What do scientists do all day? Well, you can ask one but they will probably be too busy to tell you. Here is my effort to unravel some of the mysteries of scientific research. As a fourth year I work in the Chemistry department on a research project that no one else has ever studied before: like a miniature PhD but with no pay. I work mostly in organic synthesis, which is the bit of chemistry that most people are familiar with —lots of bubbling flasks and smoking test tubes— with a bit of physical chemistry, which is more like maths with lots of graphs. My day to day life mostly involves repeating the same reaction over and over again until it works.
I am trying to make some new organic compounds called stable radicals that are similar to some existing ones, but much more difficult to make — hence the endless repetition. They are interesting because unlike the existing ones, these ones have a “functional handle”: a part of the molecule that is very reactive. I’ve spent the last 8 weeks constructing the “functional handle” and now I’m trying to react it with various different chemicals to make new types of stable radical. It’s harder than it sounds. Making a chemical is actually straightforward; normally a chemical reaction takes about a day or two, with a few different steps (boiling, stirring, mixing in new chemicals, etc.) to give you the substance that you want. However, the tricky and time-consuming part is purifying the chemical afterwards! In order to be of any use, a chemical has to be almost 100% pure, and this is very difficult. The purifying steps often take weeks and involve processes like growing tiny crystals of the solid chemical from a solution of it; if you’ve ever tried one of those Grow Your Own Crystals sets you’ll know how long that takes!
Ultimately the goal of my research is to obtain results that I can publish in a scientific journal; I’m working on this right now and, believe me, it’s tricky. As well as actually making the compound I need, I have to repeat making it to prove that it’s possible, and take dozens of different measurements of its properties to make 100% sure that it is what I think it is. Once all this is done and polished into a final article (which is only a few pages long!), it will be submitted for peer review; essentially where other academics poke at your work with sticks while humming and hawing over whether all of your theories are watertight. If it gets accepted into the journal it will be published — in several months, or even up to a year. Repeat this process for several more years and eventually you’ll gain enough letters after your name to become a professor.
Photograph: Bill Shrout via Wikimedia Commons