Tuesday, April 29, 2008

the office

Some of my friends from the UWO lab occasionally glance at this blog and it's time I offer them a bit more chemistry talk. If anyone else is interested, feel free to listen in :)

So…. this is my new office:

The lab is a bit different from Western: newer, cleaner, bigger, and not quite as crazy. Maybe a bit more mature - but I think that's just because there are post-docs here. The chemistry, though, is pretty much the same. Once you’ve done one Swern you’ve done them all. And benzyl bromide is no easier on the eyes in the southern hemisphere… I guess that was to be expected.

So I’ll start from the beginning: the ESKITIS Institute for Cell and Molecular Therapies is a new, and somewhat unusual, Griffith University research facility. We have just moved into a clean shiny building that houses a variety of scientists with one overall theme. It's fairly simple: we're all trying to find a cure for something, anything really. Ideally something important that’s just'a'been ichin’ for a good’ol curin!. This is a picture of the front of the building. There are not many windows. I’m pretty sure that the construction ran over budget and someone practical-minded was forced to decide to sacrifice a few windows to keep what's ‘inside’ as awesome as they could

One area of research that I had not seen before coming here is ‘isolation chemistry’. I now work with some very skilled isolation types. For many years they were heavily funded by AstraZeneca but have lately, and suddenly, they've been forced to become more 'academic minded'. Anyway, the 'Natural Products Development' team has assembled a massive ‘compound library’ with 500 000+ ‘potential drugs’ all of natural origin meticulously gathered from pretty much all of Australia’s plants and creatures (both on and off shore). These compounds are now sitting here ready and willing to be screened against ‘stuff’. (If you know what I’m talking about and you have a hot new therapeutic target - and buckets of money - come on down.) The compound library is housed in gigantic flashing units of robo-awesomeness that would look right at home if they were fitted onto the side of a space station. I was surprised to find out that we don’t actually know the structures of most of the molecules in the library. The idea is to first find the useful bioactivity – then go back and worry about the structure. Interesting eh? Here’s a pamphlet:

Incidentally, IY, the isolation people I work with are the same fine scientists who fished out all of those sweet compounds you have been busting your butt making for PB and ACIE! Professor Ron Quinn, the same gentleman you referenced a half-dozen times, is director of the entire institute, and is my boss's boss. ‘ESKITIS’, by the way, doesn’t stand for anything. Someone important just thought it would sound cool – like ADVIL, or VIAGRA.

The new building also houses ‘adult stem-cell research’ facilities. I know roughly as much about that as I do about ‘being out of debt’ but apparently the stem-cell-stuff paid for most of the new building – so it has to be some sort of big deal. We also have a big X-ray lab run by a very bright young German professor who takes many pretty pictures of very cold proteins and requires very large flat panel monitors on the office computers of his students.

Most of the ESKITIS building, however, is full of biologists who go about doing their biology things with the ‘enzymes’ and the ‘rats’ and the endless ‘acronyms’. Truthfully, I don’t have time to know or care. The biologists (or 'failed organic chemists' if you prefer) live downstairs and we don’t talk to them. Yet. (I’m told we should start.)

Upstairs are the organic chemistry labs. In stark contrast to what much of the main-stream-regular world thinks of ‘science’, synthetic organic chemists generally believe that we are very cool. Some would even say, and I'm sure I have, that we are like the ‘naval aviators’ of drug discovery - and our labs are the aircraft carriers. Big-bad-and dangerous (and sometimes full of water). I'm sure this whole place would be safer, simpler, and smell more pleasant without us but it would be utterly ineffective because - try all you want - you can't find a new drug without good’ol organic synthesis.

Chemists and the biologists are like surgeons and docs. Sure, the hospital needs both but only surgeons are trusted with sharp objects just like only chemists are trusted with flameable solvents and explosive reagents. Surely I must be starting to offend somebody - if it's you, chillax, let a guy have his fun.

What else can I tell you? First, just to make sure that I don’t mislead anyone. ESKITIS is NOT a pharmaceutical company. We are a bunch of independent scientists each doing our own thing under the same friendly banner of ‘drug discovery’. Certainly the Coster group is far from ‘real pharma’. Nor could we ever compete – or want to compete – with a professional med-chem facility. I suppose I work in an ‘academic med-chem group’ – with a big emphasis on ‘academic’. We do standard total synthesis here and grad students learn the mad skillzzz. We use the ‘med-chem’ label simply because with every synthetic target there is some evil disease to consider. I am not just making a 'cool compound’, I am making a ‘cool anti-pancreatic cancer compound’. There is a subtle difference - day to day there is no difference - but the overall mentality of trying to do ‘something worthwhile for the world’ even in academia is one I like. Of course, the chances of actually discovering a useful drug are about the same as winning the lottery - all we have done so far is made sure to buy a few tickets. Also, this med-chem angle forces me make an effort to read a bit about disease pathology and try to stay current with respect to pharmaceutical gaps that need fillin’ – and there are plenty. I suppose some people would argue that such reading takes time away from learning ‘named reactions’ :)

Now for some pictures. First, I never imagined that I would be able to do chemistry on such an awesome chair! I spend my days rolling back and forth between these two positions

These are my nearest neighbours: Coster grad students Sean (running a Swernilicious reaction) and Adam (a column).

Incidentally, IY (and some others) will be happy to hear that all of my chromatography is now performed in a hood. It’s not a problem now with the vast fume hood space and the awesome chair. Strange how things change – I actually found myself turning off the UV lamp after someone the other day and feeling frustrated with them for it. How messed up is that!
For those that have not seen one: here is a ‘fumehood’. It’s big, it’s very well equipped, and it’s all wonderfully mine to destroy!
One wall of the lab is floor to ceiling glass and looks out into the office space. I figure it was designed this way for a number of reasons: cool-looking, open, bright, the safety of visibilty to others when something explodes or starts to burn quickly, and finally 'public relations'. This entire building is designed to be perfect for a walk through by a politician and some media with a camera crew – they can look through the glass at the ‘busy young scientists working hard to save the world’. Now... these two machines I am very excited about. The twins! These are the Cadillac and Ferrari of rotary evaporators! Big spender Dr. Coster just bought seven or eight of these slick little beasts. I can not even begin to describe how wonderful life has become with these pretty ladies on the bench. They're bright and digital and very friendly, everything is quick, nothing bumps, and I have yet to see a solvent peak anywhere. I feel like I’m cheating when I use one of these sexy rotovaps. Work is just not supposed to be this easy. The thick black foam is insulation around the chilled-water lines that run through the entire building and condense pretty much every drop of ether or DCM. Sweeeet!!

Well, that’s about it for today. Generally speaking, the lab is great. I am happy to say that this whole 'down under' business is turning out to be a pretty good decision for life, marriage, work, and all the rest. Obviously, I will need a publication or two this year just to make sure. And as far as project specifics are concerned, I’m going to keep that to myself for now because I’m pretty close to a neat little total synthesis and there is an American group also in the game. We would like to be the first to the finish line - so I will avoid any chance of 'encouraging' the competition. That reminds me – I have to get back to work.

Let me leave you, if I may, with another picture of one of my new lab mates. This is young Sean O’Connor, a Dutch-Aussie who wants to be an Irishman, who we often keep locked in the ‘inorganics’ closet when we feel that he is becoming too irritating. On this particular day, we let him open the door and get some light while he worked. Cheers.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ewey and Sarah

It is not difficult to stumble into fellow Canadians in Australia. There are many of us out and about exploring the world (or sneaking away to become teachers). Kate and I decided early that we would make no special effort to meet Canadians. We’re here to see some ‘new stuff’ and make some Aussie friends.

That being said, these two great-white-north’ers were a very VERY welcome treat!

Andrew Ewert (a too-long-ago teammate from Queen’s) and his girlfriend Sarah are doing some serious traveling and they managed to squeeze in a few days in our humble little pad.

They showed up with Ewey’s brother Ben in this ‘wicked’ little sleeper van that the three of them had been calling home for a few weeks as they drove from the bottom to the top of Australia's east coast.

They had seen plenty of beaches but we had to show them one more.

We also hit up the Australia Zoo made famous by the late Steve Irwin. To no one’s surprise, we saw some animals. These little guys in particular are 'zoo royalty':

And I got to sit in Steve Irwin’s famous truck. It was good just to sit down. Zoos, much like IKEA, are pretty much all about endless walking.

Also, by spooky coincidence, I was experiencing some poorly-timed lower-back issues in preparation for my volleyball trip to Adelaide and Ewey and Sarah both happen to be very good (acupuncture trained) physiotherapists. They handed out some courtesy therapy which was super helpful and, as you may have guessed from my previous post, I was able to play in Adelaide completely pain-free (if not heavy-anti-inflammatory-free :). Thank you both.

Our little appartment is quiet again. Ewey's brother Ben has flown home and the adventurous pair have moved on to explore mainland Asia. They are recording some of their own travels here. It was great to see’em. Our next much-anticipated visitor, in just a few weeks, will be Kate's dad!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

The FIVB World Tour!

I have been smiling at the thought of ‘volleyball’ for as long as I can remember. The sport is hard-wired into my brain. It’s a childhood thing. By fortunate coincidence my wife loves the beach. Some of her best childhood memories are from Sauble Beach with her parents on holiday. I grew up watching my dad do astonishing things on a volleyball court. My best memories are of playing pepper with Ziggy on court during his time outs. I was a gym rat. And now I feel about volleyball the same way that many Canadians feel about hockey or Americans about baseball. I play because I am truly happy – in every sense of the word – when I am on the court. This is especially true in a game that can go either way. Success in those matches feels good - very good. I have played so many games that lately I am just as satisfied to see someone else enjoy that same feeling. Kate has begun to play a lot and I am thrilled to be starting to see it in her. Here she is hitting a Kevin Benn set one warm evening a few weeks ago - check out the 'straight arm' action.

Last week Kevin Benn and I traveled to Adelaide to represent Canada in the qualifying tournament of an FIVB World Tour event. We won a match and then lost a match. After that I watched thirty plus hours of world class volleyball over the course of the next four days. I have never had the abilities of most of these athletes but this was an opportunity to feel like one of them for a few days. It was an awesome experience. Most of the players in the main draw, including the team that beat us (from Latvia) will play in the Olympics this year.

Here's Kevin Benn on court right before the warmup for our first match.

Normally Canadian World Tour teams would be better (or at least a bit younger) than Kevin and I but Australia is a long way to travel and we turned out to be the only men’s team at the show. With support from some random Canadian fans, we proudly defeated a young team from Kazakhstan - I am serious – and had a whole night to enjoy that winning feeling before two young Latvians promptly wiped the smiles from our faces.

This is me having a swing against Latvia.

Beach volleyball at this level is very cruel and unforgiving. There is only so much money to go around. Last week $350 K was divided between the best 32 mens and 32 womens teams in the world. But there was far more talent than money to go around. I have known many tremendously skilled and dedicated Canadian athletes that have made extreme investments and have come and gone without ever seeing any of that money. The boys and girls on top do not want to share – who would?

There were 40 teams from 20+ countries in the men’s qualifier with us. Eight of them would get to fill the bottom spots in a 32 team main draw tournament. The rest would go home with nothing. Of the qualifier teams, Kevin and I were pretty much the least ‘invested’ (with one week of training together – and no plans to play any other events). It still hurt to lose. But my being too upset about losing would be an insult to some of the other teams that lost with me. After beating us – the Latvians qualified by knocking out an extremely talented team from Spain - a team that could have easily beaten us as well. And prior to having their dreams shattered that Spanish team had won a brilliant marathon match against a Japanese team that would have probably wiped the beach with us too. I don’t mean to sound overly self deprecating… Kevin and I are good players, but I am talking about teams that don’t have day jobs. The Spanish and Japanese teams had coaches, and sponsors, and had invested months upon months of grueling weight room and beach hours to prepare for last week – and they didn’t get to play in the real tournament either.

Incidentally, the Latvians lost their first two main draw matches and walked away with a measly thousand dollars, a few free meals and nights in a great hotel. This did not cover their trip and month long stay in Australia to train with their coach – the Latvian government paid for that.

To quote the wise drunken words of Bender himself: “…to succeed on the world stage in this sport you need three things: funding, coaching, and (lastly) tremendous natural athletic talent”. I would add ‘a spooky level of internal motivation’ to Kevin’s list, but that is definitely not enough by itself.

Here's one of my better pictures from the week: Julius Brink (Germany) hitting against Phil Dalhouser (USA) early in the main draw tournament. The cool think about this shot, if you're not in the 'know', is the height of Dalhouser's block. Todd Rogers, behind the block, is about to dig a line roll shot and win the point. This American team won the World Championships last year and are fair contenders for the gold in Bejing in a few months although I personally don't think they will even medal.

In Canada, many people feel that lack government funding for sport is a big problem. Some beach players, I think, don't even realize what 'good funding' would look like. Australia has fewer people than Canada and athlete development programs here, in all sports, are outstanding by comparison. For example: they have the ‘Australian Institute of Sport’ where the country’s best teenaged athletes (in every sport) live, train with great coaches, and go to a ‘jocks only’ high school together. That has to be a fun school - and sure it burns tax dollars, but it also effectively creates olympians.

Incidentally, last week a men's team from China played in the championship final for the first time in FIVB beach history! Hmmm, aren’t the Olympics in China this year? Coincidence? I think not. I predict that China will medal in beach volleyball in Bejing. This Chinese team was sick! I don’t know where they came from but they’re here now. One of the American boys told me that an enormous (in height and number) Chinese entourage has been training full time in California in recent years. They also had two women’s teams finish 5’th and 7’th. I wish I could afford to train in California full-time. If the Olympics were in Toronto, Ottawa would be taking good care many young beach players too. Just wait and watch how many medals we get in the winter games Vancouver in 2010. It’s not rocket science. It’s economics.

This is 'Team China' serving on centre court in their semi-final match.

I have few illusions left with regard to sport. It is a great way to stay out of trouble as a kid, to make friends, make some good memories, and learn some lessons about success and failure, work ethic and confidence – but it is a terrible way to make a living. My father finished playing professional volleyball after a decade in front of thousands of fans and then went to work for the rest of his life. The same is true of most of the world’s best athletes and certainly most Olympians. I’m sure I have said in the past that I was too distracted by school to ever succeed in beach volleyball. My academic colleagues in the chemistry lab would argue that beach volleyball was a distraction to chemistry and not vice versa. And they would be right, but I have always insisted on doing both and I will never regret the time I spent learning this game. I suppose I could have spent that time reading. But take it from a guy who loves reading, sport is a LOT more fun than reading. There's something to be said for a bit 'fun' in life. Plus, ask Kate if she would have found a ‘well read’ young man impressive when she was 21. Or for that matter, I suppose you could ask my mom the same question.

Let me finish with another big 'Thank You' to Big Bad Kevin Bender for generously agreeing to take this holiday trip to the back side of the world just to see a tiny bit of Australia and play two volleyball games. I won't soon forget it.