Guest posts



Guest post by Heather Cassell

Over the course of your life in the lab you can get to learn many different experimental techniques, and for most people this can be both very interesting and very exciting – the intrigue of novelty. But you can also get stuck using just a few techniques over and over, which can be frustrating and reduces the excitement to drudgery. Sometimes repetition is necessary if your experiment doesn’t go so well, if the process needs optimising, or if you have many similar samples to process in the same way. If the repetition is simply due to a large number of samples then perseverance is required to get the results you need. If the quality of your science depends on a little drudgery, then that’s what it takes.

Groundhog in Minneapolis – Image by Marumari at the English language Wikipedia, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL

But if there are problems with the experiment itself, a good place to start is repeating the experiment without change, to eliminate the possibility that something was set up incorrectly. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

In general, labs are large, light and airy places, filled with racks of consumables, glinting glassware that reflects and enhances the light, large bits of kit that you use in your day to day experiments, and – most of the time – other people. But occasionally (or quite frequently, depending on the nature of your project) your work requires you to visit a piece of rarefied, specialist equipment that lives in a room all of its own.

© OJO Images Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

There are many reasons why kit may be placed in solitary confinement. There are the large, sensitive and fabulously expensive devices that necessitate careful handling. There are those that require the use of light sensitive reagents, or are themselves light sensitive, and exist in state of permanent darkness. Others are separated from the main lab for researchers’ own health and safety. (more…)

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Guest post from Tom Branson

It’s that time of year again, when all things creepy come out to play. Witches, monsters and of course the grinning pumpkins will be out and about. The humble pumpkin has found itself increasingly popular with artists wishing to outdo each other with their carving skills, but pumpkins have also found a home amongst equally competitive chemists shaping their constructions.

If you’re beginning to think I’ve been hit with a confusion spell then never fear, I’m simply referring to the modest cucurbituril. This molecule gets its name from the term for the pumpkin family. There’s apparently a resemblance between the ribs of the pumpkin and the bonds of the macromolecule. But this similarity is nowhere better shown than in the Halloween themed cover of the latest edition of Chemical Science.

This cover brings us into the darkness of a pumpkin-scientist’s den, light spilling through carved features illuminating the creations within. Looming large on the desk is a ghastly pumpkin, smiling whilst xenon bats flitter in and out of its gaping mouth. The desk is also littered with smaller cucurbiturils and a structure half way through its transmogrification into a fully-fledged pumpkin-xenon-bat-exchanger-thing. On the left side stands an old cage and a bat confined within. A dusty spider’s web blocks the exit, which is also being guarded nearby by acryptophaneunwilling to release its hostage. (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some people are said to be luckier than others, but can the same lucky chance happen twice, to the same person? Harry Coover was a serial inventor, patenting more than 460 inventions in his 94-year life, but his most famous product was discovered by accident.

Superglue in use (©iStock)

In 1951, whilst trying to come up with a heat resistant polymer to make jet canopies from, Harry Coover and Fred Joyner accidentally created a substance that glued two refractometer prisms together with an obstinacy not to be resisted. Joyner began to panic – the prisms were very expensive – but Coover did not: he had seen this reaction before. He had made it. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Sometimes life in the lab can be a quiet and lonely affair. Isolation can creep in if your experiment requires long and unsociable hours, or you’re using a specialised bit of equipment that lives on its own, or simply when your lab mates are not around. The fact that labs often buzz with the hustle and bustle of science in action makes these contrasting moments all the more stark.

©iStock

Not that isolation is always a bad thing – if you are working hard and on a project that takes a lot of concentration then it can be a relief to be on your own. Being antisocial can allow you to get on with what you are doing without being disturbed. But if you have gaps in what you are doing – between multiple short incubation times or centrifuge runs, for example – then being on your own can be a drag and the few minutes you need to wait can feel like an age.

So I keep myself busy: I get useful small lab tasks done (with one eye on the clock), begin planning my next experiment, make sure my notebook is up to date. Sometimes it’s possible to simply sit and enjoy the peace and solitude. If you are lucky enough to work in a lab where you can listen to music on either a communal radio or a personal stereo, then this can really help to pass the time, and as you are on your own you can put on any music that you like, as long as it’s not too loud! (more…)

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Perhaps, if you spend enough time looking, you can find anything. So it was for Charles Goodyear, a would-be inventor who, at the expense of everything else, bounced back after every failure, devoting his life to transforming natural rubber into a commercially useful material. He saw the potential immediately – just not the chemistry.

The rubber in Goodyear’s hands during the early 1830s wasn’t a particularly useful material. It was temperamental: whilst it exhibited promising properties including elasticity, hydrophobicity, adhesiveness and electrical insulation, when it got hot it would melt and turn into a horrible sticky slime, and when it got cold in the chilly English weather it would become brittle and readily crack.

Looking at the structure of rubber, it all makes sense: a natural cis polymer of isoprene, this allowed it to stretch (whereas the trans polymer of isoprene, gutta-percha, is crystalline) and the chains could readily flow past each other, especially when warmed. Equally, when solidified, splits could propagate rapidly and directionally between the chains of polymers. Goodyear put a lot of time and effort into trying to mop up the runny rubber by mixing it with various different dry powders and attempting to reform it into a ball. But it would take chemical rather than physical methods to get this compound to bend to his will. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Some experiments fail. Despite your best efforts, and especially for experiments that take many steps or a long time to run, you often won’t find out if they have worked until the very end.

Image By Tweenk (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As I’m sure you can imagine, this is a source of great frustration for a lab-based scientist. So much of your time is dedicated to setting up and running your experiment. Once you’ve made a plan and began the experiment, you have no choice but to blindly carry on assuming everything is fine, before you reach the end and discover whether or not it has worked. If it had then great! You can get on with the important business of analyzing your results to see how they fit in with the rest of your work. If your experiment didn’t work, you need to start the tortuous process of troubleshooting to find out what went wrong.

I have to confess that I enjoy the in between steps, the calm before the storm. There is a certain happiness in not knowing, freeing you up to concentrate on each step of your work, rather than the overall result. At this stage there is positivity and hope that your meticulous planning is going to give you the results you need. This positive attitude can last right up until the results come in, when the illusion can be shattered by the lovely picture of your positive controls and not much else.

So what to do now? Small changes to one of the steps in your process can make a huge difference to your results. Having a good set of both positive and negative controls can be a great help during troubleshooting: if the results show just your positive controls you know the problem is with your samples, if there are no results you know the problem is with the experiment. Now where will I find that error?

It is even more frustrating if you have inherited the protocol, or are trying to replicate one given in a paper. Even worse is a failing in a method you’ve had success with in the past! You can resolve many problems with patience and dedication, but sometimes it’s worth running the problem by someone else just to check you are not making a simple mistake that you have overlooked. Is the incubator at the wrong temperature? Have you added the wrong antibiotic? (Both common sleep deprivation related problems.)

You can spend days, weeks, even months tweaking the conditions of your experiment to make it work. But it is important that you don’t keep going round in circles or blindly repeating yourself, take notes, take a step back or take a deep breath and ask for help! Everyone has bad days in the lab, it’s how you react to them that shows how well suited you are to science.

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Guest post by Rowena Fletcher-Wood

Some discoveries are made after hunting hard for the answer, some come to you when you need them most, and some just turn up at parties. Such was the discovery of modern anaesthetics.

Method of administering nitrous oxide used by Samuel lee Rymer in London, 1863
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

The concept of anaesthetics and their application to relieve pain during surgery was not wholly new. The Mesopotamians used alcohol (and its use persisted in resource deprived times such as war as late as 1812) and the ancient Chinese used acupuncture. The Sumerians may have used opium and Egyptians mandrake, and around a similar time, juniper and coca were put the the same use.

A popular anaesthetic in England between ~1200 and 1500 was Dwale – a mixture of varying composition containing opium and hemlock as well as lettuce, bile and bryony. Mandrake roots were chewed, extracting the active ingredients in doses that varied with chewing time or vigour. This was a risky business: low doses were often insufficient to fully mask the pain of surgery or put the patient to sleep, but at doses not much higher, many of these substances would become fatally toxic. Enough to make you numb just thinking about it. (more…)

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Guest post by JessTheChemist

’Many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call “boys with toys.”’

This poorly conceived comment by Shrinivas Kulkarni, an astronomy and planetary science professor at the California Institute of Technology, was made on National Public Radio (NPR)  and within hours, Twitter was abuzz with activity. Using the hashtag #girlswithtoys, female scientists from all over the world began posting pictures of themselves with their ‘toys’ – from telescopes to distillation kits to robots – to show that girls are scientists with fun toys too! This flippant comment highlights the unconscious bias that is all too common in the science world as it perpetuates the notion that science is a man’s world. The list of Nobel prize in chemistry winners also reflects this attitude, with only four females having won the prize to date. Of course, there have been many highly influential and talented women who were worthy of prize.

Blue plaque on SW10, Drayton Gardens, Donovan Court
By Gareth E Kegg – CC-BY-SA

This month’s blog will concentrate on the unsung hero of the discovery of the structure of DNA, Rosalind Franklin. Franklin’s x-ray diffraction images, which implied a helical structure for DNA, were key in determining the structure of DNA. James Watson and Francis Crick used this information in their Nature publication in 1953, where they gave Franklin and Maurice Wilkins an acknowledgement for their contributions. In 1962, Watson, Crick and Wilkins won the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine for their work on the structure of DNA but Franklin was left empty handed. Franklin died in 1958 and only living people can win the Nobel prize, so sharing the 1962 Nobel prize was not possible. However, the Nobel archives show that no one ever nominated her for the prize in physiology or medicine, or even the chemistry prize, despite the fact that her findings were undoubtedly significant to the discovery. (more…)

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Guest post by Heather Cassell

Working in the lab over time teaches you many new skills. These include the many specific techniques your research demands as well as the enhanced organisation and time management skills you need to keep things running smoothly. But lab work can also teach you to become fairly ambidextrous.

© Shutterstock

You often need enough strength and agility in your non-dominant hand to handle tricky objects while your dominant hand is busy, such as opening and holding a bottle while using a pipette to remove the amount of liquid you need.

Time and practice lets you build up a good level of dexterity in both hands, but there are still many things in the lab that can be difficult to use (or just annoying) if, like me, you are left handed. (more…)

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