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Archive → January, 2009

Academic EH&S and You

I’m curious, folks. I’ve been reporting on a couple of stories lately that involve university EH&S departments. One of the stories, of course, was the incident at UCLA that led to the death of Sheharbano Sangji.

In reading various other blog posts and comments (here, here, here, here, here, and here, to start) about Sangji’s death, one thing has struck me: No one in academia seems to interact much with their EH&S departments, whether to get safety input or to dispose of chemicals.

Ohio State UniversityNow, I know that I didn’t see or hear much from EH&S during my grad student years, but  the most dangerous thing I handled was probably liquid helium. The risks were pretty obvious. What about the rest of you? The university EH&S people I’ve spoken with recently sound like they’d be more than happy to work with people in campus labs to solve whatever issues come up. So why aren’t you talking with them?

You can respond here if you like or e-mail me directly at j_kemsley@acs.org. It would be helpful for me to hear about specific institutions.

Image: The aftermath of a 2005 fire at Ohio State University that we ran with Using Accidents to Educate.

Visiting Jean-Claude Bradley

Last Wednesday, I fought off throngs of eager-to-get-back-home inauguration goers to board a packed 6AM train to Philadelphia. In Philly, I paid a visit to Jean-Claude Bradley, a chemist at Drexel University. Now, I consider myself to be fairly tech-savvy, but Bradley made me feel like I was a web and computer novice. He’s embraced the internet to a near-complete extent – just about every aspect of his day-to-day research is online for all to see. Bradley’s a champion of open notebook science, in which researchers share the nitty gritty details of their experiments in a publicly accessible forum, like the web, and encourage others to comment on (and participate in) the work. He had plenty of interesting things to say about open science and about incorporating web tools into a research program. What do you think are the pros and cons of conducting science with complete transparency?

I’m writing about my conversations with Bradley in a piece that’s scheduled to appear in the February 9th issue of C&EN, so keep an eye out for that. My article wouldn’t do him justice without an extensive online component, though. As a teaser for what’s to come, I’ve posted a video chronicle of my visit to Bradley’s 9AM organic chemistry study session, which was held in Second Life, a virtual 3D world. The class had their first optional “quiz” that day, as Bradley mentions in his post about my visit. Sarah Everts wrote about Bradley’s innovative teaching techniques (and Second Life in general) back in 2007.

Watch the video below to learn more.

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Lead In D.C.’s Drinking Water

From 2001 to 2004, tens of thousands of people in Washington, D.C., unknowingly drank tap water that contained lead. The “D.C. lead-in-water crisis” was one of the most serious episodes of heavy-metal contamination of drinking water in modern U.S. history. Although officials working for D.C.’s water utility, the Washington Area Sewer Authority (WASA), the D.C. Department of Health (DC DOH), and the U.S. EPA knew about the problem, the public was in the dark. The contamination persisted for three years before the Washington Post

informed D.C. residents about the situation in a story published in 2004.

The news outraged parents who were worried about their children’s health, angered politicians who hadn’t been told, and created anxiety among public-health experts who initially feared a community-wide crisis. Children’s health was the focus of concern because lead’s effects on neurodevelopment are notorious—low levels of exposure can cause a long list of problems that include hyperactivity, decreased learning ability, and trouble paying attention.

In the aftermath of the crisis, public-health experts, including scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, examined blood lead data collected by DC DOH and water lead data collected by WASA and concluded that there had been little if any harm to the public.

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Chemistry Newsbytes

The Royal Society of Chemistry writes a new ending for the 1969 heist film, “The Italian Job.” Modesto Bee

Chemistry Nobel Laureate Peter Agre talks about aquaporins, running for senator in Minnesota, and what his mom said when she found out he won the Nobel Prize. NY Times

Why do cold cellos sound lousy? Slate

Cambodian villagers are learning about water safety by watching karaoke videos. NPR

Galileo’s DNA will be tested to probe his failing eyesight. Seems like it might be a little late for that. Guardian

Artemisinin may be losing its antimalarial potency. NY Times

Dung beetles tire of the same old, um, stuff. Decide to munch on millipedes instead. ScienceNOW

Let's Learn A Little Huà Xué

I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese, but if you ask me to take a chemistry course in Mandarin, I’d most likely flunk. I do know the phrase for “chemistry” in Mandarin, however. It’s huà xué:

I was impressed when I heard that seven high school students in Columbus, Ohio, are taking general chemistry in Mandarin. Mandarin is one of the most challenging foreign languages to learn, and even after you’ve mastered conversational Mandarin, learning how to pronounce chemical terms can be like learning an entirely new language.

I called up Pinpin Peng, who teaches this unique course at Metro Early College High School, in Columbus, and asked her why she started this class. It’s highly selective and to get accepted, students must have taken three trimesters of Mandarin and aced their previous science courses. All of the lectures are in Mandarin, with all written text in English. The labs are also conducted in English, for safety reasons. I’ll go into more detail about my conversation with Peng in an upcoming Newscripts column.

In the meantime, have you ever studied chemistry in another language, perhaps during a study abroad trip? Feel free to blog about your experience here. I may incorporate your story into my Newscripts column!

A New Era Of Responsibility

President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address was an inspired and sober call to action, not a laundry list of programs, as was appropriate for the occasion. The address, however, indicated that our new President is acutely conscious of the important science, technology, infrastructure, and education challenges our nation faces.

Early in the address, Obama said, “Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. … Our health care is too costly, our schools fail too many—and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.”

Later in the address, the President said, “[W]e will act not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its costs. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.”

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Welcome To The Chinese New Year

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year, and 2009 is the Year of the Ox. To celebrate, chemists in the U.K.–not at Oxford as you might think, but rather at the University of Nottingham–have produced a video describing the chemistry surrounding tea, a staple in China and in the U.K. by extension of its colonial days in Asia. The Nottingham chemists are the ones who devised the popular Periodic Table of Videos last year.

In the new video, chemistry professor Martyn Poliakoff describes different types of teas and a few chemical details about tea that are surprising to know. Chemistry knows no bounds.

Outlook For 2009

I think of this issue as C&EN’s “outlook” issue. Several stories this week examine the year ahead for different components of the chemistry enterprise.

The cover stories are an annual feature that focuses on custom chemicals. In the challenging economic environment all of us are facing, Senior Correspondent Ann Thayer looks at how contract manufacturers are coping with the economy and with changes at their pharmaceutical customers.

“After bemoaning the slowing growth of the drug industry in recent years,” Thayer writes, “custom chemical manufacturers are taking solace in having these companies as customers. Pharmaceuticals, they are finding, are a bright spot in the current economic maelstrom.”

Despite the fact that health care is less cyclical than other markets for chemicals, custom manufacturers continue to face significant challenges, Thayer writes. Growth in the U.S., the world’s largest market for drugs, will slow to just 1 to 2% per year, and potential changes in health care policy by the incoming Obama Administration “are compounding uncertainties at a time when regulatory hurdles are already rising and making approvals less predictable.”

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