Patrick Walter


What more can you say about solar photovoltaics (PV)? They basically tick all the boxes – completely clean, cheap, limitless, there’s enough to power the world and, most importantly, they’re bendy – and we are now so close to seeing it do its thing in a big way. In some ways, you could compare it to a promising young athlete (Gareth Bale, perhaps, for the football-minded) – you’re not sure just how good they can become, but they’re already exciting to watch.

Despite this, some feel that the technology is still not getting the support it needs from business to reach its potential. ‘For some reason, [solar energy] is never a big mix in the predicted 2020 or 2050 calculations,’ says Henry Snaith at the University of Oxford, UK. ‘I don’t think people who do the calculations really figure in the potential for technological evolution and development advancement.’

The best is yet to come

Snaith’s recent work certainly demonstrates this kind of evolution. Whilst working on a class of dye-sensitised solar cells (DSSCs) modified with perovskites, he made a crucial discovery. He found that some perovskites, which were being used as the sensitiser component, could themselves transport charge, making one of the key components of DSSCs redundant, greatly reducing energy loss.

(more…)

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Kids’ chemistry sets seem to be making a comeback (check out our great feature on chemistry sets), complete with the old gender stereotypes. Tesco is the latest retailer to come under fire for sexism, after it placed a toy chemistry set in the ‘boys’ category in its online shop. (more…)

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Mosquito nets have been instrumental in cutting cases of malaria

A person dies from malaria every minute. Seven people are infected with this debilitating disease every second. These are the figures that World Malaria Day – which is today – is seeking to highlight.

World Malaria Day has been going since 2007. It was established by the World Health Assembly, part of the World Health Organization, to get people to sit up and take note of this often underreported disease. While the headline figures look bad, great steps have already been made in tackling the disease.

The good news is that the global mortality rate for malaria has fallen by 25% since 2000. At the same time, 50 out of the 99 countries where malaria is endemic are set to meet targets to cut infection rates by three-quarters by 2015. However, new problems have emerged. As the UN and projects like the Medicines for Malaria Venture, with the help of philanthropic organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have stepped up the fight against the disease, criminals have taken advantage. It’s now estimated that a third of malaria drugs sold around the world are counterfeit. (more…)

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History is peppered with stories of scientists simultaneously making discoveries. One of the most famous was, of course, when Newton and Leibniz independently developed calculus, but this also occurred for other huge scientific discoveries, such as Darwin and Wallace both coming up with the theory of evolution and, in chemistry, Scheele and Priestley separately discovering oxygen. (more…)

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The game is afoot! UK charity Crimestoppers is enlisting the help of the Great British public to sniff out cannabis farms. To aid the public in their undercover work they’ve been handing out scratch and sniff panels. These give people an idea of what living, growing cannabis smells like – Crimestoppers describes it as a sickly, sweet smell as opposed to the more acrid aroma when it’s smoked (we at Chemistry World are relying on testimony from local a Cambridge councillor here!). (more…)

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It’s that time of year again, when the mad March hares are making an appearance, daffodils popping up and the world seems to be waking from its long slumber. It’s spring, and this means that the Royal Society of Chemistry’s magazines Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry are looking for their next (paid!) intern to come and work with us. It’s a great opportunity to see how the magazines process works and take part in all stages of the production process.

The eight week position is supported by the Marriott Bequest, which pays out a stipend of £1750 to make sure you don’t starve! Unsurprisingly, we’re looking for someone with a proven interest in science and science journalism. The candidate will probably be part way through a chemical science degree or postgrad course too. If you think that sounds like you then take a look at the job posting and send us your CV and some examples of your writing.

Previous interns have found the experience very handy and it has helped them to move into other interesting and varied jobs. Our 2010 intern, Akshat Rathi, went on to intern at the Economist, who he still writes for, and now works in the communications department of the RSC. Josh Howgego still writes for Chemistry World and Education in Chemistry and is currently on an MSci course in science communication at Imperial College, after a brief work experience stint at the Times Higher Education. And last year’s intern, Ian Le Guillou, is currently doing some work experience at the BBC as a researcher on Dara O’Briain’s Science Club before he takes up a full time science writer job at Understanding Animal Research.

It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity! We are looking forward to hearing from you.

Patrick Walter

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A third of postgrads teaching in UK universities are getting paid less than the minimum wage. That’s the headline finding of a survey of postgrads’ pay rates by the National Union of Students (NUS). Currently, the minimum wage for employees over 21 is £6.19 per hour.

These surprising findings come from a survey of the working conditions of 1500 postgrads. But before postgrads around the nation break out the placards and prepare to form pickets to support their woefully underpaid and undervalued peers, an important caveat should be noted: it is postgrads’ estimates of the ‘unpaid’ hours they work, such as preparation time and marking, that drag down their hourly rate. On average, the hourly rate for postgrads is £19.95. But if all the extra work they do as part of their job is taken into consideration, this falls to just £10.39.

This finding was for all postgrads, in the humanities and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Unfortunately there isn’t a breakdown of the third who are paid less than the minimum wage by subject, so we don’t know how chemistry postgrads fare or even what proportion in the sciences are getting less than £6.19 per hour for their graft. What would be really interesting is seeing which universities were the most generous and which were the tightest. Unfortunately, the NUS has decided to spare institutions’ blushes and hasn’t named and shamed! However, there is some breakdown on some topics between STEM and non-STEM subjects.

Worryingly, the survey found that postgrads teaching in STEM subjects were much less likely to have their working conditions formalised in a contract. Overall, the study found that 31% of teaching postgrads didn’t have a contract, but this rose to 54% for those who taught STEM subjects. The survey also found that postgrads were earning less than their non-STEM counterparts. Before taking account of unpaid hours, STEM postgrads are getting around £15 per hour, while humanities postgrads are getting about £23 per hour. What should also be a concern is that a fifth of postgrads receive no training before they start teaching. More worrying still is that postgrads teaching in STEM disciplines were less likely to receive training than those in the humanities.

Clearly this situation is less than ideal. The NUS report makes a number of recommendations including that unions and student bodies get organised and press university departments for better working conditions. What would concern me most if I was in the shoes of some of these postgrads is the lack of a contract. It seems as if universities are treating the work postgrads do as a bit of a favour to them, rather than a serious job that should have well defined working conditions. If something should happen it leaves the postgrad on a sticky wicket as they’ve no clue what they’re expected to deliver and what the university’s obligations to them are. They lack the most basic protections that a contract provides. I hope that the universities and unions can get their act together soon to hammer out some sort of action plan to tackle this problem.

Patrick Walter
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Recently, some soul searching has been going on in US graduate chemistry education circles.  PhDs have been taking on average six years to finish up, the unemployment level of chemistry graduates has hit record highs of 4.6% and safety standards in university labs have been under the microscope after the tragic death of Sheri Sangji. These problems have been gone over in some detail in a recent report from the American Chemical Society. (more…)

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In a frankly rather bizarre video a research team from the US has been channelling the ever popular internet sensation LOLCats (if you’ve never been to the site you should probably have a look at it as it helps to explain what people under the age of 15 do with all that time they spend on the internet) to help explain their latest paper published in Nature. In a rather savvy piece of science communication that’s bound to grab the attention of teens (and immature editors everywhere…), the video reveals how in their latest work, the team led by David Anderson from Caltech discovered that mice have neurons just below the surface of the skin that solely respond to stroking sensations. Unsurprisingly, behavioural tests showed that chemical activation of these stroking neurons was rewarding for the mice and they sought out further stimulation of these neurons.

Watch the video to learn a bit more and of course as an amusing way to pass a couple of minutes. Perhaps the future of science communication is scientists reaching out to the masses through LOLCats!

Video courtesy Nature Video

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And here we are at the end. The answers to yesterday’s quiz are as follows:

275 molecules of water is the minimum number needed to form an ice crystal or the world’s smallest snowflake. You can read our story here.

Eating a big turkey Christmas lunch is reputed to make you feel sleepy, but this is a myth. The levels of tryptophan in turkey are comparable to other meats.

We hope you’ve enjoyed the quiz. Thanks to all for your answers.

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