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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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« Work At Home! It's Easy; It's Fun! | Main | Out With the Old »

December 28, 2006

Cleans Down to What Should Be the Shine

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Posted by Derek

One of the main things I'm going to have to do when I get back to my lab is clean it up. That's not something that I spend much time on, under ordinary conditions. For one thing, I don't run as many reactions as I used to, so it doesn't get dirty as fast. But I'm not someone who makes a clean lab bench my goal at the end of each working day, that's for sure. There are messier people at the Wonder Drug Factory, but there are neater, too.

In fact, I distrust lab benches that look as if you could safely make a sandwich on them. Those, as far as I can see, indicate too much cleaning and not enough real work - or, in the larger sense, too much of a concern for appearances at the expense of what matters. You don't want your lab bench to be a tourist attraction (or a standing joke), much less a safety hazard. But it doesn't (shouldn't!) be a showpiece, either, because to people who really understand the way research works, you're sending the wrong message.

I remember straightening up my lab once at a former job, and afterwards I noticed several people outside in the hall near my door. "What are you people doing loitering around?" I called out, and Stu McCombie (yep, that McCombie - he worked down the hall from me) answered "We're taking bets on how long your lab is going to look like that!"

"Well," I told him, "as soon as I start doing some real work in here it's going to go straight downhill." "That's what makes it a sporting bet," said Stu, "No one know when that's going to be!"

Comments (13) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Closing Time | Life in the Drug Labs


1. diketenes on December 28, 2006 3:53 PM writes...

Your post makes me feel good. My hood is exactly what a good chemist should have as you said: not spotless, not like a dumpster.

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2. Trostsbaby on December 29, 2006 1:16 AM writes...

I am pretty clean myself. In my experience, no one my management heirarchy really cares what your bench looks like, clean or dirty, my worth as a chemist is (as it should be) measured by results.

I have never understood the logic behind "dirty bench = hard working chemist". If you clean up after yourself as you are doing things it does not add any extra time to your schedule. You are going to have to eventually wash that glassware and wipe up that crap covering your hood, right?

I usually sweep up and wipe down my benchtop every 2-3 weeks and it takes about 5-10 minutes. I don't clean up to create a "showpiece" but to aleviate my having all the substances, many with unknown toxicity go down my lungs, through my gloves, or get on my clothes. In addition, I feel I can work much faster with a clean workspace since I have more room to carry out the various manipulations.

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3. s on December 29, 2006 1:25 PM writes...

I have to agree with Trostsbaby on this one. I also find that if I have too many flasks and roundbottoms in my hood, it's counterproductive to my work. It isn't a matter of having a showpiece, but being able to quickly find intermediates that I am actively using without having to search through numerous flasks.

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4. Derek Lowe on December 29, 2006 2:17 PM writes...

It's true that when my bench and hood get too messy that it affects my work. There's definitely a limit. But while a messy hood may not indicate a hard-working chemist, a spotless one still says the opposite, as far as I'm concerned.

I don't mean clearing things out every two or three weeks, as Trostsbaby mentions (which sounds pretty sensible to me - wish I followed that schedule myself). I'm talking about people who do that every day, and I have seen a few.

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5. milkshake on December 29, 2006 10:58 PM writes...

Uncluttered and frequently cleaned hood/bench can indicate an obsessive-compulsive personality (which is not a bad thing with a chemist working on a methodology project).

Space is valuable and when you put a vial or flask on the bench, you don't want to have something yellow stickin' onto the bottom. Also washing glassware as soon as you use it is good thing - like with dirty dishes, glassware is harder to clean up when the stuff dries up on them.

Maybe it is just me but I get frustrated when I have not enough space around my reactions and it takes away the enjoyment.

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6. kilroy on December 30, 2006 12:41 PM writes...

I prefer a perpetual amount of dirtiness, an equilibrium if you will. Dirty dishes are cleaned and replaced by other dirty dishes. I would put my equilibrium constant of: CLEAN DIRTY at about 0.8

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7. een of andere vent on December 30, 2006 4:04 PM writes...

---washing glassware as soon as you use it is good thing---

Well, that depends on where you are. I used to put a bit of pump-oil in my flasks to pretend that it was some product. Otherwise there was a (good) chance that it was gone (stolen) within a few hours.

Now, in industry, it is different. If a round-bottom flask is too hard too clean (more than 2 mins or so) it is thrown away. Now I am so happy that the real washing is done by other people. They do some real useful work.

So many things changed when I got into industry. I once had my two precious NMR-tubes and my one and only 1 litre flask. Now I can order as much flasks as I want, and NMR tubes are not to be recycled anymore. Quite silly that I am not able to keep a clean hood though. I was even rebuked by the safety guys once..... shame on me....

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8. Phil-Z on December 30, 2006 6:19 PM writes...

My first boss was wise, and his comment on cleaning was more or less this - One day you are going to tip over a flask full of stuff that took six weeks to make, and you're going to have to figure out how to get it off the bench and cleaned up, or go back and make it again. I took that advice to heart and it saved me more than once. I always cleaned as I worked; there was always time while I waited for reflux or for TLC plates to run to scrape up the silica spilled the last time I packed a column or to brush the caked goo off the hot plate we developed TLC plates on. Porters did my glassware but I still had to stack everyting back in the drawers.
I still work the same way but now it's when I cook. It's great, minimal post dinner cleanup, just rinse the plates and relax.

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9. Chrispy on December 30, 2006 8:18 PM writes...

I'm with you, Phil. I have on more than one occasion extracted my material from the floor. They shouldn't wax the floors in labs -- NMRs from floor extracted stuff always have a big ol' floor wax peak down at the bottom.

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10. Harry on December 31, 2006 2:58 PM writes...

LOL @ recovering from the floor. I have had similar experiences- the most massive of which was disassembling a 22 liter mantle and taking the entire liner and insulation and extracting repeatedly with isopropanol in order to recover some very valuable material which I stupidly emptied from the flask via dropping a stir rod vertically into the bottom of the flask. We actually ended up discarding the insulation after we washed it and reassembled the mantle using the original cloth liner and heating elements and fresh insulation. Poor people have poor means!

Happy New Years to you all!

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11. Greg Hlatky on December 31, 2006 5:24 PM writes...

I've never had to extract material from the floor, but once I evenly distributed on the surface of the antechamber of my drybox the world's only existing sample of a metallocene catalyst (imported from Germany).

It was in a Schlenck tube and on the second pump-down a heard a "pop!" inside the antechamber and, sure enough, when I opened the inner door the entire antechamber was yellow. I recovered almost all of it - luckily for my career. Soon afterwards I had a vent line installed so the antechamber could be purged instead of pumped down.

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12. Jeremiah on January 1, 2007 3:18 PM writes...

at the end of each day I clean all my glassware and wipe down my bench. I would say the surface is very clean and rightfully so. Maintaining a modest degree of messiness (or tolerating it, for that matter) in an effort to project the image of productivity is awfully lame. Since compound spills are infinitely easier to clean up from a neat bench and setting up reactions is considerably faster when you have plenty of room to work, the only ACTUAL reason I can see for not keeping a clean bench is laziness. In fact, it can be downright inconsiderate.

One inconsiderate person in our lab, for instance, has accumulated more than twice the number of flasks anyone else has and never cleans them, he's even bold enough to announce that he never cleans them to keep people from using them. Besides, it just makes the lab look bad.

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13. Tim Mayer on January 1, 2007 10:39 PM writes...

I've always felt that a clean bench was the sign of someone who did nothing. That said, I hate a dirty bench and try to keep mine neat.

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