Some thoughts on the HOPE Nobel Laureate Meeting

If you have been following my social medias, you’ll know I’m recently returned from a couple of weeks in Tokyo. I was there primarily to attend the 9th HOPE Meeting with Nobel Laureates, coordinated by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The conference program began with the 2017 Nobel Prize Dialogue, a free event open to the public, streamed live online, and featuring a lineup including 5 Nobel Laureates (4 real ones and 1 economist) and a quite impressive (although mostly male) bunch of researchers and business people. The theme of the event was “The Future of Intelligence”, a topic I’d hoped would prompt more discussion about education, inequity and ideally truly global issues. Turns out most people wanted to talk about self-driving cars.

Of the laureates in attendance at the Nobel Prize Dialogue, 2 remained in attendance at the HOPE Meeting  and an additional 4 laureates joined across the remaining 4 days of the conference. The 110 student and early-career researcher delegates from the Asia-Pacific and Africa enjoyed a program of lectures, discussion groups, cultural activities, and a visit to RIKEN – Japan’s largest research institute. Delegates also presented their own research in both a poster and a 1 minute (!!!) talk.

In no particular order, some thoughts I took away from the meeting

  • Nobel laureates are impressive people, but essentially just people. Some are gracious, some are weird, some are friendly, some are stand-offish, some are outgoing,  none of them follow me on twitter. Very few of them are even on twitter.
  • A one-on-one conversation or small group discussion is immeasurably more valuable and rewarding than a lecture delivered to >100 people.
  • The Japanese reputation for efficiency can not be underestimated. This was without a doubt the most well run and on time event I have ever attended. Corralling 110 delegates and a dozen or more special guests across a 5+ day program would not have been done anywhere near as well anywhere else in the world.
  • Nobel laureates are not experts in science communication theory or practice (although many of them are reasonably good at it).
  • A Nobel Prize medal is larger and heavier than I imagined. I enjoy holding a Nobel Prize medal.
  • One must be tolerant and accommodating of language and cultural differences at a conference where English is not the first language of most of the delegates. However, my tolerance does not extend to being told that my research is “not a job for a lady” and results in immediate termination of conversation.
  • Incidental, casual conversations with laureates over meals, in elevators, or in hotel foyers are fucking awesome.
  • Laureates that recognise the changes and challenges in the current research environment have the most to offer early-career researchers.  I don’t mind a “do as I say not as I did” approach when laureates are dispensing advice, providing they realise how different things are now compared to when they started their careers.
  • Conversely, while the career stories of all laureates are interesting, advice along the lines of “don’t worry about getting more than one publication per year” or “don’t let your PhD supervisor tell you what you can work on” or “just have passion and everything will work out” is not appropriate and maybe even damaging.
  • Even with the laureates who are more humble and that do grok how different things are now, I’m not sure any of them really truly grasp how much privilege has propelled their careers to the heights they have reached. The word “luck” is bandied about a lot. It might be more accurate to replace the word luck with the word privilege.
  • Not everyone can do “transformative” research and that is OK. But it can be hard to be a researcher in the applied sciences and not feel like a second class citizen in a scholarly environment.
  • Not everyone is able to do interdisciplinary research and that too is OK. Also, collaboration is good and all but not everyone can collaborate with a scientist from Egypt or Myanmar.
  • Down time, relaxation, and sufficient opportunity to be alone is essential even for those with extroverted personalities but especially for those with introverted personalities (not to mention health considerations). A full conference program running from 0800-2200 for 5 days is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
  • Nobel laureates are not afraid to say “I don’t know” or “this is outside my field of expertise”. How refreshing.
  • There is very much awesome science being done.
  • The song “pen, apple, pineapple, pen” is an intractable earworm and a menace to society and I wish I’d never heard it.

My thanks to JSPS, the Australian Academy of Science, and my nominating institution for support to attend this unforgettable meeting. JSPS also have loads of programs to attract early career researchers to Japan, more info here.

A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part III

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the third in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

When I started my PhD almost 4 years ago (oh dear lord please let me finish soon please) I didn’t anticipate that one of the most satisfying aspects would be the sense of community that came along with it. I suddenly became part of not only a formal multi-institutional academic centre, but also the broader analytical chemistry community in Australia. Conferences, events and meetings felt welcoming, convivial, egalitarian and I began to understand why academics were so obsessed with their academic genealogy. In many ways, it is like being part of a family. Sometimes better than your real family because they share your excitement about low limits of detection and when correlation coefficients are greater than 0.999.

So when I saw that one of our upcoming conferences was advertising a lineup of nine male keynote speakers I was pretty upset. Even amongst the invited speakers only one of the ten is a woman. And although each speaker is an accomplished and eminent scientist, the invited speaker list is certain to not reflect the diversity of the conference attendees. I thought my people knew better than this. There are many outstanding women in my field, particularly early career researchers, and the absolute worst thing about an all-male line up is the message that it sends to the ECRs. When we know that “you can’t be what you can’t see”, conference lineups like this all but shut the door in the faces of the younger women trying to establish themselves as independent scientists.

It’s easy to criticise gender imbalanced conferences when they are removed from you and when the organisers are strangers. When you know them personally, the politics and relationships makes everything a little more tricky. I also don’t feel like boycotting the conference is a viable option. It’s virtually impossible for me to attend conferences overseas, and the options locally are very limited. If I don’t go, I miss out and nobody will care that I’m not there and why. There are still many months until the conference, and I know I’m not the only one who is disappointed with the lineup so there is still time for changes to happen. But for now it is quite sucky.

For more information on conference program diversity, Professor Jenny Martin has some excellent points to make in her posts and paper.


A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part II

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the second in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

My employer had a quasi-open day* thing, with senior staff delivering presentations and generally hanging about talking about science things and being quite visible. Turns out a lot (nearly all) of these senior staff are men. Something I obviously knew, but had slipped out of my consciousness somewhere along the way.

From the second I walked in the front gate, it was immediately obvious that it was more of a sausagefest than an Australian primary school on election day. And I’m no stranger to this type of workplace. I’m used to being in male-dominated environments. I’ve worked in 4 other science joints and 2 hardware shops for flips sake.

So anyway this place is next-level XY, but this post is not about that. This post is about how I was pretty dang surprised to feel so ashamed about the gender inequity situation and tell you what, that was a surprise and I did not expect that at all. I spoke with a lot of people and while I was proud to show them the cool stuff we’ve got and the interesting and useful science we do, I couldn’t escape the uneasiness I felt when we looked around and all we could see were Dudes in Suits.

I’m also used to people sometimes being critical of where I work for reasons other than diversity, and it can be hard to not be defensive about it. But when folks commented on the lack of diversity at the quasi-open day, I felt sad and helpless and embarrassed. Overwhelmingly I felt really embarrassed. 

So I wondered, why did I feel this way? The inequity is not my fault! I don’t hire people, I have no influence on policies. I think I am genuinely doing what I can – being in diversity groups and committees, talking to people from peers to management about gender issues, trying hard to be a kick-arse doer of science who kicks arse while also having ovaries. I can’t think of a good reason why I should feel ashamed or in any way responsible for the lack of women representation but despite that I still did.

The next step for us is applying to the SAGE program and I do hope we are accepted, and that it genuinely improves representation and career paths for my current and future women colleagues. Because I do not want things to be sucky.

*”quasi-open day” because it was invite only so not really open and went for four days so also not really a day. 


A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part I

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the first in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

The Royal Australian Chemical Institute published in the June edition of their monthly magazine, Chemistry in Australia, a very poor and unfunny joke.  As I am wont to do, I tweeted about it.

I was sufficiently peeved by this Grade A sexist bullshittery that I also wrote a letter to the editor. I received a prompt response and the online version of the article has had the offending sentence removed. I’m waiting with keen interest to receive a follow-up from the editor and to see what the official response from the RACI will be.

Since joining as an undergrad I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my professional society. At the grassroots level, I’ve found RACI run and sponsored events to be excellent learning and networking opportunities, and fulfilled many of my expectations of what being part of a learned society should be. I’ve made many connections and drunk many beers and had a generally grand time at most of them.

But after 12 years of membership, I’m seriously considering not renewing this year. This issue could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. While I’ve had many positive experiences with individual members, the organisation as a whole has never felt entirely welcoming to me. It’s always felt male and I’m a woman. It’s always felt old and I’m young(ish). It’s always felt ivory tower and I’m outside academia. And I no longer feel like I want to try be a part of it.

I’m struggling to think of any benefits in continuing to be a member of this organisation. The aspects of the RACI that I find valuable, the events and conferences, will continue to be accessible and affordable even if I cease my membership. But the aspects of the RACI that I find deplorable and disappointing show no signs of changing and I’m no longer convinced that I want to support it with my membership dollars.

The New Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals Pictograms Explained

Like many others around the world, my laboratory is finalising our compliance with the new globally harmonised system of classifying and labelling chemicals (GHS). Part of this process has involved relabelling many of our chemicals with the new GHS hazard pictograms. Some of these pictograms are different from those we have used in the past, and the hazard is not always obvious from the picture alone so it is necessary to commit to memory what all of the pictograms represent. Hence I have provided this handy guide to interpreting the new set of pictograms.



I hope this guide has been helpful to you.

When advertisers try to chemistry

On a recent trip to one of the lands, I noticed this billboard advertising a school.

2015-08-17 16.41.05

Immediately I LOVED IT because chemistry! But soon after I didn’t love it anymore. The peroxide decomposition equation is wrong, with the subscript 2 following the oxygen instead of the hydrogen in what should be the formula for water. I’d expect a little better from an educational institution.

So then I go inside to Woolies, where they are running some kind of school fundraiser bizzo advertised thusly.


The ad has an adorable kid doing chemistry, so I LOVED IT. He’s unneccessarily wearing a lab coat but that’s OK because where else would he put his carefully askew coloured pens? His safety goggles are on his head but that’s OK – if he whacks himself in the eye with his Molymod he’ll probably live.

And then soon after I didn’t love it anymore. The molymod he’s holding was not a molecule immediately identifiable to me (I am an analytical chemist after all) so like any normal person would do, I opened up ChemDraw and tried to recreate the structure chemkid is holding. There is definitely an aromatic ring in the bottom half… a slightly odd ammonium group near the top… a carbon-nitrogen double bond on the left? a triply-bonded oxygen on the right? IDK but the kid’s hand and the angle of the shot and my general suckiness at this sort of thing made it hard for me to really tell what was going on there other a big ole hot mess.



I got confused. so like any normal person would do, I got out my own molymod kit and tried to make the molecule. I came unstuck again, mostly because I ran out of carbons and party because it appears to be a made up molecule.



So, 2 chemistry fails in one shopping trip. Plus Woolies was sold out of my favourite bread. For the record, advertising people, there’s a bunch of chemists on the internet who will help you with this kind of thing for free. For the love of science, all you have to do is not just make shit up.

Q. Vegemite Chocolate, How Does it Smell?

A. It can’t, it doesn’t have a nose.


When I die and the internet writes my epitaph, it will say “here lies Renée, she did some chemistry on the smell of Vegemite”.

As such, I felt that when Cadbury released Vegemite Dairy Milk chocolate to the market, it was my solemn duty to once again do some chemistry on the smell of Vegemite. I decided to repeat the aroma analysis experiment on the Vegemite filling from the chocolate and compare with the results from the original Vegemite analysis. The product description states that the filling is caramel mixed with Vegemite so I thought it would be interesting to see if the aroma compounds that were prominent in the Vegemite analysis are present in the chocolate filling, and if any new compounds might be identified from the caramel component.


I used the same extraction and analysis procedure as the previous experiment, so I could directly compare the chromatograms. The results of the two analyses are below, with the original Vegemite in red below and the Vegemite chocolate filling in blue above.




It’s clear to see that there are some key compounds present in both the Vegemite and Vegemite chocolate samples. The three major peaks are common to both samples. These are the ethyl esters of octanoic and decanoic acids, and trans ethyl-4-decenoate. Many of the other smaller peaks are also present in both Vegemites. However, not unexpectedly, there are a couple of compounds present in the Vegemite chocolate filling which are not found in the original Vegemite sample. Notably, tetramethyl pyrazine with the odour descriptors nutty, musty, vanilla, cocoa and maltol which is sweet, caramellic, cotton candy, fruity, bready, and phenyl acetaldehyde with honey, floral rose, chocolate aromas.

Some of the interesting peaks from the original Vegemite analysis (sulfurol, niacinamide, caryophyllene etc.) were absent in the chocolate sample, although I am leaning towards attributing this to dilution effects from mixing with the caramel and an unoptimised analytical method rather than them being somehow ‘removed’ from the product.

To conclude, although I am a fan of both Vegemite and chocolate, I had no qualms in sacrificing a few squares from the block in the name of science. Would not buy again, 1 star.