complicated patterns of carbon atoms. Although the enzymes between living cells are gifted at making these types of connections,  stringing carbon atoms together in precise ways  within a flask in a traditional chemistry lab is both art and science (and often an exercise in frustration).

But this is one elegant solution. The scientists discovered the reactions in the 1970s, but the chemistry that had come into its own by the time I started graduate school in the late 1990s.  As a result, my chemist mind thought, “oh, really, they haven’t awarded a Nobel for this yet?” But there’s no question that this science has touched people all over the world.  The pain reliever I took yesterday (Naproxen, the active compound in Aleve), cancer drugs, plastics,  compounds in TVs and other displays and flexible screens all result from chemists using these techniques on an industrial scale.

 

Naproxen structure via Wikimedia Commons

 

More Maker Faire

30 Sep

As my husband and I were roaming from tent to tent at Maker Faire on Sunday, we were recognized, but not for any reason that you might expect. “Hey, I know you,” a guy said as he turned around from examining a table. “You got hit in the head with that plane.”

Yes, our claim to fame at Maker Faire was being that couple, the ones involved in a minor incident with a remote control stealth bomber that spent much of the afternoon circling skies between the life-size game of Mouse Trap and  the stage for Eepy Bird, the Mentos and Diet Coke guys. We’re fine, but we scanned the air space above us cautiously a la Chicken Little for the rest of the afternoon.

Collisions and vague infamy aside- Maker Faire was fun. There was plenty of potential nauseousness for some– the 360 Swing:

The 360 swing at 45 degrees

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Building with my own two hands

24 Sep

I’m looking forward to Maker Faire NY this weekend. I’m not  directly involved, but I love this concept: people coming up with new ideas, building things, sharing what they’ve learned with other people.

Mark Frauenfelder, Editor-in-Chief of Make magazine (the sponsor), describes the educational value in do-it-yourself in the most recent issue of the Atlantic.

Unfortunately, says Gray, our schools don’t teach kids how to make things, but instead train them to become scholars, “in the narrowest sense of the word, meaning someone who spends their time reading and writing. Of course, most people are not scholars. We survive by doing things.”

Even though I earned scholarly academic credentials, one of the satisfying parts of doing chemistry was synthesis, setting up reactions and producing a product. Granted, those products weren’t necessarily exciting or beautiful– on a good day, they were white powders, on messier days, clear sticky oils. (Yes, those are the trials of working with sugary molecules). They weren’t even directly useful, but I’d have to devise the experimental conditions, order the right chemicals, find or borrow equipment, and even draw glass structures that a glassblower would then produce for me. Design and even improvisation provided both a challenge and a reward.

a vase made with my own two hands

a webbofscience original: a vase I made myself

I love to learn, but I love to be able to hold a final product in my hands. As a writer, my work sometimes feels a little too ethereal– I’ve become more of a scholar than I was in the laboratory. I volley with ideas all day, and my written product is often as ethereal as a web page. Ultimately I think that’s one of the reasons that most writers feel like they should write a book at some point. I don’t often get to hold a hard copy of my work and know that my labors produced something tangible. But feeling pages in my hands, printed and bound, that I helped to produce help me feel like I contributed something physical to the world.

People need to build with their own two hands (in the video feature). I’m glad I don’t have to make all my own clothes or furniture. But crocheting a scarf or an afghan makes me feel human. I’ve revisited ceramics in the past year. I’m still learning, but I love the feeling of clay spinning under my hands, a form emerging from the push of my palms, the flex of my fingers.

Urban versus rural nature

14 Sep

Maybe it’s in the zeitgeist: this week’s New York magazine waxes poetic about ecology in  The Concrete Jungle. Not what I was expecting when the city has been teeming with fashionistas and urban wildlife on the pop edge of culture. But, there it is in the first photo: Staten Island turkeys!

In our heat island, enveloped by concrete and lush parks engineered to look natural, the nuance here goes beyond rabid coyotes and bears in the suburbs.

An ecological feedback loop is a natural extension of the idea that nature exists in the city, but it requires a change of thinking that is equally profound: There is no difference between urban nature and rural nature. It is all one ecology, adjusting and cross-pollinating in the face of change. This can be disturbing, since local stresses threaten to disrupt wildlife hundreds of miles away. But it is, in fact, a hopeful idea. If New York City’s ecology has taught us anything, it is that nature likes intrusions—counts on them, even. Change makes for vibrancy. We are not just a city of bedbugs and rats; we are a wellspring for regional vitality.

But it’s a challenging metaphor for the City and our global community. As urban dwellers, we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

Scientists believe genetic diversity is as important to species survival as sheer numbers. It has a lot to do with the mix, in other words, and if it is characteristic of human nature to look at things metaphorically, then it turns out that the city serves the same function for nature as it does for human beings. It is an intersection, a place where outsiders arrive to set up camp anew, to commingle, to move on, carrying influences and encouraging dynamism elsewhere. Like cities in the seventies, our global ecosystem is in trouble; we are flirting with environmental bankruptcy. If we are to save nature—which is to say, save ourselves—then we need to embrace that which is around us.

Over Labor Day weekend, I got to spend time on a friend’s farm in western Colorado– a wonderful experience that left me more than a wee-bit jealous of wide-open rural spaces. I love my city, too, and I’m glad to appreciate it as nature, too.

UPDATE Sept 30th: This post got a nice shout-out in New York magazine’s comments.

Close encounters of the bird kind

25 Aug

Last Saturday started out as a low key weekend adventure: just a little local beach without having to fight too much weekend traffic. So we crossed the Verrazano bridge to Staten Island. In Great Kills Park, we spotted plenty of your expected birds– plovers and gulls of varying shapes and sizes. But then my husband, the eagle-eyed birdwatcher in our household, looks over to find this little bird.

The baby cockatiel we rescued from a Staten Island beach on Saturday

An unbanded baby cockatiel? (Insert rant: How could anyone abandon a baby bird, bred as a pet, to fend for itself like that? He  (or she) had been battered and pecked.). We took him to the nearest animal shelter and hope that “Sandy” finds a good home.

Back on the beach boardwalk, we can confirm– in case you were wondering– there are real wild turkeys in New York City.

gobble, gobble in Staten Island

a wild turkey perched on the Staten Island beach boardwalk

Count-em, three, quirky animal stories

19 Aug

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Quirky animal stories are big fun, but three in a month is a new record for me.

The most recent one, hot off the presses in C&EN’s Environmental SCENE, looks at how arctic seabirds provide a convenient way to track persistent pollutants in marine environments.The researchers measure the chemicals in stomach oils, a concentrate of fish oils from their food that collect in an upper part of their stomach. Chicks are exposed to higher levels of pollutants when they’re fed stomach oils than from whole fish or crustaceans. Fun factoid: the smelly mess is super-easy to collect because the birds also spew it on intruders. Yes, that includes your friendly neighborhood field scientist.

At the end of July, I went to the 47th Annual Animal Behavior Society meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia. Here’s what came out of that trip for ScienceNOW:

First, a look at unusual beluga whale behavior: except for during mating season, male whales at a Canadian aquarium prefer to hump other males rather than females. Is this hanky-panky an assertion of dominance? A form of play? In the wild, male whales tend to live in groups on their own for most of the year and under the Arctic ice.

Finally, a new chapter in the story of duck penises: Male ducks have unusual, spiraling penises that grow for mating season. Now, researchers have shown in two different species that social competition shapes either how long a duck’s penis will grow or how long it will stay elongated. It’s as if the ducks walked into a quacking singles bar and their sexual prowess changed based on the other guys in the room.

The Origin of this Science Writer

6 Aug

Last week, Ed Yong at Not Exactly Rocket Science started a post that’s collecting the stories of how science writers came to this particular career. I finally got around to adding my contribution, which I’m reposting with relevant links.

At 16, I published my first article of science writing, a profile my high school chemistry teacher—also a part-time caterer— for the school’s literary magazine. At the time, I thought of myself as an educational sponge rather than a writer. I was a math and science geek who also loved language and literature. But I had no idea that I could combine the two. Instead, I pursued chemistry, fascinated by the machinery that powered life.

That interest fueled me for almost a decade until I was 5 years into a Ph.D. program at Indiana University. It was 2002, and I felt like academic science was pushing me to learn more and more about less and less. I knew I wanted to finish the Ph.D., but I had to figure out what I would do next.

I read the “alternative careers” books for scientists. I volunteered and later worked on staff at a hands-on science museum. But I also contacted Holly Stocking, a (now retired) professor at the IU journalism school, about her science writing course. That class changed my course completely. Over the next 2 years, I wrote for the campus newspaper, applied for internships, and finished my Ph.D.

A month after my Ph.D. defense, I moved to New York City for an internship at Discover magazine, followed by an AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at WNBC-TV. In the last 6 years, I’ve been freelancing for publications such as Discover, Science News, ScientificAmerican.com, Science Careers, Nature Biotechnology, and a number of science and health publications for children. I’ve also worked on science exhibits, serving as the research coordinator for the permanent astronomy exhibits at Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles.

I love the opportunity to learn about new ideas, talk with interesting people, and put those pieces together to tell a story. I’ve written about my advice to new science writers before—particularly those with extensive training as scientists. More on that here.