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Got Anything Unusual Hanging Around Your Lab?

This week, I was traveling around laboratories in the Mid-Atlantic with Associate Editor Carmen Drahl, C&EN intern Aaron Rowe, and ACS Digital Services wizard Kirk Zamieroski to film some footage for C&EN’s YouTube channel. To check out some of the initial cuts of students talking about their research and instruments in the lab, click here.

While I was at the University of Delaware, I happened upon something that seemed out of place for the halls of the Materials Science & Engineering Department through which I was wandering.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

I inquired about the swordfish (at right), lashed to the ceiling outside Michael E. Mackay’s laboratories. Inside, the students work on developing nanoparticle-based polymer thin films for solar cells. So you see why I was intrigued by the fish.

Grad student Brett W. Guralnick explained that the swordfish was only a plastic mold of the original catch that Mackay made a number of years ago. The story goes that Mackay’s wife didn’t want it hanging in the house, so he was forced to display it at work—and has carted it around with him as he’s moved from school to school over the years.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

In another lab, this one a microscopy facility in the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University, I spotted the eye-safety warning at left.

Both of these items reminded me of this week’s Newscripts article about Albert Padwa, a chemistry professor at Emory University who collects mobiles. They adorn many of the offices and hallways in Emory’s chemistry department because Padwa’s house spilt-eth over.

It’s always nice when scientists show a little bit of personality in and out of the lab. It certainly breaks up some of the tension of research and gives already quirky researchers a tad more character.

Got anything hanging around your laboratory hallways or offices to share? Send me a link here or to the Newscripts inbox at . I’d love to start a gallery.

Chemical Sleuthing In Santa Fe

Chemistry is everywhere. Even in the desert. That landscape, both beautiful and desolate, is where I might expect poor, unsuspecting crooks to be “taken for ride” in a mob movie, never to be heard from again. But it isn’t exactly where I’d expect to see a giant ball-and-stick molecular model.

Daylight's sculpture, albeit with a bit of graffiti. Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Nonetheless, on a recent trip to Santa Fe and its surrounding arid land, that’s exactly what I found. On the way back from a hike in the desert, a flash of black and yellow caught my eye. There, on the side of the highway, at the outskirts of town, was a large molecular sculpture. And it was definitely a molecule—the carbons were black, the sulfurs were yellow, oxygen was red, and nitrogen was blue. Like aliens leaving behind crop circles, chemists MUST have been here. No one else assigns colors to atoms like that.

Of course I stopped. How could I not? All of my chemistry-nerd neurons were firing. As I scurried up the small hill that the sculpture sits upon, I noticed the building beside it: Daylight Chemical Information Systems.

Unfortunately, the firm was closed for the day, but some more brilliant sleuthing revealed a clear-as-day plaque on the ground that read, “Cognition Enhancer.” Huh.

It’s not surprising that I couldn’t immediately identify the molecule from the sculpture: I’m more of a physical chemist by training and would be hard-pressed to draw even the structure for a common molecule such as caffeine by memory. What is interesting, however, is that the molecular formula I scribbled on a sheet of paper didn’t pick up any obvious hits in a Google search.

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

So I did what any Jessica Fletcher wannabe would do. No, I didn’t pick Daylight’s locks and rifle through its files. I waited until I returned from my trip to call the company and perform a SciFinder search.

Turns out that Daylight, established in 1986, develops software tools to handle chemical information. C&EN wrote about the firm way back when in 2005. One of the firm’s products, SMILES, is a linguistic algorithm for representing molecular structures in a line notation that is easily manageable by computers. For instance, the SMILES for the sculpture is CC1OC2(CC31SCCS3)CN4CCC2CC4.

Daylight has now moved on to develop a platform, called DayPort, for managing knowledge in the life sciences.

But at the time Daylight was constructing its building in Santa Fe, in 1999, it was looking for a way to represent its vision artistically, says CEO Yosef Taitz. In the same way that the firm aims to “provide tools to enhance the thought process” in drug discovery and make it possible for scientists to speak the same language, the sculpture is of a molecule that “enhances” cognition, Taitz says.

It doesn’t hurt that the structure is bottom-heavy and therefore has a solid base for standing up to Santa Fe’s famous desert winds either. Continue reading →

A Sneak Peek Of C&EN’s Next Issue

Because who doesn’t enjoy a rousing round of Where’s Beaker on an April 1st that falls on a post-national meeting Friday?

2010 Visualization Challenge Winners Announced: As Always, Chemists Rule

First chemists took home top prize in the Dance Your Ph.D. contest late last year. Now they’ve won first place in photography for an image submitted to the 2010 International Science & Engineering Visualization Challenge. The results of the competition, sponsored by Science

magazine and the National Science Foundation, were announced this afternoon and can be found here.

Image is 600 by 600 nm. Credit: Science

And to top it all off, the winning photo graces the front cover of today’s issue of Science.

The image, entitled “Rough Waters,” is an atomic force micrograph submitted by Seth B. Darling of Argonne National Laboratory and Steven J. Sibener of the University of Chicago. The choppy surface contains anything but water, however.

Darling tells Newscripts that the false-color AFM image is of a gold surface coated with a mixed self-assembled monolayer. The film is formed by deposition of a single disulfide molecule (synthesized by Dong-Chan Lee and Luping Yu of the U of Chicago) that splits at the sulfur-sulfur bond upon adsorption. “The advantage of that approach is that you start with a perfectly mixed monolayer with exactly 50-50 composition,” Darling says.

After the initial chemisorption, the two halves of the molecule—one is a 10-carbon alkane chain and the other is a 10-carbon partially fluorinated alkane chain—phase separate on the surface. The ripples were captured during the early stages of separation and result from a mere 0.2 nm difference in the height of the two species (they have different tilt angles, Darling says). “The larger scale terraces in the image are due to atomic steps in the underlying gold surface,” Darling explains.

When asked whether he knew that he had an award-winning image on his hands, Darling says that a staff member at Argonne actually “twisted my arm a bit” to submit it to the contest. “She was generous enough not to say, ‘I told you so’ when we heard the good news,” he adds.

Honorable mentions in the photography category include “Trichomes (hairs) on the Seed of the Common Tomato” and “Centipede Millirobot.” Awards were also made to scientists in the categories of illustrations, informational graphics, and noninteractive media.

Merkel Launches IYC In Berlin

Merkel at opening ceremony. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron skipped the opening ceremonies for the International Year of Chemistry in Philly, Paris and London, but props go to Germany’s head of state, Angela Merkel–formerly a theoretical physicist/chemist herself–for showing up at the IYC shindig here in Berlin today.

She said some things we’ve heard before, such as how chemists could help solve energy problems (with, say, nanotechnology) and how they already had (by developing energy efficient materials for improved housing insulation, for example). She also talked about Marie Curie as a role model, the promise of young scientists and the irony of the public’s not entirely positive perception of chemicals given that we’re all composed of them.

Merkel hands out awards. Credit: Sarah Everts/C&EN

But instead of rushing in and out, Merkel stayed around long enough to award three teams of very cute elementary students awards for a competition called Formula One. Effectively, the teams had to build a chemical battery and then race a home-made car for 20 meters. And again, instead of shaking everybody’s hand and moving along, she grabbed the moderator’s mic and started interviewing the kids about their projects. Pretty classy.

Organizers chose the lovely Radialsystem as their IYC launching site. The red-brick water pumping station nestles the Spree River right at the border of the former East and West Berlin. It was renovated in 2006 into a space for the arts and renamed Radialsystem. There’s lots of dance and theater to be seen here, but the last time I stopped by was to listen to some guy’s brain (alpha) waves as he sat on stage with headphones, himself listening to a sequence of conversations which ranged from boring bureaucratic negotiations to presumably more interesting bedroom dialogues. This is also where Merkel spoke at the 2009 Falling Walls conference, on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, where scientists gathered to discuss the ”walls” that needed to fall in science to improve the world. Continue reading →

In The High Desert, Molecular Sculpture

Wilder-Nightingale is steps from Taos's historic Plaza, which dates to the late 1700s (Drahl/C&EN)

The hum of pickup trucks pervades Kit Carson Road in downtown Taos, New Mexico. But it’s easy to escape. The street is chockablock with small art galleries, eager for out-of-towners to duck inside. And one in particular feels like home to the X-ray crystallographers who’ve descended on Taos for a Keystone Conference on G-protein coupled receptors and ion channels. It’s the Wilder-Nightingale Gallery, and it’s displaying work by one of their own.

Like those crystallographers, Edgar Meyer used to spend his days figuring out the structures of proteins. Among his more colorful conquests are a component of the venom from Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes, and proteins from fire ants and termites. He even had a hand in founding the Protein Data Bank, the online hub where researchers deposit all the structural information for the proteins they analyze.

These days, he’s stopped analyzing Nature’s structures and started sculpting ones of his own- not in protein but in wood and bronze. His work is scattered about Wilder-Nightingale’s other collections- paintings of native peoples and mountain vistas.

D-tartaric acid (Drahl/C&EN)

Anthocyanin (Drahl/C&EN)

A C&EN Snowflake

Credit: Lauren Wolf/C&EN

Inspired by a recent post on the “Better Posters” blog, a site devoted to making impressive, professional-looking academic posters, I constructed my own version. The author at “Better Posters” provides clear directions for recycling your conference poster by making a very festive, crafty snowflake.

I propose that when faithful Newscripts readers aren’t framing their treasured back issues of C&EN (which ours fans are, of course, wont to do), they can do the same with their favorite covers and pages. I’ve chosen some Newscripts columns and a few colorful covers for a snowflake to display in the halls of C&EN. Let’s see your versions, readers—it only takes about 15 minutes.

Happy New Year!

The Aloha Shirt

Credit: Steve Ritter/C&EN

Common attire for men in Hawai’i is the ”Hawaiian shirt,” made from a floral print fabric typically bearing a Polynesian motif. I learned here at Pacifichem in Honolulu that the shirt is really called an “Aloha shirt.” The word aloha means hello, goodbye, and just about any other warm fuzzy feeling you want. Women wear Aloha shirts too, as well as dresses of the same material.

My source of this new knowledge was Glen, a greeter at the Hawai’i Convention Center who helps conferees find the meeting room they are looking for. You can see Glen sporting a nice Aloha shirt in this photo, and giving the “hang loose” sign, which exemplifies the happy-go-lucky attitude here in the islands.

Glen says he doesn’t know the history of the Aloha shirt. A quick Google search finds that the modern version originated in the 1930s when a Chinese merchant in Waikiki began sewing brightly colored shirts for tourists out of old kimono fabrics he had leftover in stock. American GIs made them popular during and after World War II. Continue reading →