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Dedicated to research

Posted 28/03/2012 by sevans

Sitting through presentations at the ACS meeting in San Diego this week has made me appreciate yet again why I am a science journalist rather than opting for a career as a science researcher. I admire these researchers hugely. Beyond the headline stories, there are weeks, months and years of dedicated graft in the laboratory, more often for much more fleeting rewards – the presence of a tell-tale NMR peak or a spectroscopic shift in just about the right place. 

Or as one medicinal chemistry researcher commented when highlighting a slide on the process of drug development, for example, ‘that part [pointing to the commercial drug box at the end of the flow chart] almost never happens, right?’ 

In my own brief and less than happy experience of research science, it was the Kovalev-Dormidontova reaction – an exotic variant of the Wittig reaction designed to produce cyclic alcohols – that proved to be my undoing. Vast quantities of solvent, ozone, phosphorus pentachloride and other nasties expended with barely so much as a sniff of alcohol in sight. While my colleagues delighted in pure white crystals, I spent hours painstaking performing column separations on my inevitable black tars.

Real science, though, isn’t always about getting the results we might have been expecting or hoping for. Quite often, as we are used to hearing, the most astounding breakthroughs occur when things go wrong or not according to plan. And serendipity also plays a part of course, too.

So as well the real value of research isn’t always - or even especially often – immediately obvious, particularly when it comes to basic research, as Howard Hughes Institute chemistry professor Carolyn Bertozzi pointed out in her Kavli Foundation lecture on Monday night. The founder of ‘bioorthogonal chemistry’ – a branch of chemistry that does not interact or interface with biology – Bertozzi explained that may of the key breakthroughs in her own research have been as a result of trawling through the scientific literature. 

Reactions by Staudinger and Wittig from the 1960s are just a couple of those she has put to good use in developing a new and potentially transformational tool to study the role of biological sugars or glycans inside living cells.

Who knows – one day someone may happen across my own research writings and find some use for my hard-fought for results? The chances of that happening are impossibly slim. For now, I’m happier to leave the hard work to others.

Cath O’Driscoll – Deputy editor

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