Guest post by Heather Cassell

Some experiments fail. Despite your best efforts, and especially for experiments that take many steps or a long time to run, you often won’t find out if they have worked until the very end.

Image By Tweenk (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a source of great frustration for a lab-based scientist. So much of your time is dedicated to setting up and running your experiment. Once you’ve made a plan and began the experiment, you have no choice but to blindly carry on assuming everything is fine, before you reach the end and discover whether or not it has worked. If it had then great! You can get on with the important business of analyzing your results to see how they fit in with the rest of your work. If your experiment didn’t work, you need to start the tortuous process of troubleshooting to find out what went wrong.

I have to confess that I enjoy the in between steps, the calm before the storm. There is a certain happiness in not knowing, freeing you up to concentrate on each step of your work, rather than the overall result. At this stage there is positivity and hope that your meticulous planning is going to give you the results you need. This positive attitude can last right up until the results come in, when the illusion can be shattered by the lovely picture of your positive controls and not much else.

So what to do now? Small changes to one of the steps in your process can make a huge difference to your results. Having a good set of both positive and negative controls can be a great help during troubleshooting: if the results show just your positive controls you know the problem is with your samples, if there are no results you know the problem is with the experiment. Now where will I find that error?

It is even more frustrating if you have inherited the protocol, or are trying to replicate one given in a paper. Even worse is a failing in a method you’ve had success with in the past! You can resolve many problems with patience and dedication, but sometimes it’s worth running the problem by someone else just to check you are not making a simple mistake that you have overlooked. Is the incubator at the wrong temperature? Have you added the wrong antibiotic? (Both common sleep deprivation related problems.)

You can spend days, weeks, even months tweaking the conditions of your experiment to make it work. But it is important that you don’t keep going round in circles or blindly repeating yourself, take notes, take a step back or take a deep breath and ask for help! Everyone has bad days in the lab, it’s how you react to them that shows how well suited you are to science.

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some discoveries are made after hunting hard for the answer, some come to you when you need them most, and some just turn up at parties. Such was the discovery of modern anaesthetics.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The concept of anaesthetics and their application to relieve pain during surgery was not wholly new. The Mesopotamians used alcohol (and its use persisted in resource deprived times such as war as late as 1812) and the ancient Chinese used acupuncture. The Sumerians may have used opium and Egyptians mandrake, and around a similar time, juniper and coca were put the the same use.

A popular anaesthetic in England between ~1200 and 1500 was Dwale – a mixture of varying composition containing opium and hemlock as well as lettuce, bile and bryony. Mandrake roots were chewed, extracting the active ingredients in doses that varied with chewing time or vigour. This was a risky business: low doses were often insufficient to fully mask the pain of surgery or put the patient to sleep, but at doses not much higher, many of these substances would become fatally toxic. Enough to make you numb just thinking about it. (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

The taste of sweet success! But what is that flavour exactly, chewing gum or bon bons? The latest Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry (OBC) issue comes covered with sugary carbohydrate goodness and fullerene balls. Not at first obvious partners but throw in some lectins and you’ve got a hit.

On the cover a gumball machine has been set up in the lab with a few of the tasty C60 balls spilling out across the bench. The test tubes arranged at the back signify that the green, blue, red and yellow balls are obviously full of artificial colourings to make them tempting, but these are not for human consumption. In fact they are meant for bacterial consumption.

The bacteria in question produce fucose binding proteins, carbohydrate receptors that can be targeted for therapeutic reasons. On the cover, a schematic has been left out on the lab bench showing the fullerenes modified with linkers and terminating in fucose units, which then have a multivalent effect binding to one or more of the proteins.

The work focuses on the inhibition of two fucose binding proteins with very different binding site geometries. (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

’Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call “boys with toys.”’

This poorly conceived comment by Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, was made on National Public Radio (NPR)  and within hours, Twitter was abuzz with activity. Using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, female scientists from all over the world began posting pictures of themselves with their ‘toys’ – from telescopes to distillation kits to robots – to show that girls are scientists with fun toys too! This flippant comment highlights the unconscious bias that is all too common in the science world as it perpetuates the notion that science is a man’s world. The list of Nobel prize in chemistry winners also reflects this attitude, with only four females having won the prize to date. Of course, there have been many highly influential and talented women who were worthy of prize.

Blue plaque on SW10, Drayton Gardens, Donovan Court
By Gareth E Kegg – CC-BY-SA

This month’s blog will concentrate on the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images, which implied a helical structure for DNA, were key in determining the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick used this information in their Nature publication in 1953, where they gave Franklin and Maurice Wilkins an acknowledgement for their contributions. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of DNA but Franklin was left empty handed. Franklin died in 1958 and only living people can win the Nobel prize, so sharing the 1962 Nobel prize was not possible. However, the Nobel archives show that no one ever nominated her for the prize in physiology or medicine, or even the chemistry prize, despite the fact that her findings were undoubtedly significant to the discovery. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Working in the lab over time teaches you many new skills. These include the many specific techniques your research demands as well as the enhanced organisation and time management skills you need to keep things running smoothly. But lab work can also teach you to become fairly ambidextrous.

© Shutterstock

You often need enough strength and agility in your non-dominant hand to handle tricky objects while your dominant hand is busy, such as opening and holding a bottle while using a pipette to remove the amount of liquid you need.

Time and practice lets you build up a good level of dexterity in both hands, but there are still many things in the lab that can be difficult to use (or just annoying) if, like me, you are left handed. (more…)

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A guest post from Edward Hind (@edd_hind), an independent researcher specialising in marine sociology and a communications officer at the Society for Conservation Biology, UK

It’s no secret that research costs money – a lot of it. Funding is the fuel that that powers science, and without it we would have no equipment, no supplies and no way to pay our reserch teams.

It’s also no secret that science jobs are hard to come by. It’s a hyper-competitive world, and there’s immense pressure to do everything we can to get ahead in the pursuit of that dream job.

© Shutterstock

So what happens when the need to get ahead conflicts with the availability of funding? When the cupboard is bare and you still need to go to that big conference, do you break open the piggybank? When you need that fancy device to analyse your data, do you pile the purchase onto your student loans?

Our research project is starting to show that on many occasions scientists are using their personal income for these activities. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

The x-ray has always been a mysterious thing. An invisible beam of high energy electromagnetic radiation that passes through most kinds of matter, it is even named ‘x’ after the mathematical variable used to denote the unknown. And the x-ray itself isn’t the only unknown thing – so are its origins. Sources suggest it was an accidental discovery, but there aren’t as many sources as there should be, due to a very non-accidental fire.

Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist and discoverer of x-rays, died on 10 February 1923, whereupon all his laboratory records were burnt on his request.

It was an extreme action, but not an unusual one.

While modern science is becoming more and more transparent, not very long ago secrecy was the tool of the inventor’s trade. Through secrecy, successful men were able to preserve their impression of genius, compete against their peers and prevent their ideas from being stolen. The most coveted prize was not scientific elucidation but personal recognition – impossible for those who were too open and lost their ideas to the less scrupulous. It wasn’t just seen amongst scientists; William Howson Taylor, founder of the admired Ruskin pottery, had all his notes burnt at his death in 1935. And so the method was lost with its maker.

We are left with a fuzzy picture, not much easier to illuminate than x-rays themselves, and can only imagine the scene in Röntgen’s laboratory in the winter of 1895… (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

The famous Lego bricks have invaded almost all walks of life. Not content to remain as just a construction-themed toy, Lego has branched out into theme parks, video games, board games, clothing lines and even a movie. Until recently, however, chemistry remained a relatively unbuilt area. This changed last year with the production of an all female Lego academics lab, which was met by Lego and science fans alike screaming ‘just take my money!’ The set featured an archaeologist, an astronomer and a chemist and was not only super fun but helped to promote women in science. The plastic academic trio shot to stardom with their Twitter account showcasing some of the finer moments of life in the lab. Now, Lego has finally found a place at the pinnacle of scientific achievement on the front cover of the latest issue of Chemical Science.

A Lego chemist on the cover is dashing back into the lab carrying a flask ready for her next experiment. She is already wearing her white coat, blue gloves and glasses showing that even minifigures are safety conscious. Like many lab users she has made good use of the wall space by drawing out her chemical reactions. Although, the lab does seem rather open to the elements with the sun, clouds and rain threatening to ruin or in fact perhaps aid the artificial photosynthesis project taking place.

Lego is an awesome tool for building miniature skyscrapers and racing cars. So why not use it to build miniature or, more realistically, gigantic chemical structures? I think the authors could have used a little more creativity with the Lego for this cover – surely it’s not that difficult to build their cobalt complex out of the little bricks? Excuse me at this point whilst I run up to the attic, dive into my childhood supply and attempt to create a chemical masterpiece…

…actually it is quite difficult after all! Lego may seem like a nice alternative to the old ball and stick modelling kit, but it is not quite so specialised just yet.

The research performed by the group of Erwin Reisner, from the University of Cambridge, tells of their latest work on the development of a cobalt catalyst for H2 evolution. The metal complex they created shows good stability when anchored onto a metal oxide surface and also enhanced activity compared to previously reported cobalt catalysts. For a closer look into how the catalyst was built step by step (or perhaps brick by brick) head over to Chemical Science.

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

When starting a new experiment, it is great if there is a standard lab protocol (written by someone else in the lab) that you can use. These tried and tested methods usually increase the chance of your experiment working. On receiving the new protocol, the first thing you need to do is read the method carefully so you can plan accordingly; I’ve been caught out before – I found out part way through what I thought was a two hour incubation that it was really 12 hours, so I ended up having to finish off the experiment on Saturday!

Shelf of chemical bottles

© Shutterstock

(more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Nobody had thought to study the orange sludge that was scraped off the Union Carbide pipes after manufacturing cyclopentadiene, but perhaps they should have done. When chemists eventually set their gaze on this colourful by product, the ensuing discovery of ferrocene catalysed a branch of research.

Organometallics had proved themselves a hard puzzle to crack, with only a handful developed by the 1950s, including the infamous Grignard reagents. Iron organometallics remained elusive, which is why Thomas Kealy and Peter Pauson, working at Duquesne University in 1951, had no intention of synthesising any. In fact, they were trying to make a totally organic compound: pentafulvalene, a molecule built from two cyclopentadiene rings fused together by a double bond. Samuel Miller, John Tebboth and John Tremaine, chemists at the British Oxygen Company, demonstrated no more interest in organometallics: their aim was to develop a new method of preparing amides from nitrogen and hydrocarbons, including cyclopentadiene. Both threw in iron catalysts – after all, iron was not going to form stable organometallic compounds, was it? (more…)

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