A brief summary of my degree so far: “Why am I doing this to myself?”

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Endless supplies of beakers

This week, by popular demand, I’ve decided to shed some light on what we scientists actually do all day. My art student friends have asked me enough times why I look so tired all the time, so here’s why. I usually spend up to two whole days in the laboratory synthesising or testing things. This may sound exciting, but let me tell you it’s not.

Take last Thursday, for instance. I spent three hours synthesising (read as: dissolving things in other things while praying) a miniscule quantity of something that looked a bit like wee. Then I spent the next four hours destroying it, re-dissolving it, evaporating things off it and finally placing three drops of it into a sample vial and feeling incredibly proud of myself. Over the course of these four hours, the compound began to smell increasingly terrible.

Since I was working in a lab populated by twenty other people all doing the same thing as me, I occasionally had to go outside for a breath of fresh air lest I pass out on top of a vital piece of equipment. I should at this point mention Rule One of chemistry labs: nothing ever works in chemistry labs. Lecturers often joke to us that “Oh, we don’t do that experiment anymore, because it actually worked.”

This is in fact, entirely true. Most of the experiments we do are not about actually making or testing something, they’re about seeing what the maximum number of things to go wrong are and then throwing in some extras. Faulty equipment: we’ve got it. Dirty and broken glassware? You bet! Chemicals that like to disappear into thin air as soon as you make them: why synthesise anything else? In first year, we were actually given marks for noticing that things went wrong, and told afterwards “That’s supposed to happen. This experiment never works. That’s the point.”

The point?! I have just spent six hours slaving away over a hotplate, on top of which sits a precariously balanced selection of delicate glassware. My feet hurt from standing up for so long, I have subjected myself to hideous burns and inhaled several unpleasant chemicals, and you’re telling me that it was supposed to go wrong? Why should I bother turning up at all? Things improve a bit in second year, when at least we get to play with dry ice (so much fun!) and make chemicals that sound vaguely useful.

The only problem with the second year labs is this: walking into a new laboratory and being told to synthesise a compound is a bit like an untrained cook walking into an unfamiliar kitchen and being told to cook an eight course gourmet banquet in less than six hours. All around me, my fellow students are descending into chaos; someone speed-walks past me, muttering “I only wanted a beaker but there are so many cupboards to check…” As the day wears on everyone develops a haunted expression.

They have seen the inside of the spectroscopy room and it has changed them on a deep, soul-wrenching level. At some point we are expected to present our chemical samples to the godlike power of an ancient 1980s computer that will tell us if we have succeeded. The future looks bleak… Protips for livers in and out this week:

  • Don’t do science if you want a social life. What’s that you say? It’s too late? Excuse me while I go and cry in a corner.
  • Advice for laboratory work: prepare as much as you possibly can in advance. That way you’ll know what you’re doing on that day, and also when you have a post-lab report due, you’ve got the template done and you can just fill in the data. You never know, it might go right for once.
  • Arts students, I apologise for not having any advice this week. Good luck with your reading, I suppose? I’ve only been inside the library five times so I’m not sure exactly what goes in on there.

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