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.
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.
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 ExplainedPosted: September 2, 2015
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.
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.
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.
The Royal Society of Chemistry has just released the results of their survey into the public attitudes towards chemistry, which you should totally go and check out here. I haven’t had time to read the full report yet, but there is a nifty infographic summarising the findings and you can watch the presentation of the findings on youtube as well. Thanks to Mark Lorch looping me into this by tagging me on Twitter, and massive props to the RSC for commissioning the study.
The most interesting thing to me was the “public attitudes to chemicals section”. Apart from a few choice certified rolled gold douchecanoes like the Food Babe, turns out most people are all over ALL OF OUR FAVOURITE PITHY PHRASES. Including “everything is made of chemicals”, “the dose makes the poison” and “many chemicals are naturally occurring”. So turns out all this whining we’ve been doing about chemophobia and people generally being science-hating idiots who hate science is a bit of a circle jerk.
Holy confirmation bias, Batman – that’s totally what I have been thinking lately anyway!
I realised I was on the path to mellowing (pretty sure it’s mellowing and not apathy) just this weekend. We went down to our favourite local restaurant for dinner, only to find that one of the night’s specials was a Gippsland steak with “no chemicals”. I pointed this out to my dinner companions and the conversation went something like this:
Me: nobody order the chemical free steak, that’s quite expensive for a plate of nothing
Dinner companion 1: babe, let it go
DC2: oh, but everything is made of chemicals!
Me: why did they write that? What do you think they actually MEAN?
DC3: I think they are trying to say there there is nothing artificial, nothing added to the meat. It could even mean organic?
Me: yeah orroight then
And I didn’t even pick a fight with the waitstaff or owner about it and I didn’t yell and we’re going to keep going back there because the food is ace and there are table lamps hanging from the walls and ceiling and it’s quite nearby our house.
Maybe I’m saying I now think it’s OK to use the word “chemical” in this way? Sometimes? People are savvy enough to comprehend that there are different meanings for this word in different contexts. The chemicals missing from a steak with no chemicals are different to the chemicals that I order from Sigma-Aldrich and are different from the chemicals you put in your swimming pool. It’s OK. Most of the time we can figure out what is meant. And as someone famous once said “the key to communication is the message received”
So what are we all going to blog about now chemists? On second thoughts, I can’t rule out the possibility that I will get my angries on about this again in the not too distant future.
Chemophobia is a constant cause for consternation amongst chemists (alliteration FTW), and a regularly discussed topic on this blog. I often think and write about irrational fear of chemicals and the incorrect or misinformed usage of chemistry in the media, pop culture and modern life. Recently, I had an epiphany and have probably solved all of these problems for ever. OK maybe not but I thought it was worth blogging about.
In a recent visit to a materials science lab, I came across this sign on the door:
At the time I made a totes hilare crack about the lab being a vacuum chamber, because as we all know EVERTYHING IS CHEMICALS RIGHT therefore game over idiots the smug chemists win again. But I continued to think about it for a while because the context of the sign within a professional setting that I know to be not completely incompetent with respect to OHS was somewhat puzzling to me. I think in these situations, the place where I always come unstuck is what on earth do people actually mean when they say “chemicals”? It eventually dawned on me that that in this case, the word “chemicals” should be replaced with the phrase “hazardous chemicals” and everything would be 110 percent super and OK and making sense and perfectly fine and reasonable.
With the introduction of the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals (don’t even get me started on the first sentence on that link, just don’t even), the phrase “hazardous chemicals” is clearly defined under the Australian Work Health and Safety (WHS) Regulations using the GHS.
So, given that I totally solved this workplace chemical mystery, I wondered if I could apply the same logic to other bogus chemical claims out there. Maybe every time someone other than a chemist uses the word “chemical”, they actually mean “hazardous chemical as defined by the globally harmonised system of classification and labelling of chemicals” and of course they wanted to say or write this but it was just a teensy bit too long. My first port of call for chemistry idiocy is of course the Food Babe, who particularly hates the antioxidant BHT, the yogi’s favourite urea derivative azidocarbonamide and 1958 heterocycle of the year 4-methyl imidazole. When I search for these three compounds in ChemAlert (an Australian chemical management and compliance program), the results are shocking (OK not actually that shocking).
Yes, these three HAZARDOUS CHEMICALS are permitted in food and perfectly safe at certain concentrations – the dose makes the poison after all. So I wondered, is it possible that every time someone is concerned about “chemicals”, they are actually referring to Hazardous Chemicals which, by definition, are something surely worth a little consideration? Answer: YES CHEMOPHOBIA PROBLEM SOLVED FOREVER.
One example in violation of my proposed solution is artificial sweeteners. For example aspartame, which is not a Hazardous Chemical but is something that people like Food Babe, Mercola, Mike Adams et al. flip out about. Here I think the word chemical is used in the chemical=synthetic sense. Eh, can’t win them all…
I’m recently returned from the RACI National Congress in Adelaide. I’ve had time to reflect. Herein lies my feels
- construction noise during the plenaries OHNOES
- every. single. plenary. speaker. HUZZAH
- sessions that ran over time OHNOES
- sessions that kept to time, or ran early! HUZZAH
- paying the convention centre $120 to get wifi that actually worked OHNOES
- well run, quite fun student quiz night HUZZAH
- being on the first non-podium finishing table at the student quiz night OHNOES
- Baran’s biceps HUZZAH
- approaching a prof to talk about my work, he is interested and asks if I have any papers on it. I say no. Realise later that I have two OHNOES
- meeting and catching up with colleagues and sharing a corporate whinge HUZZAH
- not even seeing at least 7 people that I wanted to talk to OHNOES
- accidentally getting in line for coffee next to someone I definitely did not want to talk to OHNOES
- plenary speakers making themselves available for lunch time Q&A sessions with students HUZZAH
- not getting much of a dinner at the conference dinner OHNOES
- getting too much of the champagne at the conference dinner OHNOES
- watching my boss dance at the conference dinner OHNOES
- meeting or catching up with all the super cool people who came to the #RACI14 tweetup HUZZAH
- not punching in the face the obnoxious undergrad who struck up a conversation with me, then insulted my home town, alma mater, employer and research OHNOES
- the surprisingly useful congress app HUZZAH
- seeing comic sans in 3 presentations OHNOES
- delivering a reasonably OK oral presentation HUZZAH
- learning about super cool new scients HUZZAH
- meeting a lot of rad scients doers HUZZAH
- coming home to this cool doge HUZZAH
Dwarf Prof and 200 Solemn Faces Students by Ben Folds Five – Aug 7
September ’75 my H-index was not that high
My dean said by Christmas I would have
A research group all of my own
All these little minds to blow
I still had to teach 1st year class
Now I’m big and important
One angry prof and 200 solemn students are you
If you realy want to see me
Check in Nature and Angewandte
Look who’s telling who what to do
Always by Bon Jovi – Aug 15
this compound’s not crystallising
it just looks like tar or mud
it’s nothing but some atoms
this imposter cooked up
it’s been refluxing for eternity
now I’m drowning in black gunk
you see I’ve always been analytical
but with synthesis, I give up
see I can’t make a molecule
like the way it’s meant to be
well I guess I’m not that good a chemist
but baby that’s just me
DNAB by Lily Allen – Aug 25
sitting at my bench in the lab all day
my experiments are in crisis
it doesn’t get me down and I feel OK
cos the skills that I’m gaining are priceless
everything seems to look as it should
but I wonder what goes on out of doors
laughter and some chatter but it doesn’t really matter
I’ll be stuck here for several hours more
you might laugh, you might frown
walking around the lab town
sun is in the sky oh why oh why would I want to be anywhere else
Every Day Should be a
Holiday Science Day by Dandy Warhols – Sep 16
Super cool, science rules OK
Got no dough cos no grants came my way
Anytime, call me up if you
Got a job, in a permanent way
Baby let’s go
Should be a science day
When You’re Gone by Bryan Adams and Mel C – Sep 28
(for @upulie and burger ring aromas)
I’ve been wandering around the lab all night
Got experiments to do
And I’m trying to concentrate but all I can think of is food
Yeah the phone don’t ring everyone’s gone home
I don’t mind being all alone
But I’m working with this DTT reagent that reminds me of food
U Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer – Sep 29
Stop. Retention time
Go with the flow in helium if you can’t separate this
Then you probably are dead
So inject sample be aware
Bust through the column, run your compounds through the air
This is it for a paper
Plot out this and you’re gonna see vapour
Move slide your rump
Just for a minute integrate the bumps
Bump bump bump yeah
Welcome to the (Jargon) Jungle by Guns N Roses – Oct 2
Welcome to the jargon jungle
We like to abbreviate
We’ve got everything you want
If you only knew the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you only knew the name for it
We call it something weird
Something About the Way You
Look Tonight Crystallise by Elton John – Oct 7
There was a time
I tried everything and nothing would happen
For many weeks
I tried all of the solvents under the sun
I need to tell you
How I scratched and scraped the bottom of the flask
But in frustration
I just chucked you in a cupboard in the dark
And I can’t explain
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
It’s that feeling I get about acicular types
And I can’t describe
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
The way you crystallise
Don’t Ask Me Why by Billy Joel – Oct 20
All the electrons in your molecule
Leave their orbitals when you blink
Every reaction you do every day
Every product down the sink
Don’t wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don’t ask me why
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.
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.