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Archive → November, 2011

Avoid The Regrettable Substitution

“Avoid the regrettable substitution” almost sounds like advice you’d find in a fortune cookie (and is good advice to follow in many aspects of life), but it is actually the driving theme behind a new tool to help companies formulate or use less toxic products. Imagine a company that replaces a plasticizer in their package with something – anything – that’s not called bisphenol A, only to later discover that their chosen replacement is an endocrine disruptor. Woops.

The name on the container containing the plasticizer – the Brand – is not likely the entity that is formulating the stuff the container is made of. But it’s the Brand that stands to lose if there is a regrettable substitution. So a group of advocacy organizations and businesses called BizNGO have gotten together and designed a protocol to help companies work with material suppliers to make sure that better really is better.

The BizNGO Chemical Alternatives Assessment Protocol is a step by step guideline to help companies navigate information about competing alternatives. Until everyone has access to full data sets on toxicity, exposure, and health and environmental effects it may make its mark as a tool that helps companies realize how much information about their products is missing. Come to think of it, that’s probably why the same group publishes a Business Case for Federal Chemicals Reform.

News coverage about the effects on human health or the environment of things like BPA or flame retardants often have a “on the one hand, on the other hand” kind of structure to them. On the one hand BPA can leach out of water bottles or food cans and be ingested by consumers. On the other hand, BPA helps make containers more safe than they may otherwise be. On the one hand, BPA may cause human heath effects, on the other, maybe not so much, and besides, there are few obvious replacements. And so on. Rather than go around in circles, the protocol suggests a particular order of operation for assessing alternatives that is written from the business point of view.

BizNGO launched the tool today – the group held a meeting for its members in Washington, DC. In addition, it has published a prelude to a new tool, called Principles for Sustainable Plastics that will help companies made decisions of what “green” attributes of plastics they should be aiming for – biobased? recycled?

Mark Rossi leads the group, and he says the businesses most active in BizNGO are a rather diverse lot – from retailer Staples to healthcare provider Catholic Healthcare West, to manufacturers of specialty construction materials. They started a few years ago with a first principle: know and disclose chemical products as well as any hazards. Since then, along with efforts by companies like Walmart and HP, companies far back in the supply chain have begun using tools (like Green Screen from Clean Production Action, which is also part of BizNGO) to disclose the chemical components of their products to their downstream customers. It’s a trend that is likely to pick up steam.



2011 Holiday Gift Guide

Like Santa’s pack of geeky elves – the ones who wear safety goggles at the back of the workshop – the Newscripts gang has been hard at work looking for the best gifts to give the chemistry lovers in your life. We’ve scoured the Internet (over 1500 items come up when you search for “chemistry” at Etsy) to find great gifts for this holiday season. You can also check out our 2010, 2009, and 2008 gift guides for even more super stuff. Did we miss something great? Put it in the comments.


The Quest for a Passionate and Purposeful PhD

This guest post was written by 

Selina Wang, PhD.

When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name.

A simple sit-down meal with professors during a job interview taught Selina Wang a lesson she'll never forget. Image courtesy of Prof. Dean Tantillo, UC Davis.

I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond.

As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far.  Industry, government or academe?  Not sure.  A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend?  I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’.

I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job.

Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and weaknesses and since I’ve enjoyed doing research and teaching, I applied for tenure-track faculty positions.

What I didn’t expect was a particular interviewing incident that reminded me what matters to me and why I chose to pursue higher education.

Sometimes being in grad school makes you feel like a newly hatched chick, wondering what you'll be when you grow up. Photo credit: flick user dux_carvajal.

During an interview lunch at one school, a faculty member started on a rant about a reviewer’s comments on a paper she recently submitted. Other faculty members also shared their experiences with the peer-review process. This conversation lasted a while before one faculty member threw her hands in the air in frustration and said she should not have to listen to anyone’s comments given the reputation of the school where she worked.

Sitting quietly, I was reminded of Einstein who said, ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” I wondered when they were going to ask interview-like questions or simply acknowledge my presence. They didn’t. I was simply having lunch with a know-it-all-self-righteous person, who even pointed out that the only reason she came to lunch was because the restaurant had nice offerings. I thought I was the one that was poor and liked to take advantage of free food.

The word “faculty” is defined as teaching members or power/authority. Maybe that was the confusion?  They thought they were authorities rather than teachers?

I received similar impressions from many of the faculty, thus despite how this department looks on paper, it was not where I belonged. However, in addition to my bruised ego, I didn’t walk away from this experience empty-handed. After thinking, and over-thinking, I got the answer to a question that has been haunting me since I was five. What do I want to do when I grow up?  It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it – how it makes me come alive.

Isn’t that why we went to graduate school? To feed our passion for discovering the unknown and to take a chance on what we believe. With all the pressure associated with grants, publications and political moves, it is easy to be skeptical and lose sight of what is important to our internal self. But what are we good for if we don’t take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes? Failures in research have led to many of the most exciting and unexpected results, in a serendipitous way. The discovery of things not looked for has lead to wonderful products such as Post-It Notes, Teflon, the pacemaker, and even the microwave (Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, noticed that emission from a vacuum tube caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt).

What marks a successful failure? Perhaps, it’s our perspective. We are not know-it-alls, we all are barely know-its spending our lifetimes on figuring “it” out. With a passionate heart, a purposeful mind, and a focused attitude – I no longer feel loss. Thanks to this great lesson from my “failed” job interview.

Lufthansa Cargo Looks for Green Ideas

Win a free trip to Frankfurt! And 25,000 miles for a winning green idea submitted to Lufthansa Cargo. Cleantech Chemistry hopes that those free miles would net you a seat in the passenger compartment, but the firm’s press release is not explicit. Anyway, C&EN was alerted to the contest, which you can enter RIGHT NOW or any time before December 19.

I checked out the ideas that have been submitted so far, and I note the dearth of chemistry and materials science-related suggestions. I enjoyed one about making cargo containers from carbon fiber rather than aluminum, and the comments section shows that people know a lot about carbon fiber, as do C&EN readers thanks to a recent cover story.

Go to the contest website and submit an idea. I will check back in when the winners are announced.

Amusing News Aliquots – Thanksgiving Feast Edition

In lieu of our usual silly samplings from this week’s science news, Lauren Wolf and I have compiled a list of our favorite articles from the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry on turkey, cranberries, and pumpkin. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Credit: Shutterstock

Ever wonder whether ground turkey is REALLY a lower-fat substitute for ground beef? These guys have. [10.1021/jf00032a012]

Planning to irradiate your turkey instead of brine it this Thanksgiving? You could be in for a volatile-sulfur surprise. [10.1021/jf020158y]

We hate it when our turkey meat gets oxidized. Thank goodness for honey. [10.1021/jf010820a]

Got gum problems? You might want an extra helping of cranberry sauce. [10.1021/jf203304v]

But if you’re using fresh cranberries, be sure to give them a good washing. Wouldn’t want any ethylene dibromide with your relish. [10.1021/jf001025k]

And if you’re planning to store your cranberries for future use, those kept at 15 °C pack the biggest antioxidant punch. [10.1021/jf001206m]

Pumpkins—the fungus fighters of the cucurbit world. [10.1021/jf902005g]

Tired of pie? Why not use your pumpkin flesh for determining how much L-glutamate is in your food? [10.1021/jf0344791]

The Newscripts gang loves the ACS Legacy Archives almost as much as we love a four-day weekend. Check out this classic from 1910: “Chemical Examination of Pumpkin Seed.” [10.1021/ja01921a009]

Who knew a commute would parallel current events?

The following is a guest posting by C&EN Managing Editor, Robin Giroux

Last Thursday night I was riding the Metro home late, about 9 PM, after the last of the pages of the Nov. 21 issue of C&EN got to the printer and the files were prepared for delivery to the C&EN Online team. The subway car I boarded was pretty full, but I spied an empty seat and headed for it. The seat was occupied, though, by an older gentlemen who appeared to be asleep, perhaps drunk, perhaps homeless. I kept walking, found a seat further along, sat down, and started reading a book.

My stop is at the end of the line, and as we approached it, I heard someone talking to the older gentlemen, respectfully, asking did he have somewhere to go, had he eaten. It was a younger man’s voice: Could he get the older gentleman a ride to wherever he was going, could he buy him a meal. He was persistent. He told the older gentleman that he would see him safely home.

When I exited the train, I noticed the younger man helping the older one from the train, cajoling him along the platform, talking with him about where they were going next. A small group of young folks called to the young man that they’d see him later.

The next stage of my commute home is an express bus, and the last riders to board before the bus pulled away were the two men from the train. The younger man had learned the older gentleman’s name and was still peppering him with questions: Mr. Washington, have you eaten today? Is that a hospital bracelet? What were you in the hospital for, Mr. Washington? Do you have anyone at home? His tone was upbeat, even playful, yet still respectful.

I couldn’t hear Mr. Washington reply, but he had questions of his own. The younger man assured Mr. Washington that his friends would be waiting for him, that the only thing he had to do right then was see Mr. Washington home.

Other riders on the bus chatted with the younger man, surprised that the two weren’t known to each other. They confirmed Mr. Washington’s directions for the bus route past his home, but warned that the bus doesn’t run very often. If a taxi was available, the younger man said, he’d get Mr. Washington home that way.

I had my truck parked at the transit center where the bus route ends. It was late, I was tired, I’m a female and was alone, and the street Mr. Washington lives on is well out of my way home. I could’ve been a good Samaritan. I could’ve put my personal concerns aside and driven the pair to Mr. Washington’s home and the younger man back to the transit station. Instead I went home.

My reasons for inaction are defensible, I could argue, but they’re not really. I knew that the younger man would follow through so I convinced myself that I didn’t need to go out of my way, too.

So where do current events fit in? The congressional supercommittee charged with coming up with a plan to cut $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next 10 years started announcing its reasons for inaction before the mandated deadline even arrived. Its reasons are no sounder than mine.

I’m confident Mr. Washington got home safely that night, with the respectful young man by his side each step, encouraging, playfully haranguing him to eat, to get the care he needed, to get a good night’s sleep.  And I’m impressed with that young man and his willingness to go so far out of his way to do the right thing.

I wish I were as confident that our leadership in Washington includes enough individuals who will go out their way, leave their friends, change their plans, and follow through cheerfully, doggedly, purposefully. This country needs them.

Qteros Regroups

Last Friday, press reports began to circulate that cellulosic ethanol start-up Qteros had fired its CEO John McCarthy, laid off a bunch of staff, and may be for sale. I was intrigued as I had written a bit about the company in the past, and realized, in retrospect, that I hadn’t heard much about it lately.

In fact, it appears that Qteros is in a bit of a huddle and may change the scope of its future plans. I asked the new CEO, Mick Sawka, formerly the company’s senior vice president of engineering and commercial development if he could update me. By e-mail he replied that “Qteros has reduced its staff and John McCarthy has stepped down as CEO. … Based on our data and that of our strategic partner, Praj Industries, we remain confident that we have one of the best process and economic routes to cellulosic ethanol production. Under our new leadership we continue to develop our process.”

Praj Industries is an Indian firm focused on engineering for biobased ethanol. It wants to expand into cellulosic feedstocks.

The partnership was announced early in January, just a day before the firm disclosed it had raised $22 million in the first part of a C round of venture capital funding. At that time, the firm implied it planned to get more investments and proceed to commercialization. It sounds like the scope of the firm’s plans may have narrowed a bit. Cleantech Chemistry will keep an ear out for more information.

I wrote about Qteros’ former CEO John McCarthy back in February of 2010, when he had just taken the helm. Two other firms, Mascoma (also in cellulosic ethanol) and Segetis (in bio-based chemicals) had brand new CEOs at the same time. In all three cases, the new CEO’s were experienced hands who were brought in to guide the biobased firms to commercialization.

Qteros is not the only one of the three that has been quiet this year. Segetis’ most recent press release came out Feb. 14 and is about a deal with Method (a household cleaner firm) to develop a tub and tile cleaner made from bio-based molecules. Meanwhile, in September, Mascoma filed for an IPO worth up to $100 million – though it has not yet begun selling stock. Both firms have the same CEOs as they did when I wrote about them in 2010 –  Atul Thakrar is at Segetis and William J. Brady is still in charge at Mascoma.


Uncovering the history of a St. Tammany weathervane

Guest post by Celia Arnaud, a senior editor at Chemical & Engineering News.

Before conservation, this St. Tammany weathervane was coated with an unwanted layer of black paint. Credit: Matt Hamilton/Williamstown Art Conservation Center.

Many pieces that started out as functional objects have crossed over into the realm of art. This is especially true for that genre known as folk art. Metal weathervanes are a prime example of such art. Because these pieces actually had a job, they weren’t carefully housed indoors. They were exposed to the elements—and the local gunslingers.

At last week’s Eastern Analytical Symposium, Kate Payne de Chavez, a conservator at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, in Massachusetts, described the steps she took to characterize and repair a St. Tammany weathervane that had seen some tough times.

The St. Tammany motif features an Indian chief holding a bow and arrow and standing on the shaft of another arrow. He’s believed to represent a 17th century chief in the Lenni-Lenape tribe in the Delaware Valley, known alternatively as Tammany, Tamanend, or Tammamend. Because of his role in establishing peace between Native Americans and the English settlers in the Pennsylvania colony, he achieved near-mythic status, and his name was co-opted by various Societies of St. Tammany, the most famous of which grew into the Tammany Hall political machine.

The largest and most famous St. Tammany weathervane—standing more than eight feet tall—is at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. The one that Payne de Chavez repaired is only one-third the size, nearly three feet tall.

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