The life and times of a younger member volunteer and medicinal chemist.

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Hi all.

Apologies for absence of late; became a homeowner at the start of February so writing took a back step.

This is just a quickie to highlight a blog of a friend. And yes, a lifetime spent in inter-disciplinary research has forced me to make some unusual friends, including biologists!

It's nice (I think!) to know that some problems facing early-career scientists transcend the disciplines and the genders, but Sara also highlights some issues unique to early career women in science.

Well worth a read.
Posted by David Foley on Mar 24, 2015 5:19 PM GMT
Just thought I’d look back at some of my highlights from 2014.
First and foremost was YMS2014. Over 200 early-career chemists from across the world converged on Birmingham for a fantastic one day conference covering all the chemical disciplines. I’m already involved in the plans for YMS2016 – mark your calendars and watch this space!

Delegates at the YMS2014 poster session
I also really enjoyed participating in I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out Of Here. I managed to reach the final, losing to Sarah Ashworth from the University of Manchester. At least the two of us managed to beat the Manchester Metropolitan contestant!! You can view the report of each of the 12 zones here.
IAS is a great event for anyone thinking about getting involved in outreach, as it can be done from the comfort of your own home and does not take up too much work time. Just make sure you look up some finger stretching exercises! The next round will be in March 2015, so there is plenty of time to sign up!
Finally, I enjoyed working with my biology colleagues during our departmental open day. We worked really hard to pull together a set of experiments and games that illustrated the drug discovery process. I’m looking forward to refining these experiments in 2015 and performing them for the public again in the Dundee Science Centre in the New Year.

Explaining the virtues of being clean and tidy to a chemist!
Posted by David Foley on Jan 3, 2015 8:16 PM GMT
Over the past two weeks, I have taken part in I'm A Scientist, a free online event where school students meet and interact with scientists, which is part funded by the RSC. I managed to make it to the final of the Drug Synthesis Zone (look at me still down with the kids!) but I lost out in the end to Sarah Ashworth, a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester (but then, Manchester only accepts the very best!!)

I’m A Scientist is a unique set-up whereby students can ask questions to scientists and wait for answers over a 24 hour period, and/or participate in the frankly insane online chat rooms. These last 30 minutes, and my fingers were destroyed after each of them! Not to mention the funny looks I got from my colleagues as I frantically hammered away at the keys!!
I’ve visited many schools over the years and it can sometimes be quite difficult to get them to ask questions in front of their friends. The relative anonymity provided by the I’m A Scientist platform does allow even the quietest teenager to get their questions answered, which can only be a good thing. It does, however, also lend itself to some more brazen questions from some of the more outgoing students. I’ve listed a few of my favourite questions (and my answers below) to give you a flavour of what’s in store should you be interested in participating in the next competition (something I would wholeheartedly encourage, by the way!).
What is the best advice you would give to someone who want to become a drug researcher?
Study a chemistry degree (stay away from specialised degrees like med chem, pharm chem etc.) at a good university and choose electives in your later years in organic chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology if you’re still interested at that stage.
Not pouring scorn on med chem degrees (have one myself) but I think specialising at this stage of your life is not required or a good idea. The world could be very different in 4 years time!!
If you were travelling faster than the speed of light in your car, what would happen if you turned the headlights on?
I love this question! I think that since your headlights are also travelling faster than the speed of light you would be able to see (if you climbed onto the bonnet and leaned into the lamp) that the lights were on, but you wouldn’t be able to use them to see the “road” ahead.
What is your favourite thing about university?
When I was in school, I was the geek. My locker key had a Klingon battle cruiser keyring and I got some abuse for that! University is so much bigger. No matter what you are into, there are people who like the same things, so you get to be yourself. You also choose to go to university and are surrounded by people who want to study the same course as you so you can really find kindred spirits. My degree and PhD experiences have had probably the most profound impact on my personality other than my family.
What do you think of superconductors and do you think they could ever be used to create a floating city?
I use superconductors every day in my work – they are the central part of the NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance) machine that we use to prove we have made the right compounds. They are supercooled magnets of almost zero resistance that allow for high magnetic fields to be generated for our experiments.
This requirement for super-cooling (liquid helium at -263 degrees) is the key limitation to most superconductor materials and will prevent floating cities for the foreseeable future.
What do you think is the most important element?
Carbon! All of organic chemistry – has to be carbon
How long are your hours? Do you still enjoy science even though it is your job?
Around 8-5 usually, although we can be flexible with our working times. And yes, 9 years later I still love the job
I don't think this is particularly important to science, but do any of you believe in god? And do you think it’s important?
Yes, I have a deep belief in God, as do many scientists. When I look at the natural world, in particular the human body, I cannot be impressed by the statistical miracle that is our existence. I don’t follow any religion, and I’m not sure God actively watches over us, but I believe there is or was something more. You can of course be religious and a scientist, just as any other profession. Equally you cannot believe and be a scientist – it does not matter, as you say. Nobody can prove or disprove God’s existence and until such a day comes people’s beliefs are their own. Faith helps people through some really dark times, the placebo effect in drug trials is evidence of the power of the mind – so so long as it does not foster hatred or violence I am all for faith and belief.
What qualities make a good chemist?
Passion, willingness to learn, ability to work with others, a hint of insanity and a burning curiosity.
Does your job pay a lot of money
Well how much is a lot? I earn more than the UK average, and have done since day one of my chemistry career. I think everyone wants the dream job where they do no work and earn a six-figure salary. Let me tell you, that job doesn’t exist! Do what you enjoy first (after all, you’ll spend most of your adult life in work) and the money will follow, in my experience.
What is your favourite thing about science
Science is so important to our modern way of life. The fact that we can make people’s lives easier, safer and healthier whilst also improving our understanding of the universe is what I love about science.
If everyone in the world (6 Billion) was an atom and we all lined up in a long line, how long would that line be?
That would depend on the atomic radius of the atom in question. As atoms get bigger (more protons, neutrons and electrons) their atomic radii also get bigger (in general, there are some interesting trends as you go down and across the Periodic Table).
So for hydrogen it would be 25 E-12 times 6 E9 = 0.15 m. For caesium with a bigger radius of 260 E-12 this would become 1.56 m.
E-12 is scientific notation for 10 to the power of -12, also known as a picometer (pm). Personally I hate powers of ten – so I REALLY hope I’ve gotten this one right!
Posted by David Foley on Nov 27, 2014 8:22 PM GMT
The EYCN in partnership with the ACS are providing six young European chemists with the opportunity to participate and present their research at an ACS National Meeting. If you'd like to be considered, get your application in by the deadline of 31st December 2014.
Posted by David Foley on Nov 17, 2014 9:06 PM GMT
I'm excited to be involved in the Dundee Science Festival, my work-place's open day and I'm A Scientist Get Me Out Of Here over the course of what promises to be a hectic but fun November.

I'm particularly excited by the work we've done to put together a show that showcases the process of drug discovery. It was a real challenge to condense 15 years of research involving multiple scientific disciplines into a 25 minute show, but here's what we've come up with. There are still some bugs to be worked out though, so if people have suggestions I'd love to hear them. Hopefully, though, this combined with a tour of our facilities will give people the general gist of the process.

1. How Drugs Work - I'll admit we're going to cheat a little here. We plan to use the malonic acid clock reaction and pretend each turnover is a flash of pain from a mis-firing receptor. The pain is stopped by the addition of a drug (salt, in this case). In future, I'd love to make this more accurate by using an actual enzyme and its inhibitor, but my experience with enzymatic chemical reactions is non-existent. Perhaps someone out there can help?

2. Screening - We'll use the classic iodine clock reaction to illustrate how we can measure signal intensity and/or time to get information on how active our drugs are (of course, KIO3 will be our drug in this case). We'll do the reactions themselves on a large scale, but we will show off our 364-well plates to emphasise the fact we have to minaturise everything in order to efficiently screen thousands of compounds.

3. Synthesis - The reaction of cinnemaldhyde with acetone under basic conditions gives a nice yellow precipitate from a brown solution in a few seconds. I might even include an LCMS and NMR of the starting material and products to help people see how we monitor reactions.

4. Physical Properties - I've spent ages trying to find an example of an organic solid that is insoluble at acidic pH but soluble in water at basic pH. I haven't been able to find one out there, so for this run we're just going to show pH changes using universal indicator and discuss how pH effects everything from solubility, permeability and even activity. However, if someone can help me in the future with this problem I'd be grateful as I think it would make for a much more powerful demonstration.

5. Metabolism - What else but the elephant's toothpaste experiment, modified to run with yeast rather than potassium iodide as the catalyst. Simple, accurate and very visual demonstration.

If you'd like to see these experiments in action, and meet various sciences from across the College of Life Sciences in Dundee, the Open Day will be on Saturday 8th November.

I'll also be carrying out an interactive show on the chemistry of the gases at the Steeple in Dundee on Saturday 1st of November, as part of over 100 events running throughout the festival between the 1st and the 16th of November.

Secondary school students are also welcome to quiz (and vote for) me during the I'm A Scientist event.

If at any stage I look like I'm taking part in Movember, it's because I haven't had time to shave and I apologise in advance for the scruffy 'tasche!

Posted by David Foley on Oct 25, 2014 9:30 PM BST
Finally got around to completing the attached report on YMS 2014.

It was, as usual, a pleasure and a privilege to work with a team of fantastic early-career chemists to put on this symposium for our peers. Over 200 delegates from 10 countries attended and The University of Birmingham was buzzing.

I firmly believe that attending these broadly themed conferences is critical for the development of chemists in their early career stage. The sheer wealth of career options available in chemistry is staggering and often you only consider the career paths that your friends and supervisors are following. Seeing the various places your chemistry experience can take you can open your mind to new possibilities.

Additionally, I firmly believe that interdisciplinary science holds the key for future ground breaking discoveries. It is all well and good to keep up with the competitors and experts in your field - but everyone in your field will be doing the same. It is only be attending the talk or reading the paper that nobody else has read, that a truly unique idea can spark in the mind.

It can be difficult to convince your supervisor of these pros to such a conference - after all, it can be difficult to see the immediate benefit to your current work. But take a look at some of the feedback we got from "reluctant" attendees - the benefits are there to be had!

Plans are already afoot for YMS2016, which will hopefully be held in Scotland. So keep an eye out and starting getting your abstracts ready!!
Posted by David Foley on Oct 18, 2014 10:47 AM BST
A colleague at Nottingham has just posted a really good blog piece on the role, and value, of postdoc associations.

I've been (and continue to be) involved in such organisations in Belfast, Nottingham and Dundee and I wholeheartedly agree with Alasdair on their importance.

The simple ability to hear the "real story" behind the day-to-day administration of a university, school or college and to use that information to allay fears or correct rumours that so often abound the halls of academia remains, to me, the key benefit of such organisations at a local level.

If I had a pound for every time I've seen seen postdocs work themselves up into a frenzy over such things as "three years and you're out" (illegal under EU law); unable to be named as an author on grants (unfortunately, blame the funding bodies, not the PI's); no corresponding authorship for postdocs (a fundamental problem of REF assessment, not the fault of the universities who have to work within its constrains to secure core funding), I would be a very rich man indeed. It is nice to be able to explain the logic behind some of the seemingly unfair decisions taken by heads of department.

I have also enjoyed working at a national level with UKRSA and it's Irish counterpart, IRSA. These larger organisations, along with their European and American sister organisations give postdoc concerns a stronger voice at the highest level. UKRSAs role in helping to shape and influence the Concordat, to which most UK universities have signed up to, is an example of our collective influence being used to benefit of all postdocs (and, as Al rightly points, all non-permanent research staff).

If you are interested in hearing more about such societies, or setting up your own, there is lots of help and support available. It will take time to overcome some of the challenges and inertia that Al talks about, but it is worth it in the end when you make some small difference to the careers of your peers.
Posted by David Foley on Oct 13, 2014 9:14 PM BST
Just a follow up courtesy of In the Pipeline on my post about efforts to address the issue of reproducibility.

Seems like things are moving forward in this area and I, like Derek, await the results.

Also, yes it's been a bit quiet around here lately but I hope things will pick up between now and Christmas as I will actually have a lot of interesting outreach activities to talk about, and I'm sure a few items to rant about will also crop up!
Posted by David Foley on Oct 2, 2014 8:38 PM BST
Science has collected the views of young scientists from across a range of disciplines on what they consider to be the greatest ethical challenges facing science today.

For my part, I believe that ensuring the integrity of scientific data is one of the great challenges.

In the digital age, we have the capacity to accommodate far more data then ever before. Yet, in chemistry, few journals require the raw NMR files for every compound be uploaded along with the paper - they merely ask for a copy of the print-out (which can be too easily modified), The same can be said for biological data - why do we accept a graph or figure with an asterisk denoting statistical significance? Should we not be allowed to crunch the numbers ourselves?

Of course, given that the current system of peer-review is unable to cope with even the limited amount of select data presented by authors, it would never be able to handle this amount of data.

Which is why I believe the time has come to abandon formal peer review and replace it with some new ideas. Before we can restore public trust and confidence in science, surely we must restore our own?

Posted by David Foley on Jul 6, 2014 9:21 PM BST
I'd like to share with you all the fantastic line-up of early career chemists from across all disciplines and sectors that we have arranged for YMS2014.

There is still time to register for this great chance to network with your peers and form interdisciplinary contacts that we know will so important in the future for success. Registration closes on Friday 6th of June.

You can find out more and register online at
Posted by David Foley on May 29, 2014 8:29 PM BST
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