Could more be done to teach young chemists the right ethics?

Disclaimer: As always this is just my opinion. In fact, this blog post is more of a stream of consciousness that I’ve had today more than a structured argument. Please feel free to discuss this issue with me on Twitter (@doctor_galactic) or in the comments section.

Do young scientists need more guidance on scientific ethics?

Do young scientists need more guidance on scientific ethics?

I imagine that by now most of the chemistry community is aware of the “Dorta affair” that has been recently exposed by ChemBark. In brief, a recently published article in the journal Organometallics contained a rather suspcious note in its supporting information that seemed to suggest that the principal investigator was asking his student to fabricate elemental analysis data (the actual supporting information can be found here).

This line will probably lead to a "meme". Please just don't. Do something with cats instead.

This line will probably lead to a “meme”. Please just don’t. Do something with cats instead.

How this note, which appears on page 12, came to be, what it actually means and how it got through the peer review process are all under investigation. Unsurprisingly, this issue has sparked a huge amount of debate. As for my own two pence on the issue, I’m reserving judgement until all of the facts have been fully revealed. Let’s just say it does not look good, at all. I will say that I hope that everyone stays professional as distinctly dislike “witch hunts” and “personal assassinations”. So far, the authors have not defended themselves and they should have the opportunity to do so. The paper is currently I believe being withdrawn.

All in all though seeing something like this in a published work reminds me of a song by Tim Vine and should sound “Alarm Bells”:

Science in general is receiving an ever increasing amount of scrutiny concerning just how widespread fraud is, be it plagiarism, deception, bribery, sabotage, professorial misconduct or simply making shit up. A lot of this is likely a symptom of the “publish or perish” culture that seems to have a vice-like grip on the scientific world. Research-oriented universities put pressure on scholars, particularly those early in their careers, to publish as much as possible. This can detract from the amount of time that they have to actually teach and train undergraduates and postgraduates. Universities largely don’t seem to hire on teaching/mentoring ability, but rather by apparent research prowess. This approach can be detrimental to creating the next generation of scientists.

Anyway, all of this leads to some questions (and the point of this already rambling blog post); from where do we new chemists learn our scientific ethical compass? And could we do more to teach chemists (and scientists in general) the correct ethics?

PhD comics has a comic covering most things in your PhD and a lot of them are very accurate.

One imagines that the biggest influence on your ethical choices as a student of the sciences are your teachers, lecturers and subsequently your PhD supervisor. Let’s go straight to the example of PhD students. I’ve certainly worked for senior chemists who were ethical and always encouraged the right sort of behaviour. But, what if they hadn’t? What if you do have a supervisor who encourages you to do something that is not ethically correct? Most of us would say that we’d cry foul and say no. However, clearly this is not the case for all of us. It seems that would probably go along what our supervisor suggests, PhD’s are stressful, supervisors often want results all the time, corners may be cut and it may seem all perfectly innocent and reasonable if your supervisor says it’s okay. They are your direct boss. This is the person you work for after all, they are your scientific mentor.

Of course it’s perfectly possible that a supervisor can be ethically perfect and a student can still do things that are not. In which case it is still the supervisors responsiblity to: a) spot this and b) stamp it out.

By the time you get to being a PhD student you should have already developed a strong idea of the ethical rights and wrongs of science. You should feel empowered enough to say no if you are asked to do something that you know is wrong. This empowerment and the ideals should come from the top down at your University (that place of learning that you’re spending a huge amount of money to attend). They should have provided you with ethical guidelines and a structure by which to report any ethical problems that you run into. However, is what you get from your University on this subject adequate?

I posted the following question on Twitter to my chemistry based followers (of which I have quite a few these days!):

The response so far have ranged from PhDs being given full courses (even at the undergraduate level) to practically nothing at all. In my own experience, I don’t recall any formal courses or talks being made at my University on this subject, at least not any that were mandatory or weren’t so perfunctory that I actually could remember them. Like a lot of universities mine ran “doctoral workshops”, but attendance at these was never truly enforced, they are merely suggestions. This can vary wildly from insitution to instuition, and from supervisor to supervisor. Yet, it really shouldn’t. There should be some kind of set standard level of training. The general impression given during a PhD is that your laboratory work comes first and everything else is secondary and should happen off your own back. In part, I feel like this is actually okay sometimes, after all, every PhD students should take responsibility for their own career and personal development.

Take this place. Not that hot on the ethics. At least it’s only a Disney film.

The question becomes, are universities giving PhD students the tools to do this? I have only good things to say about the supervisors I have worked for, but I cannot say the same for the institutions I have worked at. I haven’t written a blog post on my experiences with university administrations (mainly because it brings up bad memories and I think it’s time to let bygones be bygones), but suffice to say that I have generally felt, at times, like those higher up have an “out of sight, out of mind” attitude toward postgraduates.

At my postgraduate university the grand sum of ethics training for PhD student was a handbook to read and a form to sign. It’s all in there of course, in black and white, the “do’s and don’ts” and the consequences and processes, but these are just words on a page. It’s something you read, sign a piece of paper to say that you have read it and then, probably, never read again. That’s it. All ethic’d up for 3-4 years. The same kind of forms and hand books come out again at Post Doctoral stage.

I think that universities should take more responsibility for ensuring that students are adequately equipped to understand and follow the ethical guidelines of science. That students feel empowered enough to take a stand and report unethical behaviour and recognise that a good scientist is an ethical scientist. It is something that should be drilled into those learning science from the moment they enter an institution of higher learning until the day that they leave it (preferably before this). I’d advocate training courses at undergraduate, postgraduate and post doctoral levels, giving case studies, advice and information about the procedures in place at the university to deal with ethical issues.

This should really form only a small part of an all around more adequate training for postgraduate students at all higher education institutions. So that PhD students are better equipped for their future careers. Currently, it’s a complete lottery in terms of the amount and quality of extra training and support that are available to postgraduates and this should not be the case.

Going back to the title of this blog post; could more be done to teach young chemists the right ethics?


-The Lab Coat Cowboy-


24 favourite tweets from 24 hours of Real-Time Chemistry.

The above banner was by @squidring on twitter. Check out her art here. Multi-talented! 

Chemistry was tweeted in real-time on the 7th November. It seems from feedback I’ve received that it was enjoyed. Obviously there is some room for improvement, so please, if you were disappointed don’t hesitate to tell me what you’d like to see in the next RealTimeChem event. As promised I’ve written this post in order to showcase my observations of the day and my favourite-ist tweets and pictures from the day.

It’s been a reeeeeeeally difficult task, as there was a LOT of excellent #RealTimeChem, so if you don’t see yourself mentioned here, I apologise and still think you were wonderful. All tweets and your time were appreciated.

In keeping with the theme of the event here are 24 of my favourite tweets:

Read More

RealTimeChem Day – All you need to know for the big day.

Hello everyone!

It is now just a week until #RealTimeChem hopefully takes over twitter. The response so far has been pretty enthusiastic and I’m looking forward to all the chemistry that’s going to be on show for the world to see!

Seeing as there isn’t long to go and a few people have been asking for more detail, I have produced an FAQ section so that you everyone knows the how, when, who, what and why of #RealTimeChem day.

So…what is RealTimeChem Day?

Real Time Chemistry day is a twitter based event where chemists from all over the world will be tweeting about their daily lives in chemistry… in real time.


Chemistry often gets short shrift when it comes to media exposure and that’s a bit sad. So Real Time Chem Day will be a day to celebrate chemistry and give the world an insight into the kinds of work and the science that we do as chemists every day. It will also hopefully help to connect the chemistry community and spark intriguing discussions and it’s just pretty darn fun to see what other chemists are up to!

Interesting! …When is it?

It’s on the 7th November 2012 and lasts for the whole 24 hours.

Who can take part?

Anybody in the world who works in the field we call “chemistry”. As long as you are tweeting about part of your everyday life that involves doing chemistry then it counts – lab work, journal reading, writing papers, teaching, demonstrating, field work, instrumental work etc.

This is an all inclusive event no matter what branch of chemistry that you partake in (including biochemistry! Geochemistry! Astrochemistry! Crystallography!) or what level of chemistry you are currently at (High school! Undergraduate! Postgraduate! Industrial! Person in shed!).

Please though only join in if you can spare the time. I understand that you’re all busy people – work commitments and getting our chemistry done must take priority.

What do I have to do to join in? What should I tweet?

To join in you simply have to tweet about your day in your particular field of chemistry using the hashtag #RealTimeChem to show that it is part of the event.

As for what you tweet, well that is entirely at your discretion so long as it’s got some link to doing chemistry. In my case, I will be tweeting about actual chemistry I am performing in the laboratory.

All things that happen on the day can be tweeted, good or bad. I’m sure the former shall outweigh the latter, but we should be giving everyone an accurate view of what happens.

Incidentally, pictures of your day (such as great looking experiments) are most welcome. Obviously, only take pictures of things you are allowed to show, we understand some chemistry must be shrouded in secrecy.

Please feel free to engage with other #RealTimeChem tweeters and start a conversation. This is a day for chemists to unite and enjoy what they do.

How much do I have to tweet?

As much or as little as you want to, even if it is just one tweet. So long as it includes the hashtag #RealTimeChem it’ll count.

So just feel free to randomly tweet your chemistry as you go along, this day is for you to share what you do with the rest of the world.

How can I follow the event?

Search for the hashtag #RealTimeChem on twitter or follow @RealTimeChem for highlights. I’ll be keeping an eye on twitter all day and re-tweeting every #RealTimeChem tweet I can (or as many as twitter will allow!) and commenting on the fabulous things you are doing.

Who invented #RealTimeChem?

Certainly not me. However, I have been participating for a while on an off in doing some #RealTimeChem tweets. I believe that the inventor was @azmanam who was trying to determine what was in Lemishine and happened to tweet his results using, and @JessTheChemist produced a storify page to follow all the RealTimeChem that happened. Since then it has caught on a many others have joined in to tweet their chemical reactions in real time using the same hash tag.

I think we all agreed that tweeting about laboratory chemistry was such fun that it would be nice to have a #RealTimeChem day to celebrate, and here we are!

Why is #RealTimeChem day on 7th November?

This is the birthday of Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only to win it in two separate fields, chemistry and physics.

If you want to do something extra fantastic on the day please feel free to donate to Marie Curie Cancer Care.

Who is running #RealTimeChem?

Mainly the same person who runs this blog, “Doctor Galactic and The Lab Coat Cowboy” who can be found under the name @doctor_galactic on twitter and also @RealTimeChem. I’m a post doctoral researcher in the UK, who is just coming to the end of his contract. For me this is possibly one last hurrah before looking toward chemistry pastures new.

In addition to the @RealTimeChem feed, @JessTheChemist will be continuing to update her storify page and will be showing #RealTimeChem tweets in their Chemistry twitterverse box.

Anyone else who wants to post anything about #RealTimeChem on their blog or anywhere else is most welcome to so long as they refer back to @RealTimeChem somewhere.

Can I help to promote #RealTimeChem day?

Sure thing, just retweet any information you want regarding the event and mention it to your chemistry friends on twitter. Even mention it to your chemistry friends outside of twitter. The more chemists we get to tweet, the more chemistry we get to enjoy!

There are a couple of posters that have been uploaded on @RealTimeChem with some more to come this week. So feel free to use these as you will or make your own!

What’s with the “24” theme?

It felt particularly relevant to the nature of the day. We are all Jack Bauer on #RealTimeChem Day, we just do chemistry.

I want to do something really spectacular, can I?

Yes, so long as you are safe. All the normal rules of chemistry apply, including the use of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). We don’t want anybody to get hurt doing something on #RealTimeChem day.

I don’t want to tweet but I want to watch, can I?

Of course! If you don’t want to tweet you can still watch the rest of us on twitter. The best bet is to follow @RealTimeChem which will be re-tweeting as many highlights as possible.

What will happen afterwards?

I plan to sift through the tweets and make a series of blog posts highlighting my favourites here on this blog. The real point of the day is to have some fun and get chemistry out there for the world to see, so that will hopefully be its own reward.

Will there be future #RealTimeChem days?  

Everyday can be #RealTimeChem day if you so choose it. The hashtag is there to use whenever you are doing any chemistry. If the event itself is popular enough, then most certainly we’ll try to organise another full day in the future. I would like to make it an annual event and perhaps expand it to cover a whole week. The possibilities are endless.

Any other questions? Then drop me a line in the comments box on here or via twitter @RealTimeChem.

Enjoy the day, I’m looking forward to it!



-Doctor Galactic and The Lab Coat Cowboy-

Trip the light fantastic.

Alert! Alert! Shameless plug for my own chemistry contained within!

I would be totally missing an opportunity if I didn’t blog about some chemistry that is very close to my heart, so here’s a little ode to my PhD work. My thesis a.k.a the bane of my life for three whole months that consumed every single waking hour, until my brain felt like it had been pulverised into the ground…*ahem*  …what was I saying?

Oh yes, my thesis was entitled “The Double [3+2] Photocycloaddition reaction“.

I’m sure some of you will have quickly beaten a retreat when you noticed the prefix “photo-” in that there sentence. Photo-chemistry is an oft maligned area of research because it can be quite a fickle mistress, that behaves in unusual ways compared to your standard thermal chemistry (those high energy states just love to do crazy shit!). There are also the many practical considerations you have to account for: purity of reagents, solvent selection, direct or sensitized irradiation (do you need a sensitizer?), the specialist equipment, quantum yield measurements (which are a pain in the behind I can tell you) and the hazards of high energy UV radiation.

Of course, none of this should put you off, because what you can do with photo-chemistry is pretty darn marvelous. You see, one of synthetic organic chemistry’s greatest challenges is to create step-efficient routes toward compounds with high molecular complexity (i.e. to make something complex as possible in as few a steps possible). Therefore, reactions which provide more than one bond in a single step are of significant importance (see the Diels-Alder reaction).

In my own work we reported an intriguing case of a double [3+2] photocycloaddition reaction that resulted in the formation of a complex cis, cis, cis, trans-[5, 5, 5, 5] fenestrane derivative  from a simple aromatic acetal as shown in scheme 1.

Scheme 1 An example depicting the photochemical  reactions of arenyl-diene photosubstrate, including the double [3+2] photocycloaddition reaction.

During this transformation, four carbon-carbon bonds, five new rings and seven potentially new stereocenters are created in an essentially one-pot process using only UV light (at 254 nm). Here’s an X-ray crystall structure of it, because X-ray crystal structures always make your chemistry 100% more legit:

You can’t dispute this little beauty.

The reaction actually occurs in a sequential manner from the linear meta photocycloadduct (for a detailed review of the meta photocycloaddition reaction click here or here), via a secondary [3+2] addition of the alkene across the cyclopropane of the adduct. In addition, an angular meta photocycloadduct also produced in the initial addition step, undergoes an alternative fragmentation-translocation photoreaction to afford an angular triquinane compound. Scheme 2 gives a little idea of mechanistic stuff.

Scheme 2: A mechanistic summary of the reactions involved in the irradiation of the linear meta photocycloadduct.

We also produced a series of other fenestranes (including my favourite nitrogen containing variant) through the same method which can be found in our follow-up paper in JOC. I think we really only scratched the surface of this chemistry, but due to a set of unfortunate circumstances which I’d rather not recollect, the work has had to cease for the time being. I’d like to go back to it some day because it’s quite a unique area.

Fenestranes are quite rare in nature and their synthetic utility is pretty much untapped, but they’ve got bags of potential as possible agrochemicals, chiral auxiliaries, scaffolds, pharmaceuticals and materials. They compare favorably to the steroid class of compound in that they are both conformationally rigid and chemically robust. The real problem with them is the are hard to make (although not using our method)

A selection of naturally occurring fenestranes. Pretty aren’t they?

Penifulvin A shown above actually has notable insecticidal properties, whereas asperaculin was only recently isolated, but being a fungal metabolite it may also prove useful. Laurenene unfortunately is totally useless, but it certainly looks the part!

If you really wanted to see all the nonsense I got up to in my PhD, I have just discovered that you can buy my thesis on Amazon…which feels a bit weird. It’s still pretty cool that you can even buy a kindle version!

The Lab Coat Cowboy