Works in Progress

By ksascomm


[Courtesy of Lawrence Principe]

Silver and Gold

Hidden deep in the vast archives of the French Academy of Sciences, an envelope recently unearthed by Lawrence Principe could be worth its weight in gold—literally.

Principe, the Drew Family Professor of the Humanities in the Department of the History of Science and Technology, uncovered a sample of supposed alchemically prepared gold during a recent visit to the Académie des Sciences in Paris.

Principe, recipient of a 2015 Guggenheim Fellowship, says the find, sealed for more than 150 years, is significant because it shows that alchemists were still experimenting with transforming matter in the 1850s, even after alchemy had been largely discredited and chemistry had gained its foothold as a modern science.

The medieval forerunner of chemistry, alchemy was based on the belief that metals and other substances could be manipulated and altered into different materials. One of the primary goals of alchemy was to turn base metals, such as lead, into gold or silver.

The sample of powdered golden dust was apparently produced by chemist Cyprien-Thèodore Tiffereau, who traveled to Mexico in the 1840s and started experimenting with metals. He claimed that, between 1846 and 1847, he succeeded at turning silver into gold three times.

After returning to France, Tiffereau contacted the Académie des Sciences with his claim.

The academy assembled a commission to examine his results. Tiffereau was also invited to present his findings, but he wasn’t able to replicate his earlier results.

More than 150 years later, when Principe was researching the chemist’s work, he found a brief mention in one of Tiffereau’s publications that he had deposited a sample of the gold at the archives of the Académie des Sciences. After 100 years, the academy permits sealed documents to be opened. So, during a trip to Paris, Principe went in search of the gold.

Principe found the sealed memoir, dated May 1852, and inside it was a packet of golden-colored powder. He would like to run tests on the so-called alchemically prepared gold.

“From a historical standpoint, this shows how alchemy and transmutation were very much still alive in the 19th century, and to be very colloquial about it, I just think it’s really cool.”

—Emily Mullin

Return to the Fold

Proteins are essential molecules in human biology. They play complex roles in the body and are involved in carrying out all functions in the cell. How these proteins are manufactured and transported in cells is what interests Christian Kaiser, assistant professor in the Department of Biology.

Kaiser’s research on proteins has landed him a $240,000 grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Understanding the mechanisms of how these proteins are produced—in a process called protein biogenesis—could have broad implications for treating a number of common diseases.

Kaiser and his team are using cutting-edge laboratory techniques to address fundamental questions in biology “that cannot be studied by other approaches,” he says.

One of those techniques uses a highly focused laser beam to grab and pull on single molecules. This tool, known as optical tweezers, will enable Kaiser to observe how proteins are synthesized, folded, and transported.

Kaiser is studying protein folding, where a protein changes its structure from a long, spaghetti-like string into a well-defined structure so it can carry out its intended function. Each type of protein is made up of a distinct sequence of hundreds or thousands of amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids that can be combined to make a protein. This precise sequence of amino acids determines each protein’s unique three-dimensional structure and dictates the protein’s function. Misfolded proteins have been implicated in many neurodegenerative diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Some proteins have to get out of the cell to fulfill their functions, like antibodies or peptide hormones that are released into the bloodstream. They must be transported across the biological membrane that surrounds the cell. To better understand this process, which is involved in cancer, diabetes, and many other diseases, Kaiser and his team will measure the forces needed to propel a protein across a cellular membrane without allowing other molecules to slip in or out at the same time. Kaiser’s research could lead to new drugs aimed at repairing critical cellular activities involving proteins

—Emily Mullin

Immigration Nations

The United States isn’t the only country struggling with immigration issues. Just ask Erin Chung, the Charles D. Miller Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science. For the past two years, she has been delving into how immigrants are living and working in three East Asian democracies: Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

The countries Chung chose to study have had to (reluctantly) open their borders—at least a little—due to severe labor shortages. All three countries have witnessed rapid economic growth in their recent histories but are also experiencing low birth rates and a growing elderly population. Immigrants—primarily from other Asian countries—are eager to fill the labor gaps.

“I was expecting to find similar models of immigrant incorporation among East Asian democracies, given their citizenship and immigration policies,” says Chung. “But instead I found dramatic cross-national variations.”

Chung and her team conducted more than 150 in-depth interviews with immigrants, pro-immigrant activists, and government officials and organized 28 focus groups. What she found were policies that serve merely as Band-Aid solutions. For example, Japan has highly restrictive citizenship and immigration policies yet grants generous rights and benefits to long-time foreign residents. In South Korea, foreign workers have successfully fought for basic rights but are prohibited from permanent settlement and are met with prejudice. Taiwan’s government has privatized immigration, and brokers bring in laborers and take care of everything, resulting in exploitation of workers.

“We see what the consequences are when we try to control immigration to that extent,” says Chung. “Democratic principles can be compromised in the process.”

The results of Chung’s research will be published next year in Immigrant Incorporation in East Asian Democracies.

Collaborating with JHU Data Management Services, Chung has made many of the interviews public in the university’s archives. “Very little ethnographic data like this exists, and what does is mostly at the policy level. Our data can be used as a primary source by researchers.”

Chung says she hopes her team’s method of allowing immigrants to speak for themselves will give policymakers different perspectives, but she admits such complex change will not happen overnight.

“Diversity entails struggle,” she says.

—Kate Pipkin