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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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« In Which I Hate A Wonder Drug | Main | Copper: A Gentleman's Disagreement »

May 14, 2008

Summer Student Time

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Posted by Derek

I have a summer intern this year, and she has (so far) not caused anything to burst into flames. That’s the first thing you ask of a summer student, and the fact that she’s gotten several reactions to work is just a welcome extra. A summer with no laboratory bonfires will be a successful summer, as far as I’m concerned.

That’s because I’ve experienced the alternative, as I’ve detailed here before. If most of the lab fire stories you hear start out with the phrase “We had this solvent still. . .”, the rest of them all seem to begin with “We had this summer undergrad student. . .” (You can imagine the flame-filled end to any story that starts out with a summer student distilling some solvent – that Venn diagram leaves you with no way out at all).

No, after watching an undergrad next door to me kick a four-liter jug of pyridine all over the floor, causing a shimmering wave of unspeakable pyridine vapors to almost knock me off my feet. . .and after watching another one walk away for two hours after setting up a reduced-pressure DMSO still, which inadvertently turned into a high-pressure apparatus and blew DMSO and calcium hydride all over the inside of a hood. . .and after watching them charcoal reactions by plugging heating apparatus straight into the wall outlet instead of into the Variac. . .and, well, you get the idea.

I should add that I was no great shakes as a summer undergrad myself. I did a summer after my sophomore year with Tom Goodwin, but didn't get a great deal accomplished (through no fault of his!) Then after my junior year, I worked with Dale Boger, back when he was at the University of Kansas, but I mostly (and rather slowly) found a list of conditions that don't work for inverse electron demand Diels-Alder reactions. But although I spilled some generous amounts of solvent, I didn't set anything on fire.

No, we're going to have a calmer and more productive summer around here. I have my student working on a problem I've had a longstanding interest in, one that needs some variables chased down and figured out. With any luck, enough data will be generated to make for an interesting publication late in the year, and everyone will come out ahead.

Comments (24) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Life in the Drug Labs


1. Darth Bubbster on May 14, 2008 10:14 AM writes...

We had a saying... "A good undergrad will double your workload, a bad one will blow a hole in your wall." Glad to see we weren't the only ones feeling that way.

As an intern myself (in mass spec) I only took one 10kV shock. Much like a toddler and open flame, it was a good teacher.

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2. Scot on May 14, 2008 10:53 AM writes...

Haha we had a similar 'rule of the lab' posted where I did undergrad research: A good undergrad accomplishes nothing, a bad one will take out a wall. (I only sliced open my finger on a broken thermometer ...)

Cynicism and dark humor aside, undergrad research is one of the best things a young scientist can do, and a great opportunity provided by companies and academic departments (not surprisingly, some academic departments do better at this than others do). My company hosts interns (and provides proper trainig and supervision), and the benefits for us are manifold. We also look specifically for undergraduate research on resumes of job applicants - I can't think of a BS-level chemist we have hired who doesn't have that experience, and I'm generally more favorably disposed toward masters and PhD holders who showed interest at that stage of their training (it's not the only criteria of course).

For the students, it's a great way to find out if they have the interest, talent, and skill to make laboratory work a career.

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3. MolecularGeek on May 14, 2008 12:03 PM writes...

As they used to say back in the day: "Summer Help, most aren't."

Glad that yours is working out well.

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4. Sili on May 14, 2008 12:11 PM writes...

Of course, now you've gone and jinxed it.

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5. Derek Lowe on May 14, 2008 1:14 PM writes...

You know, that line about taking out a wall originates with me, I think. Back in about 1986, I wrote up a list of "Lowe's Laws of the Lab", which got circulated around a lot for the next few years. One of them read: "A good summer undergrad will merely double your workload. A bad one will take out a wall."

That was partly borrowed from Samuel Shem's "The House of God", and partly based on my own summer student nearly taking me out in a dramatic explosion. I have a Lowe's Laws category over on the right-hand side there, which I really need to add to soon. . .

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6. Anonymous on May 14, 2008 1:14 PM writes...

So I will be at a summer internship this summer with a process chemistry group. Over/under on the number of digits and/or appendages I lose the use of?

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7. Kent G. Budge on May 14, 2008 1:39 PM writes...

My summer student is arriving next week. However, he's a talented graduate student and, this being a computational simulation workshop, he's not going to blow out any walls. However, he could conceivably hose our source code repository, which would be even worse for our program, but without the redeeming feature of being cool.

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8. BMOC on May 14, 2008 2:08 PM writes...

It is wise to remember also: In a Code, first take your own pulse.

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9. CMC guy on May 14, 2008 2:10 PM writes...

The statements by #2 Scot about enhanced applicants with undergrad research/internship is very true so encourage young scientist doing such. Even if you plan to go to grad school there is no greater exposure to what it's like in a lab.

#6 Anon not sure correct bet proposed. IMO most process labs are simultaneous safer and more dangerous than most med chem labs. Safer due to increased awareness, typical avoidance of real nasties and (hopefully) proper equipment availability (not as much cobbled together although can happen too). Dangerous primarily due to scales (bigger reactions and equipment) and perhaps some one like me with clumsy fingers (found in any lab though). So its more question of "survival" as if some thing goes wrong increased likeihood you're toast (does 98% chance you'll live sound OK?).

Derek although I had same jinx thought as #4 Sili you should allow your intern to write a guest post at the end to tell us about her experiences (especially any fires).

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10. joel on May 14, 2008 2:59 PM writes...

No explosions for me during my summer research. I did however break all the records for broken glassware. You name it, I busted it. Creatively.

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11. Scot on May 14, 2008 3:15 PM writes...

Derek, Wouldn't be surprised, my experience was 1986/87 in another Hendrix alum's lab (I think). Funny how these things go full circle!

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12. psi*psi on May 14, 2008 4:19 PM writes...

By the time I did a summer REU, I'd been a tech in about 4 other labs over a span of a little over 4 years. That didn't stop me from setting three fires, all within the same night. (In my defense...DMSO has a low flash point and will cause most O-rings to swell.)

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13. AHD on May 14, 2008 5:37 PM writes...

Been googling for Lowe's Laws of the Lab, and the only ones that come up on the web or usenet are the later ones written up in this blog. Now you've got me curious....

Is the original list available anywhere? Would you mind posting one?

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14. boaz on May 14, 2008 5:50 PM writes...

Speaking of publications, did the Wonder Drug Company ever let you publish the Vial 33 paper? I'm a relatively new reader who came through Instapundit's link to "Sand won't save you this time," and I found that saga in your archives.

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15. eugene on May 14, 2008 6:33 PM writes...

Well, I just had a pretty nice fire (medium sized) last week, and I didn't need a summer student to start it, just myself. It was actually pretty stupid in retrospect. Good thing I happened to have liquid nitrogen ready to quench all the flaming ether (it wasn't the ether that started it).

Though, I'm so used to it, that my heartbeat didn't increase at all this time, which is a first. Usually when there is a big fire, I find it a little exciting as I'm putting it out. But this time, nothing. It's as if the fire was dead to me. Maybe it wasn't big enough or I've been in this business for too long. It's a worrisome development, but I'm not yet ready to see my (pyro)psychiatrist.

I wish your undergrad luck and I hope that her fires are exciting and special for a long time to come.

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16. John Thacker on May 14, 2008 10:00 PM writes...

Speaking of lab stories, I know you did your PhD at Duke. Apparently a steam explosion at the LSRC killed an employee today.

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17. Merkwurdigliebe on May 15, 2008 7:24 AM writes...

I've been looking for my lost copy of "Laws/Rules of the Lab" for years. Let's see if I can remember some (other than the afore-mentioned "undergrad help"):

-Believe Tet Lett yield only if you are the kind of person who buys everything they see advertized on TV.

-Think hard about junking the old route or you will spend months "saving time."

-A dropped beaker will land where it can do the most damage.

-If an experiement requires n reagents, there will be n-1 in stock.

That's all I can remember. The last two were stolen from some famous scientific cartoonist from the 60s or 70s.

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18. barney on May 15, 2008 8:38 AM writes...

My finest moment as a summer undergrad ended up clearing a floor or two of the lab for a while. After a number of tries, I was able to make some methyl isocyanide (why I was making it is another story) and stored it in a small round-bottom in the -78 °C freezer. Sadly, I capped it with a septum wrapped in parafilm and the power to the freezer went out at some point shortly thereafter. As everything warmed up, the volatile methyl isocyanide built up enough pressure to pop the septum and spread out across the lab. That's some potent stuff.

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19. NHchem on May 15, 2008 12:48 PM writes...

While working on my degree, another hood was left unattended with a 2L beaker of toluene heating on a magnetic stir plate. Apparently, trying to dissolve a compound for recrystallization.

Needless to say, the burst of flames caught my eye and I remained calm to put out the hood fire. The person returned later to complain that we didn't save their compound! You may think it was a summer student but it was one of those "long time" graduate worked, they finally gave him his MS and said "adios".......

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20. Jill on May 15, 2008 4:52 PM writes...

OMG, you are so going to get sued by that student if you publicly humiliate or destroy her future prospects (even if she does mess up!). I would not want to work for anyone with a public blog. I am assuming Derek Lowe really does exist and your profile is not fictional.

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21. eugene on May 16, 2008 9:39 AM writes...

Students these days... always suing. Well, we can only hope that she is just a poor student like the rest of them, with no hope of suing anyone due to not having any money for the next 10 years. On the plus side, if her future prospects are destroyed, she won't be able to sue for an even longer time frame. Win!

But, this does bring up an interesting point. Derek, aren't you worried that your children are going to sue you, when they grow up, for all the stuff you've written about them on this blog? Or, are you going to cross that bridge when you come to it?

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22. GG on May 17, 2008 8:44 AM writes...

We had a fire in the lab yesterday too. As you may expect, the story begin as "There was a solvent still......"

However, this fire was not caused by any summer student...but a Postdoc!!

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23. Norepi on May 17, 2008 4:08 PM writes...

I caused two explosions as an undergrad, but one was due to an unknown finicky compound and one was due to a dangerous procedure that shouldn't have ever been published (I believe "distill to dryness" was actually in the procedure). Long story short: nitric acid + benzene + heaven knows what else + superheating to a preposterously high temperature = shrapnel we were still finding three months later.

The last summer undergrad I had was pretty good, but somehow managed to get everything she ever made contaminated with triethylammonium chloride, which is one heck of a pain to get rid of when your final product is also an ammonium salt.

That and she liked to fiddle with things on the NMR that she wasn't supposed to.

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24. J. Green on May 18, 2008 11:52 PM writes...

I worked with Dr. Goodwin for a full three years at Hendrix. I am happy to say that they had to evacuate Reynolds only once do to one of my bads. ;-)

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