Day 5: Fleeting Moments In Atlanta

Another ACS meeting is coming to a close today. As I reflected before the meeting started, I expected a week of great chemistry. And as usual, I wasn’t disappointed. I have plenty of work to do in the coming weeks to put together a few articles.

I was going to say something smart here about how the convention center looked like a ghost town this morning, as a lot of people bail out on the final day. I remember attending a talk on Thursday afternoon at the ACS meeting in Washington last fall with three people in the audience. But heck, I’m not even at the convention center today. I spent four full days there, and I decided to give myself a few hours off before I head to the airport and home. By the way, another sign of ACS leaving town is that at the Atlanta Hilton, where I am staying, a new group of conventioneers is moving in: It’s a group of collectors of Hot Wheels toy cars. Go figure.

Some of my memorable ACS meeting moments? At one point I remember being glad I don’t drink coffee when I saw a wrap-around line at one of the convention center’s Starbucks. Another moment was my thinking how normal a person Nobel Laureate Richard Schrock of MIT is when I saw him walking down one of the concourses humming to himself and keeping a beat by tapping on a handrail. Finally, seeing that Texas A&M chemistry professor F. Albert Cotton may be the last soul still giving technical talks using transparencies instead of PowerPoint. (All the meeting rooms had overhead projectors, but I didn’t see anyone else use one.) But you know, at age 75 Cotton’s still doing great chemistry.

So for my last morning here in Atlanta, I got up early and went for a run around downtown. It’s a great way to see a city, and I didn’t get to see much of Atlanta this week. As I ran up one street and down another, I ended up running by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. I’m sure this was fate at work. It was still early and the buildings were closed, but I stopped at his gravesite. I stood there alone in the plaza with King’s tomb, his wife Coretta Scott King’s gravesite nearby. It was a powerful moment to consider how one person can make a difference in the world, and it has left me with more to think about as I head on home.—Steve Ritter, filed at 10:15 AM EST

Day 5: MetaBlog

You probably Yahoo or Google about chemistry, but do you blog too? Have you podcasted? Know what RSS does? Written it all off as something for those whippersnappers? Perhaps you’ll reconsider.

Kermit Murray, a professor in the chemistry department at Louisiana State University, defined the basics of blogging and other Web communication tools yesterday during a compact but informative talk in the Division of Analytical Chemistry. (And yes, this is a blog entry about blogs.)

Murray is a blogger himself. His topic? Mass spectrometry, including RSS feeds from other sites. Check him out at In his talk, he also mentioned other science-oriented blogs, including specialized analytical topics such as nuclear magnetic resonance.

Then Murray posed a question: “Are journals threatened by blogs?” He said blogs and journal articles have similar elements, such as titles, names, and dates of posting. “I would argue that journals are peer-reviewed blogs, in a manner of thinking” and that journals could benefit from additional, associated blogs, Murray said. “It’s another path for information to travel,” he added.

And it’s a path that lots of people are traveling. The number of blogs on the Web doubles just about every five months, Murray said, citing statistics from Technorati. He acknowledges that not all blogs are worth visiting, but he advised the 20 or so attendees to pay attention to open-source knowledge. At least be aware of how it can enhance the chemistry community, he said. He closed with a quick primer on podcasts, RSS feeds, and Wiki entries.

Looking for examples of podcasts and RSS feeds? Click on the links above or visit the C&EN homepage. Of course our online team’s got those options covered!—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 8:55 AM EST

Day 4: Time Check

Just prior to the sold-out Women Chemists Committee lunch on Tuesday, roughly 40 women attended an inspiring session called “Women Leaders in Chemistry: Stories of Challenges Met.” (I should acknowledge that one man attended a couple of the talks.) Publishers already have expressed interest in compiling the talks into a book.

Nine women spoke about their experiences as leaders of local sections, as academics pursing nontraditional tenure tracks in chemistry departments at various schools, as industrial powerhouses, and as advocates for telling the stories of woman chemists. They spoke about the importance of programs for mentoring young women and minorities for success and, of equal importance, programs that provide funds to women at the beginning and middle of their careers to pursue additional training. It wasn’t all hearts and sunshine: In their own words, several speakers also shared some tough personal decisions they faced and how those decisions affected them.

Even the timekeeper piqued my attention. She sat in the front row and made sure each of the nine presenters kept strictly to the schedule. Jennifer Ilsley is a high school junior from Murfeesboro, Tenn.

The teenager has presented posters at ACS regional meetings. In this session, she heard about the first African American woman chemist to earn a Ph.D. (Marie Daly) and how a woman who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry handled child care (her father-in-law watched the kids). Jennifer says she paid close attention to the personal stories and especially liked the presentation by Helen Free, former ACS president and the woman who changed the name of the ACS Women Chemists Committee from the Women’s Service Committee.

Jennifer’s father, a chemistry professor, introduced his daughter some time ago to this session’s organizer, Judith Iriarte-Gross. Then, at age 10, Jennifer participated in Gross’s program for fifth- through eighth-graders “Expanding Horizons in Science & Math.” Jennifer is now Gross’s assistant in the program. Gross says Jennifer can even finish her sentences at this point.

Will she go on to be a chemist presenting at ACS national meetings? The honors student, choir singer, piano player, and short story writer has taken several math and science classes and expresses a solid desire to teach. Right now, she’s inclined toward elementary education, but hasn’t decided if she will pursue science yet.—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 7:50 AM EST

Day 4: Celebrating Friends And Chemistry At The ACS Awards Banquet

After three days of nonstop running around the convention center, the last thing I wanted to do was squeeze my swollen feet into high-heeled shoes. But I was going to ACS’s ritzy Awards Banquet & Ceremony, and I needed to look good–what women will do for vanity!

As I was leaving the Atlanta Hilton, resigned to walk the half mile in the cold, drizzly weather to the Hyatt, I ran into ACS President E. Ann Nalley and her husband, Robert Mullican. Perfect, I thought, maybe I can walk with them since I have no idea where I’m going. “Are you guys walking?” I asked. “No, we’re getting a cab,” Ann said. Without hesitation, she added, “Do you want to come with us?” My prayer was answered.

Robert confessed to me that it was he, and not Ann, who wanted to take a cab. His feet hurt. Hey, you and me both, man.

In the cab, I learned a few things about Ann: She gave 11 talks the day before, she has a deep appreciation for minority issues, and she is one heck of a nice lady. Plus, she looked radiant in her multicolored sequin jacket and turquoise dress. I complimented her on her outfit, and she let me in on a little secret: The jacket is more than 20 years old, and she just bought the dress to go with it.

[NEW FRIENDS Ann and I at the awards banquet. Photo by Peter Cutts.]

When we arrived at the Hyatt, Ann went to rehearse her lines for the evening’s presentations. As more and more people showed up, I quickly understood why people call this shindig the “Oscars of the ACS.” Men were dressed in tuxedos and women in beautiful ball gowns. There was plenty of wine and a real possibility of overdosing on hors d’oeuvres.

ACS Executive Director and CEO Madeleine Jacobs looked stunning in a full length, off-the-shoulder midnight blue dress with beautiful layers. Her sparkling necklace, she confessed, was 100% cubic zirconium. Despite my pretty black shoes and knee-length skirt, I felt a bit underdressed.

Inside the ballroom, I watched Peter Cutts, ACS’s official photographer, do a practice shoot with the award winners. Everything is so tightly choreographed, he said, that one stray flash will throw things off.

When dinner began, I found myself sitting next to Nobel Medalist Richard Schrock, who was being honored with the F. Albert Cotton Award in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry. We chatted a bit, and I learned that in his free time—what little of it he has—he enjoys woodworking and is finishing up a lounge chair. His future projects include a coffee table and a bed frame.

Also at my table was James Burke, chair of the ACS Board of Directors. I told him I was blogging for C&EN and asked what he thought of the effort. He said, “I think it’s fantastic.” But, he cautioned, “there’s a danger that, because it’s not peer reviewed, it’s more entertainment than knowledge. But the chemical community could use more entertainment.”

Perhaps the highlight of my evening was my conversation with a young assistant professor from MIT named Joseph Sadighi. We talked about random things, like traveling, public speaking, and the best burger joint in town.

One of the most gratifying things about coming to an ACS meeting is the new friends you make. And I sure made some good connections here in Atlanta. I can hardly wait until San Francisco.—Linda Wang, filed at 12:58 AM EST

Day 3: Smoke Signals In The Press Room

When there are 8,085 presentations at a massive scientific meeting, as is the case here in Atlanta for the 231st ACS National Meeting, you have to feel for those public information and public relations officers who are vying for the attention of a few dozen journalists. In their different ways, these peddlers of stories are trying to make their constituents stand out amid what amounts to a cacophonous din at a vast cocktail party.

[Photo by Ivan Amato]

One release teases me with this opener: “Microscopic specks of lead are offering clues about the enormous cultural changes that swept across Northern Africa thousands of years ago.” Not a bad lead. It draws me in enough that I continue to read and learn that the particular University of Arizona researcher featured in the release used an isotope analysis technique to trace the origin of copper and other metals in goods that were traded long ago in Northern Africa. I genuinely am intrigued by how such a technique, which by itself would not be of much interest to most people on the street, enables a scientist to connect seemingly insignificant specks of metal to trade patterns and from that to something as consequential as the spread of Islam in Africa. Even so, there are 8,084 other presentations at the meeting, so I might not want to lock onto this one.

Another release, this one from a government laboratory, is a harder sell. It’s about nanotubes and, who knows, it actually might be pointing me toward an important nanotube story. But nanotube stories have become a dime-a-dozen, a penny-a-dozen. I would be far more interested in a story about research that somehow bursts the nanotube bubble than by yet another story that puts a bit more glow on nanotubes’ celebrityhood. One saving grace about this particular release is that it centers on cerium oxide nanotubes, not carbon nanotubes. Still, we’re talking nanotubes here, and my threshold for even considering a nanotube story has reached what might be an unfairly stringent level.

“U.S., Polish researchers develop technology for creation of antiwear polymer films,” reads another release. Hmm. Not exactly a grabber for me at first, but then I discern a potentially interesting angle on the story because the two protagonists met at a conference in Poland in 1981 and now, 25 years later, they remain scientifically connected. It is the potential story about lifelong human connection and collaboration that initially catches me more than the researchers’ development of “tribopolymerization,” but even that topic could wear on me if I give it a chance.

Too late. There are many other releases in the press room, each one amounting to a humble “psst,” trying to grab my interest, maybe enough to convince me to write a story. And then there are all those thousands of other talks not lucky enough to have their own associated press releases set down on a table in a press room. Maybe it’s among those that I’ll find the best tales to tell.—Ivan Amato, filed at 1:42 PM EST.

Day 3: Coca-Cola Chemistry

The crowd of undergraduate students at yesterday’s midmorning Food Chemistry symposium perked up as Lihong (Lilly) D’Angelo, a manager of functional ingredients at Coca-Cola, spoke about the science of soda.

Coca-Cola was first served more than 115 years ago at a small pharmacy soda fountain in Atlanta. That’s why the Coca-Cola museum (officially called World of Coca-Cola Atlanta) is located here. Now people in more than 200 countries around the world recognize the brand name—although the product itself might be banana-flavored, depending on what country you are in.

Because natural and artificial sweeteners are main ingredients in soda, chemists at Coca-Cola study them extensively and create new ones, such as the noncommercial CC-100. They have developed a model that can predict the sweetness of a new molecule before synthesizing it. D’Angelo reported that the predictions are usually accurate.

In addition, she explained the basics of flavor chemistry, noting, for example, how chirality can mean the difference between spearmint and caraway flavors. Preparation techniques can alter flavors, too. For example, distilled lime tastes “spicy” and cold-pressed lime is “clean,” D’Angelo added, as she presented corresponding spectral analysis. Acid catalysis during distillation accounts for the difference, she said.

Other scientists contribute to the final soda product. For example, food technologists help develop product formulations. Analytical chemists do quality assurance tests for a consistent product. Microbiologists make sure the soda is safe to drink. Polymer chemists collaborate with engineers to design materials for bottles that won’t break during transport to consumers.

D’Angelo holds a Ph.D. in chemistry and an M.B.A. Her previous projects at Coca-Cola include developing new sweeteners. Currently, she works on chemistry to keep flavors stable in some of the other food products that Coca-Cola produces, such as Fanta and orange juice. And in her free time, she judges school science fairs and coaches tennis for Special Olympics.—Rachel Petkewich, filed at 6:34 AM EST