Thank you Sir Chesebrough

I have a lot of favourite chemicals, including caffeine and paracetamol. Lately, though, my favourite chemical has become soft paraffin. Soft paraffin (petroleum jelly or petrolatum) is a non-polar, hydrophobic hydrocarbon mixture. It is not one chemical structure but a mixture of hydrocarbon chains (around 25 carbons in length) with a melting point similar to that of the human body’s temperature.



I suffer from excruciatingly itchy legs, mostly in the winter months. It keeps me (and my poor other half) awake at night. I can even draw blood without realising. Various creams keep my itching at bay but what most of these creams/lotions/balms have in common is that they contain soft paraffin. This works by forming a layer that prevents loss of moisture from my skin and also protects my skin from harsh conditions.

This stuff saves me from having sleepless nights and scarred legs, so thank you Sir Chesebrough for devising the process of extracting these chemicals from oil (U.S. Patent 127,568) and believing wholeheartedly in your product.

Are there any chemists you wish to thank for an amazing or useful discovery? If so, who and why?

Taking Medicines

Is it just me, or do all chemists guess the structure of a medicine before they take it? After having a guess, I then Google it and look up the synthesis, where possible.

I am currently using Ketoconazole for a skin condition (over-share, sorry). Immediately I knew there was a ketone (keto) and a nitrogen containing heterocycle (azole = five-membered nitrogen ring containing at least one other heteroatom) in there.  Conazoles are a common type of fungicide containing an imidazole or triazole ring so that narrowed it down further for me. I could not predict any thing more so looked up the structure (DOI: 10.1021/jm00194a023). It is actually a lot more complex than I expected.



Similarly, a few years ago I took Metronidazole and, as usual, I tried to predict the structure from the name. I guessed there was a nitrogen heterocycle, probably an imidazole ring and possibly nitro group. I wasn’t far off this time! When looking up the structure, I was very surprised by the simplicity of the structure and the synthesis (DOI:10.1007/BF00764821).

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So, is it just me? Or do you all try and predict aspects of a drug molecule before you take it? Have you ever guessed close to the true structure? If so, share in the comments section below.

Why do I use twitter?

It has been a while since I have blogged. This mini hiatus has been due to a hectic summer in the lab and the arrival of new graduate students, who need frequent direction.

More and more people in my workplace have found out that I use twitter and are surprised to find out how many followers I have and how long I have been a member. This had led lot of people to then ask me why the heck I use twitter. They seem to think that social media, in particular twitter, is for teenagers to follow the exploits of their favourite boyband. I have found twitter to be an excellent tool as a novice scientist and wish to express my feelings here (thanks to @_byronmiller for the helpful inspiration).

1) During my PhD

I found twitter very useful during my PhD write-up. I could vent to people who had gone through the same laborious PhD process as me, using the hashtag #phdlife. There were people on twitter just like me who could offer excellent advice and ideas from how to deal with the stress to how to improve my thesis writing, for example, I found out about Mendeley because I was exasperated with Endnote and tweeted my feelings. Many followers offered their experiences with various software packages and I ended up with Mendeley, which I still use to this day. Chemdraw are even on twitter now, so if you get stuck drawing a molecule you can just ask for help!

2) Literature searching

I am very capable at literature searching. I have RSS feeds, Google scholar alerts and I read my favourite journal website daily to see if there are any new developments in my research area. I have found, however, that twitter has broadened by chemical knowledge, with editors, academics and students regularly tweeting publications of interest from all areas. I even read computational publications now, due to the sheer number of computational tweeps online (I still don’t understand it all though, sorry).

3) Networking

I have been able to converse with the editors of journals and academics, join in with outreach activities (e.g. ScienceGrrl who recently gave me the opportunity to meet Brian Cox), contribute to magazine stories (e.g. Beth Halford’s Postdoc Pains and Gains piece) and even get free bits of lab kit! It is such an easy place to join in a conversation  and ‘meet’ people. It doesn’t matter if it is only over the internet, the people you converse with are just as important as those contacts who you have met in real life.

4) Job postings

People, including me, post jobs of interest that they have found, using the hashtag #chemjobs. There is even a tweep, disguised as a duck, who dedicates much of his time to job postings (@chemjobber). I used to regularly look at the Nature jobs and websites but now I mostly just use their twitter feeds.

5) Conferences

Going to a conference? Don’t know anyone else going? Just tweet about the conference using a relevant hashtag and you are sure to find drinking buddies. I recently did this on a trip to Kyoto, not only did I find drinking and karaoke buddies, but I also found people who could recommend places to visit. Twitter is also a great place to find out about conferences and which talks to go to at a particular conference.

6) #Realtimechem

Ok, so I am a little biased, but I do love the #realtimechem hashtag. This hashtag is used to show the world what chemists are up to everyday, in and out of the lab. Some people post  awesome pictures and I get to learn so much about the techniques that other chemists use.

So readers, what one reason would you give a person to join twitter, or conversely, why do you think it is pointless to join twitter?  Leave your comments below or tweet me!

p.s. If you are new to twitter and not sure where to begin, I highly recommend Heather’s post on ‘How to Use Twitter’

p.p.s If I haven’t convinced you that Twitter is great, then believe Nature Chemistry.

#Chemnobel Family Tree

I am a glutton for punishment, so I have decided to compose a new chemistry twitter tree. This tree specifically links chemistry Nobel Laureates with twitter users.


There is plenty of space left on the tree. Are you linked to a laureate? If so, how? If you want to be added to the tree, post your connection in the comments section or tweet me. If you need help, then use this Academic Tree as a starting point.

If you spot any errors, do let me know.

#Chemclub reviews

Andrew (@_Byronmiller) has recently started #chemclub reviews over at Behind NMR Lines which is a monthly guest blog series.  His idea is to collect short, accessible reviews on a variety of topics from across chemistry in one place. These reviews are meant to help people gain a rough idea of this quickly over their morning coffee.

So far there have been three reviews. If you have a spare five minutes, why not head over and have a quick read?

The Pummerer Reaction by Andrew

Fluorinated Drugs by me (shameless self-promotion, I know)

C-H Activation by Kat

Have you got an idea for a #chemclub review? If so, get in contact with Andrew.

#Wherescarmen at ACS Indy

As you may know, the ever awesome ACS reporter @carmendrahl is headed to ACS Indy in September. She has decided to crowd-source her conference attendance in the theme of Carmen Sandiego. Where would you like to see Carmen go?

Monday 9th Sept:

(a) Undergraduate Speed Networking with Chemistry Professions
(b) Advances in Analytical Techniques for Chemical Forensics
(c) Lightweight Materials from Biopolymers
(d) Opportunities and Challenges of U.S.-China Intellectual Property Agreements
(e) What’s Your Number? A Centennial Remembrance of Henry Moseley


Sunday 8th Sept:

(a) Advanced Bioanalytical Technologies for Genetic Modification Detection
(b) Making Demos Matter
(c) CO2 Conversion: Thermo-, Photo- and Electro-Catalytic
(d) Indianapolis Motor Speedway–Celebrate Science Indiana & College Challenge Race
(e) What You Need for the First Job, Besides the Ph.D. in Chemistry

Head to the C&EN Facebook page to found out more and vote.

Carmen sandiego ACS

“You wouldn’t want to get in touch with some pitohuis. It’s the world’s first known poisonous bird. Contact with its feathers or skin causes a numbing sensation”


* This post will be updated, as and when new polls come up on the C&EN facebook feed.

My holiday

Chembark recently shared his vacation experiences. He had some awesome pictures and highlighted a few chemistry-related places along his route including: Pd-ville and Cu-mountain. This got me to thinking about the chemistry that I may have come across on my recent holiday to the States.

My holiday started in the hot, humid, precipitating New York City.

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Yes, I did buy a poncho.

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We spent much of our time eating and drinking but we saw some amazing sights along the way. A highlight for me was seeing the awesomely strange Flat-Fe building.

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Fluorescent lights beamed from every New York skyscraper. I have no idea what type of lights the skyscapers use but don’t they look so darn pretty?

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No trip to NYC would be complete without a wander around the Natural History Museum gardens to see the memorial celebrating all of the American Nobel Prize winners. We tried to spot our favourite Nobel prize winning chemists (biologists?)…


From New York, we headed south to Washington DC.

We spent a frantic day running around trying to see as many of the monuments and museums as humanly possible. Firstly, we stopped to ogle at the White House, which it turns out is white due to bring white washed with mixture of lime, rice glue, casein, and Pb.

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From there we headed to the Mall. I love the Mall. I especially like the colour of all the Smithsonian buildings. The iconic red brick sandstone Smithsonian castle gets its colour from iron oxide, whereas our favourite monument, the Lincoln Memorial, is made out of various types of limestone and marble.

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Finally, no trip to DC would be complete without a trip to our beloved ACS.


Thanks to everyone who made my holiday amazing, you know who you are!

#Chemsummer Carnival – Productive summer in the lab?

I have finally found some inspiration and time to do a #chemsummer post. There have been a few posts already but I imagine there may be a rush of posts today, so do keep an eye on your readers or twitter.

How is anyone ever productive in the summer?

On paper, the summer break should be the most productive time of year with no students around to bother us. In reality though, I find it my least productive time of the year (as this PhD comic shows).


Below are a list of things that I think are good and bad about the summer vacation:


  • No MChems in the lab (which unfortunately is balanced, of course, by the summer students).
  • No NMR queue
  • No teaching commitments
  • Conferences bring the chance to ‘network’ i.e. get sloshed with like-minded people.


  • I returned from my holiday in the US of A and began working back in the lab only to find that half of my glassware, cork rings, pipette teats and marker pens had gone walkies. Thankfully, I have managed to shift the equilibrium back in my favour by using my powerful master key.
  • Whichever member of staff I need is on holiday. They return from vacation to tell you that you actually need to talk to someone else, who it then turns out is also on vacation.
  • When it is 25°C outside, it is 35°C in the office.
  • All my teacher friends stop complaining for the first time all year and repeatedly post photos of themselves enjoying the nice weather.

So, what do you think? Are you more productive over the summer? What problems do you face when trying to get sh*t done? Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@jessthechemist).

Happy (belated) birthday to me!

So BRSM blog just celebrated his two year blog birthday (blog-iversary?) and he reminded me about my recent one year blog-iversary so I thought I would totally steal his idea. Sorry dude!

My blog started out as somewhere where I shared information about how we came about chemistry in everyday life but became a more whimsical place where I dispensed random ideas and thoughts with the world. I had planned to write a post at the end of May about what I have learnt about blogging over the past year blah blah blah but postdoc and real life got in the way. Instead, I have decided to cheat and take a leaf out of young BRSM’s book and share my top three posts of the OTC Year 1 (ish).

1) My top post from the past year was “The Girl with Zero Hangovers. Yes, I have still really never had a hangover. Thanks must go to the @NatureChemistry blogroll for putting this post and my blog on the map!

2) My personal favourite post comes in at number 2: “My Academic Family II“. The tree has since been updated  so do take a look. This was my favourite post because it started out as a small idea and turned in to something huge thanks mainly to Twitter. Just look how many names are now on there! Feel free to continue to send me names to add to the tree. If I had more time on my hands, the tree would be immense, but alas, no one pays me to make pretty pictures for my blog…

3) My third top post was “Identical Twins but not Identical Income” which I posted a few days after my blog-iversary (yes, I am cheating yet again). It has already had massive hits after only twelve days and is well on its way to being my most popular post to date. Thanks must go to CJ for highlighting this post on his own blog.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to my first year in the blogosphere. Thanks, especially, to all those bloggers who joined in with the #realtimechem week blog carnival. My highlight as a “firsty” was being asked to contribute to the Nature Chemistry blogroll, so heartfelt thanks to all the guys over there.

Here’s to many more years of The Organic Solution. Cheers!

Identical twins but not identical income

Recently Beth Halford over at C&EN wrote an article on the pains and gains of the postdoc life so I thought I would expand a little on my own experiences using my twin sister as a direct comparison to me…

The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.

The MD

Abbie has recently given birth to her first child and a year before this she got married and bought her idyllic, village-based family home. This story is very similar to many of her doctor friends, most of who are married, have a mortgage and child. Her current salary is close to £50k a year for a five day a week, 8.30 am – 6pm job[1]. On completion of her GP training (her chosen specialism), her salary will significantly increase, although her work responsibilities will also rise.

As background, In the UK, you do your degree, which is very competitive to get into, and then do two foundation years[2] in a range of specialities. If this goes well, you then apply for your, sometimes very competitive, specialism. At this point there is a relatively small risk of not getting a job, especially in larger cities and for popular specialisms, but the odds of gaining a job are in your favour.

The PhD

In comparison, I earn £28k a year and am on an eighteen month contract (1 year left) with no guarantee of employment on completion. My working hours can be very variable as research is unpredictable, with late nights or weekends not uncommon. My job is not only laboratory based, but also involves helping students, keeping the lab running smoothly, writing up publications and liaising with industrial partners. I currently live in rented accommodation with my postdoc boyfriend and we can not afford to buy a house or get married. In the last three years I have lived in three different cities and settling down is still not possible if I want a career in academia, which I am not sure that I do. My next step would require a prestigious fellowship, which are harder to come by than a clean NMR tube in a synthetic laboratory! So do I stick it out and hope that I get more publications which would give me a higher chance of a fellowship or do I head into industry?

There is also the issue of having children and, whilst my university does have decent maternity entitlement for fixed term staff, it would not necessarily be a good time in my career to have a child. There are many women that have succeeded in both becoming an academic and mother but the statistics show that only 20% of professors employed in 2011 were women[3].

To conclude…

I earn almost half what my sister earns even though we have spent the same number of years in training. My sister has deal with potentially life or death decisions every day and I applaud her ability to do this. Apart from the higher salary (and therefore larger shoe collection), her education and training allows her to be confident of getting a permanent position, having career progression options and a work-life balance. I feel my education and experience should have more value than is currently given to it, with industry and academia giving more financial incentive to stay in the research sector. I want to work hard and reach the higher echelons of my chosen profession whilst having job satisfaction and a work-life balance. These job requirements mean that it is becoming more likely that I will leave research and change career paths. For now though, I am happy as a postdoc and I will continue to work as hard as I can!