Posts byAlexandra Courtis

Slippery and Slick

Carnivorous pitcher plants are one inspiration for super-hydrophobic surfaces

The integration of engineered hydrophobic surfaces in everyday life is all around us: Teflon cookware in the kitchen, Rain-X in windshield wipers, and NanoDrop at the bench (hint: the sample pedestal coating). Unfortunately, there is much to be desired regarding the attributes of even the best industrially marketed treatments. One major challenge is that many of these surfaces have poor anti-fouling properties, are not optically transparent, and do not repel low-temperature and oily liquids. This technological dearth has broad impacts, from the medical industry to aeronautics. While it may seem like the Gore-Tex on your winter jacket is working just fine, there are a series of demanding applications that require an extra level of resilience to bacterial films. For instance, bacterial infections from medical catheters remain a leading cause of complications for chemotherapy patients due to tubes that provide insufficient protection from bacterial growth.

Last week in Nature,  the Varanasi group at MIT reported a new superhydrophobic material that has the potential to make surfaces drier than ever before. The scientists at MIT were inspired by the microscopic ridges present in the leaves of the the nasturtium plant to develop a robust superhydrophobic mesh that is capable of quickly repelling water and even molten metal. Read on to explore the world of wettability and the remarkable biology that inspire these technologies.

Bots in the Bay

We hope you made it to some of the awesome events at the Bay Area Science Festival that wrapped up this weekend. A theme throughout numerous events for young and old were robotics. It’s no secret that we love robots here at BSR. We talked about the intrigue of aerial robotics before. We especially hope you had a chance to visit our sold-out event, Touch Me, and engaged with some fascinating innovations presented there. If you missed out, you can read all about robotic skin at Stanford and the work of Kal Spelletich with us online.

But we have to admit that, beyond the science, a small part of our fascination with robotics is pure enjoyment. Yes, the DARPA cheetah represents cutting-edge science, but the public’s interest in new robots extends beyond the science for the same reason the movie Transformers became a box office hit. Tinkering with robotics just for the fun of it was highlighted at BarBot, a gathering of cocktail robots in SF for the Science Festival. Read on to start your week off with a little body electric—we have awesome videos of robot bartenders for your perusal as well as some cool info on how to make your own robot here in the bay!

A few of my favorite things

We all have our feeds to keep updated on our science and science news, but what about when you need a break from lab? Here is a list of my favorite sites for guilt-free pleasure while waiting to compete a degas, tlc, or gel. Inspired by the Sceptical Chymist of course!

Angew Author Profiles The secret lives of chemists: These profiles are unequivocally awesome  and super personable. For example, I have found out that Bob Langer’s favorite food is chocolate!  But reader beware, reading too many of these profiles can alter your reality (OR can cause an imagination overload) …For a nano-second, I almost convinced myself that Professor Bertozzi and I could have started a rock band together. After all, we both own guitars; and who is to say the combination of mad chemistry + musical skills wouldn’t be attractive to a record label out there. But seriously, the profiles reveal the human side of your science heroes making you wish that they would become your instant BFFs. Check out Author Profiles on Angew  & Reactions  on Nature Chemistry

Peppytides: Molecular Models of the Future

Peppytide assembly in action

A new physical model of peptide and protein folding has been published in PNAS highlighting innovative work from graduate student researcher Promita Chakraborty and LBNL senior scientist and Molecular Foundry Biological Nanostructures Facility Director Dr. Ron Zuckermann. This recent work highlights an elegant strategy to design, construct, and test a novel scaled model of polypeptide chains, dubbed Peppytides.

These Peppytides are a novel tactile interface to the complicated world of protein folding. They boast dynamic, flexible chains that can fold into secondary and tertiary structures while retaining the key biophysical parameters of the parent proteins and peptides. The models are highly intuitive and understandable while preserving the inherent complexity of the twists, turns, and folds that underlie protein folding. In a word, Peppytides are not the stuff your sophomore year biochemistry model set was made out of. Rather, these models represent the cutting edge of kinesthetic molecular visualization for molecules with a large number of atoms packaged into a system that is equally useful and accessible for a classroom as it is for a research laboratory.

The Peppytide strategy is achieved by using remarkable care in designing each element of the model to ensure accuracy in conveying the parameters that are relevant to protein folding and chain interactions. Via clever and scientifically driven design strategies, a peppytide consists of a generic polypeptide constructed with some critical  constraints that allow it to fold into all existing secondary structures possible in its biological counterpart. Precisely positioned magnetized bonds allow for reproducing torsion angles and long range H-bonding interactions. A 3D printer allows for high-throughput production of ultralight building blocks highlighting a peptide bond and alpha-carbon disconnection approach that includes adaptors for installation of all mechanical components.

Creepy, crawly chemistry

Source: lab work gets frustrating, I ask myself: can’t there be an easier way? I’ll hazard a guess that if you’re a chemist like me, you’re inured to the frustration of traditional synthesis. Often, it is the most well-behaved chemical reactions that get you at the end. Yes, I’m talking about that scale-up: that step you promised your adviser would be “facile,” as well as those extra TLCs you could, should, and wish you had done before you started your column. I’m of the opinion that many of the synthetic struggles in the early stages of grad school are essentially self-inflicted. It always cracks me up when I hear someone vigorously complaining about running a notoriously nasty reaction. Honestly, did you really think deciding tackling a McMurry or Skraup wouldn’t cause you just a little bit of sweat? I guess many young grad students, like me, have a burning desire to prove their stripes en route to their secret aspiration: becoming the most interesting man woman in chemistry.

I’m currently in the midst of working to overcome a synthetic hurdle of my own. Without getting into its provenance or name, I’ll say that I am quite determined to successfully duke it out with this particular reaction. Last week, while I was wrapping up in lab and was in the midst of drawing up the battle plans for the next day’s synthetic attack, I had a rather painful realization. Washing and prepping glassware can be a mind-numbing task and as I stood there essentially doing my dishes, I recalled a recent high impact paper detailing the biosynthesis of quantum dots in earthworms.

Great gifts for a Cal scientist

While it’s not snowing here in Berkeley, the holiday season has officially begun. Granted there are still exams to take, end of term grading to do, and gels to run, but here at BSR we feel it is high time to ring in the start of the season, even if that just means secretly munching on some gelt at your desk. To get you in the mood, take a peek at today’s list of gifts for the scientist in your life. And don’t worry, we won’t tell if you feel like snagging one for yourself.

 Subatomic Particle Plushies: You may have heard of giant microbes or stuffed organs, but do you know about Particle Zoo? My lab mate and I discovered these the other day and got a serious case of particle envy. Let me break it down: We’re talking about hand-sewn plushies of quarks, neutrinos, photons, and more with little eyes and smiley mouths, stuffed in accordance to particle weight. They may be a little pricey but even Higgs is on board with hanging out with these toys! They’re at


Berkelium T-shirt: Celebrate being at Berkeley with an Element 97 t-shirt.  You can snag one of these in the blink of an eye at one of the gear shops on the south-side or on University for a quick gift that’s bound to make any scientist smile.

Molecular Mixology Kit: Whatever your opinion is on molecular gastronomy may be, I can guarantee you that this cocktail kit is well worth trying out and a fantastic gift for anyone scientifically inclined. I got this as a good-bye present from my old lab and it is definitely a big upgrade from making skittles vodka or drunk gummy bears. I will say that a little bit of a learning curve is involved and you need to take the instructions seriously but once you get the hang of things, it’s fantastic. For an alcohol-free alternative, I also would highly recommend the sister “Cuisine E-Revolution” kit. You can find the kit at

Super scopes (part 1)

In the latest issue of the Berkeley Science Review, we profiled the exciting development of graphene liquid cell technology at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and UC Berkeley. This technique allows microscopists to visualize real-time nanocrystal growth in a transmission electron microscope. You may have caught us bragging a little bit in that article about the specific microscope Cal researchers used in that work. We usually try to be humble but when it comes to electron microscopes at Berkeley, that’s extremely hard to do.  In fact, our extraordinary microscopy was one of the reasons I was so excited to start graduate school here in the first place. In this multi-part post, I’ll be giving you a whirlwind tour of a few amazing microscope systems around campus. Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince you that these amazing instruments should be yet another reason to walk around campus with some serious Cal pride.

Whether or not you’re a scientist, chances are that if you’ve ever taken a biology class you’ve seen your fair share of transmission electron micrographs—the black and white photos with the arrows pointing at the different components, remember? Those images were showing you images of individual cells. Well, today that should seem huge because we’re taking a trip way down to the bottom, as Feynman would say. The electron microscope I’ll be talking about is capable of producing directly interpretable images of individual atomic columns with picometer spatial resolution.

As you set out on the way to Ithaca…

Today’s post was written by Alexandra Courtis.

Artificial PhotosynthesisFavorite spatula and lab clogs in hand, I recently arrived on campus to start graduate school at one of the most diverse and fast-paced research universities in the world. My physical transplantation from undergrad was Spartan, partly on account of my personality and partly on account of my pithy research stipend. I packed my backpack and suitcase with the things I was certain were absolutely necessary to survive the journey. I wish these critical items were purely practical, but I have to be honest:  my outdated but “lucky” periodic table and a stuffed toy neuron were safely stored alongside my tattered (and certainly more essential) chemistry textbooks.  Everything else was treated to an uncertain train ride on a precarious pallet—successfully haggled from a very unyielding stationmaster, I should point out.

As I quickly discovered, the trials of moving cross-country pale in comparison to the challenges of the research journey I have just embarked upon. Simply put, starting graduate school is not altogether unlike a sucker punch. Not every first-year will admit it in broad daylight, but over drinks, many would agree: we feel as if we have been knocked down a couple notches from the glory days of our senior year. Perhaps this is driven by having to “start over” in a new research field, breaking centrifuge during our first week in lab, or simply a factor of being lowest on the lab totem pole but certainly our trials have just begun.