As promised, a report from on the road at the Denver national meeting of the American Chemical Society. The meeting is held twice annually and provides an opportunity for chemists from all across the country and the world to come together and share results, ideas and yes, it’s most likely seen by the outsider as one mammoth nerdfest. Unlike most of the more discipline specific conferences I’ve attended in the past, the ACS meeting draws chemists from all aspects of the science; educators and academics, industrial chemists and researchers, young and old alike. Within chemistry all aspects are represented from the major divisions such as physical, analytical, inorganic, organic and biological chemistry to the more specialized areas such as chemical education (CHED), environmental, the history of chemistry and many more. I’ve heard that attendance is about the 10,000 mark so that’s a whole lot of empty labs across the country over the few days of the conference. Denver has also embraced the veritable onslaught of visiting chemists and signs posted all over the city centre welcome chemists and walking between the hotels where the satellite locations of the conference are found and the central area at the Convention centre (someone still has to explain the large blue bear which is stares in the window of this building), it seems every other person sports a conference nametag or is carrying the conference bag given out to all attendees.
I’m not going to give details on all talks attended but I figured for those curious, I’d report on a few of the more interesting talks and aspects of chemistry discussed. There’s also a handful of talks I’ve attended that I will cover in later blog posts but I figured, I share some of the highlights of the first few days. I’m also giving a talk a few days from when I am writing this so I have a little bit of time yet before it’s my turn.
Sunday morning I attended a session on the importance of non-traditional science outreach and it raised a number of interesting points as well as spawning some potential ideas that I may try to introduce in the Fargo Moorhead area. Science outreach is obviously something I’m fairly heavily involved in as I coordinate the Concordia Science Academy which is an after school event where myself and 50 – 60 other scientists (students and faculty of Concordia) attend local elementary schools and allow the students there 2 hours of hands-on science activities. I also have been running hands-on workshops at a number of other locations such as the Fargo Public Libraries and taking science to the White Earth reservation. So why do this, especially as I am somewhat vocal in my supposed dislike of small children to the students at Concordia (the term vermin is frequently used J). Well, I could argue that children are ok when diluted with enough science but more realistically, it comes down to the fact that if we can get children interested in science when they are young, ignite the spark as it were, hopefully they will stay interested throughout middle and high school and consider careers in Science and Technology. There is an observable perception of science and related fields as too difficult or too boring and this fallacy is something that myself and all other scientists should act to dispel.
So, back to the idea of non-traditional outreach. After seeing the talk, I realize a great deal of what I do falls in the category of traditional outreach activities for which there is still a great need but are there other methods out there that could be introduced to the Fargo Moorhead area? The workshop presented a number of topics ranging from the massive science festivals which are springing up across the country although the largest festivals do correlate obviously with the areas of greatest population density. Science cafes were also discussed and I know there is such a program in the Fargo Moorhead area while the idea of developing more involved inquiry style workshops is something that I think may be worth pursuing for high school age students. Without a doubt, the most amusing of the presentations was by the organizer of the Ignobel awards, an irreverent annual alternative to the Nobel prizes (http://improbable.com/ig/). With a stated goal of making people laugh then making them think, Marc Abrahams gave an excellent presentation on the value of such an event and demonstrated that science is not all serious all the time. I’ll blog more about this in the future especially as I was delighted to find the ceremony is now broadcast live so I’ll most likely write about this in much more detail then.
My Sunday afternoon was spent attending Chemical Education talks especially those with a focus on advancing the means by which laboratories are taught. Since my responsibility is teaching the general chemistry laboratory at Concordia, this was an opportunity to see how other schools are also revising their teaching. My own undergraduate laboratory experiences (now 20 years past) for the most part fell into the expository or cookbook style and manuals or instructions were followed to the letter. I was lucky enough to get to carry out undergraduate research in my senior year in bioinorganic chemistry where there was no manual, no guidelines, no answers known in advance and it was at the start, a nerve-wracking experience getting to do these experiments with no safety net. And it is not to say, there is no place for the simple cookbook lab but even in the lower level classes, once you have learned your skills, should there not be an opportunity to apply them? That’s the basis of my own talk at the conference and in that, I plan to talk about how I’ve developed a project in my lab that allows students the opportunity to investigate a real world problem in chemistry (pharmaceutical contamination of the environment and try to find methods to reduce the concentrations of these drugs). And there were a number of faculty at the ACS meeting who have also worked extensively on redesigning their lab programs to move away from the cookbook and towards more inquiry and research styled work. One of the great things about the conference is that it is an opportunity to share ideas and I’m coming away from this, even before I’ve actually given my talk, with a number of new ideas and suggestions to try.
Monday was a busy day, my student did an excellent job presenting data from research in my lab, I attended numerous talks on laboratory pedagogy, 2 massive poster sessions (one on undergraduate research and one spanning the range of all talks at the conference (Sci-mix)), had lunch with 2 generations of cobbers, past and present and got to check out some of the cutting edge instrumentation and other products at the trade show in the afternoon. At the latter, the thing highest on my wish list and something I will be ordering when I get back was an amazing 3 dimensional periodic table. Look for this at future science events in the area.
Tuesday morning, again talks on lab pedagogy and I’m taking a quick break before lunch to post this. This afternoon, a session devoted to communicating chemistry to the public promises to be extremely interesting and I’ll no doubt write about that soon but for now, I’m going to hit post and go find somewhere interesting for lunch in Denver.
I will admit to falling prey to a disease that afflicts too many people at some point in their life and that is the ever pervasive condition of great intentions, poor implementations… When I set this blog up, I had hoped to be able to blog regularly but alas and alack, the business of being a scientist gets in the way of writing about being a scientist
No longer, I hope after a long summer of teaching and research, I’m cured and with the start of a new school year looming and a new course on the horizon to teach, I’m going to make a concerted effort to try and write more regularly – National Chemistry Week will be in October and we still have a few months remaining in the International Year of Chemistry (http://www.chemistry2011.org/) so there is no better time to be a chemist than right now… Next week, I’m jetting off to the national meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS) (yep, they let Scottish chemists join too) so I’ll post an entry when I get back recounting that trip. This is actually my first major conference in a few years and I’m talking about my new lab program I developed in our introductory labs so I’m a little nervous about talking about this. The ACS meeting is an interesting one as it does not limit itself to any subdiscipline or smaller area of chemistry and attendees hail from industry, research and academia. If I don’t get a chance to report from the road, I’ll post when I make it back to the Fargo Moorhead area for sure.
Before I post this, let me give a quick mention to a local quilting group have undertaken the task of creating their own unique version of the periodic table. They have a blog describing the design process as it has progressed and the final work will be on display at the Hjemkost centre from September to November. I’ll post more details soon but check out their blog at http://designingquilters.wordpress.com/
Dr Graeme R. A. Wyllie
And there may be those who wonder about the title of the blog and why the Scottish Chemist? Could it be a serious misspelling of the Sceptical Chymist, one of the more important publications in the chemical and indeed scientific field, indeed I mused about titling this blog the Sceptical Scottish Chemist at one point but daring to compare my ramblings to those of Robert BoyleÂ (1627-1691) seemed a little egotistical.
For those who may not have heard of it, the Sceptical Chymist, published in 1661 by Boyle, one of the original Fellows of the Royal Society,Â is a truly pivotal publication wherein he presents his hypothesis that all matter consists either of atoms or clusters of atoms. As important for the period, he looks beyond the popular and yet limiting theory of the time that there were four elements (earth, air, fire and water) and in one of the great calls to action encourages both a vigorous experimentalism in chemistry and the requirement that a theory be rigorously proven experimentally before it is considered true. It’s not an easy read as I can personally attest having downloaded a copy to my e-reader from Project Gutenberg but historically it’s importance cannot be doubted. For those interested in learning more, a short but informative retrospective article on the work has been recently published in Nature (‘In retrospect: The Sceptical Chymist‘ – Lawrence Principe Nature (06 January 2011) Vol 469, Pages 30â€“31)
While Boyle may not have been the first to publish this viewpoint, the importance and requirement of experimental proof for a theory is a foundation of modern science and something I teach regularly in my laboratory at Concordia. Indeed this semester, my students are required to undertake a multi-week project where they propose and test a hypothesis on degradation of pharmaceuticals and this past week sees the project move into the next phase where hypotheses having been approved, the next thoughts are on experimental design.Â Concepts such as control experiments and reproducibility are being mentioned frequently and I hope will be integrated into experiment design and barring the lab shutting down due to Concordia campus floating away down the Red River in April, it should be an interesting semester.
But testing a hypothesis in this fashion should not be confined to just the teaching and research laboratories of a few select chemists. As I mentioned in the previous blog and returning to my scepticism, I often find interesting the commercials from both TV and the print media claiming ‘scientific proof’ of somewhat dubious claims in order to entice you to buy the product. But do we ever see this proof? While some of the claims border on the ridiculous and as worded, may even be unprovable, there are other claims which actually include numerical values on how much better product X is than the old fashioned way you used to exercise / what you were eating / whatever.Â But where is the data and at times, how do you test that? As an introduction to the application of the scientific method, the first week of lab this semester saw student groups design experiments to test a number of these hypotheses.Â It was therefore interesting to note an article published in the Forum in the middle of that week where one of the companies who manufacture a product which claimed to have scientific evidence to support this product enhanced sport performance admit there was no science behind their product. Of course, the importance of the placebo effect in such matters cannot be denied and this may explain the perceived improvement that a number of my students who wear the product claimed to have experienced.
But back to the blog and so I reigned my ego in when I named it and went for the title Scottish Chemist and quite simply because I am Scottish and also a Chemist so it’s hopefully quite an appropriate title.Â Of course, there are also a number of pivotal Scottish figures in Chemistry and I’ll no doubt discuss them in a future post. But for the record, I was born in a small town in Scotland, completed my undergraduate degree in Scotland before moving to the States and attaining my PhD in Bioinorganic Chemistry (the chemistry of metals in Biology) before postdoctoral research and taking up a teaching position at Concordia College.
I’ll actually finish this blog with a tribute.Â Just a few weeks ago, I found that my high school chemistry teacher had passed away over the holidays so I will dedicate this column to him and the encouragement he provided at that early stage in my career as a scientist. The early experiments in his classroom encouraged me to follow the path that I did and I am grateful for that experience. Having not returned to the area for a long time, I never got the chance to thank him but I am the better scientist for having been in his class.Â Thank you, Mr Calder.
So let me start by saying Happy Darwin Day since February 12th marks the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, evolutionary biologist andÂ author of The Origin of the Species. Without question, Darwin is one of the most important significant figures in science and also most likely one of the most well-known scientists of history (from surveying some of my freshman students at the start of the year and asking them to name a scientist, Darwin was one of the most common answers). And Darwin Day offers a chance to celebrate not only his work but the field of science in general. To quote from the official website:
“…Darwin Day expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity”
(taken from http://www.darwinday.org/about/)
So how did you celebrate?Â Unlike St Patrick’s Day for example where large numbers of people wear green in tribute I did not see many lab-coats being worn proudly in public. But maybe that’s not the point because whether we acknowledge it or not, Science in it’s various manifestations surrounded us all today in almost everything we did.
And for me personally, I’m using Darwin Day as the catalyst to finally get started in this Science Blogging thing. So what will this blog be about?Â That’s easy and I can hopefully even summarize it in just one word – Science!Â But as to specifics, well check back and see every so often. When I mention to some people I am a scientist, too often their eyes glaze over at even the slightest hints of a description of what it is we actually do. So I’ll try and not make things too technical and I do want to also make things relevant so expect articles on science in the news and science in popular culture. I’ll also profess to a passion for seeking out ‘Bad Science’ so since the media and advertising loves to provide ammunition in this field, expect a few articles on this now and again. I’m also actively involved in science outreach and coordinate a number of activities in getting children excited about science so I plan to include some of my work in this area as part of the blog and who knows, I may even slip in an experiment or two you can do at home!
But for now, I’ll wish you a happy Darwin Day and feel free to leave comments and feedback. I’ll try to update weekly at least so check back often.