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Berkeley chemists speak at ACS meeting

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Graham Fleming
Graham Fleming

June 15, 2009

Awards symposia were in the spotlight on Tuesday at the national American Chemical Society meeting in Salt Lake City, and the College of Chemistry was represented by a trio of Berkeley chemists.

Vice Chancellor for Research and Melvin Calvin Distinguished Professor of Chemistry Graham Fleming gave the Joel Henry Hildebrand Award Address on the "Theoretical and Experimental Chemistry of Liquids." His theme was the dynamics of liquids and polar salvation, but his message was "Time-scales time-scales time-scales!"

In discussing his own research over the past 25 years, Fleming noted how much he owed to the development of increasingly sophisticated optical spectroscopy techniques operating at increasingly faster time-scales. As an example, Fleming cited his studies of the Fenna-Matthews-Olson (FMO) photosynthetic light-harvesting protein. This research uses a spectroscopy technique his group developed that works on a femtosecond time-scale (millionth of a billionth of a second).

Berkeley chemistry professor Richard Saykally began his Peter Debye Award in Physical Chemistry address with a jolt of classical music blasting from an amplified speaker. Saykally explained that his experience teaching freshmen chemistry had prepared him well for giving an end-of-the-day talk.

Saykally's theme was "X-ray absorption spectroscopy of liquid microjets: A new probe of ion hydration." Again employing various types of music for emphasis, he explained how the incorporation of liquid microjet technology into soft X-ray spectroscopy experiments has provided critical new insights into the nature of ions in liquid water.

Among chemists who study water, there has been a long-standing argument about how water molecules arrange themselves in a liquid drop. Saykally and his collaborators, using theory combined with experiments that capitalized on the ultrabright x-ray beams at the Lawrence Berkeley Nation Laboratory's Advanced Light Source, have provided strong support for what is called the continuum model of water, in which the hydrogen bonds in liquid water are continually breaking and reforming.

Saykally's work would seem to have ended the controversy, but he concluded his talk with another blast of music — the song "Lies!", by the 60's-era band the Knickerbockers, and told the audience, "Everything I have just told you could be a complete lie." Saykally explained that his interpretations of experimental results are based on incomplete theories about the nature of ions in water.

For pure inspiration to students and young scientists who happen to be female, the highlight of the day was nuclear chemist Darleane Hoffman, who discussed the progress women have made in chemistry over the past 60 years. Hoffman was a protégé of the late Glenn Seaborg and only the second woman ever to win the Priestley Award, the ACS's highest honor.

Hoffman spoke at a symposium honoring college alumna Mary Singleton (M.S. '60), a retired chemist from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who was the recipient of this year's ACS Award for Encouraging Women into Careers in the Chemical Sciences.

When Hoffman began her graduate studies in 1948 at Iowa State University, she and other women were referred to as "loophole chemists" because during World War II, the shortage of men resulted in women being recruited into the sciences. She noted that before the war, woman teachers in public schools and universities had to resign if they married. Hoffman was able to take advantage of the fact that the newness of the nuclear chemistry field made it easier for her because an "old boys club" had yet to be established.

Hoffman presented statistics that showed 60 years ago, less than 14 percent of the students receiving B.S. degrees in chemistry, and only 4 percent of those earning a Ph.D. were women. Today those figures are closer to 51 percent and 34 percent respectively. And yet, she pointed out, today women fill less than 15 percent of tenure-track positions at the top 50 universities. "Academia has been slow to change," she concluded.

Hoffman encouraged women of the ASC to be good mentors to their students and junior colleagues, to support their peers and seek out and nominate qualified women and minorities for awards, honors and advancement. "Such recognitions lead to positions of leadership and as women we need to create a critical mass in leadership," she said.

Based on press release by Lynn Yarris, LNBL.

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