Friday, May 27, 2011

This is the only song I remember from Pippin. No joke.

(Hapless grad student SAM JOHNSON, the famous PROFESSOR THOMAS JANE, and ASSORTED STUDENTS sit in a conference room. The PROFESSOR stands at the head of the class.)

Professor Thomas Jane: Well, gentlemen, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. This is where we are: SLIDES!

(projector turns on.)

Professor: Tomorrow morning we shall receive a brand-new DPI, a Delwar-Prescott Interferometer.

Sam: Sweet, a DPI!

Professor: Sam, sit down. Now, a primary difficulty in operating this instrument is its calibration. So look at this diagram—study it—remember it!

Sam: But Professor! Why can’t we just head in and collect our data?

Professor: You spoke, Sam?

Sam: Since we’re smarter and better-funded than other labs… and I’ve had a little experience with instruments like this… can’t we just throw in our samples, damn the torpedoes, and get our data?

Professor (scornfully): Science is a process, Sam.

Sam: Well that takes half the fun out of it right there.

Professor: There’s plenty of fun when you publish.

Instruments are tricky,

With rules to be applied

Which good students appreciate

Recall and recapitulate

Before they go to calibrate

The DPI!

Now, gentlemen, study this chart—this is the loading process for the body of the DPI!

Injection is a process that requires certain skill

We must get our sample in there, and this is how we will

The Gel Tube newly cleaned (that’s the area in green)

Will rise up from the body where it plainly can be seen

And the sample shill (in blue)

Should be knocked slightly askew—

For that’s what you depend upon a sample shill to do!

And to guarantee precision

We’ll bring three clamps into play—

We’ll have two on this incision

And the last one on Point A…

And then…. And then… and gen-tle-men, and then!

Sam: And then we’ll jam our sample into the IR!

Publish our conclusions and then light up a cigar!

Hark, I’ll have my doctorate so soon…

Academia—I’ll be with you by the coming moooooon!


Sam: Uh, sorry.

Professor: Now, where was I… Ah, yes.

Machinery is tricky,

A breeding ground for brains

For since “Doctor” prefixed my name

This mastery has brought me fame—

The skill of running instruments runs through my veins!

Now when the DPI's been running for an hour, two, or three,

You’ll see the button light up on the point I’ve labeled B—

Then you must check the System Gauge (in magenta on the chart)

And if you find the pressure dropping you should quickly hit Restart

Or the gas will reach the next chamber and very soon you’ll find

That it and your own sample are explosively combined.

And if you press the blue switch at that time,

I tell you this young scholars:

The inside will be turned to slime,

and you’ll owe us many dollars!

And then…

And then…

And gen-tle-men, and then!

Sam: And then we’ll jam our sample into the IR!

Publish our conclusions and then light up a cigar!

Hark, I’ll have my doctorate so soon…

Academia, I’ll be with you by the coming--


Sam: My bad!

Professor: In conclusion, gentlemen...

Now listen closely to me

I’ll endeavor to explain

What separates an undergrad

From a Thomas Jane

A rule confessed by scientists

Illustrious, but underpaid

Though as roaring as a Roerich

Or as far-flung as a Faraday

A rule that every great man learns by heart—

That it’s smarter to be lucky than it’s lucky to be smart!

And if editors aren’t kind to us

And at our results they sneer,

Well, suppose that we don’t publish?

We’ll just try again next year!

And then…

And then…

And gentlemen, and then!

Sam: And then we’ll jam our sample into—

Professor: σ_σ GET OUT


I make no apologies.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


I confess, I've not been blogging recently as much as I'd like. There are a couple of reasons, foremost being that I've been stressing out over schoolwork. There's this biochem assignment tripping me up, see-- basically, we just have to come up with a viable research proposal. Which sounds easy, until you realize that you have to come up with a problem which

A) hasn't been solved yet, and
B) you can solve, and
C) is worth solving.

Which is very tricky, since low-hanging fruit on the ol' scientific tree tends to get gobbled up right quick by various well-funded research groups. I confess this was the problem I had to deal with last quarter while working on a similar assignment-- the primary difference being that I had to come up with a viable proposal for a natural product synthesis, which was both easier and harder. Easier, because I didn't have to have any sort of in-depth understanding of biological systems, and I had my last biochemistry class two years ago. Harder, since I had to find a natural product that hadn't been synthesized yet. And do you know how I typically find out about interesting natural products?

If you guessed "by reading articles about various groups having synthesized them," congratulations! You win all the internets.

Thankfully, I realized a little bit ago that biochemistry is filled with small, finicky problems of various levels of trickiness. You can sorta think of biochemistry as a verdant woodland chock full of squirrels and chipmunks-- larger things, too, but you won't go hungry even if you're not an apex predator. *

Natural products synthesis, on the other hand, is a planet of nothing but dragons. And half the dragons look like chipmunks, and you don't realize they're actually dragons until you get hungry and try stabbing one with your sharp stick and immediately get set alight by its fiery breath, but instead of running away like a sane person you have to fight it because your professor is making you.

Compounding this is the fact that I have to do TA work, which got considerably easier since a conversation a week ago, wherein Blake gave me a great deal of helpful advice.

Blake: Hey Aaron! Hey Aaron! Wanna play Starcraft?
Me: Sorry, but I have to grade stuff.
Blake: I can think of a way you might do it faster.

Me: But Blake! What if one of my students complains about getting a C grade for A work?
Blake: Well, I'll tell you:

Me: You have a fair point, Blake. But you know, we kinda have to grade on a curve here. How do I ensure that the students get assigned different scores when their reports look so similar?

Me: Gee, Blake! You sure have a lot of good suggestions! But surely grading tests won't be so easy, will it?

Me: All solid suggestions! Still.... I can't help but feel like students have it too easy in lab, even still. Got any suggestions on that score?

It just goes to show: you've got to work smarter, not harder.

*In this analogy, the squirrels and chipmunks are those little studies probing what the function of particular amino acids are on different proteins.
I'm a fan.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Ethanol Procurement

So I was on the chemistry department requisition website to get some cobalt catalyst, when I noticed that one of the headings on the sidebar was "Ethanol Procurement".

So I clicked on it out of curiosity, and it turns out that--among all the deadly poisons and high explosives the Chemistry department has to offer-- the only one that actually requires special authorization to purchase is ethanol. The rule came into being a few years ago. This amuses me because it means that, at some point, some enterprising individual was all like

"Wow. Alcohol is incredibly expensive! Wouldn't it be easier if I could use just use the ethanol from the lab to mix my drinks?"

And this thought probably percolated in said individual's mind for a while, let's say about a week. And then he gives it a shot. He hosts a small party with all of his chemistry friends, and among the Mike's Hard Lemonades and Coors Lights, there sits a huge vat of pilfered absolute ethanol, mixed with, I dunno, fruit punch or something. (Fill this in with something more plausible if you actually mix drinks yourself.) Anyway, this party is a big hit, and nobody in the chem department really notices the missing ethanol, because chemists use tons of the stuff each day. And then the parties grow... and grow... and before the year is out, the chemistry department is unknowingly hosting wildly successful parties each week. And it's at that time that the stockrooms start to notice the fact that unusually large amounts of ethanol are being requisitioned on Friday evenings.

So the students are all like :D :D :D and then the administration's all like σ_σ and the students are all like ;_; and the stockroom's all like NO U and everything goes back to sad, slighly-poisoned-ethanol-less normalcy.* And the chemistry department requisition website bears the Ethanol FAQ as a small token in memory of the occasion.**

*The process used to make lab-grade absolute ethanol causes it to contain traces of methanol and benzene. Fun fact!
*the website itself claims to restrict ethanol on account of its being explosive, but the fact that it's regulated when other, far more dangerous chemicals go unrestricted makes my explanation seem more likely.