Careers

Eye-catching infographics, punchy messaging, and clear language are just three ways to grab people’s attention. Laura West, Senior Scientific Excellence Coordinator of R&D Biopharm Discovery at GSK, explains how to make your scientific research more visually attractive.

When it comes to displaying your scientific work, the experiments and data could be your best, but getting the visibility your work deserves and engaging your target audience require careful thought. It is, therefore, vital to be to think about how you communicate, not just what you communicate.

Every day, we are inundated with information. It’s more important now than ever to grab the attention of your audience, while improving the way you communicate. This helps people retain information about the data and key messages you deliver.

Ask yourself: what is the key message I want people to take away from this piece of work? You can then start to build around that.

When it comes to the overall layout of your work, you need to think about visual hierarchy, which is the arrangement of the elements on the page. This tells readers what to focus on depending on its importance.

It’s also worth thinking about how people best consume their media. Infographics, data visualisation graphs, images, and short videos are all great ways to attract and hold people’s attention.

Here are five ways to boost engagement in your work today.


1. Start with a bold, catchy message

Image from Naja Bertolt Jensen, Data: Plastic Pollution - Our World in Data. Graphic from Laura West
Image from Naja Bertolt Jensen, Data: Plastic Pollution - Our World in Data. Graphic from Laura West

A clear, simple message that is big, bright, bold and catchy will grab people’s attention. Take a look at the infographic below. Notice how your eyes are immediately drawn to ‘Plastic Pollution’, which is short, punchy, and immediately noticeable.


2. Pick relevant images

Number 65 

65% of people recall information for up to three days when it is paired with a relevant image. So, pick relatable images to make your work more memorable.


3. Keep it simple

COVID-19 #CoronaVirus Infographic Datapack — Information is Beautiful
Covid 19 Infographic Datapack from Information is Beautiful.

Aim to keep your sentences short and use simplified language. This approach will make your work more accessible and easier to understand, and it will help your audience retain information.

Second, if you have a large amount of data, consider how to display it so that people can immediately follow what you’re showing them.

Take a look at the ‘Coronavirus Riskiest Activities’ infographic below. You can immediately see that ‘nightclub’ is the riskiest activity from the huge amount of information on the page. Note the use of negative space (or empty space) on the page to intensify the size of each bubble.


4. Use colour and contrast

number of facilities able to manufacture mrna vaccines outside of the eu usa can
This infographic from Statista uses a simple colour scale to clearly demonstrate the data

Colour choice matters. Our eyes pick up the contrast between certain colours and using this to your advantage will help accentuate the importance of certain items on the page. Think about the contrast between the colours you are displaying to make the text or imagery striking. This helps readers associate patterns or trends quickly.

In the image above, for example, it is easy to identify the teal colours against the white background and grey world map and immediately identify the countries.


5. Think about how people read

Readers use a Z pattern to visually skim content
Readers use a 'Z' pattern to visually skim content.

Studies show that when we ingest digital information, we first scan the page in a ‘Z’ or ‘F’ pattern to determine whether it is worth reading.

If the information is predominantly text heavy, we read by scanning the left side of the page as this contains left aligned headings and bullet points. When reading information that is not in text-heavy paragraphs, we tend to read in the more ‘Z’ aligned format (left to right and top to bottom).

When thinking about the type of work you are displaying, consider where you want your most important information on the page.


Health & Wellbeing

Reading outside his research area and efficient chemistry helped 2022 Perkin Medal winner Dennis Liotta develop groundbreaking drugs.

There has been an explosion of statistics in football, but one of the most influential figures in this revolution, Ramm Mylvaganam, didn’t care for the game. He worked for the confectionary company Mars. He sold chairs. He knew nothing about football.

However, this key figure outlined in Rory Smith’s recent book, Expected Goals: The story of how data conquered football, came into the field of football analysis and changed the game forever – partly because he approached the game with the fresh perspective of the outsider.

So, what do football statistics have to do with a chemist who came up with life-saving medications? Well, Dr Dennis Liotta, who came up with AIDS antivirals that have saved thousands of lives, may not have entered medicinal chemistry as a complete outsider. He was a chemist, after all. However, like Ramm Mylvaganam, his broad breadth of knowledge from different areas gave him a unique perspective on a new field.

Reading at random

Dr Liotta didn’t take the standard path into medicinal chemistry. In fact, he wasn't a diligent chemistry student at first – and that, in an odd way, contributed to his later success.

For the first couple of years at university, he was more interested in his extracurricular activities; but in his third year, he realised he needed to catch up. He worked hard and burnt the midnight oil. He also did something unusual.

‘I did something that’s kind of ridiculous-sounding,’ he said. ‘I had this big fat organic chemistry book, and I would just open it up randomly to some page and read 10 or 12 pages and close it back up. Over time, I ended up covering not only the things I missed, but actually learning about a lot of things that wouldn't have been covered.’

As his career progressed, Dr Liotta realised the importance of not just working harder, but working smarter. On Sundays, he would sit down with a bunch of academic journals to stay abreast of developments. However, as he read them, he discovered other papers – ones outside his research area – that piqued his interest.

SCIBlog - 21 September 2022 - image of Dennis Liotta
Dennis Liotta in one of his lab spaces at Emory. Image by Marcusrpolo.

‘I’d see something intriguing. And so I’d say, that’s interesting, let me read. I started learning about things that I didn’t technically need to know about, because they were outside of my immediate interest. But those things really changed my life. And, ultimately, I think they were the differentiating factor.’

The intellectual stretch

This intellectual curiosity led to more than 100 patents, including a groundbreaking drug in the fight against AIDS that is still used today and a hand in developing an important hepatitis C drug.

‘In science, many times the people who actually make the most significant innovations are the people who come at a problem that’s outside of their field,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘Without realising it, we all get programmed in terms of how we think about problems, what we accept as fact.’

‘But when you come at a problem that’s outside your field… you aren't immersed in it. So, you think about the problems differently. And many times, in thinking about the problems differently, you’ll come up with an alternative solution that people in the field wouldn’t.’

We’ve often heard the stories of Steve Jobs wandering into random classes while at university when he should have been attending his actual course. Apparently, a calligraphy class inspired the font later used in Apple’s products. In other words, early specialism can sometimes hinder creativity.

‘I've looked into people who have made really some amazing contributions, and many times there’s been an intellectual stretch,’ Dr Liotta said. ‘They’ve gone out there and done something that they weren’t really trained to do. You can fall on your face from time to time, but it’s really nice when we're able to make contributions in areas where we don’t really have any formal training.’

Chance favours…

Of course, there’s so much more to creating life-saving drugs than intellectual curiosity and a different way of thinking. Dr Liotta and his colleagues had the technical skill to turn their ideas into something real. He was a skilled chemist who teamed up with an excellent virologist, Raymond Schinazi. The result of this blend of their skills gave them an edge over others developing AIDS therapeutics.

SCIBlog - 21 September 2022 - image of white pills spilling out of bottle
Dr Liotta invented breakthrough HIV drug Emtricitabine.

‘The very first thing we did was we figured out a spectacular way of preparing the compounds – very clean, very efficient,’ he said. ‘And that [meant we could] explore all sorts of different permutations around the series of compounds that others couldn’t easily do, because their methods were so bad for making [them].

‘So, even though we were competing against some very important pharmaceutical companies that had infinitely more money than we had – dozens of really smart people they put on the project – we were able to run circles around them because we had a really efficient methodology and that enabled us to make some compounds.’

The amazing thing is that the very first compound and the third compound the pair came up with led to FDA-approved drugs. It is a fine thing, indeed, when skill and serendipity meet.

‘Chance favours the prepared mind,’ Dr Liotta said, ‘or, as my colleagues say: you work hard to put yourself in a position to get lucky.’

>> Learn more about Dr Liotta’s career path and research from our recent Q&A.


Careers

In his winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Alexander Triccas, postgraduate chemistry researcher at the University of Edinburgh, explains how the tiny shells produced by marine algae protect our natural environment.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays. In the fourth of this year’s winning essays, Alexander Triccas explained how coccoliths provide a valuable carbon store and could play a key role in keeping our bones healthy.


Why tiny shells produced by marine algae are important for both global carbon stores and repairing bones

Although humans can engineer complex and eye-catching structures that help us navigate through our daily lives, they are nowhere close to the design and functionality of natural materials.

These mineral structures are specifically grown to provide support, protection, or food for many organisms. Humans would not exist without them. Indeed, our bones and teeth are made of calcium phosphate. But when grown in a lab, calcium phosphate forms as simple rectangular crystals, which is vastly different to how our bones and teeth look.

This is because our bodies use organic molecules to precisely control how minerals grow, producing materials that can fulfil very specific tasks. Biominerals can even be produced inside single cells. Coral reefs are held together by calcium carbonate minerals made by marine invertebrates. Elsewhere in the ocean, carbonate shells produced by small algae cells are buried on the ocean floor, over time forming the chalk rocks that make up coastal landmarks such as the White Cliffs of Dover.

SCIBlog - 13 September 2022 - microscopic image of coccoliths
Advances in microscopy are shedding new light on the composition of coccoliths.

This process is incredibly important to the environment. It takes carbon dissolved in seawater, turns it into solid material, then stores it at the bottom of the ocean. It is concerning then that we don’t know how ocean acidification and rising CO2 levels will affect coccoliths, the name given to these carbonate shells.

>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland. Join today!

We’re still unsure how coccoliths are produced, particularly how organic molecules are used to give them their unique shape. Proteins and sugars decide where and when the first carbonate mineral forms; then the growth of the coccolith is controlled by sugar molecules.

But how exactly do these organic molecules control the mineral that is produced? We struggle to answer this question because we don’t know how the composition of the coccolith changes as the structure grows.

Composition of the coccolith

Our research focuses on imaging coccoliths in an attempt to observe these changes. We used a technique called X-ray ptychography to map coccolith composition over the course of its formation. This revealed that coccoliths are not entirely made of calcium carbonate, instead having a hybrid structure containing mineral and organic molecules. But this isn’t all.

We revealed that the composition of the coccolith changes during its growth. We think this could represent a transition from a disordered liquid-like state to an ordered crystalline state. While this is common in other biomineral-produced organisms like corals, no evidence of this transition has been reported in coccolith formation before.

>> Read Rebecca Stevens’ winning essay on PROTAC synthesis.

This is incredibly important because it tells us how the cell is controlling the first calcium carbonate mineral that forms. The transition enables the cell to control exactly how it wants the mineral to form, meaning coccoliths can be made faster.

It might also lessen the impact that more acidic seawater has on mineral formation. This could mean coccoliths will not be affected by ocean acidification as much as expected, which is good for the planet’s long-term carbon stores.

However, this is only a prediction. Improvements to the microscopes used to analyse coccoliths will help us know if the transition occurs. Electron and X-ray microscopes are extremely useful in industry – from drug research and medical imaging, to data storage and materials analysis – but their use in these fields is still relatively novel.

SCIBlog - 13 September 2022 - image of foot X-Ray
Coccolith analysis could give us a better idea of how bones are produced.

Most advancements in instrumental procedures are done in academic research. Our work, therefore, helps us understand the benefits and limits microscopes may have, making them more suitable for industrial use.

Bone research also relies heavily on these microscopes. Our findings could be important in understanding how bones are produced, benefiting not only pharmaceutical and medical industries, but also improving human healthcare by providing better treatments to patients.


Health & Wellbeing

From luminescent polymer nanoparticles that improve rural healthcare to compostable plastic packaging, Dr Zachary Hudson and his research group at the University of British Columbia are developing solutions to pressing issues.

For those of us who live in cities, we take easy access to hospitals for granted, but what about those in remote areas? What if there were an easier way to diagnose diseases and improve healthcare for those in secluded rural areas?

Luminescent dyes used to make fluorescent Pdots.
Luminescent dyes used to make fluorescent Pdots.

Well, Dr Zachary Hudson and his group at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada are developing luminescent polymer nanoparticles that could provide portable, low-cost tools for bio-imaging and analysis in rural areas. These nanoparticles are so bright that they can be detected by smartphone, helping clinicians quantify chemical substances of interest such as cancer cells.

Dr Hudson’s work spans other areas too, including working with industry to develop compostable plastics and ongoing research in opto-electronics. His creativity in applied polymer science was recognised recently with the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award, organised by SCI, the Editorial Board of Polymer International, and IUPAC (International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry).

We caught up with Zac to ask about these luminous Pdots, compostable plastics, and how it felt to be recognised by his peers.


Dr Zachary Hudson
Dr Zachary Hudson

Tell us about the nanoparticle and remote diagnostic technologies you are developing to boost rural healthcare.

Our group is working with Professor Russ Algar, an analytical chemist at UBC, to develop fluorescent nanoparticles that are bright enough to be detected by a handheld smartphone camera.

The concept is to design nanoparticles that can quantify biological analytes of interest, such as cancer cells or enzymes, and provide a signal that a smartphone can measure. In this way, we hope to create portable, low-cost tools for bioanalysis for use in remote or low-income regions.

Why is the capacity to conduct remote diagnostics so important for those in remote areas?

Coming from Vancouver, I have ready access to sophisticated lab facilities and hospitals that are only a short distance from where I live. This gives me access to some of the world’s most advanced techniques in molecular medicine with relative ease.

For most of the world’s population, however, geography or resources limit their access to these advanced tools that can have a real, positive impact on human health. Expanding access to molecular diagnostic technologies can help more people get the diagnosis they need without a dedicated lab.

How did the ideas for the Pdots come about?

We became interested in Pdots due to Professor Algar’s groundbreaking work using quantum dots for smartphone-based bioanalysis. We learned that by tapping into the versatility of polymer chemistry, we could create polymer nanoparticles, or Pdots, that combined many advanced functions into a single particle.

>> From Covid-19 to the two World Wars, how has adversity shaped innovation? We took a closer look.

How have you worked with other partners to turn these ideas into a reality?

We are currently planning a major initiative with rural health organisations in British Columbia to help move these tools toward practical use. Stay tuned for more info!

You’ve also worked with local industry to reduce the use of single-use plastics. How have you gone about this?

There has been a major push in Canada to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics, and many companies are currently developing new products to respond to this need. Our lab has worked with local industry to formulate and test compostable plastics that can act as substitutes for petroleum-based plastics in consumer packaging.

The Nexe Pod
The Nexe Pod, a fully compostable, plant-based coffee pod created by NEXE Innovations, with Zac as Chief Scientific Officer, received a $1m funding grant from the Canadian government in 2021.

You’ve helped develop compostable materials. How tricky is this from both a material and an environmental perspective?

Compostable plastics are challenging for a few reasons: the demand for them is skyrocketing, so robust supply chains are needed to help companies get away from petroleum feedstocks. The regulatory framework around compostable plastics also varies widely by country, which poses challenges for international commercialisation.

Finally, most machinery for the high-speed manufacturing of plastic packaging is highly optimised for petroleum-based plastics, so new equipment and techniques that are suitable for processing compostable plastics need to be developed alongside the plastics themselves.

>> Do you work in pharmaceutical development? Check out our upcoming events.

What’s next for these innovations, and are you working on anything else interesting?

I've spent most of my career working on light-emitting materials for display technologies and bioimaging, and we’ve recently learned that many of these same materials make useful photocatalysts with applications in the pharmaceutical industry.

We recently partnered with Bristol Myers Squibb to develop all-organic photocatalysts with performance on par with some of the expensive iridium-based catalysts that industry is currently using. I'm looking forward to developing this area further.

What was it like to win the 8th Polymer International-IUPAC award for Creativity in Applied Polymer Science?

It was a great feeling to have our group’s work recognised by the international polymer community. The award lecture at the IUPAC conference also gave us the perfect venue to highlight some of the research directions I’m most excited about in the years ahead.


Sustainability & Environment

Have we underestimated the eco-anxiety middle-aged and older people feel? According to a recent survey, younger folks aren’t the only ones frowning at the horizon. Eoin Redahan writes.

When you think of a middle-aged person suffering from exo-anxiety, what do you imagine? Is it a grey-haired woman gazing from a mountain peak with a single, heroic tear staining her cheek? Is it an auld fella rending his garments and shaking his fist at the sun?

I mean, possibly, but the reality is probably less dramatic. It could be the Pakistani householder who wonders if her family home will be swept away in the next flood. It might be the 39-year-old Australian who wonders if his country will be habitable when his young child grows up.

It might be the Maldivian who wonders if his homeland will go the way of Atlantis within 20 years. It was me when someone decided it would be a good idea to have a barbecue in the fields beside my house in the middle of the heatwave – when the grass was as dry as straw and wildfires scorched in south London.

Map of Atlantis
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, placing it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus, 1669. Will people pore over maps of the Maldives in the same way?

The presumption by many is that it’s only the young who feel anxious about climate change, for it is they who will inherit the mess. However, according to recent ONS statistics, the middle-aged and the old are almost as worry-weary as young people.

Having analysed a recent ONS Opinions and Lifestyle Survey, straw specialist firm Drinking Straw filtered some of the stats. They reveal that 62% of UK people over the age of 16 worry that rising temperatures will directly affect them by 2030. Of these, 70% of 16-29 year olds were worried about the heat, but 59% of 50-69 year olds were also worried, as were 57% of those aged 70 and over.

In other areas, the differences were even less stark. When it came to anxiety over extreme weather events, 48% of all adults were worried – only slightly less than the 49% of 16 to 29 year olds who did so.

>> How can I make my garden more sustainable? Professor Geoff Dixon shows us how.

Similarly, regarding water supply shortages, 40% of all adults are concerned about them overall, compared to 43% of those aged 16 to 29. Admittedly, young people are more worried than older adults about rising sea levels (45% vs. 31%), but the differences are noticeably narrow in most metrics.

Surprisingly, it turns out the percentage of those who don’t care at all about the merciless heat, parched land, rising sea levels, and freak weather events is fairly consistent across all segments, with the 12% of 16-29 year olds not giving a fig similar to the 14% of indifferent adults.

Don't go home until you see the celebrated Dubuque soft coal burner.
ONS figures reveal that most people have made climate-friendly changes to their day-to-day lives, whether they grew up in the age of renewables or the age of coal.

Action stations?

Broadly speaking, UK adults are becoming more eco-conscious, if data from the ONS’ Climate change insights, families and households, UK: August 2022 survey are to be believed. The survey has found that 77% of adults have made some, or a lot of changes, to their lifestyles to tackle climate change.

When the remaining 23% were asked why they made no change to their lifestyles, the most common reason given was: the belief that large polluters should make changes before individuals, followed closely by those who felt that individual change wouldn’t make much of a difference.

Electric vehicle charging 

It’s clear to most of us that the government must help drive change, including on our roads. Despite the UK’s lagging electric vehicle infrastructure, the study revealed that the number of licensed zero emission vehicles, ultra-low emission vehicles, and plug-in vehicles increased by 71% or more last year.

If people knew there were sufficient charging points dotted around their areas – and if they were further incentivised to give up their gas-guzzling vehicles – those numbers would surely increase.

As bleak as the situation is, it is heartening to see our attitudes changing. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve just read a climate-related story that brought a tear to my eye. If anyone wants me, I’ll be weeping in a dark room (passive-cooled, mercifully).


Careers

In the latest of our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series, Dr Chris Unsworth, Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem, talks about rising to the net zero challenge, creating a productive, inclusive working environment, and transferable PhD skills.

Tell us about your career path to date.

Currently, I’m the Head of Stakeholder Engagement and Hydrogen at Ofgem. Prior to that, I was Private Secretary to the Co-Directors of the Energy Systems Management and Security (ESMS) Directorate at the energy regulator Ofgem. I’ve also worked as Senior Manager in the GB Wholesale Markets team and as a Research & Insight Manager within Ofgem’s Consumer and Behavioural Insights team.

SCIBlog - 31 August 2022 - portrait image of Chris Unsworth
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth

What is a typical day like for you at Ofgem?

I’d say there isn’t a typical day in my job, especially given recent events. Our work needed to shift dramatically to make sure gas and electricity kept flowing at the start of the pandemic and during the sharp increase in wholesale prices for gas.

I wore many hats in my role as Private Secretary. I often acted in a Chief of Staff role for the directorate, getting a sense of the mood within our part of the organisation and advising on how to overcome internal issues as they arise. I also often acted as advisor to the Co-Directors of ESMS as they explored which tools can be used to deliver net zero.

Which aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy being able to work on the net zero challenge in a really meaningful way. I also enjoy being surrounded by colleagues who feel the purpose and weight of responsibility in making progress towards a net zero future. It keeps you accountable, but it’s also really inspiring.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

The reasons I gave above for really enjoying my job can also be described as the most challenging! Delivering a net zero future represents the largest transformation that has ever needed to happen at an industrial level.

Also, because folks are so passionate about their work, it’s really important to make spaces where staff can be transparent and open on their views of the way forward. It’s more important, however, for me to act in a diplomatic manner to make sure we get aligned on a clear and singular route to solving problems.

>> Get involved in the SCI Young Chemists’ Panel.

How do you use the skills you obtained during your degree in your job?

I don’t use the skills I practised in the lab directly in my role. However, there are lots of transferable skills that I picked up from my MChem and PhD in Chemistry. Being able to interrogate evidence and critically assess it is really important in knowing which trends are valid and, therefore, which policy options are the best to investigate further.

Being able to bring data and information from lots of disparate sources and use them to create a clear view of what’s going on is another skill that I practise often. I also do a lot of thinking around systems and flows and the various interactions that go on underneath the surface. Visualising systems and interactions is definitely a helpful skill that I first practised in my degrees.

>> How do you go from a Chemistry degree to a business development specialism? Mark Dodsworth told us his story.

Which other skills are required in the work you do?

My current role is very people oriented and so I need to practise a high level of emotional intelligence. I came out as a gay man while doing my degrees at the University of York and I had specific role models there who helped me explore who I was.

I think my experiences during my degrees really helped grow my capacity for empathy and understanding in others. I’ve been afforded the opportunity to work on a huge number of Diversity & Inclusion initiatives as a result of being open and out at work. I’m also very lucky to work in a space where I feel comfortable to do so.

SCIBlog - 31 August 2022 - image of Chris Unsworth stood behind a podium presenting
Pictured above: Dr Chris Unsworth

Is there any advice you would give to others interested in pursuing a similar career path?

If you feel a sense of purpose in something you’re doing, then go in that direction. You will always enjoy your work if you understand why you are doing that work.

This may involve you taking a few left turns as you move between different things, but there’s no need to worry about that so much if there’s a clear and consistent theme and purpose that ties it all together.


Health & Wellbeing

Those with the blood group O reportedly have the lowest likelihood of catching Covid-19, and the new top-up jab should provide relief against sub-variants of the disease.

By now, most of us have been stricken by Covid, but 15% of people in the UK have evaded the virus. According to a testing expert at the London Medical Laboratory, the great escape is down to three factors: blood group, vaccines, and lifestyle.

Having assessed the findings of recent Covid-19 blood type studies, Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory (LML), believes that people with the blood group O are less likely to be infected than those with other blood groups, while those with blood type A are far more likely to contract the virus.

via GIPHY

‘There have now been too many studies to ignore which reveal that people have a lower chance of catching the virus, or developing a severe illness, if they have blood group O,’ he said.

Indeed, research from the New England Journal of Medicine had previously found that those with blood type O were 35% less likely to be infected, whereas those with Type A were 45% more vulnerable. A further benefit of type O blood is the reduced risk of heart disease compared to those with type A or B blood.

>> What is the ideal body position to adopt when taking a pill? Wonder no more.
Woman with face mask
Staged stock images are not thought to increase your chances of contracting Covid-19.

According to the NHS, almost half of the population (48%) has the O blood group; so, clearly, other factors come into play in terms of our susceptibility. Dr Fivelman said: ‘By far the most important factor is the number of antibodies you carry, from inoculations and previous infections, together with your level of overall health and fitness.’


Tackling the sub-variants

Covid variants  

So, those who are more careful about visiting crowded places, who eat well, and are fortunate enough not to have an underlying illness have better chances of avoiding Covid-19. According to LML, having been vaccinated also helps, though these benefits have slowly worn off. That is why the new top-up jab with the Omicron variant could provide some relief for those who take it.

‘The new Omicron jab has come none-too-soon, so many people are now suffering repeated Covid infections,’ he added. ‘That’s because the new Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants do not produce as high an immune response as the previous strains, so re-infection is more likely to occur.

‘Higher levels of antibodies are important to neutralise the virus, stopping infection and limiting people transmitting the virus to others.’

>> Which herbs could boost your wellbeing? Dr Vivien Rolfe tells us more.

Careers

In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Rebecca Stevens, Industrial PhD student with GSK and the University of Strathclyde, talks about the potential of PROTACS.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the third of this year’s winning essays, Rebecca Stevens discusses her work in developing a multistep synthetic platform for Proteolysis Targeting Chimeras (PROTAC) synthesis and the potential of PROTACS in general.

Rebecca Stevens
Pictured above: Rebecca Stevens

A ‘PROTAC-tical’ synthetic approach to new pharmaceutical modalities

PROTACs are a rapidly evolving new drug modality that is currently sparking great excitement within the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

Despite the first PROTAC only being reported in 2001, 12 of these potential drugs have already entered phase I/II clinical trials. In fact, a handful of new biotechnology companies have launched in the last two decades with a primary focus on these molecules. So, what’s so special about them?

Traditional drug discovery relies on optimising small-molecules to inhibit the action of a protein target and subsequently elicit a downstream effect on cellular function. However, many proteins are not tractable to this approach due to their lack of defined binding sites. This is where PROTACs offer a unique opportunity to target traditionally ‘undruggable’ parts of the proteome; instead of inhibiting the protein, PROTACs simply remove it altogether.

PROTACs are heterobifunctional molecules made up of two small-molecule binders attached together via a covalent linker; one end binds to the protein of interest and the other to an E3 ubiquitin ligase.

SCIBlog - 18 August 2022 - image of female scientist at desk
Rebecca is working on a multistep platform for PROTAC synthesis.

By bringing these two proteins into close proximity, PROTACs exploit the body’s own protein degradation mechanisms to tag and degrade desired proteins of interest in a method known as ‘targeted protein degradation’.

This different mechanism of action offers some revolutionary advantages over small-molecule drugs. Alongside potentially accessing ‘undruggable’ targets, PROTACs can overcome resistance mechanisms from which other drugs suffer, as well as acting in a catalytic manner, ultimately requiring less compound for therapeutic effects and maximising profits.

>> SCI’s Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.

Problems with PROTACS

While great in theory, the reality is that with two small-molecule binders and a linker, PROTACs are typically double the size and complexity of normal drugs, so their synthesis is far from simple.

Classic drug discovery programmes often make many bespoke analogues alongside their use of library synthesis, using a design-make test cycle to optimise hits and find a lead molecule. With PROTACs, linear synthetic routes are much longer for bespoke compounds, underlining an even greater need for new PROTAC parallel synthesis platforms.

>> Read Marina Economidou’s winning essay on palladium recovery

Additionally, the design of PROTACs is more challenging as there are three separate parts of the structure to optimise, and small changes can have a large impact on their biological activity. As such, very simple chemistry is used to connect the three parts of the molecule, resulting in limited chemical space for exploration, causing potentially interesting bioactive compounds to be missed.

A platform for PROTAC synthesis

My PhD project seeks to develop a multistep synthetic platform for PROTAC synthesis, using modern chemical transformations such as C(sp2)-C(sp3) cross-couplings and metallaphotoredox chemistry.

Starting from already complex intermediates in the synthetic route, methods for late-stage functionalisation are under development to complete the final synthetic steps. By making elaborate changes at a late stage, a variety of structurally diverse PROTACs can be synthesised from a single building block, offering an economical and sustainable approach to optimisation for the industries involved.

Furthermore, the purification step prior to testing will be eliminated, with crude reaction mixtures taken into cells in an emerging ‘direct-to-biology high-throughput-chemistry’ approach. This removes a key bottleneck associated with hit identification and lead optimisation, delivering biological results in very short turnaround times.

The synthetic methods developed in the project will offer new capabilities for efficient and sustainable synthesis of PROTACs and other related modalities. Increasing the pace of data generation could accelerate the exploration of structure-activity relationships and deployment in large parallel arrays could provide a significant quantity of data to inform new machine learning models.

Ultimately, for industry, this ‘PROTAC-tical’ approach offers a huge opportunity for rapidly progressing PROTAC projects and discovering novel PROTACs with clinical potential.

>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.

Health & Wellbeing

What is the best posture to adopt when taking a pill, and why does it help your body to absorb the medicine quicker?

Was Mary Poppins wrong? A spoonful of sugar may help the medicine go down, but does it do so in the most delightful way? Not according to Johns Hopkins University researchers in the US.

via GIPHY

They say the body posture you adopt when taking a pill affects how quickly your body absorbs the medicine by up to an hour. It’s all down to the positioning of the stomach relative to where the pill enters it.

The team identified this after creating StomachSim – a model that simulates drug dissolution mechanics in the stomach. The model works by blending physics and biomechanics to mimic what’s going on when our stomachs digest medicine and food.


Standing up, on your back, or by your side?

SCIBlog - 19 August 2022 - image women lying down reaching for pill
Looks like we’ve got a pro here.

Without further ado, here are the four contenders for taking the pill: standing up, lying down on your right side, lying down on your left side, and swallowing the pill on your back.

>> What’s next in wearables? We looked at a few Bright SCIdeas.

According to the researchers, if you take a pill while lying on your left side, it could take more than 100 minutes for the medicine to dissolve. Lying on your back is next in third, the narrowest of whiskers behind swallowing a pill standing up. This time-honoured method takes about 23 minutes to take effect.

However, by far the most effective method (and, therefore, the most delightful way) is lying on your right side, with dissolution taking a mere 10 minutes. The reason is that it sends pills into the deepest part of the stomach, making it 2.3 times faster to dissolve than the upright posture you’re probably taking to swallow your multi-vits.

SCIBlog - 19 August 2022 - diagram of how posture affects medicine absorption
Your posture is key in ensuring your body absorbs medicine quickly. Image: Khamar Hopkins/John Hopkins University.

‘We were very surprised that posture had such an immense effect on the dissolution rate of a pill,’ said senior author Rajat Mittal, a Johns Hopkins engineer. ‘I never thought about whether I was doing it right or wrong but now I’ll definitely think about it every time I take a pill.’

Next week, we will investigate more of the medical approaches espoused by much-loved fictional characters, starting with George’s Marvellous Medicine, before moving onto the witches in Macbeth. No one is safe.

In the meantime, you can read the researchers’ work in Physics of Fluids.


Agrifood

Which species can you plant to increase the nutrients in your soil and boost biodiversity, and which pathogen tackles some of those pesky weeds? Our resident gardening expert, Professor Geoff Dixon, tells us more.

The term ‘sustainability’ for gardening means replacing what you take out of the soil and supporting localised biodiversity. Harvested crops, for example, take out nutrients and water from the soil. Replacements should be supplied that aid biodiversity and have minimal impact, or zero impact, on climate change.

Seaweed (Ascophyllum) has been recognised as a valuable fertiliser source in British coastal areas for centuries. Now, proprietary seaweed extracts are gaining popularity either when applied directly as liquid feeds or sprays, or when added into composts.

Classed as biostimulants, seaweed extracts contain several micro-nutrients and a range of valuable plant stimulatory growth regulators. They encourage pest and disease tolerance, increase frost tolerance, stimulate germination, increase robust growth, and add polish to fruit such as apples and pears.

SCIBlog - 15 August 2022 - image of dry seaweed

Seaweed bolsters some of the nutrients lost through gardening. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Benefits of borage

Some plants are very effective supporters of biodiversity. Borage (Borago officinalis), known also as starflower or bugloss, is a robust annual plant of Mediterranean origin with pollinator-attractive blue flowers.

It is very drought resistant and suitable for dry gardens. Although an annual, it is self-seeding and could spread widely. It is very attractive to bees as it produces copious light – and delicately flavoured honey.

Its flowers and foliage are edible with a cucumber-like flavour, making it suitable in salads and as garnishes, while in Germany it is served as grűne soße (green sauce). When used as a companion plant for crops such as legumes or brassicas, it will also help to suppress weeds.

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Borage is good for bee and belly. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Weeding out the problem

Weeds are a continuous problem for gardeners and their prevalence varies with the seasons. Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), also known as ‘old man in the spring’, persists whatever the weather.

It is ephemeral but can seed and regrow several times per year. As a result, once established, it is difficult to control without very diligent hand weeding and hoeing out young seedlings before the flowers form.

There is, however, a form of biological control that can aid the gardener. Groundsel is susceptible to the fungal rust pathogen (Puccinia lagenophorae). This pathogen arrived in Great Britain from Australia in the early 1960s. Since then, it has become well established and outbreaks on groundsel start to become obvious in mid- to late-summer, especially in warm dry periods.

SCIBlog - 15 August 2022 - image of rust-infected groundsel plant

A fungal pathogen can kill groundsel, a weed that comes through several times a year. Image from Geoff Dixon.

Severe infections weaken, and eventually kill, groundsel plants. Gardeners should take advantage of the infection and remove the diseased weeds before any seeds are produced.

>> How else has climate change changed the way our gardens grow, and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Geoff Dixon investigates.

Professor Geoff Dixon is author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon. You can find more of his work here.

Careers

In her winning essay in SCI Scotland’s Postgraduate Researcher competition, Marina Economidou, first year PhD Student at GSK/The University of Strathclyde, talks about palladium recovery.

Each year, SCI’s Scotland Regional Group runs the Scotland Postgraduate Researcher Competition to celebrate the work of research students working in scientific research in Scottish universities.

This year, four students produced outstanding essays in which they describe their research projects and the need for them. In the second of this year’s winning essays, Marina Economidou explains the need for palladium recovery and making it more efficient.

SCIBlog - 12 August 2022 - portrait image of Marina Economidou

Pictured above: Marina Economidou

U-Pd-ating the workflows for metal removal in industrial processes

Palladium-catalysed reactions have great utility in the pharmaceutical industry as they offer an easy way to access important functional motifs in molecules through the formation of carbon-carbon or carbon-hetero-atom bonds.

The superior performance of such reactions over classical methodologies is evident in modern drug syntheses, where Buchwald-Hartwig, Negishi or Suzuki cross-coupling reactions are frequently employed.

However, the demand for efficient methods of palladium recovery runs parallel to the increased use of catalysts in synthesis. The interest in metal extraction can be attributed to several reasons.

Cross-coupling steps are usually situated late in the synthetic route, resulting in metal residues in the final product. In addition to possessing intrinsic toxicity, elemental impurities can have an unfavourable impact on downstream chemistry.

Hence, their limit must be below the threshold set by the International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use (ICH).

The need for palladium recovery

However, the importance of palladium recovery does not only arise from the need to meet regulatory criteria. The volatility of palladium supply as a result of geopolitical instabilities has been a focus of attention this year, with Russia producing up to 30% of the global supply and prices reaching an all-time high of £81,179 per kilogramme.

Therefore, aside from the need to remove metals from the product for regulatory reasons, there is a desire to recover metals from waste streams as effectively as possible due to their finite nature and high costs.

The sustainability benefits of recovery for circular use are an additional incentive for an efficient extraction process, as catalysts can be regenerated when metal is returned to suppliers.

The increasing pressure for greener processes and more ambitious sustainability goals – such as GlaxoSmithKline’s environmental sustainability target of net zero impact on climate by 2030 – also contribute to the need for further refinement of working practices.

>> SCI's Scotland Group connects scientists working in industry and academia throughout Scotland.

SCIBlog - 12 August 2022 - image of silver Palladium pieces

Palladium has many uses including in catalytic converters, surgical instruments, and dental fillings.

Improving extraction processes

It is essential to have well-controlled and reproducible processes for pharmaceutical production, as redevelopment requires further laboratory work and additional time and resources.

With several industry reports on the inconsistent removal of palladium following catalytic synthetic steps, there seems to be a knowledge gap as to which factors affect the efficiency of extraction and why there can be significant differences between laboratory and plant conditions.

The focus of my PhD is investigating the speciation of palladium in solution in the presence of pharmaceutically relevant molecules, to offer an insight into the efficiency of metal extraction at the end of processes.

By understanding the oxidation state and coordinative saturation of the palladium species formed in the presence of different ligands, a better relationship could be established between the observed performance of metal extraction processes under inert and non-inert conditions.

With the wide breadth of ligands and extractants that are now commercially available for cross-coupling reactions, my ambition is to generate a workflow for smart condition selection that not only achieves selective metal recovery, but is scalable and can be transferred to plant with consistent performance.

The cost and preciousness of metal catalysts are both factors that prohibit their one-time use in processes. Understanding how palladium can be extracted and recovered in an efficient manner will not only deliver reliable processes that meet the demands of the market in the production of goods, it will also lead to economic and environmental benefits.


>> Read Angus McLuskie’s winning essay on replacing toxic feedstocks.

>> Our Careers for Chemistry Postdocs series explores the different career paths taken by chemistry graduates.

Careers

There is still work to be done to redress racial inequality in chemistry, and across science in general, but relatable role models can have a positive influence on the next generation.

Homophily. Ever heard of it? Me neither, until 30 minutes ago. Homophily basically means that we are more likely to connect with people who are similar to us in some way.

In work terms, homophily could be a relatable role model. So, as an Irish science writer, I admire Flann O’Brien for his ability to decongest complicated subjects with such wit and flair (not so much for hiding whiskey in the toilet during interviews). For a young chemist, a role model could be someone from a similar background who excels in a job she or he would love to have.

But what happens if you just don’t see relatable role models in your chosen field? What if systemic failings make the profession less attractive and harder to trace the path to success?

Unfortunately, systemic failings, the relative lack of homophily, and pervasive inequality were among the findings of Missing Elements – Racial and ethnic inequalities in the chemical sciences, a report released by the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) in March.

The report highlighted the barriers facing Black chemists in the UK, and it certainly didn’t hold back. In the Foreword, Dr Helen Pain, RSC’s Chief Executive, said: ‘The data and evidence collected in this report are clear: we are failing to retain and nurture talented Black chemists at every stage of their career path after undergraduate studies.’

The report found that just 1.4% of postgraduate students, 1% of non-academic chemistry staff, and 0% of chemistry professors are Black. It added that Black chemists face barriers in industry too, and that people from minoritised communities are under-represented at senior levels across the workforce.

It proceeded to mention six themes that affect the retention and progression for Black chemists, including the impact of homophily, which it defined as ‘the tendency for people to form connections with people similar to themselves.’

The importance of mentors

When I read that, a little bell chimed in my head. When my colleague Muriel Cozier interviewed three eminent Black chemists last year – Cláudio Lourenço, Jeraime Griffith, and Dr George Okafo – each mentioned the need for relatable role models to increase the representation of Black chemists.

When she asked Cláudio about specific impediments that prevent young Black people from pursuing chemistry, he said: ‘I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there.

‘The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels.’

George made a similar point. He emphasised the need for young chemists to surround themselves with mentors. ‘I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you.’ When Muriel asked him which steps could be taken to increase the number of Black people pursuing chemistry as a career, he added: ‘Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!’

When asked about his message for Black people following in his footsteps, Jeraime said: ‘Seek out mentors, regardless of race, who can help you get there. Don’t be afraid to email them and briefly talk about your interest in the work they’ve done, what you have done, and are doing now.’

Jeraime also cited lack of representation as a barrier that prevents more young Black people from entering chemistry. ‘Lack of representation I think is the number one barrier,’ he said. ‘Impostor syndrome is bad at the best of times, but worse still if there’s no representation in the ivory tower.’

The issue of inequality in chemistry is large – far too large for a mere 752-word blog – but as we celebrate the achievements of Black chemists everywhere this week, it is clear just how much of a positive influence role models such as Cláudio, George, Jeraime, and countless others can have on the dreams and aspirations of young chemists.

>> Here are Cláudio’s, Jeraime’s, and George’s stories.

Written by Eoin Redahan and based on previous reporting by Muriel Cozier.