The Challenges of Science Communication

To give an insight into their research is an important task for scientists, but not an easy one. Photo/Credits: janiecbros/iStock, Prostock-Studio/iStock.

The 1633 trial of Galileo is a cautionary tale in science communication. The saga began in 1609 when Galileo’s studies led him to support heliocentrism – a model of the universe with the sun at its center – over geocentrism – the prevailing model of the universe at the time with the earth at its center. The astronomer published these findings as a series of dialogues between two philosophers and a layman; an attempt to promulgate this knowledge to the lay public and not just academics. However, it may have been this widespread access to his ideas that led to an equally widespread backlash against his views. Twenty four years after his first experiments, he was tried by the church, found guilty of heresy and sentenced to formal imprisonment (later altered to house arrest). His books were banned and he was forbidden to publish in future. It is interesting to note that no such fate befell Nicholas Copernicus, the discoverer of heliocentrism, who made no effort to demystify his dense academic treatise.

Difficulty in Conveying an Opinion

While such perils may not threat scientists today, some issues with science communication do exist. A common problem is the difficulty in getting one’s message across to groups holding opposing views. Righteous outrage coupled with intransigence can make the task of science communication particularly frustrating. Another issue comes up when scientific consensus changes due to new information and data; in such scenarios, communicating updated scientific views is challenging without coming across as a hypocrite or an imposter. Lastly, and perhaps of most consequence to the scientist themself, is the dilemma as to how one may navigate public opinion should certain views and ideas be reappraised in the future as inappropriate. It is perhaps unfair and definitely unfortunate that collective memories, in the form of online content will continue to exist, and can dog one’s career when ghosts of online content from the past are deemed unfit as per current societal judgement.

Galileo Galilei was found guilty of heresy for his finding that the earth moves around the sun. Photo/Credt: egal/iStock.

Ideas for Science Communication

The Online Sciathon 2020 organized by the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings generated some excellent ideas and methods for communicating scientific knowledge, especially about climate change. Here, however, are some of my ideas on dealing with the communications challenge.

There are no perfect solutions to the problems mentioned above. However, certain precautions may be taken. The first two problems can be tackled by minimizing interactions on what I call ‘snappy social media’. This includes sites and apps that allow limited forms and quantity of expression. On such snappy social media, one cannot honestly expect to have an in-depth debate on any topic. Rather all conversation is reduced to snazzy one-liners and comebacks: forms of expression that delight the consumer of that content but mostly lack depth. It is also easy to get embroiled in bitter and farcical arguments on such outlets, wherein one may attempt to actually engage in a sensible conversation but where the opponent merely engages to rouse sentiment and garner social currency.

On the contrary, presenting any idea requires a structured, logical and clear line of argumentation, one that can be achieved only with longer discourse. Therefore, essays or blogposts may be a better means of communicating science. While these forms can seem outmoded and tedious, they provide a solid means and framework for outlining scientific rationales, thought processes and the resulting conclusion. Such means of communication are less likely to generate vituperative attacks since any response can be formulated only when the content, and hence the carefully laid out argument, has been assimilated.

The third problem with science communication, as outlined above, is the trickier one to deal with, and in all honesty, I have no solution for it. My only suggestion would be to, in the course of reappraisal of views, clarify that given circumstances in the past, certain views may have been justified. This again, requires a longer and more in-depth style of communication and is best avoided on snappy social media. Ultimately, I think we have to realize that we cannot succeed at convincing every single person on any aspect. However, a positive change in the opinion of just one person is sufficient reason to continue with science communication.

Panel Discussion 2018: Science in a Post-Factual World

During the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting 2018 I participated in the panel discussion on Mainau island about “Science in a Post-Factual World” with Steven Chu, Peter C. Doherty, Brian Malow, Adam Whisnant and moderator Adam Smith. We discussed where the scientific community stands today in its fight against a “post-factual” world. Which strategies worked, which did not, and what needs to be done for the future? You can watch the discussion here.

Filming the Most Fundamental Processes in Chemistry

Photo/Credits: University of Nottingham

With the help of an electron microscope, two of the most fundamental processes in chemistry – chemical bonding and crystal formation – have been caught on film for the first time.

Earlier this year, a team of researchers from the United Kingdom, Germany and Japan published two studies that revealed their groundbreaking footage to the world. The first one revealed the breaking and formation of a metallic bond, while the second focused on the exact moment of crystal nucleation within three different metals. Electron microscopy makes the direct observation of these everyday chemical occurrences possible, whose mechanisms may be more complex than or even clash with those taught in school.

“Maybe some of the mechanisms of chemical reactions listed in textbooks are correct and we just need to confirm them – or maybe they’re completely different,” says Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials and Director of the Nanoscale & Microscale Research Centre at the University of Nottingham. “It’s a very fundamental question, and that’s exactly what electron microscopy can help us to answer.”

Nanoscale Test Tubes

During his early career as an organic chemist, Khlobystov became interested in the imaging and manipulation of individual molecules and atoms. In particular, he was intrigued by the idea of using carbon nanotubes as test tubes to hold his tiny samples in place during imaging. Carbon nanotubes are hollow tubes made of carbon atoms with a diameter about 80,000 times thinner than a single strand of hair.

The narrow structures allowed him to carefully position atoms and molecules for transmission electron microscopy (TEM), an imaging technique that passes a beam of high-energy electrons through a sample to probe its structure. Khlobystov saw the potential of TEM for chemistry, even though at that point, it was used mainly for research in physics, materials science and engineering. Chemists, for the most part, still employ spectroscopy instead of imaging methods.

“Normally, if you think about how we study bonds breaking, we use spectroscopy. There are some excellent spectroscopy methods that are very fast and unfold this process step by step, which is wonderful,” he explains. “But the problem with spectroscopy is that you have many atoms and molecules contributing to the signal.”

TEM, in combination with carbon nanotubes, lets researchers zoom in on the actions of an individual atom or molecule in real time with atomic resolution.

Dual-Use Electron Beam

Khlobystov and his colleagues took the idea of atomic imaging with TEM a step further when they set out to watch processes like chemical bonding and crystal formation unfold. For both studies, the electron beam served as an imaging probe as well as a stimulus to kick-start the processes.

In the chemical bonding study, video footage initially shows two rhenium atoms bonded together as a dirhenium molecule within the carbon nano test tube. Because electrons have mass, the electron beam of the microscope transfers enough kinetic energy to break the bond between them. The molecule is seen to vibrate while its individual atoms elongate into ellipses as the center distance between them increases. Finally, the atoms separate completely, vibration ceases, and their shapes become circular.

The two atoms move freely and independently until, a few seconds later, they recombine into a dirhenium molecule once more. By studying each frame of the video, the researchers could measure the distance between the atoms to determine the type of bonding that occurred. Transition metals like rhenium form bonds of different order, from single to quintuple bonds, and the results demonstrate that dirhenium most frequently adopts a quadruple bond order.

The second experiment used the electron beam’s energy to initiate and power the nucleation process of metal crystallites. As one of its roles, the beam delivered additional atoms to a cluster of three iron atoms on the wall of the carbon nanotube. The cluster served as the seed, and as more iron atoms were added, the structure went through various stages of nucleation until it became an ordered crystallite.

“Crystal nucleation is a very mysterious process because it occurs with a tiny number of atoms, and it’s difficult to follow in real time with atomic resolution,” says Khlobystov. “But again, because the electron microscope gives you atomic resolution and can promote the process at the same time by giving energy to the atoms from the electron beam, we discovered the atomic mechanism of crystal nucleus formation.”

Electron Microscopy for Chemistry

Beyond a better understanding of the basic mechanisms of chemistry, the results also have larger implications for improvements in material design, discovery of new materials, catalysis, and other industrial applications. They also highlight electron microscopy as a valuable tool for chemists. Both TEM studies provide new insights into common chemical processes that would have been difficult or even impossible to gather with any other technique.

While use of electron microscopy still remains rare in his field, Khlobystov hopes that continued improvements in the technology will lead to increased adoption by chemists in the future.

“Electron microscopy has advanced now to the point where chemists like myself can use it to answer chemical questions,” he thinks. “In the next 10 or 20 years, we might start seeing more electron microscopes as part of the normal chemical laboratory, like spectrometers. Maybe we’ll start using electron microscopes in the same way.”

Genetic Scissors: 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Today, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the 2020 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry. Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna received the Prize “for the development of a method for genome editing”.

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, 2020 Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, Copyright: Nobel Media 2020. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed

From the popular scientific background of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences:

“Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna are awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020 for discovering one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Researchers can use these to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has revolutionised the molecular life sciences, brought new opportunities for plant breeding, is contributing to innovative cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

One of the attractions of science is that it is unpredictable – you can never know in advance where an idea or a question may lead. Sometimes a curious mind will meet a dead end, sometimes it will encounter a thorny labyrinth that takes years to navigate. But, now and again, she realises she is the first person ever to gaze upon a horizon of untold possibility.

The gene editor called CRISPR-Cas9 is one such unexpected discovery with breathtaking potential. When Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna started investigating the immune system of a Streptococcus bacterium, one idea was that they could perhaps develop a new form of antibiotic. Instead, they discovered a molecular tool that can be used to make precise incisions in genetic material, making it possible to easily change the code of life.”

Read more about the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry here.

You can watch a video message by Emmanuelle Charpentier on the occasion of the #LINO18 science breakfast on gene modification in our mediatheque.

Women in Research: Catarina Esteves From Portugal

Catarina received her PhD in Inorganic Chemistry. Photo/Credit: Catarina Esteves

Catarina from Portugal is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centro de Química Estrutural, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

She studies the underlying processes of crystallization or recrystallization. Most of the synthetic procedures used to obtain a wide variety of chemicals encompass crystallization or recrystallization at some point. Therefore, improving our understanding on the molecular association and how that impacts crystallization is paramount. Particularly, gaining knowledge on the relationship between molecular structure in solution and in the crystals in equilibrium with it. Both the scientific and industrial communities would benefit from such studies.

Catarina will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.

Enjoy the interview with Catarina and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

My inspiration to pursue a career in science was triggered by the ubiquitous learning that is constantly “solvating” our day-by-day. Whenever performing scientific work, we are constantly being pushed to the limits of knowledge, working on the verge of discovery, which is very exciting. However, this excitement is in part a fruit of all the failed work, which is very common and might be als so mentioned. A scientist must learn to deal with disappointment and frustration, as they are part of the job. This fragile balance between success and failure is almost romantic, and romance gives life a different twist. That is why, in my opinion, science is so cherished by so many enthusiasts. Moreover, in science we are always young child’s playing with the world that surrounds us.

One day Catarina would like to become a full professor and continue to do scientific research. Photo/Credit: Catarina Esteves

Who are your role models?

My former professors and supervisors and the Nobel Laureates in Chemistry, particularly the five women laureates (Frances H. Arnold, Ada E. Yonath, Dorothy C. Hodgkin, Irène Joliot-Curie and Marie Curie).

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I believe that the environment surrounding me when I was growing up ultimately influenced my curiosity for engineering. This was mainly due to my father’s working on a facility for hot water supply for a big dormitory building for students of Escola Náutica Infante D. Henrique in Paço de Arcos (near Lisbon). Thus, whenever I visited him at his work place I’d see two huge boilers (we have some photos together by the boilers), fuel tanks, and a bunch of pipes and valves. They even had subterraneous facilities, which I found very mysterious at the time. So, at high-school I chose to study science and then I applied for the Instituto Politécnico de Lisboa, Instituto Superior de Engenharia de Lisboa (ISEL IPL) to obtain a bachelor in Chemical and Biological Engineering – Chemical Engineering branch, and a master in Chemical and Biological Engineering. When I turned 16 years old, my father had a serious ischemic stroke, which rendered him handicap and with several comorbidities until today. It was a very strong blow to our family and as an only child, I’ve been struggling to find all the energy and motivation to keep helping him and my mother. And I must tell you, science is one of my big sources! Also, I’ve met a friend, a partner, a lover, so he’s another pillar to me.

Catarina as a child visiting her father at his workplace. Photo/Credit: Catarina Esteves

And life continued and at ISEL I started to learn about Inorganic Chemistry, and a professor was kind enough to teach me in her spare time how to do research in this area. Just like that my passion for research flourished. Then, at Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Instituto de Tecnologia Química e Biológica (ITQB NOVA) I received my PhD in Inorganic Chemistry approximately ten years after my first endeavours into the scientific research world. With the help and collaboration of wonderful professors, mentors and colleagues we’ve managed to published articles in Q1 journals, and participated in national and international conferences, workshops or related events. I was lucky to receive four awards and/or honors, of which the MT Brandão | Metrohm Young Chemist Award 2018, and the Caixa Geral de Depósitos Award to the best MSc graduate of Chemical Engineering at ISEL, are highlighted. During my professional activities I’ve interacted with several national and international collaborators and stayed for three month at Université de Bretagne Occidentale as Invited PhD Fellow at the Laboratory of Prof. Raphaël Tripier. Briefly, up to the end of 2018, most of the research work consisted on the design, synthesis, purification and study of novel compounds for diverse applications. So now my focus is on improving our understanding on how the molecular association in solution impacts crystallization outcomes.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

The coolest project I’ve worked on was the one homonymous with my PhD thesis “Development of Dinuclear Cu(II) and Zn(II) Complexes as Potential Inhibitors of Oncogenic Protein-protein Interactions”. We were able to synthesise some nice new molecular structures in order to study their complexation behaviour towards copper(II) and zinc(II), and afterwards the association between the metal complexes and selected polyphosphate anions was investigated. On a particular case, collaborative work was performed with researchers with strong background on oncogenic protein-protein interactions and nice study was published as a result (Inhibition of the STAT3 Protein by a Dinuclear Macrocyclic Complex, Mesquita, L.M., Herrera, F., Esteves, C.V., Lamosa, P., André, V., Mateus, P., Delgado, R. Inorg. Chem. 2016, 55, 3589–3598. 10.1021/acs.inorgchem.6b00116).

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

During my PhD defense. It was a really well spent afternoon discussing Chemistry.

What is a “day in the life” of Catarina like?

Well, before the current pandemic, it would vary a lot depending on either I would be at the lab doing experimental work or at the office concentrated on studying, writing a manuscript, applying for grants/projects, etc. It might also happen that I would be out on a meeting with fellow scientists or on a conference presenting the latest work in hands. But let’s consider an average day…I

Catarina with her little son. Photo/Credit: Catarina Esteves

would wake up, wake up my son (sometimes it works out the other way around) and we get ready to leave. After letting him with my mother-in-law I would then drive ~ 40 km to arrive at the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon. I usually step into the lab to say good morning to my colleagues and to check on some experiment that might be running. Then, experimental work follows. If everything aligns, lunch time with colleagues follows. Afterwards, a quick stop for a cup of coffee, and then the afternoon reveals itself quite productive.

I should say, that before becoming a mother, I would enjoy losing myself so deep in some experimental work that I would not see the time flying … but now I have further responsibilities, so I run to my son in the end of the day for further discoveries. A few days during the week I need to give some support to my parents, helping them with groceries shopping, with their medication, with a few things at home. I’d like to stress once more that I’ve made massive efforts to balance my personal and scientific life, as I’m their only child and they both have serious health conditions. My father António has 90 percent incapacity due to a ischemic stroke he suffered in 2002, which was a major turnover in our lives and much influenced my interest for Chemistry, particularly my curiosity for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs). My mother Antónia (I know António & Antónia) has 70 percent due to a auditive psychosis and several comorbidities. So I’m the proud caregiver of two elders and one child. They are my main motivation to succeed at work.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

One day I would like to become a full professor and continue to do scientific research to the best of my abilities, passing on the knowledge and skills to the new generations.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like to walk with my family, play with my son, talk with friends and neighbours, read, do yoga, ride a bike, swim…and sometimes just listen to the wind, the sea and the birds.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Be resilient!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

Solving the complete SARS-CoV-2 puzzle.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

In Portugal the number of female scientists and female professors in Chemistry is quite high, so no problem here. However, if we look at the numbers concerning female directors of departments, rectors or even full professors, the pit between female and male gets deeper as more men occupy the mentioned positions. In my opinion, this translates very well the role of caregiver that women have in society and that eventually gets in the way of very time-consuming appointments.

Chemie: Von der Natur lernen für eine nachhaltige Zukunft

Frances Arnold eröffnete den Dienstag der Online Science Days 2020 mit ihrem Vortrag über Enzyme.

Chemie ist überall – und nicht nur um uns herum. Wir bestehen quasi aus Chemie. Die Atome in unserem Körper, das Wasser, das wir trinken, die Energie, die wir benötigen, um diesen Text auf einem Bildschirm zu lesen, all das sind Teile des chemischen Systems, das wir erst nach und nach im Detail verstehen. Im Rahmen von #LINOSD diskutierten mehrere Nobelpreisträger in einer Serie von Vorträgen und Debatten über den neuesten Fortschritt und zukünftige Perspektiven. Sie geben sowohl Anlass zur Sorge als auch Hoffnung.

Wir verdanken einen Großteil unseres neuesten technologischen Fortschritts den Entwicklungen in der Chemie und wer wüsste das besser als Frances H. Arnold. Arnold zählt zu den bisher fünf Frauen, denen der Nobelpreis in Chemie verliehen wurde, nur zwei davon innerhalb der letzten 50 Jahre. Sie wurde 2018 “für die gezielte Evolution von Enzymen” mit dem Preis ausgezeichnet, genau diesen Themenkomplex stellte sie während der Online Science Days vor.

Die DNA gleicht einer Symphonie von Beethoven

“Heutzutage stehen uns beeindruckende Technologien zur Verfügung”, so Arnold. “Wir können jegliche DNA bzw. DNA-Sequenz analysieren, wir können die DNA, die wir uns wünschen, erzeugen, man kann tatsächlich genetisches Material künstlich herstellen, wir können DNA im Reagenzglas aufbereiten.” Allerdings sind wir noch nicht die Herrscher über die DNA. „Wir können nämlich DNA nicht bilden. Für mich ist es wie eine Symphonie von Beethoven. Es ist schön, es ist komplex und wir wissen noch nicht, wie man es genau so erschaffen kann“, fügte Arnold hinzu.

Stattdessen erhoffen sich Forscher ein bisschen Hilfe beim benachbarten Fachgebiet Biologie, was genau genommen keine neue Idee ist. Seit tausenden von Jahren ändern die Menschen die Natur auf dem Niveau der DNA, indem sie Evolution durch künstliche Selektion benutzen, um die Organismen passend zu unseren Erfordernissen und Bedürfnissen zu optimieren. Jahrtausendelang benutzten die Menschen die Evolution, um DNA von landwirtschaftlichen Pflanzen bis zu Hunderassen zu modifizieren, obwohl sich unsere Methoden in jüngster Zeit verbessert haben. Arnold hat den Prozess einfach auf die nächste Stufe gehoben und setzt auf die Evolution der Enzyme statt der Organismen.

Frances H. Arnolds Hauptaugenmerk liegt auf der DNA.

Die Natur dient in der Chemie häufig als Vorbild für neue Entwicklungen. “Ich glaube, Mikroorganismen sind viel bessere Chemiker als wir”, sagt Fatima Enam, Postdoc-Stipendiatin an der Stanford University, während der Debatte Green Chemistry – Green Fuels. Enam arbeitet an der Schnittstelle zwischen synthetischer Biologie und Chemie mit Fokus darauf, wie man das Arsenal an  Methoden, das Chemikern zur Verfügung steht, verbessern kann, indem man von der Natur lernt.

Diese Idee klang vielleicht anfangs realitätsfern, hat aber schon lange das Reich der Fiktion verlassen und ist inzwischen Realität geworden. Von Biobrennstoffen zu Biokatalysatoren zu wiederverwertbarer Energie und Abfallverwertung – von der Biologie inspirierte Chemie boomt und wir brauchen sie mehr denn je. Ein Hauptgrund dafür ist, dass wir den grundsätzlichen Wandel in der Erzeugung von Energie nicht länger hinauszögern können, sagt Robert Schlögl, Direktor des Max-Planck-Instituts für chemische Energiekonversion in Mülheim an der Ruhr. Schlögl schätzt, dass wir unsere Kohlendioxidemissionen um circa 1.000 Millionen Tonnen pro Jahr reduzieren müssen, um die Ziele des Abkommens von Paris für 2030 zu erreichen. Bisher sind wir davon weit entfernt.

Der Vater der Lithium-Ionen-Batterie

Die Problematik besteht nicht unbedingt darin, dass wir nicht über entsprechende wissenschaftliche Erkenntnisse oder Technologien verfügen, um zu nachhaltiger Energie zu wechseln, sondern das Problem gestaltet sich eher “politisch und sozial”, so Schlögl. Wir benötigen nun Innovationen aus der Industrie und nicht nur aus der Wissenschaft, wie bereits häufiger erlebt. Stanley Whittingham, dem 2019 der Nobelpreis “für die Entwicklung der Lithium-Ionen-Batterie” verliehen wurde, wird als ‘Vater’ der Lithium-Ionen-Batterie angesehen. Whittingham entwickelte das Prinzip, während er bei der Firma arbeitete, die inzwischen als Exxon-Mobil, weltweit größtes Unternehmen für fossile Brennstoffe, bekannt ist. Sein Vortrag über Batterien war die dritte Einheit zum Themenbereich Chemie im Rahmen der Online Science Days.

Vielleicht ist es Ironie des Schicksals, dass diese von Exxon patentierte Erfindung jetzt beim Wechsel von fossilen Brennstoffen zu erneuerbarer Energie entscheidend mitwirkt. „Bei Sonne und Wind variiert die Leistung von Sekunde zu Sekunde und muss ausgleichen werden, und dazu eignen sich Batterien sehr gut. Sie helfen auch, den Strom genau dann ins Netz einzuspeisen, wenn er benötigt wird. Der Wind weht gewöhnlich die ganze Nacht hindurch, wenn kein Strom benötigt wird. Die Sonne scheint mitten am Tag, der höchste Stromverbrauch wird aber zwischen 16 und 18 Uhr gemessen.“

Wir brauchen bessere Batterien, wenn wir zu erneuerbaren Energiequellen übergehen wollen, sagte Hartmut Michel, dem 1988 der Nobelpreis für die Enträtselung der chemischen Vorgänge bei der Photosynthese verliehen wurde. Die Nachahmung der “Photosynthese gelingt uns schon ganz gut,” so Michel, “und in mancher Hinsicht funktioniert unsere Technologie tatsächlich besser als die Photosynthese.” Pflanzen lagern etwa ein Prozent der Energie ein, die sie von der Sonne erhalten, während heutige Solarpanels eine Effizienz von circa 20 Prozent vorweisen können. Allerdings benötigen wir robuste und zuverlässige Batterien, um diese Energie entsprechend unserer Bedürfnisse einzusetzen – und sie müssen wirtschaftlich rentabel sein.

Um solche Batterien auch wirtschaftlich realisierbar zu machen, müssen wir verschiedene Materialien in Betracht ziehen. Lithium ist teuer und kann nicht wiederverwertet werden, so Kwadwo Owusu, Wuhan University of Technology. Die globale Herausforderung besteht darin, wirtschaftliche und nachhaltige Alternativen zu finden. Zum Glück beweisen sich Forscher als unglaublich einfallsreich, wenn es darum geht, Lösungen zu suchen.

Magdalena Skipper (Moderation), Nobelpreisträger Hartmut Michel und Fatima Enam während der Diskussion um die Zukunft der Chemie.

Stolz ein Chemiker zu sein

“Ich bin sehr stolz, Chemiker zu sein, weil Chemie Großartiges aus dem Nichts produzieren kann”, sagt Ryōji Noyori, ein japanischer Chemiker, dem 2001 der Nobelpreis in Chemie verliehen wurde. Allerdings sei es keine einfache Situation. “Wir sollten erkennen, wo die Grenzbereiche unseres Planeten liegen und dass die Zukunft unvorhersehbar ist.” Kann die Welt wirklich bis 2030 zu einer nachhaltigen Zukunft umschwenken? Michel ist vorsichtig optimistisch: “Es wird eventuell einige ‘glückliche Inseln’ auf der Erde geben, aber ich glaube nicht, dass Nachhaltigkeit auf der ganzen Welt erreicht werden kann.”

Enam ist pessimistischer. “Ich glaube, solange es fossile Brennstoffe gibt, wird erneuerbare Energie hintenanstehen.” Schlögl jedoch schließt positiv ab. Er stimmte zu, dass es ‘Inseln’ der Nachhaltigkeit rund um die Welt geben wird, “aber die Inseln könnten doch recht groß sein.” Die Wissenschaft sei schon so weit. Das was jetzt nötig ist, ist gesellschaftlicher Wandel – und dazu können wir alle einen Beitrag leisten.

Zum Originaltext auf Englisch

Women in Research: Mariana De Niz From Mexico

Mariana likes to do microscopy or image analysis. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

Mariana from Mexico is a Human Frontier Science Program postdoctoral fellow at Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon, Portugal.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Her work consists on investigating the biophysics and dynamics of the parasite Trypanosoma brucei (causative of sleeping sickness) in various tissues of mammalian hosts. She is particularly interested in microscopy methods to image host-parasite interactions, and is keen on developing new methods that enable visualizing and investigating these interactions. In her earlier career she worked on investigating host-pathogen interactions during various stages of the malaria-causative parasite Plasmodium.

Enjoy the interview with Mariana and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I liked science since an early age. Since I can remember, I had a keen interest in patterns in nature, in astronomy and physics. I learned all I could on everything space-related, from planets and stars, to how telescopes are built, to the specifics of various space missions, shuttles, and the history of NASA and ROSCOSMOS. My other passion in life as a child was tropical medicine, both its history and biology, and understanding how our body combats pathogens upon infection. I remember my curiosity being triggered by anti-cholera campaigns in Mexico when I was very young, which led me into the world of pathogens.

As I have advanced in my career, I became more and more interested in vector-borne pathogens, in particular parasites- and the biophysical component of their interaction with the hosts they infect.

Who are your role models?

My father is one of my main role models. Coming from rural Mexico with little resources, yet having a very gifted mind, he is a highly dedicated person who hugely valued education and effort. He always encouraged me to dream, and to work hard to achieve those dreams. There was never anything impossible in his mind, and he transmitted this to me: to break any and all glass ceilings. I think without this early encouragement I might have never dreamed of leading the somewhat adventurous life I now lead.

In history, role models for me are Katherine Johnson, Amelia Earhart, and Marie Curie who fought against all odds to be the fantastic scientists and/or explorers they were, in an even more challenging time than it is now.

And of course I have been privileged with great teachers, mentors and colleagues throughout my entire career many of whom are also role models in different ways. Some of the ones in my scientific career include my colleagues Dr. Carolina Agop-Nersesian, Dr. Rebecca Stanway, Dr. Kannan Venugopal, Dr. Idalio Viegas, and PIs Prof. Volker Heussler, Prof. Elena Levashina and Dr. Luisa Figueiredo.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I was born in Mexico City, and studied primary and junior high school there. In general, as a child, I had fantastic teachers, and I was very curious, so I loved learning – anything and everything. Equally, this school had as a firm basis the values of a “healthy mind in a healthy body”, so since a very early age I learned to love all sorts of sports. I think these early years were life-defining in what I value now.

Given my wishes to become a scientist, for high school I joined the Institute of Technology (Tecnologico de Monterrey) in Mexico City, into the International Baccalaureate programme. I loved every second of it, and it was probably one of the best times in my life. I had inspiring teachers from all over the world who brought a new perspective to the way I saw life. It was a demanding and rigorous programme, as much as it was intellectually stimulating. A huge advantage of this time, was that it offered me the possibility to study abroad. Between ages 15 and 18, I studied in France and in Australia. I think the ‘bug’ to travel and explore the world began then, and never left me. Also, this school had plenty of opportunities to engage in programs aimed at life-saving and human rights, which led me to early engagement in this context including becoming an open water life saver, and a member of the Amnesty International body of volunteers.

Mariana with the medical and scientific team she worked with during her MSc in Tororo, Uganda. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

I then went to the University of Glasgow, in Scotland, where I studied Immunology. There I had my first academic mentor, Prof. Robert Nibbs, who encouraged me to ask my own questions and pursue these, rather than fit into someone else’s. He encouraged me to ‘blaze the trail’. I think this made a huge difference in my approach to science. Following this advice, I first went as an intern to Brazil and later joined the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, to study a MSc in Control of Infectious Diseases. Here, I joined the lab of Prof. Chris Drakeley, an extraordinary scientist who encouraged passion- and curiosity-driven science. In his lab I had one of the best times in my career as a scientist, exploring hemoglobinopathies and malaria in Uganda, and later, Plasmodium knowlesi distribution in Malaysian Borneo.

After that, seeking to somewhat go more into the area of biophysics and microscopy, I joined the lab of Prof. Volker Heussler at the University of Bern in Switzerland. Like my two key previous mentors, Volker Heussler was also extraordinary and also encouraged independent thinking. I learned a lot in this time, in an environment that was inspiring and challenging to ask own questions and seek answers. In this time I developed a huge passion for microscopy which continues to this day. More importantly, because of the freedom I enjoyed, I was able to find my way of being the best scientist I could be.

After that I went to the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, to the lab of Prof. Matthias Marti. This was my first experience in a non-European country in my career as a scientist. Later the lab moved to Glasgow, Scotland. For this work, I obtained an SNSF fellowship (from Switzerland) and an EMBO postdoctoral fellowship. It was amongst one of my most productive career stages. Between postdocs I went to Woods Hole to the prestigious BOP course (Biology of Parasitism Course), which I loved – it opened my eyes to the big picture of parasitology, and was a once-in-a-lifetime experience altogether.

Afterwards I moved to my second postdoc to the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon, Portugal, to the lab of Dr. Luisa Figueiredo. I had been a big fan of her work since a few years and was keen to join her lab to explore a different parasite: Trypanosoma brucei. For this, I got a Human Frontier Science Programme postdoctoral fellowship. In my time in her lab, I defined the niche I wish to pursue as an independent researcher.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I think most of the projects I have worked on have been very special to me. I loved my entire PhD because it was a time when I was truly free to explore my brain’s interests. Moreover, I found in my PhD supervisor a mentor with whom I could share my curiosity and the excitements of the scientific discoveries and phenomena we were observing. He was immensely fun to work with.
Other special moments: I loved my MSc degree because it opened my eyes to the reality of parasitology. And from my second postdoc, I will never forget the first time I saw Trypanosomes moving in a living animal – it was a fascinating moment for me.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I think like many scientists, I suffer from huge impostor syndrome. I don’t think I have felt immense pride, but I was certainly very happy when I was awarded prize for my doctoral work. I was happy mostly because intellectually speaking, I had loved my PhD, and I think this was reflected in the effort I put in my work. The fact that this was recognized meant a lot to me.

What is a “day in the life” of Mariana like?

I am a very early morning person. I start the day walking to the gym listening to music – this helps me put my mind at ease. In the gym, I run and swim for a few hours. I find this fills me with energy for the day. After that I go to work, where almost every day I do microscopy or image analysis – which I enjoy most. At night, depending on the day, I either study languages, play music, or do other sports. At present I’m studying Russian, playing the drums and doing some free-diving. Then I go home and usually I like watching movies or writing on topics related to open science.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I would like to explore the topic I am most interested in, in the most free and engaging way I can. I want to be excited every day about the things I will observe that day.

At the Moment Mariana is working at the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon. Photo/Credit: Mariana De Niz

Personally, I would feel very happy if I could contribute to making science a friendlier place, and a more inclusive place to all genders and races. I don’t feel it currently is. A huge achievement for me would be to become a great mentor with whom people are happy to explore their ideas, and where imposter syndrome is an exception rather than the norm. Where no one feels left out or unfitting, personally or professionally.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I love endurance sports. When I’m not doing research, I’m usually training for swimming or running competitions. Also, I still engage in life-saving activities. Due to an injury I had to stop for a while, but as I have slowly recovered, I would soon like to qualify to become a paramedic.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Be perseverant and resilient. Choose the people you work with extremely wisely. It’s essential for success, for your happiness and for developing to your highest potential. As mentors, choose people that respect you and are interested in your growth and encourage and challenge you in a healthy way and who see in you a colleague and scientist-in-the-making.

Before joining a lab, pay huge attention that you share the principles and philosophy with the PI (principal investigator) – this will often dictate the philosophy and values of your team-members as well. Beyond that, never give up. Also, develop self- awareness and self-confidence. People will always have opinions, but you shouldn’t let anyone’s opinions define you – neither the good nor the bad. And aim to become the best version of yourself. And when the time comes, be a kind and inspiring mentor yourself.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

I think the next great breakthrough in parasitology will come from approaching science in a different manner than has been conventionally done. I think more and more people are studying parasites from an interdisciplinary point of view, and from a complex system point of view, whereby two organisms interact. I think artificial intelligence and imaging will be revolutionary for this – but of course I am biased.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

From my experience, my female colleagues who left science, left either because it was incompatible for them with having a family; because they wanted stability; because they felt impostor syndrome – and wanted a job where they felt fulfilled instead; because the geographical relocation that many fellowships demand became a limiting factor; because there were no role models or a network of sufficient support; or because the expectations of time commitment and output were unrealistic and incompatible with work-life balance. I think these are but a few points we should address as a scientific community to retain female talent. I also think we should be kinder and more encouraging to each other and we should encourage collaboration over competition and building a more selfless environment than it currently is.

Women in Research: Kate Secombe From Australia

Kate participated in the competition “Falling Walls Lab” in Berlin. Photo/Credit: Kate Sacombe

Kate from Australia is a PhD student at University of Adelaide, Australia.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

She researches gastrointestinal toxicity (i.e. diarrhoea) following cancer treatment. This is a debilitating issue that occurs in up to 80 percent of people having chemotherapy. She is working on determining the specific gut microbiome compositions that may increase or decrease your risk of developing gastrointestinal toxicity, and how they can predict toxicity before it occurs.

Enjoy the interview with Kate and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science / in your discipline?

I first decided that I wanted to study biology as I had a big interest in healthcare and how we develop new treatment for various diseases. As I progressed, I was overwhelmed at the complexity of the human body and how much we still don’t know, so I wanted to keep going and find out more.

Who are your role models?

Kate in the lab. Photo/Credit: Kate Sacombe

I have been honoured to have many scientific role models beginning from my high school chemistry teacher whose classes were so much fun. Of course also my parents who have encouraged my interest in science from a young age. In my current laboratory I am lucky to have so many amazing women to look up to. My supervisors, A/Prof Joanne Bowen, Prof Rachel Gibson and Dr Janet Coller somehow manage a million competing priorities while excelling in their scientific careers. Previous PhD students in my lab Dr Hannah Wardill and Dr Ysabella Van Sebille have also been incredibly generous in giving their time to help me learn so much from them and they have also acted as mentors and sponsors giving me many opportunities to work on new projects during my PhD.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I completed a Bachelor of Science (Biomedical Science) at the University of Adelaide, while also doing a Diploma of Languages (Japanese). Following this I completed a Bachelor of Health Science (Honours). During this year I was placed in A/Prof Joanne Bowen’s lab and was my first exposure to a research laboratory environment. Both professionally and personally I got a huge amount out of this year, and continued to work as a research assistant in Joanne and Rachel’s labs for the next 18 months. During that time, I learnt many new scientific techniques, as well all the work that goes into managing a busy laboratory! I think one of the most important things I gained during my employment was a confidence in myself to carry out projects independently. After a year overseas travelling and working (in a resort not a lab!), I returned to the University of Adelaide and the Cancer Treatment Toxicities Group to begin my PhD. It’s been the biggest learning experience of my life and I am so grateful to have supervisors that support my love of extracurricular activities (from communication to conferences and internships)!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

During my time as a research assistant and continuing into my PhD I have been able to work on a project in conjunction with a pharmaceutical company to further characterise and understand one of their new products. I have found it so interesting to see how my pre-clinical work is used by the company to develop new clinical trials and to eventually help patients.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

In 2019 I participated in Falling Walls Lab in Berlin. In this competition you have a short amount of time to pitch how your research or idea can help to ‘break down a wall’ and benefit humanity. Being able to meet so many different people and talk about my work was so exciting and really satisfying.

What is a “day in the life” of Kate like?

As I write this I am still working from home 90 percent of the time due to social distancing requirements and COVID-19, so my day in the life at the moment is a bit different to usual. At the moment I am working really hard on writing up papers and trying to get my thesis somewhat together.

Kate Sacombe. Photo/Credit: Michael Mullan

I’ve also been working on a systematic review, so LOTS of reading. I tutor beginner levelHuman Biology courses online, so I’ve been able to continue that while at home. When I’m in the lab it is a bit more varied: checking on any mouse experiments, cutting and staining tissues slices or analysing microbial sequencing data.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I’m still unsure of exactly what path I will take following my PhD. I know that I love writing about science, collating evidence and reviewing literature, and also thinking about how scientific evidence can be used to change our world for the better. I’d love for my career to encompass all of those aspects.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

I like to do some research-adjacent activities like writing for a range of cancer and science based blogs and teaching undergraduate biology. Usually I would say I love to travel, but while I’ve had a bit more time at home than usual lately, I’ve been working on perfecting my brownie and cookie recipes! Apart from that I’ve been getting into disc golf as well.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / in your discipline?

Get as much information as you can, as early as you can, about how scientific and academic careers work. I found that until I started my PhD, I really didn’t understand how it all worked, and I think it’s really useful information to have. In addition, having people you can chat/celebrate/commiserate to both in and out of science is good. My PhD student friends have been invaluable for complaining about experiments that won’t work, while my non-PhD friends can remind me there’s more to life than the lab!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science / in your discipline?

Good question – I think the gut microbiome is probably going to be involved, but in what way, I’m not so sure yet!

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

Big question, and a difficult one. It really needs to be a systemic fix to the academic system. The Women in STEM Ambassador program in Australia is doing some great work on this. They’ve recently produced a resource to help evaluate the many, many STEM gender equity programs that are around. I don’t think I have all the answers to this problem, but one key thing that does need to be kept in mind is intersectionality, so we increase opportunities and promotions for all women, no matter their race, sexuality or disability.

Women in Research: Isabel Abánades Lázaro from Spain

Isabel’s PhD graduation Credit: Isabel Abánades Lázaro

Isabel from Spain is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at Universidad de Valencia, Instituto de Ciencia Molecular, Spain.

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Online Science Days 2020/70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Her research focuses on defect engineering of Metal-Organic Frameworks for drug delivery and environmentally relevant applications.

Isabel will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2021.

Enjoy the interview with Isabel and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/Chemistry?

My motivation for science resides both in the desire to provide the base of knowledge to circumvent worldwide problems such as the treatment of diseases and the need for renewable energies, and in mentoring students to pursue a career in science.

As a kid I found it fascinating trying to find explanations of why things occur and I really enjoyed playing with Chemistry games and doing experiments with my sister and my cousins. Growing up I had inspiring high school science teachers, who further increased my desire for knowledge in the subject. Besides providing us with further information on topics for which we demonstrated interest (I won’t forget the coolest ever science poster that Alex gave after my essay on the big bang theory), they made Chemistry and Physics classes (and homework) fun. We had to carry out experiments, write scientific reports like if we were scientists and come up hypothesis and theories, what really made us think. But really think, not just learn a bunch of equations or definitions.
During my degree in Chemistry, I also had some teachers to whom I own in part my passion for science, research and teaching. They were highly passionate, both about the subject they were teaching, but more importantly about teaching itself. Alberto was my 1st-year biology teacher, and Tomás my 3rd-year inorganic Chemistry teacher. Not surprisingly, I choose a PhD that combined both topics: Metal-Organic Frameworks for drug delivery.

Who are your role models?

This question reminds me of an article that one of my role models, Dr Carol V. Robinson – the first female professor at the department of Chemistry of both the University of Cambridge and the University of Oxford – wrote back in 2011 (In pursuit of female chemists). I agree with her that there are not many female chemist role models, besides Marie Curie, to whom we are introduced in school.

I highly admired Frances Arnold. Besides loving her science, I admire that she retracted a publication after finding irreproducibility of the results. She set an example, it is ok to be wrong, we are not perfect and we all make mistakes. I believe that admitting when we are ‘‘wrong’’ makes us indeed better people.

I look up to the advocates for equality and mental health, I really admire the work that Dr Zoe Ayres is doing with the mental health posters series on social media and I really like the points of view of Prof. Jen Heemstra. As it is stated at the end of a Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) video ‘good role models are not just good scientists, they are good people’. I admire my mentors, who have supported me and inspired me during my career so far, and who believe people go before science, but also do great science. During my PhD, I was lucky to have a supervisor, Dr Ross Forgan, who encouraged me to pursue my dreams, let me take initiative and propose the direction of my research. He was highly supportive of his student’s mental health and advised us to take a small break when he could sense that we needed one but we were not allowing ourselves to stop with research. I think that supervisors that prioritize their students’ well-being over science are not that common in academia, and I am very thankful to have done my PhD with him.

In a more personal and sentimental way, I highly admire my mother and her sisters (the five Lázaro women). They grew up in a family of limited resources in a little village (Renales, Guadalajara) and they had to travel over 20 kilometres per day to go to school, what at the time meant 2 hours to go and 2 to come back with the bus shutter. They all left home and moved to different cities when they were 14 years old because there wasn’t public transport to go to high school from Renales. They combined going to high school with work so that they could afford to live in the city. Although those were other times, they were just kids. I look up to them and I feel privileged, proud and thankful. They are strong and have taught me to be independent, fight for my dreams and to not give up. They have taught me to acknowledge my privilege and to use it to advocate for equality.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

I started working on camps and workshops during summers since I was 16 years old. During my bachelor’s degree I tutored high school students in different subjects (from Philosophy to Chemistry), which further awaken my passion for tutoring, mentoring, and teaching.

I started my research journey at a young age and mobility has always been a key part of my academic career. I started a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry at University of Alcalá de Henares (Madrid) in 2010, and participated in research projects within its analytical Chemistry department (summer 2012) under the supervision of Dr Maria Soledad Vera and with the immunology department of Fundacion Jimenez Diaz (FJD) in Madrid (summer 2013), under the supervision of Dr Victorial del Pozo. Vito’s mentorship has played an important role in my career, as she gives me both scientific and personal advice and we continue collaborating. During my internship with Vito, I also met PhD candidates and postdoctoral researchers – I remember with special affection Dr Carla Mazzeo – who mentored me in molecular biology techniques but with who I could discuss career paths.

I did the last year of my degree in Trinity College Dublin, including a ten month research project in the bioinorganic group under the supervision on Dr Aidan McDonald. Andrew Ure (2nd year PhD at the time) mentored me in the lab and gave me extensive advice about choosing and doing a PhD. Being in an international environment, attending seminars, group meetings, and being part of a research group on a day-to-day basis encouraged me to do a PhD abroad.

Isabel in the lab. Photo/Credit: Isabel Abánades Lázaro

I moved to University of Glasgow to do a PhD in Chemistry in 2014, focused on relating the surface Chemistry of MOFs with their performance as drug delivery systems. I was the third PhD student of Dr Ross Forgan and the first one of the drug delivery research line. Starting a project from scratch was really a growing experience to me, and all the Forgan group members were highly supportive. Ross Marshall was the first PhD student of Ross Forgan, and he was somehow my mentor in the lab, even though his project was not related to mine. At the end of the second year of my PhD, the Forgan group (the four PhD students at the time and Ross) went to MOF2016 in California. I won a poster prize, which I was not expecting at all. This prize encouraged me to do more and better. During my PhD, I was involved in teaching, both as a demonstrator of several subjects in the undergraduate labs and as a lab supervisor of summer and Master’s students.

Ross Forgan mentorship has been crucial to my career, as he always encouraged me to learn new techniques, to apply for funding and to collaborate. With his guidance, I applied for a Royal Society of Chemistry mobility grant and obtained funding to move to the University of Cambridge to perform a part of my PhD research in Dr David Fairen-Jimenez’s group. This experience was crucial for my development and career. I was trained by Claudia Orellana-Tavra and Sam Haddad in several molecular biology techniques and I learnt a lot, both from them and from David. Shortly after, I started a collaboration with Dr Victoria del Pozo and performed visits to the immunology department of FJD, where I did a research internship, to analyse the immune response towards our MOFs. Ross gave me independency in this collaboration, which I believe enhanced my project management skills among many other qualities. He was always open to listen to my research ideas, and the independence that he gave pursing them has helped me to develop my scientific thinking, which I believe it is one of the things that made me who I am.

Defects in metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) captivated me during my PhD. I used coordination modulation to introduce modulators (drugs and surface functionality) to the MOF structure during synthesis, which resulted in highly defective structures that performed better than non-defective MOFs. As a drug delivery of materials scientist, I did not study the defect Chemistry of MOFs at a molecular level (by synchrotron resources). I decided that I wanted to further understand the coordination modulation process and to learn synchrotron techniques to elucidate the molecular level of defected MOFs in relation to their synthetic conditions. Meeting Dr Carlos Marti-Gastaldo in EuroMOF2017 after my talk at the young investigator symposium, I decided to write ‘defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks’ (DefTiMOFs) and apply for a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship in his group (FuniMAT), which happened to be in Valencia (Spain), just three hours by car from my home town. I graduated in 2018 and after a short postdoctoral stay in Dr Forgan’s group and I joined to Dr Carlos Marti-Gastaldo’s group (FuniMAT) in October 2018 as a postdoctoral researcher. In May 2019 I started my Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship in FuniMat, where I am the principal investigator of the project ‘defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks’ (DefTiMOFs) and here I am!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

I have always struggled with comparisons, and hence I find it difficult choosing a project over another. I really like all the projects I have worked on. I really enjoyed my research internship in FJD, the role of exosomes in Asma. We isolated these tiny vesicles from the blood of human donors, and the whole isolation process seemed the coolest thing ever to me at the time.

I have a special appreciation for my PhD project entitled ‘The effect of surface functionalisation on cancer cells internalisation and selective cytotoxicity of zirconium metal-organic frameworks’.
The interdisciplinarity of the project is something that really captivated me, as it was constant learning of completely different skills. The project involved the organic synthesis of different functionalised modulators, the design of protocols to introduce them into the MOFs surface during synthesis, the post-synthetic modification of the MOFs’ surface using the modulators functionality. We related the effect of surface functionalisation on the materials’ colloidal dispersion, on their degradation and drug release kinetics under simulated physiological conditions and on their selective cytotoxicity. In collaboration with Dr Fairen-Jimenez’s group, we studied the effect of surface functionalisation on cancer cells internalisation pathways and efficiency. With Dr Victoria del Pozo we studied the biocompatibility of the materials and the immune system response towards them. This project had a great outcome, finding relations between surface Chemistry and endocytosis pathways, cytotoxicity, or drug release kinetics, and resulted in anti-cancer selective materials in vitro.

I really like Defective Titanium Metal-organic Frameworks (DefTiMOFs), the first (and only so far) project of which I am the principal investigator. In DefTiMOFs we are developing thoughtful synthetic protocols to study the role of different variables during MOFs coordination modulation, to ultimately understand the factors that drive the formation of defects in Titanium MOFs. The project involves both the synthesis and extensive characterisation (including synchrotron techniques) of the materials. I find the synchrotron facilities quite cool and I have really enjoyed visits to the synchrotron. Finding relations between all the synthetic variables and the properties of the material is something that I find exciting. To me, it is like a puzzle, in which you have to perfectly match all the pieces to understand the process. If you are missing a piece, then it will not make sense. We are also studying the potential of our defective materials for applications of environmental relevance, although this part of the project is in an earlier stage.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

I think I feel immense pride in making my family, friends or mentors proud. This is probably because their faith in me is one of the walls that keep these thoughts contained.

I am proud of myself when I am the change that I want to see in the world: When I speak up about discrimination and when I stand up against it, when I speak my truth out-loud and I advocate for a change in the system, even if it means to be ‘the trouble one’. I am proud when I mentor students in the lab and they send me a text asking for career /personal advice months after, or when I do something (even little) that makes other people life’s easier.

I am very proud of my work when I sense that it can be of use to the community or that it helps to understand a process. I am happy when people cite my publications (not because of the metrics, but because my work was of use or relevant to someone). I hope that my research will have an impact on society, providing information to battle cancer and climate change. Hence, I am proud when it receives recognition, especially if it is something unexpected, like the poster prize in MOF2016.

I was very proud that my hard work writing DefTiMOFs [Defective Titanium Metal-Organic Frameworks] – while finishing a PhD, closing projects, moving countries – was funded by the European Research Council. I was immensely happy when I was nominated by the European Commission to attend the 70th Lindau Meeting (Interdisciplinary). I started thinking that I had made something wrong with the final application and I was almost convinced that I was not going to be selected to attend. The Lindau meeting selection has made me immensely happy and proud and it is a shout out to my impostor syndrome, as to me it meant that the committee considered my work is relevant in a wider extent than my research field.

What is a “day in the life” of Isabel like?

The truth is that I always tried to make every day different from the previous one as much as possible. A day in the life has varied quite a bit due to the pandemic, and I am not sure how to reply that question anymore. I have never been a morning person, but during the pandemic, my biological clock changed and I am surprisingly waking up around 7.30 am, without an alarm! I often start the morning by having a quiet and paused coffee while reading emails or organising my thoughts and tasks for the day. Shortly after I do 10-minute yoga stretch.

If I have to read or write I try to this at home as much as possible; my productivity increases when I am alone. If I am mentoring a student in the lab, we often meet at 10 am and leave at 6 pm, although depending on the experiments I stay longer.

If not and if I do not have early experiments, I spend one or two hours writing manuscripts or analysing data at my home office. I am usually at the lab my 11, if I have something important then 9 or 10. The experiments and meeting vary a lot from day to day and depending on the stage of the project. I set up or work up synthesis, and obtain characterisation data in the morning and after lunch, but I go the scanning microscope in the afternoon (my favourite time is 16 – 19.00 hrs.), as then I head home or to the gym from there. DefTiMOFs involves a lot of data analysis and correlation and depending on how systematic the analysis is, I either do it at home or at the university. Before the pandemic, I tried to organise my experiments in a way that I could spend one day writing/analysing data at home and other days fully doing lab work. If I am inspired and motivated, I admit that I can spend very long hours working, and the working-at-home day often becomes a 12-15 hours shift packed with phone calls or coffees with friends and family during breaks.

With social distancing restrictions, I am now going to the lab for about 2-4 hours per day during the morning, depending on the experiments and I do all the computer-based work at home. If I do not have an experiment to run, then I work from home and I cook, clean, water my plants, do yoga, paint or speak with friends/family over the phone during breaks.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

What I seek to achieve in my career is related to my motivation for science. I aim to provide the base of knowledge to help circumvent science-related world-wide problems, and I am to mentor students advocating for equality and diversity.

I would like to have a small research group in the future so that I could provide individualised mentorship. For me, people go before science, and so I would like to mentor students in a healthy life-work balance environment and advocate for mental health, equality, and diversity proactively.

Ideally, the group will be focused on the design of materials (not only MOFs) for different applications, including drug delivery, but others such as water remediation, gas storage and energy conversion. I would love to have the different research lines enhanced by collaboration with advocate-for-change scientists so that members from the group could do exchange programs to learn different skills, and they will be encouraged to actively manage collaborations and to start new ones.

I know that there is still a long way until I might achieve full independency in academia, and I know that there is in fact always the possibility that I could change my mind in the way, and there is nothing wrong with that. Of what I am sure, is that will do outreaching activities to motivate students to pursue a career in STEM under equality and diversity guidelines.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I am not doing research-related activities, I am often spending time with my family or friends. I also do other activities such as painting (mostly watercolours in combination with dried plants), reading, writing, doing yoga or taking care of my plants. I also enjoy giving a second life to things I spent some time restoring furniture and doing handcrafts for decorations. I love nature, so I often go outdoors for walks and to discover new places. I travel a lot, I have friends all around the world and I try to visit them every once in a while and I have loads of visits too! Living in Valencia, I spend a big part of my free time at the beach (mostly doing yoga or with friends), especially during summer, with Saturdays and Sundays (if not travelling) being full days at the beach.
I am involved in outreaching activities with different associations, such as the 11th of February (International Day of Women and Girls in Science) or girls4STEM. I participate in science festivals and give outreaching talks in schools among other activities aiming to promote science in the general public and to overcome the gender imbalance and inequality in STEM.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science / Chemistry?

I encourage them to never stop trying and to not listen to those that say that you will not accomplish your dreams. People who did not try hard enough will most likely tell you to stop trying. Please, never compare yourself to others as a way to validate your personal growth. We are all different; we all have different circumstances that make our learning paths simply non-comparable. Compare you to your prior self instead, see if you have grown, see you are doing better than before, and always understand your circumstances and accept yourself the way you are, but with space for improvement. Don’t be harsh on yourself, and try to find a lesson in every ‘failure’. Speak your truth up, but conscious that it is your truth, not the truth. And please, please, stand up against discrimination of any kind.

If you are interested in doing internships don’t hesitate to contact research groups, if you want to learn new techniques, do not hesitate to propose collaborations. Chose good mentors, and seek advice and help whenever you need it. Find your voice and don’t be afraid to propose your ideas. If you really want something, go for it! Science needs women, we need you!

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

I love Metal-Organic Frameworks and I think they have been a breakthrough themselves. In the MOF field, I think one of the biggest breakthroughs will be the precise synthetic simultaneous control of defect Chemistry and functionalisation of MOFs at a molecular level. Defects play a key role in the materials properties and subsequent application. As introducing modulators in MOFs synthesis often results in defective structures, controlling their incorporation could result in the simultaneous control of functionalisation and defect formation. I believe that the universal rationalisation of defect formation in MOFs – the type of MOF, synthetic conditions, type of defects, distribution, and density – could result in the ‘a la carte’ synthesis of materials with outstanding performance in different applications of environmental relevance: i.e water decontamination, gas storage and separation, energy conversion, catalysis, photocatalysis.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

In Chemistry, the number of female and male PhD candidates is similar in Europe, while the number of female professors drastically drops down to ca. 14 percent. Why?

In my opinion, there is still a lot that could be done. This interview times up with the paper by Tomas Hudlicky, recently rejected due to the response in the Twitter community. The manuscript supported that diversity is bad for organic Chemistry and condemned the equality and diversity measures to be disfavoring the most qualified candidates (I assume, white men). While the twitter community raged about the publication, unfortunately, I have heard comments like this more than once in the workplace. I believe that valid tools should be provided by universities to really tackle discrimination. For example, anonymous questionnaires regarding equality and diversity being made about the supervisors (but never seen by the supervisors) could rise if any misconduct or mistreatment is taking place.

Mentors are essential to the development of a career. A proper mentorship program could also help to retain females in academia. A more flexible and less demanding work environment is essential. The ‘publish or perish’ phenomena might be one of the reasons keeping females from staying in academia, as it often demands long working hours. I have heard supervisors say, ‘If you want this paper, forget about your private life’. I believe that to assess this, we should change the system. Being permanent positions related to metrics, it can feel that having a healthy work-life balance is something utopic until you reach a permanent position.

Future Chemistry: Learning from Nature to Build a Sustainable Future

Frances Arnold opened the day with her session about Chemistry.

Chemistry is all around us – and not just around us. We are chemistry. The atoms in our body, the water we drink, the energy we use to power the device you are reading this right now, that’s all part of a chemical system that we are now understanding in unprecedented detail. In a series of lectures and debates at #LINOSD, multiple Nobel Laureates discussed recent progress and future prospects, and there are reasons to be both concerned and excited.

We owe much of our recent technological progress to advances in chemistry and few people understand that better than Frances H. Arnold. Arnold is one of only five women to ever be awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry and one of only two in the past half-century. She was awarded the prize in 2018 “for the directed evolution of enzymes” and that’s exactly what she presented to the online audience at Online Science Days.

DNA like a Beethoven Symphony

“Today, we have remarkable technologies,” Arnold says. “We have the ability to read any DNA we want, any DNA sequence, we can write any DNA we want, you can synthesize the actual genetic material, put it in a test tube, we can edit DNA.” But we are not yet the absolute masters of DNA. “What we cannot do is compose DNA. To me, it’s like a Beethoven symphony. It’s beautiful, it’s intricate, and we haven’t learned how to write like this,” Arnold adds.

So instead, researchers look for a bit of help from the neighboring field of biology. This is not a new idea in itself. Human beings have altered the natural world at the level of the DNA for thousands of years, using evolution by artificial selection to tweak organisms to our needs and desires. From agricultural plants to dog breeds humans have used evolution to modify DNA for thousands of years, although our methods have improved in recent times. What Arnold did is to take the process to the next level and rely on the evolution of enzymes instead of organisms.

DNA is in the focus of Frances H. Arnold.

Turns out, the idea of taking inspiration from nature is quite popular among chemists. “I believe micrororganisms are much better chemists than we are,” says Fatima Enam, a Postdoctoral Fellow at Stanford University during the debate Green Chemistry – Green Fuels. Enam works at the intersection between synthetic biology and chemistry, focusing on how to improve the arsenal of techniques available to chemists by learning from the natural world.

This idea may have once been science-fiction, but it has long left the realm of fiction and entered into reality. From biofuel and biocatalysts to renewable energy and waste treatment, bio-inspired chemistry is booming and we need it more than ever. A major reason for this is that we cannot delay our energy transition any longer, says Robert Schlögl, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Energy Conversion in Mülheim an der Ruhr. Schlögl estimates that we need to reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by about 1,000 million tons every year to reach the 2030 goals set in the Paris Agreement. We’re far from reaching that goal.

The Father of Lithium-Ion Battery

The problem isn’t necessarily that we don’t have the fundamental science or the technology to transition to renewable energy, the problem is “political and social,” Schlögl says. So what we need is for innovation to also come from industry, not just from academia, and we’ve seen that happen many times before. Stanley Whittingham, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2019 “for the development of lithium-ion batteries” is widely regarded as the ‘Father’ of the lithium-ion battery. Whittingham invented the device while working at a company now known as Exxon-Mobil – the world’s largest fossil fuel company. His talk about Batteries was the third session about Chemistry-issues during Tuesday, 30 June 2020.

It is perhaps ironic that this Exxon-patented invention is now so instrumental in our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. “Solar and wind, the energy output varies second to second, so you have to smooth it and batteries are good at that. They’re also good at shifting the load to when you need it. Wind generally blows at night, you don’t need electricity then, and the sun shines in the middle of the day and you need the most electricity between 4 PM and 6 PM.”

We need better batteries if we want to transition to renewables, says Hartmut Michel, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988 for helping unravel the chemical mysteries of photosynthesis. We’ve become quite good at emulating photosynthesis ourselves, says Michel, and in a way, our technology is actually better than photosynthesis. Plants store around 1% of the energy they receive from the sun, whereas solar panels nowadays have an efficiency of around 20%. But we need robust and reliable batteries to spread this energy according to our needs — and we need them to be economically viable.

In order for batteries to be economically viable, we need to consider different materials. Lithium is expensive and impossible to recycle, says Kwadwo Owusu, Wuhan University of Technology. We need to find alternatives that are cost-effective and sustainable, and that will be an international challenge. Thankfully, researchers have proven tremendously resourceful when it comes to generating solutions.

Magdalena Skipper (moderation), Nobel Laureate Hartmut Michel and Fatima Enam discussed the future of Chemistry.

Proud of Being a Chemist

“I’m very proud of being a chemist, because chemistry is capable of generating high values from nothing,” says Ryōji Noyori, a Japanese chemist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2001. However, this is not a simple situation. “We should realize what the limits of our planet are and that the future is unpredictable.” So can the world realistically switch to a sustainable future in time, by 2030? Michel is cautiously optimistic. “There might be ‘happy’ islands on the earth, but I don’t think you can [achieve sustainability] all over the world.”

Enam is even more pessimistic: “I think as long as fossil fuels are still being used, renewable energy will be backseating.” But Schlögl ends on a positive note. He agrees with the idea that there will be ‘islands’ of sustainability around the world, “but the islands can be pretty big”. The science is already there, he emphasizes. All that’s needed is social change – and that’s something all of us can help with.

Women in Research: Lucy Ombaka from Kenya

Lucy is Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

This interview is part of a series of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the Online Science Days 2020/70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (find more information on Facebook and Twitter).

Lucy from Kenya is an Georg Forster Postdoctoral Research Fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation based at Leibniz University Hannover, Germany.

Her research targets facile techniques of developing economical and efficient semiconductor-based catalytic systems for solar-driven hydrogen fuel production as an alternative to fossil fuel. To achieve this, she modifies earth abundant and inexpensive metal oxides applicable as photocatalysts.

Lucy will participate in the 70th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting in 2021.

Enjoy the interview with Lucy and get inspired:

What inspired you to pursue a career in science/Chemistry?

I would say the natural love for Mathematics, though I ended up being a chemist. I remember one particular incident that occurred when I was about 5 years old. My father was teaching my elder siblings simple multiplication procedures and I too wanted to learn; but my father was not willing to teach me as he thought I was too young to understand this concept. So I keenly listened to the instructions as he taught my elders and tried the given examples, he and my mum were surprised when I got the examples correct. From then onwards my mother noticed that I was science oriented and she ensured I stayed on the science path. At elementary school, I loved sciences more than art-based subjects; so upon joining high school; I quickly settled for sciences with Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry being my favorite subjects. I viewed Chemistry as a cool subject where we conduct colorful experiments such as the test for ions. I was fascinated with these tests and titration experiments, especially watching the meniscus of the liquid to ensure its accuracy in a burette. Upon joining the university, I comfortably choose chemistry as it was a practical course that offered me the opportunity to invent new industrial products. I guess the view of Chemistry as a tool for developing industrial products that can address current socio-economic issues still motivates me to work hard on my chemistry career.

Who are your role models?

My first role model is my mother; she too loves science and always encouraged logical reasoning and critical thinking with application of simple scientific facts in everyday life. I still remember how she explained the concept of germs infecting the food we eat-she has a natural love for sciences that is infectious. My PhD supervisor Prof. Vincent Nyamori is also an icon in my career as he has a successful research career in nanotechnology and its application in Chemistry. More recently, my research host here in Germany, Prof. Detlef Bahnemann, who is a well-known photo chemist also inspires me. Of course, the late Wangari Mathai -a Nobel Laureate – is still my role model, standing against difficult regimes to protect our environment. Marie Curie is also one of my role models due to her outstanding contribution towards radioactive elements.

How did you get to where you are in your career path?

The wise men said that Rome was not built in a day; the same applies to my career. I attained elementary education in an average school and worked very hard to secure a position at The Kenya High School, which is one of the

Lucy is doing her research in Hannover. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

best high schools in Kenya. Attending this school was a game changer as we learned life principles that shaped my thinking and career path. At the end of high school education, I was certain that I wanted to pursue a Chemistry career but was disappointed when I did not qualify for my choice course-chemical engineering. Therefore, I settled for a Bachelor in Education Science degree (Chemistry and Mathematics) at Egerton University, Kenya. During my bachelors studies I practiced teaching at high schools and obtained some experience, which motivated me to further my education in Chemistry so that I could conduct research at a more advanced level and mentor younger women in the field of Chemistry. Thereafter, I obtained an MSc in Chemistry from Egerton University then got a scholarship from the South African government to conduct a PhD at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban South Africa. During this period, I met and watched my PhD supervisor Professor: Vincent Nyamori passionately conduct research and establish collaborations with other researchers. Under his guidance, my research career blossomed took a turn towards nanotechnology and its application in Chemistry. Following the successful completion of my PhD, I went back to Kenya, and secured a lecturing position at Dedan Kimathi University and later joined the Technical University of Kenya in the year 2017.

In a number of Kenyan institutions, not much research in sciences such as Chemistry is conducted. Therefore, I desire to establish a research laboratory at my workstation. To achieve this I applied for several postdoctoral fellowship and amongst those awarded was the Alexander von Humboldt Georg Forster Postdoctoral Research Fellowship which I am currently undertaking. Under the guidance of Dr. Daniela Kneissl, one of my role models and Prof. Detlef Bahnemann, I have made several milestones in my career path and I have been granted the opportunity to share my research experience with others. One huddle however stands out in my career path and that is overcoming socioeconomic setbacks. Coming from a developing country, getting funds to conduct research or advance my studies has always been a challenge, but with diligence and determination, I am able to secure relevant scholarships. With the scholarship comes the hassle of separation from family and familiar locality, so I always view every scholarship to a foreign country as an opportunity to learn about a different culture and gain important research experience. When I am tired and homesick, I remind myself of a famous African saying… “the roots of education are bitter; sometimes too bitter; BUT the fruits are sweet” so I keep moving.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?

Generally, Chemistry projects are cool, not just, because they are colorful but also because they can be transformed into products that can change life. I enjoy all the projects conducted along my research career, but I am especially fascinated by my current project that focuses on the production of affordable hydrogen fuel as an alternative to fossil fuel. The success of this project can contribute towards an important product that can in turn minimize pollution albeit to a small extent. This project also gives me the foundation needed to establish a research lab and possible links between lab-scale research and small-scale industries in Kenya.

What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself / your work?

Women, more sore those from developing countries like Kenya have to overcome so many barriers-both economic and social-to advance in a science career. Therefore, I take pride in every huddle I overcame towards advancing my career. I am jubilant of all admissions and awarded fellowships, starting from securing an admission at The Kenya High School to being awarded the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt fellowship – the ultimate cherry on the cake. I also take great pride in the invitation to share my German research experience at the Alexander von Humboldt Annual Meeting. Of course, I am thrilled of my nomination by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation to attend the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and learn from Nobel Laureate, this I never expected as I left Kenya for Germany, and I hope to create meaningful links that will also benefit others.

Lucy with her little son. Credit: Lucy Ombaka

What is a “day in the life” of Lucy like?

Here in Germany I double up as a postdoctoral fellow and a single mum to my 3-year-old son. To maintain my sanity away from family and social support (and I say this on a light note) I choose to do only things that are essential to both of us. My routine usually involves dropping my son at the kindergarten in the morning, then taking a train to work and making the best of every minute at work, then I pick my son from the kindergarten and go play with him until bedtime. On a good day, I might have a few minutes to virtually catch up with friends, but in most cases the friends are the little children on the playground or their parents. Though demanding, I have achieved a lot career wise and experienced good life in Germany. Looking back, I am pleased that I dared to come to Germany and experience research.

What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?

I hope to establish a research laboratory that disseminates useful products or processes to small-scale traders such as women self-help groups in Kenya. The success of such a research laboratory will not only be important for my career but will also provide upcoming researchers in my locality the opportunity to advance their science career and network with established researchers worldwide. Additionally developing a product that can be used by locals to boost daily income will be a great achievement.

What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?

When I am not doing research I like to swim, play tennis, jog, take a walk, watch a movie, go cycling, dance or read a book. But the truth is there is only one thing I seem to do: take care of my son, then take care of him again and when I am not taking care of him … guess what I do, I take care of him. I play with him on the playground, put him on his scooter and try jogging for as long as he is willing to scoot, take him swimming on some days, accompany him to music classes, a bit of gardening on sunny days and since we are Christians, go to church on Sundays.

What advice do you have for other women interested in science/Chemistry?

Those who were before us paid a heavy price to pave the way of science for us. Now we have more opportunities available for women in science and more platforms to make our voices heard. The ball is now in our courts; in whichever capacity let us do our best to leave the field of science a better place for the women of tomorrow.

In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in science?

In these unprecedented times, developing a vaccine against Covid-19 seems a rational scientific break-through. In my research area, the sustainable production of affordable hydrogen fuel (in place of fossil fuel) using renewable resources such as sunlight and water will be a major breakthrough that will revolutionize the energy sector.

What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?

In my opinion, mentorship of potential female chemists by established female researchers is vital towards increasing the number of female professors. This will allow the upcoming chemists to learn both scientific and life principles required for a successful career in Chemistry. In addition, early career identification may boost the number of female scientists, as some women do not get appropriate motivation at the early stages of life to guide them towards a science career path.