Wednesday, 3 September 2014

What's it like to be in the Lab?

With so many people starting University soon I thought I would share what a typical day at Uni is like for me. Recently quite a few people have asked me 'What do you actually do, Gina?' So here, I'll talk you through what happens in a first year lab.

With no thanks to popular culture, people often think that as chemists we make a lot of meth. That's only partially true*. Being in the lab is nothing like cooking with Walt, although the technicians are just as fixated on health and safety as him. That's the first thing you learn, before you're even allowed anywhere near the lab is health and safety. *Cue 10 year old Powerpoint with images of horrific scarring*. Being in the lab is dangerous and potentially lethal, which kind of makes it fun, but let's face it, no one wants to be stripped and put under the emergency shower in the corner of the room. 

Preparation for labs can be quite dull with quizzes and questions to answer and research to do, however they're really valuable and I can't imagine going into the lab not knowing what to do, especially because my first year lab teacher was incredibly intimidating when he wanted to be. 

In first year, our lab sessions began at 10.00am and finished at 4.00pm, which seems like a really long time to be stood in the same room, however as soon as you begin a science degree you learn that nothing in science is ever 'quick'. Experiments are time-consuming and sometimes there is nothing to do but wait around for the rotary evaporator to finish, but in general those six hours were spent rushed off our feet. Usually, there is something that can be done. I've discovered that organic labs are possibly the worst simply because there is so much to do in such a short space of time, however the write-ups are fairly easy and vice-versa with physical chemistry labs. 

Setting up glassware and finding missing glassware occupies the first ten minutes of labs, you learn that people never put things back in the right place. In my first year we got a lab manual which had instructions, we simply had to follow these instructions and were expected to think about the chemistry behind the experiment and why we were doing it. Labs always link to something you're learning or will learn so having the practical application of what you're taught in lectures helps you learn and improve your skills. We have PhD students who help us with the experiments and give us advice. A lot of time is spent talking to them in the hope that they pass their wisdom onto you; they're like majestic chemistry unicorns, always there to save the day. 

Undergraduate labs are so different to being at school, you get to play around with loads of cool new equipment and machines, things you'd previously never heard of and are worth thousands of pounds. Learning to use a rotary evaporator is one of those skills that once you've mastered you feel like a proper chemist. IF YOU CAN USE A ROTARY EVAPORATOR, YOU CAN DO ANYTHING. Well, you feel that way. It's just fun to learn how to use equipment you'd previously only seen on TV. Also, there's always a sense of panic in the room when you're using a dangerous chemical for the first time. It's thrilling yet terrifying to know that you are handling something that has the power to kill you and when you use it successfully without killing anyone you feel a great sense of achievement. I was absolutely terrified the first time I used chlorine gas in the lab, but I've learnt that handling potential dangerous gases and compounds is all part of being a competent chemist. Plus I love going home to my flatmates and telling them that I worked with a chemical warfare agent. 

Here's my tips/advice if you're starting a Uni course that involves labs:
  1. Always wear safety glasses or you will get shouted at.
  2. Don't worry about getting your lab coat dirty, you look more experienced if it's covered in substances. Although you probably should wash it at some point.
  3. Make use of PhD students/Older students/Technicians, they know lots of valuable stuff, and sometimes they might tell you the answer ;)
  4. Your feet WILL ache after standing up for so long. After a lab go home, put your pyjamas on, make a cup of tea and mentally recover from what's just happened to you. 

Also useful is my Surviving the First year of Uni post I wrote a while ago. 

*I'm joking, obviously.

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