Feb 102017

Diana Freire, PhD student, EMBL

When I was a student I never dreamed that one day I would be a scientist, but here I am! My name is Diana Freire, I am from Portugal and I am doing my PhD in structural biology at one of the world’s leading research institutes: European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

You may not know but 11 February 2017 marks the second United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science, and what better time than now to think about women in science and how we can make an effective and sustainable change to the number of women participating in science. You can learn more about the International Day here.

If you want to pursue a career in science, EMBL is a great place to do it. I have learnt so much here and I am definitely growing as a scientist and also as a person. I have been exposed to many different structural biology methods and had the honour of meeting many exceptional people – all of whom encouraged me to use X-ray crystallography in my study of a novel toxin-antitoxin protein complex from Mycobacterium tuberculosis and to unravel its mechanism of function.

Recently our scientific training and outreach officer Rosemary Wilson @rawilson80 encouraged me to take part in a story for Science News for Students (https://www.sciencenewsforstudents.org/). The article resonated with me immediately: “We need you! Are you a female-identifying person in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM)? We want to see you and hear your voice!”. I knew this was something I wanted to be part of. While brainstorming the article, I thought back to why as a student I had never considered a career as a scientist. I came to the conclusion that I had a problem identifying with the images of scientists that I saw in the media at that time – I do not look like them!

Since I was 19 years old, fashion has played a major part of my life. I did a modelling course, took part in several fashion shows and photo shoots, and also participated in two contests to be Miss Portugal. Meanwhile, however, I was also always focused on my studies. At first I hid my fashion activities from everybody at university, afraid of being judged. I felt I had to prove to my (mostly male) professors that I was not only a pretty face. Then, a few years ago, a treatment I was receiving for cancer meant I lost my hair; it also effected the shape of my body. I overcame the cancer, and the best part of it is that I lost the fear of showing everybody who I really am. I was able to be open about what I do and love. Fashion and science: some might think, two opposite worlds that cannot mix.

These thoughts and experience encouraged me to make a video about myself and other female scientists to be shared with everybody but mostly with other women. I wish I could have included even more of these amazing female scientists in it, together with their inspiring stories.

I hope women outside science and especially female students can watch this video and see we are like any other women. Women in science can still have a life inside and outside the laboratory. It is possible to make hard work and dedication compatible with life and still have success in both. Science needs women. So, please, if you are one, believe in your career, be hopeful and pursue your dreams.

Women are not a minority in science any more but we are still under-represented at the highest levels. The reasons for this do not seem to be related to performance but mostly to psychological barriers, peer pressure or even feelings of self-doubt: it is important to develop our self-esteem. The guidelines of this year’s United Nations International Day of Women and Girls in Science on the topic “Gender, Science and Sustainable Development: The Impact of Media” highlight the importance of raising the profile of women in science by supporting and inspiring each other.

The general message I want to cover with the video is about life: enjoy it as much as you can. Do what makes you happy, and follow your passions. Fight for your personal and professional goals, and do not let others’ opinions put you down. Life is too short and we only live once!


Feb 102017

Michele Zema, IUCr Outreach officer

How do you encourage youngsters to think about crystallography? Start from the beginning and let them grow a crystal!

Crystal growth is such an important subject that it should be considered as a science in itself. It has its own journals and even an international organization, the International Organization for Crystal Growth, which coordinates the activities of researchers involved in the field.

Crystallization is still one of the most powerful purification methods in chemistry, used frequently at both university and industrial levels.

There is a tremendous amount of theory behind the science of crystal growth, and more and more sophisticated methods have been developed to understand the ever increasing numbers of resultant crystal structures. These discoveries can lead to new or better understood materials and properties covering many inorganic, organic and biological substances including drugs, nanostructured phases and many kinds of materials such as semiconductors, superconductors, magnetic materials and so on.

Don’t forget growing a crystal is also a lot of fun!

To coincide with the celebrations for the UN International Year of Crystallography 2014 (IYCr2014) and with the aim of raising awareness about this growing discipline, the IUCr launched a worldwide crystal-growing competition for schoolchildren (categories 15-18, 11-15 and under 11), which has now reached its fourth cycle. It aims to introduce students to the exciting, challenging and sometimes frustrating world of growing crystals. Students are invited to record a video to convey their experience to a panel of experts. The winning contributions in each category receive ‘Young crystal growers’ certificates and medals.

The IUCr also provides schoolchildren and teachers with educational material (brochures, videos, etc.) to explain the basic concepts of crystals and crystal growth and the importance of crystallization techniques in many fields.

The winners of the 2016 edition have just been announced (watch the videos here) and the 2017 edition launched; the deadline for video submission is 19 November 2017.

At the IYCr2014 Closing Ceremony, it was reported that national crystal-growing competitions were taking place in at least 34 countries. This is great news but we would like to boost this number and encourage more schools to participate in the international competition, and for this we need your help. If you want to inspire youngsters in what may become a lifelong love of crystallography, please do not hesitate to contact me at mz@iucr.org.


Feb 102017

Synchrotron beamlines and their instruments are built to harness the photon beam power of synchrotron radiation (SR), which has special properties – ideally suited to providing detailed and accurate structural information that is difficult to obtain from conventional sources. The common modus operandi for such facilities is that users are allocated a short duration of beamtime, typically a few hours to a few days, in which to perform their experiments.

With technological advances in instrumentation, detection, computing power, automation and remote access, SR facilities are developing new modes of access, designed to increase speed, efficiency and throughput of user experiments, such as on the macromolecular beamlines at Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source in the US and at the Diamond Light Source in the UK.

However, there are a class of experiments that are increasingly excluded by these developments, which nevertheless could greatly benefit from the application of SR. For example, some materials undergo very slow transforming reactions, while others take time to exhibit the effects of curing, ageing or repeated use. These processes can be subtle or take weeks to months or even years to either show gross manifestation or run to completion.

At present off-line processing with before and after SR measurements is the norm, but valuable structural information on growth, change and intermediate phases can be missed or indeed lost. There is therefore a clear need for a facility that allows slow processes to be studied.

In a recently published paper [Murray et al. (2017), J. Appl. Cryst. 50. doi:10.1107/S1600576716019750] scientists report on a new purpose built LDE facility, which has been designed to address the needs of a wide and diverse range of scientific investigations. The new facility takes the form of an additional specially constructed end-station to the existing ultra-high-resolution and time-resolved powder diffraction beamline (I11) at Diamond. The new end-station is dedicated to hosting up to 20 long-term experiments (weeks to years), all running in parallel.

To demonstrate the effectiveness of this new facility, commissioning results from two contrasting science cases are presented. In the first, the slow in situ precipitation of the hydrated magnesium sulfate mineral meridianiite from an aqueous solution was followed. The hydrated phase is believed to be widespread on the surface of Mars and was formed inside a specifically designed low-temperature cell. In the second study, the long term stability of the metal-organic framework material NOTT-300 was investigated. This is a potential supramolecular material for greenhouse gas capture. Initial results show that the facility is capable of detecting phase evolution and detailed structural changes and is well suited for many applied systems and functional materials of interest. The emergence of new science from ongoing experiments is expected soon.