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Does Ada Yonath’s Gender Really Matter?

Yes, gender still matters.

Yes, gender still matters. “In shock from seeing Gov. Pat McCrory, center, hand deliver her a plate of cookies, Jamie Sohn, of Chapel Hill, turns back to her group across the street. ‘I was absolutely stunned,’ she said of the experience. Opponents of the abortion bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed on Monday continued their second day of protests across the street from the Executive Mansion on Tuesday, July 30, 2013. Just after 1pm, the Governor himself walked across the street to give the 17 women a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Incensed, they immediate put the cookies back at the main gate of the mansion with a sign that read, ‘Will take women’s health over cookies!’” Credit: Irene Godinez and the News & Observer



My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health.

But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty.

Kathleen Raven. Follow her on Twitter at @sci2mrow. Credit: University of Georgia.

Kathleen Raven. Follow her on Twitter at @sci2mrow. Credit: University of Georgia.

During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American

Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath.

Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.

As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists?

Yours truly with Dr. Ada Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center. Credit: McGraw.

Yours truly with Dr. Ada Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, 16 October 2009. Credit: Steven R. McCaw.

I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation.

The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes.

Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a vigil marking his signature of restrictive abortion legislation: He stepped out of the governor’s mansion to give protestors a plate of cookies and quickly returned behind the iron gates without any substantive engagement.

I’d be interested to hear from GlobCasino and C&EN readers after reading my own interview with Ada Yonath. Should we still be making an issue of advances in race, gender, and sexual orientation in chemistry?

I think yes, and it’s never been more important.


This post appeared originally on 14 December 2009 at the ScienceBlogs.com home of Terra Sigillata.

Last week in Stockholm (and Oslo), the 2009 Nobel Prize winners were gloriously hosted while giving their lectures and receiving their medals and diplomas. In Chemistry this year, the Nobel was shared by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A Steitz, and Ada E Yonath for their studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, a remarkable nucleoprotein complex that catalyzes the rapid, coordinated formation of peptide bonds as instructed by messenger RNA. My post on the day of the announcement in October was designed to counter the inevitable (and now realized) criticisms that the prize was not for “real” chemistry.

Only ten days later, we in the NC Research Triangle area were very fortunate to host Dr Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center for the Symposium on RNA Biology VIII, sponsored by The RNA Society of North Carolina.

Among the many noteworthy speakers was Dr Greg Hannon from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a scientist who some feel was overlooked for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, one where Andrew Fire and Craig Mello were recognized for RNA interference and gene silencing.

NC Biotech’s Senior Director of Corporate Communication, Robin Deacle, kindly invited me to an audience with Dr Yonath and two science reporters following Dr Yonath’s lecture. As you might suspect, I was quite honored to visit for awhile with the woman who defied the naysayers and successfully crystallized a bacterial ribosome, then used X-ray crystallography to determine its structure below three angstroms resolution. The fact that she also used natural product antibiotics to stabilize ribosomal structure added to my magnitude of admiration.
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Preliminary hearing started for #DavidSnyder in UC Davis explosives case

Former University of California, Davis, chemist David Snyder appeared in court on Friday to begin his preliminary hearing on 17 felony charges relating to a January explosion in Synder’s campus apartment.

The charges are for reckless disposal of hazardous waste, possession of a destructive device or explosive, possession of materials with intent to make a destructive device, and possession of firearms on university property. Snyder was released from jail in February on $2 million bail. Snyder was working as a postdoc at the time of the explosion; he’d received his Ph.D. in chemistry from UC Davis in 2011.

The purpose of the preliminary hearing is for a judge to rule on whether there is enough evidence to take the case to trial. Deputy district attorney Martha Holzapfel called eight witnesses:

  • Joanne Zekany, UC Davis police detective
  • Lee Benson, City of Davis police officer
  • Scott Allen, City of Davis police officer
  • Paul Henoch, UC Davis police sergeant
  • Kevin Skaife, UC Davis police detective
  • Daniel Powell, City of Davis police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad
  • Brian Parker, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, & Explosives special agent
  • Jason Winger, West Sacramento police sergeant and member of the Yolo County bomb squad

The court got through direct testimony of all eight witnesses on Friday. The judge scheduled the hearing to resume with cross-examination of Jason Winger on Friday, September 6.
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Safety compliance as a route to better safety culture

Members of the NAS committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

Members of the NAS academic safety culture committee tour labs at UC Berkeley

One of the things that came up at the National Academy of Science’s “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories” committee meeting a couple of weeks ago was the idea that safety compliance leads to a better safety culture.

Many safety professionals say that a culture of compliance is definitely not the best safety culture. Compliance is about box-ticking on things like standardized training and lab inspections. A good safety culture means that people are thinking through, talking about, and paying attention to what they’re doing so they’re actually working safer. Compliance will come from a good safety culture, but a good safety culture will not necessarily arise from compliance.

Others argue, however, that safety culture can be improved through compliance. “It’s worked well for us to develop our safety culture through ensuring compliance,” because the compliance component promoted interactions between researchers and safety professionals, said Robert Eaton, director of environmental health and safety at the University of California, San Francisco.

That only works if those interactions on compliance are positive, I suspect. In an organization in which researchers do not respect or understand the role of safety staff, then compliance is unlikely to do much for the overall safety culture.

But perhaps compliance is an essential step en route to a better safety culture? Maybe organizations need some sort of base-level safety compliance to be able to move people to the next level–maybe people can’t be brought to think critically about what they’re doing when they’re not even bothering with the basics of eye protection and closed-toe shoes. Representatives from Sandia and Lawrence Berkeley national laboratories presented what they’re doing to push their organizations beyond what sounded like more of a compliance culture to more of a critical thinking culture. To the academics in the room, “You’re at a state we were at 20 years ago,” said J. Charles Barbour, director of the Physical, Chemical, & Nano Sciences Center at Sandia. Even if compliance culture is a necessary phase, though, perhaps academia can take advantage of the knowledge in industry and government labs to move people faster to critical thinking and safer work practices.

One more meeting tidbit: Stanford University chemistry professor Robert Waymouth‘s suggestion for how to get recalcitrant faculty on board with lab safety programs was to appeal to their egos–in his words, their “desire for excellence”–with the explicit goal of being better than and informing industry rather than the other way around. (Along with, I hope, a desire not to have their lab members get hurt.)

A final note: At the start of the open session, committee chair Holden Thorp noted that topics discussed during information-gathering do not necessarily indicate what will wind up in the final report.

A caution on procedures in organic synthesis journals

Organic Process Research and Development editor Trevor Laird, founder of Scientific Update, recently penned an editorial on “Safety Culture in Industry and Academia”. I’ll highlight one particular paragraph:

Unfortunately, many companies and most universities are still not using the literature to find out more safety information (and not just MSDSs); for example, Bretherick’s Handbook of Reactive Chemical Hazards is a superb resource to access the literature with respect to safe handling of chemicals, in particular on the issues with scaling up. In the organic synthesis literature, I have seen so many unsafe procedures using perchloric acid/perchlorates and azides/hydrazoic acid, for example, that it is surprising there have not been more explosions in university laboratories. Yet a look through recent issues of Organic Process Research & Development (OPRD) will garner several fine articles which describe exactly the dangers of azides, how to overcome those dangers and to scale up the processes, as well as a book review on this topic.

There’s clearly a challenge here for researchers to figure out what’s a safe procedure and what isn’t. Just because a journal published something doesn’t mean it’s been vetted for safety. Is there a good way to teach students to be appropriately skeptical of literature procedures? Also, aside from using Bretherick’s and OPRD, are there other good resources for people trying to evaluate a procedure for safety?

Next hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case set for August

By Michael Torrice

A Los Angeles County judge today scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 in the case against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. The chemist faces four felony charges of violating the state labor code. The charges stem from the death of research assistant Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji after a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

At the August hearing, the judge will consider arguments on motions that Harran’s attorneys will file before the hearing. In court today, Harran’s attorney, Thomas P. O’Brien, explained that one motion he plans to file is a demurrer motion to dismiss the charges.

O’Brien also said that he plans to ask for a hearing regarding the validity of the original arrest warrant for Harran. Harran’s defense team filed a similar request in July, 2012, that questioned the credibility of a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health investigator who wrote a key report. The defense withdrew that motion when a judge decided to arraign Harran.

Preliminary hearing testimony in the case ran last November and December. The judge that heard that testimony ruled on April 26 that there was enough evidence to send Harran to trial.

National Academy of Sciences lab safety culture committee meeting in Berkeley this week

Last month, the National Academy of Sciences kicked off a yearlong study of “Safety Culture in Academic Laboratories.” The project is supposed to focus not so much on what should be done to improve safety in academic labs, but on how to get people to actually do it. C&EN’s Jeff Johnson attended and reported on the first meeting of the committee, which is chaired by H. Holden Thorpe Thorp. Thorpe Thorp transitions at the end of this month from chancellor of the University of North Carolina to provost at Washington University in St. Louis.

The second Safety Culture committee meeting is this week, Wednesday and Thursday (June 26 and 27) at the University of California, Berkeley. The agenda is here. Since it’s local to me, I plan to attend, and I’m sure at least one blog post will result.

Proposed ACS undergrad guidelines increase safety requirements

This week’s issue of C&EN includes a story by Celia Arnaud about proposed changes to the ACS Guidelines for Bachelor’s Degree Programs, which are developed by the Committee on Professional Training. The issue also has a comment by committee leaders Anne B. McCoy of Ohio State University and Ron W. Darbeau of Louisiana’s McNeese State University.

Included in the changes are revisions to the safety requirements. Former committee leaders told me a few years ago that the last guidelines revision, completed in 2008, had more explicitly addressed safety than earlier versions, so the newly-proposed revisions take the criteria a step further.

Here’s what the requirements say now in the safety section:

7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills.
Approved programs should promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and how to apply them. Programs should train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. A high degree of safety awareness should begin during the first laboratory course, and both classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should understand responsible disposal techniques, understand and comply with safety regulations, understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS), recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory, and know how to handle laboratory emergencies effectively.

And here’s what’s proposed (overall, there’s a shift from “shoulds” to “musts”):

Section 7.3 Laboratory Safety Skills (p. 14-15)
Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational level and scientific needs. Approved programs must promote a safety-conscious culture in which students understand the concepts of safe laboratory practices and apply them.

  • Programs must train students in the aspects of modern chemical safety appropriate to their educational and scientific needs.
  • The promotion of safety awareness and skills must begin during the first laboratory experience and be incorporated into each lab experience thereafter. Classroom and laboratory discussions must stress safe practices. Students should be actively engaged in the evaluation and assessment of safety risks associated with laboratory experiences.
  • Safety understanding and skills should build throughout the curriculum and be assessed.
  • Students should
    • understand responsible disposal techniques
    • understand and comply with safety regulations
    • understand and use material safety data sheets (MSDS)
    • recognize and minimize potential chemical and physical hazards in the laboratory and know how to effectively handle laboratory emergencies.
  • Students must undergo general safety training as well as lab-specific training before beginning undergraduate research.
  • Approved programs must have an active, departmental safety committee.

What say you, readers? Are the proposed changes necessary or sufficient? What would you add or subtract?

From McCoy and Darbeau’s piece this week: “Please send comments to by Aug. 1 so they can be discussed at the next CPT meeting. The committee will also hold an extended open meeting on Sept. 8 at the ACS national meeting in Indianapolis that will focus on the guidelines revision. Details will be posted on the CPT website. CPT plans to publish the new guidelines in 2014.”

Dow launches Lab Safety Academy website

Yesterday at the Council for Chemical Research meeting, Dow unveiled a publicly-accessible website with a comprehensive set of lab safety training videos plus additional resources. The website is at safety.dow.com. More details on the development of the site are in my C&EN story on the project. One tidbit that didn’t make it into the news story: While the video hosts are professional actors, the supporting roles are played by Dow scientists.