Self-Experimentation – Testing Chemical Weapons on Yourself

This article from BBC News describes how scientist John Haldane was so committed to the war effort during World War One that he tested chemical weapons on himself in order to develop the first gas masks.

Truly dedicated, Haldane thought it was best to test the gases on humans, since they were the only subjects who could report what was happening, and relied on his young daughter to break in and revive him should the worst happen.

During World War One, the German army used various gases. including chlorine, to attack troops on the front line, and without gas masks, soldiers could do very little to protect themselves from the damage it caused. With the matter becoming increasingly urgent, Haldane didn’t hesitate to use himself as a subject so that a solution could be developed quickly. In doing so, he was able to provide soldiers with box respirators, which were used throughout the war.

Nowadays, the idea of experimenting on yourself seems absurd, but this is just one of many scientific developments which utilised such extreme measures. In our age of very strict health and safety procedures, it’s awe-inspiring that these great figures in the history of science and technology were so dedicated to their cause that they would use themselves as guinea pigs. Although it isn’t recommended, we have to be grateful for it!

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It’s not easy coming out as…a scientist.

This month is LGBT History Month and here is a thought-provoking article by The Guardian‘s Tom Welton, who asks why there seems to be so few scientists in the LGBT community. Very few scientists appear on lists of the most influential LGBT people, and Tom wants to bring this issue up so that something may be done about it.

Fortunately for Tom, he has never received much discrimination in the scientific community for his sexuality, and he and his partner have always been welcomed and accepted by his colleagues. As he points out, in this competitive research environment we have at present, scientists are much more interested in your most recent publication than who you choose to go home to.

Much more surprisingly, Tom has found that he has been much less welcomed by the LGBT community – because of his profession as a chemist. In our little bubble in the scientific community, it’s easy to forget how badly though of the chemical sciences are, and Tom has found himself saying he’s a teacher, just to be spared the barrage of abuse he receives. It’s very surprising that a community which has so often faced prejudice itself could be so close-minded. Tom goes on to suggest that this could be the reason why the LGBT community boasts so few scientists among its ranks – maybe people are afraid to admit what they do for a living?

Of course, this is only one man’s story, but it does make you think, and it would be very interesting to see if others in similar situations have had the same experience.

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Can You write a Thesis in 3 Months? James Hayden did!

James Hayton, ex-PhD student and now full-time PhD coach, describes on his blog how a change of mindset and attitude towards his PhD project allowed him to go from being on the verge of quitting to writing up his thesis in just three short months.

After his revelation and the successful passing of his PhD, James began to share his advice with others, and has done so well that it’s now his full-time job.

On his blog, which is linked above, you can find short tips and advice, full-length articles and blog posts, and he also offers webinars and personal coaching which you can pay for if you feel you need more in-depth information.

Although I don’t necessarily agree with every single piece of advice he gives, some of his ways of looking at PhD work can be very refreshing, and very helpful if you’re finding yourself stuck in a rut with your studies. Perhaps the most helpful is his free to download Short Guide to Writing a PhD Fast, where he outlines how he completed his write-up in three months, and how you can do the same, just by getting in the right frame of mind and committing yourself to your work in the right way.

The thesis write-up can be a very daunting and almost frightening prospect, and an approach such as the one James offers could be the key if you’re prone to feeling overwhelmed or panicked by such a large piece of work.

With PhD courses varying wildly depending on what subject you’re studying, it’s very hard to find meaningful advice which can be applied to your situation. One of the reasons I’ve decided to dedicate a post to James’ blog is that his PhD was in physics, and so  the PhD and write-up process is very similar to that of a PhD in the chemical sciences, so his tips are very applicable to chemistry students.

A PhD is a huge commitment, and it’s very common to feel down about your progress, or worried about if you’ll manage to get everything done. A stream of handy, upbeat advice can give you a boost every so often, and help you to keep focused and positive.

You can find the full list of James’ articles here – take a look for yourself, and see if you find them useful!

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Study What You Love … Outside of the Lab!

Click the link to be taken to my blog post on the University of Nottingham’s Study What You Love blog.

Study What You Love is a great campaign by the university to encourage students to take degrees which really interest you, rather than taking something you don’t like in the hope of better career prospects. As the website says, it’s about seeing your course as a series of opportunities, not assignments, and gaining transferable skills which will be useful to you when you graduate.

Chemistry and related subjects are regarded as very strong and employable degrees, but with the high workload and difficult to understand concepts, it really helps to find it enjoyable and inspiring. I’ve loved chemistry since I was 16, and it meant I could engage with my lecture and lab material so much more fully than some of my peers, and in doing so I achieved good exam results and a 1st class degree. However, I often saw those who took chemistry because they didn’t know what else to take, or because it was regarded as the ‘better degree’ of the subjects they studied at A-level. They didn’t enjoy their work, and often got lower grades as a result.

My blog post highlights what I love about my PhD outside of the lab, to give people interested in studying a PhD an idea of what else they could take part in outside of their research. A PhD doesn’t have to just be hours slaving in the lab, and other opportunities can make your experience more enjoyable, and boost your CV.

If you want to learn more about the Study What You Love campaign, you can find the website here.

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Kitchen chemistry: metabolism and fermentation

This is a lovely little post from Scientific Gems, a great blog with all sorts of scientific facts and ideas. If you’re interested in some light-hearted but informative science blogging, it’s recommended!

Scientific Gems

In the previous kitchen chemistry post, we discussed the metabolic process by which glucose and oxygen is converted to carbon dioxide plus water, together with a great deal of energy:

Aerobic respiration reaction

In contrast, without oxygen, only one eighteenth of the energy can be obtained, through the breakdown (glycolysis) of glucose into pyruvic acid and hydrogen atoms (which are temporarily attached to the coenzyme NAD, and must be recycled in a later stage of metabolism):

Glycolysis

In the absence of oxygen, there are two ways of taking this reaction further, and recycling the hydrogen atoms (neither alternative produces any extra energy). In our muscles (when short bursts of energy are required, as in sprinting), the pyruvic acid is converted into lactic acid. The bacteria that convert milk into yoghurt do the same thing (and it is the lactic acid which gives yoghurt its sour taste):

Pyruvic acid to lactic acid

Alternatively, in yeast, the…

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Happy 100th Birthday Crystallography!

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In case you don’t know, this year is the International Year of Crystallography, as we celebrate 100 years since Max von Lau won a Nobel prize for his work in the field, and 99 years since the father and son Bragg team won theirs. I actually spent much of today working on a crystal structure and, in a strange coincidence, today I came across this excellent feature on the Nature News website which includes a host of articles and information on crystallography.

I’ve attended several lectures on crystallography and am trained in running x-ray diffraction experiments myself, and it’s truly amazing how much this technology has advanced since a century ago. What used to be an extremely time-intensive and complicated procedure is now done routinely day in and day out by many researchers, and here at the University of Nottingham we’re lucky enough to have three high-quality diffractometers for use by all trained PhD students and post-docs. The theory can still be mind-boggling, but thanks to dedicated researchers in the field, the equipment and software make it reasonably straightforward after lots of practice!

Crystallography is an extremely useful and powerful tool for finding out a wealth of information about our compounds, and there’s nothing quite like the feeling of getting your first crystal structure! The dark art of crystal growing isn’t easy, but once you manage to grow single crystals you can find out firstly what your compound is, and if there are any interesting structural or bonding characteristics. You can realise you’ve made something completely unexpected, and find your research taking a turn you never expected based on the result. Obviously, crystal structures aren’t everything, and you will need other data to support your structure, but they’re a great starting point for finding out about your molecules.

If you’re at all interested in crystallography, I strongly recommend you take a look at the feature linked above, where you will also find all of the related Nature articles on crystallography from past issues. Furthermore, you can find out more about the International Year of Crystallography here.

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Thinking of Postgraduate Study?

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Following on from my guide to applying for a PhD, I have found a nifty little guide to postgraduate study by Prospects.co.uk, which gives a general overview of postgraduate study, and advertises a few open days you might find appealing.

This blog tends to aim some of its posts towards those who are studying towards a PhD, or those who have already begun a career in chemical research, but this is for you readers who have an interest in chemistry, and may be studying it or something similar at the degree level, and are wondering what to do next.

Postgraduate study can be a confusing and daunting option for some students, and it’s important that you know all the facts so that you can make an informed decision. I don’t necessarily mean PhDs specifically – there is a whole host of postgraduate options a chemistry graduate could take, whether you’re continuing to study science or want to use your skills in another field, such as law or medicine.

I only graduated 2 years ago, and I’m fully aware of how scary your final year at university can be. Suddenly, what you’ve been involved with for 3 or 4 years is coming to an end, and you have big decisions to make about your career and your future.

Postgraduate study can seem appealing because it puts off getting a job and making some decisions for a little bit longer, but this shouldn’t be your reason for carrying on at university. Don’t continue studying because you’ve been rejected from your current job applications and you’re scared you’ll be left with nothing at the end of your degree. Don’t panic. A lot of final year students feel they need to have their graduate job sorted midway through the year, but you really don’t – a lot of people don’t get jobs until around the time they graduate, so try to remain calm, keep at it, and you will get something eventually. If you’re continually turned away from jobs, try talking to your university’s career advice service – they might be able to help you improve your CV and sell yourself at interviews that little bit better.

If you know you want to keep studying because you have a passion for your subject, or you know you need to for your dream career, make sure you use the time you have finding out as much as you can about your options, and don’t make any decisions too quickly. You’re about to commit to something for one to four years, so it’s definitely worth making that extra effort to get yourself on the course that will benefit you the most.

The Prospects magazine linked above is a great start on your route to further education. I suggest you take a look, and see where it takes you!

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