Sunday, April 12, 2009

family, chemistry, skype :)

I was asked by my mother-in-law during an Easter skype session today to describe my research in 'ten words' to an assembled family audience in front of her computer in Grimsby, Ontario. I've answered similar questions before. I think a reasonable answer goes something like this:

1. We
2. make
3. new
4. molecules
5. that
6. might
7. become
8. medicines
9. for
10. Cancer

There's not much point in describing 'how' we make these molecules unless you have some time because the process is complicated. I sometimes say it's: 'kinda like cooking' or 'mix and stirr' and these statements are essentially the truth. Some chemists favour the non-specific term: 'standard synthetic methods' but I consider that phrase about as useful as: "blahblah blahblahblah blahblah".

But Sandy's question sounded a bit too good to be true. Could a room full non-scientists watching me on their computer from Canadia actually be interested in the specifics of my research work? Even in just ten words? Nope :) I started my careful answer and was interrupted with a barrage of laughter when Kate's uncle Ronny cut me off after just three (of ten) words with:

"Okay, we've heard enough Jake!"

I have always appreciated a qood quick joke, no matter if I'm the butt of it. I certainly liked this one. My wife's family hails form the very quickest of the quick-witted parts of Great Britain. They constantly laugh at themselves and each other and they don't hesitate for a second to include other victims. I appreciate the humour. I can't even pretend that my 'organic chemistry research' is the least bit interesting to the average person when compared with... lets say Indiana Jones (Raider's of the Lost Ark) or a playoff game in ANY sport. Maybe even a regular season game.

Nonetheless, I like what I do more and more as I get older. That has to be a good sign. I think I would prefer to read a good synthetic chemistry journal article than re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark.
You might be glad to hear that I think that most of the responsibility for the fact that you might find organic chemistry incomprehensible and boring lies not with you but with me. Almost any topic can be simplified and appreciated even if it is not completely understood. But in this century it is we 'scientists' who have been responsible for allowing ourselves to be branded as 'incomprehensible and boring' or even 'mad'. I think every researcher has an enormous responsibility to communicate effectively; and not just to his fellow academics. We should make an effort to simplify and teach anyone who wants to learn without putting them to sleep.

So.... I make new molecules that might become medicines for cancer. It's kinda like cooking. If you want to know more, I can certainly try in person.

I've been working on a book that explains some of the details without much confusion or sedation... but it's no easy task and I'm pretty busy.
For now, here I am with my lovely assistant at a recent costume party ;)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Our Scary New Housemate

A few weeks ago, on a Sunday afternoon, Kate ran into the house and looked at me, in breathless silence, with a horror in her eyes that I had yet to see in all the years I've known her. She was paralyzed with fear. My wife had been gardening beside our house, found a large hole in the ground, and then suddenly she had locked eyes with a monster. "Jake, there's a huge snake living under our house!!" She said after a moment, barely able to get the words out.
Although snakes in Australia are notoriously deadly, Kate and I live in the middle of a big and busy city and have been here for almost two years without meeting anyone who has encountered a poisonous snake. So, assuming that I would probably find a carpet-python (potentially dangerous to our cat but not likely to try and swallow my wife) I went outside, carefully, to have a look. Here is a picture (taken later :) of the hole that Kate had found.
As I circled this hole in our garden (from a good distance) I saw the monster's head poking out of the darkness. It was huge! And it was looking at me too. And it was no python.

I've found a picture on the web of what I saw:

I am far from knowledgeable in the field, but even I can tell you that a python looks a lot more like this:
So here's some culture: In Australia, all snakes are protected species and they are relocated, and not killed, whenever they pose a risk to people. Finding a snake on your property is usually followed by a call to a licensed snake catcher for help. I'm not sure how I knew this. I don't remember anyone ever telling me. I may have seen a licenced catcher once on television on a show called Bondi Beach (the reality TV version of Baywatch - minus the implants). As you might imagine, I jumped online and quickly found a number for the 24/7 mobile phone of the licenced snake catcher assigned to our suburb, a man named Geoff.

I called him and opened with: "Hi... ummm. I don't know how this works, I'm Canadian"
And he responded by saying: "Have you seen a doctor about that?"
It was plain to me that Geoff and I would get along so I relayed the two main facts. Hole in my garden, monster looking at me from inside at which point Geoff promptly stated: "It's probably a blue-tongue mate! Does it have a pointy nose?"
It did, as a matter of fact. But what the heck was a 'blue-tongue'? Well thankfully, a blue-tongue is neither poisonous, nor is it a snake. It is a harmless lizard that's all scare and no substance. Apparently, they also make a horrific noise when threatened. I asked Geoff if our cat was in any danger.
"Nope," he replied, "Your cat would probably win that fight. But have a look at my website under 'identify snakes' to make absolutely sure it's not a brown snake or a red-bellied black snake. Those would kill your cat in one bite." Then he added... "They could kill you in one bite too mate."
Thanks for that last comment Geoff, but I could have done without it. I looked carefully at the man's fantastic website[] and found lots of pictures of the relevant snakes and of the heroic snake catcher himself. I got that 'good guy' feeling as I spoke to him.

I'm going to finish with some educational pictures. First, these two you definitely don't want to find in your garden. The extremely venemous red-bellied black snake and eastern brown snake.

And this is a picture of what our harmless little friend probably looks like. (We have yet to see him out of his hole).
So... to proudly summarize: Kate and I now have a blue-tongue lizard living under our house. How cool is that!

And for the record: I used Google images to find all of these pictures and I'm using them without permission. But you're not paying to read this so I don't think it matters much :) Cheers