October 25, 2012

How Will The Nobel Prize in Chemistry Touch You?

Two American scientists are the recipients of the 2012 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their work in identifying the cell and DNA structure in the human body that allows cells to react to external stimuli.

The science behind their discoveries is fascinating: sensors on each sell’s surface, called receptors, transmit information about external stimuli through the cell wall, triggering a chain reaction inside the cell that changes the way the cell behaves.   About half of today’s pharmaceuticals are effective due to their manipulation of this chain reaction inside cells.


So, how does having more information about how these receptors work affect the average person?

The biggest benefit to pharmaceutical researchers is knowledge that will guide them in more directed research. A good portion of pharmaceutical research is trial and error. The scientists involved don’t often know why a certain drug affects the human body a certain way, they just know that it does. Informed research is bound to be more focused and effective, so this discovery may lead to an increase in the number of new drugs brought to market in a shorter time.

With a better understanding of this bio-human technology, scientists would be in a better position to find chemicals to directly affect specific body systems. An interesting hypothetical application could be engineered improvements in sensory perception – finding and delivering chemicals that could magnify hearing or visual acuity.

Is there any downside to having knowledge on how to manipulate human cell behavior?  Some may argue that the technology could be used for harm in the wrong hands.

For more information on this technology, click here.

October 18, 2012

Smoke Detectors: Which Type is Best? The Science Behind the Technology

Recently there has been a debate regarding the effectiveness of different types of household smoke alarms. Many common residential smoke alarms look similar on the outside but employ very different technology inside to detect smoke particulates and the by-products of combustion. Knowing the best choice for your home will ensure an alarm sounds, without delay.

The technology in question involves the two most commonly available smoke alarm types: Ionization and Photoelectric.

During combustion, microscopic particles and aerosols are produced. The ionization detector uses a tiny amount of radioactive material, usually americium, to ionize air molecules as they enter a chamber within the detector. The chamber contains positive and negative electrodes through which a small, constant electric current flows. When these invisible by-products of combustion enter the chamber, they become ionized and attach themselves to the electrodes altering the flow of electrical current and triggering the alarm to sound. Some would say that this detects ions not smoke; that’s true.

The photoelectric detector contains a chamber equipped with a light source and a photocell receiver. There are several types of photoelectric detectors.

October 11, 2012

Tips for Selecting and Managing Consultants

Many articles have been written giving advice on hiring consultants. The article below highlights some questions you should ask yourself to help define a project prior to interviewing candidates and offers some good questions to ask your candidates.

            Click Here to read the article

The CECON Group, Inc. provides science and engineering consultants and technical expert witnesses to corporations, small businesses, and attorneys.


October 4, 2012

Do You Disclose Case Docs to Potential Experts?

I recently gave a CLE course at the Philadelphia Law Library on Ethical Practices for Hiring and Managing Expert Witnesses.  One of the topics discussed was whether or not one provides case documents to an expert witness candidate before hiring, which sparked an interesting discussion.

A significant percent of CECON’s clients are law firms requiring technical experts.   While our non-legal clients do a good job in screening candidate consultants before they decide to engage them, I think it’s fair to say that our legal clients typically spend more time and diligence in vetting their potential expert witnesses. 
During an interview, the perfunctory details of the case and the parties are disclosed, with potential conflicts being explored.  The interviewing lawyer also probes for how the expert sees the case, hoping to get a sense if the expert is aligned with the arguments the lawyer is preparing. 

Once the lawyer feels s/he has found a qualified candidate, we see two paths that our clients can take:
A) Proceed with more verbal discussions of the case and make a decision then on engagement, or
B) Decide to send the candidate some files from the case (under a non-disclosure agreement) to provide more insight and let the candidate make a more informed preliminary opinion.  
Which path is “correct” or preferred raised a fair number of comments and insights into attorneys' methodologies and experience.

One group preferred Path A, which is certainly the cleaner and less risky approach, since no confidential information is released.  For them there would never be enough reason to disclose any confidential information before engaging the expert. 

Those preferring Path B stated that, in some cases (e.g. pharmaceutical), there is so much technical information to consider that a candidate cannot do justice even to form a preliminary opinion without better understanding some of the facts.  Path B burdens the lawyer with what information to send, since it would be impractical to send it all (and an unfair request of the expert’s uncompensated time), and it must be representative and balanced.  Path B may also be taken if the lawyer is not familiar or knowledgeable with all of the potential technical nuances of the case.     
Which path do you typically choose, and do you ever see Path B as a possibility?    

The author, Mike Fisher, is President of the CECON Group, a science and engineering consulting firm.