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Annual state of the Research Group

Like everybody else, we are doing a brief recount of the achievements of this lab during 2016 if for no better reason because it helps me map my annual report.

We published seven articles:

  1. A Mixed DFT-MD Methodology for the In Silico Development of Drug Releasing Macrocycles. Calix and Thia-Calix[n]Arenes as Carriers for Bosutinib and Sorafenib Journal of Computational Chemistry 2016, 37, 10, 940–946
  2. In silico design of calixarene-based arsenic acid removal agents J Incl Phenom Macrocycl Chem (2016) 85:169–174
  3. Aromatization of pyridinylidenes into pyridines is inhibited by exocyclic delocalization. A theoretical mechanistic assessment Tetrahedron 72 (2016) 4194-4200
  4. Reactivity of electrophilic chlorine atoms due to σ-holes: a mechanistic assessment of the chemical reduction of a trichloromethyl group by sulfur nucleophiles Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys., 2016, 18, 27300-27307
  5. Ab Initio Modeling Of Friction Reducing Agents Shows Quantum Mechanical Interactions Can Have Macroscopic Manifestation J. Phys. Chem. A, 2016, 120 (46), pp 9244–9248
  6.  Crystal Structure and DFT Studies of 4-Methyl-N-(1-phenylethyl)-N´-(1-phenylethylidene)benzenesulfonohydrazide. Evidence of a carbene insertion in the formation of acetophenone azine fromacetophenone p-toluensulfonyl hydrazone. Canadian Journal of Chemistry 2016 (doi: 10.1139/cjc-2016-0183)
  7. Synthesis and Crystal Structures of Stable 4-Aryl-2-(trichloromethyl)-1,3-diaza-1,3-butadienes Synthesis 2016, 48, 2205–2212

Two students got their degrees:

  1. María Eugenia “Maru” Sandoval got her Masters Degree with a thesis on mechanisms for the excitonic transference in photosynthetic pigments.
  2. Gustavo “Gus” Mondragón got his Bachelor of Sciences Degree also with a thesis on mechanisms for the excitonic transference in photosynthetic pigments.

And even a patent was filed! (more on that next year when appropriate.)

We participated in the annual Mexican Meeting on Theoretical Physical Chemistry with four posters and the internal symposium both at CCIQS and the Institute of Chemistry.

2016 was a great year for us and we hope to have an even better 2017 but just as before it will only be possible thanks to the hard work and dedication of all the members of this lab, -some of which have now left us to pursuit higher ends like Maru Sandoval who leaves for Spain and Guillermo Caballero who is already at Cambridge- and also to my colleagues who keep inviting us to collaborate in exciting projects. We have new members in the lab and also new research interests but the one common denominator throughout the years in the lab is fun; having fun in doing chemistry always.

Thank you to everyone who has ever read this blog and to those who have dropped a line here and there; I know I’ve neglected this space during this year, I want to fix it in 2017. May next year be awesome for everyone; lets make it so!

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.

Negotiations gone wrong and other recent scandals

About a month ago my wife and I got invited by our good friend Dr. Ruperto Fernandez (his PhD is in transport logistics and engineering) to his final presentation for a course in managerial skills he’d taken for over six months, and while I wasn’t all that thrilled about waking up at 8 AM on a Saturday, I went to cheer my good friend and show him my sleepy support. His presentation dealt with negotiations and the required skills to master them, and while he agreed that there is a huge amount of talent involved in being a good negotiator, he also pointed out that some basic knowledge of the procedure can go a long way in helping us with little to no talent in achieving the best possible outcome. Basically, a negotiation involves the agreement between a person with something which another person wants; meeting both parties expectations at the fullest extent possible is the ideal endpoint for an iterative give-and-take between them. Or so it goes.

Recently a scandal that involved the biology freelance blogger DNLee, who blogs for Scientific American with the column The Urban Scientist, took place: DNLee was asked by to write for them. Then the negotiation started; she had something the editors wanted: her texts. She agreed to do it and presented her fee (second part of the negotiation process: “I got what you want and here is what I ask in return for it“), instead of having an offer made (third part of the negotiation process: “ok, that is what you want but this is what I can give you“) the blogger got a nasty message, which I believe maybe was intended to elicit a response to better accommodate the editor’s demands but that was nothing more than a plain nasty insult: The editor asked if she was the urban scientist or the urban whore (end of negotiation; nobody got anything. Furthermore, feelings were hurt, reputations questioned and the door for future negotiations between both parties was shut completely). If the editor was unable to pay any fee at all then the editor should have tried to convince the blogger of participating for free; I would have offered her a bigger space than a regular blogger, or maybe even invited her to participate as an editor. I’m not sure they have some sort of business model but something could have been arranged. Had this negotiation not met at any point in the middle then a polite thank you could have left the door open for a future time. DNLee has a reputation that allows her to charge for her writings, had it been me, I’d probably had done it for free but because I need more exposure than her who is already famous. Internet support came promptly and hard as can be seen here and here, not that it wasn’t called for, of course!

But the issue, sadly, didn’t end there, DNLee wrote about this in her blog at SciAm, but the post was later on deleted by the editors. Dr. Mariette DiChristina tweeted that the post wasn’t related to science so it didn’t fit in the site. Pressure in blogs and other social networks prompted SciAm to place the article back on the site. Click here to go to the post.

Calling someone a whore is simply unacceptable.

During his presentation, my friend Dr. Ruperto Fernandez, talked about a negotiation he had with a potential employer. According to his account of the process, it ended quite swiftly when he was offered a much lower salary than the one he currently earns. He said the offer had some good points that could have made him accept even 5 to 10% less income respect to his current salary, but much less than that would not help him cover the bills and that was a total deal-breaker. But the talk didn’t end there, some other joint projects were laid for them to work on together and the door is still open for the future when they may be able to match my friend’s expectations as biology-online should have done with DNLee.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for the Scientific American community; first this and now the leaving of a great science writer, Bora Zivcovic whose misconduct has forced his exit out of the popular magazine. So now the aftermath for both issues remains to be seen. Sexism, though, could be found to be a common denominator in both cases: one was a victim of it, the other one is guilty of inflicting it through various instances of sexual harassment. Should this mean that biology-online, Bora Zivcovic and the affiliated-to-the-two-previous parties, the Scientific American Magazine, are to be deemed as unworthy? I hardly think so. None of us is close to sanctity and we all make mistakes, some of them willingly and other unwillingly but we are accountable for each and every one of them nonetheless; but at the same time we should also be able to separate both sides of each story and keep the best of each side while keeping a close eye (and even a loud mouth) about the wrong in each side.

I wish nothing but the best to every person involved in any of these recent events. Why is it so hard for people to just ‘play nice‘? I’ve heard many times this world would be a better place if we cared more for each other, but sometimes it seems that its actually the opposite; that this world would be be better if we didn’t care so much: if we didn’t care about the color of our skin; our gender; our nationality or ethnicity; our sexual orientation; our social status. This brings me back yet again to that presentation by Dr. Fernandez, where he was asked to describe the way he was perceived by others at his workplace and he said he didn’t quite enjoy social interactions so he is perceived as serious and aloof but was always willing to join a new project, so when reached out for one of these he’s all smiles and work. Shouldn’t we all back off a little bit from each other from time to time?

My take on GMO’s

September’s issue of Scientific American is all about food; food and food science, that is. In it, there are a couple of articles on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s) and there is also this blog post in their website being in favor of GMO’s, and I for one, stand by them. There is a global science illiteracy problem going on which accounts for the fear and misinformation most people get on important issues and the fear against GMO’s is one of them and a particularly disturbing one since it deals with a primal necessity of mankind, one that cannot be disregard at any time: Food.

I think when lay people hear GMO immediately think of some sort of Frankenstein plant or some other horror movie monster. For some reason people think technology=good and food=good but food-through-technology=really-bad. Of course we should be weary of what we put on our tables but in order to be weary we first must be thoroughly informed. Us people in favor of controlled GMO technology tend to give these boring arguments on DNA and vectors and so on while the opponents gather more fans with the more alluring image of the Franken-corn! Let me use a real life example to start this discussion

Let me use a human example: My wife has an amazing health. She gets the flu once every year (if at all!); gets knocked down for a couple of days and that’s it! she is back on her feet working and partying the following 363 days of the year. I, on the other hand, am not that lucky. I’get congested very easily with changes in temperature, so every time we go swimming (twice a week, if at all) I end up sneezing my lungs out afterwards. My gastrointestinal system is also very faulty, I easily get… well, you get the picture. Whenever we have kids, it would be easy to presume that they will be not as healthy as their mother but not as sickly as their old man, but something rather in the middle. It could also be the case they were entirely like one of us in the health department, who knows! Lets say they are in the middle. We have now performed a genetic modification which improves my genetic traits. My hypothetical kid is now an improved version of myself but not so much of their mom’s, but definitely not a clone of neither! These hypothetical kids will be humans, just like their mom and I. The key in the above hypothetical procedure is the statistical variability in it. We should have many kids so around half of them had an intermediate health (assuming no genetic trait is more dominant than the other). With plants is the same thing: You might have some corn species with huge grains but low resistance to droughts while other species might need less water to fully grow although the product is not as good as the former. When combined, both species will yield, hopefully, an intermediate species which can be iteratively improved until we achieve corn with big grains and low water demands.

What we cannot do now, is to have these hypothetical kids reproduce with one of their parents as to yield an even healthier human! But when it comes to plants, such as corn or wheat, incest is not an issue. Pollinationcross pollination and plant grafting do exactly this by combining the traits of some species with another’s. Almost no food found in any market has not gone through this process through the last couple hundred years. But this Higher Power (I mean of course farmers and botanists) that has yield this delicious and nutritious vegetables available to us, have worked on a trial and error fashion. Nowadays we can be more precise on what traits we want our vegetables to have from one generation to the next by using genetic engineering techniques. With GMO’s we can create more food resources with a lower energy investment, a key issue in sustainable development of any nation; we can also address some nutrition deficiencies just like it was done in The Phillipines where beta-carotene (the yellow pigment in oranges and carrots) was introduced into rice in order to attack a Vitamin-A deficiency in kids that was rendering them blind.

Europe doesn’t allow the sale of any processed food containing GMO’s while in the US almost no processed food doesn’t include, at any level of their production, a GMO ingredient, but the reason behind this is because in Europe the debate ended before it began while in the US there is still debate on whether to add a label specifying the presence of GMO’s on every food product. The inclusion of such label, at this stage, would only add up to people’s fear of GMO’s because it would be perceived as a ‘warning‘ instead of just as ‘information‘.  Scientific literacy is urgent not just so a good decision is taken but to start the debate! At this point the only thing keeping those labels away from supermarket products is the billions of dollars in lobbying by big companies such as Monsanto (which is not the devil, please put away your crucifixes) and DuPont. But the issue shouldn’t be about money, it should be about the way scientific reasoning should steer the decision making process in this and any other controversial issue.

The potential benefits of GMO are central to the sustainable life and development of our nations, so instead of fearing them lets understand them first.

How to read (and perhaps even write) a scientific paper

This post was inspired by this other one, featured in WordPress’ Freshly Pressed section, on how should non-scientist read a scientific paper.  While the approach presented therein is both valid and valuable, I’d like to address the way I think a scientist should read a paper, given the fact that we need to read a lot of them at all times. Each scientist has their own reading style, not to mention their own writing style, and while my CV could indicate I don’t know how to do neither one, here I present to you my scientific-paper-reading style which I consider to be the most suitable for me.

I’d like to start by emphasizing that I dive into scientific literature in a bona fide fashion. That is not to say I’m totally naive or even gullible, but even when science is all about questioning and casting doubt onto all sorts of claims, we can’t re-develop every bit of science we need. At a certain point we must start *gasp* believing trusting other scientists’ claims. Reading in what I call bona fide is not mutually exclusive with critical reading. This sort of scientific trust is earned, to a degree, mostly by two indicators: Author’s preceding reputation at the time of publication of any given paper as well as the journal’s. Both indicators aren’t without controversy and flaw.

The way I read a paper is the following: I start with the Abstract, then follow with the Conclusions, then the Results section, sometimes I read the details of the methodology and seldom read the Introduction. Let me explain.

I read the abstract first because I read in bona fide as I hope the authors wrote the paper in bona fide. If properly written, the abstract should include all the relevant information as to what was done, why, and how but also point to the knowledge derived from it all: Their conclusions! and that is why I follow with that section. I’m interested in knowing what the authors learned and ultimately want me to learn about their study. Once again I’m reading in bona fide, so I hope they weren’t tempering their results to fit their preconceptions, that all experiments were thoroughly self-judged, validated, correlated, referenced and controlled. Recently, my sister Janet, who is a physicist working on her PhD in neuroscience, told me about some friends of hers who never (shall I say, never have I ever?) read the conclusions as to not becoming biased by the authors. To me it seems like too much work having to scrutinize every piece of data again in order to come up with my own conclusions when authors, collaborators, people on the hallway down the lab (optional), referees and editors (vide infra) have already (hopefully) done it (properly). Still I put on my scientist badge and question everything I critically read in the results section trying thus to understand how did the authors reached their conclusions and asking myself if I could come up with something entirely different. No? OK, how about something slightly different? Still no? Well, do I agree with the authors on their findings and their observed results? And so on. I like thinking that my critical reading process resembles the Self Consistent Field method which iteratively reaches the best wavefunction for a set of certain given conditions, but it never reaches the exact one.

The methodology section is a bit tricky, specially when it comes to computational chemistry. Back when I was a grad student, working in an inorganic chemistry lab, I’d only read the methodology if I had any plans of reproducing the experiment, other than that I didn’t care too much if reagents were purchased from Aldrich or Fluka or if the spectrophotometer was a Perkin Elmer one, I just expected authors to have purified their reagents prior to usage and calibrated all spectrophotometers. Now in computational chemistry I read about the methods employed, which functional and what basis set were used and why were they selected are my most frequent questions, but the level of theory is usually stated in the abstract. I also take a look at what methods were used to calculate which properties; these questions are important when we have to validate our trust in the results in front of us.

Finally, I seldom read the introduction because, if the paper is relevant to my own research, I don’t need to read why is important or interesting, I’m already sold on that premise! that is why I’m reading the paper in the first place! If both me and the author act in bona fide, we both already know what the state of the art is, so lets move on because I have a ton of other papers to read. Hence, I read the introduction only when I’m trying to immerse myself in a new field or when reading something that seems interesting but which has little to do with my area of expertise. There is another reason why I almost never read introductions and that is that, even when I try to work in bona fide, there are a lot of people out there who don’t. Twice have I received the reviews from a mysterious referee who believes it would serve the work a great deal to cite two, maybe three, other papers which he or she lists for your convenience, only to find out that they all belong to the same author in each case and that they are not quite entirely related to the manuscript.

In the title of this post I also try to address the writing of a scientific paper, although I’m not an authority on it, I think today’s key phrase is bona fide. So to young and not so young scientists out there I’d ask you to write in bona fide, please. Be concise. Be convincing. Be thorough and be critical. This is science we are doing, not stamp collecting. It shouldn’t be about getting all sorts of things out there, it is about expanding the knowledge of the human race one paper at a time. But we are humans; therefore we are flawed. More and more cases of scientific misconduct are found throughout the literature and nowadays, with the speed of blogging and tweeting, we can point at too many of them. The role of bloggers in pointing this frauds, of which I’ve written before here, is the subject of recent controversy and possibly the topic of a future post. We are all being scrutinized in our work but that shouldn’t be an excuse to make up data, tinker or temper with it, to push our own personal agendas or to gain prestige in an otherwise wild academic environment.

I for one may never publish in Science or Nature; I may never be selected for any important prize, but even the promise of achieving any of those is not worth the guilt trip of lying to an entire academic society. I try then, to always remember that science is not about getting the best answers, but about posing the right questions.

What is your own style for reading papers? Any criticism to my style? How different is the style of a grad student from that of a researcher?

As usual thanks for reading, rating and commenting!

Summer Internships

This week has been a happy one since four new additions to our staff have been made, at least for the summer, that is. Paulina, Eliana, Javier and Daniel have come to our lab from various different towns across the nation to spend six weeks working hard in small projects related to our lines of research; namely theoretical drug carriers design. This time the drug under study is known as GTP or 3-phenyl(1H-[1]benzofuro[3,2]pyrazole and calixarenes will once again act as the potential carriers.


Left to Right: Daniel, Javier, Paulina and Eliana
(Summer Interns – 2013)

They all came as part of the Dolphin Research Summer Program (link in Spanish only) in which college students spend a few weeks doing research in the lab of their choosing. This is the first time I participate as a tutor and I find it a great opportunity for young students to get familiar with certain aspects of science they wont learn inside school.

So far these past three days have been quite intense with them learning how to edit and submit a Gaussian calculation in a Linux environment. I’ve already taught them about geometry optimizations, frequency analysis, (natural) population analysis and Fukui reactivity indices calculation. There is much more to learn still, of course, but so far so good. I believe the major drawback so far has been their own eagerness since they’d like to have all the data imediately! Unfortunately they’ll have to wait for their initial calculations to converge. We started this week by doing some simple analysis of all the properties described above for the Cytosine-Guanine base pair at the B97D/6-31+G(d,p) level of theory. Luckily their calculation crashed promptly, and I find that lucky because that gave me the opportunity to teach them how to relaunch a failed calculation, which, unfortunatelly will happen more often than not.

So, welcome guys! Thanks for choosing this lab for doing your internships. I hope you find our research interesting and motivating, may this be the first step into a full time research career. Also, kudos to the Dolphin Staff for helping promote science in young Mexican students. Stay tuned for a guest post from all of them once they finish their time here.

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