Educational psychologist calls for turning chemistry into politics—in a chemistry journal

July 21, 2023 • 9:30 am

By now we’ve all read a gazillion papers like the one below: an indictment of a field of science for structural racism and a call for equity.  This one, though, is slightly different in two ways. First, it’s by an educational psychologist. Terrell Morton is described as an Assistant Professor of Identity and Justice in STEM Education and a specialist in educational Psychology at the College of Education at the University of Illinois in Chicago. (He did get his “B.S. in Chemistry from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, a M.S. in Neuroscience from the University of Miami, and a Ph.D. in Education concentration Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies from UNC Chapel-Hill.”)

So he does have some slight expertise in chemistry, but it’s not on view in this short article (below) published in Nature Chemistry. Although the aim seems to be to improve chemistry, this bring us to its second novel aspect: there’s nothing in the article about improving chemistry itself. Rather, it’s all about the unashamed infusion of Critical Race Theory, in its full incarnation, into chemistry as a way to achieve equity. To some extent (see below), that will involve changes in chemistry education to effect that kind of equity. But why was the paper published in a chemistry journal? The only explanation is that the journal’s editors wanted to show off their virtue: “We’re antiracist, too!” But in fact a paper like this could be written for virtually every area of human endeavor in which there is not equity by race and gender—not just science, but academia as a whole. Indeed, not just academia as a whole, but nearly all fields of business and commerce.  The article could serve as a boilerplate for any academic field: all you do is substitute another area of endeavor for “chemistry”.

I should add that, like most papers of this ilk, Morton equates inequity in chemistry (a deficit of minority students or professors compared to the proportions of minorities in the population) with ongoing structural racism in the field. Of course there are racists in chemistry, as in every field, but I deny that they’re ubiquitous, nor do I accept that chemistry is full of rules and practices designed to keep minorities out of the field.

Otherwise, I’ve read similar papers many times in chemistry, physics, math, and especially biology. Every paper makes the “inequity = structural racism” mistake (these are scientists!) and also assert the undemonstrated claim that science would be much improved with ethnic equity. None of them examine whether equal opportunity for all groups would lead to equity in representation, and in fact we know that that’s not true for women in STEM: the more equality women have, the fewer choose STEM careers. (That’s presumably because of a difference in priorities.)

Click to read (and weep); the pdf is here. Both are free.

It begins, as usual, with the ritualistic invocation of George Floyd, and immediately says that the way to achieve social justice is to infuse Critical Race Theory (CRT) into chemistry:

 In this Comment, I provide a brief overview of CRT and discuss how it can be used as a lens to critically examine the culture and practices of postsecondary chemistry education (learning, research and engagement) in the USA and beyond, as well as identify tangible strategies for redressing and mitigating structural racism in chemistry.

Studies on the experiences of Black students outline the stereotypes and biases they face within science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) spaces. Chemistry students describe their postsecondary environments as spaces where they must alter their presentation of themselves to be seen as someone capable of succeeding — including abandoning aspects of their home and cultural identities, having to go above and beyond to demonstrate their intellectual capabilities.

Black students disclose feeling both invisible and hypervisible within science classrooms: they are often overlooked by their instructors or peers when it comes to classroom engagement — unless the conversations feature race or ethnicity, in which they become hypervisible. They also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success. Students who maintain multiple targeted identities experience unique challenges — Black women report experiences that are different from those of Black men or white women.

(Note the intersectionality described in the last statement, an essential part of CRT.)

Morton then uses as evidence for that structural racism the observed deficiency of proportional representation of black individuals in chemistry in the U.S. and other Western countries (“inequities”), combined with self-reports of racism from various studies. As I said, it would be foolish to say that no racism exists among chemists, but neither can we take inequities and complaints about racist behavior as evidence of structural racism in the field. And where are the reports of the strides that chemistry departments (along with many other science departments) have made in trying to recruit minority students and professors? They aren’t mentioned. If there were pervasive structural racism, departments wouldn’t be falling over each other to secure talented minority students and faculty.

Now it is true that in STEM, many minorities recruited to elite universities tend to leave their STEM majors for ones that aren’t as rigorous, but that says nothing about structural racism. Rather, it speaks to the amply documented poorer qualifications and preparation (on average) of minorities recruited to STEM through forms of affirmative action. But from all this Morton concludes that chemistry is more or less a version of white-robed Klan members holding test tubes:

Research demonstrates, as seen from resources listed in the Supplementary Information, that chemistry (and science in general) has maintained a culture that typically favours white, cisgender, middle-to-high socioeconomic status, heterosexual, non-disabled men.

No it doesn’t. There may well be inequities in the direction indicated, but to say that the field is deliberately maintaining a culture that keeps out minorities, LGBTQ people, poor people, gay people, women, and disabled people is neither correct nor demonstrated. Again, the author is c0nflating inequities and structural bigotry/racism.

The author then defines CRT and goes into its aspects that he wants inserted in chemistry. As this is a short (four-page) paper, I’ll just give his definition, and the bits of CRT that he demands be put into chemistry.

CRT is a framework that identifies and challenges the presence and impact of structural racism and intersectional oppression embedded within policies, procedures, practices and sociocultural norms across various institutions, organizations, fields of study and communities. CRT has primarily been applied to Western societies such as the USA and UK. It positions racism and intersectional oppression (which arises for people who identify with more than one minoritized group; for example, gendered racism) as structural over interpersonal. This means that racism occurs through the subjective interpretations of presumably ‘neutral’ policies and procedures from well-intentioned people, and not just through acts of violence and hate committed by presumably lone and ‘irrational’ individuals.

This, of course, is debatable, especially the assertion of structural racism presumably enacted by well-meaning people with “unconscious bias” who make rules that are racist. The centrality of this theory in creating inequities is also under debate. We could stop right here, but the author continues to dissimulate:

. . . . however, CRT is not divisive, it is not designed to shame, demonize or encourage hate, and it does not inherently produce feelings of guilt or blame. Rather, CRT calls for a critical examination of the existing systems and structures and how they perpetuate a social stratification of people and their cultural values. It is also worth noting that CRT is not currently being taught in primary and secondary schools in the USA, and it is also rarely taught at the undergraduate (postsecondary) level.

It is certainly divisive, and it’s contestable whether the guilt and “original sin” instilled in white people is in there by design or accident.

Here are the aspects of CRT that, says Morton, should be acknowledged and adopted by chemistry departments (quotes are indented):

Racial realism.  This tenet purports that racism is endemic, permanent, systemic and integral to all social institutions3.

Racial realism applied to chemistry acknowledges that the field, and science generally, exists as a microcosm of the broader society and thereby perpetuates structural racism or gendered racism. . . .

Whiteness as property. Whiteness is sociopolitical capital maintained by white people that can be used to regulate access to and full engagement with resources, spaces and ideas3. This capital is a product of the social, cultural and legal establishment of the USA coinciding with the enslavement and dehumanization of people of African descent and the attempted extermination of Indigenous peopl3 — presenting ‘whiteness’ as the default standard.

Critique of liberalism (myth of meritocracy). The belief in individualism and the bootstrap mentality communicated through US laws and social norms is a false reality given racism and its de facto outcomes. [JAC: the author says this is a “myth” because minorities lack access to the resources to demonstrate their merit, including well known academics for writing letters of recommendation.]

Interest convergence. This tenet conveys that efforts towards racial progress only occur at the juncture where those in power benefit from investing in the interests of those racially minoritized.

Here’s how this power struggle is supposed to work in chemistry:

Applied to postsecondary chemistry, this tenet would imply that investments to make chemistry inclusive (such as inclusive teaching or diversity scholarships, fellowships and programmes) occur in ways that ensure institutions gain notoriety and maintain power.

Intersectionality. Structural oppression operates on those of multiple marginalized identities uniquely.

Counter-story.  The dominant narrative is recognized and challenged by elevating, embracing and empowering the stories and voices of marginalized people.

This is a bit complicated, but maintains that remedial practices or ways to bring underprepared minorities into the field are actually racist activities.

Existing equity and inclusion practices implemented within postsecondary chemistry often focus on the absence of Black people and on ways to include them. Practices adopted typically involve rehabilitation (such as tutoring, additional training, summer programmes), the development of coping mechanisms (for example, mentoring, teaching navigational skills), or training for faculty on inclusive teaching — these endeavours all stem from the perspective of the dominant group.

In contrast, rather than engaging in practices that ‘help minority students’, counter-stories position students as bold, capable individuals, and point to the flawed environment (the lake) as the space that needs change.

But how do you help the students given that the “flawed environment” will take decades to repair? I would favor tutoring and additional training, and if you don’t use them, you’re putting underprepared students at a disadvantage.

Now I’m certainly not maintaining that there are academics in chemistry who hold onto these practices because they’re bigots. I’m denying that these are pervasive and endemic racist practices in chemistry; indeed, in any STEM field. Yes, at one time there were. But times have changed.

And I deny that “counter stories” are racist. How can tutoring or additional training, which should be applied not just to minority students, but to all underprepared students, be a way to hinder minority students?

At any rate, after enumerating the aspects of CRT that need to be absorbed and enacted by chemistry faculties, Morton tells us how to do it—or rather, demands that we do it. One way, he says, is to hire a bunch of black scholars at the same to form a “critical mass.” Unfortunately, this race-based hiring is illegal:

Strategies to foster structural change include generating a critical mass of people who share similar ideologies regarding the liberation of Black people. [JAC: Note that there’s either an assumption here that all black people have the same “ideology”, or that you hire looking not just for uniform ethnicity but uniform ideology. Is that “diversity”?] This critical mass should reflect a diversity of Black social identities but also include non-Black scholars. This diversity must be established in chemistry departments and professional structures across all ranks (from junior faculty to senior faculty to administrators) — not just among those with the least power to effect structural change (junior faculty or professional staff).

This can be achieved through intentional recruitment and retention practices that build communities (mixed-rank cluster hires in which several scholars across ranks are hired at the same time in a department) and transform policies and practices around power (such as revising tenure and promotion) to account for structural racism and gendered racism. Hiring and promotion criteria should be adjusted to specifically value and reward scholarship, teaching and service activities (such as informal mentoring of Black students) that intentionally advance the needs of Black communities. Institutions should also put in place accountability structures to ensure that scholars do not in any way perpetuate discrimination or bias against Black people.

This may improve racial justice, but is that the purpose of chemistry? And will this practice improve chemistry? No, it’s not designed to. The implicit assumption is that the discipline itself will be improved with equity, but that’s not been demonstrated. Ergo, Morton’s goal is not to improve the field, but to create equity, which may or may not improve the field.

And although CRT is said by Morton not to create guilt, he recommends that non-minority chemists reflect on their complicity in this white supremacy. We are urged to pay special attention to the work of Black scholars.  To the extent that they’re ignored because of bigotry, I agree. But to the extent that they’re not, and differential attention may result from differences in achievement or representation, I find this paternalistic:

Mitigating racism and gendered racism. Inequities in the field of chemistry can also be mitigated as the field collectively validates the systemic presence and continuous influence of racism and gendered racism on scientific inquiry and education. Each person should evaluate their position and actions towards social justice — with respect to their identity, privilege, exposure, awareness and commitment. High-quality research and literature that outline the lived experiences of Black people across the globe exists; I have shared some of those resources in the Supplementary Information. Access that scholarship and read. Attend meetings, professional lectures, and conference presentations by Black scholars. Watch documentaries and other forms of media that discuss Black experiences from their vantage points. Each person can leverage their power and privilege to fight for racial and gendered racial justice through the various constructs and spaces that they can control or influence, directly and indirectly (pictured).

We are also supposed to infuse chemistry classes and syllabi with CRT principles. I would argue again that this is paternalistic; a form of intellectual affirmative action:

Collins and Olesik outline how chemistry department chairs can act, through: disaggregating data to paint a more accurate picture of the current racial inequalities; listening to Black students; systematically assessing course syllabi; reviewing teaching practices; and engaging with chemistry education researchers, in particular Scholars of Colour. These recommendations can be extended to universities and/or other organizations.

Similarly, faculty members are responsible for ensuring that inclusion and social justice principles are integrated into their courses or lab spaces. This means featuring work from Black scientists and discussing problems and solutions that specifically attend to Black experiences.

With all this, how much time would be left to teach chemistry as opposed to Social Justice? Shouldn’t CRT, if it is to be taught at all, be taught in classes about race relations or sociology?

We must also use class time to educate students about racists of the past:

Additionally, learning that many scientists supported racist, sexist and other oppressive ideologies about people and their capabilities— eugenicists Francis Galton and Ronald Fisher being two of the most notorious examples — would encourage students to critically assess the relationship between a person, their scientific contributions and their ethics. This would foster critical thinking skills as well as opportunities for learners to envision scientific innovation that speaks directly to their cultural and community needs.

Unfortunately, neither Galton nor Fisher were chemists. They were biologists. (And many argue that they weren’t racists.) At any rate, you don’t drag them into a chemistry course to make a CRT point.

Further, the curriculum must change to cater to black students, for we must assume that they have a different “learning style” and thus have to learn chemistry in new ways. Do we have evidence for this?

A variety of different communication styles and teaching strategies also exist that should be incorporated into science education to allow students to bridge their cultural worlds and scientific knowledge. Examples are the use of project-based learning — a practice where teaching occurs through solving real-world problems that are based in different cultural communities — or creative types of assessments, such as asking students to write an Afrofuturistic children’s science book over taking a standard cumulative multiple-choice exam.

Afrofuturistic children’s science books? Is writing one of those going to teach chemistry?

And here’s the kicker, one that reminds me of the “other ways of knowing” gambit as practiced in New Zealand. Get a load of this:

This should be part of a wider change to revisit what counts as knowledge and how it can be displayed, obtained or gained. This can be achieved by departing from a Eurocentric model to one that embraces all perspectives as valid and appropriate. Engaging in this process would also require making amends for the generations of systemic and epistemic oppression against Black people.

What on earth is the “Eurocentric model?” Is Morton talking about “modern science in general”? And no, all perspectives are not “valid and appropriate”. It is here where the teaching of chemistry is actually degraded by the author’s suggestions.

Oh, and let’s not forget the author’s suggestion that we treat marginalized people who have been traumatized the same way we treat people exposed to dangers in the chemistry lab (acids, explosions, and so on):

The same suggestions for mitigating racism and gendered racism in the classroom apply to the research and teaching lab environments. Kimble-Hill describes an interesting approach: risks associated with marginalized social identities — for example, isolation, anxiety, discrimination, harassment and even assault — represent safety threats that can be assessed and addressed in a similar way to other hazards present in a chemical lab. As with chemical risks, proactive approaches in research and teaching labs would therefore work to eliminate risks related to identity threats, establish learning norms that build on students’ cultural identities, communicate trust and confidence in their ability to take intellectual risk and to make discoveries, and provide them with the right support to explore their ideas and feel validated within their research.

I’ve already spent too much time on this paper, but it’s an extreme example of how Social Justice ideology is worming its way into science classes, to the extent of suggesting that we adopt “other ways of knowing” and abandoning the “Eurocentric model”. The paper is designed not to improve the teaching of chemistry but to improve equity, and doesn’t belong in a chemistry journal. But of course how could Nature Chemistry refuse it? As one colleague wrote, “I wonder what would happen if chemists started writing papers about the need to use the scientific method in education, and published them in top educational journals.”

I will quote two other colleagues’ reactions to this paper. The first one is terse:

“They are relentless. They just won’t stop till there is nothing left. And when we speak up about the invasion of ideology into science, some people say that we are exaggerating.”
The second is more analytical:

“To me, the core of the issue is this statement:

‘[Black students] also reported feeling hypervisible when it comes to performance indicators, as if they have to represent their entire race or ethnic group, proving that their people are capable of success.’

The solution to this problem is simple: judge everyone by the same standard. The reason that some minorities feel as if they have to prove their ability is that, in many cases, members of the minority group are often given a “boost” in qualifications. Justice Thomas made this point in the recent case, and Thomas Sowell stated that his qualifications were questioned more after Bakke than before it. In fact, many people are now asking whether Justice Thomas received a boost from affirmative action in his admission to Yale Law, despite his finishing in the top 2% of his undergraduate class at Holy Cross.

The problem can’t be solved by piling on more affirmative action, but rather by judging everyone on their own merits, as many have argued persuasively. We can (and should) help the problem by broadening recruiting and improving the preparation level of underrepresented groups, but everyone has to be judged by the same standards, or those who benefit will feel the need to prove that they didn’t need the judgement boost.

Indian science curriculum axes not only evolution, but the periodic table, energy sources, and pollution

May 31, 2023 • 9:15 am

As I wrote in April, India’s National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), decided to remove evolution—a great unifying theory of biology—from all science classes below “class 11”, , which means that only students who have decided to major in biology will learn about evolution. (Indian students begin specializing younger than do American students.)

. . . . evolution used to be part of science class in “Classes 9 and 10,” which in India are kids 13-15 years old.  After that they take exams and have to decide what subjects to specialize in: science (with or without biology), commerce, economics, the arts, and so on. Specialization begins early, before the age at which kids go to college in America.

In India now, only the students who decide to go the Biology route in Classes 11 and 12 will get any exposure to evolution at all! It’s been wiped out of the biology material taught to any kids who don’t choose to major in biology.

The deep-sixing of evolution was originally part of the whittling-down of the Indian school curriculum during the pandemic, but now it appears to be a permanent change, and not just in public schools, but also in many private ones, who follow the same standards set by the ICSE (Indian Certificate of Secondary Education).

But it’s gotten worse. NCERT has eliminated not only evolution from most secondary school science classes, but have also deep-sixed the periodic table (!), as well as sources of energy and material about air and water pollution. (One would think those topics would be relevant in a country as crowded as India.)

This is all reported in a new article from Nature (click on screenshot for a free read):

An excerpt:

In India, children under-16 returning to school at the start of the new school year this month, will no longer be taught about evolution, the periodic table of elements, or sources of energy.

The news that evolution would be cut from the curriculum for students aged 15–16 was widely reported last month, when thousands of people signed a petition in protest. But official guidance has revealed that a chapter on the periodic table will be cut, too, along with other foundational topics such as sources of energy and environmental sustainability. Younger learners will no longer be taught certain pollution- and climate-related topics, and there are cuts to biology, chemistry, geography, mathematics and physics subjects for older school students.

Overall, the changes affect some 134 million 11–18-year-olds in India’s schools. The extent of what has changed became clearer last month when the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) — the public body that develops the Indian school curriculum and textbooks — released textbooks for the new academic year starting in May.

Researchers, including those who study science education, are shocked.

Not only that, but NCERT didn’t get input from parents or teachers, or even respond to Nature‘s request for comment. Here’s what’s gone besides evolution:

Mythili Ramchand, a science-teacher trainer at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, says that “everything related to water, air pollution, resource management has been removed. “I don’t see how conservation of water, and air [pollution], is not relevant for us. It’s all the more so currently,” she adds. A chapter on different sources of energy — from fossil fuels to renewables — has also been removed. “That’s a bit strange, quite honestly, given the relevance in today’s world,” says Osborne.

A chapter on the periodic table of elements has been removed from the syllabus for class-10 students, who are typically 15–16 years old. Whole chapters on sources of energy and the sustainable management of natural resources have also been removed.

They’ve also bowdlerized stuff on politics:

A small section on Michael Faraday’s contributions to the understanding of electricity and magnetism in the nineteenth century has also been stripped from the class-10 syllabus. In non-science content, chapters on democracy and diversity; political parties; and challenges to democracy have been scrapped. And a chapter on the industrial revolution has been removed for older students.

And here’s NCERT’s explanation, which doesn’t make sense at all.

In explaining its changes, NCERT states on its website that it considered whether content overlapped with similar content covered elsewhere, the difficulty of the content, and whether the content was irrelevant. It also aims to provide opportunities for experiential learning and creativity.

First, evolution is NOT covered elsewhere, nor is it that difficult in principle. You don’t even have to teach natural selection; you can just give people the evidence for evolution, which is hardly rocket science. And the periodic table? That’s hard? How else will students learn about the elements?  As I said, only students age 16 and above will even hear about evolution or the elements, and most students in India will not go on to college where they can also learn these things. Remember, only high-school-age (in the U.S.) students who decide to specialize in science will learn about evolution, the periodic table, and energy.

And these cuts may well be permanent:

NCERT announced the cuts last year, saying that they would ease pressures on students studying online during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amitabh Joshi, an evolutionary biologist at Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, India, says that science teachers and researchers expected that the content would be reinstated once students returned to classrooms. Instead, the NCERT shocked everyone by printing textbooks for the new academic year with a statement that the changes will remain for the next two academic years, in line with India’s revised education policy approved by government in July 2020.

At first I thought the dropping of evolution reflected the Hindu-centric policies of Modi, somewhat of a theocrat, but an Indian biologist (see earlier post) told me this was unlikely, as Hindus aren’t particularly offended by evolution. The reasons must lie elsewhere, but they’re a mystery to all of us. However, Joshi does that the dumping of evolution reflect in part some religious beliefs:

Science educators are particularly concerned about the removal of evolution. A chapter on diversity in living organisms and one called ‘Why do we fall ill’ has been removed from the syllabus for class-9 students, who are typically 14–15 years old. Darwin’s contributions to evolution, how fossils form and human evolution have all been removed from the chapter on heredity and evolution for class-10 pupils. That chapter is now called just ‘Heredity’. Evolution, says Joshi, is essential to understanding human diversity and “our place in the world”.

In India, class 10 is the last year in which science is taught to every student. Only students who elect to study biology in the final two years of education (before university) will learn about the topic.

Joshi says that the curriculum revision process has lacked transparency. But in the case of evolution, “more religious groups in India are beginning to take anti-evolution stances”, he says. Some members of the public also think that evolution lacks relevance outside academic institutions.

And here’s one more suggestion: that some of these ideas are “Western”—truly the dumbest reason ever not to teach them. So what if Darwin was British?

“There is a movement away from rational thinking, against the enlightenment and Western ideas” in India, adds Sucheta Mahajan, a historian at Jawaharlal Nehru University who collaborates with Mukherjee on studies of RSS influence on school texts. Evolution conflicts with creation stories, adds Mukherjee. History is the main target, but “science is one of the victims”, she adds.

So here we have the world’s largest democracy dumbing down its curriculum, making some of the greatest ideas in science unavailable to its citizens.  This is unconscionable, but there’s little those outside of India can do about this.  The only thing I can think of is to is tell Richard Dawkins, who can at least embarrass the government by tweeting about this.  Otherwise, there are no petitions to sign, nobody to protest to.  And millions of Indian kids will be deprived of the greatest idea in biology.

From the Indian Express:

h/t: Matthew


Ideology stomps all over chemistry in a new paper

January 15, 2023 • 12:45 pm

There are two ways I can criticize the uber-woke paper below that was published in from The Journal of Chemical Education (an organ of the American Chemical Society). I could go through it in detail and point out the fallacies and undocumented claims, and note where “progressive” ideology simply overwhelms the science. I could highlight why it’s a bit of hyper-Left propaganda, designed to force students in a Chemistry, Feminism and STEM course to think in a certain way.

Or I could simply mock it as an example of politicized science that is so over the top that it could appear without change in The Onion.

Way #1 would waste a lot of my time, and I’ve gone through this kind of exegesis many times before. Way #2 would bring out the splenetic readers who say that I shouldn’t make fun of dumb papers like this but instead take them apart line by line—that mockery is not an effective weapon.  But it is. Why else would Stanford have remove its list if disapproved words and phrases had not the Wall Street Journal mocked the list? “Mockery makes you look bad,” these jokers would say, “and it’s unintellectual.”

I’m rejecting both ways today in favor of The Third Way: let the paper reveal its own ideology, postmodern craziness, and authoritarianism by just giving quotes. In other words, I’ll let it mock itself.

You can access the paper for free by clicking on the screenshot below, or see the pdf here.

The abstract gives an idea of the purpose of the course: to indoctrinate students in the authors’ brand of feminism, CRT, and other aspects of woke ideology.  It wants to rid chemistry of White Supremacy, for the unquestioned assumption is that chemistry education is riddled with white supremacy. If you read the authors seriously, you’d think that all chemistry teachers put on white robes and burned crosses after school:

ABSTRACT: This article presents an argument on the importance of teaching science with a feminist framework and defines it by acknowledging that all knowledge is historically situated and is influenced by social power and politics. This article presents a pedagogical model for implementing a special topic class on science and feminism for chemistry students at East Carolina University, a rural serving university in North Carolina. We provide the context of developing this class, a curricular model that is presently used (including reading lists, assignments, and student learning outcomes), and qualitative data analysis from online student surveys. The student survey data analysis shows curiosity about the applicability of feminism in science and the development of critical race and gender consciousness and their interaction with science. We present this work as an example of a transformative pedagogical model to dismantle White supremacy in Chemistry.

At the outset they get off on the wrong foot: by asserting that sex is not binary (all bolding is mine):

When scientifically established facts, such as the nonbinary nature of both sex and gender are seen by students of science as a belief, one might ask: Are we being true to scientific knowledge? We use this student comment as a reflection of the subjectivity of how the pedagogical decisions are made in teaching “true science” vs what existing scientific knowledge tells us. This has resulted in the propagation of scientific miseducation for generations.

Sadly, it’s the authors who are miseducated here. Whatever they think, biological sex in vertebrates is binary, and to teach otherwise is the real distortion of education.

They have a new term, too, though I don’t see how it differs from either systemic racism, unconscious bias, or deliberate racism. (The “King’ mentioned, by the way, is not Martin Luther King, Jr.):

King introduced a new term, dysconscious racism, defined as an acceptance of dominant White norms and privileges arising from the uncritical habit of the mind leading to the maintenance of the status quo. In contrast to unconscious bias which has been quoted as involuntary and used in the academy often, King’s idea of dysconcious racism demands a critical analysis of the history of systemic discrimination in the institutions and coming up with effective interventions.

Below is the authoritarianism, breathless in its arrogance. I used to think that it was an exaggeration to compare the radicalization of science with the Lysenko movement in Stalin’s Russia. Now I’m not so sure! We’ve put our feet on that path.  Is there any ideological buzzworda missing in the following paragraph?:

In this article we describe the development, implementation, and student experience from a special topic course in chemistry, Science and Feminism, as a disruptive tool to challenge the status quo in Chemistry. Using Critical Race Theory and intersectional feminism as the framework, this course aimed at creating an intellectual as well as physical space for STEM students at East Carolina University (ECU) where they could explore their identities and how these intersect with the knowledge base and the pedagogy of science by looking at these from historical, political, and feminist lens. The other aim was to shine light, through this process, how scientific epistemology and culture have strong links with capitalism, enslavement, colonization, and exploitation of female-bodied folks. We provide the historical context of teaching this class in our institution, development of the course syllabus, assignments, and evaluations adopted for this course over the past two years as a template for future course development. In the Discussion and Conclusion section, we also provide a short description from qualitative analysis of online student surveys to understand what students thought about the importance of such a STEM course. Finally, this course is intended to produce an affirming space that will allow minoritized students to enter a chemistry class without having to leave their identities at the metaphorical and physical door of STEM classes.

But you’re supposed to leave your identities at the door. Science is science and the pursuit of the truth, and what truths are apprehended, should be independent of the characteristics of the person who does science.

Below is the “all must have prizes” bit.  Sadly, given that there are more candidates for academic jobs than there are jobs, some people aren’t going to make it. Here’s a statement that East Carolina University, where most of the authors come from, put on their website after George Floyd was murdered:

That same year, the Chemistry Department posted an antiracism statement on its Web site, which stated: “…That means we, as a department, must continually self-reflect and ask hard questions of ourselves. Do our pedagogy, assignments, exams, and grading practices help everyone to succeed?”

This means, of course, that if some students don’t succeed, it’s the fault of the teachers. Ergo a new course in which everyone succeeds, and, I suppose, in which there is no ranking of merit.

Here are the four parts of the course, each accompanied by readings from the appropriate propaganda (note: there is NO dissent in the readings, which you can see in the article):

Unit 1 readings (Table 2) focused on introducing students to the history of American feminism and its contribution/effect as felt in STEM epistemology. This unit also comprised of readings that critically looked at the DEI work in the Academy and its connection complicatedness dysconcious racism. As experiential learning, this unit also invited students to think and talk about their individual relationship with the word feminism, STEM culture, and their own identities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Science done by a feminist and feminist practice in science are the same thing.

Unit 2 included readings (Table 2) that exposed students to the historical context of pathologizing the pregnant womb and the construction of gynecology as a White male discipline while utilizing Black and Indigenous bodies as experimental subjects. We further explored the development of (Black, Indigenous, and Brown) races as inferior and pathological throughout the development of modern science. As experiential learning, students participated in discussions on their interaction with the medical system as immigrants, women, women of color, and LGBTQIA2S+ individuals. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: Health care providers (doctors, dentists, nurses, PA, PT, and administrators) should be required to learn the history of medical racism, sexism, and homo/transphobia and their legacy as part of their licensing process, and it should be an ongoing training than a onetime one. Students were also suggested to watch the 2017 movie, The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks.

Unit 3 explored the development and interrelationship between quantum mechanics, Marxist materialism, Afro-futurism/pessimism, and postcolonial nationalism. To problematize time as a linear social construct, the Copenhagen interpretation of the collapse of wave-particle duality was utilized. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation in a debate with the topic: past is never dead, it is not even past. The students also had the option of watching the 2020 movie, Antebellum. However, the instructor was flexible on this assignment as some of the African American students did not want to watch it and be triggered. They wrote a reflection on a book on race and gender that they had read.

Unit 4 consisted of reading articles in STEM that used identity (racial/gender/sexuality) as empirical parameters and how that can further propagate the absoluteness of these categories rather than dismantling these constructed realities. The end of the unit assignments was writing a reflection from all the readings and participation. There was no debate for this unit as this was close to the semester end.

Besides the reading assignments, there are essays in which students are expected to parrot back the woke pabulum they’ve been fed:

The final assignment was a full paper with an intervention plan that might be implemented in their own institution/department which will enable students to create a STEM identity which acknowledges and respects their personal identity. For 2021 and 2022 classes, the intervention topics that students wrote about were as follows: the importance of all-gender bathrooms in STEM buildings, the importance of teaching how race, gender, sexuality, etc. are created and pathologized by STEM as a medical college course, how to increase accessibility of STEM as a discipline without erasing the lived experiences of URM students, and how the American STEM identity can incorporate the immigrant student/scholar experience.

At this point I wondered if this course had anything to do with science beyond using the “field” (excuse me) as an example of racism and white supremacy. I don’t think so. It’s ideological propaganda, pure and simple, and even worse than the forms dished out in “studies” courses. ‘

There’s a section on “Social Location of the Authors and Their Relation to This Course.” Here’s just a bit:

M.A.R. participated in the special topic chemistry class in Spring 2021 as a biology graduate student. She is a young adult Filipino cis woman who was raised in a middle-class rural town in North Carolina for most of her childhood by immigrant parents.D.M. consulted on the design and delivery of the course as well as the preparation of this manuscript. He is a middle-aged White cis-gendered man who was raised in a suburban Philadelphia family with a diverse set of adopted and foster siblings. He approaches this work largely trained in a Jesuit social ethics tradition and currently serves as a student affairs educator responsible for community engagement, leadership, and DEI experiential programming.

S.B. designed and taught this class as a special topic in chemistry class in Spring 2021 and then in Spring 2022. They are a middle-aged Indian immigrant working in the US higher education. They identify as gender nonconfirming and a brown-immigrant-queer. They were raised in an upper caste and middle-class, college educated family in an urban environment in India and experiences and understands this world from these complex vantage points. These social locations of S.B. also influenced the texts and topics discussed in this course which centered around the historical relationship of Black and Brown and colonized people with modern STEM discipline.

I’m not sure whether this is relevant for teaching propaganda, though it tells us why it’s being taught. It also help establish the authors’ “identity credibility”.

Finally, there’s the obligatory land acknowledgment at the end. It’s a long one!

The authors acknowledge that this article was conceived, researched, and written on Indigenous land and “We acknowledge the Tuscarora people, who are the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognize their continuing connection to the land, water, and air that Greenville consumes. We pay respect to the eight state-recognized tribes of North Carolina; Coharie, Eastern Band of Cherokee, Haliwa-Saponi, Lumbee, Meherrin, Occaneechi Band of Saponi, Sappony, and Waccamaw-Siouan, all Nations, and their elders past, present, and emerging”.

Does this help the indigenous Americans? I don’t see how. I’m sure the Native Americans would prefer getting the land back than this faux form of “respect.”

To end, I point out what I think is an error. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there was a “Tuskegee airmen” case that falls under the “history of medical racism”. I believe the authors are referring here to the four-decade “Tuskegee syphilis study” ending in 1972. It truly was a dark episode in the history of medical ethics: an experiment in which black men infected with syphilis were left untreated so that the US Public Health Service could observe the effects of untreated disease. These men could have been treated, but weren’t; they weren’t told what they had; and they were promised medical treatment but lied to.  This could not happen today, but it was a horrible, horrible thing to do to these people, and was certainly motivated in part by racism. Below is the conflation of this study with another group associated with Tuskegee:

The syphilis study had nothing to do, as far as I know, with the Tuskegee airmen, a group of black pilots who fought gallantly during WWII, despite the military having been segregated. They were the first black military aviators, and received many plaudits and decorations for their bravery and work. But the group had, as far as I know, nothing to do with the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, except that both groups of men were associated in some way with the historically black Tuskegee Institute, which later became Tuskegee University. So much for checking the facts!

The Upshot: This is without doubt the most annoying, misguided, and misplaced paper on science education I’ve read in the last five years. The American Chemical Society should be ashamed of itself.

h/t: Anna

Nobel Prize in Chemistry awarded to two for work on asymmetric catalysis (and a revised contest)

October 6, 2021 • 5:51 am

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry has just been awarded to David MacMillan, born in Scotland and now Professor of Chemistry at Princeton, and Benjamin List, listed in a short Wikipedia entry as “professor at the University of Cologne and Director and Professor at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research.” Both were born in 1968, which makes them young (52 or 53).  They have a long time to enjoy their renown! Her are their photos from the Nobel announcement:

Pictures of the winners of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry Benjamin List and David MacMillan are seen displayed on a screen during The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences’ announcement at the Swedish Academy of Sciences in Stockholm, Sweden October 6, 2021. Claudio Bresciani/TT News Agency/via REUTERS

ChemistryWorld explains simply what the award was for:

David MacMillan and Benjamin List aren’t a complete surprise but they haven’t been top of people’s lists. We’ve commented on the inherent conservatism of the Nobel committees and how they often reward discoveries long after they made a big impact. The same goes here for asymmetric organocatalysis with the pioneering work over two decades old now. The work of MacMillan and List helped open a new vista in organocatalysis with the creation of catalysts that are selective for one enantiomer – or mirror image molecule – over another. This technology has been applied in everything from drugs to dyes for solar cells. “This concept for catalysis is as simple as it is ingenious, and the fact is that many people have wondered why we didn’t think of it earlier,” says Johan Åqvist, who is chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry. One thing people definitely won’t be saying today is “It’s nice, but is it chemistry!”

You can see the announcement and press conference, which just occurred, on the video below (skip to 18:45 for the start; they were running late). It explains List and MacMillan’s accomplishments in more detail:

Over in Germany, the List lab has already tweeted their congratulations:

Since nobody is going to win the Nobel contest again, I’ve changed the rules to make it easier. Here are the rules for the new iteration (the old version is cancelled as there were few guesses, none correct):

Before tomorrow morning (before Prize time), guess the names of both the Literature Prize winner (announced tomorrow early) and the Peace Prize winner (announced Friday morning).  Please give one name for each category. The first person (if any) who gets both correct wins a special autographed copy of either WEIT or Faith vs. Fact with the animal of your choice drawn in by PCC(E).

Put your guesses in the comments below. This should be easier than the previous iteration, it’s but still not easy. If more than one person is correct, the first correct answer wins.

The racism of chemistry at Barnard

August 30, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I can’t really think of any academic field of study, including math, sociology, physics, mathematics, English, history, music, medicine, art history, classics, biology (including evolutionary biology), and so on, that hasn’t been indicted for systemic racism. Remember, “systemic racism” is not individual racism, and nobody denies that there are bigots in every area of academia. The question, which is one that motivated this course, is “is there systemic racism”? That is, is there a pattern of practices, or a set of policies, that are designed to discriminate against minorities?

Actually, that question didn’t motivate this new course at Barnard’s chemistry department, for it’s taken for granted from the outset that the Barnard Chemistry Department is systemically racist, and the course was designed to get rid of it.

You can read about this course at the American Chemical Society publication website (click below), and obtain the full pdf on the course here (if that doesn’t work, try a judicious inquiry). This is a description of a course offered for half a credit, one hour a week, in the fall of last year. Beyond the summary, there’s also a list of student reactions (positive) and recommendations.

The pdf with all the info (click):

It’s assumed from the outset that chemistry in general, and Barnard’s department in particular, are systemically racist. That occurs in the first sentence of the abstract:

To explore the myriad ways in which systemic racism diminishes chemistry, and to recommend changes to our home department, a seminar-style course was created that provided a structured venue in which to collaborate with students.

And they had a dream:

The dream was to dismantle racism in chemistry. The goal was to participate in dismantling racism in chemistry at Barnard College.

To dismantle systemic racism in a field or department, you first have to establish that it exists. Sadly, the article fails to do that, and I suspect it’s because systemic racism doesn’t exist in chemistry at Barnard (or practically anywhere in the U.S, though surely racists and bigots do. Instead, assuming that there was this kind of racism, and that the purpose of the seminar was to dismantle it at Barnard, if not everywhere, the course included the usual material: personal anecdotes or “lived experiences”, documentation of inequities as evidence for ongoing racism, à la Kendi, and so on:

Secondary readings included a recent letter from the 2020 ACS President Luis Echegoyen on ACS commitments and actions to diversity, inclusion, and respect and a recent essay in the Journal of the American Chemical Society written by Professor Melanie Sanford about an “actions not words” approach to equity and inclusion in the chemical sciences. Students learned about career stages, academic ranks, tenure, and the process of receiving grants as well as the career implications associated with grant funding. This information provided an important context for the demographic information provided, where students observed the obvious discrepancies.

Now these students and the professor are well meaning, for who wants to perpetuate racism? But before you start accusing departments of being infested with racism (with the downside being that if they’re not, students of color will still be discouraged from applying there), try adducing some data. As I said, none are given. This thus appears to be a performative course, a course designed to show that the department was doing something about the problem. 

There is also the usual denigration of meritocracy, here in comments from students:

“In our past few meetings, a lot of people discussed their frustration at the fact that the sciences are known notoriously for being used to unfairly weed out those who are deemed less capable. Working to implement growth mindset practices everywhere could help dismantle this exclusive stereotype that looms over the field of science and deters prospective scientists from entering.”


“I thought our discussion about how STEM classes are often set up to ‘weed people out’ and how this creates even more exclusion in the field was interesting.”

These are tacit admissions that increasing inclusion and diversity will lower formal academic standards, and nobody who’s honest will deny that. The question is how much compromise with merit should be done to avoid “weeding people out”? And it is really bad to weed some people out if they have no talent for going on in a field? Remember, academic jobs are far scarcer than candidates. (See below.)

At any rate, this is what the course summary says it accomplished:

These three major takeaway ideas emerged from the class:

• We need to talk about racism and inclusion (a lot).

• Institutions need to truly prioritize inclusion and diversity, weave it into the core mission and budget.

• Structural racism exists, but can be dismantled

You can be the judge if the game is worth the candle here.

Now not everything the course did is questionable. For example, they’ve recommending holding seminars in chemistry that “invite seminar speakers who are not academics in an effort to make clear that training in chemistry provides a strong foundation for work in many different fields.” In the sciences, where academic jobs are far scarcer than Ph.Ds, it’s good to let people know other areas in which you can profitably use a doctorate.

But in the end, it’s not the job of science departments to give credit to students to show how their disciplines are racist—even if they can establish, as they haven’t here, that their disciplines are racist. The solutions are all the same in every department: the three points above, which aren’t really solutions that eliminate racism. What about sending students out to inner-city schools to tutor or lecture kids in chemistry? And, of course, there is always the hard problems of ensuring equality of opportunity, which is the overweening factor at play in every accusation of racism in STEM. The solution to that certainly does not lie in courses like this one. The problem is that the entry to the pipeline is narrow for some minorities, not that departments deliberately narrow the terminus of the pipeline to prevent exit.

Now, social justice in organic chemistry class

March 28, 2021 • 9:30 am

There is seemingly no academic field—not  even in the sciences—that’s immune from being forced to board the social-justice juggernaut. The latest is organic chemistry, and I found out about it from the letter below that just appeared in Science (click on screenshot). The letter is by Melissa McCartney, Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and the STEM Transformation Institute at Florida International University.

So of course I had to look up the original article in the Journal of Chemical Education, which is free online (click on screenshot, pdf here).  The authors teach organic chemistry at Reed College in Oregon, a private liberal arts school that is among the five or six wokest colleges in America (think The Evergreen State College format). Do be mindful of that when you read about the student approbation for infusing social justice into the second semester of the class.

There are several ways they infuse social justice into the class, one of which seems harmless. The others, however, hijack the class to teach the students not only the social history of organic compounds, but to clearly impart to them an ideology based on Critical Theory.  The introduction shows the social motivations for the class:

Without engagement with equity issues, the standard curriculum produces students who may lack civic mindedness in their approach to science. We believe that young scientists should be invited to contemplate their work with a “systems thinking approach” and consider chemistry’s potential impacts beyond intention. Unfortunately, progressive discourse regarding these shortcomings in chemistry curricula is often overlooked, perhaps due to the misperception that science is somehow intrinsically “good”.

There’s nothing wrong with mentioning the social impact of various chemical compounds, but there is something wrong with using the class to foster “progressive discourse”, which in this case means Critical Theory discourse.  Not only does that constitute a form of propaganda for the teachers’ political views, but it also takes time away from learning chemistry itself. It’s clear from the article that the “social justice” implications aren’t just mentioned tangentially, but occupy 5-10% of the course, and will occupy more in the future.

The motivation continues:

In contrast to the dogma that science is “good”, chemists have historically produced compounds that are harmful to both humans and the environment. Examples of these harms are widespread and disproportionately affect economically disadvantaged areas. For example, over 30 years ago, an accident at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, was responsible for releasing poisonous gases into the local environment and atmosphere.(4) Reports described the release as containing 30–40 tons of methyl isocyanate and other toxic chemicals. Nearly 4000 residents of the surrounding tenements were killed immediately. For the remaining residents, the full long-term health consequences of the chemical exposure, including premature death, are still unknown.(5) Assessing the true costs of accidents such as the Bhopal disaster requires a full systems thinking evaluation. What were the early and late effects of exposure? What are the impacts of indirect contact? How have the toxic materials migrated and persisted in the local environment? Have these reactive compounds been transformed into other chemical entities with a new set of impacts and effects?

Seriously? The people who devised the synthesis of these compounds, and even that of Zyklon B (hydrogen cyanide), coopted to to kill Jews in Nazi concentration camps, didn’t aim to create harm (it was created to be used as a pesticide, which began in California in the 1880s). Harm was either due to the acts of bad people, a byproduct of the chemical’s poor storage, as in Bhopal, or an unintended consequence of drugs (the side effects of birth-control pills). Teaching this way gives the impression to students that science is “bad”, a general attitude of both postmodernism and Critical Theory, which dislike science because of its ability to find real truths.

But science itself isn’t “bad”: it is people who decide to use it in a bad way, or, when there are unintended side effects, it’s simply bad luck. Should they teach about the construction of gas chambers in architecture class to show that architecture is not “good”? Almost every discipline could be demonized in this way. Genetics could show that that science is bad by discussing how it was misused by the Soviet agronomist and charlatan Lysenko to derail Russian agriculture, which led to the starvation of millions.

And below is the goal of the professors: enhancing “equity”, which is proportional representation, not equal opportunity:

We aimed to briefly highlight how organic chemicals can be an instrument for enhancing equity, simultaneously stimulating awareness of the injustices and injuries that can be promoted by the misuse of chemicals.

How do they infuse social justice into Reed’s organic chemistry class? They talk about molecules that have social import—usually having a bad effect on minorities. These include birth control pills (has led to “serious environmental contamination”), antiretroviral drugs, and THC, active ingredient of marijuana. But whenever you can insert social justice, even if it’s not relevant to learning organic chemistry itself, they do. Here are the lessons they impart:

For antiretroviral drugs:

In a recent study, 35% of the countries with available data reported having a majority of people (over 50%) with “discriminatory attitudes” toward those living with HIV. This prejudice persists despite the fact that current antiretroviral therapy is able to suppress viral loads to undetectable and below transmittable levels. The stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV leads to marginalization (social, economic, and legal), which in turn can cause poor social, emotional, and physical well-being. These negative impacts on general well-being are correlated with lack of treatment.

For THC:

The dark side of the cannabanoids is that they have been used to systematically incarcerate African-Americans. During the “War on Drugs” in the 1980s, drug-related arrests rose 126%. African-Americans account for 35% of drug arrests, 55% of convictions, and 74% of people sent to prison for drug possession crimes. The incarceration rate is 13 times higher than that of other races, despite African-Americans only comprising 13% of regular drug users. Furthermore, there are collateral consequences to drug arrests. Many states will suspend the driver’s licenses of offenders for at least six months, irrespective of if a car was involved in the crime.

If this has anything at all to do with chemistry, it defies me. And I’m absolutely positive that Reed students have the chance to learn this kind of material in many other classes. What the professors are doing here is using chemistry as a convenient excuse to discuss oppression and marginalization.

Now the okay part of using these particular molecules is that they can be enlisted to demonstrate real principles in organic chemistry, but of course other molecules may do that, and do it even better. Here’s one innocuous quiz question that follows the social-justice indoctrination (they could hardly ask about social justice itself on chemistry tests). It’s about an antiretroviral drug used to treat AIDS:


Finally, surveys of students at the end of the course show that many or most of them think that it’s important to learn about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds, that so this material makes them “into more responsible scientists”, makes the material more relevant, and keeps the students engaged. Of course, using other molecules can create the same relevance (e.g., caffeine, penicillin, alcohol), but those molecules can’t be used to teach social justice.

And of course the Critical Theory material helps the students learn exactly what social justice is—at least, the conception that their professors hold:

We were interested to find that in the first lecture a majority of the class felt familiar with social justice as a concept; 75% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Social justice is a familiar concept.” However, only half of the class (53%) agreed or strongly agreed with, “I can write a definition of ‘social justice’.” We were very pleased to find that after exposure to only three lectures with social justice content, 91% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that “learning about the social justice impacts of chemical compounds is important.” Similarly, 91% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “teaching students about the social justice impacts of chemicals could make them into more responsible scientists.” Furthermore, a majority of students (76%) agreed or strongly agreed that the discussion of social justice themes made the material more relevant to them (15% neutral).

Note that there is no “control” class in which socially important molecules like antibiotics or caffeine are used instead of ones that can be tied to oppression. More important, there is no assessment of whether students exposed to this kind of political material turn into better organic chemists or learn the course material better. All we have is the self-report of students who are mostly self-selected, by going to Reed, to be on the “progressive Left.”

But wait! The social-justice bit is going to expand:

In the future, we hope to address other timely issues such as the use of ethanol as biofuel, which was intended as an environmentally friendly alternative, but instead increased the risk of air pollution deaths relative to gasoline by 9% in Los Angeles. An entire class could be dedicated to addressing the impact of another supposedly sustainable biofuel, palm oil. While palm oil production has driven economic growth in Central and South America, “the methane produced by a typical palm oil lagoon has the same annual climate impact as driving 22,000 passenger cars.” We also would like to include a systems thinking approach to evaluating medications, as many of them can have harmful effects on animals and the environment upon excretion from the body.

Perhaps they might want to talk about the positive social effects of organic chemistry as well! Why is that left out? Because they want to show the students the bad effects of science, not the good ones. And few fields have had a more positive effect on human well being than organic chemistry.

While I have no objection in talking tangentially about molecules important to people in their everyday lives, this is not what’s going on here.  Rather, the lessons are used to impart the Critical Theory view of hierarchical oppression to students.  I have no doubt that almost any academic subject can be hijacked in this way. But is that how we should be teaching our students? Not only infusing everything with politics, but a particular view of politics?

Has the problem of protein folding been solved?

December 1, 2020 • 1:00 pm

One of the biggest and hardest problems in biology, which has huge potential payoffs for human welfare, is how to figure out what shape a protein has from the sequence of its constituent amino acids. As you probably know, a lot of DNA codes for proteins (20,000 proteins in our own genome), each protein being a string of amino acids, sometimes connected to other molecules like sugars or hemes. The amino acid sequence is determined by the DNA sequence, in which each three nucleotide bases in the “structural” part of the DNA sequence codes for a single amino acid. The DNA is transcribed into messenger RNA, which goes into the cytoplasm where, connected to structures called ribosomes, and with the help of enzymes, the DNA sequence is translated into proteins, which can be hundreds of amino acids long.

In nearly every case (see below for one exception), the sequence of amino acids itself determines the shape of the resultant protein, for the laws of physics determine how a protein will fold up as its constituent bits attract or repel each other. The shape can involve helixes, flat sheets, and all manner of odd twists and turns.  Here’s one protein, PDB 6C7C: Enoyl-CoA hydratase, an enzyme from a bacterium that causes human skin ulcers.  This isn’t a very complex shape, but may be important in studying how a related bacterium causes tuberculosis, as well as designing drugs against those skin ulcers:

And here’s human hemoglobin, formed by the agglomeration of four protein chains, two copies each from two genes (from Wikipedia):

Knowing protein shape is useful for many reasons, including ones related to health. Drugs, for example, can be designed to bind to and knock out target proteins, but it’s much easier to design a drug if you know the protein’s shape. (We know the shape of only about a quarter of our 20,000 proteins.) Knowing a protein’s shape can also determine how a pathogen causes disease, such as how the “spike protein” or the COVID-19 virus latches onto human cells (this helped in the development of vaccines). Here’s the viral spike protein, with one receptor binding domain depicted as ribbons:

And there are many questions, both physiological and evolutionary, that hinge on knowing protein shapes. When one protein evolves into a different one, how much does that affect shape change, and can that change explain a change of function? (Remember, under Darwinian evolution, gradual changes of sequence must be continually adaptive.) How do different shapes of odorants interact with the olfactory receptor proteins, giving a largely one-to-one relationship between protein shape and odor molecules?

Until now, determining protein shape was one of the most tedious and onerous tasks in biology. It started decades ago with X-ray crystallography, in which a protein had to be crystallized and then bombarded with X-rays, with the scattered particles having to be laboriously interpreted and back-calculated into estimates of shape. (This is how the shape of DNA was determined by Franklin and Wilkins). This often took years for a single protein. There are other ways, too, including nuclear magnetic resonance, and new methods like cryogenic electron microscopy, but these too are painstakingly slow.

Now, as the result of a competition in which different scientific teams are asked to use computer programs to predict the structure of proteins that are already known but not published, one team, DeepMind from Google, has achieved astounding predictive success using artificial intelligence (AI), to the point where other technologies to determine protein structure may eventually become obsolete.

There are two articles below, but dozens on the Internet. The first one below, from Nature, is comprehensive (click on screenshot to read both):

This article, from the Deep Mind blog itself (click on screenshot), is shorter but has a lot of useful information, as well as a visual that shows how closely their AI program predicted protein structure.


In a yearly contest called CASP (Critical Assessment of Structure Prediction), a hundred competing teams were asked to guess the three-dimensional structure of about a hundred sections of proteins (“domains”). The 3D structure of these domains were already known to those who worked on them, but was unknown to the researchers, as the structures hadn’t been published.

The method for how Deep Mind’s AI program did this is above my pay grade, but involved “training” the “AlphaFold” program to predict protein structures by training the program with amino-acid sequences of proteins whose 3-D structure was already known. They began a couple of years ago in the contest by training the program to predict the distance between any pair of amino acids in a protein (if you know the distances between all pairs of amino acids, you have the 3D structure). This year they used a more sophisticated program, called AlphaFold2, that, according to the Nature article, “incorporate[s] additional information about the physical and geometric constraints that determine how a protein folds.” (I have no idea what these constraints are; the procedure hasn’t yet been published but will be early next year.)

It turns out that AlphaFold2 predicts protein structure with remarkable accuracy—often as good as the more complex laboratory methods that take months—and does so within a couple of hours, and without any lab expenses! In fact, the accuracy of shape prediction wound up being about 1.6 angstroms—about the width of a single atom! AlphaFold2 also predicted the shape of four protein domains that hadn’t yet been finished by researchers.  Before this year’s contest, it was thought that it would take at least ten years before AI could be improved to the point where it was about as good as experimental methods. It took less than two years.

Here’s a gif from the DeepMind post that shows how accurately DeepFold 2 predicted two protein structures. The congruence of the green (experimental) and blue (AI-predicted) shape is remarkable.

There aren’t many cases where computers can make a whole experimental program obsolete, but this appears to be what’s happening here.

There is one bug in the method, though it’s a small one. As Matthew Cobb pointed out to me, in a few cases the sequence of amino acids doesn’t absolutely predict a protein’s shape. As he noted, “Sometimes the same AA [amino acid] sequence can have different isoforms [shapes that can shift back and forth], which can have Very Bad consequences—think of prions, in which the sequence is the same but the structure is different.” Prions are shape-shifting proteins that, in one of their shapes, can cause fatal neurodegenerative diseases like “Mad cow disease”. These are fortunately rare, but do show that the one-to-one relationship between protein sequence and protein shape does have exceptions.

Here’s a very nice video put out by DeepMinds that explains the issue in eight minutes:

We’ll have to wait until the paper comes out to see the details, but the fact that the computer program predicted the shapes of proteins so very well means that they’re doing something right, and we’re all the beneficiaries.

Doudna and Charpentier win Chemistry Nobel for CRISPR/Cas9 method of gene editing

October 7, 2020 • 6:15 am

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry was long anticipated, for the CRISPR/Cas9 system of gene editing was a tremendous accomplishment in biology and chemistry. It promises a lot, including curing human genetic disease (see the first five posts here). Remember, Nobel Prizes in science are designed to reward those who made discoveries potentially helping humanity, not those who just made general scientific advances.

A prize for developing the editing system was, then, almost inevitable. The only question was “who would get it?”, since several people contributed to the work that led to CRISPR/Cas9.  It turns out that the Prize—in Chemistry—went to the two frontrunners, Jennifer Doudna of UC Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin.  Other serious contenders were George Church of Harvard, Virginijus Šikšnys at the Vilnius University of Biotechnology, Francisco Mojica of the University of Alicante, and Feng Zhang of the Broad Institute (the dispute was largely over whether those who developed ways to use the method in human cells also deserved the Prize). There will be a lot of kvetching today, but if I had had to pick two to get the prize, given that only three can get it au maximum, it would be Doudna and Charpentier. (They could have awarded up to six prizes if they’d split the CRISPR award between Physiology or Medicine and Chemistry.)

The press release from the Nobel Foundation says this:

Genetic scissors: a tool for rewriting the code of life

Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna have discovered one of gene technology’s sharpest tools: the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors. Using these, researchers can change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms with extremely high precision. This technology has had a revolutionary impact on the life sciences, is contributing to new cancer therapies and may make the dream of curing inherited diseases come true.

Researchers need to modify genes in cells if they are to find out about life’s inner workings. This used to be time-consuming, difficult and sometimes impossible work. Using the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors, it is now possible to change the code of life over the course of a few weeks.

“There is enormous power in this genetic tool, which affects us all. It has not only revolutionised basic science, but also resulted in innovative crops and will lead to ground-breaking new medical treatments,” says Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry.

As so often in science, the discovery of these genetic scissors was unexpected. During Emmanuelle Charpentier’s studies of Streptococcus pyogenes, one of the bacteria that cause the most harm to humanity, she discovered a previously unknown molecule, tracrRNA. Her work showed that tracrRNA is part of bacteria’s ancient immune system, CRISPR/Cas, that disarms viruses by cleaving their DNA.

Charpentier published her discovery in 2011. The same year, she initiated a collaboration with Jennifer Doudna, an experienced biochemist with vast knowledge of RNA. Together, they succeeded in recreating the bacteria’s genetic scissors in a test tube and simplifying the scissors’ molecular components so they were easier to use.

In an epoch-making experiment, they then reprogrammed the genetic scissors. In their natural form, the scissors recognise DNA from viruses, but Charpentier and Doudna proved that they could be controlled so that they can cut any DNA molecule at a predetermined site. Where the DNA is cut it is then easy to rewrite the code of life.

Since Charpentier and Doudna discovered the CRISPR/Cas9 genetic scissors in 2012 their use has exploded. This tool has contributed to many important discoveries in basic research, and plant researchers have been able to develop crops that withstand mould, pests and drought. In medicine, clinical trials of new cancer therapies are underway, and the dream of being able to cure inherited diseases is about to come true. These genetic scissors have taken the life sciences into a new epoch and, in many ways, are bringing the greatest benefit to humankind.

I haven’t looked it up, but I think this is the first time that two women have been the sole recipients of any Nobel prize.(Correction: I should have said “Prize for Science”, for, as a reader pointed out below, two women shared the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize: Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan. Their achievement was organizing to suppress sectarian violence during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Here are Doudna and Charpentier from the Washington Post (the paper’s caption):

FILED – 14 March 2016, Hessen, Frankfurt/Main: The American biochemist Jennifer A. Doudna (l) and the French microbiologist Emmanuelle Charpentier, then winners of the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2016, are together in the casino of Goethe University. The two scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry 2020. Photo: picture alliance / dpa (Photo by Alexander Heinl/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Here’s the live stream of the announcement from Stockholm. The action begins at 11:45 with the announcement in English and Swedish, and the scientific explanation starts at 19:10.

Once again, although seven people, including Matthew, guessed the winners in our Nobel Prize contest (here and here), nobody got the Chemistry or Physics prizes. Given your miserable failures, I may have to have contest for the literature prize alone.

Matthew was also prescient in his book, Life’s Greatest Secret (2015), which includes this sentence:

“Whatever happens next, I bet that Doudna and Charpentier—and maybe Zhang and Church—will get that phone call from Stockholm.”

In 2017, I reviewed (favorably) Jennifer Doudna’s new book on CRISPRA Crack in Creation, for the Washington Post. (Samuel Sternberg was the book’s co-author). The book is well worth reading, but I did have one beef connected not with the narrative, but with where the dosh goes for this discovery. Here’s what I wrote then:

. . . this brings us to an issue conspicuously missing from the book. Much of the research on CRISPR, including Doudna’s and Zhang’s, was funded by the federal government — by American taxpayers. Yet both scientists have started biotechnology companies that have the potential to make them and their universities fabulously wealthy from licensing CRISPR for use in medicine and beyond. So if we value ethics, transparency and the democratization of CRISPR technology, as do Doudna and Sternberg, let us also consider the ethics of scientists enriching themselves on the taxpayer’s dime. The fight over patents and credit impedes the free exchange among scientists that promotes progress, and companies created from taxpayer-funded research make us pay twice to use their products.

. . . . Finally, let us remember that it was not so long ago that university scientists refused to enrich themselves in this way, freely giving discoveries such as X-rays, the polio vaccine and the Internet to the public. The satisfaction of scientific curiosity should be its primary reward.

I’m not sure how the legal battle between the participants (via Berkeley and MIT) has shaken out, and can’t be arsed to look it up, but surely a reader or two will know

Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three who developed lithium ion batteries

October 9, 2019 • 7:00 am

From the Swedish Academy of Sciences, we have today’s Prize announcement (click on screenshot to go to page giving the details):

And the tweets:

The winners get only about $300,000 each, but of course the cachet exceeds that by far. Still, that’s probably about two years’ salary for these guys. The Swedish Academy should ante up more!


Here’s the official announcement, which will be live and is coming up:

This year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry goes to three people

October 4, 2018 • 8:00 am

I’m a day late to the party for this one, especially because one prize went to a woman who worked in “directed evolution”. The Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2018 was awarded to three people: Frances H. Arnold (half share), George P. Smith (quarter share) and Gregory P. Winter (quarter share). Arnold is a professor of chemical engineering, bioengineering and biochemistry at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Smith is an emeritus professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri, and Winter a biochemist at the M.R.C. Laboratory of Molecular Biology in England.

Arnold is the fifth woman to earn the Chemistry Prize, but I’m hoping that as women enter the sciences more, it won’t be remarkable enough to single them out as the “xth woman to win the Prize.” I thought, as did some readers, that it might go to Jennifer Doudna and her collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, but it wasn’t their time. But that will come, even if CRISPR doesn’t prove to be a useful tool in genetically engineering humans.

Here’s the New York Times article about the Prize.

The Nobel press release is more specific:

One half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is awarded to Frances H. Arnold. In 1993, she conducted the first directed evolution of enzymes, which are proteins that catalyse chemical reactions. Since then, she has refined the methods that are now routinely used to develop new catalysts. The uses of Frances Arnold’s enzymes include more environmentally friendly manufacturing of chemical substances, such as pharmaceuticals, and the production of renewable fuels for a greener transport sector.

The other half of this year’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is shared by George P. Smith and Sir Gregory P. Winter. In 1985, George Smith developed an elegant method known as phage display, where a bacteriophage – a virus that infects bacteria – can be used to evolve new proteins. Gregory Winter used phage display for the directed evolution of antibodies, with the aim of producing new pharmaceuticals. The first one based on this method, adalimumab, was approved in 2002 and is used for rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and inflammatory bowel diseases. Since then, phage display has produced anti-bodies that can neutralise toxins, counteract autoimmune diseases and cure metastatic cancer.

We are in the early days of directed evolution’s revolution which, in many different ways, is bringing and will bring the greatest benefit to humankind.

For a closer look at the work of Dr. Arnold, here’s a writeup in Science from 1994 by the journalist Faye Flam, which, although somewhat dated, does explain the main thrust of this work: the application of Darwinian evolution to molecules. At that involves mutating genes that produce enzymes (often with the enzyme engineered into bacteria) and then using a selection process to get to the molecule you want.

Nobody was even close to guessing the winners of this year’s three science prizes, so, as usual, there will be no winner of my contest.