Myths and legends: In defence of general chemistry



Elisabeth Tondl is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sydney, investigating selective delivery of chemotherapeutics to prostate cancer. She holds two Teaching Fellowships, at The University of Sydney and The Women’s College, and is insatiably curious about the world.

There are some pretty crazy ideas on the interwebs about chemicals and how they can make you (and the environment) sick. So, as a researcher in chemistry, I’m going to contribute my 2 cents’ worth by combating some common misconceptions.
“Pure H2O is the healthiest”

This attractive legend is thoroughly undermined by an understanding of osmotic pressure. In our blood, we have lots of different molecules – proteins, sugars, enzymes and so on. For every litre of our blood, there’s a certain amount of those molecules in there (known as concentration), just as the liquid in our cells has a certain concentration.
The principles of osmotic flow tell us that water flows towards the region of highest concentration – this means, if we dilute our blood by drinking pure H2O, water will rush from our watered down blood into our very concentrated cells. Such a sudden influx causes the cells to burst and die. Next time you buy bottled water, take a look at the label telling you how much magnesium, chloride and other stuff there is in your H2O, and be glad to have averted the slaughter of your cells.
“Natural sugars are better than synthetic sugars”

This myth springs from a misunderstanding of the chemical structures of sugars, which are short-chain carbohydrates. There are lots of different kinds of sugars in our bodies and in our environment, and you’re most probably familiar with glucose (diabetics have harmfully high levels in their blood) and sucrose (edible table sugar). The point is, these sugar molecules have defined chemical structures – sucrose is the same, whether you get it from a plant, or eat it in a muffin.
Given that the chemical structures are the same, it’s really not logical to claim that “natural sucrose” from plants is any different to the white crystalline sugar you buy from the shops, or the sucrose I can make in the lab. The only difference is in whatever accompanies the sucrose molecules – other molecules that are removed in the refining process, to give you pure sucrose to stir in your coffee or tea.
“I have a chemical-free diet”

No, you don’t, unless you are living in a vacuum and never breathing, eating, or drinking anything at all (and then your body would still be making chemicals, until you died, and then it would make some more chemicals when your body decomposed). When people say this, they commonly mean that they are avoiding preservatives or foods containing compounds they know to have been synthesised in a lab (see comments on the previous myth). But I just had to mention this misconception, because as a chemist it hurts me physically to hear it, and I will go about contradicting it until I die and decompose.

Science and A World of Opportunities

Maryam Eghtedari is a third year Bachelor of Advanced Science and Doctor of Medicine student with majors in Neuroscience and Anatomy. Maryam founded SciMed at The Women's College in August 2014.

Maryam Eghtedari is a third year Bachelor of Advanced Science (Neuroscience and Anatomy) and Doctor of Medicine student at the University of Sydney. 

Through our National Science Week Blog at SciMed, we aimed to showcase some of the opportunities available during or soon after completing a science degree. Our young female scientists have shared their stories, passions and experiences on the blog, with a hope to encourage younger students to consider similar opportunities, and to make the most of their journey at university.

The structure of a science degree entails developing essential practical and communicative skills. Teamwork and leadership are also important traits of a scientist, which are highly encouraged through the assessments and laboratory work during the degree. It is worth noting that outside of the classroom, there are many opportunities to practice these skills: it could be through studying abroad in Europe or Asia, or taking part in a group project such as iGEM.

Participating in research is also a fantastic way to apply skills learned in the classroom to real-world problems. There are many ways to take part in a research project: it could be through summer scholarships, the Talented Student Program or by completing Honours. Alternatively, if you are interested in a particular area, find a supervisor in that field and ask for an opportunity to work with them. Academics are usually willing to support enthusiastic undergraduate students, and to provide them with a chance to participate in research.

There is a range of career options open to science graduates, and indeed trained scientists are equipped to tackle the world’s most challenging problems! As our members have written, it could be as rewarding as teaching science or as exciting as completing a PhD or studying medicine.

In addition to the academic aspects of the degree, the social aspects and the extracurricular activities open to students throughout their studies are incredibly valuable during and after university. There are many opportunities to meet and network with peers and academics in science, including through tutorial sessions, seminars and clubs at university and College – such as SciMed!

In conclusion, on behalf of SciMed, I would like to thank our authors for contributing to the National Science Week Blog. We hope that we have played some small part in inspiring our younger students to pursue the opportunities available in science, and we hope to welcome more scientists to SciMed and The Women’s College in the future.

Hidden Gem: A Unique Undergraduate Research Opportunity

Gaia Herrmann is in her 3rd year of a Bachelor of Science (immunology and biochemistry). She is a member of this year's Sydney University team in the iGEM competition.

Gaia Herrmann is in her 3rd year of a Bachelor of Science (immunology and biochemistry). She is a member of this year’s Sydney University team in the iGEM competition.

The International Genetically Engineered Machine Competition or iGEM for short is a prestigious and unique competition open to undergraduate students interested in the field of synthetic biology. Being a member of this team involves creating and carrying out individual research projects that are aimed at solving real world problems using novel genetic techniques.

Being able to direct our own research is a truly unique experience for undergraduates. In 2015 there will be over 200 teams competing from across the world including some iGEM powerhouses such as MIT, Oxford, Helenski, and Cambridge. All teams compete against each other at the Giant Jamboree held in Boston during September. The University of Sydney Team is in it’s third year of competition. We are attempting to optimise the expression of an enzyme in a bacteria found in your gut called E. Coli. If successful then this bacteria and enzyme has some really interesting and useful applications.

One such application is bioremediation in which the enzyme can change chloroalkanes are common ground water pollutants into something that is sufficiently less toxic for humans and animals. It can also perform biocatalysis reactions producing drug precursors. Most of these precursors can only be chemically synthesised which is incredibly expensive and toxic, so if we can perform this same process through an enzyme then it will be cheaper and more efficient. Our experimental process involves cloning, and gene design.

Having the ability to conduct novel research in such a rapidly advancing field has not only been incredibly exciting, but has opened my eyes to the multitude of opportunities that a research career has to offer.

The first chapter of a science degree

The Clock Tower entrance of The Quadrangle at The University of Sydney 

The Clock Tower entrance of The Quadrangle at The University of Sydney

Emma Castle is a 1st year Bachelor of Science student at the University of Sydney and a resident at The Women’s College. Emma hopes to major in Neuroscience.

After 13 years of schooling, a hectic HSC year and 3 months of holidays. I was ready to head into the “real” world. University. A place of uncharted territory and I was diving in headfirst.

During my last years of school I told my parents that I wanted to study science at university. They both had studied economics degrees at Sydney University and their only words were “ you know that is a lot of hours,” and boy did they mean it. In my first semester I had 23 contact hours a week and that certainly kept me busy with lectures, labs and tutorials. The style of learning at university is very self motivated and was quite different to the structure of high school, so it was a difficult at first to adjust. By the time I got into the swing of things, semester was over and exams were approaching.

Doing a first year science degree I do a variety of different science subjects such as maths, chemistry, biology and even psychology to have a basic foundation for my second and third year studies. I like how university shows the collaboration of the different sciences, explaining how that each science isn’t actually pigeonholed into one area but rather it all interacts. I also like the problem solving aspect of the course, where you learn to think for yourself compared to school where you are spoon fed information.

Since moving into The Women’s College, it has made the transition to university so much easier. I have met so many people through various college activities such as O-Week, choir and basketball. I have many friends doing science degrees at college, which form such a great support base when it comes to understanding content as well as venting about a subject.

I’m looking forward to this semester so I can keep building on my base of knowledge from first semester. I’m also excited for second year where I can finally delve into my areas of study for my major.

Seek, find, apply, do!

Rosie Stewart (@RosieCDS) Wizzie-ed from 2012-2014 while doing Bachelor of Science (Adv). From immunology labs to psychology experiments, Rosie had a fabulous and varied three years in the heart of Sydney. Now a medical student at Flinders University in Adelaide the worst thing is missing out on stimulating brunchtime conversations with many-a-fabulous-Wizzie.

Rosie Stewart (@RosieCDS) Wizzie-ed from 2012-2014 while doing Bachelor of Science (Adv). From immunology labs to psychology experiments, Rosie had a fabulous and varied three years in the heart of Sydney. Now a medical student at Flinders University in Adelaide the worst thing is missing out on stimulating brunchtime conversations with many-a-fabulous-Wizzie.

The year was 2014, I was about six months out from finishing a BSc (Adv) and the future looked like the frayed end of a rope – many pathways existed, but which ones would I be able to follow? Could I get into an honours program? Would any medical school want me? Where can I work over the summer? Is the answer 42?

Then, in the shape of a well-placed ad on the back of a toilet door, came an opportunity to apply for a summer research scholarship. Eight weeks, research experience, specifically for undergraduates. (In 2015 it’s online – apply here!)

The most self-defeating question that can push you away from these sorts of opportunities is: why would they want me?

Anyone can ask this question, but don’t accept a self-critical answer! As young people it’s difficult to appreciate what we can bring to academic and professional spaces. Young people (and Wizzies in particular!) have an incredible capacity to contribute with new ideas, problem solve like it’s the 21st century, and be curious & bright eyed enough to ask the best questions. Putting yourself out there and trying new things is quintessentially a good thing! It’s not easy, you may close your eyes before pressing the submit button, but do it anyway.

For me, applying to do a summer research project was a way to keep my options open for 2015. I checked the boxes beside ‘data analysis’ and ‘systematic review’ and wrote short paragraphs about Indigenous health, immunology and psychology. On one hand were tangible skills I wanted to develop, and on the other were key interest areas for me.

Multiple emails and one phone interview later I was brought into the world of oral health research and its intersection Indigenous health through the Poche Centre. My project was to conduct a systematic review of teledentistry.

(Translation: what has been written on about oral health consultation and treatment on virtual platforms (real-time videoconferences and/or uploading patient profiles with pictures, x-rays and CTs attached)? Have those studies be effective, reliable, replicable, or successful? In the long term, could teledentistry link rural and remote oral health therapists with city based resources and dentists?)

Reflecting on the busy time that was the project period (and also preparing to move interstate), I couldn’t have had a more uniquely stimulating two and a half months. Reading through titles to include or exclude, analysing discussions and learning to use new programs can be interesting with the right attitude, especially when you know what you’re doing is useful work.

What I didn’t fully realise at the time was that that these summer research projects can rapidly lead to opportunities beyond eight weeks of research. Whether it be a direct extension of the work done over the summer, or a tangential opportunity, grasping onto one piece of the rope allows you to weave it into your skill set and strengthen what you’ve been building up throughout university.

If you have an inkling of interest in research, or you want to build up skills (those elusive ‘graduate attributes’ we’re meant to know about) definitely apply to do a summer research project. Stay flexible, ask questions, and jump on quirky opportunities – it’ll be fun!

Teaching Science could it be for you?

Miss King’s Year 8 Science Laboratory

Miss King’s Year 8 Science Laboratory

Alisha King is completing her Masters of Secondary Teaching through the Teach For Australia Graduate Program. Alisha completed a Bachelor of Advanced Science with Honours at the University of Sydney and was the Senior Student of The Women’s College in 2013.

After finishing a Bachelor of Advanced Science with Honours I was lucky enough to be accepted into the Teach for Australia program. Teach for Australia is an ambitious social movement which aims to bring high achieving enthusiastic teachers into some of Australia’s most disadvantaged classrooms. The graduate program runs for two years where you obtain a Masters of Secondary Teaching and are working in a part-time teaching position in a school.

After living in Sydney at the Women’s College I was ready for a big change so I ended up preferencing a placement in the Northern Territory. I have been placed in Nightcliff Middle School up in Darwin, teaching Year 8 Science. The best part of teaching Science is inspiring future generations to be interested in STEM subjects and curious about the world around them. In my science classroom we have microscopes set up with various slides, a science library, preserved specimens and heaps of interesting scientific instruments. Kids come into the classroom excited to be there and ready to explore the wonders of the world. There are not too many science jobs where you can see the impact you are having on an individual every single day. Teach For Australia are currently recruiting people with STEM backgrounds, if you want a challenge where you will grow and learn faster than you thought possible, and where you can see the difference, apply for this graduate pathway today!

Science Out of the Lab: The New Colombo Plan Experience

Morning research sunrise over Mount Rinjani, Lombok island in Indonesia. This mountain was the geographical focus of my independent research project.

Morning research sunrise over Mount Rinjani, Lombok island in Indonesia. This mountain was the geographical focus of my independent research project.

Brittany Betteridge is a BSc/BA degree student at the University of Sydney. Brittany has twice studied abroad as a New Colombo Plan scholar and is an alumna of The Women’s College.

As a Geography student, the practical component of our degrees does not require being cooped up in a lab, nor acquiring RSI from our right wrist from micro pipetting. From January to July this year, I participated in a Semester Long Geography Immersion program to Indonesia. This was supported by a New Colombo Plan Mobility scholarship. The program incorporated Indonesian language study, two in-country fieldwork schools and an internship component. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to share a little bit about both the field schools and the internship component of the program.

One of the largest questions about international tourism focuses on whether the relationship between host and visitor is a mutualistic relationship. This includes how to correctly manage large volumes of tourists in one area, without environmental degradation and disregard of local cultural beliefs. For my first field school, the University of Indonesia and my fellow Sydney immersion program students travelled to the island of Lombok in Eastern Indonesia to investigate sustainable tourism. Lombok is often thought of as akin to a ‘European’ Bali; its island dive resorts are as popular to European tourists as Bali’s Kuta beach is to Australians in ‘Bintang’ singlets. My focus was on Mount Rinjani, a mountain with sacred significance to the indigenous Sasak people in Lombok. It is also an extremely popular trekking site for foreign tourists looking to prove their mettle by completing the grueling volcano hike over a number of days. This means there are divergent land use desires between these two groups, which require careful management to avoid conflict and maintain sustainability.

My research involved staying in the mountains and interviewing local business owners and trekking guides in the area. Although park management of Rinjani is considered very successful in sustainable tourism discourse, my interviews revealed many possible areas of improvement. This included increased autonomy of local government funds, higher level training in business management for locals, increased rubbish collection and creation of pathways for local Sasak women to gain benefits from the growing tourism industry. It was very exciting to build on prior research in the area conducted in the mid 2000s, as well as to utilize stakeholder interviewer techniques adapted from a similar study in Bali.

For my internship component, I interned at the Centre of International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor. Here, I performed a literature review on extractive industries use of cash transfers in improving local livelihoods to learn lessons for community forestry programs. All students on the program undertook different internships. Other internships included;

  • Working with United Way Indonesia on a research paper on housing policy in Jakarta
  • Diving everyday with Gili Eco Trust to monitor coastal reef restoration on the tropical island of Gili Trawangan
  • Working with Greencap Jakarta-a large integrated risk management company

For the final section of the trip, other Sydney University students joined us for a secondary field school in Central Java assessing agriculture, poverty alleviation and food access. We were accommodated in local homestays to interview farmers and attended public and private sector discussion groups.

Consequently, my main fieldwork OHS risk the past several months has been getting much sun in the field and avoiding tropical mosquito bites at all costs!

If anyone reading is interested in the long immersion scholarship program – here is the link to the School of Geosciences page about it.
Applications for the long immersion program close September 4, 2015. Jeffrey Neilson is also holding an information day soon about the program with the date TBC with this year’s students in attendance.

For the two week 3rd year winter field school component only, here is the link to the Unit of Study page.

Opportunity: A set of circumstances that make it possible to do something amazing

Imogen Hines is a third year Bachelor of Science (Immunobiology) student at the University of Sydney.

Imogen Hines is a third year Bachelor of Science (Immunobiology) student at the University of Sydney and resides at The Women’s College.

Opportunities in science are famously hard to come by. I had meticulously planned applications, interviewed for positions and was eagerly waiting on the outcomes when this seemingly vague e-mail found its way to my inbox. Having taken some psychology units as electives, it was possible to attend a program run by the University of Bergen, in Norway for students from all over the world. USYD was offering scholarships for some of its students to attend courses in medical and cross-cultural psychology. Exams were coming up and the application process seemed like a fantastic way to procrastinate, so I applied and almost immediately forgot about it.

That was until a little later in November when an email arrived congratulating me on being the recipient of a USYD Exchange Scholarship. It was confusing, given I wasn’t going on exchange. Then the, “you’re going to Norway in a month” email arrived and I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly I regretted applying. It was 2.5 months in a dark and freezing Norwegian winter, with unfamiliar faces. I had nowhere to live and hadn’t even booked flights. Over the next month my emotions oscillated between unbelievably excited and absolutely terrified.

In the end it was the most amazing experience. We got the chance to understand and investigate how culture impacts the way we treat patients – as an Australian, in Norway, being taught by a Ghanan and making friends with people from Mexico to Yemen. Not only did I get to learn about the huge impact that culture has on the way we communicate, but also got to experience it first hand; the Dutch were so truthful and blunt, the Spanish so elusive. There was a strong emphasis on the relationship between physical and psychological health that culminated in interviewing a clinically diagnosed hypochondriac.

In the end, you can seek out all in the opportunities known to man, but sometimes it is the ones that you could never have planned for that turn out to be the most formative.

Mad scientists: lamentations and insights from a research chemist

Elisabeth Tondl is completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in chemistry at the University of Sydney. Her project is on drug development for prostate cancer. She completed BSc (Hons I) at University of Sydney in 2014. Elisabeth is also a Teaching Fellow at The Women's College.

Elisabeth Tondl is completing a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Chemistry at the University of Sydney. Her project is on drug development for prostate cancer. She completed BSc (Hons I) at the University of Sydney in 2014. Elisabeth is also a Teaching Fellow at The Women’s College.

“How’s your PhD going?” multitudes of well-intentioned people ask me. “It’s cool you’re fighting cancer!” That’s true: I get to work with dedicated chemists and coordinate with scientists from other disciplines to tackle an issue that has vast implications for current and future generations.

But describing the progress of my research to a non-bio-organic/inorganic chemist is long-winded at best and befuddling at worst. In my attempt to avoid boring my audience into a stupor or causing them to question their own existence, I have lately resorted to answering by way of describing the life style characteristics of a PhD student in science, as follows:

  1. Dealing with the research-induced emotional rollercoaster. “It won’t work, I wasted three weeks!” is a depressingly common lament in our office. Frequently we conclude that to appease our rationally planned, meticulously calculated, and carefully monitored chemical reactions we must sing to them at midnight and knit flask-cozies under a full moon. Alternatively, when we obtain beautiful spectra or a reaction works for the first time on the 10th attempt, we euphorically partake in each other’s hard-earned satisfaction and decide that the apparatus is magical (‘this time I used the lucky flask’). Mad scientists, indeed.
  2. Blood, sweat and tears: a phrase I didn’t fully appreciate prior to my advent as a researcher. I have accidentally stabbed myself with needles while preparing syringes for delicate work, laboured in sweltering labs where my solvent evaporated too quickly for me to use (!), and wilted with tears of desperate frustration over my lab notes. The research scientist must rapidly turn philosopher if she is to persist: the enormity of the unexplored mountain can be lessened by the turning over of a few small pebbles.
  3. The intellectual delight of a challenging problem. The collaborative nature of scientific research continually brings fresh perspectives and enthusiastic discussion to familiar problems. There’s a thrill to engaging meaningfully with colleagues’ work, and triumph in devising and refining synthetic methods for reactions.

I love research and occasionally hate research and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s fun and difficult and exhilarating, and I can’t wait to turn over a few of my own pebbles.