Scientists in town for topics cosmic and microscopic

From climate change to crime to cancer, 8,000 sessions are planned. Their president calls the city a fitting host.

Posted: August 20, 2012

What can chemistry do to help doctors detect cancer? To exonerate the wrongly convicted? And clarify the causes of climate change?

These are some of the issues that will be addressed this week as 14,000 scientists descend on the Convention Center for a meeting of the American Chemical Society. Though the theme is "Materials for Medicine and Health," more than 8,000 planned sessions will range into nutrition, brain science, biodegradable plastics, solar cells, and forensics.

The Washington-based ACS, which boasts of being the world's largest scientific society, holds two meetings a year in various cities. This one starts Sunday and runs through Wednesday.

On Sunday, 2012 National Medal of Science winner Jacqueline Barton of Caltech will present the latest on the emerging science of "DNA wires" - a term describing the discovery that DNA can conduct electricity like a wire, sending signals around cells.

Changes in this wirelike behavior promise novel ways to detect DNA damage and diagnose cancer and other diseases.

A session Monday will delve into ways that chemistry figures into the Innocence Project, which was established to help free the wrongly convicted. Among the panelists will be Innocence Project cofounder Barry Scheck, FBI Crime Lab whistle-blower Fred Whitehurst, and two people who were wrongly imprisoned and freed through the Innocence Project's work.

That session is part of a series of special events sponsored by ACS president Bassam Shakhashiri and aimed at addressing social problems.

Also Monday, another of the president's symposia features Mario Molina, a chemist who shared the 1995 Nobel Prize with Sherwood Rowland for connecting refrigerants and aerosol propellant chemicals to the loss of atmospheric ozone. Molina's talk will address the evidence that human activity is influencing the global climate.

On Tuesday, the ACS will hold an all-day session devoted to communicating controversial ideas to the public. The symposium was organized in honor of newly retired Chemical and Engineering News editor Rudy Baum.

"Baum tackled inherently controversial topics - global climate change, for instance, surging population growth, disease, violence and war and the denial of basic human rights," said ACS president Shakhashiri, who is a chemistry professor at the University of Wisconsin. Baum will be among the panelists, as well as National Center for Science Education director Eugenie Scott, veteran science journalists Deborah Blum and Tom Siegfried, and Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann, whose recent book, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, recounts his much-attacked research.

The ACS president praised Philadelphia as an "excellent location" for the society's meeting. "The Greater Philadelphia area is a hub for the life sciences and home to some of the world's largest pharmaceutical firms, renowned hospitals, medical schools, and brilliant science and technology entrepreneurs," said Shakhashiri. "Like the attendees at this meeting, they are working to solve some of the greatest global challenges facing us all in the 21st century - climate change, safe and abundant food and water, cures for disease, developing alternate energy sources, and protecting and preserving our environment."

Contact Faye Flam at 215-854-4977,, or follow on Twitter @fayeflam. Read her blog at

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