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Science in the World Cup


So the World Cup is once again on top of us. I’m not a Football (Soccer) enthusiast but I’ve got to admit that the expectation of such a large and widely covered event is pretty contagious. This year, however, I’m very excited about the inaugural kick-off ceremony because a paraplegic teen will be the one to set the ball in motion, thanks to the use of an exoskeleton developed by the illustrious Brazilian researcher, Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, this patient will not only walk again but also perform a feat of equilibrium: kicking a football. More impressive than the exoskeleton itself is the brain-computer-machine interface since the patient will control the entire process by himself. Miguel Nicolelis is widely known and highly regarded in the scientific community; I’m not sure if he is that famous outside academia, but if he isn’t, he should be. The natural question about Dr. Nicolelis is what is he? Is he a robotics engineer? a neurologist? a programmer? a physician? The answer could be no other than ‘all of the above‘.

And even more impressive than all that, if that’s even possible, is the fact that this huge achievement of technology is presented at one of the most viewed sporting events on the planet. Brazilian organizers could have selected many things to kick-off this event: From Adriana Lima to Pelé; from a Samba line to aboriginal Amazonian people, but instead they chose to go with a scientific and technological breakthrough achieved by one of their own. I wonder if this is a way to tell the world they are interested in investing in science and technology as a way to pave the way of their economical and social development. Brazil is currently regarded as a fast growing nation economically although the social disparity seems to be still quite large. The message I’m getting, at least in principle, is that Brazil is a modern nation with high regard for scientific development on which they will rely their future.

Kudos to the Brazilian organizers who thought of placing this large scientific breakthrough in a sporting event, proving that this world should become boundless and the way to do it is through science.

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First graduated student!


Today is truly a landmark in our lab because on this day, María Eugenia “Maru” Sandoval-Salinas has defended her thesis and has thus obtained her B. Sc. in Chemistry. She is the first student under my supervision to achieve this goal, and I hope it won’t be long until we get some more, although now the bar has been set quite high. For the time being, Maru is pursuing a career in the pharmaceutical industry but has every intention of coming back to the lab for her Masters degree; she has a reserved spot here with us at CCIQS.

Hard work pays off - We wait for you to come back for your Masters Degree!

Hard work pays off – We wait for you to come back for your Masters Degree!

Maru’s thesis deals mainly, but not exclusively, with calculating the interaction energies of calix- and thia-calix[n]arenes with the tyrosine kinase inhibitor Imatinib, which is widely used in the treatment of Chronic Myeloid Leukemia (CML), in order to rationally design a drug delivery agent for this drug. Her work is (a huge) part of an article currently under revision that I only wish had been published before her defense. Still, we await for that paper to be published in the next few weeks.

Throughout her stay at our lab, Maru was a dedicated student willing to learn new skills every time. As she replied today to one of the questions: “it’s not so much how many calculations I got right, but how many I got wrong!“. I find deep meaning in this sentence, perhaps deep enough as to consider it an aphorism, because indeed the more we try the more we fail, and the more we fail the more we learn and the closer we get to success.

Congratulations, Maru! I personally thank you for all the hard work invested in your thesis, all the long hours in front of the computer and your disposition to learn and work during the last 1.5 years. I’m certain you’ll find success in any venture you undertake; and I’m certain of it because you never stop trying.

Taking the Oath after being unanimously approved

Taking the Oath after being unanimously approved

#RealTimeChem – Happy birthday DNA!


What a happy coincidence -if indeed it was- that #RealTimeChem week happened to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the three seminal papers published in Nature on this day back in 1953, one of which was co-authored by J. Watson and F. Crick; of course I mean the publication for the first time of the structure of deoxyribose nucleic acid, or DNA, as we now call it.

You can get the original Nature papers from 1953 here at: http://www.nature.com/nature/dna50/archive.html (costs may apply)

Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: A Structure for Deoxyribose Nucleic Acid 737

J. D. WATSON & F. H. C. CRICK
doi:10.1038/171737a0

Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids: Molecular Structure of Deoxypentose Nucleic Acids 738
M. H. F. WILKINS, A. R. STOKES & H. R. WILSON
doi:10.1038/171738a0

Molecular Configuration in Sodium Thymonucleate 740
ROSALIND E. FRANKLIN & R. G. GOSLING
doi:10.1038/171740a0

Nature’s podcast released two episodes (called ‘pastcast’) to celebrate DNA’s structure’s birthday, one of them is an interview with Dr. Raymond Gosling who in 1953 worked under Dr. Rosalind Franklin at King’s College London in diffractometry of biological molecules. If you haven’t listened to them you can get them here at nature.com/nature/podcasts. Of course, the history around the discovery of DNA’s structure is not without controversy and it has been long argued that the work of Franklin and Gossling didn’t get all deserved credit from Watson and Crick. In their paper W&C acknowledge the contribution of the general nature of DNA from the unpublished results by Franklin’s laboratory but that is as far as they went, they didn’t even mention photo 51 which Crick saw at Wilkins laboratory, who in turn got it from Gossling at Franklin’s suggestion. Still, no one can deny that the helical structure with which we are now familiar is their work, and more importantly the discovery of the specific pairing, which according to Gossling was a stroke of genious that probably couldn’t have happened in his own group, but without Franklin’s diffraction and Gossling’s crystallization  there was little they could do. Details about the process used to crystallize DNA can be heard in the aforementioned podcast, along with an inspiring tale of hard work by Dr. Gossling. Go now and listen to it, its truly inspiring.

For me it was not the story of a helix, that I was familiar with; it was the story of the specific pairing of two hélices
– Dr. Raymond Gosling

Famous Photo 51 by Dr. Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (Source: Wikipedia)

The iconic Photo 51 by Dr. Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling (Source: Wikipedia)

Above, the iconic Photo 51 taken by Franklin and Gossling (have you ever noticed how most scientists refer to Franklin just as Rosalind but no one refers to Watson as James? Gender bias has a role in this tale too) To a trained crystallographer, the helical symmetry is evident from the diffraction pattern but going from Photo 51 to the representation below was the subject of hard work too.

Modern DNA representation (Source: Wikipedia)

Modern DNA representation (Source: Wikipedia)

There are million of pages written during the last 60 years about DNA’s structure and its role in the chemistry of life; the nature of the pairing and the selectivity of base pairs through hydrogen bond interactions, an interaction found ubiquitously in nature; water itself is a liquid due to the intermolecular hydrogen-bonds, which reminds us about the delicate balance of forces in biochemistry making life a delicate matter. But I digress. Millions of pages have been written and I’m no position of adding a meaningful sentence to them; however, it is a fascinating tale that has shaped the course of mankind, just think of the Human Genome Project and all the possibilities both positive and negative! DNA and its discovery tale will continue to amaze us and inspire us, just like in 2011 it inspired the Genetech company to set a Guiness World Record with the largest human DNA helix.

Genetech SF, Cal. USA (Source worldrecordacademy.com)

Genetech SF, Cal. USA (Source worldrecordacademy.com)

Happy birthday, DNA!

Institute of Chemistry Library flood – UNAM


If a mind is a terrible thing to waste, then wasting a collective mind is an even more terrible thing. During the past weekend the library at the institute of chemistry suffered a flood caused by a broken pipe just above it, which incidentally happens to be the lab were I used to work as an undergrad student. When it comes to scientific journals, our institute still relies a lot on paper issues for the oldest numbers; we can order them online but it’s just easier to Xerox it at the library if you really need to read that old reference.

This morning the librarians were appalled when noticed not only the huge puddle on the floor but all the books and scientific journals that were dripping water from the shelves. The broken pipe has been fixed and the water on the floor has been mopped. It is now the books the ones that suffer the aftermath of this accident. Not only saving the information was important; wet paper is a great culture media for fungi which in turn could pose a health threat to all users. The administrative staff immediately got to work in recruiting academics and students to help the drying process: “Heal a book!“, they informally called it. Everyone grabbed an item and with the help of industrial blow dryers – the kind we use in chemistry labs to dry wet glassware – and an extraordinary amount of paper towels, each person got to dry the journals page by page.

I got an item that corresponded to the British journal New Scientist, which consisted of about fifteen issues from the year 1980. When I noticed the title in my hand I wanted to switch it. Should we save first those journals with the highest impact factor? or should we work on those that are most relevant to our own research? Should we throw away Chemical Abstracts now that the whole database is online? After all, New Scientist is a magazine which summarizes research that has already been peer reviewed and published; it is journalistic work, not peer reviewed science. But I was afraid to look pedantic so I got to work on drying it.

Kudos to the library staff on organizing in promptu “Heal a book!”

Students as well as the academic and administrative staff drying journals

Each person had their own technique. Some journals had their binding covers still in good shape so they were placed open standing on the floor in front of fans. Some placed paper towels carefully between pages and after a while they would remove them and then use the blow dryer. I thought that if I heated the edges of the paper and thus dried them, capillarity would drive the moisture in the innermost part of each page outwards. Didn’t quite work, at least not in a pragmatic time scale, so I went back to page by page.

I’m glad I did so. That way I was able to find some real pieces of history which could make any scientist nostalgic. For example: I took these photos with my iPod, and if you are by any chance reading this piece on an iPhone, you must find the following  picture about Swedish research endearing.

An ancient iPad or an edgy ‘Etch-a-Sketch‘?

Yes, online doodling games were already a thought back in 1980!

Are you subscribed to this blog? That means you got a notification by e-mail. So what? No big deal! Well, back in 1980 Britain was getting excited over a new form of comunication called the ‘Electronic Mail’ (available only at a couple of post offices). Besides, you wouldn’t have been able to get that message nor read this post on an HP Matrix Machine (you can’t even find a decent link in google about it nowadays!)

But scientists are not all about working, we like games too! So how about purchasing a ‘Hungarian Magic Cube‘ or a ‘Chess Computer‘?

An 80’s sensation!

E-chess

We also love a juicy piece of gossip. For instance, did you know that John Maddox was a controversial editor for Nature back in the 70’s who, as a student, went into chemistry because if he’d gone into physics he could’ve been drafted by the army in WWII to work on radars? Well me neither. But it seems that we should have known who he was, and now we do.

Sir John Maddox

There were many pieces of science news that nearly kept me in the library all night, if not for the fact that I had to drive 50 miles from Mexico City to my place in Toluca, but the one that captured my attention more than any other was the news of a European dream envisioned more than three decades ago; a dream from a group of scientists about looking for answers, like any other group of scientists, answers that are fundamental for the understanding of our universe and the understanding of matter, back when some of the biggest questions hadn’t even been fully posed, this group of visionaries agreed on taking the necessary steps to build an enormous subatomic-particle Supercollider for the European Center for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN.

The announcement of grand things to come

Back in 1980 I was already alive but I was only two years old. I could barely talk and had no idea what the word ‘future‘ meant, let alone what I’d become when it reached me. Now, even if I’m not a particle physicist I get excited about the news regarding the finding of the Higgs Boson and even if I’m not an astronomer I also get excited about pictures from the Curiosity Rover on Mars. I am a scientist. One out of hundreds of thousands or perhaps even millions, and this is part of my collective memory, the memory of the work of those who paved the road for us, those giants upon whose shoulders we struggle day by day to stand with dignity and against all odds. But here is the thing: those giants are actually made of dwarfs, millions of them; millions of us. Thousands and thousands of papers written, reviewed and published; papers that collectively gather the scientific experience summed up in rigorous experiments both successful and failed.

Preserving the information in those wet journals is important despite the fact you can get them all online. I hope one day a bored chemistry grad student goes to the library and browses old issues of New Scientist and other journals just for fun; they’ll go for a trip down a collective Memory Lane which will remind them that if they can dream it in the present, they can make it come true in the future.

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) and his influence on me…


I was first introduced to Bradbury’s writing in 1989 during my first year in junior high school (here in Mexico that is the 7th grade; I was eleven years old then) by my literature teacher Ángel Molina-Aja at LOGOS School, a progressive institution in southern Mexico City; so now with the departure of the grand master of Science Fiction I can’t help but to think about Ángel and his possible motivations for making us read ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ of all possible books. It is pretty obvious now that his intention was to engage us in literature (prior to ‘Chronicles‘ we read ‘The Hobbit‘) and to make us read something that would in turn make us want to read more and so by reading we would open a world of possibilities to ourselves. His job as a literature teacher wasn’t just to make us learn about literature but to learn how to appreciate it for the values that leaves in our lives, whatever our own inclinations were. As I’ve written before, science fiction is a usual common denominator to us people working in science because we deal with imagining how to bring to life things and ideas that are currently nonexistent. Whether we create new materials with new applications or we come up with wacky mathematical theories that describe the intricacies of the universe, we all have to first set our imaginations free and believe everything is possible. In this way we are sometimes less pragmatical (albeit not necessarily more creative) than lawyers, business people and the like. Education should then be formative, not informative, in order to make an intellectually resourceful population in every area of the human and social development. Here in Mexico the average reading habit is less than 1 book a year per person! and with the upcoming presidential elections and the respective campaigns, it becomes obvious that a poorly read people is a very manipulable one. And the idea of an ignorant population kept in line by the ruling powers through alienating them from literature is the main theme of Bradbury’s other masterpiece ‘Fahrenheit 451‘, in which a fireman is a person who starts fires in order to destroy books (it is widely known by now thanks to this novel that 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature at which common paper ignites itself). In ‘Fahrenheit 451‘ books are banned because they make people unhappy and unsettled by showing them a world of possibilities that they may or may not achieve, so it is safer to just satisfy people basic needs, which include 24 hours of personalized TV programming on every wall of their homes (sounds familiar?), and by doing so they wont question their leaders or their position in society. They just wont have dreams! That’s the bottom line. The many troubles of my country won’t be solved by people reading Bradbury, but if I was engaged into literature by ‘Chronicles‘, among other books from other authors, and by that engagement I was able to discover the world of science and decide I wanted to become one, then the ripple or domino effect triggered by reading, reached its goal; a goal set by my teachers, to whom I will be always most thankful. I wish I could post a picture of my old copy of ‘Chronicles‘ but I guess it’s back at my parents place all worn out. I have to remember taking a picture of it next time I visit my folks. Here is a picture of my old copy of the Spanish translation to ‘Chronicles‘ all worn out thanks to me and my sister, I guess. Thanks to my dad and his ninja-dropbox-skills for getting this picture for me!

My old copy of “Martian Chronicles” in Spanish bought in 1989. Thanks to my dad for taking this picture and using his ninja dropbox skills 🙂

Bradbury’s work and specially ‘The Martian Chronicles‘ romanticized the idea of space exploration. What a huge coincidence, in a sort of a poetic way, that his departure occurred on the same day as the transit of Venus, a phenomenon that will not occur for another 105 years. I wrote earlier on my facebook page that he did not died, that he only went back to Venus. I was close to not posting it for it might be in bad taste, but then I thought that I don’t know what happens when we die and nobody else in the world does either, so this is as valid as any other hypothesis but only more romantically so.

Rest in peace Mr. Ray Bradbury and may this be a thankful testimony for all those hours of rational entertainment and enlightenment.

Supramolecular Chemistry to celebrate a Supra-collaboration


For over twenty years, there has been an ongoing scientific collaboration between the Institute of Chemistry  of the National Autonomous University of Mexico and the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering of the Babes-Bolyai University located in the city of Cluj-Napoca, Romania. It all began back in the early nineteen nineties when Professor Lara, then director of Instituto de Química, extended an invitation to Professor Ionel Haiduc, who at the time served as Vice President of the Romanian Academy, to spend a few months in Mexico for a research stay. Later on prof. Dr. Ioan Silaghi-Dumitrescu and his wife paid a couple of visits to our institution also during the nineties; their last visit together occurred in 2002 when prof. Ioan Silaghi-Dumitrescu was asked to teach a small course on molecular modelling. It was during this visit that I came to know about the Babes-Bolyai University and more importantly, it was when I met both Prof. Ioan Silaghi and his wife Prof. Luminita Silaghi, an acquaintance that shaped many aspects of my life in the years to come. Other Romanian guests came to work at IQUNAM, such as Dr. Ion Grosu, who worked as a postdoc with Prof. Roberto Martínez in the Organic Synthesis department. Prof. Cristian Silvestru also collaborated with the group of Dr. Raymundo Cea-Olivares in the field of Main Group Metal Chemistry. Prof. Raymundo Cea-Olivares has been to Cluj-Napoca a couple of times visiting the lab of the late Prof. Silaghi. I went for a research stay during my Ph. D. in 2005 and then went back to occupy a postdoctoral position in late 2008 which lasted until 2010; I also participated in the MolMod seminar in 2007 while working at a private research center, then thinking I wouldn’t go back to academia. Dr. Liviu Bolundut, a then Ph. D. student of Prof. Haiduc’s, came to work with Dr. Monica Moya also in the field of Main Group Metal Chemistry. The interaction between our two institutions has a sound history.

As part of the celebrations of this year, the International Year of Chemistry, I issued an invitation to Prof. Ionel Haiduc and Prof. Luminita Silaghi-Dumitrescu, to give a couple of lectures at IQUNAM about their current research. Fortunately, they accepted and found the time in their tight schedules to come. We were also fortunate enough to get the official approval by the corresponding committee at UNESCO of making these conferences part of the official celebrations of IYC 2011 (In fact, they were the ones who came up with the name of the event which is the name of this post as well.) The scope of this visit also included to encourage our scientific community to keep the collaborations alive with UBB. We had these conferences twice, first at CCIQS here in Toluca and also at the original facilities of IQUNAM on the main University campus in Mexico City. Both events were successful in attracting a large number of researchers but more remarkably a large number of young students who have read about their work and are aware of their reputation on their respective fields; the following picture of our guests with young students of UAEMex, serves as proof.

But I get ahead of myself, for in fact we did more than just having lectures and showing them our new facilities. During the course of their stay,which lasted a bit more than a week, Professor Cea-Olivares and I took them around to do some tourism. During their first weekend I took them to the Folkloric Ballet at the Fine Arts Palace and to the Anthropology Museum, both in Mexico City. We also went together to the Aztec ruins of the city center and the larger archaeological site of Teotihuacan, where Mrs. Iovanca Haiduc even got to climb the Sun’s Pyramid, a challenge to which I decided to pass this time. Prof. Cea-Olivares took them outside Mexico City into Cuernavaca and Taxco, the latter being an old silver mining town famous for its jewelry stores filled with Ag merchandise. We all had a great time traveling around, chatting and in general enjoying each others company.

Haiduc Silaghi Barroso

At the Anthropology Museum with the Aztec Calendar

Haiduc Silaghi Barroso-Flores

At Teotihuacan

But now back to science. Prof. Haiduc’s lecture was titled “News in Supramolecular Chemistry”, in it he talked about the basics of supramolecular chemistry as the branch of chemistry that deals with the non-covalently bonded chemical species; the chemistry of secondary interactions as defined by Allcock in 1972. A survey of the existing x-ray structures database was performed by Prof. Haiduc along with his colleague Prof. Julio Zukerman-Schpector in Brasil, in order to find some previously overlooked patterns in intermolecular arrays containing Te (II) or Te (IV) along with aromatic groups, revealed that the Te – Ar interactions through the Π electrons cloud are found more often than previously believed. The most remarkable feature of this array is the fact that the electron density in the formation of such interactions stems from the Te atom (through the stereochemically active lone pair) and into the LUMO of the aromatic moiety in the second molecule. This represents a fascinating coordination mode for Te organometallic compounds!

Prof. Luminita Silaghi-Dumitrescu talked about her research on heterotopic As ligands, some of which exhibit remarkable new coordination patterns stabilizing dinuclear complexes with late transition metals. I felt nostalgic reading the names of old friends and colleagues who collaborated in the work described.

Prof. Haiduc (who is currently President of the Romanian Academy) shared many anecdotes about his times as a PhD student at the Lomonosov Institute  back in the Soviet Union under the supervision of Prof. Andrianov. From these anecdotes it is possible to extract the feeling of doing science during the Cold War period since he had to be weary of espionage, which by the way went both ways! He talked about secret research facilities and scooped papers. One could easily think that basic chemistry research would be far from the interest of high political powers who could find aeronautical research more interesting! A developed country is able to acknowledge the value of science in preserving a strategic position in the world. His old advisor, Prof. Andrianov, was considered a hero by the Soviet Party among other things for his work on Silicon based polymers which were used as lubricants in heavy machinery and vehicles during War War II. German tanks used regular carbon based oil which in the Russian winter became extremely viscous, practically became gels! while Silicon based oil could almost preserve its original viscosity at very cold temperatures.

In summary it was a great opportunity to learn from great chemists whose scientific reputations could easily overwhelm any scientist worth his salt! But it was above all things a great opportunity to meet once again dear friends from a dear country I once got to call home.

2011 – International Year of Chemistry

“Chemistry – Our life, our future”

“The Learn’d Astronomer” by Walt Whitman (ca. 1900)


Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman

When I heard the learn’d astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and the diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

-Walt Whitman-

Science and awe go hand in hand. The more we learn; the more we know, the more in awe we grow. To learn is to discover, and to discover is to be reborn; for the fact of stumbling upon something new refreshes our capacity of being surprised and amazed like when we were little kids. This year is the International Year of Chemistry, so it is a perfect time for telling people who are not scientists to regard science as the human activity of the “awe”. Nowadays, and in some regards, it requires to be a “learn’d scientist” in order to be awed by a new discovery, but every single living scientist on the planet today was once awed, whether by nature or by a passionate teacher in a classroom. So let us remember what it was like to be awed and lets all look at nature with youthful eyes willing to unravel its secrets instead of taking them for granted.

In order to be a learned astronomer one must first gaze at the stars in awe and wonder…

2011, International Year of Chemistry

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