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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 13, 2007


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Posted by Derek

One of the comments to my brief post earlier today brought back some memories. Back in graduate school, we were a comparatively well-off group. That is, we graduate students lived off grant money after our first year - no more teaching assistant duties. Compared to some of the other professors, whose students were TAing in their fourth years and beyond, this was luxury.

But luxury went only so far. We still had to watch our expenditures in the lab, and ordering of reagents and supplies was kept under tight control. We didn't go as far as recycling our wash acetone (well, most of us didn't - see here for what happened to the fellow who did), but If you wanted a fresh bottle of something, you had to justify it: what's wrong with the one we've got, heh?

I was pushing a big pile of material through the early stages of a long synthesis, so I (and the people like me) needed larger amounts of things. I remember getting in a fresh 800 mL bottle of borane/THF, of which I was going to use about 700 mL in one big ol' hydroboration reaction. Ready to go! Got my starting material on the pump, got my freshly distilled solvent, got my untouched bottle of. . .wait a minute. That's not on the shelf where I left it. And it's. . .it's. . .

What it was, was about half empty. Yes, one day in the lab was all it took for my pristine stockpile of borane to be raided. To add that extra emotional touch, when I unscrewed the cap and looked at the seal, the person who'd pirated the stuff had apparently used something the size of a knitting needle to remove it. The "Sure-Seal" was surely hollowed out, to the point that I could see the borane solution sloshing down there in the distance.

I didn't take it well - it was grad school, so I didn't anything too well. I went stomping through the labs, beard bristling out, hands making involuntary strangling motions in the air, asking who, just who, had helped themselves to half a liter of borane/THF in the last day? Eh? Well, as you'd guess, no one had. Nope, nobody at all had used that there borane, no-sir-ree, didn't even know it was there. Some of my colleagues assured me that they'd never used borane in their lives, and a couple of them seemed surprised to find that there was a chemical with such an odd and catchy name. What you say, boh-rain?

I never did find the culprit. Most of the time, you never do. I gritted my teeth, used some more foul language, ordered another bottle of reagent - and used it right out of the box this time, trailing little flecks of vermiculite packing material behind me.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. TNC on August 13, 2007 9:48 PM writes...

Man, I would have started flipping through notebooks real quick.

But I'm surprised that you did not hide your borane, especially if you needed all of it.

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2. eugene on August 13, 2007 10:39 PM writes...

That's a little extreme for me. Normally, everything in the fridge that's air sensitive considered communal. Did you put a name on that bottle of borane by any chance? I do get really mad at people who can't use Sure Seal correctly though. Maybe I should start putting my name on the butyl lithium. Good thing that my lab is small and as far as I know, nobody else uses borane, other boron containing nasties that boil at 35C and react with everything, and tBuLi except for me. I think that was your fault Derek. You probably scared the poor person who was justly using communal reagents out of their mind. Shame on you.

Speaking of tBuLi, it's that time of the year again. Time to do a 1L tBuLi solution reaction at reflux to get some starting material. That 1L bottle is getting old waiting for me in the fridge. Way better than the extreme large scale amination with sodium amide at reflux that I'm not looking forward to (but will probably have to do someday).

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3. Radiochemist on August 14, 2007 4:36 AM writes...

With me it was AD mix, I stockpiled 250g of each of them from the regular visit to company that sponsored the project.
Then we had a lovely Libyan woman doing a MSc who used pretty much all of it within a year generating mg amounts of diols.
in the end I moved labs and took what was left with me and made my supervisor realise quite how much she was wasting (roughly a bottle a week at one point).
My only conclusion was that she was dihydroylating herself in the end

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4. NJBiologist on August 14, 2007 7:48 AM writes...

My favorite pilferage story: a molecular biology lab where reagent theft--especially buffers--was so common that one student never labeled anything she made. Imagine thirty or forty unlabeled orange-cap Pyrex bottles of clear solutions lined up on the same shelf....

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5. GATC on August 14, 2007 8:15 AM writes...

Ah yes.....this was all part of the game back in grad school in a mol bio lab. It was a fine line between the communal stuff, the personal "do not touch stuff", and the stuff you wouldn't mind sharing or barter. The big issue for us was bacterial cuture media since we not only cloned things in E. coli, but were working with some fastidious pathogens that required some fairly complex media. We also had a chemically defined media for one that required nearly an entire day to prepare. Sterility also was an issue since if you shared media, the person doing the taking had to have good aseptic technique or else the next time you went to your stock, it would be contaminated. If a hog joined the lab, this often required some interesting labeling practices, coding, and even on occasion, selective dosing with gentamicin. Then if in the next lab meeting someone suddenly couldn't get his/her cultures to grow you knew who it was. I used a similar strategy with a house-mate who would raid my shelf of the frig. It is amazing how effective Syrup of Ipecac can be but one must have a good memory.

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6. clazy on August 14, 2007 9:27 AM writes...

Did someone on the other side of the wall use much borane/THF? The prints in my photographic memory (oh?) have faded significantly, but that handwriting was distinctive....

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7. eugene on August 14, 2007 9:41 AM writes...

Also, it could have been someone from another lab who came in during the night and took your borane/THF out of the fridge at around 4 a.m. They probably had a story ready that they really needed to use it and couldn't find theirs, but since no one came by 5 a.m. when they were done, they just put the half empty bottle back in your lab fridge giggling to themselves like evil little gnomes.

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8. Flash-column Jockey on August 14, 2007 10:16 AM writes...

Derek, I really enjoy reading tales from your grad school days. The historical fury in your writing reflects the present day fury in my grad school-poisoned soul. Especially the part about the vermiculite packaging; that stuff gets everywhere.

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9. Caleb on August 14, 2007 12:56 PM writes...

Ditto #8. I'd like to hear more stories about ye old grad school days, it helps soothe my grad school rage!

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10. Wavefunction on August 14, 2007 2:28 PM writes...

That's a hilarious post and episode...but only in retrospect I am sure; I can well imagine the agony and frustration and rage.

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11. industry guy on August 14, 2007 3:23 PM writes...

I extracted revenge on the labmate who used to borrow my premade solvents for flash columns......ahh a little DMSO sure comes in handy:)

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12. TNC on August 14, 2007 3:34 PM writes...

I think the thing that surprised me (although it should not have) was the existence of stealing/hoarding in industry environments as well. You'd think there would be no need for it in a land of relative plenty.

I guess you can't untrain people's bad habits.

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13. CLE on August 14, 2007 4:03 PM writes...

Ditto #4:

a molecular biology lab where reagent theft--especially buffers--was so common that one student never labeled anything she made. Imagine thirty or forty unlabeled orange-cap Pyrex bottles of clear solutions lined up on the same shelf....

We had someone in a lab down the hall from my grad mobio lab who went one step further: he *mislabeled* things. Think you're borrowing buffer? That might just be 1N HCl instead!

There was also the fellow who had his own 'private stock' of what were supposed to be common lab equipment (e.g. the open glass tubes we used for DNA precipitation). It did at least mean that I could borrow out of his stock if I couldn't find any in the common stock area. Naughty me! (I did put them back when I was done though.)

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14. MTK on August 14, 2007 7:28 PM writes...

We had one nutbag of a grad student who thought that rest of us were always pilfering his glassware. It got to the point that we would crack open one of his drawers about a quarter inch, but not take anything. He would then come back and think that someone went through his glassware. He would then call us every name in the book and swear that he had seven 50 mL rb's before he left, not the six he now had.

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15. Anonymous BMS Researcher on August 15, 2007 6:23 AM writes...

Such things happen everywhere, and not only in the chemistry world -- at a NON-pharma industrial employer back in the early 1980s (BEFORE I went to grad school), I knew an engineer who was so prone to grabbing things from the stockroom without filling out paperwork that whenever they saw him the stockroom folks would just about waylay the guy...

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16. bioart on August 18, 2007 5:11 PM writes...

My favorite story from a lab down the hall was the seemingly wise grad student who put up a sign on his shelf saying: "One of these bottles is mislabeled"

it was all fun and games until one day he came in and the sign had changed to: "Two of these bottles are mislabeled"

ahh, the good ol' days :)

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