Being third in the country for chemistry is pretty hard to live up to. So, in this blog, I have decided to share a little window of my week – involving the most hectic but also unique day, labs. A typical week consists of a lab day, about 12 1-hour lectures, a 2 hour workshop involving problems (20 people) and a 1 hour tutorial in a small group (4 people).
A day in the lab
I wake up just in time to roll out of bed, grab some toast and start walking to labs. It is probably the most exciting day of the week, where you are let loose on very expensive equipment for 8 hours. There is not much more satisfying then using your key card to buzz into a building – especially if it’s sterile, white and shiny. I cram my stuff into a free locker before preparing for the day, which starts at 9:00 am sharp or you have to wait outside and get re-briefed about safety, losing a load of precious lab time.
To improve my mood (or at least visible IQ) after the late night before, I put on my safety specs and grab my lab book (a work in progress – meant for in lab spontaneity such as recording 10.01g instead of 10g for reactants, unfortunately also a bit of a mess).
To begin with, we collect our lab coats (sterile so they are kept in the lab – yes we looked like scared penguins that one fire alarm drill in first year) and head over to our bench. The day starts with a briefing and a hazard check (some things catch fire if exposed to air- no big deal).
I have an absolute legend of a lab partner, so we weigh out all the reagents at warp speed and set up our first sets of apparatus. You share a fume hood with one other person, but you do your experiments individually.
In your first year, you have a short pre-lab quiz to make sure you have understood the quantities of reagents and hazards from the night before. Then you get assessed on results data created in the lab day.
To slowly bring you up to industry standards, in second year there is a more detailed quiz before labs. Followed by an in-lab assessment and post labs, you need to hand in (including graphs and references). I really enjoy building upon the skills from first year and having several short pieces of work. It prevents me from procrastinating all of it until the night before.
The first step of our experiment
On this particular Thursday, the first step of our experiment involves using rubber seals, a balloon and a rubber tube to keep the system under nitrogen. This is pretty exciting because you have to use syringes to add the reactants so they aren’t exposed to oxygen.
The increase in complexity of experiments makes every week different and the jump from A Levels manageable. Although think more from Home Alone to Tomb Raider difference in hazard levels. We continue with the experiment, featuring lots of steps from a reflux to dry ice baths at -78°C!
While the reflux is running, we have a small lunch break outside in the lab foyer (featuring a well-earned chocolate orange).
The next part involves quenching the reaction and using a separating funnel (lots of squinting and shaking). Purification is important in all reactions and almost certainly involves a vacuum and lots of magnesium sulfate – the only chemical you are allowed to add “and one for luck” spatulas of as it’s a drying agent. We write out quantities and observations along the way – even “a bit off white” is relevant.
Some of the experiments involve making a useful reagent such as lithium diisopropylamide (LDA) and then using it in a second experiment. This is definitely the fastest way to test if something has worked or not. Some of the colour changes are beautiful, especially with metal complexes.
Finally, we characterise the product via infrared spectroscopy, hydrogen NMR and melting point determination. Just to double check we made the right thing and it wasn’t all sinter funnel.
At York, we have access to a separate analytical lab, even as undergraduates. This allows us to characterise samples immediately using infrared, UV, gas, and high performance liquid chromatography. Plus, log samples to be submitted for NMR.
After characterisation, I wash up with James using the odd squirt of acetone. Our products are then marked by a teaching assistant and we sign off for the day.
After labs, I try and have a break before doing the lab reports every Friday. I go home and grab a snack with my flatmates before going to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) training for a couple of hours. York has so many opportunities to try new things such as Give It A Go weeks each term with free sessions from sign language to aerobics.
Studying chemistry at York has not only broadened my experimental horizons, but also personal ones.
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