I am an Irishman currently living in Galway. By profession I am a researcher in the field of chemistry and I have wide interests in terms of travel, music, language, science and current affairs. I am part cynic, part idealist and love a good argument. || SIRG Research Fellow at NUI Galway || Co-host of "80 Days: an exploration podcast"
In this minisode, Joe explores, literally, the idea of an exclave after wandering into one a couple of years ago. Although we’ve covered a couple of enclaves in the past (including San Marino and The Gambia), this episode is the first time we’ve examined the opposite concept – a tiny piece of a country marooned inside another’s borders.
This is also something of a personal episode for Joe (@anbeirneach), as it marks an end to his time living in Switzerland. Luke (@thelukejkelly) and Mark (@markboyle86) also feature, and we discuss briefly our upcoming fourth season, which is due in a couple of weeks.
For the curious, you can find more on the German enclave of Büsingen am Hochrhein here on Atlas Obscura, or read this article on BigThink. The New York Times article quoted in the episode can be found here
I was honoured at a ceremony today with Minister Pat Breen to be awarded a Starting Investigator Research Grant (SIRG) by Science Foundation Ireland. This SIRG award will allow me to begin a programme of independent research in NUI Galway in the coming months and begin to build my own research group.
Asked about the purpose of SIRG on RTÉ’s Drivetime programme, Prof. Mark Ferguson (Director General of SFI) said “it’s about launching the careers of very bright, young scientists in Ireland”, and indeed it’s a very important programme to allow people like me to return home and start independent research.
My research will develop novel devices that will indicate the presence of specific bacteria through colour changes (modulating luminescence), using interactions of their proteins with sugar-based chemical compounds on the surface of newly-designed materials. This will provide a convenient visual strategy to identify disease-causing bacteria. 3D-Printing will be used to create these compact diagnostic devices, which will benefit patient outcomes and quality of life.
I got interested in fluorescent sensor materials and the chemistry of sugars during my PhD research in Trinity College Dublin with Prof Gunnlaugsson (Irish Research Council Scholarship, 2010-15). Over the last few years in University of Bern, Switzerland, I have been further exploring the role of sugars in catalysis as part of my Marie Curie Fellowship with Prof Albrecht (European Commission H2020, 2017-19). I also gained experience in studying sugar-protein interactions in University of Nottingham, during a 3-month placement there. These interactions are very relevant to a lot of diseases. My new project aims to bring together the skills I have learned through my research training to address practical problems that affect people’s’ lives.
By providing a new methodology for rapid diagnosis of bacterial infection, my work will facilitate quicker decision-making on targeted medical treatment strategies for patients. In Ireland this would be particularly valuable for rapid diagnosis of Pseudomonas aeruginosa infections, a significant risk factor for cystic fibrosis patients (as well as others with compromised immune systems). More generally, helping clinicians avoid the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics would help combat the global challenge of increased antibiotic resistance.
This new technology could also be deployed in other scenarios such as detecting bacterial contamination of water supplies.
This award allows me to return to Ireland and make a contribution to Irish society through scientific research, building upon my experience abroad (in Switzerland and the UK). The Starting Investigator Research Grant scheme has given me a fantastic opportunity to begin my independent research programme at a relatively young age in NUI Galway School of Chemistry, and also to work closely with the CÚRAM SFI Centre for Medical Device Research, a hub of expertise in this sector.
Maynooth University and Trinity provided me with excellent training, working alongside supportive researchers, and I now look forward to expanding my network of colleagues in both academia and the medical devices industry, and forging new productive partnerships in the years to come.
My grant also funds me to recruit a PhD student to be part of this interdisciplinary research programme. If you know of any students who would be motivated by this topic, please feel free to get in touch with me.
I’ve been aware that “Hornussen” exists since soon after arriving here in Switzerland. It’s been on my list of things to see before I leave, along with other now-ticked-off items (cow fighting, yodelling, Fastnacht, etc.), but I never quite figured out how to find out more about it! Most Swiss have only vaguely heard of it or are derisive of this very rustic old-fashioned game – “It’s just for drunk farmers”, etc.
But time is ticking! So this autumn I finally did some serious googling and found that the Bern Hornussen Club would be having their final game of the season (Schlusshornussen) last Saturday. I convinced a few friends to join me on the Allmend (old commonage) in Wankdorf, and we witnessed the game first-hand.
I’ll be honest, the rules are a little unclear and the game is slow, but fundamentally, it requires one team to take turns standing on a mound/putting green/crease, which is equipped with a metal track for the hornuss (‘hornet’, a small black projectile, much like a hockey puck) and hitting it as hard as they can out into the field. The ‘nouss can reach up to 300 km/h and makes an almighty buzz (whence the name). The implement used to hit it resembles nothing more than a fishing rod with a heavy weight on the end. The batter, wraps the flexible pole around their body and uncoils it in a complex motion to drive the ‘nouss with maximum speed. Physique doesn’t seem to be important (much like in darts), but large men definitely got more speed than the few kids who played. I was discussing with my colleague the possible origins of the game, and he was convinced the rod derived from a corn thresher, and that perhaps these were put to use (once the fields were harvested) to knock stones about in the cleared land while drinking and celebrating a successful bounty. Seems as plausible as anything.
In the outfield are a serious of players holding wooden boards fixed to sticks. These are somewhere between mediaeval shields and very-hard catchers’ mits! Mostly the nouss whizzes right by to bury itself in the hill at the distant end of the Allmend field, but occasionally the players can intercept it (and I believe this is how they score points). They are arrayed roughly along a straight line in front of the launchpad and there is something unintentionally comical about the way they toss the paddles upright into the air to try and intercept the nouss. They fall so gracelessly as the players shout to each other, but the thwack when contact is made is very satisfying.
German language Wikipedia tells me that the first mention in the historical record of this game is in the 17th century when two men were fined a significant sum for breaching the sabbath by playing Hornussen on a Sunday, although clearly the game was established enough at that time to not require further explanation in the documents! Switzerland still has remarkably strict rules on Sunday activities (despite low participation in Church attendance), so this is easy to believe.
I can certainly think of worse ways to spend a Saturday morning – just make sure not to get in the way!
A large contingent from the Albrecht research group in Bern made our way down to Lausanne today for the Swiss Chemical Society’s annual Fall Meeting at EPFL. As always, it was a massive meeting, underscoring the impressive amount of chemistry research that goes on in small-but-mighty Switzerland.
The introductory speaker, Prof Emsley, highlighted some unique aspects of Swiss research, including the strong industrial presence in the country (indicated by the generous sponsorship of every session by pharmaceutical and instrumentation companies), as well as the rich international complexion of the researchers who work at the Swiss Universities and companies. More than a quarter of all researchers are non-nationals – and that is a real strength, allowing for diverse workers and ideas to come together from all over Europe and the world. Mobility and openness, in principle, allow the best people to find the best partners for their research and push forward important developments in science.
One of my colleagues presented his recent results (Angewandte Chemie), while seven of us presented posters over the extended lunchtime session. Lots of interesting conversations were had with researchers at other universities, as well as industrial chemists; in Switzerland industrial chemists are well integrated into the professional society (the SCS), which I think is beneficial to all of us, for focussing our targets and sharing the latest advances. Indeed, in addition to leading academics like Prof Karsten Meyer, we also saw presentations from the likes of Syngenta.
We got to socialise a little and explore the EPFL campus after the talks, and, in the Rolex Building, I was lucky enough to run into old friend Marie Curie! I had a colleague snap this photo of me and the other Marie Sklowdowska-Curie Fellow in the Albrecht group with our mentor! She’s everywhere!
It’s always nice to have an opportunity to see behind the curtain, and all the better if you feel like you’re doing it for a good reason. I was fortunate enough to be invited to join the delegation of Irish parliamentarian James Lawless TD on a fact-finding mission to CERN, the particle physics research centre which straddles the Swiss-French border in a way that is a metaphor for how it brings countries together.
Deputy Lawless, Prof Ronan Nulty, Dr Kevin Byrne (both of UCD, Dublin; School of Physics and School of Medicine, respectively), and myself visited the facility and met with leaders and scientists who make it work. The aim of the trip was for CERN to put the case for Irish membership of the body to us, for us to see what benefits would come to the country via participation in the many exciting ground-breaking projects happening, and for Deputy Lawless, as opposition Science and Technology spokesperson on to bring this back to the relevant Oireachtas committees and lobby for Ireland making room in its 2019 budget for CERN membership.
It was wonderful to tour the sprawling campus of rolling fields which lie no less than 50 metres above the Large Hadron Collider and visit the various experiments set up along its 26.7-km circumference. At ALICE, CMS and LHCb (‘b’ for ‘beauty’, a flavour of quark) we met scientists, enthusiastic to talk about their work in everything from fundamental particle physics, to medicine and data processing. I was particularly interested by some work at ISOLDE using radioactive lanthanide isotopes in medical applications in hospitals near the collider. It was noted that while a few of the staff were Irish, in almost every case they also held another passport, because as a non-member state, our citizens do not have the same access to employment in this project as those from the 22 member states.
What most surprised me, as we looked at Irish-made semiconductors in action, and visited the factory where they design and assemble particle-accelerator parts, was that, while Irish people do make a contribution here, it’s often relying on loopholes or having a unique product that no one else can offer. Membership, however, would ensure us access on an equal footing to all other partners. Importantly this would mean returns to the Irish economy in every sector, allowing Irish firms to tender for contracts in construction, cleaning, catering, office supplies etc. in addition to the obvious high-tech and engineering opportunities. Big optimistic scientific exploration has positive knock-on effects throughout society.
One of the most obvious examples of unexpected by-products of investing in fundamental research is the very technology by which you are reading this post now. The World Wide Web was invented at CERN by Tim Berners-Lee. We were able to visit the office where this revolutionary technology came to life, almost as an afterthought, to share information from this worldwide collaborative research. And even if you don’t think quarks and neutrinos effect your life (they do!), at least the Web is tangible evidence that clever people allowed to create and explore together can do great things!
I am not a carbohydrate chemist by training. I remember as an undergrad being very intimidated by the chair conformations, Fischer projections and the seemingly endless chiral centres, so I filed that knowledge away as “unlikely to use” and focussed on supramolecular chemistry. In recent times however, I couldn’t help but be drawn back to looking at these natural sources of chirality, particularly as a next direction to turn after my investigations to amino-acid derived triazolyl(pyridine) ligands. Sugars seemed a way to get chirality and solubility all in one go with the potential for biological interactions as a bonus.
So, I began researching how to make various monosaccharide azides of the above form in a selective way, so that I could very the stereochemical properties at will when making families of compounds. It required a lot of searching to find everything I need, so I will present it here for anyone else who might be interested in making (in particular) tetra-acetylated glucose, galactose and mannose with an azide in the anomeric position, either α or β.
For glucose and galactose, buried in the German-language pages of a paper by Paulsen et al. from 1974 is a Lewis acid catalysed reaction, which selectively gives the β-azide derivative directly from reacting the penta-acetylated sugar (with mixed anomeric configuration) with tin(IV) chloride and trimethylsilyl-azide. This reaction has some nasty components and leaves you with a lot of tin-contaminated water to dispose of. I was delighted, therefore to find that the reaction can also be carried out rather straightforwardly from the commercially-available α-bromo tetra-acetylated compounds (for glucose and galactose) by simply heating overnight with sodium azide in a water-acetone mixture, a methodology that comes from that oft-overlooked source: Journal of Chemical Education (Norris and co-workers, 2012).
With mannose, things are a little trickier! It differs from glucose and galactose, by having the C-2 hydroxyl group in the axial position, and since this is adjacent to the reactive anomeric position, this will influence the outcome. Using tin(IV) chloride, as above, for instance, will yield the α-azide. This is a result of the reaction, as above, favour a 1,2-trans geometry. For the purposes of my research, however, I was really interested in using the β-azide to make a compound which differed from the glucose derivative in only one position. After a lot of hunting, I stumbled upon a two-step reaction in an article by Prof Paul Murphy from NUI Galway (Chem. Eur. J. 2013), which had originated with an early study from University of California. This approach generated an α-glycosyl-iodide in situ and reaction with tetrabutylammonium azide gave the desired β-azide product in good yields. Importantly, this gives β-azides in all cases and allowed me access to the building blocks I need to pursue my current project.
Now that summer is here, something keeps happening to me on my cycle to work, and it keeps on surprising me. The cloudy sky of spring has lifted, more or less permanently, and so as I round one particular corner on my route, I see the alpine vista over the train lines. I can’t help but smile stupidly every time. The horizon is beautiful when the sky is blue in contrast to the snow capped peaks. And I consistently forget that I will see this view almost every day. It’s nice to smile on the way to work!
Disclaimer: So, I’ve been reading Frankenstein recently in order to fully associate my new Swiss situation (more on that some other time perhaps), and as a result, my view of weather here is a bit skewed.
On Friday, we went for drinks after work because the sun was shining brightly. Summer had finally come to Bern and was to be enjoyed. It was great, getting to know some new people and learning some of the important differences between Hochtdeutsch (standard German) and Bärndutsch (the wonderful and specific dialect of Bern). For example, the past tense in Bern is always the perfect (“I have been in Ireland / Ich bin in Irland gegessen / i bi in Irland g’si “) and never the imperfect (“I was / Ich war“). Good information for someone who wants to be a chameleon!
But I digress. As the sun set, the air got heavy and suddenly out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a flash of light. I assumed that someone at the other end of the park was taking a photograph with a very strong flash… I couldn’t have been more wrong, but I didn’t think much more about it.
Over the next half an hour or so, these flashes became more frequent, and soon were accompanied by low rumbles echoing from the sky across the plain on which Bern sits. The forks of lightning were starkly visible, standing out against the dark clouds which rolled in. Drizzle began to fall and our drinking-in-the-sun broke up. One of my new acquaintances asked me how far I had to cycle. I told him it was a twenty minute trip. He chuckled and wished me luck. I’m Irish – what’s a bit of rain? That was my naive thought!
Beginning my cycle, all was well, though the streets were markedly empty. The gaps between lightning and thunder became shorter and I counted the seconds with interest; the rain grew heavier. I joined a pack of terrified cyclists, all pelting their way full speed down the long road along the train tracks. Then heaven fell!
The cyclists peeled off one by one, seemingly evaporating into side streets and buildings along the road, leaving me alone to face the wall of water that crashed down without mercy or respite. It was incredible. I was only minutes from home, but my hat and coat were ineffectual. In seconds, I was the wettest I’ve ever been! My jeans darkened three shades and clung to my skin and my shoes were literally full of water. Removing my shoes had the same sound as taking off a wetsuit!
I have gained an appreciation and respect for the changeable weather here. Thunder storms are serious about living up to their maximum potential!
Now I just need to erect a lightning rod on my lab and I can start the project of bringing reanimated monsters to life!
I like hiking – or at least, I did in Ireland. A look to the scenery all around me in Switzerland suggests that my understanding of the word “hike” may need an upgrade. The Wicklow “Mountains” where I so often wandered with friends and colleagues are only foothills on the scale of the Alps. The Great Sugarloaf (An Beannach Mór), the pointy quartzite cone visible from anywhere high in Dublin or Wicklow is a mere 500 metres at its summit, and I considered that a considerable day out!
With nothing else planned for my third Saturday here, my new co-worker was interested in an outdoor activity, so we met at the train station and walked up the Aare River (which I had only seen briefly to date) southwards out of town. It was a decent trek to the base of the mountain, but it was a fine sunny day and I was keen to explore my new home.
Eventually coming to the tram stop where a lazier adventurer would have started, we ignored the cool retro furnicular which climbed the slope of the hill on mechanisms of cogs and rope. I should, of course, say “mountain”. It’s 858 metres at the peak – that beats anything I’ve done before, I think.
It was a steep climb up the wooded path. We were, however, constantly being passed out by infuriatingly fit old Swiss people zooming up and down the slope. Everyone is fit here – I suppose that’s what they all do on Sundays when the city becomes eerily quiet and empty. If not, they’d all just be hiding indoors. With this scenery on your doorstep, why wouldn’t you be hiking or climbing or skiing? We were treated with occasional glances back up the river to the Old City of Bern which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Anyway, we reached the top of the mountain, turned left and the scene opened out – I looked out over the vista and saw the Alps in the distance, straddling the horizon… so that’s what a mountain looks like! I mean, they’re really big. Still snow-capped into Spring, despite the sun. Jungfrau mountain in the distance (for comparison to our paltry examples) is a whopping 4158 metres high! The peaks were away over the rolling green manicured lawns of the park on top of Gurten. It’s truly an idyllic scene.
We strolled around the top, stumbling upon a meadow, full of dandelions and other wildflowers; it was a Sound of Music moment. In the distance, across the valley, the sound of cowbells drifted across on the air as a herd wandered on the far slope. They made quite the noise with only a few cowbells, I can only imagine the din if there were more cowbell [I couldn’t resist].
Suitably put in my place by my new understanding of what “tall” means, we wandered back by the river Aare and saw the local celebrities, the Bernese Bears, just waking up from hibernation. They’ve been moved out of their pit into a very pleasant and spacious environment.
I’m living in a nice country now! Plenty of peaks to attempt, although I may have to be more satisfied with shoulders going forward.
In my second weekend in a new city, in a new country, I don’t know many people. But I refuse to just sit around doing nothing, so I planned a little adventure – nothing crazy, but far-flung, and – tá súil agam – a model for future behaviour.
Because I want an adventure…
Last week, having been invited for drinks by new work colleagues, I was chatting to some people I had just met. I was quizzing them on Bern’s seeming tranquility and whether anything trendy lay beneath the surface. As a joke I asked:
“Does Bern have a cool underground jazz scene, or anything…?”
One of those present, visiting from Lausanne, perhaps (but thankfully) taking my question too literally informed me that there was, indeed, an entire jazz festival taking place just outside Lausanne the following week, much of which was held underground; it was literally under the ground, dans les caves – wine cellars in the village open up to the public and invite in bands. I didn’t need any more convincing that this was cool! The idea germinated during my first work week.
When Friday rolled around, despite some theoretical interest, no one was able to accompany me, so this would be a solo mission. Can I survive alone in rural Switzerland? One of the safest countries in the world? Yes (it turns out).
I did go to a book shop around the corner on Langässestrasse to get a cheap paperback to read and save my phone battery on the long solo journey. I got Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, appropriate given his impending 400th deathday anniversary.
I left at 5.30, just missed am earlier train from Bern main station, but got the 18.09 to Lausanne. It was raining and cold (unwelcome). At Lausanne, there were lots of soldiers in uniform with guns going home for the weekend – this is apparently nothing to be concerned about, according to my Swiss sources, but it is odd to see in contrast to Ireland. I waited here to change to the train to Grandvaux, one of the two stations that service the town of Cully, but which had more connections to get home if I needed to leave late.
I arrived at the bare platform at the top of a hill, looking down over the expanse of Lake Geneva (or perhaps I should say Lac Léman)! It is vast. There was meant to be a “car postale” connecting Grandvaux to Cully station, but I couldn’t see where it left from so I started walking… I could see the town below, how hard could it be! Pathways wound through what appeared to be fields and fields of bare vines…
I got a little lost in the maze of houses and vineyards and had to use GPS to find myself and then find some way to get down the steep, steep paths to the town without going on the winding roads which lacked footpaths. This was the point I realised that perhaps travelling 100 km with little research on my own in a new country in the drizzle might have had risks associated…. But in the end, I found the way downwards (and decided I would definitely take the free shuttle bus back uphill!) into the lovely jolie villedeCully.
This French speaking town had been taken over by jazz. It reminded me of Miltown Malbay’s trad music festival, the Willie Clancy summer school – except Swiss, and jazz (and better served by public transport). It seems every business was open this Friday evening with a yellow bucket hung over the door indicating of it sold food, drink, had music, etc. It was very well organised and signposted. I wandered around to get a feel of what was where. The town was full of enthusiastic people from all countries and there is still a week to go. In “Le Club” tent, I saw the first act of the festival: Serbian quartet of rocky jazzmen, Eyot (drums, bass, singing guitar and keys). Very good!
I wandered off when they finished and finally stumbled on the oldest building in town, Caveau Potterat, a quaint wine cellar/cave, which was packed with people. I squeezed in the door just in time to hear the start of “Swiss Yerba“, an old school jazz outfit that sounded straight out of a ’30s swing record: trombone, tuba, upright bass, banjo, trumpet, clarinet, scat singing and piano. I wanted to dance to the great tunes, but could barely move. People were everywhere, nearly hanging from the roof beams. This gig was in demand!
I eventually left to sample what else was on offer. I was hungry, so I got a beef baguette (with Parmesan topping, rocket, dried tomatoes, etc). It was 12CHF (! – I’m still getting used to the relative cost of things), but delicious and totally worth it. I then wandered into Das Schlagzeug and caught the end of a really out-there ‘ambient/experimental’ group (Trio Heinz Herbert) who stretched what I thought the definition of jazz was. However, I am certainly no expert! They were clearly working very hard to create the soundscape and rhythms they produced, but it wasn’t for me – too modern! Certainly showed the range of the festival – indeed ‘every type of jazz covered’. At this point, around 10 pm, everything seemed to be finishing up. So I went to the station, caught the postal bus up the long hill to Grandvaux and waited for the first of many trains to bring me homewards from my adventure. I was impressed with my memory of school French, being able to use it make inquiries with the bus, order food and drink and generally get around. If only my German (which is spoken in the city I now live in) was on par! Something to work on in the coming weeks. I got home at 2 am, 200 km round-trip completed -thoroughly satisfied and exhausted. I call that a successful micro-adventure.