Polluting across state lines | Chemical & Engineering News
  • March 29, page 50: Butler University should have been included in the table of chemistry degrees awarded in 2001­02 by schools offering an American Chemical Society-approved chemistry program. Butler had 44 bachelor's graduates, two of whom earned ACS-certified degrees.
    April 12, page 26: Six tons of phenylbutazone, not phenylbutanone, was recalled.
Volume 82 Issue 19 | p. 6 | Letters
Issue Date: May 10, 2004

Polluting across state lines

Department: Letters

Polluting across state lines

A recent Government & Policy Concentrate notes that out-of-state air pollution affects North Carolina ("North Carolina seeks curbs on out-of-state air pollution," C&EN, March 29, page 19). The air pollution seems to stem from coal-fired power plants in neighboring states.

A simple solution to that problem would be to generate electricity in efficient nonpolluting nuclear power plants. Another advantage is that this prevents black lung disease seen in coal miners.

In France, 85% of electricity is generated in efficient nuclear power plants. They devised a system to encase used fuel rods in glass by embedding the used fuel rods in sand and heating the sand to its melting point.

John H. Weisburger
Valhalla, N.Y.

 

A compound history

The article "Drug Regulation," concerning compounding pharmacies, doesn't tell the whole story (C&EN, April 12, page 24). The manufacturers that the article calls compounding pharmacies are not compounding pharmacies.

In the 1930s, when I was a pharmacy student, all drugstores were compounding pharmacies. This continued through the '40s, when I was a relief pharmacist while attending graduate school. Physicians wrote prescriptions that had to be compounded. It wasn't until the '50s when well-known pharmaceutical manufacturers began to prepackage dosage forms, that the term compounding pharmacy was born.

The correct definition of compounding pharmacy is in the second paragraph of the article. Drug compounding by registered pharmacists, following a prescription written by a physician, poses no danger.

Robert Simonoff
Waldwick, N.J.

 

Someone will lose an eye

I was struck by the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) that the chemist was using on the front cover of C&EN's April 19 issue. A face shield is secondary PPE and is designed to protect the face and provide additional impact and splash protection for the eyes. He should be wearing safety glasses or safety goggles in addition to the face shield, as the safety glasses and goggles provide primary protection for the eyes.

Kay Lampe Hannasch
Johnston, Iowa

 

Scolding the NanoKids

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As one who examines the development of humanoid and robotic behavior in molecular systems, I call into question the description given to efforts to create anthropomorphic molecules. The structures denoted in your recent article (C&EN, April 5, page 71) and in the original publication [J. Org. Chem., 68, 8750 (2003)] "cherry-pick" a structural depiction of a class of polyacetylenes as given by the artistic placement of bonds using conventional vector-based drawing programs such as ChemDraw.

While suggestive as drawn and even modeled, a significant portion of the conformational space taken up by the molecules described as "NanoKids" adopts conformations that are nothing like what the human anatomy is capable of. Moreover, such structural assignments can be confirmed using the appropriate chemical physics; such studies were not presented.

These self-termed "NanoKids" contain molecular arrangements defined by their artistry but not by their chemical structure. The worst part of this scheme stems from the fact that young minds are being led to believe that such structures are correctly ascribed. If we are to use popular vehicles to encourage interest in chemistry, should we not require their structures to be properly depicted? Is that not one of the primary roles of the chemist?

James J. La Clair
La Jolla, Calif.

 

Visa check

As a Chinese graduate student studying chemistry in the U.S., I couldn't agree more with what Victoria Gilman and William G. Schulz wrote about visa hurdles for international chemistry students (C&EN, April 5, page 67). I would like to make one point more clear. One factor that makes the graduate students in the U.S. from China more vulnerable to visa delays is that a U.S. visa for a Chinese student is only valid for six months and good for two entries. After your visa expires, you can still legally stay in the U.S., but you will have to renew your visa if you go back to China for a vacation. Currently, this renewal process must be done through an interview with a consular official and is subject to a potential Visas Mantis check. Previously, the interview was waived for most of the continuing students renewing their visas in China.

Another point is that many continuing Chinese graduate students in the U.S. sacrifice their emotional life for doing research. An informal survey of 70 Chinese graduate students at the University of California, Los Angeles, shows that 82% of them have stayed in the U.S. for an average 28 months without a home vacation back to China. Among these students who haven't gone back to China to unite with their parents for a long time, 84% of them chose not to go back simply because they feared that they would be checked with a Visas Mantis if they did go back. No wonder another Chinese graduate student at UCLA told me that he won't go back to China for a vacation until he gets his Ph.D. first. Students don't want their graduate studies delayed for no good reason.

It's gratifying to see that many U.S. university officials have noticed this problem. Actually, some organizations in the U.S. have started work aimed at changing the current visa situation for international students. I'd like to draw your attention to the website http://www.visareform.net. One idea proposed there is about "pre-check," which means you voluntarily subject yourself to a "security clearance" check before your visa interview, and then your visa-granting process can be sped up with this "security clearance."

Many people and organizations are working together to convince Congress and the U.S. government to change the visa policy. I hope more people can join the movement to help solve the current visa delay crisis for international students, especially graduate students from China.

De-en Jiang
Los Angeles

 

George M. Bodner makes the important observation that "there's no encouragement for people [in the U.S.] to stay in science" and suggests that this is because more of the best students choose business majors leading to more lucrative careers. After many conversations with science and engineering students over the past few years, I have noticed a related factor: the growing fear that after years of hard work and training, a U.S.-citizen scientist or engineer might lose his or her job to a foreign worker.

The consequences of job outsourcing and hiring temporary workers are now getting more attention by the press; nevertheless, the public has largely accepted the tech industry's urban myth that U.S. citizens, of whatever ethnic background, are somehow less technically able than foreigners. This perception, which has been extended to scientists and engineers in general, persists despite the fact that no quantitative empirical data have ever been produced to support it.

Clever marketing techniques have obscured the simple fact, known in Silicon Valley for years, that foreign workers are not necessarily better qualified, but will work longer hours for significantly lower pay. It's widely known, but somehow never openly acknowledged, that H-1B temporary workers from certain cultures are hired not so much for their perceived smarts as for their docility; management sees them as more tractable and less likely to question authority, not only due to their cultural backgrounds, but also because their visa status is totally dependent on their employer's whim, leaving them open to termination or deportation on a moment's notice.

It's a little bit more than disingenuous for CEOs to lament that they can't find qualified U.S.-citizen scientists and engineers while they manage to lay off thousands of them. When pressed on this, the industry reiterates the "technical incompetence" fable, but this begs several questions. More than one firm has laid off U.S. citizens and withheld benefits and severance pay unless these employees trained their foreign replacements. From a purely cost-benefit viewpoint, why would these companies choose "technically incompetent" people to train newly hired employees? And if "cost is not a factor," as some industry representatives claim, then is it simply a coincidence that foreign workers' salaries are on average significantly lower than those of comparatively trained U.S. citizens?

Certain industry sectors envision a hierarchical business model in which top management consists of Americans with business degrees overseeing cheap foreign labor doing scientific and technical work. Though sure to bring in fast money, this model threatens the future of scientific education and research in the U.S., creates serious national security issues, and discourages bright American students from pursuing a technical career. It may even be bad for business, as the hidden costs and pitfalls of depending on cheap labor become evident.

What can we do about this? As chemists, we should make it a priority to not perpetuate myths about scientific ability being linked to citizenship or national origin. Professional organizations like ACS must also publicly speak out against marketing fables while working closely with industry to address the very real risks of basing critical business models on shaky short-term profits.

Elizabeth Ambrose Amin
Minneapolis

 

I very much appreciated the article by Gilman and Schulz on how graduate programs in the top 50 U.S. chemistry departments are being affected by the current visa policies. The authors substantiate the common observation that foreign students have major difficulties entering the U.S. due to significant constrictions by U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services. Although arguably hurting graduate programs the most, this recent phenomenon extends further to attendance of scientific events such as ACS national meetings or Gordon Research Conferences.

Having shared and benefited from the experience of attending graduate school at one of the nation's prime departments, it upsets me to see politicians' and bureaucrats' negative influence on education. Recently, an Indian student from my research group, who planned on presenting his work at the ACS Anaheim meeting, was denied his visa application. As a matter of fact, graduate students (in Germany) originating from China, India, or Eastern Europe are basically not admitted to the U.S. any longer when trying to attend meetings. This affects the meetings and, in the long term, U.S. chemistry departments as well, since they rely heavily on the import of international postdoctoral expertise.

In general, scientists have always valued communication across borders--interestingly, across international borders more than across disciplines. Without a doubt, exchange of information is fundamental and essential for the scientific community. While competition certainly has its merits, working together on solving problems is key to the development of science and technology that is the basis of modern society.

Colleagues in the U.S. should be worried about this recent trend. There is nothing to add to Bodner's statement: "We haven't seen much of a negative impact. But I would follow that with a big 'Yet.' "

Stefan Hecht
Berlin

 

Raising a Stink

It surprised me to see the article about the work of Leslie B. Vosshall and Andreas Keller testing Luca Turin's idea that the sense of odor is related to the vibrational spectra of molecules (C&EN, March 29, page 9). Why has this theory been resuscitated, and why are workers going to great lengths to discredit it, when it was incontestably disproved for humans more than 30 years ago? Perhaps a brief review would be worthwhile.

The theory postulates that the sense of smell depends on the vibrational spectrum of the molecule causing the odor. This was suggested at least as far back as 1947 in two abstracts published in tandem in Science by L. H. Beck and W. R. Miles [106A, 511 and 512 (1947)]. C. W. Young, D. E. Pletcher, and N. Wright--well-regarded infrared spectroscopists at Dow Chemical--pointed out that if the theory were correct, a compound and its deuterated derivatives should have different odors even though they have almost identical chemical properties because their vibrational spectra are different [Science, 108, 411 (1948)]. This is not the case, as pointed out by those authors and confirmed often since then. Isotopic pairs have the same odor--for example, CHCl3 and CDCl3, C6H6 and C6D6, normal and deuterated acetophenone (studied by Vosshall and Keller), and many others.

Additional evidence is provided by optical isomers. Enantiomers have identical vibrational spectra because they are mirror images. Yet some (although not all) enantiomeric pairs are known to have different odors. This was also pointed out by Young, Pletcher, and Wright, and was shown convincingly in two independent papers appearing in tandem in Science by G. F. Russell and J. I. Hills [172, 1043 (1971)] and L. Friedman and J. G. Miller [172, 1044 (1971)]. For example, R(­)-carvone has the odor of spearmint, whereas S(+)-carvone has the odor of caraway. Numerous other examples are known.

Hence isotopic molecules can have different vibrational spectra but the same odor, whereas mirror-image optical isomers can have identical spectra but may have different odors. Consequently, odor and vibrational spectra are uncoupled. The theory is untenable. There are many pertinent references that could be cited, but why whip a dead horse?

Foil A. Miller
Pittsburgh, Pa.

 

Have prion, will travel

Edward Corcoran asks how prions can move from animal to animal without consumption of tissue of the infected animal by the new victim (C&EN, Feb. 16, page 6). Taking "prion'' in the general sense of proteinaceous infectious particle, the literature provides some possible answers.

Amoebae of the genus Naegleria natively contain a substance termed Naegleria amoeba cytopathogenic material (NACM), which has the general properties of a prion (sensitivity to protein-destroying reagents, insensitivity to nucleic acid-destroying conditions, amplification of titer in the presence of living host cells). For a leading reference, see "Morphological Response of Cultured Cells to Naegleria Amoeba Cytopathogenic Material" [J. Cell Sci., 75, 1 (1985)].

The presence of such a material in a nonmammalian organism suggests two possibilities: that "prions'' existing natively in these organisms could be transmitted to mammals infected by them, or that nonmammalian organisms might serve as intermediate hosts, being infected by one mammal (perhaps by parasitism or in the course of putrefaction) and infecting in turn another mammal that consumed or was parasitized by them.

Stephen Jacobs
Elberon, N.J.

 

A career jump start

I read with great interest your cover story on 2004 Priestley Medalist Elias J. Corey and his Priestley Medal Address "Impossible Dreams," (C&EN, March 29, pages 37 and 42). I was a chemistry classmate of Corey's at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1948, I attended the University of Illinois and received my Ph.D. in 1951, whereas Corey remained at MIT, also receiving his Ph.D. in 1951.

As I remember, in early 1951, I saw Nelson Leonard in the Noyes Lab men's room, and he asked me what I knew about Corey. I told him that he was a brilliant chemist and then added, rightly or wrongly, that John Sheehan received the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry (in 1951) because of the work of Corey. He then told me that Corey had applied to Illinois as a postdoctoral fellow, but maybe they might hire him instead as an instructor. I also mentioned that Corey as a senior at MIT took first-year graduate courses with the graduate students, since he had already taken all the undergraduate chemistry courses offered by MIT and even as an undergraduate ranked his classes.

I would like to take credit for playing a major role in getting Corey on the chemistry staff at Illinois, but I suspect that I was just one of many.

Franklin E. Mange
St. Louis

 
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