Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Office and the lab

Just as the #ChemMovieCarnival drew to a close, chemistry made another appearance on national television!

In the most recent episode of The Office (a mockumentary about a paper company; it's usually hit-or-miss but still funnier than the British version*), the branch manager, Andy Bernard, was cast in a chemical safety video ("HRPDC Chemical Handling Protocol") in an attempt to break into an acting career.

The on-screen lab was pretty clearly a molecular biology or chemical biology space -- you can see microscopes, centrifuges, Pipetmans,** a cold-room, 96-well plates, and plenty of buffers; additionally, the glassware is largely Erlenmeyers, graduated cylinders, and volumetric flasks.

Unlike most featured lab spaces on TV (we're looking at you, NCIS and CSI...), it looks like the producers used an actual lab. If not an actual lab, it's a very good replica (as evidenced by the abundant bench clutter).

For the sake of the chemical community, I present a graphical abstract below.

Drying rack contains an appropriate mix of glassware.

What lab would be complete without an egregious safety violation?
(note the presence of snacks in the lower left corner)

Benchtop clutter looks about right.

Note the scientist in the far background using proper PPE.
Demonstration of eyewash station use, plus screaming.
Note that undergraduates usually have the same aversion to the eyewash station that Andy Bernard does.

And my favorite exchange of dialogue:

Director 1: Okay, stop. Why are you smiling?
Andy: I just made a character choice to be a scientist who really likes what he does and enjoys his job.
Director 2: Okay, well, maybe no smiling on this one.

* Note: some people get really upset when you say this to them. Try it!
** I love me some Pipetmans.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Chemical Fun from 1921

What's more fun than historical documents? Historical chemistry documents! From one such document: the following tongue-in-cheek paragraph appeared in the April edition of the briefly-published and mostly-otherwise-serious quarterly departmental (U of I) magazine The Illinois Chemist 1921, 5(3), 12.

The text (written out):

CHEMICAL FUN. Procedure (to be followed with extreme carelessness): Select several choice cut medium sized hydrogen ions from a bottle and scour until thoroughly clean. Wipe and dry carefully. Avoid handling. Lay aside. Now soak a few large chunks of metallic sodium in a beaker of distilled water and allow to stand quietly. In the meantime be collecting a pailful of cathode rays. Filter these, using suction. Beat them to a froth with two and three-quarters pounds of green radium (the red variety is highly unsuitable for this experiment). Now stir in the hydrogen ions, one at a time. Drain the sodium and put it in above mixture. Grind up with T. N. T. and put in a mortar and add all at once. Thus the mixture will become catalyzed. -- Voodoo, M. I. T.

Chemical fun, indeed. Sounds like a job for Blog Syn!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

#ChemMovieCarnival: Chocolate and chemical academia

It's time for the #ChemMovieCarnival, as organized by See Arr Oh (who posted this first day round-up). So far we've seen chemistry featured in Fight Club, Iron Man 2, The Great Escape, The Absent Minded Professor, G.I. Joe, Real Genius, and MacGyver, among others.

Some of the above examples highlight some pretty bad movie science. I thought I'd share a movie clip that was on the other end of the spectrum!

Everyone's familiar with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory--the 1971 musical film starring the immortal Gene Wilder. The film's protagonist is Charlie Bucket, a child from a poor family whose genuine heart leads him to success where several other spoiled/privileged children fail. Early on, we're shown Charlie's education, including the following chemistry demonstration. The clip is a little modified from the original at the end (it was the only one I could find!).

It's a remarkably accurate portrayal of life in chemical academia. After all, all the hallmarks are there:

  • Disregard for proper PPE/lab safety.
  • Intellectual snobbery/faculty egotism.
  • Over-eager undergrads who don't know what they're doing.
  • Secrecy and irreproducibility.

Just like life in the lab! (Of course, Pure Imagination is perhaps more apt to describe the pragmatism of many projects).

Carrots, chlorine, and chemophobia

On a recent lunchtime "survey of the literature" (i.e. Facebook break) I noticed that an old classmate posted the following paragraph (it's not new--but I hadn't seen it before):


From the Department of Life Education:

Baby Carrots:

The following is information from a farmer who grows and packages carrots for IGA, METRO, LOBLAWS, etc.

The small cocktail (baby) carrots you buy in small plastic bags are made using the larger crooked or deformed carrots which are put through a machine which cuts and shapes them into cocktail carrots – most people probably know this already.

What you may not know and should know is the following:

Once the carrots are cut and shaped into cocktail carrots they are dipped in a solution of water and chlorine in order to preserve them (this is the same chlorine used in your pool).

Since they do not have their skin or natural protective covering, they give them a higher dose of chlorine.

You will notice that once you keep these carrots in your refrigerator for a few days, a white covering will form on the carrots. This is the chlorine which resurfaces. At what cost do we put our health at risk to have esthetically pleasing vegetables?

Chlorine is a very well-known carcinogen, which causes Cancer. I thought this was worth passing on. Pass it on to as many people as possible in hopes of informing them where these carrots come from and how they are processed.

I used to buy those baby carrots for vegetable dips. I know that I will never buy them again!!!!”

First, it should be noted that the person who shared the post works in a biomedical profession and probably should know better. Second, this looks like a classic chemophobic recipe: (1) take familiar concept; (2) point out chemical; (3) extol nastiness of chemical, real or imaginary; (4) panic.

It should be pointed out, of course, that the "warning" is alarmist and exaggerated. Most fruits/veggies are rinsed in water containing low-ppm chlorine -- levels comparable to drinking water -- not in a highly-chlorinated solution as implied. Chlorine is an antimicrobial protectant in thse cases. Moreover, the white residue is, obviously to chemists, not chlorine 'resurfacing' (???) but simply dehydrated carrot. And something that needs mention: there's no evidence that chlorine is a carcinogen (see here and here for instance) (You wouldn't want to go on a date with pure chlorine, of course, but not because of a cancer danger).

The chemophobia doesn't surprise me, though, since "chlorine" sounds nasty.

I am surprised, however, by some of the responses on the internet. They're unusually fact-based! In fact, in the first two pages of Google search results for "baby carrots chlorine", only a few support the myth. But let's look at the chemophobic minority first:

The chemophobes

Angela Garrison, a writer at alternative health site The Alternative Daily, gave this warning about the carrots (also posted at RiseEarth) in 2012. She largely parrots the viral bite above, adding some nonsense about baby carrots being ground-up regular carrots (they're sliced, but certainly not ground, and it would be pretty impressive if manufacturers could reconstitute the texture like that from carrot paste). Additionally, the title ("Why Baby Carrots are Killing You") is perhaps more dramatic than warranted. She alleges that the chlorine bath gives them their orange color (and has never apparently heard of carotene). It's worth reading the article (which is characteristically factless); but I have to include this excerpt which does a smashing good job of confusing chlorine with chloroform and delightfully ignores both citation and any discussion of dosage:

As defined by the EPA, Chlorine is a pesticide. Its purpose is to kill living organisms. So it would make sense that when you ingest chlorine, it kills some parts of our body like the healthy bacteria in your gut and intestinal flora for instance. Chlorine is a highly toxic, yellow-green gas most heavily used in chemical agents like household cleaners and can be found in the air near industrial areas especially around paper processing plants. Exposure to Chlorine has been linked to health problems such as sore throat, coughing, eye and skin irritation, rapid breathing, narrowing of the bronchi, wheezing, blue coloring of the skin, accumulation of fluid in the lungs, pain in the lung region, severe eye and skin burns, lung collapse, a type of asthma known as Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS).

Chlorine is also added to the public water supply. So not only are you drinking it, but you are absorbing it through the largest organ in your body, your skin. In fact, 2/3 of human absorption of chlorine is from inhaling the steam in the form of chloroform and fast absorption through your open pores in the warm shower or bath. The inhalation of chloroform is a suspected cause of asthma and bronchitis, especially in children… which has increased 300% in the last two decades. Other health risks associated with chloroform is cancer, potential reproductive damage, birth defects, dizziness, fatigue, headache, liver and kidney damage. Chloroform is also found in the air and in food, like baby carrots.
While no one is encouraging anyone to go breathe the stuff, that's a bit much.

Another unsuprisingly chemophobic source is (website for prominent snake-oil salesman Joseph Mercola). Mercola starts (in 2009) by insisting that chlorine is a carcinogen (spoiler: it's not), delves into a litany of other nasty roles chlorine and chlorinated byproducts can play, and ends by recommending chlorine-free carrots. Total Health magazine seems to largely echo (almost plagiarize) these claims.

The chemophobia has to have been taken fairly seriously by many--indeed, Bolthouse Farms created an entire website ( to respond to the claims. But surprisingly, the above three examples were the only two immediate negative results in my two-page Google foray.

The non-chemophobes

Interesting, the majority of responses to the chlorine-carrot allegations are non-chemophobic (and largely come from non-scientists!). Journalist Bart Van Bockstaele at Digital Journal (2008) posts a  response that includes a discussion of the confusion around the 'chlorine' nomenclature whilst dismissing all health concerns and properly pointing out that science hasn't shown chlorine to be carcinogenic anyway. (Note that some of the text is pretty similar to that found on the somewhat odd website World Carrot Museum).

At FarmProgress (2013), editor Jennifer Vincent admonishes those spreading misinformation, pointing out the public health efficacy of chlorinated water and describing how she corrected someone else who was spreading the carrot scare.

Joel Mackey of Z6Mag (2013) gives a somewhat disorganized response, but two items stand out: (1) he contacted the companies and investigated the matter himself; and (2) there's some neat Google trends graphs that show that searches for 'baby carrots chlorine' increased going into 2013.

Lisa Leake of the whole-foods effort 100 Days of Real Food (which sounds like it should be brimming with chemophobia) has a nice, accessible response in which she (1) made a point of looking up the relevant information and not just trusting 3rd party information; and (2) explained some of the layperson chemical misconceptions in the carrot-chlorine scare.

Other, shorter responses include those by Dr. Andrew WeillLinda Golodner of the Water Quality & Health Council (she points out the health-protective benefits of low levels of chlorine in water!), Megan Loberg of Eat, Pray, Farm (who points out that even 'organic' producers use chemicals to wash carrots), and Consumer Reports, Moms Against Cooties.

And of course, anti-hoax websites such as Snopes and wafflesatnoon dismiss the claims (Snopes is itself a little chemically misleading, implying that neat chlorine is used to treat the carrots).

Overall, the responses are encouragingly NOT chemophobic in general. That's a relief to see, I think: engagement by the non-chemical community is probably more convincing to the general public than engagement by chemists (whether we like it or not).

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Analytical chemistry and the dinner table

I saw this headline recently on NPR: "Food Fraud Database Lets Us All Play Detective." From the description, I expected some degree of chemophobia (habit):
Spices colored with carcinogens? Milk that "never saw a cow"? A free global database opens the door on the many ways that people adulterate [food]
Though I expected the carcinogen to be simply "chemicals" or something, it turned out to be the (indeed carcinogenic) Sudan dyes. In fact, NPR avoided chemophobia on this one!

The article is worth checking out -- it's a brief read, and it points to a really interesting resource: the USP Food Fraud Database. I'm not going to delve much into what the database is, since the NPR highlight already did that. But it's worth pointing out a feature I found interesting (and perhaps contrary to my experience with the food world, where anecdotal claims are usually key)--the database lists food items (ingredients), what the adulterant was, and the method of detection (PCR, Raman, NMR, etc.). Moreover, the scholarly or other reference in question is listed, for those interested in further clickthroughs. Makes for a nice highlight of how analytical chemistry techniques are used in real-world applications--and how particularly techniques are uniquely suited for different classes of analytes.

But now I'm going to be burning some time searching all the ingredients in my kitchen.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Total synthesis funding declared top national priority

WASHINGTON -- Among recent changes to the federal budget was a joint announcement by the White House and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) that along with postmodernist literature critique and intermediate basketweaving, natural product total synthesis has been declared a "top funding priority" for the nation.

The news of the funding priority shift Monday morning came as welcome news to thousands of synthetic chemists in academia, who had worried in recent years that federal belt-tightening might divert funds away from their activities.

Although the funding measures have been laid out in detail in a 6000-page document readily accessible on the CBO website, several government officials gave public statements early on Monday to clarify the scope and magnitude of the announcement.

From the White House's press room, President Barack Obama spoke to reporters. "I consider this my most important contribution to the nation's interest so far," he said, stepping away from his prepared script and wiping a hint of a tear from his eye as he addressed the cameras earnestly. "For too long, our federal government has prioritized translational and applied research. And while contributions to medicine and energy are somewhat important, or something, I guess, we've too long neglected the biggest questions in science that will keep our country great. For example, there are so many alkaloid and polyketides that have been isolated from sea sponges that we just don't know the absolute stereochemical configuration of. And a few of these have some sort of cytotoxic activity or something at millimolar concentrations," the President added.

Cries of "USA! USA!" could be heard from several reporters in the audience who were briefly overtaken with emotion.

NIH director Francis S. Collins issued a statement later in the day on behalf of the National Institute of Health. "We are allied with the President on this strategic historic decision," the report reads. "While some might object to the fact that the NIH has completely defunded cancer research, antibiotic research, and genetics projects, we caution the public that the money invested in total synthesis will reap much richer rewards for the scientific community and the public. For instance, one of the total syntheses might contribute a valuable synthetic method that can be used in a different total synthesis from the same lab group."

The NSF did not issue a statement but a source within the organization pointed out that all NSF predoctoral fellowships this year were awarded to students studying total synthesis.

Despite the billions of dollars of refocused funding, not everyone is happy with the move. The American Physics Society issued a formal letter of protest against the measures, which are estimated to result in the closure of 99.5% of physics labs across the country. Said the report: "What's a carbon?"

Surprising to many was an announcement by the Pentagon that drastic military funding cuts would be made to support the total synthesis effort. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel addressed troops worldwide via a televised message. "Um, yeah, so, guys, we appreciate your hard work and whatnot, but you can all go home. We're cancelling all this 'war' business, honestly. It's a money sink." In one video of an Army base in Afghanistan, soldiers were seen reacting to the news with elation. Hagel continued: "And let's be honest. Enlarging the postdoc pool is the true route to national security."

In other news, job prospects for chemists look to be increasingly encouraging. In 2013 alone, twelve of the fifteen largest pharmaceutical companies have launched massive hiring campaigns, resulting in nearly complete employment among recent PhD graduates.