|Interview by David Bradley
Jean-Claude Bradley Drexel University and blogmaster of usefulchem.blogspot.com
Jean-Claude Bradley [no relation] is Associate Professor of Chemistry at Drexel University in Philadelphia. His research interests include the preparation of toposelectively modified colloids (toposomes), directed supracolloidal assembly, electric field effects on colloidal systems, and scientific knowledge management. He is also the coordinator for E-Learning at the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University. It is this latter passion that has aided him in the creation of a fascinating blog (Web log) called UsefulChem, which aims to bring important and global problems to the attention of the wider chemical community in the hope of finding chemistry-based solutions. As the blog's header proclaims UsefulChem is "an attempt at open source science in chemistry. Post specific problems in chemistry that need to be solved. Post specific partial solutions to these problems. Or execute a suggested step."
What operating system do you use on your workaday PC?
To what site do you have your browser homepage set?
Aside from this interview, what are you working on today?
1) I held an organic chemistry class workshop, mainly showing students individually how to navigate through the class wiki (http://chem242.wikispaces.com) to view screencast lecture archives, subscribe to the class podcast and wiki, download the Unreal Tournament maps to practice learning chemistry through games, use search engines to find commercial sources of compounds we need for our malaria project, etc. Basically, everything except repeat my archived lecture one more time!
2) I processed the final grades for the Sloan Semester students I had last term (a program that offers free online classes for students displaced by Katrina).
3) Catching up on e-mail and RSS feeds.
4) Trying to fix a problem with viewing lectures stored as Real Media files through WebCT Vista.
5) Department head search committee.
What are your long-term goals in your field?
I would like to be able to create self-sustaining and fully transparent open science research systems that produce results unambiguously useful to humans. These systems should eventually be mostly, if not completely, automated. By transparent, I mean that not only the results, but also the reasoning behind research projects be made publicly available in real time.
What is the single most essential piece of software for chemists?
The general purpose Internet browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.).
What makes it essential?
It can connect to the information that the chemist needs to make decisions about what to do next. Since there is not an adopted standard way of storing chemical information on the Internet, you need the flexibility of an all-purpose browser.
Tell us about your inspiration for the Useful Chemistry blog?
I wondered how an automated chemistry research system would know what to work on. The best answer I could come up with is to trust what human researchers have to say in their papers. I developed a set of search phrases such as "what is needed now" or "what is missing is" and ran them through Google Scholar and Scirus. One of the results was "there is a pressing need for identifying and developing new drug-based antimalarial therapies". I put malaria in my RSS searches and hit on the Find-a-Drug initiative. I contacted them and they agreed to provide me with a library of compounds that were predicted to possibly inhibit enoyl reductase in the malaria parasite. They also provided some potential HIV protease inhibitors, but since I found someone willing to test the malaria compounds, I spent more time developing the synthesis. There is now a graduate student and several undergraduates contributing to the project at the level where they can. We are at the stage of identifying the commercial sources for the chemicals we need and lab work should start in a few weeks.
We are doing this research and debating the synthetic challenges we face on blogs so that all of this is available to anyone on tap via RSS. I would welcome any intellectual contributions from any chemists with a desire to share their experience.
What kind of visitor numbers are you seeing?
Visitor numbers and how they are finding the site is also open. There is a site meter button at the bottom of all my blogs. Each blog is getting about a dozen hits a day.
Do you think this approach to networking might ultimately help solve major world problems through chemistry?
I think the more important point is that this approach can solve lots of little very specific problems efficiently, and that will add up.
Any big successes so far?
The big milestone from my perspective is the synthesis and testing of at least one of the anti-malarials. We have not done that yet.
What do you see as the long-term impact of the Web and blogging for chemists?
I think that hardcore technical scientific research will start to shift to real-time publication in blog, wiki, or other RSS-based formats because it will always be faster than a traditional peer-reviewed publication. The bottom line is: does the blog entry provide actionable information for another scientist to use? If it does, they will use it.
What would be the features of a perfect chemistry search engine, and from a chemist's perspective, how do the likes of Chmoogle and Query Chem fare?
If www.QueryChem.com starts to provide RSS feeds of any of their searches, that will be a chemist's killer app. I have asked them to do this and they said they will look into it. (I mentioned all the details of why QueryChem is superior in a blog post on my UsefulChem blog - http://usefulchem.blogspot.com/2005/12/querychem.html)
Have you come across InChI, on which Peter Murray-Rust, our first Reactive Profilee (http://www.reactivereports.com/50/50_0.html), is working?
So far, InChI has not been a very useful search strategy for finding compounds or commercial sources. SMILES and CAS numbers are most useful for the way we are searching. But the beauty is, Peter is in a position to change all of that by providing new open content databases, and we look forward to adopting InChI as soon as we find search tools that provide results we are looking for.