Learning at the Friends of Ham

XamónsI have just got back from a conference on crystallisation, held in Leeds. It was great fun. The conference was on how crystals start to form, a process called crystal nucleation. Crystallisation is a process that pops up all over the place. I learnt that some drugs given intravenously come with instructions that when the hospital makes up the solution for the drip, they have to use it within four hours. After that the drug will start to crystallise. That is an example of crystallisation being a problem, as when crystals start to form, the dose can’t be controlled. Drugs are powerful but dangerous things, and if £100 million worth of drug trials have shown that a concentration of X effectively treats patients then that is what you need to give them. A concentration of 0.1X will not help the patient, and a concentration of 10X may poison them.

The conference was rather unusual in that the scientists presenting their work only had 5 minutes to present their work, and then had about half an hour to answer questions from the audience on it. In most conferences, it is the other way around the speaker speaks for 30 minutes, and then answers questions for 5 minutes. I really like this, it can result in a real debate where everybody learns a lot more than they would have done, if they were just listening to one speaker. The Royal Society of Chemistry runs a series of them; they’re called Faraday Discussions after the famous 19th century physical chemist Michael Faraday.

We basically don’t understand how crystallisation starts. To give you an idea of our lack of knowledge, I asked two of the speakers essentially the following question: If you go from 1 ml of solution to 2 ml of solution, you have twice as many molecules, does the rate at which crystals start to form also double? Neither knew the answer. I hope you agree that was quite a simple question. I think the answer is probably no, but I am not sure. So we have a lot of work to do. Basically, as crystals start off very small, we cannot see them as they start to form, so we have only indirect information on this process, which makes working out what is going on, very difficult.

Conferences are also places where you can just compare notes on stuff that is not directly science. This often occurs when you’re chatting in bars or restaurants with colleagues at the conference. After the conference dinner I had thought-provoking chat about how to encourage PhD students and postdocs, in the interestingly named Friends of Ham. Despite the name they have a great selection of good beers, as well as some good pork scratchings.

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