RealTimeChem Live Tweeting UK Public Attitudes to Chemistry launch – 1st June 2015


Hello everybody,

I have some slightly different news to report today. I am pleased to announce that @RealTimeChem will be live tweeting from London on Monday 1st June at the launch of the results of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s research into UK Public Attitudes to Chemistry. You’ll be able to follow tweets about the event under the hashtag #chemperceptions. The launch will also be covered on YouTube in the form of a live stream starting at 3pm BST. 

You can find more information on the RSC’s website. This research represents the first national, in-depth study into what the UK public thinks and feels about the topics of chemistry, chemists and chemicals. I have had the privilege of participating in this project at various stages, in part due to my involvement with #RealTimeChem as well as working for the RSC, and I will say that the results are fascinating. I look forward to the discussions that this will spark among the community!

So, please tune in and follow #chemperceptions on the 1st June, I will be tweeting all day using the hashtag (whilst also keeping up with all of your wonderful #RealTimeChem of course!) so feel free to take part in the discussion as it unfolds.

-Doctor Galactic-

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Chemistry: Lost in Translation (sort of)

I’m Jason Hoshikawa, a 2nd year PhD student in the Kitagawa Lab at Kyoto University in Kyoto, Japan.My main area of focus is polymer synthesis and heterogenous catalysis using porous coordination polymers (PCPs).

The thing about working in the sciences (and maybe the arts too) is that we generally work in a multi-cultural environment. During my undergrad and Masters in the US, I was the native surrounded by foreign students. It was a wonderful experience. Many of the members of that group were from India, specifically from around the Hyderabad area. This turned out nicely for me because Indian food is my favorite food. When I entered my first research lab as an undergrad, I was assigned to work with a woman that makes the most amazing food. She quickly learned the key to motivating me to work hard in the lab. If I worked late enough, she would bring me dinner. I miss those dinners more than you can imagine.

Kyoto University's clocktower. - Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Kyoto University’s clock tower – Image Courtesy of Wikipedia.

But, now, I live in Japan where I am the foreign student surrounded by natives. Aside from learning about chemistry, I’ve learned a lot about myself. This is not the first time I’ve lived in Japan, but this time it’s very different from my previous experiences.

More than the simple difference in culture between the US and Japan, the other bit of context that may be important is that the Chemistry Department at my previous university is relatively small compared to our department at Kyoto University. The change in environment was quite significant. Going from a department where everyone basically knows everyone else to a department where there are simply too many people to know hardly anyone outside one’s own research group was rather shocking.

In my research group, all of the students are assigned various jobs. Most students are assigned to manage an instrument or two, and some students, like myself, are assigned to administrative roles. I have two administrative roles, actually. Firstly, I am the lab manager. I’m responsible for the general day-to-day operation of the lab (i.e., the room where experiments are performed). I purchase all the expendables (e.g., gloves, vials, pipette tips, glassware, weigh paper, etc). In a separate (but related) administrative role, I’m also responsible for buying all of the solvents (both regular and deuterated) and common reagents (acids, bases, metal salts, etc). Basically, I buy everything except specific reagents that only one or two people would use, and instrument-specific expendables.

An average day

In our lab, we work Monday through Saturday, and the layout of my day is basically the same, unless there is something special that requires me to leave early.

My alarm is set for 07:00. The actual time that I wake up varies seasonally. I don’t have blackout curtains in my room, and Japan doesn’t observe summer time (which I’m happy about), so right now, the sun rises at around 05:00. During the summer, I wake up often before my alarm, but during the winter, I can usually sleep until my alarm wakes me up.

I like to leave my apartment at 08:45 so that I can get to the bus stop early enough to get a seat on the 09:00 bus. The trip to campus takes about 10 mins. If you’d like to see the area around where I live on the bus ride to campus, watch the video below.

I take breakfast at the bakery on campus. They have a lovely breakfast set for Â¥270, and I usually add to that a donut (Â¥151). While I eat breakfast, I like to look at twitter, reddit or Instagram, while listening to a podcast. My work day starts between 09:30 and 10:00. Everyone usually gets in during this time, and we generally think of 10:00 as the start of our workday. The first work period is 10:00 to 12:30. During this time I like to look over new ASAPs in my RSS reader, and then try to write for an hour, or look up papers. Then at 12:30 we have an hour for lunch. My hearing is not so good, so I tend to eat lunch by myself in the office rather than going to the cafeteria with everyone else. I used to go, but it’s just so noisy that I can’t really hear anyone. So, I sit at my desk and watch the PBS Newshour (@pbsnewshour) on YouTube.

After lunch is the second work period that runs from about 13:30 to 19:30. During this block of time, I like to do heavy synthetic work. I try to start reactions, end reactions, and do work up during this period. If at all possible, I try to do all synthesis related work during that six hours.

Dinner from 19:30 to 20:00. After dinner, I try to focus mainly on characterization. After 20:00, the number of students starts to decrease, and it’s easier to make reservations on the instruments. I can use them in peace and quiet.

I generally go home on one of the two busses in the 22:00-hour. Once home, I decompress by taking a shower and reading until I fall asleep. With that ideal in mind, here is reality…

An average week


I like to think of my week starting on a Saturday. The reason is because that it’s the last day of the research week. I go through and take inventory of the lab in order to figure out what I need to order. It’s not as involved as it may sound. It usually occupies the first work period. I have lists of everything so I can check through quickly, and for most things, I can stand in one spot and just look around the room while marking off my list. The solvents are easy too. I open the cabinet and count the bottles remaining.

I place the orders by writing them into the order notebooks for each of the suppliers. In Japan, representatives from manufactures and suppliers come around several times a day to collect the orders, and then they deliver them directly. Each lab manages its own finances, so as long as one isn’t buying and NMR spectrometer, there is almost no red tape.

Figure 1

Figure 1

On this particular day, I spent most of it cleaning as my workbench was a complete disaster (Figure 1). Also, I didn’t want to start any reactions because the reactions that wanted/needed to do I did not want to leave running unchecked on Sunday.


Sunday is the one day a week off that we have. I treasure those days. Getting to sleep in late, and getting to do what I want all day is a luxury I try not to squander. However, there are still practical things that must be done. As if cleaning my workbench wasn’t enough, I clean my apartment and do laundry. I also cook lunch and dinner for the next seven day period. I try to do as much pleasure reading as I can because during the rest of the week, I read mainly research related materials. It’s a nice break.


I had run out of a ligand that I need to make several of the MOFs that I use. To start the process, I perform a Suzuki-Miyaura coupling reaction. I use the reaction to couple an arylbromide with an arylboronic acid.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Figure 2 shows the progression of the reaction. In the upper left is the start of the reaction. The brown color is from the palladium(II) acetate that I’m using as the catalyst. The upper right shows the reaction mixture right before I stop the reaction. The palladium has formed palladium black over the course of the reaction. During the catalytic cycle, palladium(0) is formed, and in this oxidation state, if two palladium(0) atoms bump into each other, they can begin to form palladium nano particles, which kills the catalyst. Basically, the reaction is over. The lower right shows the result after liquid-liquid extraction. Many people try to get rid of the palladium black, but I find it too much trouble to deal with, plus I always end up with a lower yield. I prefer to just let most of it get clumped onto the magnesium sulfate that I used to dry the organic extract, and if it still persists after filtration, it will be stopped by the column when I purify by chromatography. In the lower right is the nice white powder that I obtain after purification.

Incidentally, I love watching the condenser of the rotavap.


It’s lab clean up day! Every Tuesday morning, everyone gets together and cleans the lab. At my university, every lab is responsible for taking out the trash and the recycling. The cleaning staff are only responsible for common areas. The labs are our responsibility. This is an average load of refuse for a week (Figure 3):

Figure 3

Figure 3

The product from the previous reaction has a methyl group attach to a phenyl ring. This methyl group can be easily oxidized to a carboxylic acid. A synonymous reaction would be that of turning toluene into benzoic acid. The method I prefer is heating the starting material in a hydrothermal vessel in the presence of about 30% nitric acid (Figure 4).

Figure 4

Figure 4

This reaction makes me nervous because it heats nitric acid to 170 ℃. The product of this reaction, aside from the carboxylic acid, is a lot of nitric oxide gas. I made a video showing the opening of the vessel after the reaction.


After the ligand has been purified, it’s time to make the PCPs. The PCPs that I use are made of a mix of ligands. That means I combine more than one ligand to form the framework in the hopes of altering the pore surface functionality. I made two different PCPs on this day. One is a copper(II)-based PCP, and it’s synthesized in two steps.

In the first step, one set of ligands are combined with a copper(II) salt. This is then stirred for two days. The video below shows the mixing of reagents at the beginning of the reaction.

The other MOF is aluminium(III)-based. It’s a one step reaction that performed in a glass vial in the oven at 120 ℃. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say about those projects until they are published!


I spent most of this day performing spectroscopy. Of all the spectroscopic techniques, NMR is my favorite. I fell in love with NMR the first day I had ever heard of it.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Our NMR lab (Firgure 5) has three spectrometers, all made by JEOL. In the foreground is the 400 MHz, behind that is the 600 MHz (my workhorse), and in the back on the right side is a 500 MHz. The sample that I was measuring that day was of a polymer that I had synthesized. I was doing a full set of characterization, so I set up a whole set of experiments: 1-D 1H and 13C, COSY, HSQC and I measured relaxation t1 with a double pulse experiment.

Figure 6

Figure 6

The sample (Figrue 6) was dissolved in benzene-d6, and I was was worried that since this sample would be running for 3 or 4 days that the solvent would slowly evaporate, so I sealed it rather than using a cap.


I realized that I forgot to add the group meeting schedule to my calendar. I’m presenting on Monday of the next week. There’s two things you should know about me. First, I have a terrible memory. If my Google calendar doesn’t remind me about important things like group meetings, I will surely forget them. Of course this isn’t a fail proof system because I have to remember to put these important reminders into the calendar first!

Normally, I do it right when I get the e-mail from the boss with the schedule for the next month. Somehow, I forgot.

The second thing is, I really hate making presentations. I often wish I could pay someone to do it for me. In some ways, I think this might make me a failure as a scientist (Editor’s note: Far from it!) While I love using my computer, I hate being chained to it. That’s how I feel when I have to sit and work on a presentation, or poster, or paper. I would much rather just work in the lab. However, I realize that it doesn’t work that way. My results, success or failure, are meaningless unless I report them.

However true that may be, making presentations is still probably my least favorite thing to do in science. And so, since I forgot, I spent most of the Friday and Saturday compiling data and making figures and putting together a presentation.

Maybe next week won’t be so crazy.

Yeah, that’s what I always tell myself.

Author biography:

wLT3vNAF_400x400Jason Hoshikawa is a 2nd year PhD student working in the Kitagawa Lab at Kyoto University under Assoc. Prof. Takashi Uemura. He was born in Dallas, Texas. After working in the television and radio industry as a high-power transmitter engineer, he started his undergrad education at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, but returned to Texas to finish his BS in Chemistry (2010) and MSc in Organic Chemistry (2012) at the University of North Texas under Prof. Mohammad A Omary. After being awarded a Japanese Government Scholarship for Research Students (2013) he entered the Graduate School of Engineering at Kyoto University to complete his PhD studies.

You can follow Jason on Twitter (@ChemistInJapan), on YouTube (, and Instagram (@ChemistInJapan).

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The weekly adventures of a jolly chemist

In this world there are two kind of postdocs: some are hired for a specific project and are focused on that, others are jolly helping here and there. I am, ladies and gentleman, a jolly.

I’m Vittorio Saggiomo, a postdoc in the BioNanoTechnology group at the University of Wageningen (in the sunny, sunny Netherlands). As a jolly, I’m working on PDMS microfluidics chips, coacervate micelles and (quite a lot) of devices with chemical sensors for soil, animal food, and recently, malaria vectors.

As I tend to swear a lot, in this blogpost I’ve censored myself changing the word f*ck with frak (Doctor Galactic: I’m partial to frell myself).


Fig 1. Example of the research going on in my university…

Fig 2. Mosquito farm

Monday starts like all my Mondays: the alarm clock buzzing on my night table, me thinking that it’s Sunday morning and relaxing a little bit more in the bed. Between 10 and 15 minutes later I finally realize that it’s not Sunday and I have to rush to the university. Welcome, first frak of the week.

Our building is probably the only laboratory in the whole of the Netherlands that is uphill (here it’s called “the mountain”) and when I’m late I try to bike as fast as I can. Entering the corridor of the building is like finishing the marathon, with coworkers cheering me up and giving me water. In a chaos of people screaming my name I finally enter my office with only 30/45 minutes of delay. Then I usually need 10/15 minutes to recover from the high speed biking uphill, and to get my heartbeat on a human level and to try to breath again.

Turn on my computer, 20/30 unread email, 10/15 “frak I completely forgot about this” and “oh for frak’s sake” and finally I’m in the lab, my acetone smelling kingdom.

I devote the first two days of the week on synthesis. We are trying to control the core of the coacervate micelle (very huge 100 nm micelles with a soft core of chocolate (ok, maybe not chocolate, but still a soft core) for incorporating and releasing drugs on command (hopefully our command). I put a couple of reactions on the notes of Metallica and/or AC/DC.

I spend the rest of the day supervising (or trying my best to) two master students.

Fig 3. Fairy dust synthesis

Tuesday is purification day. I love column chromatography, I find it extremely zen and relaxing. And it gives me an awesome excuse not to do anything else -“come on dude, I cannot stop my column, I’ll come to you later”-. TLC, rotavap, NMR, and then i can choose between: “fraking hell, why you don’t want to work?”, “what the frak are you?”, “for frak sake, who on earth is doing a 2 h proton NMR?”.

Then I try not to get mad at one master student because he believes that his column didn’t work because the size of the capillaries is wrong. Between a colloquium and a coworker that MUST show you at least 10 youtube videos the day passes quite easily. Tuesday after work is also squash night with my boss. Perfect for stress reliever and for legs related injuries.

Fig 4. The eye of Sauron

Wednesday is PDMS and devices day. Since I came in this lab I have fallen in love with PDMS, an extremely nice polymer for making microfluidics chips, stamps for microcontact printing and bouncing balls. I spend most of the day playing around with PDMS, using different crosslinkers, checking the swelling and the stability, pressure and so on. We are currently applying for a patent on a discovery we made last year and now are waiting to publish it. Usually on a Wednesday I also discuss a little bit with the boss. It happens more or less randomly, but most of the time it is on Wednesday. My boss’ office is between my lab and my office and when I walk from one place to the other I can clearly hear someone screaming my name.

The discussion goes often like this (I’m currently working on many different projects and I’m extremely picky on which new project I can accept):

Boss: Maybe we can do this…

Me: No.

Boss: Yes.

Me: No.

Boss: Yes.

Me: No.

Boss: Yes.

Me: No.

The discussion can go on for hours. The first that lowers his eyes loses.

When I’m finally back in the lab I can start soldering wires, checking resistances and programming Arduino and Raspberry Pi. It’s not chemistry but it’s quite entertaining.

Fig 5. Maybe a pinch more crosslinker.

Fig 6. Maybe even more crosslinker.


Fig 7. Pinky microfluidics.

Thursday is terminator day. The day of the machines. Now NMR, now fluorimeter, now AFM. The synthesis of new sensor would be useless without some in-depth characterization. In this day the amount of fraks climbs to the top. Swearing at a random machine is one of my favorite hobbies. When Skynet finally takes control of the world I will be one of the first to be murdered (or enslaved). The time lost in understanding why a machine is not properly working is way more than the time used for the real analysis. Today is also a day of squash with my colleagues. Time for shoulder related injuries.

Fig 8. 8-bit AFM.

Friday is group meeting day. I usually clean a little bit in the lab, write down the stuff I did in the week and program what I’ll do the following week. The group meeting starts after lunch and no one knows when it will end, but usually we finish very, very late. Beer, alcohol and junk food are more than welcome during the discussions. BBQ in summer time. We also use 10 minutes of our time collectively swearing at a random referee number 3.

Fig 9. Group meeting.

Saturday and Sunday I try to read some literature, writing/correcting/rewriting papers,grant, patents and blog posts.

….and from my side, that’s all folks. Feel free to contact me for info, news, fun or just for swearing together.


Author biography:


Dr. Vittorio Saggiomo is a post doc, working at the University of Wageningen under Professor Aldrick Velders. He was born in Naples (Italy) where earning an M.Sc in Organic Chemistry in 2007. He then moved to Kiel (Germany) pursuing a Ph.D. working on Dynamic Combinatorial Chemistry. In 2010 he moved to Groningen for his first post doc in the field of Systems Chemistry, before heading to Wageningen. Find about more about him at:

Blogs at Labsolutely ( & creates videos on Youtube (


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A week in my life

Hello! My name is Laura Jane, and I’m a PhD candidate hailing from Stellenbosch, South Africa, here to show you what a week in my #RealTimeChem life entails!


One of the things our group is working on is a class of molecules called dithiadiazolyls (see this paper for more). Dithiadiazolyls (or DTDAs) are sulphur- and nitrogen-containing heterocycles that exist as neutral radicals. (It is interesting to note that the SOMO, in which the unpaired electronDTDA resides, is nodal at the carbon of the DTDA ring, so it is possible to alter the nature of the R-group without significantly altering the nature of the DTDA ring.) Thiazyl radicals have been investigated as potential building blocks for the design of molecular materials with interesting and desirable physical properties, such as conductivity and magnetism. Their magnetic and electrical conducting properties relate directly to their solid state structure. Unfortunately, many DTDAs tend to diamerise in the solid state, which results in spin pairing and, consequently, loss of any magnetic or conductive properties. We therefore look into ways to override this diamerisation and direct the structure of these materials in the solid state. My project involves the use of porphyrins as supramolecular scaffolds to create novel materials.


Monday morning starts like any other, with a cup of tea and `n Ouma beskuit while I read the news, then a breakfast of fresh fruit while I check up on what’s new in the Chemistry world. After checking my email, it’s off to my supervisor’s office, to discuss my plans for the week, but more importantly – to discuss our group’s plans regarding data backups (and storing data off-campus), spurred on by the previous day’s fire at one of our neighbouring buildings. Today ended up being an office day, not a lab day. First, backing up my data. While that’s running (my laptop tends to crash if you try giving it two things to do at once), I head off on a library run. When I return, it’s time to go play catch-up by going through some data from the last two weeks that I collected, but didn’t process, as I had fallen ill.

On Tuesday afternoons I have to demonstrate (“demi”) for an undergraduate practical session. First though, marking a stack of my class’s lab reports (nothing like leaving your marking to the last moment!). By the time that is finally done, there’s only an hour or two to spend in the lab, so I catch up on the always-fun tasks such as cleaning the never-ending pile of dirty glassware, sweeping the floor, taking inventory and so on. After a quick lunch at my desk while I catch up with what’s happening on Twitter, I haul myself and my giant stack of books across the road and around the block to one of the other Chemistry buildings for my demi duty. (The Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at SU is spread over five buildings). This semester I’m involved in second year Inorganic Chemistry, a fun course to demi for as the pracs involve fundamental concepts and lots of pretty colours! Today’s practical involves introducing the students to the concept of qualitative analysis. South Africa has a very diverse population and consequently has 11 official languages – so language policy is a very important topic. While SU has traditionally been an Afrikaans university, undergraduate programs are now mostly bilingual (with postgraduate programs typically run only in English), so it’s quite a challenge constantly switching between the two languages when explaining to the students if your brain isn’t fully engaged.


Wednesday arrives and it’s time to hit the lab for some DTDA synthesis! DTDAs are very moisture sensitive, so it’s all about the Schlenk line. I work in a tiny little synthesis lab, where currently only myself and a MSc student are working in the fume hoods.  Today it’s just step one of the DTDA synthesis, first creating LiHMDS in situ (it arrives in an unusable state when purchased as-is), then – no, wait, load shedding has kicked in again. Luckily, our building can get power from back-up generators (otherwise it’s 2.5 hours without power each time), but it’s still a minute of standing around in the dark waiting for electricity to return. Once the lights are back on and the stirrer plate is working again, it’s on adding the desired aromatic nitrile to form a silylated amidine.  While those reactions are stirring away until completed, I turn my attention to my DTDA – metalloporphyrin complexations. These tend to take (what seems like) forever to form diffraction-quality crystals, so there are normally lots of these running in the background. Because of the moisture-sensitive nature of the DTDA radicals, I tend to set up these crystallizations in skinny Schlenk tubes rather than crystallization vials – it turns out that old-school test tube racks are perfect for holding these flasks when there’s only so much room to clamp flasks in your fume hood!


Thursday brings step two, condensation of the silylated amidine with SCl2 to form a dithiadiazolylium chloride salt. SCl2 is another reagent that we have to synthesise ourselves (from powdered sulphur and chlorine gas), and smells just about as lovely as you can guess, so luckily I don’t have many lab-mates to irritate! Once the product has formed, it’s time to filter and wash it – inertly of course. After drying in vacuo, the dithiadiazolylium chloride salt is obtained as a yellow powder. Halfway through the day, there’s a short break from the lab for group meeting. Typically, our group meetings involve one student presenting their current research and another presenting a paper in a relevant field. This week, however, was something a little bit different as our group was hosting Prof. Wais Hosseini (University of Strasbourg), who was given the opportunity to discuss some of his group’s work in molecular tectonics.


The last thing to do for Friday is reduce the dithiadiazolylium chloride salt to the dithiadiazolyl radical. There are several ways to do this, but my favourite is a solid-state reduction using triphenylantimony. (Zinc-Copper couple in THF is another option.) If the reaction is successful, a drastic colour change from yellow to purple is observed. Purification is then achieved by means of sublimation to get shiny dark purple crystals, all ready to meet up with some porphyrins next week.


Finally, the week comes to an end and it’s time to enjoy the late afternoon sun with a glass of cold Sauvignon Blanc on the lawns of a wine farm just up the road! Life in Stellenbosch isn’t all too bad!


Author biography:



Laura van Laeren is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She is currently investigating novel thiazyl radical – metalloporphyrin complexes under the supervision of Prof Delia Haynes and Dr Katherine de Villiers. Her passions include the written word, scientific education and the Cape Winelands.

Blogs at Whimsical Science ( & Whimsy Is Forever (


Heads up #RealTimeChemists 

Hello all, 

A rather brief blog post just to let you know that I will be on my honeymoon for a whole week in March from the 15th until the 22nd. This means that I won’t be doing anything #RealTimeChem related during this time. 


…because the @RealTimeChem Twitter feed shall be looked after by the fabulous @JessTheChemist during this time. 

Once I get back I’ll be hoping to finish off some of the remaining new features on the blog and also provide you with an update on #RealTimeChem Week 2015. 

Before I go away, you can also look forward to the 2nd #RealTimeChemInFocus blog post by this month’s guest blogger @laurajane0103, plus the 2nd instalment of The Lab Coat Cowboy comic. 

Catch you later folks! 

-Doctor Galactic- 

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A week in the life of a Radical Chemist

G’day! Welcome to the inaugural #RealTimeChemInFocus post, where I aim to give you a bit of an insight into the world of a radical chemist. Radical in the sense that I work with free radicals (molecules or atoms with an unpaired electron), not my political/social leanings. Read on for an introduction to our work on respiratory disease and atmospheric pollutants as I walk you through a typical week in the life of an organic chemistry PhD student.

The WHO estimates that roughly 7 million deaths per year are caused by exposure to air pollution. It is now well known that living in highly polluted areas makes you more susceptible to maladies such as respiratory disease, allergy, asthma and even death. My PhD aims to work out the underlying chemical processes, or chemical entities, responsible for these biological effects. Using a bottom-up approach, we expose simple biomolecules to pollutant gases and see what kind of havoc they wreak.

The week begins with an outline of the research tasks ahead and, like most, this is one dominated by organic synthesis. For us, this is purely a means to an end. Each peptide we wish to study is carefully designed with respect to amino acid sequence and composition. As we work on gram scale, it is typically more cost effective to synthesise these peptides in-house. That means grunt work and grunt work means coffee, lots and lots of coffee.1

Past me had the foresight to prepare the compound I needed before end of year closure. Present me lacked memory of events before end of year closure.

Past me had the foresight to prepare the compound I needed before end of year closure. Present me lacked memory of events before end of year closure.


Synthesising each peptide involves protection of the amino acids, a coupling reaction, followed by extraction/washing and purification. Building up larger peptides, such as tri- or tetra-peptides, also involves deprotection and another coupling/work-up. To work efficiently, I often do two or three reactions simultaneously. Each reaction uses the same solvent, reagents and work-up procedure so this saves a lot of time.





A fairly epic prank by Aaron’s group members, who replaced all of the posters in the building the morning of his talk - this is one of about four different versions

A fairly epic prank by Aaron’s group members, who replaced all of the posters in the building the morning of his talk – this is one of about four different versions

The end of the week brings a busy day. Friday means more coffee (#FilterFriday!), our department’s organic chemistry seminar and, today, our group meeting and a couple of  radical reactions. These experiments are the true focus of my PhD – new, original research, delving into the effects atmospheric pollutants may have on our body. That means its time to take those peptides prepared earlier in the week and treat them with some ‘pollution’, today it will be nitrogen dioxide (NO2•).

Huge quantities of nitrogen dioxide are produced in China, where air pollution is now a part of daily life – via NASA (

Every time you drive your car you are emitting not only carbon dioxide but also nitrogen oxides (collectively referred to as NOx gases) such as NO2•. This is one of the most abundant radicals in our atmosphere and has been implicated in respiratory disease, being toxic by inhalation. Once upon a time we obtained gas cylinders of pure nitrogen dioxide. As Australia does not produce it locally, they were shipped from overseas but sadly the freight costs are exorbitant and it can be surprisingly difficult to convince a ship captain to receive a cylinder of toxic NO2• gas. Tyranny of distance strikes again. We now produce our own nitrogen dioxide in the lab.

While chemistry is famous for beautiful colours, the field of organic chemistry is typically characterised by white solids, colourless oils and clear solutions. Peptide chemistry doubly so. My favourite chemical reaction, for reasons now obvious, is the classic reaction between copper and concentrated nitric acid. Nitric acid is slowly dripped over solid copper metal (such as the copper penny above), producing a brown noxious gas – our pollutant, nitrogen dioxide. The copper is converted from Cu0 to Cu2+, forming a gorgeous, bright blue solution of copper nitrate. Meanwhile, the nitrogen dioxide passes through a drying tube and is condensed as a liquid which allows us to react a known quantity with our peptides.

Once we have treated our peptides with this simulated pollution, we go through a painstaking process of identifying each product that is formed. This involves repeated HPLC purifications and characterisation with analytical techniques including HRMS, MS/MS, multi-dimensional NMR and, when I’m lucky, X-ray crystallography. Our results so far show that nitrogen dioxide and ozone are a destructive force, modifying residues or cleaving peptide chains. For a nice article on our latest research check out “Nitrogen dioxide and ozone: a sinister synergy” via Chemistry World or the accompanying paper  published in Organic and Biomolecular Chemistry.

Over the last few years I have taken great pleasure in becoming a part of the online chemistry community. In particular, the burgeoning #RealTimeChem community is extremely welcoming, friendly and engaging. Whether it’s talking about the latest Nature paper, whingeing about that guy who just lined up 6 hours worth of samples on the NMR queue or asking for tips about how to get that postdoc you’ve always wanted – there’s something for chemists of all kinds. A PhD can sometimes be quite a solitary experience and I love having the opportunity to engage with passionate, creative and ambitious people from all around the globe. Get on there, #RealTimeChem and tweet me some time.


Thankfully, I live in Melbourne, Australia’s coffee mecca (sorry Sydney), surrounded by multiple coffee roasters.

Author Biography:
Luke Gamon is in the final year of his PhD in chemistry at The University of Melbourne, Australia. Under the supervision of A/Prof Uta Wille, he is currently investigating the effects of pollution on biological molecules. Passions include coffee, baking sourdough, photography, sci-comm and board games.
Blogs at A Radical Approach

icon320x320Follow: @lgamon