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!

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Namur and the Fete de Wallonie

On 17 September RSC Belgium members and friends were treated to a Saturday morning guided tour of the historic city of Namur. Assembling promptly in front of the city's main train station outside the Namur's Centre d’Information Touristique we were led around the Walloon capital's streets and alleyways by our favourite city guide: Sarah Strange.

Sarah Strange is a very experienced tour guide, author, and poet, and took us on a two-hour promenade through the centre of the city, viewing all the main sites such as the theatre, town hall, belfry, cathedral, Church of St Loup, as well as past museums and market places. There were also views of the famous citadel.

For added entertainment our tour coincided with the climax of the annual FĂȘtes de Wallonie festival so the city was parading Walloons including the traditional Giants, dancers, samba bands and medieval troops amongst others as our pictures attest. However this meant that there was plenty of entertainment and cultural events for us to take in during the afternoon including the delight that is Peket - the local juniper eau de vie that seems to fuel the Festival in Namur!

As ever Sarah's tour was both informative and entertaining and she also booked a restaurant for lunch, the Etna, for us. Altogether a very fine day out in the late summer sunshine.