Are you smarter than a 16-year old?

I stumbled across this quiz on the BBC Magazine’s website, and thought it was very apt considering this was GCSE results week.

Unfortunately, the results didn’t bode well for the science community, with science grades being down over 7% nationally. This has been mostly attributed to the introduction of new syllabuses and exams. GCSEs in general have received a thorough shake-up since the new government came into power, with boundaries being altered each year so that roughly the same proportion of students get each grade as in previous years. This may have led to students not quite reaching the grades they had hoped for, as boundaries were shifted up to keep the proportions correct.

Grades for separate sciences fell by a smaller amount, which could suggest that treating each science as a different subject may have a positive effect. Unfortunately, not every school offers this choice. Personally, I noticed at sixth form that pupils who had taken separate sciences at GCSE level knew chemistry in much greater detail than us who had taken double science GCSEs, and it took a bit of catch-up during the AS year to reach the same level as them.

For me, if we want students to do better in science, particularly chemistry, they need to learn more about the applications of the science and how they could take it forward through their education. Practical lessons in GCSE chemistry are generally very poor, and contain little to no elements of synthesis. How can we possibly expect pupils to want to be passionate about chemistry if they’re not learning about what it really is and what it involves?  This is something I’m particularly interested in, and I’d very much like one day to be involved in changing the way science is taught in school.

Meanwhile, why don’t you take the quiz, and see how you fare with some typical GCSE science exam questions?

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Featured Journal: Nature Chemistry

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This is the first of a series of featured journals, where I select a particular journal from the world of the chemical sciences, highlighting its impact and some of the key research being published within it right now. I aim to bring to light research that you might not be aware of, as well as bringing both well and lesser known journals to your attention.

Today, I thought I’d start with one of the biggies, and will discuss one of the major chemistry journals right now – Nature Chemistry. With an impact factor of 21.757, it’s one you should have definitely heard of!

A journal spanning all areas of chemistry, Nature Chemistry publishes only high-impact, high-quality work. It aims to publish research on the very cutting edge of chemistry, and also encourages inter-disciplinary work where chemistry joins with biology, materials science, nanotechnology and physics.

Published monthly, Nature Chemistry doesn’t only contain primary research; it also features news, comments, reviews, etc, describing itself as aiming to be “the voice of the worldwide chemistry community”.

You can view the latest issue of Nature Chemistry online here. Of course, you’ll have to be subscribed to view all of the content, but some articles are available for free, and most good university chemistry departments will have a subscription.

In Nature Chemistry today:

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“A grossly warped nanographene and the consequences of multiple odd-membered ring defects”

This is one for all you nanocarbon fans! If you’re interested in fullerenes, graphene, nanotubes and the like, you’ll be interested in how the incorporation of seven- and five-membered rings produce a severely warped structure very different to the planar structure we’re used to seeing in graphene. The change in conformation greatly affects the solubility and properties of the structure, and is conveniently synthesised in two steps. Furthermore, this is the largest polyaromatic hydrocarbon, other than fullerenes, to be characterised by X-ray crystallography.

“Catalyst recognition of cis-1,2-diols enables site-selective functionalization of complex molecules”

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Biologically significant molecules such as carbohydrates are inherently complex, and nature has developed its own enzymes to specifically synthesise and alter these molecules. In this article, nitrogen-containing chiral synthetic catalysts have been employed to target 1,2-diols in complex molecules and so selectively functionalise complex molecules. This is very sophisticated organic chemistry, where reversible covalent bonds are utilised to target specific functional groups. This is cutting edge organic chemistry, and shows the route from careful catalytic design to successfully modifying complex, biologically-relevant molecules.

 

“In your element: recalling radon’s recognition”

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A nice little article by Brett F. Thornton and Shawn C. Burdette about the history and many names of radon, one of the lesser known group 18 elements. Spanning just one page of the September issue of Nature Chemistry, this gives the reader a concise overview of element 86, focusing particularly on how it and its isotopes were named. Interesting stuff!

“Mechanochemical strengthening of a synthetic polymer in response to typically destructive shear forces”

This is very interesting research, where polybutadiene has been functionalised with dibromocyclopropane, allowing it to undergo mechanochemical reactions under shear force. Sheer force and mechanical stress during a polymer’s use would normally be destructive and cause the material to break down, but in this case it allows for an in situ nucleophillic addition cross-linking to take place, actually strengthening the material further. This could have massive implications for the use of such materials, as they are able to remodel themselves as a function of their environment.

If you’re interested in finding out about real cutting-edge chemistry research from the highest quality academic groups, Nature Chemistry is a journal you should definitely be keeping up with.  Covering the entire breadth of chemistry, it always makes for a fresh and interesting read, with science that you just can’t find in lower impact journals.

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Conference Alert: Advancing the Chemistry of the f-elements 28-30th July 2014

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Whether you’re a Royal Society of Chemistry member or not, if you have an interest in f-element chemistry, you’ll want to attend next year’s Dalton Discussion.

The chemistry of the f-elements has been pushed to the forefront of the chemical sciences right now, due to a resurged interest in the prospect of new advances in low-carbon nuclear power. As the globe turns away from conventional fossil fuels, nuclear power is becoming more and more significant, and a good understanding of the compounds involved in these processes is essential. Furthermore, the f-elements are known to exhibit very different chemistry to the transition metals, and so replacing traditional metals with f-elements could produce materials with new and exciting properties. The need for a better understanding of the chemistry and environmental impact of the f-elements is greater than ever, and meetings such as these allow for all researchers with an interest in this area to get together and discuss ideas.

Unlike a conventional conference, Dalton Discussions offer a much more interactive experience, where traditional lectures and presentations are followed by a great deal of discussion, before the research discussed will be published in a special edition of Dalton Transactions. This allows for participants to have a much bigger contribution to the meeting than you might experience at other conferences.

The RSC describe the aim of the discussion as:

“To highlight the burgeoning role, and exciting prospects for f-elements in modern, metal-based chemistry.”

And the discussion will run along the following themes:

  • Structure and bonding in f-element compounds
  • Properties and materials applications
  • Advances in reactivity and catalysis
  • f-elements in the environment

It will take place at the University of Edinburgh, and has already confirmed a range of exciting speakers who specialise in f-element chemistry. These include Geoff Cloke of the University of Sussex, Jeffrey Long of the University of California Berkley, and Marinella Mazzanti of the CEA, Grenoble, who I’ve had the pleasure of hearing speak at the University of Nottingham last year. I found Marinella’s work with uranium to be really interesting, and I’d definitely recommend attending her lecture. You can find a full list of confirmed speakers here.

The discussion includes lectures, refreshments, poster presentation, exhibitions from relevant companies and looks to be an interesting couple of days. There is a reduced registration fee for students, and students and early career researchers may be eligible for a bursary from the RSC to help cover the cost of the meeting. Accommodation and attendance of the conference dinner cost extra, but you can find all the details at the website dedicated to the discussion, found here.

So, if you have an interest in the f-elements and want be involved in a conference where you will get to be an integral part of the discussion, Advancing the Chemistry of the f-elements is for you! This exciting and rapidly-developing area of chemistry is definitely one to keep an eye out for, and this Dalton Discussion will certainly allow for the scientific community to embrace it and help move it forward.

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Mutating Molecules: A New Kind of Colour Pixel

Mutating Molecules: A New Kind of Colour Pixel.

Click the link for an interesting post detailing how molecules can be used as coloured ‘pixels’, from the ‘Cool Story Bromine’ blog.

There’s a nice bit of research here using the very common phenomenon of keto-enol tautomerism, which is key to many aspects of Organic chemistry.

It will be very interesting if this kind of chemistry allows images to be resolved to the molecular level, and I’m excited to see what comes out of this.

Cool stuff!

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Tidbit: A-Level Results Day – Science is on the up!

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It’s the day thousands of teenagers have been waiting for – A-level results day.

Two years of hard work and exam pressure have culminated in this moment, and for those lucky students who get the grades they need, it marks the acceptance into the university and the start of their future.

The rise in tuition fees to £9000 a year doesn’t seem to have put many people off, as UCAS reports that 385,910 students had been accepted into their top choice university as of midnight last night – up on 9% from last year.

The good news for us chemists is that the proportion of students doing A-levels in maths and science has risen, with Chemistry being up 5%, Physics 3% and Maths by just under 3%. It seems that students are seeing the value in science subjects, and hopefully this will lead to an influx of high-quality undergraduate students taking science degrees this year.

This trend can also be seen indirectly by the rise in entry requirements for degrees in chemistry. When I applied for my MSci in chemistry in 2007 (wow, has it been that long?), the requirements were in the ballpark of ABB-BBB. I personally know several students who were accepted on results day with lower grades than that. The fact is, although chemistry is a difficult and academically rigorous subject, it wasn’t as popular as many others, such as biology, psychology and history, and so lower entry requirements were used to lure in potential undergraduate students.

Nowadays, however, I can browse the websites of universities such as Nottingham, York, Leeds and Sheffield, and see requirements of AAA-AAB. This might seem trivial to the eye, but anyone who has gone through the stress of A-level exams must know how easy it is to slip below a grade boundary and miss your grade target by a matter of a few points. One can only assume that this reflects an increase in the popularity of our beloved chemistry, and so the bar is being raised higher and higher to ensure that only the top applicants make it through.

This can only be a good thing for the chemical sciences, as it means that our universities are being filled with higher quality students than ever before. With high-achievers being drawn into chemistry, we can expect academia and industry to attract a wave of intelligent and skilled chemists in the upcoming years. In a subject area that needs constant attention and thought to remain at the cutting edge, this is exactly what we want to see.

The raise in tuition fees has led to students looking for degrees which will offer them interest, excitement, good career prospects and value for money, and it’s great to see that these teenagers are choosing science.

As they say, children are our future, and the future of chemistry looks bright!

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Some Elemental History and Not So Bohring After All? – 2 Book Reviews by New Scientist

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I’m personally a big fan of literature about the history of Chemistry, and today I came across two book reviews on the New Scientist website which might be of interest to any lovers of scientific history in general.

Firstly, A Tale of Seven Elements, by Eric Scerri and reviewed by Andrea Sella of University College London, tells the story of seven elements ‘missing’ from the periodic table in the 20th century: francium, astatine, promethium, hafnium, rhenium, technetium and protactinium. These elements aren’t widely known to the public at large, and so their history is usually forgotten.

People tend to forget how intensely scientists can battle to prove the discovery of a new element, and books such as these give us an interesting insight into what was going on in the midst of the chaos.

Andrea tells us that Scerri has ‘tremendous stories to tell’, and that he tells them well, albeit in a fashion that may leave the reader wanting to know more about the actual people involved. One aspect which may be of particular interest may be the letters between Lise Meitner (the discoverer of protactinium) and her research partner as he fought during the First World War.

Overall, Andrea reviews A Tale of Seven Elements as a ‘brilliant book’, which argues for curiosity-driven research, something which is seldom carried out today as a major push for applied and industrially-relevant chemistry appears to be taking place.

I always thoroughly enjoy learning about how an element was discovered, as I feel it takes us back to a more exciting time in science where curiosity and discovery drove researchers to carry out some amazing findings. Also, books such as these give a sense of what it’s really like to be on the verge of discovering something big, and the race to get there first, which is often missed in textbooks.

If you’d like to know more about this book, you can read Andrea’s review here.

Our second delve into scientific history is Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr’s 1913 Trilogy Revisited by Finn Aesrud and J. L. Heilbron, and reviewed by Philip Ball. This book tells the story of Neils Bohr, famous for his theory of the atom having a nucleus surrounded by moving electrons, from a very different perspective to what you might expect.

In the centenary year of the publication of ‘Bohr’s atom’, this book is perfectly timed, but Philip tells us it has the feeling of being ‘cobbled together’ for the occasion, hinting that it may have been rushed to completion.

The book offers us an insight into Neils Bohr’s personal life which hasn’t been seen before, including newly released correspondence with his wife.  This adds a new level of depth to the background of a key player in the history of our knowledge of the atom and so the field of Chemistry. I find it’s always interesting to learn more about the person behind such influential discoveries. Sometimes we forget that behind the theories, syntheses, hypotheses and experimentation that we see in the news, in journals and in books are real people with real lives, and books like this help us to remember and enjoy that. Indeed, Philip describes the book’s telling of Bohr’s intellectual journey as ‘insightful and informative’.

The unusual aspect of the book is Heilbron’s attempts to link Bohr’s interest in literature with his science. This appears to be unsuccessful, particularly as Philip describes Heilbron as using quotes from Bohr’s literary loves to ‘punctuate the story of Bohr’s profession life’ with no proof that they had actually affected Bohr’s thinking in any way during those events. This is unfortunate, as other parts of the book held real appeal, and this attempt to provide a new edge to Bohr’s story seems to fall flat.

For those wanting know more about Bohr’s theory of the atom, or just want to see it in its original form, the book also contains the reprints of the three papers he published in 1913 outlining his work.

Overall, Philip was left with ‘mixed feelings’ about Love, Literature and the Quantum Atom: Niels Bohr’s 1913 Trilogy Revisited, having not enjoyed the tenuous suggestions that Bohr’s choice of literature influenced his work. In a powerful take-away message to his review, Philip states that ‘Whatever it is that makes truly noble, responsible – let alone successful – scientists, it isn’t great art.’

To find out more about the book, you can read Philip’s review here, and if you’d like to learn more about Neils Bohr, you can find his autobiography on the Nobel Prize website here.

 

So, two books with very different subjects, but which each give us a journey through part of our chemical history. The journey human kind has gone through to arrive at the level of scientific knowledge that we have now is a complex and fascinating one, and these books offer us a fresh piece of that.

See what you think!

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Conference Alert: Irène Joliot-Curie Conference – September 11-12th 2013

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The Irène Joliot-Curie Conference has a theme of establishing an independent career in Chemistry, and is aimed primarily at women but will have interesting and informative lectures for male researchers as well. The conference will cover areas such as finding role models, establishing networks, and being tapped into good sources of information. In a world where research positions are getting more and more competitive, these are skills which can really give you that extra edge when applying for post-doc or lecturer roles.

The conference is named after the Nobel Prize winner Irène Joliot-Curie, daughter of Pierre and Marie Cure. She followed on from her parents’ footsteps and carried out important work on natural and artificial radioactivity, transmutation of elements and nuclear physics. Her research into the action of neutrons on the heavy elements was an important step in the discovery of uranium fission.

With her famous parents, Irène is often overlooked, but in addition to her scientific success, she took a keen interest in the advancement of women in both society and in academia. She was member of the Comité National de l’Union des Femmes Françaises and of the World Peace Council. An excellent role-model for female and male chemists alike, Irène is truly deserving of being the inspiration for this exciting new conference.

With many women turning away from research careers, this conference hopes to provide inspirational role-models and networking opportunities. The hope is that this will give more female researchers the confidence to continue with their research career path. However, the conference will contain information on research careers which will prove useful to male researchers as well, such as Writing confident CVs/applications, takings risks, dealing with failure and getting feedback and support” by Dr Liz Elvidge of the Postdoc Development Centre, Imperial College London.

Careers in research can be a daunting prospect, and conferences such as these are excellent opportunities to gain more knowledge and skills to help your career get a strong start start.

As they say, it’s not always what you know, it’s who you know.

It would also be a great opportunity to hear the stories of some successful women who can provide inspiration, guidance and advice for men and women alike. I personally always enjoy listening to someone tell their own story about how they got to where they are. A real story of career progression is so much more helpful to hear than generic tips from someone who might not have much experience themselves in what they’re talking about.

I would love to attend the conference myself, but unfortunately I have important appointments here in Nottingham those days.

The conference isn’t all lectures, there’s a dinner hosted by the RSC at Burlington House on the first evening, with a drinks reception and poster session beforehand. This gives a chance for early-career researchers to share their own work and network with others who might be interested in a collaboration.

The conference itself is free and registration is open now – more information can be found on the Imperial College website.

For a detailed programme of the conference, click here.

I visited Imperial College London last month for the RSC’s Coordination Chemistry Discussion Group Meeting, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The South Kensington campus is in a lovely area of London, surrounded by museums and beautiful buildings, so you can combine a conference visit with a bit of tourism. You can easily get to the University using the Underground, and it’s a great excuse to see the sights while you’re there!

So, there you have it. The Irène Joliot-Curie Conference looks to be an interesting and exciting opportunity to hear from some inspirational women in science, take part in some great networking and get your career in research kick-started.

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