Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Collaborative research: what next for the EU and the UK?

RSC Belgium's first event of 2017 was a Café Chimique entitled “The Future for Collaborative Research and Innovation in Europe”. Our three speakers addressed this issue in general terms and also in the specific context of the UK's likely exit from the EU, before taking questions from the audience. The event took place on the evening of Tuesday 24 January in the relaxed atmosphere of the Auderghem Cultural Centre.

Following the Brexit referendum in June 2016, attitudes have been divided over the impact this may have on scientific research both in the UK and Europe. While the British government has promised to guarantee funding for existing EU projects, potential future collaborations with EU scientists still hang in the balance.

The introductory presentations focused on the role and opportunities for chemical sciences in the Commission’s Horizon 2020 successor that has the working title FP9 and addressed the range of research fields and schemes that the European Commission and European nations currently organise. The speakers also gave their views on where the UK fits into this in a (presumably) post-Brexit future.

Our first speaker was Prof David Cole-Hamilton (second left above) who is President of the European Association for Chemical and Molecular Sciences (EuCheMS) and Irvine Professor of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews. His presentation can be accessed here.

The RSC line was then put by Dr Mindy Dulai (second right above), Senior Programme Manager (with responsibility for Brexit issues) at the Royal Society of Chemistry HQ in Cambridge, UK. Mindy has worked in many areas of the RSC and was been a Programme Manager in Environmental Sciences and also Physical Sciences, before her current role. The RSC response and priorities for Brexit are outlined here.

Finally Dr Peter Chisnall, Business Process and Risk Management Coordinator at the EUREKA Secretariat in Brussels (standing right above) gave his view of the situation from the point of view of a independent pan-European research network. Peter's presentation can be accessed here.

The event was moderated by Tim Reynolds, Chair of RSC Belgium.

The floor was then open to the audience and an extensive question and answer ensued that lasted for over an hour. Questions which were explored included: 'How can we improve EU collaborative research in this field in the next FP?', 'How can UK chemical scientists remain involved and contributing post-Brexit?' and 'What new forms of collaborative structures are required? '

As with our previous debates the audience was seated in a café-style format (small tables with 6 seats) and a bar and light refreshments/nibbles were available throughout the event and afterwards.

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Read about Becki's Caribbean Adventure

RSC Belgium’s section secretary Becki Scott is a post-doctoral researcher with the NWO Island Networks project at Leiden University and is currently on a month long archaeological holiday mission in the Caribbean! There she is using her trusty phaser pXRF machine (see right) on ceramics and sampling clay deposits. And what is more she is keeping a daily blog diary so we can keep up with her Caribbean adventure!

Becki has a BA in Archaeology and an MA in Cultural Landscape Management from the University of Wales, Lampeter, and an MSc in Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology. She was awarded her PhD in 2011 in Archaeological and Forensic Glass Analysis from Cranfield University and joined the RSC Belgium section when she moved to KU Leuven in Belgium as a as a post-doctoral researcher on the ERC funded ARCHGLASS project analysing the effects of recycling on Roman glass compositions.

During this time, she developed an interest and expertise in the use of portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (pXRF) for the non-destructive analysis of archaeo-materials: a skill that Becki has used in a variety of projects for museums, archaeological units, and heritage institutions.

Island Networks
While working for KU Leuven, Becki began collaborating with the HERA Carib Connections project, developing a method for analysing the composition of indigenous ceramic objects from the Lesser Antilles. Becki's work helped identify the provenance of ceramic objects in the field, whilst working in Grenada. Her current role on the NWO Island Networks project continues this work to cover other islands in the Lesser Antilles.

The focus of the NWO Island Networks programme is the inter-community social relationships and transformations of island networks in the Lesser Antilles across the historical divide. The period AD 1000-1800 represents an archaeologically understudied and turbulent era during which the islands’ inhabitants came under increasing influence from South America and the Greater Antilles and participated in the last phase of indigenous resistance to colonial powers.

Caribbean archaeological research has focused on patterns of regional and pan-regional mobility of peoples and the exchange of goods and ideas during the pre-colonial period (pre-1492). Recent investigations have for the first time provided insights into early colonial period indigenous archaeology in the Lesser Antilles through the discovery of 16-18th century Amerindian settlements and associated material culture repertoires.

These discoveries offer a unique opportunity to study continuity and change in inter-community social relationships, and transformations of island networks at the advent of European colonialism using a multi-disciplinary approach.

Other interests
As well as being the secretary of the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) Belgium Section, Becki is also a member of No Man's Land (NML) the society for Great War Archaeologists and she was a winner in the 'I'm a Scientist, get me out of here' online science communication competition and is in the process of developing an 'Archaeometry' card game.

You can read Becki’s blog here and she is also on Twitter! Alternatively you could catch up with Becki’s adventures at our AGM on Friday 10 February at Les Amis Dinent Restaurant in Wezembeek-Oppem.

Monday, 23 January 2017

St. George's retain the Keith Price Cup

The results of the RSC Belgium Top of the Bench (ToTB) eliminator for 2016 have been confirmed and the winners announced. And the winner of the Keith Price Cup (pictured right) for 2016 - and the Belgian representative in the TOTB grand final in the UK in 2017 - will be team Vanadium from St. George's International School in Luxembourg! St. George’s made a winning debut in the competition last year and now retain the cup for 2017. 

We were unable to hold our usual practical Saturday event in 2015, due to the Brussels security lock down, so it was a great relief to get back to normal on 3 December and welcome 11 eager teams from six schools to the chemistry labs at the British School of Brussels (BSB) for our ToTB ‘international’ eliminator.

The teams completed individual written question papers and then enjoyed a challenging team Practical Problem Solving Exercise. As usual both the 'hands-on' practical and the paper-based component were developed by our resident competition guru, Rita Woodward. The competition was designed to really test the teams’ chemistry knowledge and problem-solving abilities and (hopefully) encourage young talented chemical scientists to consider further education and careers in Chemistry.

The individual scores from the written paper were added together for each team with the placings from the practical to give an overall score. And for the second year in a row a team from St. George’s won out- the Vanadium team. Members of the winning team (pictured below) each received a RSC heat sensitive mug and the school will hold the TOTB Keith Price Cup during 2017.

Two teams were joint runners up: the Scandium team from BSB and a second team (Gallium) from St. George’s with members receiving a RSC phone battery charger. Every student that took part in the competition received a certificate.

 The two teams from St George's are pictured above with the Keith Price Cup, their prizes and certificates. 

Full results
As ever, the RSC Belgium ToTB eliminator was a close-fought competition with a total of 11 teams from six schools taking part.

The full line up of participating teams for the 2015 competition is listed below:

The TOTB Finals will take place in Loughborough in the UK during Spring 2017 and RSC sponsors the travel arrangements for our winning team. The RSC Belgium team is usually the only competing school team not based in the British Isles. 

St. George's Hydrogen team had a great time at the 2016 finals so we wish good luck to the Vanadium team from St. George’s in 2017! Our next TOTB Eliminator Round will take place in Q4 2017.

Iron Man

On the evening of 18 November 2016 RSC Belgium members and friends enjoyed a 'A Journey through the World of Iron' with our recent past Chairman Prof Bob Crichton. This special public lecture was part of a two-day symposium on the role of iron in biochemical and biomedical environments organised to celebrate Prof Crichton's significant contributions to this field. The lecture was followed by a RSC Belgium sponsored reception in Bob's honour.

The venue for our sponsored lecture was Theatre Lavo 51 in the Lavoisier Building at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve and celebrated 50 years of research into the biochemistry and metabolism of metalloproteins and also marked the 75th birthday of the speaker, UCLouvain's Emeritus Professor, and ex-RSC Belgium Chairman, Robert R. Crichton (below).

During the Symposium, world experts in the biochemistry and metabolism of metalloproteins, especially iron-containing proteins, delivered keynote lectures on their most recent achievements in this area. The lectures presented biochemical studies of iron metabolism, novel therapeutic opportunities and diagnostics, the search for new metal chelators and their crucial importance, together with the results of worldwide research on inflammation and neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. Metalloproteins, especially iron-containing proteins, play a crucial role in numerous diseases, including cancer.

The symposium and public lecture enabled us to celebrate the achievements of Prof Bob Crichton who was appointed as a professor of biochemistry at the Université catholique de Louvain in Louvain-la-Neuve in 1973 and introduced biochemistry as an mandatory part of the teaching of all chemists at the university. Bob's achievements in the biochemistry of iron proteins have been recognised at international level and he is worldwide leading figure in this important area of science.

After the public lecture an excellent reception was held including a special cake to celebrate Bob's birthday. Bob's long-time colleague at UCLouvain, Prof Istvan Marko, spoke very warmly of Bob's achievements to much applause.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Adventures in Chemical Computing

On the evening of 20 October RSC Belgium members and friends welcomed our immediate past RSC president, Prof Dominic Tildesley to the British School of Brussels to talk to us about his chemical career and give us some insights on what the future holds for chemistry and computing. He also was able to present 'gold' RSC badges to three long term members of the society.

Prof Dominic Tildesley’s deep interest in computing, and software in particular, began in the summer of 1973. As a young undergraduate chemist at the end of his second year, he had the opportunity to take a summer job at IBM Hursley Park. Here he learnt to programme in their Development Laboratory and this experience captivated him and convinced him to take a PhD at Oxford University that would combine chemistry and his newfound appreciation of the computer.

In the 70s this involved a trek from the Chemistry Department to the Computing Centre in Oxford carrying a box of 500 punched cards as input for a 20 minute of run time overnight – and this was the state-of-the-art!

Following his doctorate Dominic went on to undertake postdoctoral research at Penn State and Cornell universities in the US before returning to the University of Southampton as a lecturer and then Professor of Theoretical Chemistry. He moved to Imperial College London in 1996 as Professor of Computational Chemistry.

Unusually Dominic then began an industrial career when in 1998 he took the role of Head of the Physical Science Group at Unilever Research at Port Sunlight. He remained there until 2012 when he was appointed Director of the European Centre for Atomic and Molecular Computation at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland.

Modelling first
Dominic was elected President of the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2014. In his inaugural speech as President he suggested that:
"the speed and development of computers is now so rapid, and the advances in modelling and informatics are so dramatic that in 15 years’ time, no chemist will be doing any experiment at the bench without trying to model it first." 
The main part of Dominic's talk took us through his reasoning behind that statement that is based on four pieces of evidence he has observed over his career.
  1. The massive (continuing) increase in the power of computing - he has seen a 1011 increase in computational power and a corresponding increase in storage in his time. As an interesting aside Dominic said that a current top-end petaflop computer (a petaflop is a unit of computing speed equal to one thousand million (1015) floating-point operations per second) needs a 10MW power supply!
  2. The imagination of theorists has brought forth significant methodological breakthroughs (such as computations of force fields) realised through robust software applications.
  3. Big data trumps the Hamiltonian equation by which he meant the new paradigm of machine learning and the use of data models to capture trends in experimental and simulated output.
  4. The involvement of industry and their hunger to use these computational methods as a tool for economic growth.
Dominic believes that despite the fact that chemistry is essentially and absolutely an experimental science, from this point forward, it will always be decorated and enhanced by modelling. And following his talk I think his audience at BSB now believes it too.

Gold membership
Before the talk Dominic presented 'gold' membership badges to three long-time RSC members: Brian Sutcliffe (pictured on right below), John Swift (on left below) and Rita Woodward.

Gold badges signify over 40 years membership of the Royal Society of Chemistry. Congratulations to our recipients!

Friday, 7 October 2016

Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?

On 27 September RSC Belgium members and friends were treated to a highly entertaining and informative presentation by Dr Jack Heal at the British School of Brussels. Initially a maths graduate Jack is now a post-doc researcher in a multidisciplinary group working on synthetic biology at Bristol University. But his presentations combine serious science and a stand-up comedy style. Jack has even starred at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The event also featured the prize-giving for the top scorers in our 2016 Chemistry Challenge. You can find more information on the winners here.

Jack took us through the history, issues and ethics around synthetic biology together with a glimpse of what this new area of science can do for us - and also what it cannot - introducing many of the leading personalities involved in the field with the aim of answering the question: Do Scientists Dream of Synthetic Sheep?

The large audience really appreciated Jack's broad overview of the recent history and development of synthetic biology and were taken from the Human Genome Project to CRISPR (or Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) in 50 minutes. On the way, we considered important questions such as: What is a spider goat? Can we create artificial life? And why haven’t we made Jurassic Park yet? Jack's presentation was greatly appreciated and all agreed that they had been both entertained and enlightened. A lively question and answer session followed.

This RSC Belgium event was free to all, however there was the opportunity to contribute to a charity that Dr Jack supports: the 'Against Malaria Foundationthat helps protect people against malaria by supplying and distributing insecticidal nets. On the night we were able to raise over €280 for this great cause. Our thanks to all who donated! You can also donate directly to the charity via its web page.

The event was also the venue for the presentation of certificates and cash prizes to the winners of our 2016 Chemistry Challenge competition (see separate article) including the Keith Price Prize for the best overall performance in terms of chemical knowledge.

2016 Chemistry Challenge Winners announced

The results of the RSC Belgium Chemistry Challenge 2016 have been announced and the talented prize winners picked up their winnings at a special RSC Belgium event with Dr Jack Heal of Bristol University on the evening of 27 October at the British School of Brussels (BSB). This year we received 103 eligible entries from international and European schools in Brussels and beyond for this testing challenge of young people's chemical knowledge and initiative.

The RSC Belgium Chemical Challenge has three sections:
  • A/ A chemistry multiple choice paper
  • B/ A structured questions on chemistry, and
  • C/ A 'Thinking Matters' paper that is not chemistry based

And the top results were as follows:

Section A: Multiple choice
First was Evan Dastin-Vanrijn from St. John’s International school (St. Johns). Joint second were Pratyusha Sahah of the British School of Brussels (BSB), Dominic Gray of St.John’s, Imogen Rivers from the European School Brussels I (EEBI) and Soham Sinha for the International School of Brussels (ISB). Joint third place was awarded to Akari Izumi and Alice Martin both from St.John’s.

Section B: Structured Questions
In this section first prize was awarded to Mattijs De Paepe of BSB with Pratyusha Saha from BSB, Caifang Du from UWC Maastricht (UWC) and Soham Sinha of ISB in joint second place. Third place was claimed by Evan Dastin-Vanrijn of St.John’s. 

Section C: Thinking Matters
Here joint first place was awarded to Gregor McAlpine and Jasper Parsons both from BSB with Griffin Sharry also of BSB in second place and Caspar Kenny of St John’s in third.

Keith Price Prize
Mattijs De Paepe of BSB, pictured below with RSC Belgium chairman Tim Reynolds, also received the Keith Price Prize for best overall score in the chemistry focused sections (A and B). First prize winners received €50, second €25 and third places €10 with the winner of the Keith Price Prize receiving an additional €100.

Well done to everyone that took part! Every student that entered the competition receives a certificate of participation. We will be running the Challenge again in 2017. And look out for our Top of the Bench International eliminator that will be held on 3 December this year at BSB!