Radio silence finally over

Posted: June 3, 2014 in Uncategorized


I realise I’ve not updated this blog in a while. I’ve been focussing on getting an important paper out amongst other things. I’m in the process of putting together a series of posts concerning what I’ve been up to in the past few months… so watch this space.

In the meantime, check out my updated research section!


The jelly baby army is back: the latest in a series of papers resulting from a collaboration with Zoe Schnepp and researchers from NIMS and SPring-8 in Japan has been published in Chemical Communications.

The paper, which is in the “2014 emerging investigators” issue and is entitled “A family of oxide/carbide/carbon and oxide/nitride/carbon nanocomposites”, sets out a powerful and versatile method to produce phase separated materials from abundant and inexpensive precursors. The phases are separated, yet highly interspersed and therefore possess high active surface areas, as demonstrated by an enhanced catalytic activity per gram. While these materials have yet to be fully optimised, they clearly provide a cost-effective and sustainable alternative to existing multi-step routes. Without a doubt, this work marks Zoe out as one of the UK’s leading emerging academics.  


Halloween saw the return of ghosts, ghouls, zombies, monsters, skeletons and even some action heroes to the Keele campus in the annual Spooktacular science outreach event, held at the Keele Sustainability hub. The event was open to the paying public (very reasonably priced at £3 / head or £10 / family), ran from 2 – 6 pm and involved lectures, demonstrations and hands-on experiments concerning the spookier side of science. The chemistry team was heavily involved in this, with stalls inviting children (and adults..) to make slime or alginate worms, as well to experience the smells of nasty and nice molecules. Dressed as a chemistry skeleton, I mainly supervised the latter stall, which was the brainchild of another Keele lecturer David Thompson and was erected outside the hall for fear of stinking out the place. That fear was well founded, as the “skunk” smell (butanethiol) proved to be highly potent! In addition to skunk, “Nasty” smells were mouldy cheese, smelly feet, sweat and poo, while “nice” smells were thyme, boiled sweets, flowers, mints and citrus fruits. Smelling smelly smells proved to be a lot a fun for everyone, with some of the parents quite surprised to find that  the compound used to give a poo smell (indole) is also used at low dosage in perfume to provide a “fruity” odour…


Photos provided by David Thompson 

blogs peer review

(CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Giulia Forsythe CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Events over the summer have led to various popular chemistry blogs (particularly chembark and chemistry-blog) calling out  fairly outrageous examples (e.g. here, herehere and here) of potential research misconduct. Primarily because of this, journal editors have been driven to act and also to justify their actions in the public forum (e.g. here, in addition to the previous links). This has given rise to an interesting debate about who is best placed to act as the custodians of science. Should it be the (paid) editors of the journals, who are generally researchers with a long established reputation in their field, or the (generally unpaid) blog writers and their commentators, who come from a variety of different backgrounds?

This now long-running debate recently intensified, with an Editorial appearing in ACS Nano, authored by all of the editors of that journal. They argue that research misconduct cases should be dealt with in-house and privately, away from the potential for collective public hysteria. The argument seems to be that careers can be ruined by bloggers who misrepresent fraud and raise unfounded accusations. While this is clearly a valid point that any blogger should bear in mind before revealing something untoward, the editors failed to provide the evidence to back up their argument. The excuse for not providing this evidence would appear to be that ACS Nano has a policy of not citing evidence from blogs, which could perhaps be seen to be all too convenient. Thankfully, many thoughtful bloggers and others (including some senior journal editors) responded to this with a certain amount of disdain (e.g. here). Others, presumably backing the points made in the editorial, or perhaps just using it as a good excuse, took this as an opportunity to launch personal attacks on bloggers and commentators as time wasters and slackers. Obviously, the strategy of “play the man, not the ball” has long been used in politics to draw attention away from the debate in hand.

In these times of “Web 2.0“, it is simply ridiculous that established institutions try to silence on-line debate. It has been shown in many recent political happenings (for example, celebrity superinjunctions or even in the NSA/GCHQ files issue, which is of course ongoing) that such attempts to do so are misguided and usually end up backfiring spectacularly. Cutting through much of the noise on the topic of “Bloggers vs. Editors” was a recent Nature editorial that seems to directly contradict the editors of ACS Nano. While I’m not interested in encouraging any “journal vs. journal” rivalry, I would highlight the following point made by Nature:

It is better to ask that debate be civil, responsible and courteous, than that it not appear on-line at all.” 

By definition, science in its purest form always allows for challenges to the status quo, in the form of new theories which are tested to destruction and adopted if found to provide a better solution to the problem in hand. It is therefore my opinion that the prevalence of blogs, twitter and comments sections full of discussion is exactly the right way to bring about necessary changes to the imperfect peer review system responsible for missing these examples of misconduct, provided the discussion satisfies the terms above. Alienating the blogging community in the way that the editors of ACS Nano seem to have done (whatever their intention) seems to work against this. Many bloggers (myself included) are qualified early career scientists who hope to have long careers and who perhaps deserve to have a role in sculpting an improved system. It is not their privilege, but their right to do so. It should be noted perhaps that the topic of peer review has been debated at length elsewhere (hereherehere, and here – as a short example), with interesting contributions from everyone in the community. Long may this continue!

We’ve had a new paper accepted in J. Mater. Chem. A – “Carbon Electrocatalysts with Trimodal Porosity from a Homogeneous Polypeptide Gel” (click on the photo)


(reproduced from Wikipedia. Date: Taken on July 18, 2006 Author: Father.Jack)

This was a big collaborative effort between scientists in the UK, China and Japan. The lead author is Zoe Schnepp, at the University of Birmingham 

The work basically shows how gelatin, commonly found in jelly babies, and cheap metal salts (iron and magnesium nitrate) can be combined and heated to make a composite material that is as capable of speeding up (catalysing) a key process in certain types of fuel cells. Not only this, but it exhibits an equal performance to the current commercial alternative based on palladium, which is both expensive and comparably scarce.

My involvement, alongside Brian Pauw was in characterising the material using small-angle X-ray scattering. Using this technique and Brian’s new fitting approach (available Open Access from, we were able to identify the various structures (pores, particles) within the structure and to find their bulk average size distributions. The results agreed very well with the TEM images, which provide visual verification but cannot easily provide the statistically significant bulk averaged data.

We hope to continue this collaboration in the future – currently, we’re applying for funding to use beamlines at both the Diamond and ISIS facilities to further characterise these and related materials. Watch this space!

This article, which was written in collaboration Takashi Nakanishi, NIMS, Japan, recently appeared in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C. In it, we highlight the strategy of using branched alkyl, rather than linear n-alkyl chains to control the assembly properties of organic molecules that have applications in organic electronics. We generally find that branched chains soften the organic material to a greater extent (than linear chains), permitting larger assemblies to form through modulated nucleation and growth steps. This leads to improved optoelectronic properties. In a second section, we focus on recent work that has identified organic functional liquids and explored their potential. We discuss their use both in OLEDs and also as fluorescent paints. The reviewers were particularly supportive of this work, complementing us on its clarity, quality of writing and the importance of the chosen examples. We hope other readers will find it equally useful.

Please click on the image below to go to the article at RSC publishing


Dr. Brian Pauw, from the National Institute of Materials Science, Japan, has just published a really interesting review paper concerning small-angle X-ray scattering. It appears in the Journal of Physics: Condensed Matter and is open access. In the paper, Brian starts with an introduction to the technique, including its advantages and disadvantages alongside a history of instrumentation. He goes on to highlight the drive to collect optimum data, discussing the merits of different equipment geometries (pinhole, slit, Bonse-Hart) and detector types. Available data reduction methods are comprehensively introduced and their potential to improve accuracy outlined. Corrections that should always be made are discussed, taking into account situations in which more factors might have to be taken into account (e.g. different detector types). Finally, mention is made of data fitting methods, alongside common pitfalls that a newcomer should aim to avoid.

This review therefore stands out as a significant contribution to the field of small-angle X-ray scattering. While its comprehensive nature might be thought to direct it towards a more expert audience, the quality of writing means that newcomers are far from excluded. I’d recommend anyone considering using SAXS in their research, and certainly those planning their first syncrotron SAXS experiment, to read this paper.  To access the paper from the publisher’s website (to reiterate – it’s open access!), click on the picture below: