Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Which one of these is not like the others?

I finally got a picture from the East Coast PARP Conference that I attended way back at the beginning of October. Other than the obvious difference of being the only female non-faculty presenter (speakers are in the front row), I am pretty sure that I was the only chemist there!

Monday, October 29, 2007

Tattoo Chemistry

After I recently read a book about about words on skin, I jokingly told my husband that I wanted to get a tattoo. Now we both know that the likeliness of that is about 0.1% (firstly, needles are one of my least favorite things, and even working with them in lab sometimes gives me chills, and second I can't stand seeing blood, particularly my own), but I must have worried him somewhat, because the he gave me the September issue of "Nachrichten aus der Chemie" (kind of a German version of C&EN News, but not quite) that contains an article on tattoos. Other people have written about it--Carbon Based Curiosities comes to mind--but I hadn't really ever seen the actual structures of tattoo pigments, so it was actually quite an interesting read.

In the past, inorganic pigments such as titanium dioxide (white), cadmium sulfide (yellow) and iron oxide (black) were used as pigments. These compounds are relatively insoluble and thus produce long lasting color. Today organic compounds make up the bulk of colored tattoo pigments, while totally black tattoos are still made out of carbon black which unfortunately contains toxic impurities associated with its production. I've drawn out some of the structures of common organic tattoo pigments for you to see; most of the structures contain polycyclic azoles, which I guess isn't very surprising.

Not to scare anyone away from getting an awesome tattoo of their favorite natural product, but the bulk of the article is dedicated to the dangers associated with tattooing. Amazingly, some pigments that aren't allowed in cosmetics due to toxicity are still used in tattoos (at least in Germany, and I wouldn't be surprised if the same is true for the United States). Also, there are many dangers associated with the breakdown products of the pigments that are utilized, especially in the case of red pigments. One can imagine that these decomposition products could be oxidized in the body to produce an even larger number of unknown chemicals that could potentially be hazardous to you health. But don't let any of that stop you from getting that tattoo of the periodic table on your arm like you've always wanted--tattoos can't be any worse for your heath than washing your hands in benzene (which from what I hear was a relatively common practice for chemists 50 years ago).

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Cool toaster...

Not exactly related to chemistry, but I just read about this toaster on and I think it is really cool. Sasha Tseng, a Japanese designer, came up with the concept of the toast messenger to make your meals a little more interactive. Basically you write a little note on the screen and then it can be toasted into your bread (or whatever you prefer to eat) OR a little printer (with jelly as an ink of course) can squirt out a color message. Neat. Now you can draw molecules on your toast!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ego boost

Well, I've finished 2/3 of my North American speaking tour (as my boss likes to call it), and it is actually nice to spend some time in lab after all of that traveling. I do enjoy visiting new places quite a bit though, almost as much as I enjoy giving seminars. No, I am not being facetious--under the right conditions I actually enjoy public speaking. As long as I have had a chance to prepare and am interested in the subject (in this case, my research), it is kind of fun to watch an audience respond and react to what I am saying. Anyways, my PI got an interesting email after I had returned from one of of my speaking events. The general gist of the is shown below, with my comments shown in italics:

"Mr. H...(my boss who is most certainly deserving of a Prof. or at least a Dr. in front of his name),

I did not found the email address of A (referring to me)... who gave remarkably interesting talk regarding enzyme Y (go me!!!)....Can you please forward this email to Dr. N (once again, referring to me)? We are very excited about the possibility of a collaboration....

X (eager grad student who got some details a little mixed up)

Luckily my PI has a good sense of humor, and we joked about the whole thing.....It is kind of fun when someone thinks that you are deserving of a "Dr." title when you don't actually have one yet.

But don't worry, I'm not letting it go to my head.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

"Girl Chemist"

Walking down the hall earlier today, I noticed that one of my labmates had posted an interesting article near her door. Taken out of a Science Illustrated (no, not Sports Illustrated) issue from 1949, the article entitled "Girl Chemist" made me stop in my tracks and take a look. Of course if the photos don't make you laugh (no goggles, gloves, labcoats, eating lunch right off the bench, etc.) the text certainly will. "Chemistry, once strictly a man’s profession, has become increasingly hospitable to women" Hmmm, from the title "Girl Chemist" I wouldn't have thought that. If the point of the article was to show that women can do chemistry too, wouldn't "Female Chemist" or "Woman Chemist" have been more appropriate?

And it goes on..."At 22. Jackie Bates has made chemistry her career. Although it is a lonely, tense, exacting, sometimes frustrating profession, she enjoys it. She finds her work satisfying, her day full, her advancement altogether satisfactory. After 18 months on the job she regards herself as a veteran: 'The sulphur dioxide smell doesn’t bother me any more.'"

Taking a look at the chemistry section of Modern Mechanix, there are certainly a few other articles worth looking at. Some of them that I found particularly interesting--the very instructional "How to set up your chemistry laboratory, "Fun with explosive gases,"Thrilling stunts with a glass eating chemical,"Mercury the liquid metal," and last but not least "Chemcraft for victory". Enjoy.

Monday, October 8, 2007


Do you ever have weeks (or months) where nothing seems to get done? Unfortunately, as much as I am trying, it feels like for the last few weeks my research has been on pause and nothing seems to move forward. Not a good thing for a student starting their 5th year. At the beginning of my grad school career I loved "slow" weeks, when I had the time to read/write/think. Now it makes me nervous not to have an experiment running, and I miss the fluttery feeling I get in my stomach when I am waiting for the results of an important NMR or biological assay to appear on the computer screen. Lately I've been chained to my desk, working on various presentations (3 different ones in all), writing, and reading. (Don't get me wrong, I also enjoy the quality time spent at my desk, but I do want to graduate in about a year, so I like to stay busy).

This past weekend I was at the East Coast PARP Conference in Quebec City. Not only attending, but holding a 40 minute seminar on my research. As sick as it sounds, I actually enjoy public speaking, but in this case it was particularly nerve-wracking. Imagine--I was the only non-professor presenting (except for the guy from NIH, but he doesn't count since he has a Ph.D. already) to an audience of experts on my particular subject. Also, I was the only female presenter. After my talk was finished (luckily I was the second speaker of the day), I was able to enjoy the meeting, learn about some awesome research, and meet all the "famous" people in my field. It's a good thing that I remembered a pen and paper despite my nervousness; I took over 20 pages of notes. While I was at the conference on Saturday, my husband got out and explored the old part of the city, so that he could serve as my tour guide on Sunday. Early October is the perfect time to visit Quebec--the leaves are at their peak and the weather is still relatively warm.

On Thursday I'm off to Michigan to visit my alma mater and once again give a little presentation, only this time my main audience is undergraduates--a huge difference from the conference this last weekend. The last of my seminars will be in the middle of November, and I keep telling myself if I can last until then everything will be smooth sailing.

I hadn't been to an airport in a few months, and was pretty surprised at some of the new security measures. Basically I had to enter a walk-through "portal," stop inside for about 20 seconds while puffs of air shot at me from all directions. It is pretty funny to watch people going through these machines for the first time--almost everyone that I watched go through jumped when the first puff hit them, and then gave a little shiver as they walked through the exit. After a little internet searching, I confirmed my suspicion that this little machine is just a glorified mass spectrometer. According to the Smiths website, the Ionscan Sentinel II (the machine at both airports that I went through this weekend) can detect almost any explosive (RDX, PETN, and TNT to name a few) as well as narcotics (Cocaine, Heroin, THC, and Ecstasy). For the few seconds that I was standing under the puffing air, I was thankful that I hadn't done any real chemistry in lab the last week. What would have happened if the "Sentinel" would have found traces of a NO2-bearing compound on my shoes, hair or clothes?

Do chemists need special notes when we go through airports now?