Scientific advice – Crisis counsellors!

This article on the Nature News website discusses the pressures of scientific advisers to governments during crisis situations, such as the Icelandic volcano eruption of 2010, which sent Europe into chaos. It’s an interesting snapshot into what is happening behind the headlines and TV announcements we’re all bombarded with at the time.

The article gives a glimpse into what immediate actions such advisers must take during such frantic situations, and how they must input their knowledge to the government so that the correct actions can be taken. It’s a side of science we don’t always think about as we go through our academic lives, but governments around the world are always in need of experts who can quickly meet to decide on immediate responses to what could be catastrophic events.

Indeed, the article discusses the BP oil disaster in the US, and how a cautious team of scientists found it difficult to deal with, due to misinformation from the government and BP, and disagreement amongst experts. Scientists disagreed over the amount of oil leaking every day, leading to great delays in the leak being stopped.

It’s an interesting walk through our recent history of disaster management, and highlights how difficult it can be to efficiently coordinate governments and scientists in order to firstly fully understand the issue, and then to remedy it. It would seem that there’s still work to be done to allow this to go more smoothly in the future, and hopefully scientists and politicians alike can learn from the mistakes made in the past.


Elementaurs – the chemistry card game

This is a wonderful idea for anyone trying to introduce the elements to either a classroom or their own children. The maker, Naomi van Bentum, clearly has a passion for chemistry and I’d be very keen to try this game out for myself. What do you think?

Science Ninja Gal

Elementaurs – the chemistry card game

How easy is it to learn to play? 8/10

How easy it is to use in the classroom? 8/10

Cost: 1 deck of cards = AU$17 (2 players)

Find it here:


Last week in Australia marked the double whammy celebration of Book Week and National Science Week. So in a fitting celebration two of my classes received a talk from Naomi van Bentum (aka NH3), Australian author of ‘The Watermaker’ and creator of the Elementaurs chemistry card game.

Naomi’s first book ‘The Watermaker’ is set in the near future in a world where the government controls learning and chemistry is banned. Four teenagers embark on a journey to discover the truth about the Elementaurs. I won’t ruin the plot for you but it’s a good read, suitable for 8 – 14 year olds (ish).

The Elementaurs card game is…

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International Researchers – Suffering in Silence

This article on the Science Careers website discusses the difficulties faced by some international researchers in laboratories in the US, and suggests they may be treated differently by their supervisors and colleagues.

The US welcomes a large amount of international PhD students and Post Docs each year, and it would seem that many of them are feeling unsupported and face difficulties which their American peers don’t seem to encounter.

Some of the issues appear to be cultural, as Turkish Post Doc Tuba Sural-Fehr explains that some countries, including her own, have much more hierarchical way of life, meaning they don’t always feel as comfortable speaking out to their bosses as others. Perhaps more should be done to reach out to these students, as they may be suffering in silence. It’s possible organisations or the supervisors themselves could be unaware of how difficult some international students find it to voice a complaint, and if this is the case they should provide outlets for them to make an issue known without feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed.

The situation can become even more muddled by visa worries, with some researchers fearing their right to work in the country could be taken away. Visas should never be used against a researcher in order to control them, and the article suggests a few routes an international researcher can take if they feel they need to resolve an issue but are frightened of approaching their PI directly.

The article focuses mainly on researchers in the US, but these issues can be found all over the globe and the main point remains valid – international researchers need to feel they can speak out about any problem they have, and organisations and supervisors should provide the necessary support for their workers. If you’re an international researcher suffering in silence, you’re not alone, and there are people you can talk to who will resolve your issue.

Have any of you witnessed an international researcher being discriminated against, or not being supported properly within your institution? Are you an international researcher with a problem at work, but you don’t feel you can speak to your supervisor about it? Share your views!



Is There a Science Class Divide?

This article on the New Scientist website raises the interesting question of whether it is a class divide which lies behind the slow-down in STEM graduates in recent years, and why employers continue to complain that there aren’t enough suitable candidates for the STEM jobs available.

The article discusses ‘science capital’, which refers to the engagement and interest in science that a student develops throughout their education and personal life. Apparently, having a high level of science capital is much more common in the middle class, and so this is leading to a class divide between the middle class students who aspire to work in science, and the working class who show generally less interest.

As a chemistry PhD student who comes from an extremely working class family who have no experience working in any sort of scientific area, and who went to a school with very limited science facilities and sub-par science teachers, I find this difficult to come to terms with. Both me and my older sister went to university to study chemistry, and neither our family or our school seem to have had anything to do with this. Our teachers were terrible, our school was under-funded and struggling, and we rarely had any engagement with scientific matter of any sort. Nevertheless, we both showed a strong interest in science, and went on to study it further. Although my sister has since changed career path completely, I aspire to continue working in the chemical sciences for the rest of my life. Chemistry in general seems to contain a good amount of working class students in my experience, and several of my peers have a similar background to me.

Nevertheless, the statistics do speak for themselves, and it would seem more STEM students than ever are coming from middle class backgrounds. Therefore, do solutions need to be found which can bring the classes closer together, and allow more people to enter STEM areas?

The article names several programmes which aim to increase students’ science capital and get them more interested in science and university at a younger age. I’ve seen many outreach activities carried out at my own university which encourage children from underprivileged backgrounds to learn a bit about chemistry and get interested in a life of science.

Have you noticed a class divide in your personal experience? Do you think more needs to be done to fix this problem?


Organic synthesis – the robo-chemist?

This article in Nature News describes the increasing interest in the use of ‘robo-chemists’ to carry out traditional organic chemistry to synthesise any organic molecule which may be required – eliminating the need for synthetic chemists such as you or me!

Such a device would certainly be useful for the synthesis and screening of agrochemicals or pharmaceuticals, which are currently painstakingly worked on by teams of researchers one reaction at a time.

Whitby are currently working on the ‘Dial-a-Molecule’ project, which runs until 2015 and could allow for computational algorithms which predict how a molecule can be built up and run reactions as continual processes. They hope that such a device will transform chemistry and encourage chemists to share their data more freely with each other in order to build up the knowledge required to bring such projects to life.

Although the requirements for such machines are massive, many researchers believe that they are still possible, and could be made in the not so distant future.

This article proves fascinating reading, and opens up the debate on whether such devices could be possible, practical or remotely affordable. What do you think?