Archive for the ‘Chemmys’ Category

Now Accepting Nominations for the 2012 Chemmy Awards

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013


Happy New Year!

The close of 2012 means that we must decide who will take home the ChemBark Chemmy Awards for excellence (and the opposite) in chemistry. This year’s categories are the same as the last two years’:

Outstanding Achievement/Paper in Organic or Biochemistry
Outstanding Achievement/Paper in Physical, Materials, Inorganic, or Analytical
News Story of the Year
Chemical Hero(ine) of the Year
Chemical Villain of the Year
Accident of the Year

The award winners will be announced later in the month. Please use the comments to make nominations. Here are some of my preliminary thoughts on contenders:

Breslow and the Spacedinos duplication scandal
ACS Publications vs. Jenica Rogers and other Librarians
The settlement of ACS v. Leadscope
Arsenic Death

What say you?

The 2011 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

The results have been tabulated, and it is time to announce the recipients of the Chemmy Awards for 2011! Following our centuries-old tradition, we begin by bestowing the statuettes on the winners of accident, hero(ine), and villain of the year.


Accident of the Year
The Boston College Thionyl Chloride Explosion

Yes, the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant was a much bigger story, but like the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010, it had more to do with engineering than chemistry. And while the fatal lathe accident at Yale occurred in the chemistry department’s machine shop, that horrific story also seemed not to have much to do with chemistry; the deceased student wasn’t even a chemistry major. The nitric acid explosion at Maryland was certainly a chemistry accident, but it did not measure up to what transpired at Boston College last summer. It was at BC that a grad student injured herself in a minor explosion while working with thionyl chloride. Rather than call the authorities, she inexplicably fled the blood-spattered scene and drove home. Concerned labmates later discovered and reported the accident, and emergency crews were dispatched to the student’s apartment to decontaminate her and treat her wounds. The accident—and its needlessly convoluted/expensive/disruptive aftermath—made the local TV news in Boston (1 2) and led to a thoughtful discussion in the blogosphere about the safety of working alone (1 2). Unfortunately, I don’t believe a final post mortem (including the cause of the accident) was ever released, but the major lesson was clear: report accidents promptly so they can be dealt with in an efficient manner.

Hero of the Year
Dan Shechtman

I don’t want to fall into a trap of continually granting the award to the most recent Nobel laureate, but in the case of Dan Shechtman, the Chemmy for Hero of the Year is richly deserved. The story of Shechtman and quasicrystals is one of perseverance and vindication. Shechtman’s peculiar discovery of a material with ten-fold symmetry was roundly ridiculed by experts in the field of crystallography—including the venerable Linus Pauling—but in the face of this immense pressure, Shechtman stuck by his analysis and waited for the field to come around. Under this intense pressure, the director of Shechtman’s research group wanted him to leave for bringing disgrace to the team, and it took two years to finally get the seminal quasicrystal work published. It was then that the really intense pressure started, but Shechtman held firm to his ostensibly counterintuitive analysis, which ultimately withstood the scrutiny of the community.

Also in the running for hero of the year were John Schwab (a champion of organic-chemistry funding at the NIH who retired this year), Rosie Redfield (who took it upon herself to do some of the “arsenic life” experimentation that Felisa Wolfe-Simon should have done), and Ahmed Zewail (who assisted with the political revolution in his native Egypt).

Villain of the Year
Linus Pauling

Linus Pauling remained dead in 2011, but the Nobel Prize announcement certainly raised several skeletons from his past. Before I lambast the man, let me start by calling attention to the fact that I rank Pauling as the greatest chemist of all-time. That said, he had his share of spectacular failures. Pauling missed the structure of DNA, his work with vitamin C was pure medical quackery, and his unrelenting dismissal of Shechtman’s discovery of quasicrystals was outright wrong. What was so villainous with regard to Pauling’s behavior in the last case was that he used his bully pulpit in the crystallography community to personally disparage Shechtman alongside the idea of quasicrystals. Pauling famously said, “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists,” and he mounted a relentless, vocal crusade against the idea until his death. Shechtman’s idea would ultimately prevail, and he summed up the situation quite nicely to the RSC: “At first I was alone against the world. In the end, Linus Pauling was alone against the world.”

There were a number of other contenders for this award. In 2011, the release of the results of Columbia’s investigation into the misconduct of Bengu Sezen finally verified the egregious nature of her conduct, first reported (here) in 2005. The actions of Felicia Wolfe-Simon in the wake of the “arsenic life” story were also worthy of reproach. Finally, Andrew Wakefield’s fraudulent link of MMR vaccination to autism also came to light last year.

Next up: the Chemmy Awards for the biggest news story and best papers of 2011.

Now Accepting Nominations for the 2011 Chemmys

Thursday, December 15th, 2011

We have reached the end of the year, which means that it is once again time to decide who will take home the ChemBark Chemmy Awards for excellence (or the opposite) in chemistry. The categories are the same as last year:

Outstanding Achievement/Paper in Organic or Biochemistry
Outstanding Achievement/Paper in Physical, Materials, Inorganic, or Analytical
News Story of the Year
Chemical Hero(ine) of the Year
Chemical Villain of the Year
Accident of the Year

The award winners will be announced in the first week of January. Please use the comments to make nominations. I have jotted down some of my favorites in each category, but I’ll wait a couple of days to share them. You first!

The 2010 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 2 of 2

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Let’s wrap things up with the final three Chemmy Awards for 2010.  Keep in mind, these awards are subjective as hell.  Imagine if the Nobel committee actually adhered to Nobel’s will and awarded the prize for the greatest achievements “during [just] the preceding year”.

Feel free to use the comments to call attention to other triumphs you feel worthy of recognition.


Best Paper in Biological or Organic Chemistry:  Re-engineering an Enzyme (to Make Sitagliptin)

For those unable (or unwilling) to read the full paper, Derek Lowe gave a very nice summary of it on In the Pipeline and Science published one too.  Basically, groups at Merck and Codexis were reducing a carbonyl group to a chiral primary amine to make sitagliptin, a drug for diabetes.  The catalytic hydrogenation reaction they were using wasn’t so great: the stereoselectivity was poor and the product became contaminated by the rhodium catalyst.   The chemists turned to biology, and found a transaminase that showed some activity for a modified substrate (smaller than what was needed, but still much bigger than the substrates that typically work for this enzyme).  The team then started doing mutagenesis (to the extreme) in order to screen for variants that could get the job done for the substrate.  The reaction only worked poorly at first, but the researchers were able to use computational methods and rational thought to keep moving in the right direction in their mutation/screening evolution experiments.  After a lot more work, they eventually engineered an enzyme  that was 100% stereoselective and worked under relatively high substrate loadings in water/DMSO with a simple reductant (isopropylamine).

The work is not only scientifically interesting—in terms of how you inform your approach to choose what mutations to go after, efficiently—but is also of immense practical value.  Many thanks to the commenters who nominated this paper.  And while we’re on the subject, the enzyme engineered for conducting Diels-Alder reactions was also pretty cool.


Best Paper in Physical, Inorganic, Analytical, or Materials Chemistry:  Trapped Antihydrogen

This paper (layman’s summary here) was glossed over by most chemists, but I think it’s pretty damn cool.  Antihydrogen atoms, which comprise one antiproton and one positron each, are the antimatter equivalents of hydrogen.  Antihydrogen is nothing new, but the atoms produced in accelerators always quickly collided with (and annihilated) matter…until 2010.  In November, a team at CERN reported that they could produce cold antihydrogen and, for the first time, trap it in a magnetic field.  They trapped single antihydrogen atoms for 170 milliseconds, reproducibly.  This is the first time that any antimatter has been trapped, and it’s a big step towards running experiments that can test current theories of our understanding of antimatter by measuring the energy levels in the atom and its response to electromagnetic and gravitational forces.

Do I think most people would classify this work as physics?  Yes, but it’s also of fundamental importance to chemistry.  If this paper is not chemical enough for you, maybe you can find some consolation in the fact that I almost picked Zewail’s Science report on 4-D electron tomography to win this award.


News Story of the Year:  The woeful job market for chemists

It was tempting to pick the arsenic-based life fiasco, but that story pales in comparison to the magnitude of the employment story.  The jobs scene for people involved in chemical research has been a concern all throughout the past year, and seems like it will be for all of 2011.   Pharma is shedding R&D positions like a husky blowing its coat.  In academic circles, the situation doesn’t seem as bad as it was in ’08-09 and ’09-10, but it’s still bad.  I can’t wait to go out for jobs.  Yippie.


More Coverage of the Best of 2010 in Chemistry and Science

C&EN’s Chemical Year in Review 2010
Chemistry World
Wired Magazine
Physics World
Science Magazine

The 2010 Chemmy Award Winners, Part 1 of 2

Wednesday, January 5th, 2011

And…we’re back.

Happy New Year, ‘Barkers!  I hope everyone had a nice break.  I am sorry to report that none of you sent me a gift for Christmas.  That’s OK—you can make it up to me by sending homemade baked goods to:

Paul Bracher
Mail Code 139-74
1200 E. California Blvd.
Pasadena, CA 91125

I could really use a peanut butter cookie right now. 

It’s time to officially close the books on 2010 with the announcement of the Chemmy Award winners.  I can tell you’re all very excited!  Let’s begin with the easiest three choices:

Accident of the Year:  Preston Brown and the Texas Tech NHP Explosion

I’m not going to argue that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the Hungarian sludgefest weren’t bigger accidents, but ChemBark is a blog that focuses on chemical research.  Picking a non-lab-related accident wouldn’t seem right.  The clear “winner” for this year’s award has got to be Preston Brown for his nickel hydrazine perchlorate explosion at Texas Tech.  The accident was a gruesome example of what happens when you ignore standard safety practices and don’t respect the hazards of shock sensitive chemicals.  The story of Preston’s permanent loss of three fingers serves as the latest chemical reminder of what has long been known in the U.S. submarine fleet: “the stupid shall be punished.”

Chemical Villain of the Year:  Dr. Dr. Bengu Sezen

After 4+ years,  Columbia University finally finished its investigation into the alleged misconduct in the laboratory of Dalibor Sames.   The school found—and the Office of Research Integrity agreed—that alumna Bengu Sezen committed 21 instances of scientific misconduct with regard to her work in C-H activation chemistry.  The fiasco resulted in the retraction of several papers.  (I am not sure that anyone has correctly reported the final tally of papers that were either fully or partially retracted.)   I still maintain that the Sames-Sezen case is the worst known example of scientific misconduct in the history of chemistry.  This award will probably be the last one that Dr. Dr. Sezen ever wins.

 Chemical Heroes of the Year:  Nobel laureates Richard Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi, and Akria Suzuki

The palladium boys finally brought home the bacon, and the great number of chemists irked by the absence of a Nobel Prize in structural biology gleefully proclaimed the trio’s triumph as a win for “real” chemistry.  The palladium Nobel was richly deserved and long overdue.  Huzzah.

With that said, the aftertaste of this Chemmy award is the feeling that our field still has no “face”.  Are their any perennial “popular” heroes of chemistry?  Who is the most famous or recognizable chemist in the world today?    Do we want (or need) a Stephen Hawking, Ed Whitten, Murray Gell-Mann, Grigory Perelman, James Watson, Craig Venter, Noam Chomsky, Jane Goodall, or Steven Pinker?  What about a Sanjay Gupta, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, James Hansen, Brain Greene, Michio Kaku, or Neil Degrasse-Tyson?  We card-carrying chemists nearly all have one or more personal heroes in chemistry, but is it a bad thing that no chemist has broken the bubble to appeal to a wider audience?

Next up:  The best papers of 2010 and the chemical news story of the year