An Attempt at Combating Chemophobia Online

This past weekend, a Facebook post from a beauty studio was shared into my timeline. The post contained the erroneous claim that one of their product lines was “chemical free”. I’m not going to go into why this is a ridiculous statement, the likelihood is if you’re reading this blog you’re already well across why that is a ridiculous statement. Usually when I see these kind of things online I go into immediate #headdesk #facepalm or #otherhashtag mode, rant briefly about it on Twitter, #lesigh and then move on. For some reason this time I decided to engage with the post, which you can see below.

B2sQYeaCMAA1WLf

If you can’t see the pic, here’s the comments

[me] It’s not “chemical free”, the main ingredients are the chemicals phyllosilicates and zinc and titanium oxides which are safe and harmless when used as makeup.

[beauty studio] Inika is 100% vegan or certified organic.or both.They are cruelty free .Inika products contain no harsh chemicals. no talc,bismuth oxychloride or harmful preservatives, fillers, mineral oils, fragrance or petrochemicals. It is suitable for all skin types including those with allergies or sensitivities.

[beauty studio] To reply to Ren’ee [sic] Webster I don’t think there is any cosmetics on the market that is completely chemical free. They all have to have preservatives. Inika state that the products are natural.

There’s been bucketloads of discussion over the years about how to go about addressing chemophobia online, including whether this is even a good term for the phenomenon. So with all of this previous information in mind, I thought that I’d put out a reasonable response. But as you can see from the reply I could not claim that I succeeded. So I guess I’m wondering a few things:

  • could my comment have been put differently such that the recipient would get what I was trying to say? Is my comment polite, not condescending and clear or am I deluded about my civility and actually a hard-arsed bitch?
  • the chemical =/= natural false dichotomy rears its head again, should I have anticipated this?
  • are people fully aware of the fact that EVERYTHING IS CHEMICALS but just using a shortcut when they say “chemical free” because saying “vegan, certified organic, cruelty free, no talc, bismuth oxychloride,preservatives, fillers, mineral oils, fragrance or petrochemicals” is too cumbersome and unwieldy?
  • is there any point trying to engage with strangers online in this (or any) context ever?
  • WHAT THE ACTUAL EFF DO PEOPLE REALLY MEAN WHEN THEY CALL THINGS “CHEMICALS”? It seems to change to suit whatever they feel applies given the context. Is it up to us to figure this out?
  • why do we even bother? (rhetorical question, mostly)

Finally, I feel it’s important to mention that is was the beauty studio selling the products, NOT the manufacturer who made the “chemical free” claim.


A Tale of Vegemite (or Marmite) and Credit Where it’s Due

I had an interesting experience recently regarding some media coverage of my work. Readers of this blog will remember my Vegemite aroma analysis from June last year, which at the time got a nice amount of media attention, notably this Guardian article and this interview on ABC radio.

On October 6th (AEDST), I became aware through a Google Alert I have on my own name (narcissist, who me?), that the UK publication Chromatography Today had picked up on the Vegemite work and written an article in their ‘Breaking News’ section. 16 months old is quite a loose interpretation of breaking news in my opinion but hey whatever.

CT1

I thought it a little strange that they had gone ahead and written this article without even contacting me, but I’m a bit of a noob when it comes to media coverage and whatnot so I’m not really sure if this is normal or not. Once I read the article I could see that there were a few errors contained within, the major one being that they’d said I did the work on Marmite. Can you believe it, Marmite? That horrid stuff? As if!

Anyway, there was a link off to the right hand side of the article to “Request more information” so I submitted a little thingamajig there pointing out the mistakes and asking for them to be corrected, receiving only this automated reply.

CT3

I also contacted the @Chromtoday Twitter account, even though it had not tweeted for over 2 months.

CT7

Then I waited. After 5 days I still hadn’t received a reply through either of these channels to I sent the following email to the generic info email account of Chromatography Today. I recognised that my initial reactions were made in the heat of the moment, and maybe I had not been as courteous as I could have, so my aim was to be polite and civil in my email communication. In order of importance (to me) the changes I requested were:

  1. Correcting Marmite to Vegemite
  2. Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies
  3. A link back to the original work here on this blog
  4. Correction of typographical/methodological errors

CT2

Again I received no response, this time I waited 9 days before taking the next step. With a bit of Google-fu I was able to find the personal email addresses of several employees of the company that produces Chromatography Today. This information was publicly available by a Google search, I didn’t do anything special other than to select the right search terms. So I sent to all of these employees pretty much the same email I’d sent to the generic account earlier, slightly modified to explain that I hadn’t received any responses from my prior enquiries.

Hours after I sent THAT email, I get a response! Finally!

CT4

And then this the following day.

CT5

GREAT RIGHT? Well, let’s have a look at the changes they made using the compare feature in Word

CT6

  1. Correcting Marmite to Vegemite                   KINDA YEP (in the text only not the title)
  2. Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies YEP
  3. A link back to the original work here on this blog          NOPE NOPITY NOPE
  4. Correction of typographical/methodological errors        YEP 

Well, I’m not going to take this any further but I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with this outcome. I still feel like it is quite bad manners to not link back to the original source but this is over for me now, I’m not putting any more effort into pursuing this. As always, opinions and stuff welcome here and on the twoots.


My Three Minute Thesis Experience

I recently competed in two rounds of the Monash University 3 Minute Thesis competition, for more info on what 3MT is go here. I love the idea of 3MT and have been keen on participating for a couple of years now. Last year I didn’t feel quite ready, and wasn’t 100% happy with the idea I’d come up with so I didn’t end up entering. But this year – I had a great idea and I was ready man, so READY.

I’ve also been on a serious mission to improve my public speaking skills following an epically disastrous talk at ANU late last year. I’ve tried to take up all of the speaking opportunities that come up for me, and I joined the local branch of Toastmasters which has really helped as well. Simply practising public speaking in one form or another with a minimum frequency of once per fortnight has definitely accelerated my improvement.

 

The School of Chemistry Finals

When I showed up on the day, five contestants had become three and the order of presenters had been rearranged so that I was no longer first, but last. I’d had a dastardly cold/flu thing complete with fever and aches for about a week, so I was not in the best form of my life. Thankfully, the lecture theatre and lighting was set up such that I had to stand behind the lectern in order for the microphone to pick up my husky, disease-ridden voice. Under the circumstances, I was quite happy in the safe haven behind the lectern but still delivered my 3MT rather quickly, coming in ~25 seconds under time, including two bouts of coughing.

Despite the length and my rather deadpan delivery, I was still reasonably confident of getting through to the next round. Feedback from the judges suggested my presentation required more ‘scientific depth’ and although they did acknowledge my temporary otolaryngological disability, commented that my delivery could’ve been more authoritative and punchy. Fair enough.

To address the critiques from the school finals, I removed one kind of wishy-washy sentence from the script, replacing it with two longer sentences explaining the principles and advantages of gas chromatographic separations (ooh, so scientifically deep man). I also practised – A LOT. Punchy, authoritative delivery I am all over you.

 

The Faculty of Science Finals

Having mostly recovered from my sickness, on the day of the faculty finals I was about 50:50 nerves and confidence. Surprisingly, I was the only female contestant and also clearly the oldest (so damn old, these kids are like 22 years old how do they even scients). This time we were miked up so I didn’t have to worry about being trapped behind the lectern. There was however, a non-moving spotlight. Here is where I’ll let you watch the video and watch me twitch like a twitchy twitchface who wants to walk around, practised walking around, planned to walk around but is trapped in the spotlight to twitch away for three twitchtastic minutes.

I WANT TO BREAK FREE

The slide which is on the display behind me looked like this:
Webster_Renee_3MT

So yeah, clearly I had a problem. The feedback from the faculty judges was that they loved my story, but the delivery was distracting. DANG. So annoyed. I know I can do better than this. See you next year, 3MT.


Books in Scientia – Much Ado About (Practically) Nothing

Title and author

Much Ado About Practically Nothing by David Fisher

What’s it about?

Nobel gases, the group 18(VIII) elements. What you will not find in this book is any information on the most often quoted uses of noble gases, cooling and lighting. The author focuses on isotope geochemistry for dating of rocks, meteorites and whatnot.

What are the good bits?

I’m a little bit ashamed to say that even as a chemist (who should know better), I thought the noble gases were a teensy bit boring and this book might be too. It wasn’t! And it’s proper good, not just good because I thought it was going to be bad and then it wasn’t.

What are the not-so-good bits?

There are a couple of places where in my opinion, the author is overly critical on a personal level, of other scientists. It left me feeling a bit awkward and uncomfortable.

What does it say on p54 line 14?

I heard Bohr lecture once. Or rather I saw him lecture; I heard very little and understood absolutely nothing. His head was bowed and turned almost obsessively to the blackboard, on which he wrote tiny, barely legible mathematical symbols, and he whispered to the blackboard in a thick Danish accent.

My 3rd year thermodynamics lecturer must have seen Bohr lecture too, and modelled his lecturing style on the Dane…

Who should read it?

I’d recommend the reader to be literate in a little chemistry and/or physics or they may become lost in the science, which primarily deals with isotopes.

How good is it?

It’s good, a different perspective on an old topic and a worthwhile read if you happen to come across it.

 

stars much ado

 

 

 

 

3.5 mortar and pestles out of 5


More Silly Science Songs

It’s time for another edition (edition 1 here) of “songs posted on twitter that I have reappropriated with stupid science lyrics“. Please enjoy/roll eyes/headdesk as appropriate. I’ve included YouTube links to the original songs this time, for those who don’t share my refined and highly sophisticated tastes in music.

 

Wuthering Heights Synchrotron Nights by Kate Bush – March 28

Out on the circley, light source floors
You diffract the x-ray beam
You had to work nights
I had jealousy
Too late, too sciencey

How could you leave me
When I wanted to
Watch BSG with you
I hated you, I loved you too

Bad dreams in the night
They told me it was just a really bright light
Leave me behind on synchrotron, synchrotron, synchrotron nights

Heathcliff, it’s me Cathy
Please come home
I’m so bored, let me watch that TV show

 

Just the Way You Are Be a Chromatographer by Billy Joel – March 25

Don’t go swagin’
To try and seal me
I’ve never sprung a leak before
I don’t imagine
You’ll lose your helium
I’d might not seal you anymore

I would not leak you
In times of trouble
We never could have flowed this far
I’ll take the noble gas, I’ll take the bad air
So you can be a chromatographer
 

Where the Streets Peaks Have No Name by U2 – May 13

I want to run I want to find
I want to identify the molecules that show up as ions
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the peaks have no name
I want to feel, the oven vent on my face
I see my sample disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the unknowns, shame
Where the peaks have no name

 

Nightswimming Titrating by REM – May 27

Titrating
Deserves a quiet lab

The standard solution in the fumehood
Made up years ago
Turned around backwards cos the label’s gone

Every titre
Reveals the indicator changes
The endpoint’s so much clearer

I forgot my labcoat at the benches edge
The burette’s low on titrand
 

You May Be Right by Billy Joel – June 10

Friday night I smashed your flasky
Saturday I said I’m sorry
Sunday came and trashed glassware again
It was just a reaction
Wasn’t hurting anyone
And we all worked through the weekend so no change

 

I’ve been stranded in the no yield zone
I walked the mass spec room alone
Even solved the NMR shifts in the rain
And you told me not to characterise
But I made the white crystalline
So you said that only proves that I’m insane

 

You may be right
I may be crazy
But it just may be the molecule I’m looking for
Turn out the lights
Turn on the UV
You may be wrong for all I know
But you may be right

 

Young and Beautiful Topical by Lana Del Rey – June 25

Will you still cite me
When I’m no longer young and topical
Will you still cite me
When I am nothing but historical
I know you will

 

Heart Nanoparticle of Gold by Neil Young – July 1

I’ve been to Stanford
I’ve been to Harvard
I’ve crossed the ocean for a nanoparticle of gold

It’s citrate stabilised
It’s such a small size
Keeps me searching for a nanoparticle of gold
And I’m getting old

 

Running on Cooking Up Ice by Billy Joel – July 10

There’s a lot of tension in my home
The cancer’s building up inside of me
I’ve got all the symptoms & the side effects
Of imminent mortality

It’s not hard to understand that
My blue crystals are superior
In a world of pregnant wife and teenage son
My motives are ulterior

So I decided to start cooking up ice
Paying the price too long
Killing and scheming cos I’m cooking up ice
Where did my life go wrong

 

 


Lab Clutter and Cleanliness

It’s the time of the year that our laboratory inspections have rolled around again, and once again, as it is every year, one of the key pieces of advice is to keep our spaces “free of clutter”. And once again, as we do every year, I expect we will be judged as failing to meet this criterion.

The response from the lab manager is always something like “This is a real laboratory.” “We’re doing work, of course there’s stuff all over the place”, or my favourite “I’m actually working on that right now” (where ‘right now’ means ‘anytime within the last 4 weeks’).

The lab I work in has a very poor culture of tidiness, which is suspect is due to a several cultural and historical factors. One contributor may be the constant quiet tousle for work space in the organisation, and if labs are seen to be underutilised the murmurs will start… “Look at that big bench with nothing on it. When’s the last time you saw someone working there? What do they use that fumehood for if there’s nothing in it?”. There’s also a reluctance common amongst older chemists to throw anything away, which inevitably increases clutter. However, it’s my opinion that the main cause of lab clutter in my workplace is simply laziness.

Over the last few years, as my feelings of ownership over the workplace have increased, I’ve began to rearrange, replace, and rehome items I felt were cluttering the laboratory. The one recent change which has made me exceedingly happy, is allocating personal bench and hood space to every person in the team. It took over 4 years working here to get everyone to agree to it but it’s made a massive positive improvement on the way I conduct lab work. We now have 1 full bench and hood for our sole personal use, and a few remaining spaces that will continue to be communal areas. Leading up to this was a period where I couldn’t even find a spare 30 cm2 to decant something into a beaker; people would work wherever they could find a skerrick of bench, and leave glassware, containers and all manner of laboratory miscellany about the place with reckless abandon. When I did manage to clear a space for myself I sometimes felt it necessary to leave it looking like this.

image

As a small team of only 4 people, we have a large lab space of approximately 150 square metres over 3 laboratories. Granted, we do have quite a lot of stationary equipment and instruments with large footprints which take up a fair bit of room. But even so, as the newest employee (at almost 5 years), I feel as though my colleagues have forgotten (or never realised) exactly how good we’ve got it and don’t appreciate the space we have. All of my previous workplaces had shared benches and hoods which were always kept tidy and uncluttered. I don’t remember any fights or meetings had over messiness. The first lab I worked in didn’t even have offices and we hot-desked in the lab without any issues.

image

This is what my hood looks like right now. Given that I don’t do any synthesis, I’ve no need for a permanent Schlenk setup or anything like that. My bench is much the same, housing only a box of kimwipes, a box of pasteur pipettes and a sharps disposal container. My colleagues have commented to me things like “you haven’t done any lab work for two weeks”, an assumption they’ve made simply because they haven’t seen any glassware or equipment on my bench/hood in that time. What they’ve failed to realise is that of course I’ve been working in the lab, it’s just that I’ve just done this really weird thing called cleaning up after yourself.

Of course I’m not a complete lab cleanliness saint, and sometimes I leave stuff lying around too. Out of laziness, forgetfulness, or spite (the spite thing never works BTW, a messy person does not care or even notice that you have made things more messy).
 

Safety issues aside, I feel like a messy lab displays a real lack of pride in the work that you do. We often have visitors to our lab, students, visiting scientists, sales reps, other professionals and frankly it’s embarrassing to me thinking about the state our labs have been in at times. It doesn’t look like we’re working hard, it looks like we are shameful filthy pigs.

 

image

Postscipt. One piece of clutter I was rather fond of was this HPLC energy bar which used to sit on top of our instrument, in what I saw as a particularly knee-slappingly hilarious (and harmless) joke. Health and Safety Inspectors did not agree and now it is gone.


Books in Scientia – Newton and the Counterfeiter

 

newtonTitle and author

Newton and the Counterfeiter: The Unknown Detective Career of the World’s Greatest Scientist by Tom Levenson

What’s it about?

The little known latter part of Isaac Newton’s career, when he was warden of the Royal Mint in London. Chiefly responsible for transforming the currency and eliminating coin clippers and counterfeiters, Newton goes after notorious ‘coyner’ William Chaloner (and – ***spoiler alert***- totally nails that mofo).

What are the good bits?

Levenson is a very effective storyteller, using evocative language and ye oldey timey wordseys to transport the reader back to late 17th/early 18th century London. It’s also nice to read something about Newton which does not have to do with apples or calculus (not that I have anything against either of those things… except calculus).

What are the not-so-good bits?

It can be difficult to tell with historical non-fiction which parts are true truth and which parts are creative license and I found myself wondering this along the way. Best to not think about it and just enjoy the ripper story.

What does it say on p220 line 27?

Chaloner had always brandished his skills as a weapon. His mastery of the theory and practice of coining was the foundation of published claims that he could better the Warden.”

Chaloner, you dastardly fellow. You can’t fool Newton. Your comeuppance will come up… ance.

Who should read it?

Those who would like to learn how to do the coyning and the clipping and then go back in a time machine and make loads and loads of dollahz in 17th century England.

How good is it?

It’s good indeed. I liked it and it wasn’t even about chemistry!

newton stars

 

 

 

4 watchglasses out of 5

 


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