Author Archives: zoecournia

What are we really made of?

Watch this!! – I just found this amazing video that offers a very entertaining introduction into the particles and forces that make up me, you, the earth, the universe. Featuring Morgan Freeman, Stephen Hawking, Michio Kaku, Brian Cox, Richard Feynman, and Frank Close, this video offers a cursory introduction to quantum chemistry – the science that governs the interactions of subatomic particles, atoms, and even molecules.

Basically, in 3 and a half minutes, the video tries to explain that:

[Morgan Freeman]

Dig deep inside the atom
and you’ll find tiny particles
Held together by invisible forces

[Frank Close]

The atoms that we’re made of have
Negatively charged electrons
Whirling around a big bulky nucleus

[Brian Cox]

The universe is made of
Twelve particles of matter
Four forces of nature

[Richard Feynman]

The world is a dynamic mess
Of jiggling things
In the quantum world electrons behave as waves and as particles

For the ultimate triumph of science

[Stephen Hawking]

We need a theory of everything
Which is still just beyond our grasp

The theory of everything is the Holy Grail of Physics: A theory that will explain through a single model everything from Creation, to supernovas, to atoms and molecules, perhaps even DNA, people, and love. (The four yet unified forces of nature are: gravitation, electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces that keep together elementary particles.)

If we ever create this theory, we might answer questions such as:

  • What happened before the big bang?
  • Is it possible to build a time machine?
  • Can we punch a hole in space?

“The Quantum World” music video is the eleventh installment in the ongoing Symphony of Science music video series. Materials used in the creation of this video are from: for downloads & more videos!

How does a sunblock work?

This is a question that I got very often during the summer. A sunblock can have two types of active ingredients: organic and inorganic chemicals, which reflect or scatter the light away so that it doesn’t reach the skin at all. The most common ingredients of a sunblock are zinc oxide or titanium oxide. You can usually tell who is using a sunblock just by looking, because the sunblock whites out the skin. Sort of.. like this:

Sunblocks are usually white because of the large amount of titanium dioxide that reflect UV light.

Titanium dioxide (TiO2) is a white powder that has strong UV light absorbing capabilities. This property enhances TiO2 stability and enables it to protect the skin from ultraviolet light. Sunscreens designed for infants or people with sensitive skin are often based on titanium dioxide, as these mineral UV blockers are believed to cause less skin irritation than other UV absorbing chemicals. The titanium dioxide particles used in sunscreens have to be coated with silica or alumina, because titanium dioxide creates radicals in the photocatalytic reaction. These radicals are carcinogenic, and could damage the skin.

In newer formulations of sunscreens, TiO2 is combined with oil and is made up from smaller TiO2 particles (sized 40-50nm called nanoparticles). The oil in a sunscreen formula helps wet TiO2 and gives the optical effect of transparency so that you don’t have to look like someone’s painted you white.

For those who are wondering about the organic ingredients, these work primarily by absorbing UV light and dissipating it as heat. One of the most common organic molecules used in sunscreens is para-aminobenzoic acid, also know as PABA. The mechanism which allows PABA to absorb UV radiation is due to the resonance of the molecule. Resonance can be explained by saying that many molecules have more than one possible way in which the valence electrons could be placed. These electrons move freely across many nuclei. In PABA, a carbonyl group, a functional group where a carbon is double bonded to oxygen, can produce resonance by moving the valence electrons. The shift or movement of the electrons closely matches the frequency of UVB light, absorbing the light energy and releasing it as heat and or longer wavelengths of light. Source:


What Sunscreens/Sunblocks Screen

The portion of the sunlight that is filtered or blocked is ultraviolet radiation. There are three regions of ultraviolet light.

  • UV-A penetrates deeply into the skin and can lead to DNA damage and premature skin aging.
  • UV-B is involved in tanning and burning of your skin.
  • UV-C, the most dangerous radiation is almost completely absorbed by the ozone in the atmosphere.

Sun is good for you, too

Although the sun can cause many aliments, UV rays are extremely important to a healthy functioning body. Vitamin D, which can not be produced by the body, is synthesized by the photolysis of a steroid in the deep epidermis of the skin. Without the exposure to natural light, the biochemical mechanism will not pursue causing disorders in both children and adults including rickets, ostomalaica, and osteoporosis.

For more info check this link.

George Whitesides on Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs

The American Chemical Society (ACS) is the world’s largest scientific society with more than 161,000 members at all degree-levels and in all fields of chemistry, chemical engineering, and related fields. ACS provides a wealth of educational activities, which are mostly free and open to the public. Most importantly, they are interesting even for those who are not chemists! One of those activities is the “Virtual Career Fair”, where you can find webinars such as “Navigating the Global Industrial Job Market” and “Networking 101 — Making Your Contacts Count”. One of today’s webinars, entitled “Entrepreneurship + Innovation = Jobs” is given by Professor George Whitesides (Harvard University), a legendary innovator and pioneer, who has pioneered microfabrication and nanoscale self-assembly. One of his achievements is the “soft robot”, which is capable of gripping and lifting a raw egg without cracking its delicate shell (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed., DOI: 10.1002/anie.201006464). The challenge was to find the right material that could be soft enough to treat delicate surfaces, such as an egg. You can read the full article from C& E News here.

EGG LIFT: A soft robotic gripper lifts a raw egg without damaging its shell. (Source: C&E News)

George Whitesides is the co-founder of a dozen companies and holds 50-plus patents. Definitely worth hearing from him about converting a great idea into a business.

From the American Chemical Society website on today’s webinar:

A recent ACS Task Force on Innovation report documented that most new jobs today and in the near future will be created by entrepreneurial start ups and small companies. Do you have an idea for a new product, service, or technology, but need help converting it into a business? Do you have a desire and the right stuff to be an entrepreneur? Plan to attend this webinar and receive valuable advice and direction from successful serial entrepreneur and Harvard University Professor George Whitesides. Whitesides recently chaired the ACS Task Force on Innovation, which was appointed by Joseph Francisco, 2010 ACS President and Professor of Chemistry at Purdue University. Whitesides and Francisco will provide valuable career advice for chemists at all stages in their careers, whether they are graduate students, postdocs, or seasoned professionals making a transition in this challenging economic job market. At this webinar, you will learn how ACS is working with U.S. policymakers, industry, academia, and its membership to support entrepreneurs and innovation to create jobs. You will learn about new ACS programs in entrepreneurship as well as specific steps that you can take now to develop the skills and find the resources needed to convert your innovative ideas into successful entrepreneurial ventures.


Industry and academia tie the knot

When I was a student at the University of Athens in the late 90s, receiving funding from the Industry was almost unheard of. Although I was an undergrad at the time, I could see that the general Greek academic perception of collaborating with the Industry was viewed almost as the equivalent of a sell-out. Researchers considered teaming up with the Industry the betrayal of their academic purity.

When I was a student at the University of Heidelberg in Germany, things were different: A fair number of the lab’s grants stemmed from the Industry: the Volkswagen Foundation, BASF, Novartis, etc. and that was seen as an achievement. Our lab was not the only one to work with the Industry. It was a very common theme for Principal Investigators (PIs) in Germany to reach out to the Industry and big pharma, partner up, and exploit the best of both worlds.

When I was at Yale University, the situation was even better: It was now the Industry who reached out to us researchers. I was very fortunate to serve as the co-President of a very successful student society, the Yale Biotechnology and Pharmaceutical Society (YBPS), now called Yale Healthcare and Life Sciences Club (YHLC). Industry sponsored our events and seminars, such as the “Life Sciences Case Competition”, the “Business of Biotechnology Seminar Series”, the “Healthcare Conference” and many others, in order to interact with us and possibly recruit students or form collaborations with research groups of the University.

When I arrived at the Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens in October 2009 as a faculty member, a pleasant surprise was awaiting me: The Greek General Secretariat for Research and Technology (GSRT) had just announced a grant call, named “Synergasia” (“Cooperation” in English), which aimed to enhance the ties and cultivate the collaboration between Greek Industry and Academia.

So times are changing. There is a new mindset in the academic world (at the very least in my area of expertise, drug discovery). Recent articles such as Nature’s Scibx, “Small (molecule) thinking in academia”, and “Partnering between pharma peers on the rise” of Nature Reviews Drug Discovery, explain how and why pharmaceutical–academia deals, such as the $100-million Pfizer pact with 8 academic Institutions from the Boston area, have been stealing headlines this year. In another recent brief mention in Nature, faculty members say that industry research has contributed to important work.

Life-science researchers in US universities receive $33,000 a year on average from the medical drug and device industry. […] More than half (51.9%) said they maintain a relationship with industry. The study found that such relationships provide significant benefits both to the researcher and to science. Among faculty members most involved with industry research, nearly half said it “contributed to their most important scientific work and led to research that would not otherwise have been possible”.

Exciting times. Still, challenges and caveats are obviously not absent. True collaborative environment between the partners, licensing/IP and publishing issues, technology transfer know-how, commercialization matters and different goals for each institution, are all issues that need to be seriously considered before teaming up in such consortia.

Scientists: Blog or be Blogged

Professor Paul Knoepfler (UC Davis) explains in this Nature article why he joined the ranks of the blogosphere, and why you should too.

Knoepfler argues that there are too few science blogs:

Other scientists in academia tell me they worry that blogging would damage their careers. Specifically, they fear that colleagues would view them as amateurs, ‘wasting time’ on blogging, which could reduce their chances of achieving tenure. They fear the wrath of others in the field should they post the ‘wrong’ thing on their blog, and they worry about payback in negative grant and paper reviews. Some are concerned about attracting unruly and insulting readers’ comments.

And, among other things, he goes on to give some tips for beginners: Start slowly, wait a day after writing and reread your draft before posting, try to avoid discussing your own institution, critique papers or theories in the field in a constructive manner, don’t blog about issues that are unrelated to science, update your blog regularly, read and comment on other blogs, which will lead people to yours, and others. He then goes on to conclude about why you should be blogging, too:

Savvy scientists must increasingly engage with blogs and social media. A new generation of young researchers has grown up with an ever-present Internet. Publishers have been quicker than academics to react to this new world, but scientists must catch up. Even if you choose not to blog, you can certainly expect that your papers and ideas will increasingly be blogged about. So there it is — blog or be blogged.

Graphene, the strongest material on earth, now produced from cookies, roaches and dog feces

Graphene is a material made of carbon. It is a particularly interesting material because in graphene, carbon manages to arrange itself in a sheet just one atom thick (see pic on the left). The material is so thin, that three million sheets of graphene on top of each other would be just 1mm thick. This one-atom thick sheet, densely packed in a honeycomb lattice, has excellent electrical, mechanical and thermal properties that make it the strongest material on earth, an improvement upon and a possible replacement for silicon, and the most conductive material known to man.

In 2004, physicists at the University of Manchester and the Institute for Microelectronics Technology, Chernogolovka, Russia, first isolated individual graphene planes by exfoliating graphite (i.e. the material used for pencils) using adhesive tape. Since 2009 it has been described as the strongest material on earth, 200 times stronger than steel. In 2010, the Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, “for groundbreaking experiments regarding the two-dimensional material graphene”.

It would take an elephant, balanced on a pencil, to break through a sheet of graphene the thickness of Saran Wrap.

See through: Researchers have created a flexible graphene sheet with silver electrodes printed on it (top) that can be used as a touch screen when connected to control software on a computer (bottom). Credit: Byung Hee Hong, SKKU.

said Professor James Hone of Columbia University in a statement.

As for uses? It can be used for making up new materials and electronic devices. Sort of like plastics are used nowadays but with an extra touch of technology. It could be used for transparent electronics that are stronger, cheaper, and more flexible such as shown on the right. Professor Tour of Rice University said teasingly:

You could theoretically roll up your iPhone and stick it behind your ear like a pencil.

Graphene is usually made up from graphite. But as the demand for cheap and fast large-scale graphene production becomes imminent, it quickly became clear that making graphene by splitting graphite crystals using adhesive tape, had no future.

Now a team of researchers led by Prof Tour, managed at to grow graphene directly on the backside of a copper foil at 1050°C, using six easily obtained, low or negatively valued raw carbon-containing materials used without pre-purification (cookies, chocolate, grass, plastics, roaches, and dog feces). Read the full paper here. Thanks to Anastassia for the story!

Worst comes to worst you just might end up using up that pizza from last night to get a new rollable iPhone. And think twice before you scold your dog again for doing a #2 on the carpet!

Chemistry never sounded this good!

I just heard from a professor friend at UCLA about a fabulous approach to teaching by her colleague, organic chemistry Professor Neil Garg. According to a UCLA press release:

Undergraduates in Neil Garg’s organic chemistry course produce clever, creative music videos as an extra-credit assignment. The bigger secret may be just how much chemistry they learn by doing so, as none of them are chemistry majors and most admit they didn’t like chemistry when the class started.

Basically, students are asked to produce a music video with a theme from organic chemistry. Sounds geeky? Ha. You will be amazed by how cool it is:

Others used the Beatles as an inspiration. One of their verses in “Let it be” is:
SN2 electrophiles: primary carbon not tertiary
Lone pairs show nucleophilicity
Use polar aprotic solvent
Tosylates and halides, they will leave
Inversion of stereochemistry

So students are able to learn chemistry in a fun way. You can read the full article and get some more videos here and in Garg’s website, including a Lady Gaga-ish gig called “Bond this way“.

Why is the sky blue?

A question that I get very often is why did I ever return to Greece to do science. It is indeed hard to explain why would a young scientist leave an educational and technological paradise such as Yale University to seek a better future in a country on the verge of default. So, I usually start by explaining the ties to my family, my friends, the ease to speak my own language, etc. But then again only one picture could actually summarize it 🙂


Elia beach, Mykonos

In a country with such blue skies, I often get bombarded with questions from my non-scientist friends such as: “Why is the sky blue? Why is the sunset red?”. So here it is in very simple words:


Light looks white, but it is actually a combination of colors (you’ve all see a rainbow right?). These colors are in order: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. These colors all have different energies, violet has the highest energy and red the lowest. Light travels in a straight line when it is undisturbed, such as in space. What happens when light enters the atmosphere?

Atmoshpere – Blue Sky

The atmosphere is composed by particles such as dust and water that can be seen with the naked eye, but also smaller particles such as oxygen and nitrogen that are so small that we cannot see them. When light enters the atmosphere it hits these small molecules such as oxygen (21%) and nitrogen (78%) (gases). Gases then tend to absorb not all of the light but only part of it. By “part of the light” I mean that they absorb only one out of 7 colors. It so happens that this color is blue. After a while, the gas molecules give off this blue light in all different directions in the atmosphere. The blue light is scattered everywhere you look in the atmosphere. This is why the sky is blue. This is also why the sun looks yellow (remember light is white). Because if you take off blue from the rainbow, all the remaining colors together look yellow.

Atmosphere – Red Sunset

So why isn’t the sky blue also at sunset? At sunset, the sun is close to the horizon and light needs to pass through a much longer path through the atmosphere to reach you than at noon. Close to the horizon different particles (such as aerosols) are concentrated. It so happens that these aerosols absorb the red light instead of the blue for a while and then give off this red light at all possible directions such as oxygen and nitrogen did for the blue light. Therefore we can enjoy red sunsets and blue skies…

To leave or not to leave?

A few days ago,  I was part of a very interesting debate organized by “Intelligence Squared Greece“. The question was: should young Greeks, who pursue professional and intellectual advancement as well as better quality of life, stay in Greece and persevere through the financial crisis (and whatever it brings about) or leave and seek a better future outside their homeland?

Intelligence Squared Greece Debate

Intelligence Squared Greece Debate

Three panelists defended the proposal to leave the country and three more advocated for staying. You can find the full debate here. One of the panelists was a Greek computer scientist from Berkeley, who (obviously) spoke for leaving the country and seeking the scientific and technological scene somewhere else. I could sense a tinge of bitterness in his voice as he mentioned that he had also taught at the Greek University, but felt that the lack of meritocracy and organization pushed him out of the country. Let’s face it, Greece is still very far behind in whatever has the words “research” and “development” in a sentence. However, as the speaker continued with his thesis, I could feel his nostalgia for the motherland and that he still has not given up on Greece. He mentioned that China is becoming a superpower because it invested in bringing back the Chinese scientists from abroad and spending huge amounts in R&D and building university and technological infrastructure. Greece has the opportunity to advance through the crisis and the answer is hidden in research, development, and education.

As for me? I have no doubts that coming back to Greece was the best decision. For me opportunities might be less prominent within a crisis, but they may also have the biggest reward. Moreover, the scientific future of Greece will be determined by the scientists who stayed an the ones who returned (or continue to return), not the ones who left.

Thank you, Intelligence Squared Greece, for providing the grounds for such interesting contemplations!

10 years in science – was it worth it?

It was a blast!! (and still is…:)) People who love science know that the joy behind any, even an infinitesimal scientific discovery is enormous – and there is little out there to compete with that feeling. Science has given me the opportunity to work in three different countries (Greece, Germany, and the US) and to meet so many important and different people and cultures. But most importantly, it has given me the opportunity to add my very own small contribution to making this world better, not only with new scientific discoveries but also by teaching the love to science to aspiring scientists.

Going back to Heidelberg for the 625th anniversary of the University I was proud to see my profile put up as part of the celebrations. An English version is coming up soon…

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