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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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August 24, 2005

Having the Hands

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Posted by Derek

After working so many years in organic chemistry labs, I notice that I have all these little motions and flourishes in my technique. For example, when I'm draining the bottom layer out of a separatory funnel, I always drain it down almost to the bottom, and stop. Then I swirl it around a little bit, because there's always some of the bottom-layer solvent that's still stuck to the sides and hasn't crept down yet. That quick swirl knocks it down, along with any droplets that were holding on to the meniscus at the top. Then I take the stopper out, wiping it edgewise across the ground-glass joint to catch any dripping solvent, and always put it on the side area of my stir plate. Only then do I drain the remainder of the bottom layer. And every time I turn the stopcock off, I automatically reach up with the flask or test tube I'm using and swipe it across the tip of the funnel, to catch the drop that's always hanging there.

I don't usually pay attention to these things in such Proustian detail, but I got to thinking about all the lab habits I've built up in the last 25 years or so (I'm counting back to my undergraduate days.) These things are instant signs, in any field, of someone who's been doing it a long time. They have a set of automatic routines that work and have always worked, and they don't need to think about them any more.

I couldn't tell you, for example, when the last time was that I poured something into the top a sep funnel whose stopcock was left open, although in my first years in the lab I did that a few times (to loud curses.) I'm past all that. Now, I make the advanced mistakes.

Comments (9) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. tim mayer on August 25, 2005 7:50 AM writes...

The problem is that sometimes you can build-up a lifetime of techniques and refuse to change or modify them. I'm constantly asking myself if there isn't a better way to do things. I also worry that a lot of "wet chemistry" methods are being lost due to the use of automatic instrements. All you have to do is watch an older chemist, say one who is pushing seventy, perform a titration to see what I mean.

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2. Derek Lowe on August 25, 2005 9:38 AM writes...

Yep, I must not have run a titration in a good twenty years. And you're right about getting stuck in your ways - I don't see any good replacements for sep funnels, but I haven't run a good ol' flash column in years. Either I do a quick Buchner-funnel silica cleanup, or I use one of the prepacked systems (Isco, Biotage, etc.)

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3. The Novice Chemist on August 25, 2005 10:02 AM writes...

Biotage with fraction collectors are a godsend. If it could cook, I'd marry one.

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4. Bob Hawkins on August 25, 2005 11:28 AM writes...

Do you find lab habits spreading to daily life?
In working with liquid nitrogen, it's standard practice to open a valve to the stop, then back off a quarter or half turn. That way it doesn't freeze wide open, which could be bad when you go to close it. I find myself doing the same with the hot and cold water in my bathroom sink.

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5. Derek Lowe on August 25, 2005 11:30 AM writes...

I well recall a time when I was home on vacation during grad school, and my mother handed me new jar of spices that my father had bought. I unscrewed the cap, with the jar pointed away from my face, and waved the scent over to my nose with my hand. All of this to the background of her puzzled stare. . .

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6. Tom Bartlett on August 25, 2005 12:46 PM writes...

Exactly why would you prefer a Biotage to a plain
ol' flash column? You like the extra expense and solvent usage, or just the way it looks higher-tech?

As for carry over into "real life", I swirl my Gatorade in a minumum of water to get things started before diluting down to desired strength, just like I would do back when I was making buffers.

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7. Murph on August 25, 2005 1:26 PM writes...

Talk about having work habits spreading to the home, I find myself always checking to make sure that I have glasses on whenever I'm in the kitchen - and then I always find myself washing my hands incessantly.

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8. Phil-Z on August 25, 2005 1:39 PM writes...

Work habits are hard to break all right. When I sneeze it still takes an conscious effort to cover my nose with my hands instead of turning to my shoulder, as I was used to working with gloved hands. I wash my hands before and after I use the restroom. I haven't been in a lab since the early 90's.

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9. Katherine on August 25, 2005 4:00 PM writes...

Phil-Z, you're off the hook: The latest public health advice is to sneeze into your shoulder, not your hands.

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