Tag Archives: chemistry

Almost Saturday Science Video: Oxygen

10 Dec

So this video isn’t chemically perfect: oxygen atoms and hydrogen atoms tend to hang out in pairs most of the time. But I can’t argue with its creative spunk. Enjoy!

Video by Christopher Hendryx (his website)

Hat tip: Joanne Manaster, also known as Twitter’s @sciencegoddess

Marvelous milk

1 Dec

Cow suckling her calf

Most of my news articles don’t have a back story. But my most recent chemistry story combined food, molecules, animals. . .  and a little bit of family.

Dairy runs in my family. My grandfather ran a small dairy for more than 30 years, in and around his day job. My father has worked in dairy science, as a university professor, but mostly working in Extension, working with dairy farmers and tools that keep track of milk data and production. My uncle, a large animal veterinarian, does embryo transfers in cattle.

So, when an editor approaches me with a milk story, I’m game.

Though I knew that milk provides a way for moms to provide antibodies to babies, I’m intrigued by the possibility that there are a mixture of enzymes that may both activate milk proteins within the stomach and then shield them from being shredded into amino acids. This chemical and biological marvel mixes fats, proteins, and sugars and even whole cells. Researchers now have a pretty good picture of what’s in there, but plenty of work remains to figure out how it all works together.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Almost Saturday Science Videos and more: Playing with the periodic table

19 Nov

Somehow Facebook, Twitter and my ongoing addiction to NPR have all pointed to fun chemistry science media today. This morning, I was just about to get out of bed when I heard this segment on NPR’s Morning Edition: Planet Money: Why Gold? Planet Money and a Columbia University chemical engineer play bingo with the periodic table to cleverly explain the origin of gold as the metallic basis of wealth.

Then there’s chemistry at a party: a fun little promotional video for science career put together by Marie Curie Actions at the European Commission Research (Hat tip: The Scientist‘s Naturally Selected blog). My favorite segue:  Hydrogen and Neon have  “No Attraction,” but Carbon enters the room to attract four happy Hydrogens. Those poor noble gases are just destined to die alone.

Finally, I picked this up via Facebook: your periodic table tie-in to Harry Potter mania this weekend. Enjoy “The Elements” courtesy of Daniel Radcliffe. Awesome.

The kitchen laboratory

21 Oct

Molecular gastronomy in action: strawberry ravioli on a spoon before being dropped into a liquid nitrogen bath. Credit: iStockphoto/Thomas_EyeDesign

These days the kitchen is my chemistry lab, and if I were back in college I’d probably be one of the students beating down the door to get in to a cooking science class like this one at Harvard.

Despite my experience with chemical gadgets, the wildest item in my kitchen is a food processor. Watching what molecular gastronomy folks cook up next soothes my strange secret longing for a rotary evaporator and a supply of liquid nitrogen. So last month, I headed over to the Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting to find out about a chemical kitchen topic, flavor pairings.

Bernard Larousse started with a fascinating side note about the partnerships that he and his colleagues are building between chefs and scientists with the Flemish Primitives. Chefs used ultrasound to make stock, but my favorite funky food gadget had to be the fluidic plate (my term, not his). Researchers developed plates that work like microfluidic chips (see earlier post), electrical circuits within the plates allow chefs to deliver water droplets to the food at a defined point in time. Sure, this isn’t really practical at home (Yes, I want one). But this plate has the right mix of posh and geeky food style.

But back to the flavor chemistry. Eighty percent of taste comes from the sense of smell, as most of us notice when we have a cold and all food tastes like cardboard. But what makes two flavors work together? Researchers have analyzed the flavor components and compared them. A good match is all about having a similar mixture of component flavor compounds. This doesn’t take into account other issues such as texture. If you have two foods where the flavors don’t overlap, you can bridge between them with a food with flavor components that overlap between the other two: cheese and vanilla don’t match, but they work fine if you add coffee.

The website maps these chemical relationships on a wheel. Like foods are grouped together on branches, and the distance from the central food indicates how well it matches. Take this one for strawberries: I don’t think I every would have matched them with mussels. Not only can you make new matches, you can also figure out how to replace a flavor with other components with related flavor profiles.

That last piece seems to be particularly useful for vegetarian foodies, who’d like to replicate the robust flavor of meat. Larousse also points out that it can be a way for locavores to replace non-local ingredients. Replacing an ingredient like citrus with other natural ingredients still seems a bit more like a science project at this point– something that molecular gastronomers might try for fun. Ultimately, it’s probably easier for most of us to go buy an orange.

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

 

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.

Learning by doing: revisiting Epiphanies

14 May

Webb of Science needs a breather, so I’ve decided to repost my inaugural post from the 2009 blogathon about problem-solving in both science and writing. I still love what I do, the puzzle of pulling words together. Last year and this year, blogging each day in May reminds me of old lessons and teaches me new ones: learning isn’t just about thinking but doing. And, on a personal side note, it looks like my husband was right.

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

iStockphoto/James Group Studios

I got a phone call from my husband a few weeks ago when he was away doing dissertation research. “Well, I’ve had an epiphany,” he says. “I’ve realized why what I’m doing won’t work.” This explanation was so logical, delightfully simple. I’m sure he’s right, though he now has to rejigger his experiments.

After we got off the phone, I could have been disappointed (Logically, every partner of a Ph.D. student hopes that experiments will move quickly rather than slowly). But I’ve also slogged through PhD-dom myself, so I was actually excited. Why? Because that moment and his clear idea took me back to the joy of research that kept me going through the slog. Strangely the best moments of my Ph.D. were actually when I somehow managed to step back after weeks, months, or years, and had the clarity to look at the problem from a different perspective. Suddenly, after weeks, months or even years of approaching a problem as the same-old, same-old, I’d know exactly where I’d gone wrong.

Of course, each of those moments led to mounds of hard work, but always taught me something new. I learned new purification techniques and found new collaborations with other smart people. And I was suddenly trying to do chemical reactions in water. Mother Nature is a master at water-based chemistry– human beings, well, we have a few million years to catch up on. Continue reading

Ada Lovelace Day– science teachers and Mrs. Findley

24 Mar

I’m participating in Ada Lovelace Day, saluting women in technology and science. I thought about writing about a particular researcher, but I decided instead to single out the often anonymous heroines (and heroes) of science and technology, the teachers who inspire young minds to pursue science careers. Though their names aren’t remembered by Nobel or on manuscripts published in Science and Nature, the contributions of the best of these teachers echo throughout science and technology.

I was far from the first student in my Florida high school who looked up to Mrs. Findley. Even those who hated chemistry liked her. Somehow when she described how atoms knitted into molecules during my sophomore and junior years, I realized that here was the engineering basis of everything alive, a giant chemical puzzle. I liked being pushed, and I like that she made us think.

But she also showed us glimpses of her life outside the classroom. Her son– in elementary school at the time– sometimes sat at her desk during our 7th period AP class. She moonlighted as a caterer, and my first magazine article described how she blended hard science with a nurturing side.

As a senior when I agonized over my future, forces pulled me back into her classroom for advice. She wrote recommendation letters and offered a listening ear as I agonized over college choices and the increasing tug of my logical, chemical side versus my love of language.

Though I wasn’t the first student to ask Mrs. Findley’s advice, I was probably one of the last– at school, anyway. As I struggled with questions of my future, she was planning a return to pharmacy school. Her decision to reinvent herself made a lot more sense to me nearly a decade later, when after 5 years into a chemistry Ph.D. program, I began considering different career paths that still allowed me to think like a scientist. At 17 I  thought that sometime before 22 I would make a magic decision that would fix the career course of the rest of my life. By 27, I understood the need to alter that course. I’d once looked at myself and thought that changing meant acknowledging a personal failure. But her courage to change made her even more of a role model– she was a terrific teacher, and I’m sure she’s a great pharmacist, too.

We need great science teachers to educate, inspire, and lead some minds to patents, papers, and scientific greatness. But it all boils down to making a difference one student at a time. Thanks, Mrs. Findley, for supporting me in ways that I could imagine at the time.

Chemistry Nobel, women, and the “choice”

7 Oct
A chocolate Nobel Prize

A chocolate Nobel Prize

On Monday, I mentioned that it was a good week for women in science. Well, it got even better today with the announcement of the chemistry prize.  Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science becomes the fourth woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (sharing the prize with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology  and Thomas Steitz of Yale University).

The science is essential for life, understanding the structure and workings of ribosomes. These packets within living cells that take the master plans encoded within geness and manufacture the working parts, proteins.

For an upcoming story, I’ve been thinking a lot about research careers, work-life balance, and the “choice” that’s often drawn in the sand, particularly for women, between work and family. Some of that comes out in Yonath’s interview on the Nobel website:

[AS] Yes. And perhaps particularly special to be a woman who receives it?

[AY] I’m sorry that I can’t, I can’t think this is because of my gender. And, I don’t think that I did something that is specially for women, or the opposite. During my time I had some very difficult years and I had very pronounced competition, all by men. But I don’t think that this is because I was a woman. I’m pretty sure that if I was a man too they would compete, if the men would get to where I was at that time. I think that it doesn’t help to be a woman in science. Maybe now, but not when I was progressing. But I don’t think that it disturbs, in my opinion. I may be wrong. I may be wrong: women try to explain me all types of things. And I think that women can make … women need, actually, they’re fortunate because if they don’t want to do science they can say, “I want to be with my kids.” And this is understandable, whereas a man cannot do this. So if we look at it from the other point, but this means also stopping science.

The Nobel recognition is about Yonath’s science, not her gender. But I find this quote fascinating, and it skirts around the main issue. She’s of a different generation (born in 1939), and I see one point: motherhood was  considered a socially acceptable– maybe even socially sanctioned– reason for a female scientist to leave the laboratory. A man would probably get more backlash for making a choice to leave the laboratory to raise his children.

But that choice, by a scientist of either gender, comes with consequences. I doubt that many of today’s women  use motherhood as a smokescreen for a waning interest in research. They leave for many reasons: because they decide to apply their knowledge in new ways, because they don’t see enough opportunities, and maybe even because they want to make more money. Some of them discover that the research lifestyle isn’t compatible with the family life that they’d like to have, particularly in the early years of their children’s lives.

Working on this upcoming story already had me thinking about my own decision to leave the laboratory. My choice didn’t come down to a line in the sand between career and family. I was single throughout graduate school and defended my dissertation shortly before my 30th birthday. But those issues colored my decision. By the time I finished my Ph.D., I sensed a culture of inflexibility.  I realized that I didn’t want to feel locked into lab work, and I wanted to be able to pursue other creative interests, and, yes, eventually have a family. Did those desires make me a less capable scientist? Absolutely not, but conventional wisdom would say that I didn’t want it “bad enough.” If I had sensed more flexibility– an environment more compatible with my personal goals–  would I have considered staying in research? I don’t know.

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They Might Be Giants and Schoolhouse Rock

17 Sep

How did I get so lucky? Seriously.

A little while ago, I came across this post in Nature News’s blog about the new kids’ album from They Might Be Giants. And. The. Videos. My neighbors probably heard me scream with glee, and then I made an impulse buy on iTunes–which I rarely do. Honest. Wow, I’m gushing, but this is sooo much fun.

“Like a box of paints that are mixed to make every shade. . . ” And, yes, “elephants are made of elements.”

As I was watching– and though I know I’m dating myself as a late Gen-Xer when I make this statement, I couldn’t help but think, “This is the best thing since Schoolhouse Rock!”

Which leads me back to somewhere between 10 am and noon, I was listening to a segment on the Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC (my local NPR station) about the healthcare reform bill. All the sudden I heard something along the lines of “clearly he learned his civics from Schoolhouse Rock!” complete with the matching audio clip. I’ve had “How a Bill Becomes a Law” in my head all day. Note: I’m not the only one of Brian’s listeners who had a “SCHOOLHOUSE ROCK!” moment (see comment #12 from M in Brooklyn).

They Might Be Giants singing about chemistry + Schoolhouse Rock = a fun day in my world.

Considering that I don’t have a school-age child, is this geeky or childish or both?