Readers share how they’ve adapted to Covid-19, and muse on AI and the liberating impacts of chemistry

Returned and ready

Like most labs throughout the country, I was tossed a curve ball last March in the form of Covid-19. When I was told we had to shut down, I figured it would be for a couple of weeks. Never would I have imagined July being more realistic.

I realised a lot of planning would be required for resuming our activities. With nine labs and 60 or so individuals relying on my facilities, further delays were out of the question. I knew I was going to need help, so set up some virtual meetings with other Technical Managers across the University and quickly established a tactical working group to manage our respective returns more efficiently. We all had slightly different slants; teaching, hazardous material handling, external visitors etc. But generally our goals were aligned – we had to resume our activities, and safely.

It was clear I needed a system to reduce the occupancy of the labs at any given time and to track where people were going. An online booking approach was ruled out as it relied too much on end user agility. Instead a simple weekly planning form was created, which requires a bit more input from a management perspective, but ensures maximum use of all the lab areas, and we haven’t had to resort to staggered working arrangements. Prior to lockdown we were already making use of the ULab platform for instrument bookings, which massively helped our efforts. We also set up a simple QR code system on ULab for out-of-hours working.

It’s been tough, but there have been positives. The new working procedures have helped students and staff become more organised. I’ve also met new colleagues, which has been vital for all the return preparations. When the next challenge comes along, we’ll be ready for it!

Thomas McGlone
Glasgow, UK

Hope and hype

In the 1980s chemical companies had to pay a fortune for commercial molecular modelling software because pharma companies were using these tools for lead finding, and as this is key for that business, the price for the tools was not a real issue. Unfortunately, it turned out there were very few real successes.

The next phase, starting in the 1990s, was high-throughput experimentation (HTE). Millions of chemicals could be tested in a comparatively short period of time. But the success of that effort was also limited – one should always see this in the light of the costs involved of setting up and running the equipment.

Now we seem to have the next ‘hype’: artificial intelligence, or AI. But where is the scientific argument why this would now speed up drug discovery?

Very interestingly, for the other two methods applied previously one could formulate proper arguments. Molecular modelling would make it possible to model the site where the drug needs to bind/act, so is based on a detailed analysis of the mechanism. Why did it fail? In those days, potentials were not yet always that great, solvent effects a true difficulty to establish and computers slow compared to what they are now.

Alternatively, high-throughput experimentation would also enable the development of challenging drugs acting in a unique way on a specific site. AI requires a lot of input data to build models. These encompass in essence models that reveal continuous behaviour, though steep step functions are allowed and can be described, and therefore very specific unique interactions are unlikely to be described properly. In fact during pre-processing these might be subject to outlier rejection. Pre-processing is an absolute must to cure a data set.

Therefore, when I look at all three methods, from a scientific point of view I could well imagine that in 2020 molecular modelling or HTE is a better toolbox than AI. During my career in the chemical field I was involved in all three methods. We will see what happens.

Robert Meier, FRSC
Heinsberg, Germany

Better living through chemistry

I am a woman who did a degree in applied chemistry in the 1970s and worked in industry, but then had children. In those days, motherhood was incompatible with the demands of industry, and I had to change career.

However, my husband remains a member of the RSC, and I read his Chemistry World magazine with great interest.

I was very much taken with the article about chemo-ethnography, as it has long been my view that the chemical industry has done more to improve women’s lives than has any political intiative.

If you equate women’s rights/equality with their ability to participate in life outside the home – as I think most people do – then look at what chemistry has given us.

It has made housework immeasurably easier and quicker. Examples include washing up liquid rather than scouring with soda and sand. There are endless easy care materials such as vinyl flooring, wipe clean furniture and worktops, and non-iron synthetic fibres. These materials free us from hours of drudgery.

Chemistry is also significant for birth control. Without this, women were condemned to endless pregnancies, which severely hampered their ability to do anything other than have babies and do housework. I believe that this is the prime reason why fewer women than men have left a mark in history.

Therefore, I would love to see the chemical ethnographers study the effect of chemistry on women’s lives. They might be surprised.

Thanks again for a great read. Sadly, the mainstream media has hijacked the word ‘chemical’ to mean bad/poisonous, and chemists get a bad press. But I believe that chemistry has given us many good things, and will continue to do so. As I read each issue of Chemistry World, I love to learn how chemistry is working towards solving the world’s great problems, whether it’s a malaria vaccine, or new ways to harvest and store renewable energy. Hurrah for the chemists!

Helen Johnson
Appleton Wiske, UK

Clipped answer

There’s another problem in the scenario ‘All sealed up’ featured in On the spot. I was always advised that tubing of any type should be firmly secured to a Liebig condenser using some form of clip.

Chris Williamson CChem FRSC
Leatherhead, UK