Saturday, March 31, 2012

Pictures of the Month - Turbines and Beams

I don't know what it is about late March. Spring has sprung, flowers are blooming, grass growing green...and researchers are releasing killer images and wild papers at breakneck speed. This week, two images really caught my eye - a heart turbine, and a molecular beam generator. 

Artificial dual-turbine heart | Credit: New Scientist / Jeremiah Zagar
First up, a still from the short film Heart Stop Beating, shown courtesy of New Scientist TV. You're not imagining things - that's a dual-turbine pump, in a man's chest cavity! What's more, the man in question, Craig Lewis, lived for 5 weeks with this device in his chest, apparently no worse for wear, and died of an unrelated condition. 

In a Popular Science article from last month, one of the doctors behind the tech, Billy Cohn, described the materials used to construct the heart turbine:
"The materials needed to be blood-friendly. The structure needed to be resilient to deformation. It had to be formable in a limited space. We needed to be able to sew it, but the needle holes couldn’t let blood leak. And we had to be able to customize it in the OR by cutting it. I bought some ordinary Dacron from the fabric store and RTV silicone from Home Depot to impregnate the outside. I did all this in my garage."
Here's my question: What other materials could we construct replacement hearts out of? Perusing the stent literature, it seems like medical device makers try two different tactics: either a non-allergenic metal alloy, like nitinol (Ni-Ti) or cobalt chromium; or a biodegradable polymer, like a polyamide or poly-lactic acid (PLA). I'm hoping one of my materials-leaning readers could help me work through this in the comments.

Bumper Sticker: "My other car is a Molecular Beam Generator"
Credit: G. Meijer, Chem. Rev.
Next, in keeping with the "unbelievable machines" motif, here's the abstract picture for a recent Chem. Rev. on molecular beam generation. I'll admit, I'm not a physical chemist, but I would offer to learn if I got to play with a device like this! 

Molecular beams are formed, in the words of Prof. Gerard Meijer (Fritz Haber Institute | Max Planck), through a "controlled leak" from a pressurized cavity into a vacuum. Electromagnetic fields can be used to "shape" the beam, which chemists direct at targets, or smash into another beam to simulate basic binding events. My second question: What else could we do with these beams? Brief explorations into physics texts mention roles in quantum dots and nanocrystals, but I'd like to learn more. Readers?

Everyone Play Nice: A Blog Comment Code of Conduct

(Note: This post is not directed at any of my beloved regular commenters here at Just Like Cooking. You've all been very helpful, friendly, and insightful. But not all blogs can claim that luxury...)

The two-way street of blogging?
Credit: Patappo
We've all been on blogs; after all, you're reading one right now! We know that blog audiences encompass a wide swath of humanity, with different viewpoints, different cultures and different experiences. Blogging in specific - and the 'Net in general - offer some great perks at virtually no cost to the reader: expert analysis, humor, activism, and a sense of community.

But it's a two-way street. In exchange for posts and analysis, bloggers usually hope for a bit of critical or complimentary feedback. In another great example of online democratization, nearly any reader can leave a message on a blog, through the 'Comments' window at the bottom of the page. 

Lately, the tone and message of these comments, even on scientific blogs, has taken a downward turn. Now, I'm not trying for "Malaise" here, but I've thought about this, and I'd like to offer a short set of suggestions for improving the interaction between writers and commenters, and, more generally, the blogging community:

1. Follow the "Golden Rule."
2. Be professional. 
3. Offer critiques, not attacks.
4. Don't use offensive language.
5. Try not to exaggerate.
6. Think about writing your comment in stone, to stand the test of time.
7. If you still disagree, go start a blog!

"A Crisis of Blogging Confidence"
Credit: Wikipedia | Library of Congress
Let's explore these a bit. The first, usually summed up as "Do unto others," advocates simply for empathy and understanding. Suggestions #2-4 follow naturally from the first: everyone wants to be heard, but achieving that requires cogent, thoughtful statements, polite disagreement, and, when needed, clear arguments. 

For #5, I've used the word try, because exaggeration for satirical or humorous purposes is usually OK...and even encouraged! Number six addresses the (very real) phenomenon of web caching. Sites like Internet Archive, and yes, Google, keep shorthand copies of websites stored on their servers for future retrieval. What does that mean? That we write with indelible ink; the great paradox of the Internet marries the transient nature of emails and tweets to the realization that your data never truly vanishes. 

The ideal blog community promotes useful discussion, with fellow commenters joining together to crack down on "drive-by" posts which aim to inflame, incite, or indict. For the spurned, I have another suggestion (#7): write a blog with your viewpoint, come back, and link out to it from another blog's comments. Two reliable (current) options are Blogger and WordPress.

Latte Foam Designs
Seattle, WA
You might say "Well, it's the Internet, what can you do?" While it's true that people go online to lose themselves for a time - in games, in music, in chat-rooms, on social networks - they're still people, and the folks writing blogs are, too. Before you click "Send," think about the person on the other side of the connection. It would make for a much more fulfilling experience, for all involved.

Now go forth, and comment!

(More chemistry to follow, I promise!)

Thanks for reading,
See Arr Oh

Thursday, March 29, 2012

LFTB - Not Just Meat (Thanks, Internet!)

The Luning-Fencemaker Belt
Looks like you drive out of Reno on US80, then hike in...
Credit: University of GA Geology Dept.
Over at Sci Am blogs, I've recently written a post about LFTB, the processed meat product some call safe and others call "slime." When I first heard read the acronym, I thought it would be a snap to find information, since that can't stand for too many other things...right?

LFTB means:

An Airport in Southern France - Marginane looks like a quaint little place to visit! This designation "LFTB," an ICAO code, helps direct air-traffic controllers.

A Geological Formation - The Luning-Fencemaker Fold-Thrust Belt, a twist of rock in Nevada. Apparently, you can date rocks and determine geological events using argon isotope data. The More You Know (TM), I guess.

Early Biofuels Research? - A now-defunct New Zealand-based organization, the Liquid Fuels Trust Board, seemed to be among the early pioneers in developing waste-derived fuels and methanol-powered vehicles.

An Anti-Litter Campaign - Thunder Bay, ON, Canada, would like to remind you to keep their community spotless, and wants to instill a "litter consciousness" in its townsfolk. Bonus Geographical Moment: Thunder Bay sits on Lake Superior, right across from Isle Royale and Pie Island. Sounds beautiful.

Flight School: Want to Drive an Airbus? Lufthansa, the German airline, operates 11 flight simulators at  a facility in Berlin, which can teach pilots to fly all the big craft, from Boeing 777s to Airbus A320-200s.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Things I Never Knew Existed, Part the Third: Beef!

Every so often, when you're looking up references for paper boilerplate, or to flesh out a new post, you come across references in other fields you've never seen before. Bonus if they have catchy titles or shiny logos.

While researching a follow-up post on pink slime, I encountered a few new-to-me food science logos.

First, we'll check out the Institute of Food Technologists. Organizations like this keep one foot in chemistry, and one in agriculture - they usually have symbols that evoke both, and this looks par for the course. Two leaves are pulverized, and then added into the test-tube shaped space between "I" and "F." (The first line on their 'about' page encourages me to "Envision what the very best minds in food science can achieve when they work together")

Next, see the American Meat Institute, whose blood- red 3-letter logo looks just like a porterhouse steak, right down to the white spaces (marbling?). I guess nothing says "meat research" quite like, well...meat. (The site includes some not-so-subtle wordplay, inviting you to "Meat AMI...")

Later, I found myself digging through piles of government info, which meant downloading public-access documents from the GPO. Not heard of it? It's the U.S. Government Printing Office, which produces forms and booklets, and helps increase federal transparency (and they run an online bookstore!).

The GPO logo is sleek and formal, with a nod towards typesetting, and an homage to the digital age in the "O." (Although that might also be an 8-bit Nintendo graphic, I'm not too sure...)

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Chemistry "Hacks" (The Good Kind)

My hackathon drink of choice, coffee!
(And hey, ACS, why no more mugs?)
Last week, a fascinating article, "The 48-Hour Startup," appeared in Wired magazine. It explored the world of hackathons - events where pizza and Red Bull fuel two straight days of programming, hacking, and rebuilding code to create a functioning, marketable smartphone app. The upshot: some prize money, and sufficient street cred to attract more through angel investments. This article made me wonder . . .why don't more chemists have hackerspaces, like programmers and engineers do?

Let's go all the way back to the beginning of chemical research - who were we? Alchemists, who worked after hours, scribbling in secret languages; some hoped for profit, and some just loved the thrill (Sound familiar?). They didn't follow the implicit hegemony we do today: school student -> university trainee -> graduate study -> postdoc -> junior professor -> original ideas? By the time you're done jumping through hoops, you might have left your sense of curiosity and wonder behind.

Early Chemical "Hacker"
Alchemist with Scale, Johannes Weiland
Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation
Well, how do we discover anything? If you believe much of the popular press, either by accident (saccharine, guncotton, Velcro), or by deep thought and monastic contemplation (relativity, total synthesis, calculus). I'd add a third avenue: cross-fertilization, the genius behind Bell Labs' design for their "idea factory."

Ever beat your head against a research problem, only to find the answer at a neighboring department's seminar? Borrowed something the next lab down the hall had on the shelf? Not to wax all Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance on you, but I subscribe to human quality precognition, a subtle mental undercurrent that guides you toward the right reaction or correct conditions. Others might call this gut instinct, and I've heard process chemists chat about initial optimization ("lucky on the first try!").

So why not speed this process along? Could we take a page from the video game designers, the hackers, and the dorm-room dot-com stars?

Here's my proposal (which, incidentally, might work pretty well at a large, national chemistry conference, just sayin'): What if visiting chemists had access to an open lab space, replete with all the latest catalysts, equipment, and reagents? One could imagine equipment dealers sponsoring this space, much like Cuisinart and KitchenAid sponsor cooking shows. 

Picture this, but with more fume hoods and Buchwald ligands
Access to a well-shimmed NMR and tuned LC-MS, along with a few high-speed internet connections and journal subscriptions, would complete the experience. Professors, hearing about a fantastic new reaction, wouldn't have to brief their lab groups. International scientists could mingle, and compare lab technique. Best of all? You could just play, try experiments for fun, on a whim, or because you were just curious about the result.

Who knows? Maybe, in time, the phrase "chemistry hack" might mean something good!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Pharma's 'Four Horsemen' - Small Companies Benefit

As the economy struggles to escape recession, many incentives of the "stable corporate job" once taken for granted have disappeared. Eight-hour work day? Nope. Full benefits, perhaps with retirement? Nowhere I've worked. Flexible work hours, or the ability to vacation without checking email? Don't even think about turning off that cell phone!

Yeah, some days. Only, with a lab coat.
Source: SciAm Blogs / istockphoto
I'll admit, I had spent some time in pharma when it seemed to have no upper limit: company parties, annual bonuses, guest lecturers, the whole enchilada. But nowadays, with news of mass layoffs at every major chemistry firm, and certain sites closing altogether, I've had the discussion several times about whether we'll ever see salad days again.

One of my ex-'Big Pharma' contacts forwarded along a cheery little document from Cliff Ennico, a lawyer who appears to specialize in small business and entrepreneurship. He had visited their campus to suggest potential career routes for laid-off employees. The tract essentially advocates for self-reliance through small business ownership, skill development, and networking. But his ideology caught me off guard: he compares current corporate practice to the Apocalypse! 

Here's Ennico's "Four Horsemen of Corporate America:"

Computers - If your function can be automated, you might be next on the chopping block.

Overseas Competition - China and India are specifically mentioned, which segues to...

Outsourcing - Well, if you haven't sent med-chem work to CROs, or offshore, you're in the minority. For another example, consider the contract positions seen on ACS Careers (three months, really?)

Overwork - Quoth the paper: 
"Big corporations these days are obsessed with 'maximizing productivity,' which often translates [to] 'getting the maximum amount of work out of your employees for the minimum amount of compensation.'"
"Hang on . . .which one of us was Outsourcing, again?"
Source:, user: the_pug
So, all doom and gloom, right? Well, maybe so, maybe not. After mass 'Big Pharma' layoffs, small companies - like mine - tend to benefit from an influx of well-trained, poised people ready to try something new. And while the hours are still long, and the pace hectic, it's both humbling and exhilarating to watch something grow from the ground up. Best part? They'll need you to "pinch-hit" on a variety of projects, which imparts some job security.

New grads, post-docs: Make sure to think 'small' when filling out those job applications. It's stressful, sure, but well worth the effort.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Dreaded Placeholder Post

Hello there, internet! I see you've been visiting me a little more lately. 

Monument to the Immigrant
Mississippi River, New Orleans
Thanks so much. I really love to see so many new faces. (Well, unique IP addresses, but same diff!)

I must apologize, but I'm going to spend time on "back burner" projects this week, so I won't be able to update here every day. But this is a perfect chance for you, o loyal readers:

What would you like to see me cover?

(I know I ask this every lunar cycle or so, but I'm really very interested. Of course, I have ideas of what I'd like to cover, but I could bow a bit to reader demand. 
My vote? For next week, some catalysis, maybe some chit-chat about functional groups, book reviews, a np isolation paper, and some more sociology / science pride stories.)

Monday, March 19, 2012

Journals I Never Knew Existed - Clocks, Bones, and Trees

Every so often, when you're looking up references for paper boilerplate or to flesh out a new post, you come across journals in other fields you've never heard about before. Bonus if they have fun or informative logos, or catchy titles.

While scribbling the last few posts, I encountered all sorts of new-to-me skeletal tissue and circadian rhythm journals. First, there's BONE, which leaves absolutely no doubt in the reader's mind what topic it will cover! This journal springs from the International Bone and Mineral Society (IBMS), whose logo possibly evokes the fine, spongy structure of the skeleton. 

Next, there's the International Osteoporosis Foundation, in operation since 1987. This has to be the first logo I've seen to both evoke exuberance, and yet somehow look just like a fractured rib. (just me?)

On the biorhythms side, there's the open-access Journal of Circadian Rhythms; I get it, with the clock and all, how meta.

Last but not least (OK, not actually a journal...), we have the Juniper Pollination Project, run out of the US Nat'l Phenology (we're not phrenology!) Network. Quite honestly, I think the art is pretty catchy, with the stately juniper and its giant, globular pollen. But the kooky, fun part has to be the satellite, complete with "zoom!" lines, soaring high overhead.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Too Good to be True - The "98% Turnover" Dilemma

"If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is" - Anonymous Skeptic

On a gorgeous Spring day, I awoke to find birds singing and the sun shining. After rolling up a window shade and brewing a fresh pot of coffee, I was ready to tackle overnight emails and visit the great Twitter machine.

The first thing I saw?

("Your atoms?" Do I own my atoms? Does anyone? And doesn't that figure seem, well, a little high?)

OK, wait, I'm a scientist, so it's just in my nature to be skeptical. But with 50+ re-tweets, and 18 'favorites' already, I felt this 'fact' needed a bit of perspective. Surely a little digging (assisted by @doctorchemed and @Chemjobber, thanks!) will turn up the truth, right? 

First, let's stop at the likely source for the factoid: this segment from a 2007 All Things Considered episode. It mentions the mysterious "98%" figure, and goes on to give a perfectly rational-sounding explanation, backed up by a scientist (Ph.D. = credibility). The reporters' comments tend towards the usual suspects - oxidative stress, dead skin cells, DNA copying errors. It's well known that several body tissues do indeed cycle through, so they leave another breadcrumb trail for us to follow: "...a study published in the Annual Report for Smithsonian Institution (huh?) in 1953..."

"Mr. Isotope" Seal of Approval?
Source: Fourmilab
Well, thanks to, we can find the "study" fairly quickly. It seems that, in 1953, Paul C. Aebersold (dubbed "Mr. Isotope" by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission), wrote to the Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution. Given the appearance of annual budgets, secretarial minutes, and auction items, this has to be the AEC's equivalent of a progress report. Consider Aebersold's title: Director, Isotopes Division, Atomic Energy Commission (now part of the NRC). While it's tempting to believe this is a "scientific publication," there's little in the way of hard data, and the text reads more like an historical recap, or perhaps a biography, than an experimental procedure. Read the following quotes, from p.239 of the document:
"We need more people trained in the use of isotopes — people who can apply this new tool to tomorrow's problems in medicine, science, and technology - more 'isotopologists'...We have hardly scratched the possibilities of scientific achievement."

Make sense yet? It's a funding appeal! The speech recounts the glory of the atomic age, from the Curies to the end of WWII, and the line about the "approximately 98 percent of the atoms in us..." (p. 232) serves as another brick in the staircase, built towards the temple of program renewal.

Since Aebersold discloses no study or reference data, my skepticism mounts. If we really recycle almost our whole body, how could we detect blood contaminants, such as PFOA or BPA? How could teeth be stained, if you were always churning out new enamel? (you're not) How would "belly-button microflora" from different places still be detectable on you, if you were always throwing them away?

George de Hevesy
Source: Nobel Foundation
Let's go one more notch back in the literature. George de Hevesy, 1943 Nobelist in Chemistry, developed many of the earliest radiotracers, radioactive compounds used to monitor human, plant, and animal metabolism. Read his Nobel lecture; de Hevesy indicates, with hard data, that work on rabbit skeletal exchange (that is, watching radioactive phosphorus diffuse in and out) resulted in 6.7-29.7% change in various bones over 50 days. So, for certain tissues (the higher values), we could say that, over the course of a year, the 98% value sounds correct. But for the 6.7%? Well, a year is not 746 days long, so that can't possibly apply. Further de Hevesy work utilized labeled calcium ions to show that only 1/3 of the mouse skeleton is replaced during its entire life.

Source: Edupics
Well, old data is exactly that...old. So, you have to flash forward in time to verify conclusions. Here's an NC State Extension primer on osteoporosis, which mentions that approximately 1/5 (20%) of the adult human skeleton is renewed each year. 

So, why all this focus on bones, bones, bones? Turns out, the skeleton in an average human being weighs somewhere around 12-18% of total weight. If 20% is renewed, that means 80% is not. Thus, without considering any other vital body system (neurons? scar tissue? cartilage?) the 98% exchange can't be correct - somewhere around 10% of your body's atoms stay unchanged every year!

(Readers, if you see factual or logical errors here, I welcome future impassioned discussions in the comments!

Chemistry Jam Session

I spoke at length with a good friend last night, and remembered how cathartic and enlightening it can be to talk shop; not just about molecules and reactions, but the nitty-gritty, daily ephemera that make science both so frustrating, and yet so rewarding.

Birds of a feather...
We discussed waste disposal, how living downwind of Kansas cement kilns might make you sick. We talked "up-and-comers" of the synthetic world, and how they pay their bills. Topics seemed to flow effortlessly then - silly boss comments, hierarchical Asian educational systems, company policies on travel for conferences, or how much a journal subscription should cost. The "new" (old) coinage metals. Grandstanding. Hilarious interview bloopers. The virtues and pitfalls of reading outside one's field. Though perhaps cliche, "where we'll be in 10 years" may have received some airtime.

Juggling schedules might be hard, but it's ultimately worthwhile to keep that appointment, write that review, or have a beer with an old colleague. You'd be amazed how great it feels to commiserate, compare, and re-connect.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hubris vs. Humility: Chemists' Inner Struggle

Hydrazide crystals, DCM solution at left
When the Royal Society's Chemistry World blog challenged the chemistry blogosphere to suggest "What makes a good chemist?," they inadvertently reopened a debate on the cultural and professional perception of scientists.  Editor Bibiana Seijo opined that problem solving, tenacity, flexibility, passion, teamwork, and communication skills were tops. Chemjobber's take on it?
"...I really believe in humility. [snip] Humility can keep a chemist grounded in the fundamentals of their field and it can give direction by showing what's yet to be known...another trait that chemists should be really good at: truthfulness. When I speak, it's my sincere hope that I can understandably convey the truth about chemicals and chemistry."
While several commenters reiterated the call for humility, some did not. I was among them.

In fact, when I submitted my first answer (Curiosity, honesty, industriousness, exuberance, and adaptability), I had taken great pains to leave humility out. Later, blogging stalwart @azmanam mentioned that I almost had a full acrostic, so I couldn't resist the chance to finish it:
"OK, OK: "Curiosity, Honesty, Exuberance, Mastery, Industriousness, Structured, Tenacious! 
All puzzle pandering aside, note that I've still left out humility. Not that I advocate being a puffed-up know-it-all, especially not around other, smarter scientists, but CJ's tongue-in-cheek Twitter hashtag #humblebrag springs to mind; quite literally, when one argues for his humility, he violates it at the same time.

My champion for respectful disagreement
Source: 3 Quarks Daily
Honestly, between us? I prefer the approach Richard Feynman advocates for in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: respectful disagreement. In this scene from the book, Feynman bluntly discusses physics at length with Niels and Aage Bohr, and learns the value of a little chutzpah:
"...Bohr said to his son, 'Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He's the only one who's not afraid of me, and will say when I've got a crazy idea. So the next time we want to discuss ideas, we're not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we'll talk with him first.'
I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics..."
Humility doesn't necessarily fund your grant, or publicize your research. It doesn't get young kids excited or engaged in learning. It also doesn't help you to advocate a new approach, or appreciate any hard-earned success. I feel like scientists, generally - and chemists, specifically - fight an ongoing, internal battle: hubris vs. humility. How can you take pride in your research and stay motivated, without alienating coworkers or sounding condescending?

My answer? Emphasize honesty and curiosity. The first trait makes sure you're constantly checking and validating results (which helps to keep you humble). The second helps smooth interactions with other scientists; you can learn a lot if you're genuinely interested and excited about another's field.

Fall leaf, or metaphor? You decide!
I've recently been reading The Wild Life of Our Bodies, by Rob Dunn, a biology professor at N.C. State. Deep in Chapter 5, Dunn discusses mid-20th Century experiments with aseptic "bubbles," which bred lines of lab animals that were essentially germ-free. One problem, of course, rears its head with DNA-embedded viruses, which can later be expressed even under these sterile conditions. Deep in the narrative, he drops in a tiny asterisk, which draws the eye down to some miniscule text near the bottom - Dunn's take on mixing curiosity with a little dash of irreverance:
"Perhaps, in reading this, you are thinking, "I know how you could get those viruses out." If so, the urge you are feeling is the backbone of scientific innovation, a stew of can do, curiosity, obsession, and a little arrogance. It is the job of conservative, daily science to suggest that the problems are bigger than you might appreciate. It is your job on behalf of radical, innovative science to go write your own fifty-year plan."
 Sounds good to me!

Friday, March 16, 2012

Spring has Sprung - Phenology and Plant Hormones

Sign of an early Spring...
Everywhere you look, spring has sprung. Grasses grow, trees are budding, bugs emerge, and peepers peep in swamps and wetlands. Just one problem: it's still March!

Dr. Jake Weltzin, of the US National Phenology Network, appeared on NPR's All Things Considered yesterday discussing this strange, early shift in seasons. (At first, I misheard him say "phrenology," and wondered what bumps on the head had to do with climate change! What a difference an "r" makes).

Weltzin related a quick phenological primer:
"...what we're interested in here is the timing of Spring blooms and migrations and hibernations. So we have to think about the entire season, not just when things wake up in the spring but when things go to sleep in the Fall" 
Weltzin then discussed a few specific concerns: fruit trees yielding early produce, the early flows of Vermont maple sap, and the potential for large swarms of insects to form, given their head start on the season. 

Ecologically and chemically, phenology has a certain logical beauty to it. Seeds germinate, thanks to plant hormones like gibberellic acid, and sprout: ok, auxins! (like IAA, pictured). Juvenile hormones wake worms and caterpillars from their sleep, who hatch and eat the developing plant life. Pituitary glands in animals everywhere turn chicks and tadpoles into birds and frogs, which eat the insect life. Finally, larger animals emerge, whether from hibernation (go, melatonin!) or we humans from our homes and cars. 

Enjoy the beautiful weather, and keep an eye out for the ongoing phenological ballet outside your window.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Straight From the Horse's Mouth

That post about corporate euphemisms I wrote the other day? Meant to be informational, but with a ring of sarcastic truth to it; often times these nicknames help exiting employees to cope and offer them an element of control in an otherwise bad situation. 

An alternate reality? Sounds like Pfizer...
Survival in the heavily matrixed environment at Pfizer apparently took more than just hard work and pedigree. Over the past few days, I've spoken with some former employees, and I'll briefly paraphrase the conversations (Note: I'm hardly the first to discuss these layoffs...)

All former Pfizerites felt that they had spent a lot of time meeting and politicking, perhaps as much as they did generating new data or discovering new drugs. One said that layoffs were announced as early as six months prior to corporate action, leaving employees wondering if they would have a job next season (I guess they were "lucky" not to be let go over the weekend?!). Another worker alluded to overemphasis of negative traits during performance reviews, such that if you were laid off in the future, the document might seem to presage your departure. 

When layoffs occurred, scientists often abandoned still-running equipment and in-progress experiments. The equipment would sit around for a time, unused, and later be sold at auction to recover costs. Since no one would be hired to replace the outgoing researcher, many data sets were irrevocably lost.

The most shocking sentiment I heard was that of a long-time chemist, who compared negotiating the enormous, post-merger(s) Pfizer to a zero-sum game, where the only way to move ahead was to "bring someone else down." 

To borrow a popular sentiment: Best wishes to all of us.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Exactly Like Cooking - Black Beans, Rice, and Plantains

Continuing our series to put more money into grad student wallets, through the power of cheap but nutritious (and leftover-generating) foods!

This recipe comes to you by way of three Cuban / Jamaican food staples: plantains (thick, fibrous banana-like fruits), black beans, and rice. The prep time is a bit longer, but, as a trade-off, you get quite a few extra meals here.

Picture this, but with rice...
Black Beans, Plantains, and Rice (Prep Time: 20 minutes)
Equipment - Small pan, small pot, one more pot (or rice cooker), wooden spoons (2), measuring cup (1 c), sharp knife, cooking oil.

Ingredients - 1 can black beans (Goya, Bush's, store brand)
1 green pepper
0.5 onion
0.5 tomato
1 box frozen plantains (Goya, Publix, Wal-Mart brand, etc.)
1.0 c rice
1.5-2.0 c water
some butter (2 tbsp)
some brown sugar (4 tbsp)
some plain Greek yogurt (1 tbsp)
some shredded cheese (handful)
spices: cumin, garlic, cilantro, parsley, curry powder, salt, pepper, adobo, hot sauce (all to taste)

Procedure - Get that rice cooking, either by loading it into your rice cooker, or by boiling water on high, stirring in the rice, then reducing heat to medium-low and covering with a lid. Meanwhile, dice up (cut into small pieces) pepper, onion, and tomato, then load into a pot with a small amount (2 tsp) of oil on medium heat, uncovered. Stir every 2 minutes or so, until you hear popping sounds and see steam slowly rising from the pot. Add the black beans (no need to rinse 'em, just dump it in!), and stir occasionally, until bean / veg mixture begins to simmer. If you want, now's the time to add your spices (see above list).

OK, plantain time! Heat a few spoonfuls of oil in your small pan, on medium to medium-high heat. While the oil heats, gently defrost your plantains, usually with 1 minute of microwave heating (or by leaving them out for a few hours). Begin to fry the partially-defrosted plantains in the hot oil, turning often, until they take up some of the oil and begin to brown. Reduce heat to low, add butter and brown sugar (maybe also some cinnamon and hot sauce?), turn often until plantains are sticky and deep brown. 

By this point, the rice should be done. Drain (if in a pot), scoop out onto plates, spice with parsley / pepper / salt. The beans should have lost some moisture, and should be more like a thick soup. Grab about 1 cup of the mixture to cover your rice. Add one or two of the fried, sugared plantains on top, cover with hot sauce and Greek yogurt (replaces sour cream), and some shredded cheese. Should make four (4) total servings.

Total Cost: Beans ($1.00/can) + Rice ($0.50 / cup) + Plantains ($1.75 / box) + veggies ($1.50) + Brown sugar ($0.35) + Butter ($0.40) + Dairy Additives ($0.75) + Spices ($0.50) = $6.75, or about $1.69 / serving.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Plenty of Room at the Bottom

Have you seen this cool new NASA "astronomy picture of the day?" It allows you to move up and down through the dimensions of the known universe - level by level, scale by scale.

Sadly, not included in the graphic.
Source: Namco / PlayStation
Building on an earlier version released in 2010, the Huang twins (Mike & Cary) have really outdone themselves this time. Now fully equipped with smooth transitions, helpful fact boxes, and awestruck ambient music, the graphic allows viewers to move through 62 orders of magnitude  (a "1" followed by 62 zeroes, or 100 trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion!) to explore phenomena ranging from the immense observable universe, down through galaxies, asteroids, animals, cells, atoms, and particles, to the infinitesimally tiny Planck constant. The experience feels somewhat like playing the popular "stuff-collecting" game Katamari Damacy

Browsing the site, I zoomed into the realm where we chemists usually find ourselves, somewhere between 1 micrometer (10-6 m, one micron, where the larger viruses hang out) down to around a femtometer (10-15 m, about the size of a single proton). Honestly, that's a huge zone to play around in, roughly nine orders of magnitude. Put in human terms, the larger viruses are to protons what Jupiter and Saturn are to us! 

Encouraged by the classic Feynman lecture "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," in which the Nobel-winning theoretical physicist lays down the foundation for nanotech, I pushed further down the size scale, past various flavors of quarks, down to the neutrino, still our smallest detectable particle at (about) 1 yoctometer (10-24 m).

Hey, who turned off the universe?
"Nothing down here but us strings..."
Then...nothing! For the next ten orders of magnitude, down to quantum foams and strings, there was just empty space. So, what's down there? The subconscious? The Higgs boson? Tesseracts?

Honestly, I don't know enough quantum physics to tell you. If any of my readers are better versed in the subject, please write in. To parrot Feynman, 1010 seems like entirely too much room to have nothing in it.

Update (5/5/12, 11:00AM) - A reader alerted me to an old xkcd comic that covers much of the same ground...

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Did Someone Say Pink Slime?

Face it: School lunches have always looked a bit dodgy. Thick, overcooked casseroles. Spongy grey sandwich patties. Slabs of greasy pizza. Thus, when industrial beef producers suggested one more (cheap) processed ingredient, cash-strapped school districts gladly agreed.

So began the "Pink Slime" fiasco (picked up by the msnbc* Vitals blog, NPR's The Salt, and, of course, our friends at What is it? If you come from the ranch side of the equation, you refer to pink slime as lean, finely-textured beef (LFTB). Connective tissue and scraps from industrial butcher plants are mixed with ammonia gas or ammonium hydroxide, which degrades the protein matrix of collagen and elastin into component amino acids, and sterilizes the resulting goopy mass against microbes like E. coli. The final product can be blended into hamburger and other "finished" meat products.

So, what are the arguments against this bio-sludge (besides appearance)? First, consider nutrition: there's less in pink slime than in other meat products. There's a higher fraction of insoluble protein, which may be hard to digest, but on the plus side, there's less fat in LFTB than in standard ground chuck. Despite its off-putting look, the final material may actually have a composition closer to soy protein than beef.

pH meter
Source: General Tools
Second, how much ammonia is required? Levels high enough to raise the goop's pH to ~9 seem to kill all pathogens, but batches tested by the NYT back in 2009 showed pH levels as low as 7.75. So what? Well, since pH tracks logarithmically, that corresponds to 18x less total base, which might reduce any ammonia odors but correlates to increased bacterial contamination. 

Finally, it's all about the labeling. A generation of parents accustomed to fighting high-fructose corn syrup (oops, "corn sugar"), artificial dyes, and allergens in processed foods would prefer including ammonia in the final ingredient list. However, manufacturers - and the USDA - consider this a production step, not a discrete additive like ammonium phosphate (leavening agent) or ammonium chloride (licorice, baked goods). 

Time will tell if the public uprising surrounding pink slime will lead to cancellation of school lunch contracts. But processed meat products aren't going away anytime soon: consider chicken nuggets, hot dogs, sausages, or scrapple (if you're into that). Or the ubiquitous gelatin, made from bones and cartilage, which gives the gummy to bears and puts the gel in Jell-O

*Chemophobia update - Ye Gods, msnbc. Way to scare everyone. How about a scientific fact check? Ammonia is not a "pink chemical" - it's colorless, and you don't use it to leaven cakes (see ammonium phosphate, above). Backtracking to the original report, we see mention of flammability and building bombs . . .really? Ammonia is much more commonly used to clean floors and windows.