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.
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.
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.
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.
I also contacted the @Chromtoday Twitter account, even though it had not tweeted for over 2 months.
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:
- Correcting Marmite to Vegemite
- Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies
- A link back to the original work here on this blog
- Correction of typographical/methodological errors
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!
And then this the following day.
GREAT RIGHT? Well, let’s have a look at the changes they made using the compare feature in Word
- Correcting Marmite to Vegemite KINDA YEP (in the text only not the title)
- Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies YEP
- A link back to the original work here on this blog NOPE NOPITY NOPE
- 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.
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
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.
This is the latest in a series of posts where I attempt to translate my published research into a format suitable for a non-specialist audience.
My paper “Synthetic Phenolic Antioxidants in Conventional and Alternatively-Derived Middle Distillate Fuels Analysed by Gas Chromatography with Triple Quadrupole and Quadrupole Time of Flight Mass Spectrometry” was recently published in the ACS journal Energy and Fuels (paywalled).
This piece of work describes two new methods for determining antioxidant compounds in jet and diesel fuels. Antioxidants are added to some fuels to stop the fuel reacting with oxygen while in storage. When fuels react with oxygen, they can become unsuitable for use and cause engine problems. Although these antioxidants serve an important purpose, they are only permitted to exist in the fuel up to a certain concentration. Sometimes, if a fuel is suspected to be reacting with oxygen, the users might want to add antioxidant to stop the fuel from going bad – but if they don’t know how much antioxidant is in there (if any), how will they know how much to add without going over the limit?
The antioxidants are present in the fuel at very low concentrations, which makes it difficult to measure them without the bulk of the fuel interfering in the analysis. It’s possible to extract the antioxidants from the fuel, which then makes the measurement easier, but the extraction process is often long, resource intensive (uses lots of solvent) and frequently doesn’t work well enough. My laboratory recently acquired two new GC-MS (gas chromatography – mass spectrometry) instruments with advanced detection systems so I decided to see how these instruments would go at detecting antioxidants in fuels at low levels, and without any sample treatment.
Left: generic structure of these antioxidants, where ‘R’ can represent a methyl or tertiary butyl group in 1-3 of these R positions. Right: BHT, a common antioxidant used in fuels, foods and other products, where the R group opposite the OH is a methyl and the two R groups adjacent to the OH are tertiary butyl.
I have posted before about how gas chromatography and mass spectrometry work, and in this study it is the mass spectrometers that play a key role in the detection of the antioxidant compounds. The two different instruments I used are able to exploit different characteristics of the target molecules, in order to detect them at low levels, without interference.
The QQQ achieves excellent sensitivity by fragmenting molecules in the mass spectrometer more than once. For example, using the antioxidant shown in the picture above, the spectrum for this compound is
Which means that ordinarily, I would use the strong signal from the ion with a mass of 205 to look for this compound. But fuels have so many other moelcules in them, that there are loads of other compounds that also generate a signal at 205 and these swamp the signal from the target compound. So I can program the QQQMS to collect the strong ions, and perform another fragmentation on it. This generates a new mass spectrum with a new set of fragment ions. In this case, the fragmentation of 205 produces a signal at 145. So I can get the QQQMS to monitor these specific fragmentations, and keep track of the transition of each ion into another ion as it is broken apart in the spectrometer. So while there may be many compounds that have a signal at 205, there is only one molecule which has a signal of 205 fragmenting to 145. By using this approach, I can be very specific in my identification and measurement of my target compounds and this specificity brings with it excellent sensitivity and low detection limits.
The QTOF is able to detect very specific compounds because it can measure their mass very accurately. The other mass spectrometers in our lab are able to measure the weight of ions to one atomic mass unit (amu). Using the example above, the most accurate mass of the main ion we can obtain with these instruments is 205 amu. And again, there will be many other compounds with fragment ions of the same molecular weight. However, if we calculate the mass of this fragment (C14H21O) accurately, it comes out as 205.1587. Another possible ion with the same molecular weight is C13H19NO, but the accurate mass of this ion is 205.1461. This difference of 0.0127 amu is enough for the QTOF to distinguish between these two molecules, so I can program the instrument to look only for the accurate mass ion I’m interested in and discard the other closely matching, but interfering compounds.
Exploiting the strengths of these two mass spectrometers has allowed me to detect and measure low levels of antioxidant compounds in very complex fuel mixtures.
I saw an ad for Devondale long life milk on TV recently which really bothered me. You can watch it on Devondale’s YouTube here. It features a young girl, with a fluorescent green glow going about her daily activites at home and school. At the end of the ad, we are supposed to believe that she’s somehow taken on this green glow through drinking milk which contains preservatives.
I think it’s very misleading, and it makes me uncomfortable for a number of reasons.
- The prevalence of glow-in-the-dark radium/phosphorus products around 100 years ago has cemented the ‘green glow = radioactivity’ myth into popular culture. In fact, radium alone does not emit the green glow, it must be mixed with phosphorus and when the radium gives off alpha particles, it stimulates the emission of light from the phosphorus atoms. ‘Radiation’ (alpha and beta particles and gamma rays) is actually invisible. Most importantly though, NONE OF THIS HAS ANYTHING TO DO WITH MILK OR PRESERVATIVES.
- Devondale are piling on the parental guilt in this ad with the line “what are you feeding your kids?” As if parents don’t get enough guilt trips from the media and society already, now Devondale want to scare them off letting their kids drink milk? Of all the drinks available for kids (or anyone) to consume, milk is probably the second healthiest option after water.
- Milk sold in Australia, including long life varieties, DOES NOT EVEN CONTAIN PRESERVATIVES!
- The shelf life of milk is extended by increasing the temperature at which it is pasteurised, and the environment in which it is packaged. By heating to a higher temperature, and packaging in a sterile environment, there is a huge reduction in the amount of organisms in the milk which over time contribute to its ‘going off’. Long life milk products do not contain preservative additives to extend the shelf life.
- I’m not an expert on the food standards code but my interpretation of the relevant section is that antioxidants and preservative additives are permitted in milk, so long as they are included in the ingredients list on the container. I conducted a small survey at a local supermarket of long life milk products, and none of them listed any preservatives. Whether they are not used because they are simply not required (due to the high temperature treatment), or consciously excluded due to consumer concerns is something that can only be answered by the dairy industry.
I do feel for the independent dairy producers, given the ongoing pillaging of their industry by the supermarket milk wars, but this, and the ridiculous permeate marketing ploy, is a dishonest way of advertising their product. Not cool Devondale, not cool.
I’m starting a new category of posts where I’ll be posting short reviews of books that I’ve read. If you are one of the 4 or 5 regular readers of this blog, you will of course be shocked to discover that most of the books I read are science non-fiction, with a heavy bias towards chemistry.
Later this week I will post the first review, of ‘Periodic Tales’ by Hugh Aldersey-Williams. Suggestions for new reads are also welcomed.
And don’t worry, I won’t be reviewing any of the books in the picture above – chemometrics?!?! C’MON, HELL NO. EVEN I AIN’T THAT NERDY.
The following is a post I wrote while participating in the course Science Media Space. The course aims to “provide scientists with the practical knowledge needed to use social media effectively” and is certainly worth signing up for if you’d like to improve your skills in this area. This post was aimed at an Australian audience and may not make sense to you, depending on your local variant of the English language!
My name is Renée, and I’m a chemist.
What picture do you have in your mind about my profession? Is it a person in a lab surrounded by test tubes and beakers? Or is it a person behind a counter dispensing drugs and medical advice?
Studies show* that 68% people associate the job title of ‘chemist’ with a person who dispenses drugs. Although the terminology varies around the world, in Australia, most people will use the word ‘chemist’ interchangeably with pharmacy or pharmacist. Indeed, in the past when it was common for pharmacists to compound and quality test their own medications, the two professions shared many similarities. Compounding pharmacists are now rare, but the shared name lives on. This can be quite frustrating for a ‘test tubes and beakers’ chemist, when you would love to talk about what you actually do for a living, rather than explain the difference between chemistry and pharmacy.
Strategies to overcome chemist confusion
1. Be more specific when people ask what your job is. Rather than saying ‘I’m a chemist’, I prefer to say ‘I’m an analytical chemist’, or ‘I’m a fuel scientist’. This technique removes any ambiguity that comes with the word chemist. It also takes care of an annoying subset of people who know just enough about chemistry to be dangerous… The ones who when you do say ‘I’m a chemist’, smugly reply ‘organic or inorganic?’ As though the entire field can be delineated by these two outdated subdisciplines. I think I’ve gone off track a little…
2. Specifying a subfield may work for individual chemists communicating to a captive audience, but what about a collective group of chemists? Universities and professional chemist’s organisations such as the Royal Australian Chemical Institute or the American Chemical Society tend to overcome this by avoiding the use of the word ‘chemist’ in favour of ‘chemistry’ or ‘chemical’ which are not associated with pharmacy.
Is this even a problem?
Do chemists even have a right to feel aggrieved that they happen to share one synonym of their profession with a different, albeit slightly related profession? Maybe they don’t, or maybe I’m the only one!
Is this going to cause any life or death mix ups? No.
Is this just another example of intellectual elitism? Maybe.
*Study was conducted via twitter poll. May not be representative of population. Actual number may not be correct. All respondents mentioning ‘Breaking Bad’ were discarded.
For one whole week starting 7 PM tomorrow night (AEST) I will be tweeting from the curated twitter account @realscientists. Real Scientists is a totally awesome rotational twitter account run by totally awesome twitter people which you can find out more about here. So far there have been loads of really interesting scientists and science-related people tweeting for Real Scientists, so I have some clown-sized shoes to fill.
The account currently has in excess of 2,600 followers, which is close to a bazillion more followers than I have on my regular twitter account, @reneewebs (eep!). If, perchance, you happen to follow me but not Real Scientists, consider this your first official warning.
I think I am the first chemist to have the honour of tweeting for Real Scientists, so twittersphere – prepared to be chemified! Follow my adventures in chromatography, from the dizzying highs of a time-of-flight mass spectrometer flight tube to the chillying lows of cryogenic modulation.
See you on the twit-side!
Because we can just never get enough chemophobia, See Arr Oh from the Just Like Cooking blog has alerted the chemblogosphere to some more ridiculous scaremongering about the chemicals in our food. He has rightfully ridiculed the advertising and you should go there and read it (and about what the pseudonymous dog has for breakfast himself!).
However, the post made remember something I did ages ago (maybe 6-7 years?) which I had completely forgot about and I will share with you below:
The biscuits made from this recipe actually won me a baking competition at the place I worked at the time. Although of course they were tremendously delicious, I attribute my win to the fact that I displayed this recipe along with the cookies, and the judges all had chemistry degrees. A lesson in knowing your audience 🙂
Reader @markemer has pointed out that vanilla essence (reagent #7) is not pure vanillin, and usually is a solution containing a number of other compounds, including water, ethanol, and methyl carbinol. Thanks Mark, corrections always welcome.