Could the NanoKids play soccer with a Buckyball?

Well I HAD to take minute to blog this!! Sir Harry Kroto answered my question!

So, those NanoParents better buy some of these NanoCars to drive the NanoKids to soccer practice, so someday they can play in the big leagues!*

*(this particular nerdy joke courtesy of my postdoc advisor)

**anybody else think it is awesome that he proudly displays a mini-Spam wall on his shelf? I would not be surprised to find out that Spam contains C60.

Ask a Nobel Laureate: Harry Kroto

So is running some online media activities through Youtube and Facebook where you get to ask Nobel Laureates questions and they will answer them. Pretty cool, right? The last round of questions went to David Gross, Nobel Prize in Physics, 2004, and you can find more from previous rounds at the Youtube page.

This round features Harry Kroto, one of the chemists who originally discovered the strange but fascinating Buckyball structure of carbon (C60, aka fullerene). Buckyballs have enjoyed much trendiness in the field of chemistry, because they have some weird properties that make them do interesting things with electrons and and interact with other molecules and surfaces in some unique ways. Apparently, they have also been found in space??!! I do not claim to be a C60 Buckyball expert, or even know much about them at all other than that in the early 2000's, if you wrote a grant with the terms "Buckyball" and "HIV" somewhere in the title or abstract, you were pretty much guaranteed to get funded. They were so hot right now. However, these nifty little hollow sphere-like molecules have turned out to be quite interesting and popular, evidenced by the thousands of papers in the literature exploring their physical, chemical and biological properties.

For the "Ask a Nobel Laureate" feature, you submit your questions either by uploading a video to Youtube or in text form--and although a video would be pretty fun to do, given my pseudonymity and lack of time for overly creative pursuits, I'm going to submit mine via blog post cartoon. My question is.... (drumroll..............):

Given the relative molecular scales, if the Nanokids held a World Cup tournament, would they be able to use Buckyballs to play? Or would it end up more like Big Ball Soccer?

Go to the Google Moderator or Youtube site and vote for your favorite question!! (mine, of course!)

Repost: Culture gap: synthetic chemists and learning biology

Apologies for more reposting... I'm still trying to get out from the vacation backlog of life. New thoughts to come soon!

I started responding to this comment:

Now that you have invested so long to transform in to a ‘chemicalbiologist’, would you mind suggesting some quick tips from your journey for the people ho want to take the same path? Are there any books or some crash courses etc?

And got so in depth that I decided to make it a post of its own. So here are my thoughts about where to start to develop better flexibility as a synthetic chemist who wants to work on bilogical problems.

The best crash course I got was weekly lab meetings in a lively, rigorous yeast genetics/molecular biology/kinase signaling lab (one of my postdoc labs). I started out so clueless that I felt like I was on Mars for the first year and a half or so. But because the people in that lab were so open and helpful, and the PI is an engaged, active teacher, they helped me learn the “language” of biology-type ways of thinking and data/information representation.

It’s that language that you really need as a chemist moving into biology. And by “language,” I mean more than just terminology (although that is a big part of it). It’s also a change in visualization of information and getting better at logic puzzles. Imagine a multi-step synthesis with a blank at step 2, where 4-5 possibilities (which you have assumed based on either mechanism or other times people have done similar things) could fit in there to result in the product (or mixture thereof). In biology, you have to come up with ways to test *which* of those possibilities comes from the retrosynthetic direction (for which you are only postulating a route) and will result in the product(s).

In all of this you also have to accept that: a) your only measurement techniques are indirect, i.e. you usually can’t just analyze the structures with some direct spectroscopic technique and figure out what they are; and b) your assumptions might be wrong. So you have to do lots of control experiments where you also assume some certain set of reagents should DEFINITELY give the products, and some other set should DEFINITELY NOT. That gives you yet another indirect way to make you feel more comfortable with your assumptions. The hardest part for many chemists is having to be okay with indirect information. The second hardest part is having to remember that if your “result” gives you something analogous to “75% yield of the product,” you still have to think a lot about WHAT molecules/interactions are represented in that other 25%. You can’t just purify it away and pretend it didn’t exist.

Getting used to reading gel electrophoresis/Western blot (antibody detection) data, as well as biological “cartoon” format (where you mostly worry about conceptual connections, and not so much molecular mechanism and byproducts etc.), are some great ways to start. But you’ll probably need a coach to guide you through it and translate how the experiments work and what the results mean. Finding friendly, sharp biologists (whether faculty, postdoc or grad student–it doesn’t pay to be snobby about this, sometimes the trainees are gonna be WAY better at teaching you! Just make sure to credit them or repay them somehow!) can be the difference between this working vs. not working.