June 2007



New prime minister Gordon Brown has decreed it: science and university research funding in the UK is now under the control of DIUS, headed by anti-Iraq-war MP John Denham. That’s the Department for Innovations, Universities and Skills to you and me.

Already the DIUS puns are flooding in: one DIUS official joked their newsletter could be titled “Ciudad de DIUS” (after the 2002 academy award nominated Brazilian film, for all you cinemaphobes). Then again, as Neil Diamond sang, what’s DIUS in trying, when all you get is pain?

Enough puns. Certainly, the concept of the new department has garnered cautious welcome from scientists. What it will do for UK science probably depends on how well it links with other new departments (more acronyms here): on applications and technology, the DBERR (Dept. for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), and, on science education, the DCSF (Dept. for Children, Schools and Families).

 

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Organic chemistry may have progressed beyond the public’s understanding of science here in China. At the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, one researcher’s successful total synthesis of an active anti-cancer compound resulted in his being stalked out of work for a month by people wanting to get their hands on the product.

When his paper was published, a reporter from a local newspaper came to visit him to ask about the work. The subsequent article reported that the scientist, Biao Yu, had successfully made an important cancer drug.

‘The following day I got a phone call from a woman who told me that her husband was sick and asked if I would please send her some of my new drug,’ he said. Yu tried to explain that he was not able to dispense his compound in drug form but the woman was insistent.

‘Then more phone calls started. I couldn’t be in my office without being bombarded by people whose relatives needed treatment.’

The final straw came for Yu when people began to visit the campus to find him and his cancer cure. ‘I went away for a month and the institute had a staff member deal with the phone calls.’

Since then, Yu has refused to speak to reporters – although he did make an exception for Chemistry World.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

pipe-rack-and-bike-in-scip.jpgShanghai Chemical Industry Park (SCIP) is something of an anomaly here in China. It has been built with efficiency and environmentally friendly principles in mind – rather than simply out of the necessity to supply chemicals or materials to this vast country’s developing economy. 

SCIP is only the third integrated site of its kind and has been developed largely through foreign investment, initially from Bayer, who has contributed 3.1 billion of the 8.97 billion US dollars total investment in the site so far.

The site, in HangZhou Bay, 50 km south of downtown Shanghai has been largely reclaimed from the coastline. Reclaiming land from the sea means that farmers have not been displaced although many fishermen have had to be compensated for the loss of their livelihood.chemical-worker-busesrevise.jpg

Residential areas have been kept a ‘safe’ distance from the park and even the prevailing winds taken into account. (South Westerly winds carry emissions away from local residents.)

Chemical giants like Bayer and BASF have even provided transport for their workforce – many of whom have to travel from residences in downtown Shanghai – in the form of specially commissioned buses, which, according to SCIP’s administration company, transport workers ‘from their homes to the park every day.’

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

I’m in Shanghai, finding out about the budding Chinese chemical industry and helping prepare for the launch of Chemistry World China.

The pace of change is palpable. As foreign investors have begun to recognise, the rapid development of education here means access to a growing number of well well-trained scientists, as well as to a vast potential workforce for the manufacturing that many companies have already moved to China.

Shu-Guang Wang, a theoretical chemist and vice dean of Jiaotong University in Shanghai told me that, on his return to China in 2000, following ten years as a researcher in Germany, the university’s skeletal chemistry department conducted almost no pure chemistry research. He proudly compared the then dismal publication record to current figures. ‘Before 2000, the no one in the department had ever published in a journal with an impact factor higher than three,’ he said. ‘In 2006, we published 44 articles in many high profile journals.’

Impact factors are important to researchers here, who need a calculable basis on which to build a reputation for their relatively new research institutes.

There is no bitterness during talk of the cultural revolution, which deprived many of Wang’s generation of a university education. Things have moved on and he and many others went back to school to complete their masters and PhD degrees.

He told me that only one per cent of staff in his department has a bachelor’s degree. Attending university as an undergraduate simply wasn’t an option before the 1980s.

‘Many of China’s most famous scientists do not have an undergraduate degree,’ he laughed.

Jiaotong now has a new campus and an extensive chemistry department conducting both applied and pure research. Increasing investment in R&D by the Chinese central government (which provides 50 per cent of research funding to the university) and industrial partnerships are nourishing what feels like a whole new revolution.

 

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

A study published in the British Medical Journal this week found that one in a hundred 11-year olds use drugs to enhance their performance in sport.

The researchers interviewed 3500 11-year olds entering their first year of secondary school in Eastern France. Their most common drug of choice was salbutamol, commonly found in Asthma inhalers and, presumably, therefore widely available in the playground. But a small proportion of the children questioned claimed to have taken anabolic steroids.

The authors said that boys were more likely to be tempted and that those who admitted to taking psychoactive and performance-enhancing substances ‘appeared to be in some distress.’

It’s worrying that children so young could feel this much pressure to perform.

P. Laure and C. Binsinger, Br J Sports Med., 2007, DOI:10.1136/bjsm.2007.035733

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

One of our longest serving colleagues. Peter Whittington, retired from the RSC last week. He joined Chem. Commun. in 1969 and as part of his clearout he donated some old zinc plates, which was how we used to publish the chemistry in our journals – each block of compounds was burned onto photosensitive plates then etched out and cleaned up for the presses.

Zinc Chemistry
I hadn’t come across these before, so I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised that there’s not a great understanding of the way the current scientific publication process works (see some comments on the Word 2007 maths handling and an excellent explanation of why publishers are finding this a huge problem from Nature’s Howard Ratner).

Of course now CTP systems have made the zinc plates redundant, but online with Project Prospect we’re now creating some structures automatically from the compound InChI (which mostly works sensibly) – not as a replacement for the authors’ artwork but as an additional feature for the reader and to allow us to bring back additional information and link to associated papers. The InChIs and generated images of the primary compounds of interest are also being published in our RSS feeds, so as we publish our articles through the day anyone can pick up a live feed of the chemistry and biomedical ontology terms contained within.

Enhanced RSS feed

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Fluids travelling through micro-channels can now be mixed together by being whipped into a laser-induced froth. The technique may provide a simple way to control chemical reactions in a lab-on-a-chip, doing away with the need for pumps, valves, or complicated channel patterning. Read the story here – we’ve got strangely mesmeric animated pictures …
Micro-channel mixing

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

This is so cool. A polymer-based system that can heal itself when cut. It has a network of microcapillary ‘vessels’ that carry liquid dicyclopentadiene through the epoxy structure. When the pladtic gets sliced, the dicyclopentadiene healing agent leaks into the crack, where it reacts with itself – thanks to the Grubbs catalyst loaded into the epoxy structure – to form fresh polymer to heal the wound. Previous work with self-healing systems involved the use of capsules of healing agent embedded within the polymer substrate. These could only be used once before being spent, so the fact that the new system can work autonomously, time after time, is really significant.

Self-healing polymer

Left: Cross section of the self-healing surface showing that cracks, which initiate at the surface, propagate towards the microchannel openings at the interface (scale bar=0.5 mm). Right: Optical image of the self-healing structure after cracks are formed in the coating, revealing the presence of excess healing fluid on the coating surface (scale bar=5 mm)
© Nature

Not long before they start using this in the cyborgs, I reckon … you can read more about the science here.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

The ‘Young Giants’ meeting has drawn to a close. A final day highlight for me was Tim Swager’s talk on electronic polymers to detect explosives. This chemistry works so effectively that the US military now relies on technology based on these polymers. I wonder if the assembled pioneers of molecular recognition ever envisaged that, many molecular generations later, their concept would be up the noses of bomb detecting robots.

Sir Fraser ended the meeting by reflecting on ‘what we have learnt’ from each speaker over the course of the conference. But I think what I learnt most from this final presentation was the generosity of the man himself.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

The conference has featured many images of the birthday boy, but by far the smallest, and certainly one of the most impressive, was presented by Chad Mirkin from Northwestern University in the US. The image was made by dip-pen nanolithography, a process invented in the Mirkin group. Chad tells me that the system can now reproduce any image, and that Fraser only took a few minutes to draw.

Fraser by dip-pen nanolithography

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Next Page »