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

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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
Ann Widdecombe writes in the Guardian about the urgent need for reform to Section 24 of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which is open for consultation at the moment as EU legislation is accounted for.

The current legislation makes any disclosure of the details of animal experiments a criminal offence. Whilst it should be made clear that the UK has some of the most stringent regulations surrounding the use of animals in research in the world, I agree that this blanket of secrecy is excessive and hampers public understanding of the need for the judicious use of animals in research. This has been recognised by some of the major funding bodies, research institutes and companies who have signed a Concordat on Openness on Animal Research to improve openness and increase scrutiny.

The government proposes instead to make malicious disclosure of people, places of intellectual property a criminal offence, meaning all other details can be disclosed and full details could be disclosed with the applicant's consent.

To me, this seems a sensible and proportionate response, that opens up this area to more scrutiny and informed debate whilst, crucially, protecting researchers and research institutions, if they so wish.

This is not enough for both Ann and animal rights organisations such as NAVS, who are calling instead for the complete repeal of this Act. This is because they believe in essence that all animal experiments are redundant, and indeed the NAVS website has many examples of cases where animal testing failed to detect an adverse reaction. I am confident that for very example they present, there are far more cases where animal testing has been extremely useful, both in driving our understanding of biology and pathology as well as detecting toxicity prior to human trials.

The fact is that nobody likes the idea of testing in animals. As NAVS correctly points out, the data from animal testing are often highly variable, difficult to interpret and hard to translate to humans. These difficulties of course explain why there is some much repetition of animal experiments – it is necessary to confirm observations. The cost of such experiments also contributes to a large proportion of the total cost of drug discovery (some $0.5-5 billion per drug launched, depending on which numbers you care to believe).

Given this cost, and the drive for efficiency savings that are plaguing the pharmaceutical companies, the question I would like answered by those in favour of abolishing animal testing completely is: If there are suitable, cheaper and more effective replacements for animal testing, why are pharmaceutical companies continuing to save money by sacking scientists instead of abandoning animal tests?

The answer is, of course, that there are yet NO SUITABLE REPLACEMENTS FOR ANIMAL TESTING that covers the diverse requirements of safety and efficacy required by the regulators of the pharmaceutical industry. These regulations are designed to protect clinical trial participants from undue risk and are of paramount concern. The fact that there has been a decrease in the number of procedures for toxiciology shows that we are taking steps in the right direction, but we are not even close to avoiding the need for any animal testing.

We must continue to reduce, replace and refine our use of animals, and update our regulation accordingly, if the abolition of animal testing in drug discovery is to become a reality. Until then, it it only right that researcher's rights to privacy are fully protected.
Posted by David Foley on May 25, 2014 7:34 PM BST
Usually, I am woken up by the unmistakable screeching of the seagull that lives on my roof, but last Monday morning I rose before him to give a talk to some students. The reason for my early start was not that this school was in some far corner of the Highlands and Islands, but rather to a school in Bucharest which was two hours ahead.

Now I've delivered presentations on medicinal chemistry to students of all ages (my toughest challenge yet was explaining drug discovery to six year olds! Seriously, try explaining medicinal chemistry without using the words synthetic, synthesis, synthesise or parameter!) and to classrooms of all sizes (300 students in Ballymeana, Northern Ireland is my record), so I was surprised to find I was nervous about this one.

I've only ever used Skype to deliver a presentation during an interview process in Switzerland. It must have gone well, because I got called for a face-to-face interview (but not the job in the end), but it was one of the most harrowing experiences of my life to date. This would be a level above that, because I was completely unsure as to what awaited me on the other end of the line.

I pride myself on delivering dynamic presentations, but these utilise a lot of body language, which was now rendered impossible. Additionally, I use jokes and colloquialisms, but would  they translate to a non-British audience? Come to think of it, what would the students level of English be and would they even be able to comprehend my Irish accent? Dropping a few jokes is easy, but six years in the UK has yet to rid me of my accent (thank God!).

Of course, setting up a Skype presentation takes two - and I have to give credit to the teacher, Mr. Thompson for going beyond the call of duty on this one. As an experienced outreacher (is that a word?), I'm pretty good for spotting the great teachers who will instantly reply to every email from the ones who will have you turn up at the school hoping someone will answer the door! Mr. Thompson was certainly in the former category.

As for the students, well I needn't have worried. After 20 minutes of waffle from yours truly, they proceeded to grill me for an hour on all aspects of the drug discovery process. Clearly inspired by "The Case of the Frozen Addicts" (a study they were working on in class), I was asked questions on purity and characterisation to toxicity and side effects. Some of the questions were clearly prepared in advance, and were really insightful. Others were more spontaneous, but by God did they hit on really critical points.

Led by the students we wandered far from the basics of drug discovery to discussions about innovation, the state of the patent system, the ethics of animal and human testing and even the future of the the industry itself. It's been a long time since I've enjoyed such excellent questions and hearty debate.

I'm delighted to have another feather in my cap and other experience and set of skills to apply in the future. I figure if I can hold a teenagers attention for an hour using NOTHING but my voice and facial expressions, then there's not much I can't do during a presentation! This experience ranks right up there with some of the aforementioned outreach highlights of my career to date.

I hope the opportunity to do something like this arises again, and I'd like to thank Mr. Thompson and his class for being such excellent guinea pigs (thankfully not for drug testing though, that would not be ethical!).
Posted by David Foley on May 2, 2014 9:20 PM BST
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