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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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September 11, 2007

Fresh Air, Or What Passes For It

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Posted by Derek

For my scientifically employed readers, here’s something my labs don’t have, and I'll bet yours don't either: windows that open. I’ve only been in a couple of chemistry labs that did.

My undergraduate chemistry building (since renovated) had had its windows concreted over in the 1960s. That was bearable most of the time, but the summer I did undergraduate work there, the air conditioned kacked out on us a few times. This was troublesome. You don’t want to be on the fourth floor of a building with no windows in Arkansas in the summertime. Ether in that era was still sold in the round metal cans with the soft alloy caps that you sliced off, and then put a plastic snap-cap over. I remember the poonk-poonk sound of those ether caps blowing off as the temperature rose, which we took as a good substitute for a quitting-time whistle.

My graduate work was windowless as well. It was done in a building where all the lab space was on the inside, so you had to leave the bench and head down the hallway if you wanted to find one of the narrow little window slits at all. It was easy to lose track of time in there, which was probably a design feature (just as in a casino’s gambling floor).

But when I went to Germany to do my post-doc, I had several adjustments to make, among them a lab whose windows not only opened, but needed to be. Like many German buildings, this one wasn’t air-conditioned, so in the summertime you needed to get a breeze going. It was a real novelty to see the wind ruffling the pages of my lab notebook, that’s for sure. I always wondered about how this affected the air balance of the fume hoods, but since they didn’t work that well to start with, it may not have been a concern.

And since then, I’ve yet to see an industrial lab with operable windows, other than my very first one. And even those were almost never used. For one thing, the building had air conditioning, since New Jersey is definitely more tropical than Central Europe. But another reason was that our lab faced directly out onto a major highway, so the only thing you’d get by opening the windows would be exhaust fumes, traffic noise, and (in the summertime) the occasional curse and honk of a horn. I did see my labmate make use of his window at one point, though, after he’d spilled some ethanethiol on his shirt. He tried hanging it out the window to air out. This was unsuccessful, of course, but it says a lot about ethanethiol that it makes you consider hanging your laundry out over the Garden State Parkway to freshen it up.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Sarah on September 11, 2007 8:10 PM writes...

When I was in grad school (2000-2005), the building we were in had windows that opened. In fact, they didn't seal correctly, and in the dead of winter I couldn't sit at my desk and type past 6pm -- my fingers would get numb. Finally in my last year, I was so sick of the draft, I used packing tape to seal the window.

The building was 9 stories high, and the roof was easily accessible (where all the grad students watched the July 4th fireworks). I'm not sure it was a good environment for frustrated graduate students.

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2. Grad on September 11, 2007 9:29 PM writes...

I work in a lab that has massive windows all along one wall. (Our particular lab has high ceiling, and the windows go all the way up.) They've been painted shut, but an enterprising person could pry them open if they so desired. This building was built in 1923, so I suspect that windows were rather a bit necessary.

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3. Anonymous BMS Researcher on September 11, 2007 10:12 PM writes...

Certainly the windows in my current workplace cannot be opened. At Yale my office was in an older building that no longer exists, having been demolished to make way for new construction at the Medical School shortly after I left Yale. That building did have operable windows, but we rarely opened them as they had window A/C units in them. By the time I was there, that building had become even more decrepit than the Yale average since the administration planned on smashing it down soon -- so they were reluctant to invest anything in maintaining a soon-to-be-replaced building. For the most part I enjoyed my time as a postdoc at Yale Med School, but I don't miss the peeling paint and cracking plaster...

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4. Anonymous BMS Researcher on September 11, 2007 10:19 PM writes...

In between undergrad and grad school I worked for a while as an engineer in west Texas. That was a factory building with no windows on three walls, but the architects were idiotic enough to put the office section (which had windows) on the Southwest corner of the building, making for a massive summer A/C load. In Spring and Fall during that time when neither heating nor A/C was being used much, it got rather stuffy. I recall somebody saying to my boss there, "too bad we can't open the windows on such a nice Spring day." He replied, "oh I could easily OPEN these windows with a hammer, the hard part would be closing them again!"

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5. Lou on September 12, 2007 4:15 AM writes...

For my Ph.D. I worked in a lab where the tissue culture lab had an openable window. No one opened it, as the room was air-conditioned, not to mention the possibility of contamination of our precious cultures.

Also, I worked in an old, old building, where I was doing microbiology. The lab was nice, loads of windows - they could be opened during the summer when it got hot (we didn't have AC). Another PhD student and myself were freezing to death in winter, so much so that we had the bunsen burners going just to keep warm.
After one winter, we realised that one of the windows was open - it was near the ceiling, and was relatively small so we didn't notice it. For a year...

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6. NJBiologist on September 12, 2007 6:45 AM writes...

Derek, you forgot to mention the joys of accurately weighing compounds on a delicate analytical balance while semis thunder by....

But for my money, the creepiest windowless building I've ever seen is the main section of the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. It looks like a concrete Borg cube.

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7. Cranberry Guy on September 12, 2007 7:18 AM writes...

Some of the labs I worked in as an undergrad had windows that opened. It was nice to get a breeze in the summer but if they were left open at night the lab would be full of seagulls and pigeons in the morning.

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8. Dr.T on September 12, 2007 7:41 AM writes...

Coming of scientific age during the relative biotech bubble involved lots of glass. I have never NOT been in a brand new chemistry building. Grad School - brand new, outdoor corridors (SoCal!) lots of windows, Feet wetting job - brand new conversion, then brand new building lots of windows. Second job - brand new building lots of windows. Current postion - well, you get the idea. Is this the norm?

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9. Yttrai on September 12, 2007 8:02 AM writes...

My grad lab (Penn State - much further south than a lot of northerns realise) had openable windows without screens, and no air conditioning. We also used the "if the ether still is boiling by itself it's time to leave" rule. Though, in grad school, leave obviously meant hide in the air conditioned library until the sun went down.

There were a lot of students in my lab before 8 am and after 8 pm.

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10. andreew on September 12, 2007 9:30 AM writes...

In the tropical land I come from, almost all labs (especially those heavy on synthesis) are non-air conditioned. Ambient temperature is 27 to 35 C. Windows are usually left open a crack because from benchtop to ceiling, there are too many of them to close when it rains.

But when we do close the windows, the fumehoods give sufficient suction to hold the door open...

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11. Keyshee on September 12, 2007 9:49 AM writes...

Grad school lab was in an old classroom converted into a lab. Heat never worked right. Cooling was ancient single-panes that did swivel open. The sidewalk and street below were often crowded, but we never had a complaint from the many septums and rubber stoppers that were ejected from the building either by design or as collateral loss during one of the septum fights. Oh, and the occasional TLC plate hurled out in anger and frustration.

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12. Anonymous on September 12, 2007 10:23 AM writes...

Following on from Dr.T's comment, I worked in a lab in a newly opened, open plan (on the office section, not the lab itself), lots-of-windows kind of building.

Two problems emerged.
One was that kids were hurling... no, catapulting stones to our building so that the (expensive) window panes were constantly smashed to smithereens in the first half year of the building being occupied. Thank God for fortified glass. The kids got bored of it after a while, and have left the building alone after the initial onslaught.

Second, was that because of convection currents, the AC works much better on the ground floor (where I was) compared to the 4th floor. I think there was about a 10 degree C difference in temperature in the office area during the summer months.

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13. Curious Wavefunction on September 12, 2007 11:46 AM writes...

In one lab where I worked, open windows were the only way to get fumes of hydrochloric acid and hydrogen sulfide out.

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14. John Spevacek on September 12, 2007 11:49 AM writes...

I worked in a place where you could open the windows - once. They were blast windows that were designed to fail first, supposedly before the walls and ceilings. Never did put them to use.

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15. The Trade Watcher on September 12, 2007 6:49 PM writes...

You people who are employed in the labs should not feel picked on. As aging buildings get upgraded, nobody in any commercial, industrial, or large scale residential building will be able to open their windows. It is considered bad practice for it to be otherwise.

It's a shame that it has to be that way. But people are demanding a perfect indoor work environment year round. If people open windows during heating season or cooling season, this can not be achieved. Past experience has demonstrated that no matter how many times we explain this to the users of the buildings, they will still do these things. Since we can not break the hands of the guilty parties, we must punish the innocent with the guilty.

Although to be fair, with the air balancing demands of modern HVAC equipment and the push to save on energy costs, we would probably would have had to work towards always closed windows even if people in general were not morons.

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16. Flash-column Jockey on September 13, 2007 11:58 AM writes...

We had a new HVAC system installed here at ya olde grad school a few summers ago. While the retro-fitting of our building was being done, there was no air conditionint at all. July, mid 90's (Fahrenhiet) and humid to boot. The pragmatic grad students in the department followed my lead in jimmying open thier windows and removing the locking mechanisms. Here's hoping facility maintenance doesn't ask questions before I graduate.

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17. Butch Howard on September 13, 2007 3:24 PM writes...

I do not work in anything related to the chemistry field, but we had an incident just yesterday that had us all wishing our building had some way to open windows or some kind of emergency rapid ventilation.

A bag of popcorn was left unattended in a microwave with the timer set much too long. Much smoke resulted, filled most of the floor, and set off the fire alarms.

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18. thumper on September 13, 2007 4:22 PM writes...

I know this discussion is about the open/closed status of windows, but I think windows in a lab are a bad idea in general. Even though glass and plastic filter out uv light, I still get sketched out if sunlight is directly shining on my experiment. What about fluor bleaching and uncontroled reaction temperatures?

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19. Ian Argent on September 13, 2007 8:08 PM writes...

Union or Kenilworth? (In re the GSP anecdote).

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20. Derek Lowe on September 13, 2007 8:40 PM writes...

Bloomfield, actually - I go back that far!

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21. Lars on September 14, 2007 8:20 AM writes...

Hate to be a party-pooper but has anybody considered that if you have a massive chemical fire in the open window might not be the best thing?

Having been involved with not only working in chemistry labs but also designing them and the ventilation problems that inevitably accompany such an endevour, you quickly realise that maintaining the right ventilation in a multi-story laboratory building is not the easiest thing. Any source of non-controlled air in- or output can throw every fumehood in the building off and at that point...smelling the daisies is not priority 1.

Of course, all this doesn't offer much comfort when you lab-mate has just dropped a bottle of acrolein on the floor...

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