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Archive → February, 2011

Natalie Portman: Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Uber Talented

Credit: Flickr user ppjumpping

As if it weren’t enough to win the 2011 Academy Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a ballerina coming unhinged in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman is apparently also blessed with science smarts.  A 1998 Journal of Chemical Education

paper recently came across the Newscripts desk that the 29-year-old actress—then Natalie Hershlag, a high school student in Syosset, N.Y.—coauthored.

The article, “A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” was the result of an independent-study project carried out by Portman during her sophomore year at Syosset High. Intended to illustrate “environmentally friendly biotechnology for the utilization of renewable energy sources,” the work earned Portman a semifinalist position that year in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, an annual competition organized by the Society for Science & the Public.

The laboratory instructions Portman helped develop aim to teach high schoolers and undergraduates the principles of enzyme-catalyzed reactions by instructing them how to break down cellulose with a combination of cellulase, glucose dehydrogenase, and hydrogenase. The amount of hydrogen evolved in the process is indicated by a simple redox dye, benzyl viologen.

“Natalie was an excellent student with an excellent work ethic,” says Jonathan Woodward, Portman’s coauthor and adviser at the time. He was then at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now teaches high school chemistry in Knoxville, Tenn. “I am certain she would have excelled in chemistry had her career taken that path.”

The Meat Grinder Of Drug Discovery: A Photo Tour of NCI’s Natural Products Repository

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Rare is the chemist whose tools of the trade include a meat grinder and a band saw. But then, the Developmental Therapeutics Program’s Natural Products Repository and Support Group at the National Cancer Institute in Frederick, Maryland is no ordinary operation.
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The Middle East Revolts And Chemicals

Here’s an interesting question: How might the political turmoil in the Middle East affect the global petrochemical industry?

Let’s look at the potential areas of impact:

Directly, the countries that have seen the most serious challenges to their ruling regimes—Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, And Bahrain—don’t have very large petrochemical industries, at least not in the sense that they are major producers of olefins and derivatives. However, they do have significant production of methane derivatives like nitrogen fertilizers and methanol. (Dow did once sign a preliminary agreement to modernize and expand a small Libyan petrochemical complex in 2007. But I haven’t heard company officials mention that project in a couple of years.)

The countries that do have large petrochemical industries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, and Qatar—haven’t seen as much unrest, though they haven’t been completely immune to political protests. If these countries do see serious challenges to the regimes, then there could be a disruption in chemical operations.

Iran, which has had significant protests, is a separate question. Politics have already impacted its petrochemical industry in the form of sanctions over its nuclear program. This has been making it harder for Iranian firms to export chemicals.

Geographically, the countries that are major petrochemical producers sit on the Persian Gulf. In addition, Saudi Arabia has the major Red Sea port of Yanbu, which is also a major petrochemical center. The countries with the turmoil are mostly in North Africa. Most petrochemical exports are headed in the opposite direction, towards Asia. However, Oman, which sets right near the Strait of Hormuz, is experiencing major protests. Moreover, any disruption to the Suez Canal would also disrupt petrochemical exports to Europe. But if there was such a disruption, the world would have more important fish to fry than a few containers of polyethylene.

Oil prices always have the ability to disrupt the chemical industry. Brent crude prices have climbed since the turmoil began and have since hit $100 per barrel. That said, prices began the year in the mid 90s. The turmoil seems to be exacerbating an existing run up in prices. This will tend to make the natural gas based North American industry even more competitive versus the naphtha cracking rest of the world.

(It should be noted that Algeria is also a major player in the international natural gas market, and has pipelines that connect it directly with Europe.)

Finanlly, never underestimate the power of high oil prices to sabotage the economy. The last time oil prices climbed into the 90s was in the fourth quarter of 2007, when the recession began.

Codexis Puts Enzyme to Work for Clean(er) Coal

This week in Washington, DC, energy luminaries associated with the ARPA-E program are gathering to talk about clean energy technologies and present a progress report on what the program’s grants have made possible.

coal-fired power plant

Enzymes to clean coal? Credit: U.S. Department of Energy

Biocatalyst firm Codexis has helpfully offered a preview of its update on a research project aiming to cut down on the downsides of carbon capture technologies for coal-fired power plants. The so-called “clean coal” technologies can nearly double costs and lower the amount of electricity produced by power plans, the company points out.

Codexis will present data from its ARPA-E sponsored research project that uses modified carbonic anhydrase enzymes to capture carbon dioxide from power plant emissions.  

Carbonic anhydrase enzymes are highly reactive – they exchange carbon dioxide into our lungs when we exhale. The Codexis version functions in the high temperatures and industrial conditions of the flue gas environment. The project has demonstrated enzyme stability in solvents in temperatures up to 75 degrees C. The use of these enzyme-powered solvents could reduce the energy needed for capturing carbon by 30%, says the firm.

Codexis, which went public in April, is best known for its long-term biofuels partnership with Shell. In May, it received a $4.7 million grant from ARPA-E  for development of innovative technology to remove carbon dioxide  from coal-fired power plant emissions.

Other Voices on the Budget

I have little doubt that my editorial in this week’s issue will raise a ruckus among some readers. Once again, the refrain will go, the ultra-liberal Baum has come out in favor of big government and high taxes.

Turns out, I’m not alone. The March 4 issue of Science

has an editorial entitled “Research Vital to Economic Growth” by Raymond L. Orbach, director of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin. Orbach served as Under Secretary for Science at the Department of Energy in the administration of President George W. Bush. The editorial is already posted at www.sciencemag.org and is available to anyone willing to register.

Orbach writes, “It was with a mixture of astonishment and dismay that I watched as the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 1, a bill to fund the federal government for the rest of the 2011 fiscal year. Left intact, the massive cuts in research contained in the bill passed on 19 February would effectively end America’s legendary status as the leader of the worldwide scientific community, putting the United States at a distinct disadvantage when competing with other nations in the global marketplace.”

Orbach goes on to state that funding for scientific research should not be a partisan issue (good luck on that in today’s political climate) and that, “The spending cuts in the bill would have a devastating effect on an array of critical scientific research.” He concludes that “the Senate must restore funding for science in the FY 2011 budget. Failure to do so would relegate the United States to second-class status in the scientific community and threaten economic growth and prosperity for future generations of Americans.”

The February 25 issue of Science has an excellent news story entitled “House Cuts to DOE National Labs Would Also Hamstring Industry.” The story reports that the cuts in the Republican 2011 budget would result in the layoff of several thousand workers at the national labs and hamper industrial research ranging from the pharmaceutical industry to the oil and gas industry. The story leads, “A spending bill passed by the House of Representatives last week would bring the Department of Energy’s entire science program to a screeching halt and wreak havoc on research funded by other agencies and by private industry.”

The budget charade being played out in Washington is nothing less than a national tragedy. Anyone who cares about the future of our nation should be speaking out on it.

Everybody Needs A: PhD

Way back in 1996, Norman Cook (you might know him better by the alias Fatboy Slim) released the album Better Living Through Chemistry, containing the song “Everybody Needs a 303.” Although I was only 7 when it was released, I still greatly enjoy the song, and most of the album. Furthermore, the album/track serve as an excellent jump-off point for me to make terrible puns, and share some wisdom. And that’s really the most important part…*

Although I haven’t been doing this whole chemistry thing for that long, I’ve picked up some good ideas along the way that can make time in/out of lab much more enjoyable. In the effort to better everyone’s living while doing chemistry, I’d like to present a series of posts about certain things that everybody ‘needs’¹ to help them get by as a researcher in chemistry.

1: ‘Needs’ is obviously a relative term. Some are serious, some are not, and some are more opinionated than others.

*For the music geek, compulsive wikipedia-er: If you’re curious, the “303″ is the Roland TB-303 synthesizer. It’s that bubbly sounding synth, featured most prominently in “Everybody Needs a 303” after the 2:25 mark. Cousin to the TR-808, and -909 drum machines, it’s pretty classic/oldschool. So, if you’re still curious, go check out it’s wander around its wikipedia page or something – it’s nifty.

A Fundamental Divide

Is government capable of productive activity on behalf of citizens beyond providing for the national defense?

That is the basic question now being played out in budget debates in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, important components of which are detailed in this week’s cover story, lead Government & Policy story, and two News of the Week stories (see pages 7 and 9). Democrats answer the question, “Yes.” Republicans, especially newly elected conservative representatives identified with the Tea Party faction of the party, answer, emphatically, “No!”

That emphatic “no” has led the House of Representatives to pass a fiscal 2011 budget that, if it became reality, would damage our nation’s ability to compete effectively with nations that have embraced the proven idea that R&D, innovation, and investments in infrastructure are the keys to a nation’s economic success. It would hamstring our efforts to continue to protect the environment and to move toward a sustainable technological future.

The fiscal 2011 budget passed by House Republicans is breathtaking in its irresponsibility. It insists, despite evidence from around the world, that government has little to no role to play in advancing the economic interests of the modern nation state. Please. Tell that to China.

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Fear and Loathing over Recruitment Weekend

Plain and simple: recruitment weekends are awesome, if not a little bit overwhelming. Generally, there’s 48 hours or less to figure out three important things:

  1. Is this the department for me?
  2. Which professors would I actually want to work for?
  3. How best can I take advantage of free drinks, while not getting too drunk?

It’s definitely taxing, especially when you start mixing 1 and 2 with 3. With my first weekend down, here are some extensive tips I’ve rapidly developed (prototyped?) to not just survive recruitment weekend, but to really ‘overclock’ your experience.

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