When is a chemist not a chemist?

The following is a post I wrote while participating in the course Science Media SpaceThe 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 As though the entire field can be delineated by these two outdated subdisciplines.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.

Who’s a Real Scientist? I’m a Real Scientist!

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!

Chocolate Chip Cookies – Science Style

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 🙂

***Update 13-01-2013

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.

Chemical Free Cookware Redux

Following on from my last post, I decided to email Baccarat, the company selling the ‘chemical free’ cookware range, Bio+. My email is reproduced below. I tried my darnedest not to be snarky, but I fear I am a self-confessed, born smart-alec and I find it impossible to fully suppress.

Dear Sir/Madam

I recently came across some advertising for the new Baccarat cookware range named Bio+, and there were a couple of things about the product marketing that I found a little confusing.

1. The products are marketed as ‘chemical free’.

I recall from my primary school science classes that all matter in the universe is made from chemicals. I’m fairly certain that the materials that your cookware is made from are also chemicals (perhaps iron or aluminium, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and others). If what you are trying to say is that the cookware is free of Teflon or other fluorinated molecules, I think it would be more appropriate, and importantly, more accurate, to say this instead. To claim the products are ‘chemical free’, is simply untrue and chemophobic.

2. The use of the prefix ‘Bio’.

I am curious as to the reasoning behind the use of ‘bio’ in the product name. Is there anything in particular about the manufacture of the cookware that is biological? Perhaps biologically (plant, algal) derived source materials? Biorefined metals? I do hope that there is a basis for using this prefix and would be very interested to know what it is, and that it is not just greenwashing.

Thank you for reading and I look forward to your reply.

And the reply I received today:

Good Morning Renee,

Thank you for your enquiry.

I believe you would be referring to matter being a chemical element is a pure chemical substance consisting of one type of atom distinguished by its atomic number, which is the number of protons in its nucleus. This is different from this, which is a natural occurrence, and the traditionally used term ‘chemical’ which is a compound or substance that has been purified or prepared, esp. artificially.

The Bio+ range is simply a name that was chosen for this range due to its chemical free ceramic interior (PFOA and PTFE free), making it a healthier choice. Ceramic coatings are environment friendly, pollution free. The body provides effective and even heat distribution reducing cooking times and saving energy fuel. Non stick, easy clean and chemical free.

I would like to take this time to thank you for your comments, I have passed them on for review.

Kind Regards,

[name redacted]

The person who replied to me has helpfully provided a number of Wikipedia links, to help me understand what constitutes an atom. Of course, they weren’t to know that I have a reasonable grasp of this area, mainly thanks to my double major in chemistry which funnily enough, did actually go over this stuff a little bit.

I will have to concede that this person has a basis for saying that the colloquial meaning of ‘chemical’ is generally something which has been processed or refined in some manner, and I guess I wasn’t clear enough in my email in trying to get across my point that *everything* is made from chemicals. This is really the crux of the problem; even though they have (I hope) thought a little bit about what I wrote in my email, and at least looked at some pertinent Wikipedia entries, the false delineation of natural=good=element/artificial=bad=chemical, still stands in their mind.

The second point was, I feel, addressed in a more flippant manner. It seems that the use of ‘Bio’ in the product name is indeed greenwashing, and they may have been better off using ‘enviro’ or something like that. Their claim that ceramic coatings are more environmentally friendly seems plausible to me, and I think the argument could be made that their manufacture is less energy and resource intensive (although definitely not ‘pollution free’ as they claim) than that of fluoropolymers. Although my knowledge in the area is really limited, and I would be happy if an industrial chemist could correct me.

It’s not all bad though, I am very grateful that someone took the time to respond to my query and I am really glad that my comments have been ‘passed on for review’ (I can only take it in good faith that they have been). The fight against chemophobia goes on!

Papes for the peeps – Aircraft Oil Contamination

This is the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series of posts explaining in simple terms what my scientific publications are about.

The first paper A Method for the Identification and Quantitation of Hydraulic Fluid Contamination of Turbine Engine Oils by Gas Chromatography – Chemical Ionisation Mass Spectrometry, in the journal Lubrication Science has just been made available in the print version but has been available online (paywalled) since June.

This paper is my first publication where I am the first author. First author publications are important for early career scientists as it is a part of demonstrating your capability as an independent researcher. First authorship also usually implies that you have done the majority of the experimental work included in the publication, and also written the bulk of the manuscript itself.

In a way, this publication is very unusual in that it is not in any way related to my main research project which I devote >90% of my time to. However, my lab has been searching for a solution to this problem for many years now, so it was an important piece of work in its own right.

What’s it all about?

It is a relatively common occurrence for the lubricant systems of aircraft to become contaminated through leaks, or human error. In many aircraft, the turbine engine lubrication system is separate from the hydraulic lubrication system, and employs two separate oils for these purposes. If the contamination occurs on a bulk level, it is easy to determine – the oils are different colours, have different flash points and viscosities. But when the contamination is at a low level, these differences become diluted to the point that they are no longer useful indicators. Another difference between the two oils is the distinctive set of additives which are used in each. But using these to detect contamination is also unsatisfactory, because the additives are not used in consistent amounts in the oil, so while the contamination may be detected, the amount can’t be calculated.

In order to detect low levels of contamination, we exploited the chemical differences between these two lubricants. Often when we are analysing our samples, we use an instrument called a ‘Mass Spectrometer’ (MS). The MS breaks apart molecules into pieces, which, oddly enough, is a good way of figuring out what they looked like before they broke apart! But when different oils are put into the MS, they break apart into the exact same fragments so we can’t tell them apart. Annoying. To overcome this, we introduced methane gas into the MS, which attaches onto the oil molecules before they are broken apart in the instrument. The inclusion of the methane means that now the different oils will break apart differently, and we can tell them apart. Using this method we can detect contamination down to 0.5%, which is equivalent to about a teaspoon’s worth of contaminant in a bucket.

A lot of this paper is about the chemical analysis technique that was used, and proving that the method actually works, which is really important when you are developing a complete new way of measuring something. But it’s not that interesting to explain, it basically involves running a lot of samples under specific conditions, repeated the same thing loads of times, and complete some statistical analysis on the data, to make sure that the method is robust. We also made sure that the method worked on oils which were fresh, and those which might have been used, heated or contaminated with water.

I’ve already seen the use of this new method have a real impact on the day to day operation of aircraft. It enables flight crews and aircraft maintainers to make more informed decisions about whether to fly or ground an aircraft with suspected contamination of the  turbine oil. This is something quite satisfying and rewarding for me, given that my main research project is slightly more esoteric, with applications likely to be many years in the future.

***Addendum 16/12/2012  The e-zine/newsletter Separations Now did a story on this paper, which can be found here.

Video Project for Science Communication Course

Here lies the post in which I show you the video project I made for the science communication course I mentioned in my previous post. It’s supposed to be a Catalyst-style video about my research, pitched at a general audience. I tried to incorporate a lot of the techniques that Graham talked about in the course; narration, to-camera pieces, zooming, cutting, ‘wallpaper’ (generic sciencey looking lab footage). I’ve also tried to avoid the use of any jargon, which consequently rules out talking about any of the actual details of my research, but thems the breaks eh?

I was really happy with the feedback I got from Graham which was that it was a good video, especially considering it is the first one I’ve made. He said I used images that people could relate to, and explained the science in a manner that people were able to understand. Before he called to tell me this, I’d sent him an email joking that I really needed his opinions because I was going to drop out of my PhD and enrol in film school depending on his feedback. He did check with me that I was just kidding about this, so that made sure I wasn’t going to get too much of a big head about it! The area that he said I could improve on was to make my to-camera and voiceover pieces more conversational and less scripted, which is valid and fair criticism. I certainly wasn’t prepared for how unnatural it would feel to be doing those things. I’ve even used the best takes from probably 5 or 6 repeats of each section, so clearly there is a lot of room for improvement.

So here it is, this is the first video I’ve EVER made. Seeing as this is the interwebz, I know you’re all going to be really nice and supportive about it and not say horrible things or troll me or make me feel embarrassed or point out mistakes that I’ve made. OK? THANKS.