Final Thoughts on My Chemistry Research This Summer

I.
A week before leaving for home earlier this summer I met with a friend of mine who worked in a physics lab. We each talked about our research projects – less about the grand scientific questions that we sought to answer or how close we were to addressing those question, but more about the oftentimes excruciating details of daily work. In her case, it was the infinite struggle of trying to optimize a computer algorithm that was supposed to constitute the last few lines of a massive program. For me it was the unending circles of preparation and instrumental analyses in order to churn out loads and loads of experimental data. Nevertheless, when we sit down and try to convey to the other person what our projects eventually aim to achieve – in rough brushstrokes of course, since we work in different departments after all – we didn’t think of it as some far-fetched fantasy of the future despite the seeming distance between our daily work and the gleaming trophy that is publishing a novel answer or result. We are confident in what we do, not because it will lead to any substantial result but because our logic is sound and our work builds solidly on itself. In a chemist’s language, what we eventually bring out to public from our research are merely the final products of a messy, repetitive reaction. Most of the time, material is recycled and showered with arrays of energy behind the curtain (or hood). The person who works behind the scene must learn to rejoice in running a million columns and purifications of all sorts and not expect too much out of the final products, whose scantiness might very well vanquish his spirit were he to count on them as his only source of solace.
II.
My project benefits from not having a definitive question at the very beginning. When I took over the project we were still fine-tuning the system, hoping to see a theoretically reasonable result. By design we were supposed to play with the different phenomena that such a fine-tuned system could demonstrate with some clarity, and the questions into which it might be able to offer some insight. But with this somewhat blurred vision we had to come into lab with extra avidity and attentiveness, since even the tiniest anomaly might reveal something worth further exploration. Over the course of this summer, quite a few of these little points of interest cropped up from our data. Some of them seemed too difficult to dive into either due to technical limitations or math issues. Some were just mysteries as to whether they were mere inconsistency or bizarre coincidence. The only few that were just the right size for us to bite onto did eventually lead to further investigation, and some tentative results. We initially planned to prepare for an academic communication during the summer but these little things seemed to have amounted to what only a full fledged paper could carry. During the last week of my stay this summer my professor and I made a poster that presented all our current results and thoughts about this system. She brought that poster with her to an academic conference and showed those results to her colleagues from other schools. Yesterday in an email she told me some new, interesting points that her colleagues brought up during the conference, some of which we might probe into by adding new ingredients into our system. I will come back to school, experiment even more and try to help my professor put together a paper that we will hopefully send out some time next semester.

Helping Hand and Lab Camaraderie

Our latest lab member joined just before this summer. One of the first things she said to me while in lab was that she found it baffling how much each of us knew about our projects, how much expertise and understanding we gained from working on something tangential or unmentioned in chemistry courses that were normally offered by the department. I laughed and told her that, quite frankly, I had the same question when I attended a regular lab meeting for the first time last year. The answer that I found over the past year is simply that you learn an impressive amount of stuff in lab but you can’t see how until you try working independently for a period of time. That’s why it all seemed so effortless and mysterious. Contrary to the conscious assignments of problem solving to which you typically exert yourself in class, lab learning occurs every second as you figure out what to do next and why. You acquaint yourself with principles and ideas of science by going through them repeatedly while working with real substance and real machines, and by doubting yourself and examining your understanding through experimentation. When you can’t understand something, you read on and on without thinking about it as an assignment, and you go to the professor for some clarification, explanation and direction. In a word, you don’t even realize you are learning.

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July 15: Final Update on UV-Vis

Last week Harbron finally decided to fully investigate the UV-Vis problem on her own. On Wednesday morning she wheeled in the spectrophotometer from PChem lab. She then ran some standard fluorescein samples in ethanol. She used the standard 1-cm-by-1-cm cuvette and found that both our machine and McNamara’s Cary 60 gave the same results. However, the two PerkinElmer spectrophotometer gave almost double the absorbance readings. That, Harbron said, was quite a separate issue from what we were trying to resolve. As long as our reading is the same as McNamara’s, which is a later model made by the same manufacturer, we should regard our machine as fixed.

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July 2: UV-Vis Update

After the UV-Vis was found out to be malfunctioning last Thursday, I had been anticipating the arrival of the new lamp that Professor Harbron hastily ordered. Meanwhile my experiment came to a halt so I was left pondering over past data and designing new experiments based on my findings. On Tuesday the lamp arrived early in the afternoon and Professor Molloy came in to install it later during the day. Following the instructions from a digital manual stored in the computer, we disconnected the spectrometer, lift it up on one side, and replaced the lamp, which was integrated into a module screwed onto the bottom surface of the spectrometer. We then connected it back and ran the Align application on the computer. A plastic lid tightly fitted to the front panel was then popped off, revealing two screwing positions that could control the alignment of internal optics. Professor Molloy carefully adjusted those two positions with his small screw driver until the signal registered on the Align application seemed to reach its maximum (about 10%T), which was not a fixed value but a reading that constantly fluctuated.

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June 25: UV-Vis Spectrophotometer Broke

Yesterday morning when I took out the round bottom flask from the sonicator after nanoparticles were formed from the pre-nano solution, dye properly injected, and the entire solution duly mixed by sonication, I noticed that the liquid in the flask (VL 61) appeared more reddish than normal. Usually the dominant species, PFBT nanoparticles, would give the mixture a pale yellow color. A UV-Vis scan after THF was removed confirmed that the nanoparticles were doped with an amount of APESO much more than what was designed according to stoichiometric calculation. My first judgement was that the nanoparticles filtered out, a problem frequently encountered in the early days of this project. But that problem has since been solved through improvements on every detail of the preparation process. The procedure is now greatly streamlined and formularized. It has been proven to reduce the loss of nanoparticles during the process to a bare minimum.

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