Final Thoughts on My Chemistry Research This Summer

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.
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.