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Category → Academia

Are Popes and Chemistry Immiscible?

Well, leave it to the British to put together one of the most enjoyable exercises of the day, at least for those of us with even a few remaining molecules of Catholicism.

With apologies to my calculus teacher, Sister Agnes Mary of St. Mary’s High School in Rutherford, New Jersey, I present to you the UK Guardian

‘s Pontifficator.

Choose your own pope – with our interactive Pontifficator

This week, 115 cardinals will be secreted in the Sistine Chapel to select one of their number as the next head of the Catholic church. You can’t get in to see them but you can use our interactive to explore their views on issues from contraception to relations with other faiths, peruse their CVs, and choose the man you think is best qualified for the job. Tap the pictures to read more about the candidates. There’s a note on how we categorised them here

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Honduran chemistry and physics prof. Credit: The Guardian

Finding a pontiff who meets all of one’s criteria is tougher than finding an apartment in New York City. But my selection ended up being Archbishop of Tegucigalpa (Honduras), Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga.

The clincher? Of the 10 academic candidates, he’s taught chemistry and physics.

Of course, I’m not keen on his rating for handling the sex abuse scandals in the church and, shockingly, his agreement with the current pope that condoms will not prevent the global HIV/AIDS crisis.

Umm, I don’t know what kind of chemistry and physics he taught.

So if I still were a churchgoer, I’d have to pass on Rodríguez Maradiaga. Italy’s “tech-savvy” Gianfranco Ravasi is notable for having hosted the 2009 Vatican conference on evolution. But something tells me that this time won’t break the latest string of non-Italian popes.

For those of you interested in the outcome of the papal conclave, who are your favorites?

I’m hoping it’s someone from South America or Africa.

Incorporating safety into good research conduct

From Chemistry World today comes news of new sanctions for research misconduct, as set out in the Research Councils UK Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct. Chemistry World reports:

Universities who do not take cases of research misconduct seriously could have their funding withdrawn. … Penalties could be applied to universities or research organisations which fail to meet RCUK’s obligations for research integrity – for example, if institutions conduct incomplete or biased investigations into alleged misconduct or if their researchers have committed ‘persistent research misconduct’. Such failures could result in existing grants being revoked, applications getting rejected ‘for any period of time, including indefinitely’ or even retrospectively clawing back funding from the institution.

The policy document outlines unacceptable research conduct, which includes (bold is mine):

Breach of duty of care, whether deliberately, recklessly or by gross negligence:

  • Disclosing improperly the identity of individuals or groups involved in research without their consent, or other breach of confidentiality;
  • Placing any of those involved in research in danger, whether as subjects, participants or associated individuals, without their prior consent, and without appropriate safeguards even with consent; this includes reputational danger where that can be anticipated
  • Not taking all reasonable care to ensure that the risks and dangers, the broad objectives and the sponsors of the research are known to participants or their legal representatives, to ensure appropriate informed consent is obtained properly, explicitly and transparently
  • Not observing legal and reasonable ethical requirements or obligations of care for animal subjects, human organs or tissue used in research, or for the protection of the environment
  • Improper conduct in peer review of research proposals or results (including manuscripts submitted for publication); this includes failure to disclose conflicts of interest; inadequate disclosure of clearly limited competence; misappropriation of the content of material; and breach of confidentiality or abuse of material provided in confidence for peer review purposes

Improper dealing with allegations of misconduct:

  • Failing to address possible infringements including attempts to cover up misconduct or
    reprisals against whistle-blowers
  • Failing to deal appropriately with malicious allegations, which should be handled formally
    as breaches of good conduct.

Read broadly, the policy seems to say that people conducting laboratory research need to be appropriately informed of the risks of their research and provided with safeguards to conduct their work safely, with the penalty being possible loss of funding (as well as investigation by the UK’s version of OSHA, the Health & Safety Executive). In an educational environment, I think that ideally this means giving people the tools and teaching them to do risk assessment and mitigation, with appropriate oversight.

The Universities UK Concordat to Support Research Integrity may have more to say about safety, but I haven’t had a chance to go through it.

“Suicide Before PhD Defense”

I just received two hits to my PhD defense post using this search phrase.

To the reader: If you are in such dire straits of stress before your defense, please call 911 immediately or get yourself to your local emergency room. The specter of the dissertation defense can amplify self-doubt and if you are considering suicide, you and your family and friends would be better served by you postponing your defense and checking into a hospital for a couple of weeks.

If I can be of any help, please Gmail me at abelpharmboy call me at 919.564.9564. But first call 911.

Screenshot of today's search terms.

Screenshot of today’s search terms.

A brief Friday chemical safety round-up

Just a quick update today on two stories we’ve been following closely:

  • Patrick Harran’s preliminary hearing in the Sheri Sangji case was continued to April 26, not March 21 as the district attorney’s office told me it would be.
  • David Snyder, the UC Davis chemist arrested on explosives charges, was released on $2 million bail after family members “put up homes and other properties as collateral,” the Sacramento Bee reports.

From the archives—a surplus of PhDs

Okay, a couple of topics to cover today, and they are related.

First, if you haven’t done so already, you should check out The Watch Glass, a Tumblr which contains excerpts from the C&EN Archives. This endeavor is curated by recent JAEP guest poster, Deirdre Lockwood. Although The Watch Glass is only a couple of weeks old, there have already been some very interesting nostalgic snapshots of chemists and chemistry from the past


This inspired me to have my own peek at the archives and see what interesting things I might find. It didn’t take long. I’d like to highlight one discovery in particular, a small article entitled “Ph.D. outlook: too many for too few jobs.” Hmmm, doesn’t that sound familiar?

Yes, but here’s the kicker. The publication date of this article: August 13, 1979.

“What? 1979? Surely there must be some mistake! That’s a current topic!” I hear you scream. That, or it’s just the voices. You know, the shrill ones in my head.

Okay, the C&EN archives are by subscription only. That is a bit problematic, because not all readers of this blog have access, whether they’re ACS members or not. I had to wait for the library to email a pdf from scanned microfiche (ask your parents or advisor). Fortunately, the article is short, and the abstract, which is viewable to all, contains roughly half the content, from which you can get the gist. It begins:

The fourth in a series of employment reports from the National Science Foundation has been issued. The report concludes that the number of science and engineering Ph.D.’s in the labor force will increase nearly 50% by 1987.

Well, that’s quite a large increase. That’s good, though, right? The result of a productive American education system. U-S-A! U-S-A!!

The only hitch is that the number of traditional employment positions available to these Ph.D.’s will increase only 35% over the same period.

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The Nobel’s great, but take a look at this!

Bob Lefkowitz proudly displays his Nobel Prize medal (and diploma on the desk) at his Duke University Medical Center office, 20 December 2012. Photo: David Kroll


As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University.

In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.).

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Lefkowitz IndyWeek Outtakes

The 9 January 2013 edition of the Research Triangle area’s alternative weekly newspaper, INDY Week. Photo: D.L. Anderson/INDY Week. Click on the photo to go the online article.

I was fortunate to be able to tell the story of Duke University biochemist and cardiologist Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz in the 9 January 2013 issue of the Research Triangle’s award-winning alt-weekly, INDY Week.

Even with editor Lisa Sorg graciously offering 3,000+ words for the story on one of the 2012 Nobel laureates in chemistry, some terrific bits of my interviews with Bob and major players in his story didn’t make it into the final version.

Over the next few days, I’ll post some of these gems. This page will index the running list of those posts.

The Nobel’s Great, But Take a Look at This! – Lefkowitz reveals where Duke men’s basketball sits in his list of priorities


Preliminary hearing for Patrick Harran in #SheriSangji case: Day six

With Michael Torrice. If you find typos, mea culpa. This is a long post and we did our best.

Testimony concluded on Tuesday in the preliminary hearing against University of California, Los Angeles, chemistry professor Patrick Harran. Harran faces felony charges of labor code violations related to the death of Sheharbano (Sheri) Sangji from burns sustained in a 2008 fire in Harran’s lab.

Witnesses called to testify over the course of the multi-day hearing included a fire department investigator who interviewed Sangji in the emergency room, a burn doctor who treated Sangji, a pathologist who performed an autopsy on Sangji’s body, a California Division of Occupational Safety & Health (Cal/OSHA) investigator whose report led to the charges, and a chemical safety expert. The recap of Monday’s testimony includes a summary of testimony heard on previous days.

On Tuesday: redirect questioning of Cal/OSHA investigator Brian Baudendistel and cross examination and redirect questioning of safety expert Neal Langerman.
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