5 Things I Learnt when working in a Research Lab

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My experience in a research lab

If you’re new here, I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts that I was lucky enough to be involved with the research group of one of my professors. I had the opportunity to learn and work under the supervision of PhD students about hands on chemistry. The header picture for this post is actually a picture of my work bench in the lab! This was the top highlight of 2020 for me, as it was just an all-round amazing experience.

I am of course not allowed to share any specifics of what the research group was working on, but I thought it would be interesting for some to see how the reality of academic research looks like. There are a lot of interesting things I found out during my time with the group.

#1 - Multitasking is key

Organic Chemistry as well as other sciences unfortunately takes time. Reactions & experiments if you’re lucky will take only 3 hours, but also many reactions require 12 hours, or even entire days to run to completion. This means that in order to be productive in such conditions, you must constantly have different things on the go. While you’re waiting for one reaction to finish you could be purifying the products of another reaction, taking some analytical measurement or working on content for the academic paper that will inevitably be published.

I once had a high school teacher who said “girls can’t multitask because their brains are wired differently” which was quite an interesting comment to say the least. Nevertheless, I haven’t run into any problems yet – I’ll let you know if I do.

#2 - No, it will not be like the textbook said

Textbooks always write reactions to look simple. Perhaps it’s to avoid scaring students away, but when working in a lab there is much to take care of. In the case of Organic Chemistry, many reactions require conditions with absolutely no moisture and/or air present and if you don’t take care to avoid the two, your reaction will not work at all. Other reactions contain reactants that are flammable or react violently with water or air posing health & safety risks.

Also what is often not mentioned when you look in a textbook is the required reaction conditions. For example, some reactions require refluxing where the reaction is boiling, and some require extremely cold conditions. What is not mentioned is exactly how these temperatures are achieved. Boiling is usually straight forward, just requiring an oil bath but cooling is a different story. Depending on the temperature required, you may need an ice bath, a chiller (machine), or a bath of dry ice & acetone for -78 degrees Celsius. In fact, there’s even an entire Wikipedia page on different cooling baths with different temperatures.

#3 - Note taking is very important

You may say Alice, note taking is always important, but here it’s different. Whatever work you’re doing in the research lab, it’s always important to note down exactly everything right after you’ve finished doing it. If anything goes wrong, these notes will help you find out exactly what went wrong and when writing an academic paper about your work, you will need to mention a lot of these fine details. Why all the detail? – one of the most important parts of an academic paper is to make sure that the results are reproducible.

You may think you have an amazing memory but after a long, tiring reaction or purification it’s not uncommon to find that you’ve forgotten exactly how much of something you used, or at what concentration something was eluted from a column. These small details are often important! I know this because I have done it myself – sat down after a long and arduous column purification and realised I’ve forgotten which test tube exactly the product eluted at.

One tip: When you’re running a reaction or doing a column, write down the important bits of information in permanent marker on the glass of the fume hood or on your glove if you need to note something down on the spot (but don’t throw away the glove too soon!). Also, a little bit of advance preparation goes a long way!

#4 - Constantly have your guard up

Maybe it’s just me, but I tend to find that as soon as you let your guard down, relax too much, or get too confident mistakes are made. The problem with research labs is that most of the work you’re doing is highly important to the project and it’s not ok to just casually make a mistake and ruin the product – especially in Organic Chemistry where chemicals and glassware are often expensive. Not only are things expensive, often the chemicals and conditions that reactions are occurring under can be dangerous if handled incorrectly. Mistakes often carry consequences.

That being said, don’t be intimidated by things that sound complicated. For the project happening in my lab, a scary sounding process called Nitrogen Purging was often needed to remove excess solvent from a product. As scary as this sounds, all it meant was using nitrogen gas to act as what is effectively just an expensive fan to help ‘blow off’ the excess solvent.

#5 - Ask questions!

Working in a research environment is a really good opportunity to ask questions and learn a lot about how hands on research really works – but not if you don’t ask questions! Personally, my PhD supervisors were extremely kind and helpful, and they were always happy to answer questions and explain even the dumbest things to me. As much as they generously explained without me needing to ask, I learnt a lot from asking them questions about how reactions were set up and how reaction mechanisms worked. If your supervisor is open to questions, make sure you ask anything on your mind.

Initiative is a very important part of working in a lab. By asking questions, double checking things, and preparing in advance you can really contribute a lot to the research and learn a lot at the same time.

To Conclude:

The experience of working alongside more knowledgeable students & professors is invaluable if you’re a curious student or are interested in a career in academic research. It’s something that has benefitted me greatly and I have a huge amount of appreciation to both the professor and PhD students for allowing me the opportunity to learn such skills in a research environment. It truly was one of the best things that has happened to me in my life (so far…😉).

You may have noticed that I’ve been writing in the past tense about my research experience. I am currently not working in the research lab but not to worry – I will be back soon enough!