RACI National Congress Day 5 and Wrap-up

Sadly the RACI congress has now come to a close. This was my first large scale, multidisciplinary conference and it has been an excellent experience. Top notch presentations, great atmosphere, very accessible speakers, nice location and excellent variety (both in the science and the chocolate bar each day in the lunch pack). Hope you have all enjoyed following along here, please let me know what you thought of the posts (email, twitter, comment) as I’m still a pretty new blogger!

Daniel Nocera, Harvard University – “The Artificial Leaf”

Taking inspiration from nature is a well-weathered technique in organic chemistry and what better process to apply that to than photosynthesis. While there are many groups around the world working on the photocatalytic splitting of water, Nocera takes this concept to the next level. The process is performed in a solar cell with a self-healing bio-inspired electrode. This should mean longer lifetimes and more reliable energy production.


Hydrogen bubbles from Nocera’s “Artificial Leaf”

The best prototype so far is up around 15% efficiency, which according to Nocera beats out even higher order plants (topping out at about 6%). There is still work to be done in making “The Artificial Leaf” commercially viable but progress is being made and the concept is truly alluring.

Congress wrap-up

To follow on from Renée Webster’s example, here is a quick summary of my likes/dislikes of the 2014 RACI National Congress:

The Good

  • Plenary speakers were exceptional, good variety and mix of applied/blue sky research
  • Talks mostly kept on time
  • Lunch bags (grab, go and eat on the river or attend the lunchtime panels)
  • Lots of coffee machines
  • Plenary discussion panels – big props for this
  • Well organised student trivia night (we came second!)
  • Collegial atmosphere between students, academics and plenaries alike
  • Excellent conference app (updated daily, searchable, ability to make own schedule)
  • Proximity to good bars and pubs!

The Bad

  • Lack of social media promotion during congress (Only two tweets from @RACI_HQ during the entire week), suggest a curator for the next congress
  • No funding for student events
  • No poster or presentation prizes
  • Bar tab at the poster session (ran out in 15-30 mins), drinks tickets far preferable!
  • Some gaps / short sessions (not apparent in the org. chem sessions though…)
  • Frequent clashes between med chem and org. synthesis (hard to please everyone though)
  • Terrible wifi and internet connectivity
  • Lack of abstracts on the conference app (later realised you could download a pdf of abstracts but could have been clarified in opening remarks)

Gripes aside, the organisation of such an event must have been a massive undertaking. Credit to Joe Shapter and others for a successful meeting. Thanks to those who read all of these updates.

Hope to see you all again at the 2017 Centennial Anniversary Celebration Congress in Melbourne!


RACI National Congress Day 4

Welcome back to our ongoing coverage of the 2014 RACI National Congress. So far the week has been characterised by exemplary plenaries each morning and Day 4 was no exception. To top it off, the student attendees were once again treated with a panel discussion by some plenary speakers. I also want to give a shout-out to fellow blogger/tweeter Renée Webster who gave an excellent presentation on her fuel oxidation research.

Makoto Fujita, The University of Tokyo – “Crystalline sponge method : X-Ray structure analysis without crystallization”

Imagine this – you have an unknown compound (< 1 mg), NMR is inconclusive, so is the mass spec data. Fujita presents a future where as little as 5 nanograms could be used to unequivocally determine it’s structure. Forget painstakingly growing a crystal – just soak it into Fujita’s crystal-sponge and wait. It can take approximately 2-7 days for the networked structure to equilibrate and accomodate the guest in an ordered fashion. When I asked Fujita whether he had considered commercialisation of his “crystal-sponge”, this was the response:

“You know the Apple iPhone? They first released the iPhone 3. Our crystal is the iPhone zero.” – Makoto Fujita

So, clearly there is still a lot of work to be done in generalising this method. Derek Lowe commented this week that in his experience the network is completely incompatible with basic amines or heterocycles. Fujita says that occupancy within the crystal of 40-70% gives a “semi-empirical structural solution” and >70% gives data comparable with conventional X-ray. The response to Fujita’s paper in Nature last year has been huge and it appears a number of groups are working on validating/improving the technique. Perhaps one day the “crystal-sponge” will be something every lab couldn’t do without.

Success in Research Panel – David Leigh, Alan Aspuru-Guzik, Hubert Girault, Katharina Landfester

Most of the questions in the second plenary discussion panel on thursday appeared to be geared towards how to best put ourselves forward in a resume/CV. The academics outlined what they look for in a candidate – creativity, enthusiasm and leadership. The cover letter is crucial and should be genuinely personal (it cannot be a carbon-copy for all applications). Where possible, meeting an academic in person (eg. at a conferences) is ideal. A face to face meeting can go a long way in building a relationship.

Aspuru-Guzik said he looks for what he calls “triangulation”, a bachelor at one university, a PhD at a different one and a post-doc at yet another. Each preferably with different research focuses. Commenting on research record, it was suggested that you should avoid publishing multiple papers with similar titles. You should show breadth and creativity where possible. Don’t drip feed your research by publishing many small papers as apparently “1 JACS is worth 5 Chem Comm’s”. Ouch.

In the end, the picture is similar to yesterday. A good record, a good recommendation, a good cover letter, leadership skills and creative personality. In the words of David Leigh, “Don’t be afraid to be incredibly ambitious”.

RACI National Congress Day 3

Day 3 of the RACI congress began with a marathon presentation from Scripps Institute’s Phil Baran. Other notables for the day included QUT’s Steve Bottle presenting “Radical new weapons in the battle against inflammation” (outlining the use of nitroxides as a potential new class of medicine) and University of Auckland’s Margaret Brimble who raced through the synthesis of Virgatolide B.

Phil Baran, Scripps Research Institute – “Studies in Natural Product Synthesis”

I must admit, it’s hard to know where to begin after watching Phil’s plenary presentation. It was truly a whirlwind tour of his last few year’s achievements beginning with the synthesis of Palau’amine then moving on to the development of commercial trifluoromethylation and difluoromethylation reagents. Next stop on the tour was the total synthesis of Ingenol (with the now well known Baran cyclase and oxidase cycles) and Phil rounded out the talk with the latest work on carbon-carbon bond forming reactions.

The most striking feature of the presentation was Baran’s “symbiosis” with commercial entities. Some are obvious, such as the collaboration with Leo Pharma for the production of Ingenol. Other research directions seem to have arisen from constant discussion with industry giants such as Merck and Sigma Aldrich. For example, Merck told Phil to avoid direct methylation of N-heterocycles as the reaction products would be too similar to the starting materials (and thus a nightmare to separate in a process plant).

I would say the Baran group is one of the best examples in the field Chemistry for industry connected research. This represents a very different model to what most of us are used to. The continued emphasis on “accountability and deliverables” is alien to many. The academic funding situation in Australia is rapidly deteriorating (especially for non-medical research) and his example is certainly one worth examining. Look out for an incoming Accounts of Chemical Research article on what Phil calls “Symbiosis” in organic chemistry.

Success in Research Panel, Phil Baran and Gregory Scholes

Props to the RACI for organising a student attended plenary panel for lunch times during the congress.

Both Greg and Phil made it clear that there is no recipe, no one path to success. When it comes to postdocs – they both outlined that they simply look for passionate scientists. It is not necessary to have done a PhD in a related field (although they occasionally look for someone with specific skills).

You advisor is “The most important decision of your life” – Phil Baran

The key, along with a good record, is a good recommendation. This means you should ensure you “don’t burn bridges with your advisor”. To me, this is clear. The contacts you make during your graduate years will serve you for the rest of your career. What better than an RACI congress to put yourself out there, get chatting and meet some great scientists!

The message today was clear and one I have heard echoed many times. Simply – a good record (papers), a good recommendation (network) and good communication (presentations and leadership).

Next time, the wonders of Fujita’s “crystal sponge” and comments from the second panel discussion.

RACI National Congress Day 2

Hi guys! Welcome back to day 2 of my RACI congress summary. Once again here is a simple outline of my top 3 talks of the day:

1. David Leigh, The University of Manchester – “Making the tiniest machines”

Out walks David Leigh with coloured cloth in hand, he paces back and forth across the stage. After a short introduction, he opens his hand and the cloth is gone. For those that don’t know, David Leigh is clearly quite the magician – both on stage and in the lab. Leigh described one of the first examples of a “molecular machine” to produce a peptide/protein molecule. Using a supramolecular catenane strategy, a series of amino acids were coupled together using chemical ligation. It will be very interesting to see how this can be applied to large proteins/peptides as opposed to more simplistic models.

2. James Crawford, Genentech – “Potent and selective pyridone BTK inhibitors with activity against mutant forms of BTK”

Building on the work of Roche, Crawford outlined the latest by Genentech for their work toward a BTK inhibitor. Some small molecule structures were described for the first time. A BTK inhibitor was developed using X-Ray crystallographic methods in combination with computational models and what Crawford describes as “Matched Pair Analysis”. This modern technique involves looking at a single property in a series of molecules in which a single functional group is changed/modified. Monitoring the trend of these properties across the series can then drive the med-chem direction of the project. Strikingly, kinase activity/selectivity was constantly monitored throughout the project.

3. Shane Wilkinson, Sydney University – “Synthetic Cannabinoids : from “drug design” to “designer drugs””

The huge explosion of designer drugs has lead to the rapid implementation of “hit to market” drugs – in direct contrast with the “hit to lead” theme in which Wilkinson found himself. An awesome talk on a vast series of street drugs currently being dispersed into the public domain via questionable characters in the illicit drug scene. Shane has synthesised a huge number of these compounds and tested their affinity for the “promiscuous” cannabinoid receptor. The most striking message of the talk was the ability of illicit manufacturers to use academic and patent literature as inspiration for their own organic syntheses. Shane even outlined a few cases where molecules seen were clearly a combination of two “chunks” of literature molecules. In other words, a “molecular hybridisation” of literature compounds.

Tune in next time for a “Baran” spectacular and/or outline from the excellent panel discussion on success in academic careers.

RACI National Congress Day 1

Sunny Adelaide! For those following along on twitter (#RACI14) you may have noticed that the Australian chemical community are meeting once again. The Royal Australian Chemical Institute’s National Congress for 2014 is well and truly underway and I thought I’d give a quick summary of my first day’s highlights. So far this has been an awesome opportunity to meet with chemists from a diverse background – young and ‘old’ alike. Anyway, without further ado, my top 3 from day 1:

1. Prof. Peter Schreiner, Justus-Liebig University – “Tunneling control of chemical reactions”

First, a quote:

“I never thought I’d be published in JACS for a paper on benzoic acid”

Schreiner presents an elegant look at tunneling, which in this context refers to a reaction under kinetic control that is simply too fast than would be expected by energetics. In other words, the energy barrier is high enough that it is insurmountable, yet the reaction/transformation still occurs. Experimental setup apparently involves passing molecules through tubing at 1000ºC and subsequently cooling them down to 11K over a distance of one inch.

Shadi Amiri, Hans Peter Reisenauer, and Peter R. Schreiner J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2010, 132, 15902–15904.

2. Stacie Canan, Celgene – “Discovery of anti-malarial compounds with a unique mechanism of action”

An excellent plenary introduction to the RACI congress by Stacie Canan. Clearly a huge issue as 20% of child deaths today are caused by malaria. Celgene has utilised a phenotypic drug discovery approach looking for new anti-malarials. Interesting stat for neglected diseases: 1% of New Chemical Entities are for neglected diseases while they are responsible for 10% of the global disease burden. Classic big pharma issue there – nice to see some good progress being made.

3. Chris Vanderwal, University of California, Irvine – “Synthesis of complex, bioactive natural products”

Some fairly impressive work presented by Chris on the stereoselective synthesis of polychlorinated lipids. I can certainly appreciate how building up chlorinated alkanes in a stereoselective way is easier said than done…

Tune in next time for day 2 highlights!

#chemophobia Blogversation Part 2: Turning around public perception on chemicals and chemistry

This is the second post in response to a conversation started by @chemtacular and @reneewebs (see an excellent summary by Reneé Webster of the conversation so far).

In October last year, Chemistry World wrote an article on chemophobia which asked “Is it the role of industry, working academic scientists or communicators to do the repair work?”. My view (as an academic scientist) is that we must all take on this responsibility. As a PhD student who relies solely on federal government funding (via taxes) I see science communication as a public duty. It is our responsibility to inform, educate and encourage the next generation of scientists as well as the general public.

We’ve all been challenged by @chemtacular, in her post on chemistry-blog.com to suggest a “course of action” to combat chemophobia and encourage education about chemicals. So, what can we do as individuals and what can we do as a community? Also, how can we encourage future generations and engage with the wider adult public?

Here is a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from his New York Times bestselling book “The Black Swan”:

When you develop your opinions on the basis of weak evidence, you will have difficulty interpreting subsequent information that contradicts these opinions, even if this new information is obviously more accurate.

I see the central message here being about empowerment through access to information. It is up to us to provide the public with as much accurate information about chemistry as possible. We cannot simply correct those who are wrong, we must engage the wider community at local, national and international levels. Remember, knowledge is power.

There are many simple things we can do as individuals – write a blog, engage with your friends, family and even people you meet on the street! Tell them about the great chemicals in their everyday lives and ask them about their fears and concerns. “What’s the first word that pops into your head when I say the word ‘chemical’?”

Now, lets think bigger. Ask your local chemistry department about public outreach events or organise your own (Chemistry of chocolate or beer is always a hit!). Perhaps write an opinion piece for the local newspaper or appear on a local tv/radio program. In Melbourne there is a group called Laneway Learning which organises accessible “cheap fun classes in anything and everything”, including “The Delicious Science of Baking” and “Solar Power – how it works”. They’re always looking for people who might want to teach a class. There are so many opportunities for modern science communication. Go and find out what’s happening in your city.

We are part of a diverse, international and highly passionate online community of chemists (as evidenced by Reneé Webster in her excellent summary of the #chemophobia conversation). It is imperative that we leverage this network in our efforts to repair the public image of chemistry. We need to think big. What can we  do as a collective to stimulate change on a national or international level?

The West Virginia chemical spill is a good example of where lack of information spreads fear. An obscure chemical leaked into the rivers of WV and flowed downstream to taint the water supply. Residents were left confused and scared for hours. The online chemistry community scrambled for toxicity data on 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol (MCHM). As it turns out, Eastman Chemical had performed a ‘suite’ of toxicity studies in the 1980s/1990s and has since released this information. We, as a community, need to encourage the public release of this kind of information. Internationally our laws and regulations regarding industrial chemicals should be robust and we can play a role in identifying problems in these policies.

Image from Sackler Colloqium II "The Science of Science Communication"

Chemistry – the least shared science*

What about chemophobia in the media and beyond? The simplest way to combat the problem is at its most basic level and that is through education. We need good science education in primary school to get kids excited about doing science. This needs to be followed through to high school education too. How many people have you met that have said “I never GOT chemistry”, “too hard for me!” or “never got past year x science!”? As long as chemistry is viewed as an abstract and complex entity we will continue to lose this battle. We need to pick up our game and make chemistry more relevant, interesting and exciting to the wider society (see diagram below!).

Some of my most valuable classes were spent doing media and language analysis in English class, learning how to pull apart newspaper articles and radio transcripts. Perhaps we could encourage teachers to do critical analysis of some (basic) science news articles in a school setting. Some have suggested we could lobby for a large chemical body (eg. ACS or the RSC) to respond to poorly informed media coverage.

At the end of the day, I agree with Deborah Blum, Pulitzer-prize winning author and journalist, who says “Chemistry needs more journalists talking about it” and James Kennedy, of All-Natural Banana fame, who says “Chemistry needs a hero [like David Attenborough or Brian Cox]”. As long as we continue to promote chemistry and show its relevance, chemophobia in marketing and the media will start to lose some of its shine.

*Taken from the Sackler Colloqium on “Science of Science Communication II”

#Chemophobia Blogversation – Taking back “chemical”


First off, a short introduction. For those that don’t who I am, I’m Luke Gamon (@lgamon – twitter/instagram) and I’m currently doing a PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Melbourne. Our research group focuses on free radical processes with a bit of a love for atmospheric and environmental pollutants. Simply speaking – we synthesise molecules, use them in radical reactions and either perform kinetics or do product analyses.

Spurred on by Renee Webster (@reneewebs) and @chemtacular I have decided to write my first chemistry blog post! This post is a response to the “blogversation” between @reneewebs and @chemtacular concerning the ongoing use of the word chemophobia.


Certified organic (Vegetables)

Let’s continue the discussion by talking about words. Words like chemist, chemical or organic. It seems to me that we do a lot of talking about semantics. The word “organic” is derived from the Greek organikos meaning “of, or pertaining to an organ” and was later generalised to “from organized living beings” in the 1700s. Eventually the term was taken on by chemists to mean “carbon containing compounds” and then confusingly popularised to mean “free from peticides and fertilizers” in 1942. The definition is now purely contextual.

Certified organic (Chemistry)

Certified organic (Chemistry)

I feel we’re slowly losing the word “chemical”. To us chemists, it is a catch all for every material thing in the universe that is made of atoms. To the public it increasingly refers to synthetically produced materials. I’ve asked friends and family what they think when they hear the word “chemical” – you hear words like toxic, synthetic, dangerous. The rise and rise of “chemical free” cookware, teddy bears and assorted goods is capitalising on the growing negativity surrounding the word “chemical”. Don’t even get me started on the whole “made in a lab” thing – I know plenty of great things made in labs (antibiotics, IVF, solar cells, etc etc ).

"Chemical-Free" cookware

“Chemical-Free” cookware (also see post by @reneewebs)

So, what do we do? How can we improve the perception of chemistry and chemicals? Do we concede that we’ve lost the battle for the word “chemical” or do we fight on?

I see a lot of you fighting. When we see chemistry being referred to in a negative light it is very tempting to cry #chemophobia! However, we should avoid using such loaded language (i.e. irrational fear of chemicals) when it comes to individuals. Flippant use of the hashtag #chemophobia does little but to damage the “brand” of chemistry. That said, the targeted use of “chemical-free” by marketing departments is deplorable and should be highlighted (follow @chemfreebear on twitter!). If a corporation is making a false claim, we should make a complaint to the relevant authority (eg. ACCC).

Let’s not worry too much about finding the perfect hashtag or catch cry. The most important thing is that we all act in a well-reasoned, respectful way. We are all acting as “brand ambassadors” for Chemistry. If you see chemical ignorance – engage and discuss the science. Remind people of the virtues and successes of chemistry! Don’t denigrate, belittle or “punch-down” – remember to laugh with, not at – lest we lose the battle for the public perception of “chemicals”.