Archive for the ‘Notable Chemists’ Category

RIP Carl Djerassi…and the Importance of the Nobel Prize

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

ChemBark MedallionWhenever I get a media inquiry about the annual list of odds for winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, I am always sure to emphasize that the list attempts to address who will win the Nobel, not who should win the Nobel. When reporters follow up with the question, “Well, who should win it?”, my answer is always immediate and unequivocal:

Carl Djerassi.

Djerassi’s contributions to our field are immense (1 2 3)—from synthetic organic chemistry, to natural products, to analytical chemistry and beyond. Djerassi’s signature achievement in the development of oral contraception was earth-shattering to the worlds of chemistry and medicine, and it went on to have profound implications for society at large. Norethindrone changed the world like few molecules had before it.

With Djerassi’s death at the age of 91 last Friday, I will have to come up with a new answer to the question of who should win the next Nobel Prize. Djerassi’s name now ranks among those great chemists who inexplicably never did, on a list that includes titans like G.N. Lewis and Dimitri Mendeleev, whose work remains the foundation on which chemistry is built.

These massive oversights, coupled with jaw-dropping exclusions like Gabor Somorjai in 2007, make it impossible to consider the Nobel Prize as the definitive metric for achievement in chemistry. Is it fun to get excited about? Yes. Is it a high honor? Yes. But despite the massive hype and public reverence surrounding the Prize, it is nothing more.

When someone like Carl Djerassi dies after having had 40 years to be recognized, I simply cannot take the Swedish Academy seriously. With these omissions, made all the more heinous when juxtaposed against a “mistake” like 1996, the Academy continues to chisel away at the institution that is the Nobel. If they keep it up, nobody is going to care much about the Prize in 100 years, because others—more lavish and/or respected—are bound to come along and surpass it in the same way that the once vaunted prizes of horse racing or the NIT championship are now afterthoughts on the modern sports scene.

Last Friday marked the death of another piece of Alfred Nobel’s legacy to honor scientists who confer the “greatest benefit on mankind”. For surely, how could any serious list of this sort fail to include Carl Djerassi?

UCLA Professor Patrick Harran Strikes Deal with Prosecutors

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

BulldoodyPatrick Harran, the UCLA professor who faced four felony counts in connection with the death of Sheri Sangji in a laboratory fire, has struck a deal with prosecutors that allows him to avoid charges in exchange for a $10,000 fine, 800 hours of community service, and running a lab free of safety violations. So long as Harran completes his end of the terms of the agreement, he will avoid trial and have an untarnished criminal record.

What a relief!

As an assistant professor in charge of a research lab, I could not be happier with this outcome. I have a lot of stuff to worry about, and ensuring the safety of my students cannot be allowed to get in the way of important things like finding consulting gigs, collecting awards, traveling to international conferences, and stealing ideas for grants. All of those OSHA rules are meant for industry, not academia. The bar for what passes as safe in academic labs is clear, and people who want to work under moderately safe conditions know better than to go to graduate school. The government simply can’t expect me to be responsible for what happens in my lab, which is well over 50 feet from my office and not even the same direction as the restroom. I’m happy to buy enough safety goggles and almost enough lab coats to outfit my students, but the rest is up to them. If Aldrich has written a technical note on their hazardous experiment, my students know not to bother me.

The most important aspect of the Harran deal is how it extends the long, proud tradition of excusing PIs of any professional responsibility for their work. Society recognizes that professors are only supposed to have good things happen to them. We get the lion’s share of credit for papers, not the students or postdocs. We get the big salaries, not the students or postdocs. We get the awards, not the students or postdocs. On the flip side, professors must be protected from negative consequences at all costs. If an accident happens in one of our labs, that’s the students’ fault. If multiple papers from one of our labs contain fabricated data, that’s the students’ fault as well. Clearly, professors are not responsible for supervising their groups for integrity or safety. We know this because Dalibor Sames and Patrick Harran are still in charge of their labs. I applaud Columbia and UCLA for recognizing that you can’t discriminate against professors for trivial things like irresponsibility and incompetence. Anyway, it’s the competent professors you need to watch—lightning never strikes twice, right?

Of course, I realize that there should be some consequences when something truly horrible happens. In these situations, professors must arrange for perfunctory punishments that allow all of the parties charged with oversight to save face. That’s what we saw here: UCLA threw some money at a scholarship in the victim’s name and at establishing a safety program it should have had in the first place. Personally, Harran was forced to donate money to the hospital where his student died. Incidentally, I think $10,000 was way too much; the man only earns $301,000 a year. How is he going to make ends meet with just $291,000? At least Harran’s lawyers were clever in how they disguised the 800 hours of community service as a major inconvenience instead of court-mandated preparation for the Broader Impacts section of Harran’s next NSF proposal. Killing two birds with one stone is exactly why good lawyers get paid the big bucks.

In all seriousness, I think the deal agreed to by prosecutors is a grave injustice, but one that comes as no surprise in today’s legal system. Without any changes to the material facts of the case, how does the DA go from charging someone with four felony counts to striking a deal that allows Harran to have a spotless record with a payment, community service, and actually doing his job of running a lab free of safety violations? Note that this was not a plea bargain; Harran pleaded guilty to nothing—not a misdemeanor, or even an infraction.

The game plan of Harran’s legal defense was quite effective: delay, delay, and delay. They gummed up the works with continuance after continuance and motion after motion. In the end, it appeared the prosecutors were willing to do anything just to clear the case. I mean, was this deal what the prosecutors were holding out for all of these years? What makes it all the more worse is that the original deal called for 400 rather than 800 hours of community service. The judge had to step in and double it.

My heart goes out to Sheri’s family for their loss. While I think our legal system has denied them justice, my hope is that the field of chemistry does not forget what happened to her. I hope UCLA’s reported new-and-improved safety culture persists, and I hope the rest of the world of academic chemistry also strives to do a much better job regarding safety than it has in the past. At the very least, I can guarantee you that Sheri’s death has had an indelible, positive effect my approach to safety and how I manage my lab and students.

 

For more coverage: C&EN’s Jyllian Kemsley and Michael Torrice have done a fantastic service for the community in covering the case, and Chemjobber has been curating links to coverage on his site.

Some Fantastic Christmas Presents

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

Bethany Halford and the crew at C&EN‘s Newscripts blog run an annual holiday gift guide with some cool gift ideas for chemists, but sometimes it’s more exciting to be surprised by the creativity of your family.

I got a few great chemistry presents for Christmas. The first was a Periodic Table of Magnets that I’ll put on my office door. Next, from one of my new brothers-in-law, I received a fail button in the colors of SLU that plays the sad trombone sound. I’m not sure if all of my students will appreciate this gift, so maybe I’ll keep it in an inconspicuous location. My orgo lab instructor at NYU used to have a bullseye taped to his wall captioned “hit head here”. He would point to it when students realized a silly mistake they made on a exam. I thought the sign was hilarious, but some of my classmates thought it was obnoxious.

From my other new brother-in-law, I received a copy of “How to Live Longer and Feel Better” signed by Linus Pauling. Very, very cool. Apparently, signed chemistry texts by Pauling command a much higher price tag, but I would much rather have something signed relating to Pauling’s medical quackery than chemical bonding or crystallography.

Finally, from my lovely fiancée wife, I received this:

stuffed_animal_chembark_ed

That, my friends, is total victory: a stuffed animal version of ChemBark’s mascot, Ed the Dog. I am a very lucky boy.

That’s it for the chemistry presents, but I got a bunch of other great gifts and had a wonderful wedding three days later (that will be the subject of another post). I hope everyone had as good a holiday break as I did, and best wishes for a happy and productive 2014!

How JACS Treated the Anonymous Tip of the Rodriguez–Marks Paper

Monday, November 11th, 2013

ChemBark InvestigatesBy the time the chemist who noticed the suspicious data published in the Rodriguez–Marks paper had contacted ChemBark, the chemist had already anonymously notified the Journal of the American Chemical Society with the concerns. A member of the staff at the journal responded to this initial message with the following:

To Whom It May Concern:

Thank you for your message regarding J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131 (16), pp 5902–5919. Indeed JACS takes ethics quite seriously. We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.

Sincerely,
(REDACTED)

The implication of the official response from the journal was troubling. It implied that for the investigation to proceed, the whistleblower would need to reveal his/her identity.

Surely a journal that grants anonymity to referees would appreciate why a reader who was calling attention to possible misconduct by a well-known, powerful chemist would want to remain anonymous. Furthermore, JACS is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), and the source reports he reminded the journal that “COPE supports a whistleblower’s right to remain anonymous”. Beyond COPE, Ivan Oransky (co-editor of the blog Retraction Watch) has also summarized why editors shouldn’t ignore anonymous tips.

To its credit, the journal responded favorably to the source’s gentle reminder about COPE’s policy, and the investigation was allowed to proceed.

After the paper in question was retracted, ChemBark asked JACS Editor-in-Chief Peter Stang by e-mail:

When the source initially contacted the journal in August with these concerns, the journal office responded to him/her “We would be pleased to investigate your concerns. Before proceeding, however, we ask that you reveal your identity.”

As you know, the source refused to identify himself/herself and defended his/her right to anonymity in the process. While the journal eventually relented and proceeded with the review, the initial implication was that the source would need to identify himself/herself for an investigation to proceed. Was the request and wording of the initial response from the journal “standard procedure”? Is the journal worried that such a response could have a chilling effect on the identification of suspicious or irreproducible data? Why would the identity of the source matter if the concerns are reasonable?

Dr. Stang’s response included the paragraph:

I will say, however that the request for the individual to identify themselves was unnecessary. The  identity of the “whistleblower” was immaterial to the issues raised and did not  prevent JACS from considering the allegation and taking action. All ACS  Journals take all cases of alleged research improprieties very seriously and have established procedures for reviewing and taking appropriate actions, where warranted, to preserve the integrity of the scientific record. Institutions and funding agencies  also have established departments, policies and procedures for handling  allegations of data fabrication by researchers. Upholding the scientific record requires the vigilance of all participants in the research community.

All credible reports of suspicious data should be thoughtfully considered by the corresponding journal, whether reported anonymously or not. Journals should be grateful to anyone who attempts to correct the scientific record and understanding of why a tipster might want to remain anonymous. While JACS‘s initial response was troubling and “unnecessary”, it would appear as though the editors have taken steps to correct how they handle anonymous tips.

That is an encouraging outcome.

Suspicious Data in a JACS Paper from 2009

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Covers of JACSOn Tuesday, the Journal of the American Chemical Society published a retraction notice for a paper titled “Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization” by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks (J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919).

The retraction notice reads:

The authors have been unable to reproduce the synthesis and spectroscopic characterization of the ethylene/acrylate copolymer described in this article. Accordingly, the authors are retracting this publication due to concerns over the validity of the aforementioned data. The authors regret any confusion that may have been created by publication of this work.

A casual reader might encounter this notice and think this is exactly how the system should work: a scientist told of a problem with his published procedure went back, attempted to repeat the work, found he couldn’t, and published a notice to inform the community.

But a closer inspection reveals that there is more to this story that the retraction notice would indicate.

ChemBark was alerted to problems with this paper in August by an astute chemist who wishes to remain anonymous. One day earlier, the source had contacted Peter Stang, the editor-in-chief of JACS, to alert the journal to abnormalities with data in the paper. ChemBark respected the wishes of the source and allowed a traditional editorial review of the paper to be completed before reporting the matter on the blog. With the publication of the retraction notice yesterday, the authors have publicized that their work is problematic. It would appear that an initial review of the paper is complete.

The authors’ wording of the retraction does not indicate specifically what was wrong with the paper, but a brief inspection of the data (including those in the Supporting Information) reveals the following abnormalities:

Figure 3: The baselines of these spectra are peculiar in that they are thick but very straight. The thicknesses and shapes of the peaks are also peculiar. Some of the tall peaks lack the wide bases you would expect of them. Finally, some of the peaks appear to have a different background (i.e., noise) and line thickness (as if they originated from a different source).

marks_retraction_figure_3

Figure 6: The baselines (i.e., noise) of the two NMR spectra appear to be identical. The peaks look irregular—like solid lines.

Figure 7: Again, some of the peaks have lines that are much thicker than the rest of the spectrum. They look unnatural.

Figure S19 (in the SI): The NMR spectra taken at various temperatures have identical noise in their baselines, which would be very, very unusual. The peaks of interest appear irregular and have different line shapes.

marks_retraction_figure_s19

Figure S21: The background of the peaks appears different from the background of the rest of the spectrum, as if the peaks were cut-and-pasted into the spectrum.

Figure S22: Same as above. The spectrum in Figure S21 and the bottom spectrum of Figure S22 appear to have the same baseline noise even though these spectra are reported to be of two entirely different compounds.

marks_retraction_figure_s22

That’s not everything that looks peculiar, but do not simply take my word for it. Go to the paper, have a look, and judge for yourself (paper, SI). ChemBark does not know why these data look the way they do, but they do look unnatural.

On Tuesday, ChemBark contacted Professors Tobin Marks (the corresponding author on the retracted paper) and Peter Stang (the Editor-in-Chief of JACS) by e-mail for comment.

A response was received on Wednesday from Alan K. Cubbage, the chief communications officer for Northwestern University. In the interest of fairness, we are reporting this e-mail its entirety:

Mr. Bracher, your inquiry to a Northwestern University professor, Tobin Marks, was referred to me, as I am the chief communications officer for Northwestern.

As you note in your email, two Northwestern University faculty members and a former Ph.D. student have retracted a publication that appeared several years ago in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. The authors are Brandon A. Rodriguez, who received a Ph.D. from Northwestern in 2009, Tobin Marks, a professor of chemistry, and Massimiliano Delferro, a research assistant professor of chemistry. The article was retracted because the authors were unable to reproduce a portion of the data described in the article.

Northwestern University has established processes and procedures for reviewing issues relating to research integrity.  If concerns were to be raised regarding the data that was the subject of the retraction, the University would use those procedures in its review.  Part of those procedures, which follow the steps mandated by the federal government, is that any review remains confidential.

Thank you for your interest in Northwestern.

Best wishes,

Alan Cubbage

ChemBark also received an e-mail response from Peter J. Stang, the Editor-in-Chief of JACS. In addition to asking about the possibility of fabrication and the specific concerns listed above, we asked for his thoughts on Paul Weiss’s recent editorial in ACS Nano. Dr. Stang’s message is also copied below in its entirety, with the exception of one paragraph (that will be communicated in the next post on the blog, a follow-up to this story):

Dear Dr. Bracher:

Thank you for your communication regarding  Bimetallic Effects for Enhanced Polar Comonomer Enchainment Selectivity in Catalytic Ethylene Polymerization   authored by Brandon A. Rodriguez, Massimiliano Delferro, and Tobin J. Marks [http://dx.doi.org/10.1021/ja900257k] that has been retracted {10.1021/ja409590r] from the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).

As you know, concerns with this paper were brought to my attention in late August by an anonymous source.  Apparently this source also communicated the same concerns to you.  I am disappointed that you felt obligated to  not communicate these concerns  to JACS directly  at that time and deferred to your source to do so. Please know that JACS takes all allegations regarding the validity of  data reported in published articles very seriously.

These concerns were shared with the author and a  thorough editorial review of the article and accompanying information was conducted by JACS. The authors have retracted the article – it would not be proper to speculate on some of the questions you have posed.

(Omitted paragraph — to be discussed in next post)

ACS and its Editors adhere to the principle that the observance and practice of high ethical standards is vital to the entire scientific enterprise.  Toward that end, guidelines for a course of conduct by those engaged in the publication of chemical research, specifically, editors, authors, and manuscript reviewers are set forth in ACS Ethical Guidelines to Publication of Chemical Research -http://pubs.acs.org/userimages/ContentEditor/1218054468605/ethics.pdf.

ACS Publications  is a member of the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE). ACS Editors adhere to  a process established by COPE to review suspicious/fabricated data -http://publicationethics.org/files/u7140/Flowchart%20Fabricated%20B%20revised.pdf

With regard to the editorial in ACS Nano, I believe that it is well-reasoned and articulated. Public speculation and  finger-pointing before all of the facts are gathered, assessed and decided upon is, in my opinion, counterproductive.  A confidential rigorous review of allegations based on the COPE  prescribed process is the best means to determine an appropriate action in response to those allegations.  As you know, outcomes of these reviews may very well have a lasting impact on the researcher(s) involved and we need to let the facts dictate those outcomes.

Thank you for advising that ChemBark will post a story on the retractionhttp://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ja409590r. I offer my assistance in reviewing a draft and through cc have alerted  Dr. Tobin, the corresponding author.

Peter J. Stang

 

ChemBark could not locate an e-mail address for Dr. Brandon Rodriguez, the first author on the paper, but did send him a message seeking comment through Facebook. We received no reply. We will publish any comments from Dr. Rodriguez as soon as possible after they are received, and we note that he (and everyone) is welcome to post comments in the discussion thread below. We also note that the community owes a debt of gratitude to the chemist who brought these concerns to light in a professional and considerate manner.

So…here we have a case where a suspicious paper from a very high-profile group was allowed to go through the “traditional” private review process espoused by scientists like the editor-in-chief of ACS Nano rather than public review on a blog. ChemBark did nothing to interfere with the investigation or the actions of the editors at JACS.

Is this how the system should work?

 

Editor’s Notes: Neither Dr. Stang nor anyone at Northwestern were allowed to view an early draft of this story. The spectra used to construct the images above were taken from figures in J. Am. Chem. Soc. 2009, 131, 5902−5919 (paper, SI). The next post on ChemBark will deal with how the journal handled a specific aspect of this review.

Questionnaire Answers from Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

Earlier this month, ChemBark sent a questionnaire to the three current candidates for ACS President-Elect. The set of questions was similar to the set distributed last year that Tom Barton was kind enough to answer.

ChemBark is publishing each candidate’s response—complete and unedited—in dedicated posts. Dr. Chuck Kolb’s answers and Dr. Bryan Balazs answers ran in previous posts. The next candidate to respond is Dr. Diane Schmidt (whose response was delayed due to jury duty). Her answers appear below.

Don’t forget to vote in the ACS national elections!

 

Response of Dr. Diane Schmidt, Candidate for ACS President-Elect

1. What are your thoughts about the historically low voter turnout (~15%) typical of ACS national elections?

Apathy is difficult to cure. One suggestion would be to have greater publicity in C&EN (perhaps a cover article) to raise the profile and awareness of the national elections. The option to vote electronically does not appear to have had the impact of  greater participation in the national elections that was expected.

2. What is your stance regarding the fees that ACS Publications charges companies and universities to access journals?

Journal pricing is complex and is probably best understood by dealing in specifics for specific schools and companies rather than generalities.  When I get these questions, I always refer people to Pubs.  In many cases there are custom solutions that can be crafted for individual circumstances.

My view is that ACS journals offer high value and high impact at competitive pricing. The quality and the value of the trusted, peer reviewed information provided by ACS journals is a very good value vs. other publishers.

3. What is your stance on the ACS’s executive compensation packages?

Full transparency is important. Perhaps a C&EN comment on the process that is used would help get everyone on the same page as to what is actually in place and the process that is used to determine compensation.

You may remember that the Board held a town meeting on Executive Compensation after Council in Fall, 2005, and perhaps a refresher is in order via a C&EN comment. C&EN calls attention to the ACS Form 990 filing each year and tells readers how to access that document on acs.org. Here’s the link to the 990 notice on page 6 of C&EN.

http://www.cendigital.org/cendigital/20121210??pg=8&search term=990&doc id=-1&search term=990#pg8 

4. What are your thoughts on the recent ACS vs. Leadscope case? Do you believe that society records pertaining to the lawsuit—including legal fees—should be made public?

Full transparency is important.

The background as I recall is that all public reports on Leadscope in the early days were modulated by the fact that it was active litigation.  The events relating to the litigation go back to 1998. For a long time, virtually nothing happened, then there was the trial.

For nearly a year after the settlement in 2012, an extensive Q&A was advertised on the front page of the ACS website. It can still be found at:

http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/about/aboutacs/acs-v-leadscope-questions-and-answers.html

One of the difficulties I think with this case is it spanned quite a number of years perhaps making it difficult to follow. My impression is there were regular updates in C&EN over the course of the legal proceedings as the case unfolded, reports in Council of the case status by the Chair of the Board, as well as updates in the Councilor Bulletin. Perhaps a summary in C&EN tying all of the bits and pieces together that were published over time as the case unfolded would be helpful with links to the publically available information. My understanding is that the Chair of the Board reports which include Leadscope are posted on the ACS website.

The most recent report on Leadscope and the financial impact on ACS was by the Chair of the Board  and was presented in Council last Spring. I believe his remarks are posted on the ACS web.

My understanding is that the proceedings of this case are in the public record. To read a summary of the case prepared by the Supreme Court of Ohio’s Office of Public Information, click here: http://www.courtnewsohio.gov/cases/2012/SCO/0918/101335.asp

5. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the public perception of chemistry?

Outreach. Chemistry improves the lives of all. Communicating specific examples such as chemistry’s role in clean water, food safety, medicinal improvements, diagnostic techniques, etc.  that the general public experiences daily, but does not identify as chemistry. This would help make the connection between the role of chemistry and the improvements the general public experiences in daily life because of the contributions of chemists and chemistry. The ACS Landmarks Program does this to some degree. During the International Year of Chemistry, many examples of how chemistry improves life daily were posted on the ACS website. There is an opportunity to go the next step and more broadly communicate these.

6. What one specific item would you, as ACS President, make your first priority to improve the employment situation for chemists?

Ensure that all members and all chemists know of and have access to the many ACS employment tools and services already in place. Work with staff and members to further enhance, expand and improve these tools.

7. What is your favorite chemical compound with respect to color or smell?

My favorite chemical compound is caffeine, especially delivered in chocolate. It was my first total synthesis as an undergraduate.