Sodium’s explosive secrets revealed : Nature News & Comment

The reaction of alkali metals with water is something we’re all very familiar with, and I’m sure most of you have watched a lump of sodium being dropped into a dish of water at school. It’s very basic chemistry and the science behind the explosive outcome is very well understood…right?

Apparently not! As this article on the Nature News website explains, new research into the reaction suggests all may not be as it seems! What we all thought was the simple ignition of the liberated hydrogen formed in the reaction is something far more bizarre.

What researcher Pavel Jungworth and co-workers found is that the sodium atoms rapidly dispel electrons on contact with water, and the resulting cations repel each other to give a Coulomb explosion.

Research such as this shows us that chemistry that we all think is well understood may still have secrets to be revealed, and something that we all thought was high school science is a lot more complex than we realised!


AZ Aiming to Derive Drugs from Genomes

This article from BBC News describes UK drug company AstraZeneca’s latest drug discovery mission – making medicines for genetic diseases from the human genome.

AZ plan to use the technique Crispr to remove certain genes from patients in order to develop drugs to treat their diseases.

There has been a long wait for this sort of project, ever since the Human Genome Project over 10 years ago was hailed as the answer to all geneticists and biotechnologists problems. The project gave the world a plethora of information about the human genome, but using that information to society’s advantage has proven a difficult and costly process. We know what the genome contains, but how do we use it to help the human race in the future?

That’s where Crispr comes in. It allows scientists to remove and edit parts of the human genome, and is cheaper and faster than many techniques currently in use.

A detailed description of Crispr and how it works can be found here on the New York Times website.

It’s certainly an intriguing and exciting piece of technology, and has already been used by researchers at the University of Cambridge to alter the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis.

It’s still early days for this innovative new project, and AZ are joining forces with several academic institutions to attempt to bring these dreams into reality. Perhaps our traditional methods of drug discovery we’ve known and gotten used to are about to change forever.


Work-life balance: Lab life with kids : Naturejobs

This article on the Nature Jobs website gives an insight intp the every day struggles of a scientist with a family.

We all know that reasearch can be incredibly stressful and good time management is essential. Many of us struggle to organise ourselves, but scientists with children have to juggle their experiments around emergencies, childcare, school and family engagements. This, coupled with the pressure of early career research can lead to all manner of problems and stress, and it’s something men and women alike have to think about.

Many employers are flexible when it comes to workers with children, with working from home and remote experiments becoming more available, and his article gives us a glimpse into how some parents are managing their work-life balance.


Things Successful PhD Students Won’t Do…?

I’m a little out of date with this, but thought it was definitely worth bringing up and discussing here.

In May, The Guardian published this article entitled “Five things successful PhD students refuse to do“- resulting in very mixed opinions online.

As a current PhD student myself, I thought it’s only right I had a look and compared the opinion of Isaiah Hankel, the author, to my own experience, and that of my peers.

Isaiah states that ‘successful’ PhD students refuse to feel like a failure or out of control, as if we have any say in this. He rightfully points out that many students struggle with mental issues throughout their PhD, and I myself have developed anxiety over the past 2 years. I’ve seen other students suffer mentally, emotionally and physically as the stress of getting enough work done to complete your thesis and the constant comparisons with others and worry about the future weighs down on you more and more. Of course, this isn’t how a PhD always feels. Often you feel motivated and when reactions are successful you feel fulfilled and optimistic, but the PhD process puts a lot of pressure on students, and implying that we aren’t successful if we somewhat succumb to that pressure just isn’t right. Many of us have underlying mental health issues that are brought out by the stress of a PhD, and it isn’t as simple as snapping out and of it and not allowing yourself to feel overwhelmed. Perhaps, rather than blaming the student for not dealing well with these feelings, we should be supporting students through what is obviously proving very difficult for many? Some universities have very good support systems in place, but often students feel they will be judged for speaking out, and this definitely needs to be dealt with by institutions.

What is almost amusing is that he instructs post-grads to stop chasing publications and seeking approval from publishers. Of course, a PhD student shouldn’t feel a failure or that their PhD was a waste of time if they don’t get published, but that doesn’t mean we should stop aspiring to be published authors. Unfortunately, both academic and industrial employers look very highly on publications, not to mention ratings such as the REF who base the quality of research at UK institutions entirely on publications. Also, often the pressure to publish is coming directly from our supervisors, and it’s difficult to turn around and tell them you don’t particularly care whether you get published or not. Of course, if a supervisor is bullying you into working unreasonably hard to reach their personal publication deadline, you should not have to put up with that. However, I think a desire to be published isn’t a bad thing and, afterall, shouldn’t we want our research to be out there in the scientific community?

Isaiah goes on to explain how we should all be more business-minded and be constantly developing networks and connections with business. Although this would be very worthwhile for some, it’s unfair to suggest ‘success’ comes with business and entrepreneurship, and traditional academic routes no longer count as successful. I’m all for alternative, successful careers – it’s good that a PhD no longer means following the same path through academia into post-doc land and eventually (possibly) an academic position – but it is not a failure for students to continue to do just that.

A more accurate – and amusing – take on this comes from Dean Burnett, also of The Guardian in this article entitled ‘Five alternative things successful PhD students would never do‘. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and very much at the extreme opposite of Isaiah’s article. It’s very satirical, but does point out the unrealistic suggestions from the previous article.

I’d like to think the real life of a successful PhD lies somewhere between the two, where stress and pressure are present, but it is balanced out by outside interests and good planning and time management. A PhD is by no means easy and is a different experience for each post-grad student. Dean makes a very good point in one of his final statements – “don’t let anyone dictate to you how you should be feeling, as it’s technically impossible for them to know for certain“.

He’s right – your PhD journey is your own, and only you know what will make it successful.


Cutting the booze – new drug may limit excess drinking


The end of the holiday season is upon us and, as we all return to work and are regular routine, some of us may wish we’d indulged a little less on the booze than we have.

Well, future party goers may not have to suffer this problem, as a patent has recently been filed for a new drug which may give users a euphoric high while reducing their want to drink alcohol. Originally intended to be sold as a ‘legal high’, the drug – 5-methoxy-2-aminoindane or ‘”chaperon” – has been given to the charity research group DrugScience and will hopefully be used in the future as a ‘binge mitigation agent’.

So far, very little testing has been done, and and only the anecdotal evidence of around 40 people can be used. Of course, in depth tests on the long-term toxicity, doage and the effect of mixing the drug with alcohol need to be carried out before any sort of clinical trial can be considered.

Drugs for recreational use always bring about a great deal of debate, but if the testing results prove positive, this could be an interesting solution to the binge drinking problem that countries such as us in the UK are suffering with.

You can find out more about this here on the New Scientist website.