Over 50 younger chemists took their work to the opulent surroundings of the House of Commons on 29 October. A lunchtime reception hosted by the Liberal Democrat health spokesperson, Evan Harris MP, was the latest in a series of such meetings organised by Eric Wharton of SET for BRITAIN. "We aim to encourage dialogue: between young chemists in different disciplines, between younger and more established scientists, and between the scientific community and policy-makers," he explained.
These are troubled times. Monitors on the walls showed the main business of the House: defence, asylum, and immigration. Yet a reasonable number of MPs turned up, and many of the presentations showed the politicians the direct relevance of the scientists' work to their world. One poster that attracted lawmakers' attention described a novel technique for detecting illegal drug residues. "Although it has been possible to detect drug residues in hair for some time, this is not ideal," explained its author, Nikolas Lemos. "Many drugs bind to the hair pigment protein melanin, which puts dark-haired people at a disadvantage," said Nikolas, at 31 already a senior lecturer in forensic science at South Bank University. "We have developed a technique that uses nail clippings, which are unpigmented. Our first trials involved cannabis, but ... we have also been able to detect heroin, steroids, and their metabolites."
We lingered on the bank of the Thames, enjoying the sunshine at the end of the warmest British October for over 250 years. A sign of global warming? Stephen Grimes, a postdoc at Royal Holloway College, has developed a method of tracking climate change through evolutionary history. The ratio of oxygen isotopes in seawater depends on the water temperature; the value of this ratio at any point in evolutionary time is "frozen" into the chemical composition of certain marine fossils. "We have been trying to measure the same ratio in freshwater, to see whether land temperatures lead or lag those of oceans," said Stephen. "Oxygen in the water that mammals drink is preserved in the phosphate in their teeth, so these can be used to calculate isotope ratios. Understanding the speed of prehistoric climate change will help us model how increasing carbon dioxide levels might affect global climate today."
Mark Field MP with his constituent, Imperial College postgrad Huw Jones
Most of the MPs who showed up were there by personal invitation, to meet young scientists from their constituencies. Next Wave caught up with Mark Field, 30-something Conservative MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, in conversation with his constituent Huw Jones, a postgraduate at Imperial College. Huw is studying the mechanism by which the Escherichia coli chaperone GroE helps proteins to fold. "I've been interested in chemistry ever since I studied it for A Level," said Mark. "Huw e-mailed me to tell me about this reception and I thought it would be well worth calling in. The enthusiasm students like him show is very encouraging. Postgraduate study is a long haul, and scientists are still poorly rewarded."
But there was more at stake than the opportunity to bend the ear of one's MP. A poster prize was up for grabs and went to Jan Verlet, a postgraduate student at King's College London. He is using ultrafast lasers, with pulses shorter than one million millionth of a second, to excite electrons into unusual quantum states known as "wave packets". Studying electron wave packets in simple molecules can help gain insight into the ways that those molecules rotate and vibrate.
Steve Ross of PiezOptic with his MP Damian Green
Two of Kent's MPs, Labour's Paul Clark and Conservative Damian Green, were there to see their constituents, Steven Ross and colleagues of PiezOptic, a small company based in Ashford, win a runner's up prize. "We are developing gas sensors and immunoassays using the piezoelectric effect," explained Ross. "In simple terms, any reaction that causes a colour change can be used to generate a proportionate voltage. Our latest prototype can measure antigen levels as low as 500 zeptomoles--that's 5 x 10-19 moles!"
Eric Wharton concluded "There has been a good buzz throughout the reception; I hope it will become a high-profile, biennial event." Although open only to chemists (albeit interpreted in the widest possible sense) from London and the Home Counties, SET for BRITAIN organises many similar events aimed at giving young researchers of all stripes the opportunity to get the attention of policy-makers. And you don't need to be that young either. "We also want to encourage older scientists who have taken career breaks or come late to chemistry," said Eric. "The poster presenters at one recent meeting included a 55-year-old Ph.D. student!"