Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Lit Links

So, in case any were wondering, my area on the East Coast was mostly spared the wrath of Hurricane to Post-Tropical Cyclone Sandy.  Some rain, a bit more wind, but not many power outages in the immediate area.  I am however fairly well prepared for any mystery zombie apocalypses that might arise (from the dead).  I hope that all of you reading who were subject to its furor endured the storm as well as possible.

In any case, some bits of possible interest -

1.) PNAS has a special feature this week on "the Chemical Physics of Protein Folding."  Sadly, it's behind a paywall for the time being.

1.5.) Related to this, I once mentioned a while back in a comment (I believe over at the Inquisitive Ket) about one of the less-important reasons Levinthal's paradox never really bothered me, namely, that proteins aren't really free to sample all possible conformations due to their interactions with other proteins (even indirectly due to crowding), the solvent, and with itself.  In any case, it's always interesting to see people carefully examine these sorts of questions in the recent literature.  

2.) Gaining structural insight occasionally takes a while.  It also reminds me of the utility of neutron science for biochemistry - the ability to use contrast variation using selective deuteration make it possible to probe multicomponent systems.  And let's not forget that one can also use neutrons for spectroscopic measurements. 

Anyway, back to the actual science…..  Read more!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Chiming in with a #ChemCoach entry

Here's my contribution to the ChemCoach Carnival, for what it's worth.

Your current job.

I am a postdoc in an actual chemistry department on the East Coast (USA) doing a mix of physical chemistry, biochemistry, and spectroscopy, along with dashes of molecular biology, computation, and misery. 

What you do in a standard "work day."

No such thing as a standard work day for me -  I'm presently slogging through heaps of molecular biology in order to validate a protocol for producing uniformly 13C/15N labeled protein (mostly since my PI isn't yet comfortable with how we do things in the 21st century).  Earlier this year, for example, I was doing everything from NMR on inorganic solids (after effecting some probe repairs on my own) as well as some p. chem. of lipid mixtures, in addition to protein NMR (solution and solid state). 

What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?

 I was a biochem/chem undergrad (did my undergrad research in a biophysics lab - lasers and magnets, what more could one wish for?) and did my Ph.D. in an honest-to-Buddha chemistry department, doing biophysical chemistry.  I was briefly diverted into a year at a cancer research institute doing biophysics/soft matter-oriented work (that was a trip, let me tell you), but returned to my chemical roots. 

How does chemistry inform your work?

Just the other day I was trying to get this horrendous mix of inorganic chemicals to go into and stay in solution, actually - and people say there is no chemistry in biochemistry!  Heh.   My perspective on many of my scientific interests is rooted in my chemical background - for example, signal transduction could be translated as essentially controlling the rates of chemical reactions across interfaces, after all.  It's a rather essential component of what I do on a daily basis.

Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career

I was at a conference where I spoke to the colleague of this scientist who had written a paper I had read and digested multiple times, as it was extremely germane to my interests.  He noted that said scientist had never followed up on this particular aspect since they found that obtaining reproducible data was far too tricky.  I should have realized then that my project might have been a bit ambitious, but I persevered and did manage to get reproducible data.  It just took another 2.5 years on top of the 2 years I had spent working on said project.....  Read more!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Some minor notes.

The reason they're making your son take chemistry?  Because they're mean.  Or perhaps because they hold to some archaic notion that education is about broadening one's horizons and tempering the intellect, not just about preparing one for any particular career path.  I haven't decided. 

Small-molecule synthetic chemistry in the NY Times?   A pleasant surprise to see in the national newspaper of record, at least last I checked. 

Microbial physiology via NMR.  So cool.   Also, kind of jealous.  I really need to get some awesome stuff done sooner rather than later.

I think that will be all for the evening.

Read more!

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Prize ponderings

There have been some particularly interesting and worthwhile points made on the blogosphere over the last two days in the wake of the Nobel announcements.

1.) The success of small/investigator-driven/table-top science.  Actually, this applies to more than just the Chemistry Prize - see here for some comments regarding this year's Physics Prize. 

2.) Are we doing ourselves a disservice by discussing and debating the Nobel ad infinitum?  Is trying to find one to three people to recognize for a certain (set of) accomplishments really the best option?  How much of this is a holdover from how science used to be conducted pre-1900?  I happen to especially like Paul's Chemical Hall of Fame idea, and am willing to participate.  (I may want to nominate a physicist or two, though.*)

3.) Chemjobber brings up the interesting point as to whether the "mix" of chemistry that gets highlighted due to the Prize announcements is the one the community wants to present to the public. 

4.) There seems to be a sense that we need to circle the wagons a bit before the central science withers away.  I can't entirely disagree with this one.  I've been told multiple times that some of the questions I've stumbled over while doing biological chemistry regarding underlying questions of (mostly) physical and inorganic chemistry aren't really fundable, at least relative to the biological question with which I'm engaged.  You can only try and spin questions into applications for so long and so far before it gets tedious.

5.) I would read this post over at Everyday Scientist if you haven't already.  I'm in the same sort of boat as a bio/physical chemist.  I look at the Physiology/Medicine Prize and see work like in vitro fertilization and the H. pylori work recognized, and vast amounts of cell biology and systems physiology in their ranks (immunology, olfaction, neurobiology, and so on).  I view biochemistry as something which is securely rooted within the realm of chemistry.  Of course, this makes me wonder - while the issue of communicating chemistry to the public has been a discussion topic in various contexts over the years, maybe we also need to open up the lines of communications between chemists.  I'm not entirely sure how to go about doing this right at the moment, but I am definitely open to ideas.  

Of course, perhaps this is all just colored by my spectroscopic tendencies - if I can fit it into a coil,  cuvette, or beamline, consider my interest piqued.  Biological, chemical, geological, material, or physical. 

As always, the comment section is open. 

*: Erwin Hahn and Albert Overhauser.  Spin echoes and the Overhauser effect.  You know you want to agree with me! Read more!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A perhaps idiosyncratic view.

So, as it turned out, I called this year's Nobel Prize for Chemistry.  While I am now curious if I have any Elven ancestry (Elrond had that gift of foresight, right?), I feel I should note the following for those feeling that biochemistry isn't really chemistry.

I like biological chemistry since, in my view, it allows me to explore so many areas of chemistry.  I've synthesized isotopically enriched small molecules, I've purified proteins, I've been able to work with multiple spectroscopic and physical measurement methods in detail, I've examined paramagnetic inorganic solids with both success and failure, I've spectroscopically dissected multicomponent organic solids, I've had to explore certain types of self-assembling systems, I've cranked through theoretical treatments of metalloenzyme catalysis as well as polymer chemistry to make sense of my data over the's been a good time.

Extending from that, I like chemistry since it is perfectly situated to go hopping over boundaries.  I don't see why I shouldn't be able to figure out signal transduction pathways just because I'm a chemist.  I don't see why I should humbly hand over fundamental questions about the theoretical basis for spectroscopic methods to the physicists.   

Although right now biochemistry is giving me a headache.  Speaking of which, back to it.....

P.S. - A hearty congratulations to both Serge Haroche & David Wineland as well as, of course, Robert Lefkowitz & Brian Kobilka! Read more!

Monday, October 8, 2012

To The Classroom!

A recent post at Chemiotics sparked some old, dimly remembered memories from my grad school days as a gen. chem. TA leading weekly discussion sections.

Now, general chemistry is, from what I can figure, is a slightly different beast than organic chemistry.  At the universities I attended, the class was also a requirement for physical science and engineering majors, and could make up a substantial fraction of the class given the strength of the engineering programs at my alma maters.  Organic chemistry tended to draw from a smaller student pool - outside of the legion of premeds, it was populated by those with chemistry & biological science majors, as well as the expected chemical/materials engineering students. 

Back to general chemistry - this situation leads to walking an incredibly tricky path so as to keep the material interesting, relevant, and not too off-putting to anyone in the audience.  In short, no one is entirely happy with things, but one might consider that a sign that everyone is getting what they need in the final accounting, although not necessarily what they'd prefer. I'll be a bit obnoxious as usual here and suggest that gen. chem. can be an opportunity to demonstrate chemistry's status as the central science to a diverse audience, if done well. 

Back to the premed issue, though - I think what perturbed many of us is the attitude that arises in a class with a significant premed population.  I won't belabor this point with various horror stories (as we all have them), but, for example, the majority of the "point lawyering" I experienced was from premedical students.  In all of those cases I can still remember/wrote down for the record, none of them involved an actual grade breakpoint (e.g., they were nowhere near the boundary that would have resulted in a different overall final grade).

Of course, perhaps what we need is a different model for medical education.   Or maybe not.  Perhaps what we need is to be reminded of the difference between education and training.  Learning about something that may not be transparently applicable to your post-university career plans is not the end of the world.  A radical idea, I know. 

Obligatory mention - congratulations to the new Nobel laureates

P.S. - If anyone wants to share their horror stories teaching undergraduates, please share in the comments.  Read more!