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London Group Autumn/Winter Term 2014 Review

Image reproduced courtesy of the Royal Institution

16 Dec 2014

The Autumn/Winter 2014 term has, as usual, been a busy time for SCI's London Group as we strove to fulfil the Group's mission statement of utilising the UK's capital city to publicise science and allow networking opportunities for all.

In total, eleven events were held between September and December, nine of which were held jointly with the Group's major collaborative partner, UCL's Chemical Physical Society (CPS).

The first event of the new term was held on 30 September at UCL. Dr Adam Rutherford (Nature) gave a talk entitled 'Synthetic biology versus hip hop.' The birth of hip hop and genetic engineering occurred within two months of each other in 1973, and both have enjoyed and suffered remarkably similar trajectories ever since: imagination, invention, controversy, remix, legal trolling, big business, and underground rebirth. It is not a coincidence that these seemingly unconnected endeavours have been two of the most creative developments in science and music.

Beating the Superbugs: Avoiding an Antibiotic Apocalypse took place on 9 October, and the first event held with the London Group's new collaborative partner, the New York University in London. In this lecture, Professor Christopher Schofield (University of Oxford) described studies aimed at identifying the roles of oxygenases in regulation of protein biosynthesis and their therapeutic manipulation. Read Wenyu Deng's (Biochemistry Major at NYU, London) full report on the event by clicking on the link below.

Beating the Superbugs: Avoiding an Antibiotic Apocalypse (9 October)

In the second of the talks held in collaboration with the CPS, on 14 October, Joseph Padfield from the National Gallery, spoke on the study and care of Old Master paintings. Padfield introduced the work of the National Gallery Scientific department where they examine the materials found in paintings and consider the safety and quality of the lights used to illuminate them. Padfield explained how 'behind-the-scenes' scientific work is used to provide the most accurate information as possible and how this is used to inform decisions about the care and display of the paintings.

national gallery
Studying and Caring for Old Master Paintings: A behind the scenes look at some of the work of the National Gallery (14 October)

On 21 October the London Group and the CPS held their annual careers event, (for the first time also organised jointly with SCI's Electrochemical Technology Group). Speakers from various industries including Johnson Matthey, GSK and ITM Power spoke at the event and explained how skills learnt during academic careers can be translated in the workplace. A networking session followed the event, where the delegates were able to talk to the speakers in an informal setting. The careers event proved so popular that it broke the record for attendees at London Group-CPS events at c.120 delegates.

The Science of Magic: Why Magic Works, took place the following week, on 28 October. In this fascinating talk, Prof Gustav Kuhn, (Goldsmiths University, ex-professional magician and leading researcher in the science of magic), spoke about how the advances in psychology and neuroscience have offered new insights into why our minds are so easily deceived. Kuhn explored some of the mechanisms that are involved in magic, such as; deception, misdirection and manipulation. At first sight, our proneness to being fooled by conjuring tricks could be interpreted as a weakness of the human mind. However, popular to contrary belief, Kuhn demonstrated that these 'errors' reveal the complexity of visual perception and highlight the ingenuity of the human mind.

science of magic
The Science of Magic: Why magic works (28 October)

Energy and Matter were the subject of Dr Nick Lane's (UCL) talk on 4 November. Lane explained that all living cells are chemiosmotic, meaning that they conserve energy and often drive carbon fixation using proton gradients across membranes. The mechanisms of proton pumping and energy conservation are understood at nearly atomic resolution, but almost nothing is known about the origin and evolution of chemiosmotic coupling. Its universality suggests that it must have arisen in the last universal common ancestor of life (LUCA), despite its modern complexity. In the talk, Lane demonstrated how natural proton gradients in alkaline hydrothermal vents could have driven carbon fixation and energy conservation under abiotic conditions and protocellular conditions, and later, how the requirement to generate proton gradients could have driven the deep divergence between bacteria and archaea.

On 11 November, Prof Neil Ward (Surrey University) spoke about arsenic pollution in water and how this is a global problem. Over the past few years the World Health Organisation (WHO) has considered arsenic to be one of the global chemicals of concern in drinking water supplies, and, as a result, in 1993, WHO reduced the guideline level from 50 to 10 µg I-1 As. In the talk, Ward reviewed data from studies in Argentina which has provided a new insight into the possible problems of arsenic in the environment.

arsenic in water
Arsenic in Water: A Global Problem (11 November)

On the afternoon of 18 November, the London Group was privileged to receive a private tour of the Royal Institution by Prof Frank James (Professor of the History of Science and Head of Collections at the Institution). Read Fred Parrett's full report on the tour by clicking on the link below.

Later in the same evening, Peter Reed (an Independent Researcher) spoke at UCL about acid rain and the history of the Alkali Inspectorate. The Alkali Inspectorate was established to control pollution from industrial chemical processes, including 'acid gas' or the 'monster nuisance of all' as Lyon Playfair called it, from the Leblanc alkali process. Later, pollutants from other processes were regulated so that by 1956 the Inspectorate was responsible for 1,794 processes in England and Wales and 116 processes in Scotland. Many of the principles of the Inspectorate remain to the present day. The talk reviewed Robert Angus Smith's (the Alkali Inspectorate's first Inspector in 1864) role as a civil scientist and the circumstances of these reforming events.

acid rain
Robert Angus Smith, Acid Rain and the 'Monster Nuisance of All' (18 November)

The chemistry of respiratory medicines was the subject of Stephen Swanson's (GSK) talk on 25 November. Swanson's presentation highlighted several areas of drug discovery where organic chemists make key contributions for the treatment of respiratory diseases, including asthma and bronchitis. He illustrated the relationship between chemical structure and the associated pharmacology of drug molecules across a range of biological target classes and the importance of optimising physicochemical properties for the development of novel medicines.

The final talk of the term was given by Dr Ipsita Roy (University of Westminster and London Group Committee Member) on 2 December. The subject of the talk was tissue regenerating plastics from bugs. In the talk, Roy described the production of a range of PHAs (Polyhydroxyalkanoates) – a family of polymers that are biodegradable and biocompatible – and their use in bone, nerve cartilage and cardiac tissue regeneration. The use of PHAs for controlled drug delivery was also described.

London Group lectures return for the Spring term on 12 January with Prof Alwyn Davies' talk on the history of the UCL Chemistry Department (click on the link to London Group Events below for more details). As usual, London Group lectures at UCL are free and there is no need to book (lectures at the New York University in London are also free but booking is required). Refreshments will be supplied before and after each lecture.

Please note for 2015, London Group lectures at UCL will take place on Monday evenings (5.30pm for 6pm start) in the Ramsay Lecture Theatre. We look forward to seeing as many of you there as possible!

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