general chemistry

Your Academic Lineage

Over dinner the other night, my uncle and I started comparing and contrasting our academic experiences.  He’s a fascinating person who earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science in the late 1970’s.

After discussing the finer points of Moore’s Law, and how he agonized over purchasing a 20 MB hard drive in the 1980’s for $400, the substance of the conversation switched.  “Have you ever researched your Ph.D. lineage,” he asked.

“I’ve gone as far back as Breslow,” I replied, completely forgetting that he probably didn’t know this “Breslow” character.

It turns out that several of his doctoral computer buddies had recently taken on this task, many of them somehow descending (academically) from Charles Babbage.

Our discussion prompted me to further examine my background.  I soon discovered that there are several University websites that provide chemistry academic lineage for their faculty members.  Being an organic chemist, I was interested to learn that E.J. Corey worked for John Sheehan (I admit it…I’m nerdly).  In any case, here are some websites I found interesting:

Science as Art

Princeton University’s Art of Science contest has produced a gallery of pretty spectacular images of science in action.

This is the fourth Art of Science competition hosted by Princeton University. The 2010 competition drew more than 115 submissions from 20 departments. The exhibit includes work by undergraduates, faculty, research staff, graduate students, and alumni.

The 45 works chosen for the 2010 Art of Science exhibition represent this year’s theme of “energy” which we interpret in the broadest sense. These extraordinary images are not art for art’s sake. Rather, they were produced during the course of scientific research. Entries were chosen for their aesthetic excellence as well as scientific or technical interest.

Interestingly, first second and third prize were determined according to the golden ratio, with first prize earning $250, second prize earning $154.51, and third prize earning $95.49.

Be sure to check out all the images, many of them are quite striking.  Clicking on the images gives a caption explaining what you’re looking at.

Art from molecular models

"Heme", by Alexander Kobulnicky

In my travels here and about online, I recently found the paintings of Alexander Kobulnicky. He paints molecular models of, well, molecules, ranging from the life-giving (“Heme”, to the left) to the fun-related (THC, if that’s your thing) to the life-taking (CO.) The background of the artwork is most noteworthy — Mr. Kobulnicky paints what comes to mind with each different molecule. I think that thorazine is the one with the best background, although psilocybin comes in a close second.

Each painting comes with a little description of the relevant chemistry and an interesting structural note to make a chemist’s heart warm: “These molecules are rendered as space-filling models, in a natural, low-energy conformation, and displayed from an angle that shows off as much of their structure as possible.”

While I’m not quite to the art-collecting stage of my life yet, I have to say that I’m pretty enthusiastic about owning one of these someday.

By April 28, 2010 6 comments fun, general chemistry

Counterfeit drugs: an opportunity for innovative chemical thinking?

Can you tell the difference? Left is authentic sample. Right is fake.

A recent article [1] in “Trends in Pharmaceutical Sciences” illustrates the interesting problem of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, especially fake anti-malarials. In the long term, I suspect that as pharmaceutical prices trend upwards, folks at the margins will be looking for ways to cut costs. Doubtless that some will be taken in by the global trade in fake or substandard pharmaceuticals, possibly even in the US.

One village in Burma was definitely taken in [2]: a young man with malaria was treated with what was thought to be arteminisin, the natural product that is an effective means of treating the disease. After he died of malaria, experts discovered that the packages had fake authentication holograms and the tablets failed a colorimetric test. MS results indicated that the main ingredient was acetaminophen and HPLC indicated that the levels of arteminisin was only 20% of the claimed dosage.

The authors ([1], Newton et al.) argue for more support for governmental medicinal regulatory agencies in developing countries; they also push for more inspections of GMP facilities. While I think both of these strategies will bear long-term fruit, there is potential room for innovation from the chemistry front.

Presented with this problem (questionable organic starting materials), the typical university-equipped chemist would perform a number of tests (NMR, MS) to determine the identity of the unknown material. The articles I looked at also mentioned colorimetric tests and TLC, both relatively low-tech analytical chemistry techniques. I like TLC as a potential answer for part of this problem; you’d want something that didn’t rely on silica gel plates, a UV light or complicated stains. You’d want something that worked with paper chromatography and very common chemicals (H2SO4?)

This might be the first foray into a chemical version of “appropriate technology”, which attempts to improve the lives of people in developing countries using materials that are available and sustainable. What do you all think?


1. Newton, P.N., Green, M.D., Fernandex, F.M. “Impact of poor-quality medicines in the ‘developing’ world.” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences, 2010, 31 (3), 99-101.

2. Newton P.N., McGready R., Fernandez F., Green M.D., Sunjio M., et al. “Manslaughter by fake artesunate in Asia—Will Africa be next?” PLos Med 2006, 3(6): e197.
By April 11, 2010 7 comments general chemistry