A week in my life

Hello! My name is Laura Jane, and I’m a PhD candidate hailing from Stellenbosch, South Africa, here to show you what a week in my #RealTimeChem life entails!

 

One of the things our group is working on is a class of molecules called dithiadiazolyls (see this paper for more). Dithiadiazolyls (or DTDAs) are sulphur- and nitrogen-containing heterocycles that exist as neutral radicals. (It is interesting to note that the SOMO, in which the unpaired electronDTDA resides, is nodal at the carbon of the DTDA ring, so it is possible to alter the nature of the R-group without significantly altering the nature of the DTDA ring.) Thiazyl radicals have been investigated as potential building blocks for the design of molecular materials with interesting and desirable physical properties, such as conductivity and magnetism. Their magnetic and electrical conducting properties relate directly to their solid state structure. Unfortunately, many DTDAs tend to diamerise in the solid state, which results in spin pairing and, consequently, loss of any magnetic or conductive properties. We therefore look into ways to override this diamerisation and direct the structure of these materials in the solid state. My project involves the use of porphyrins as supramolecular scaffolds to create novel materials.

Monday

Monday morning starts like any other, with a cup of tea and `n Ouma beskuit while I read the news, then a breakfast of fresh fruit while I check up on what’s new in the Chemistry world. After checking my email, it’s off to my supervisor’s office, to discuss my plans for the week, but more importantly – to discuss our group’s plans regarding data backups (and storing data off-campus), spurred on by the previous day’s fire at one of our neighbouring buildings. Today ended up being an office day, not a lab day. First, backing up my data. While that’s running (my laptop tends to crash if you try giving it two things to do at once), I head off on a library run. When I return, it’s time to go play catch-up by going through some data from the last two weeks that I collected, but didn’t process, as I had fallen ill.

On Tuesday afternoons I have to demonstrate (“demi”) for an undergraduate practical session. First though, marking a stack of my class’s lab reports (nothing like leaving your marking to the last moment!). By the time that is finally done, there’s only an hour or two to spend in the lab, so I catch up on the always-fun tasks such as cleaning the never-ending pile of dirty glassware, sweeping the floor, taking inventory and so on. After a quick lunch at my desk while I catch up with what’s happening on Twitter, I haul myself and my giant stack of books across the road and around the block to one of the other Chemistry buildings for my demi duty. (The Department of Chemistry and Polymer Science at SU is spread over five buildings). This semester I’m involved in second year Inorganic Chemistry, a fun course to demi for as the pracs involve fundamental concepts and lots of pretty colours! Today’s practical involves introducing the students to the concept of qualitative analysis. South Africa has a very diverse population and consequently has 11 official languages – so language policy is a very important topic. While SU has traditionally been an Afrikaans university, undergraduate programs are now mostly bilingual (with postgraduate programs typically run only in English), so it’s quite a challenge constantly switching between the two languages when explaining to the students if your brain isn’t fully engaged.

Tuesday 

Wednesday arrives and it’s time to hit the lab for some DTDA synthesis! DTDAs are very moisture sensitive, so it’s all about the Schlenk line. I work in a tiny little synthesis lab, where currently only myself and a MSc student are working in the fume hoods.  Today it’s just step one of the DTDA synthesis, first creating LiHMDS in situ (it arrives in an unusable state when purchased as-is), then – no, wait, load shedding has kicked in again. Luckily, our building can get power from back-up generators (otherwise it’s 2.5 hours without power each time), but it’s still a minute of standing around in the dark waiting for electricity to return. Once the lights are back on and the stirrer plate is working again, it’s on adding the desired aromatic nitrile to form a silylated amidine.  While those reactions are stirring away until completed, I turn my attention to my DTDA – metalloporphyrin complexations. These tend to take (what seems like) forever to form diffraction-quality crystals, so there are normally lots of these running in the background. Because of the moisture-sensitive nature of the DTDA radicals, I tend to set up these crystallizations in skinny Schlenk tubes rather than crystallization vials – it turns out that old-school test tube racks are perfect for holding these flasks when there’s only so much room to clamp flasks in your fume hood!

Wednesday

Thursday brings step two, condensation of the silylated amidine with SCl2 to form a dithiadiazolylium chloride salt. SCl2 is another reagent that we have to synthesise ourselves (from powdered sulphur and chlorine gas), and smells just about as lovely as you can guess, so luckily I don’t have many lab-mates to irritate! Once the product has formed, it’s time to filter and wash it – inertly of course. After drying in vacuo, the dithiadiazolylium chloride salt is obtained as a yellow powder. Halfway through the day, there’s a short break from the lab for group meeting. Typically, our group meetings involve one student presenting their current research and another presenting a paper in a relevant field. This week, however, was something a little bit different as our group was hosting Prof. Wais Hosseini (University of Strasbourg), who was given the opportunity to discuss some of his group’s work in molecular tectonics.

Thursday

The last thing to do for Friday is reduce the dithiadiazolylium chloride salt to the dithiadiazolyl radical. There are several ways to do this, but my favourite is a solid-state reduction using triphenylantimony. (Zinc-Copper couple in THF is another option.) If the reaction is successful, a drastic colour change from yellow to purple is observed. Purification is then achieved by means of sublimation to get shiny dark purple crystals, all ready to meet up with some porphyrins next week.

Friday

Finally, the week comes to an end and it’s time to enjoy the late afternoon sun with a glass of cold Sauvignon Blanc on the lawns of a wine farm just up the road! Life in Stellenbosch isn’t all too bad!

wine

Author biography:

 

LauraJane

Laura van Laeren is a PhD candidate at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. She is currently investigating novel thiazyl radical – metalloporphyrin complexes under the supervision of Prof Delia Haynes and Dr Katherine de Villiers. Her passions include the written word, scientific education and the Cape Winelands.

Blogs at Whimsical Science (http://www.whimsicalscience.com/) & Whimsy Is Forever (http://www.whimsyisforever.com/)

 

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RealTimeChem Week 2014 – starts 23rd June 2014

Dear RealTimeChem brigade & other chemists of the world,

This year’s #RealTimeChem Week will take place the week starting Monday 23rd June 2014.

For further information check out the updated FAQ. Posters you can use are still to come if anyone fancies designing some I will happily put them up on the FAQ for people to use.

RTCWeekBannerInternational2014

 

So please spread the word and I hope you’ll share something fantastic with us that week in the Twitterverse.

 

Best,

-Doctor Galactic & The Lab Coat Cowboy-

 

#ChemSummer Carnival: Chemist in a hot tin lab.

This post is part of the #ChemSummer carnival hosted by C&E News and Rachel Pepling (just about!).

Feelin’ hot, hot, hot.

It’s the summer time and this is the first time in five years that I have not spent it frying in a chemistry laboratory. Unless you are (or were) one of those “lazy” PhD students who took one of those mythical things that the scholars of time gone by called…a holiday… you probably spent a large chunk of your time in the chemistry laboratory during the summer trying to find ways not to spend a large chunk of your time in a chemistry laboratory during the summer. Yet, chemistry has to get done. Unlike undergrads, postgrads don’t get a vacation. Your on postgrad time. Research, sadly, doesn’t do itself.

So while everyone else is out getting bronzed, you’re stuck in the laboratory looking more and more like you’re trying to colour match your white coat.

Imagine him with a white coat and you're half-way there.

Imagine him with a white coat and your half-way there.

I’d like to think that every chemist worth their salt has spent at least some time in the “summer laboratory hell hole”.

I know I did.

None of the chemistry laboratories (or buildings for that matter) that I’ve ever worked in have had the miracle/curse of full air conditioning, some of them didn’t even have windows that could be opened properly. Some of them didn’t even have windows. So with drying ovens on, heat gun blowing, water bathes steaming and equipment working, the lab generally descended into smelly sweat box, with temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius.

Me in the summer in the lab. Clearly the hat was a mistake.

Me in the summer in the lab. Clearly the hat was a mistake.

Seeing as this has turned into a full blown rant about summer, here’s a list of other issues I hated about the summer heat of the laboratory:

  • You can’t dress for the summer. Sure you can take of the white coat if you’re not doing anything particularly unsafe, but it’s still got to go on at some point and you roast when you do. Additionally, having to wear the type of safety glasses that go over your normal glasses you’ll find that they start slipping off of your face from the sweat. You can’t wear shorts. You can’t wear sandals. You can’t wear anything too nice and summery in case you destroy it with chemicals.
  • You dehydrate. Unless your supervisor has had the foresight to include a water cooler in your laboratory office, you’ve got to find a watering hole. There’s no drinking in the laboratory after all.
  • Solvent evaporation. Last year during my post doc it was so hot in the laboratory that we surpassed the boiling point of diethyl ether. That’s a problem, especially when you’re trying to TLC something accurately and there’s also the nasty issue of exploding solvent bottles when somebody screws the cap on just that little bit too tight. They make such a delightful crack, which is followed by a wonderful dizziness induced by inhaling most of the released contents, which is now filling the laboratory.
  • That whole “ambient temperature” thing. There are “ambient temperature” reactions that work in the winter that don’t work in the summer and vice versa. Particularly when the swing in temperature from one to the other is -2 to 35 °C. Although, summer’s the best time to try the methods that you find in papers from countries that are hot all year around.
  • Your lab mates. I’ve been blessed in the sense that most of them have been great. Unfortunately, I’ve also been blessed with some that smelled. During the summer there’s always at least one who seems to come down with unenviable “smelly lab mate syndrome”.
The chemistry lab in summer.

The chemistry lab in summer.

So I love chemistry. But I don’t love chemistry in a hot laboratory in the summer. Don’t let it put you off. Of course, some of you will wonder what I’m talking about. So I say, damn you lucky chemists who don’t know what I’m talking about. Yes, you and your fancy “Hollywood Summer Blockbuster” laboratories, with your air conditioning and completely lax safety policies that let your students wear short skirts wihtout safety glasses and let random visitors wander around getting bitten by radioactive spiders….

This is totally a chemistry lab. We all have white coats don't we?

This is totally a chemistry lab. We all have white coats don’t we?

Of course, it’s not all bad. Summer means you don’t have to go home in the dark. You can sometimes find the time in your less busy summer schedule to exit the laboratory and see the fabled “outside” you hear other subjects PhD students speak about with such fervent joy. You can have ice cream in public without being called weird. You suddenly have a strange compulsion to go to the NMR room as frequently as possible because its the coolest room in the building and this does wonders for your sample data backlog. Plus there’s no undergraduates around to look after and get in your way on campus.

In the end it’s part of the old job I don’t miss. I now sit in an office all day in comfort, where ambient temperature meets the IUPAC definition of the term.

So I have the greatest respect for all of you suffering in those old labaoratories out there this summer.

Here’s to the summer chemist. You’ve earned this:

ice-cold-beer-330461

The Lab Coat Cowboy

Thoughts on recent RealTimeChem developments (with a poll!)

Hello everybody!

Yes I am still alive, I know I’ve been a little quieter over the past month or so than I said I would be, but life and that holiday that used to be all about the birth of Jesus Christ intervened. Some large changes are coming my way in the form of a new job (I’m moving from my academic life as a “lab monkey” into publishing as an editor) and that’s involving a change of scenery too (from smelly old London to Cambridge).

I’m still very interested and committed to #RealTimeChem which seems to be in constant use in the chemistry twitterverse, which is frankly fantastic. Particularly intriguing is the situation brewing with the masked chemist @SeeArrOh on his blog Just Like Cooking where #RealTimeChem has been used as a call to arms to investigate a recent Fe-S catalysis reaction in the literature. This has created some excellent discussions and more importantly attempted repetition of the results, which have not been turning out great so far. I suggest if your interested to keep an eye on See Arr Oh’s twitter feed and blog.

SeeArrOh - who probably isn't a dog in real life. Although wouldn't that be AWESOME? A dog doing chemistry? What would Chemistry Cat say?

SeeArrOh – who probably isn’t a dog in real life. Although wouldn’t that be AWESOME? A dog doing chemistry? What would Chemistry Cat say?

I think this is great. This is what #RealTimeChem is there for, to be used by the chemistry community to report on chemistry being done right here and now. Science in general needs to have greater transparency so that we don’t appear to be a bunch of sentient robots, plugged into computers performing boring laboratory reactions and the general evil bidding of “the man”.

Hell there, so I'm told you're a chemist?

Hell there, so I’m told you’re a chemist?

There are all sorts of interesting tweets being made so check it out under the #RealTimeChem hastag or follow selected highlights on @RealTimeChem (I’m trying to keep up I swear!). Alternately, if you are looking for more twitter related fun you might want to check out the hashtag #OverlyHonestMethods which is also shining a light into the dark corners of REAL laboratory life with scientists of all kinds playing on the idea that some parts of their experimental methods probably wouldn’t get past peer review!

Yeah you know that product is going in that dirty water any second now, but you certainly aren't going to put THAT in your experimental section!

Yeah you know that product is going in that dirty water any second now, but you certainly aren’t going to put THAT in your experimental section!

My final point for today is to discuss the future of #RealTimeChem. I’ve made in known via twitter that at some point this year I’d like to run another event. The last one went down rather well, but many didn’t get the chance to participant so next time around the format is going to be stretched into a week. Yes folks in 2013 there will be this:

RealTimeChemWeek copyYep that’s 7 days (I know some of you work weekends) where every chemist in the world (on twitter) is encouraged to tweet about their life in chemistry for a week. You won’t have to do the whole week unless you really want to, but it you a bigger window to join in with everybody else essentially.

So when will it be? Well, I think I will leave that up to the community! Below you shall find a poll, where you can vote for the month that you would like #RealTimeChemWeek to happen. You shall note it starts from April, largely because there will need to be some preparation time for it.

So vote away and if you have any suggestions, comments or questions please leave a comment or get in touch with me via twitter.

Oh and happy New Year!

-Doctor Galactic & The Lab Coat Cowboy-

24 favourite tweets from 24 hours of Real-Time Chemistry.

The above banner was by @squidring on twitter. Check out her art here. Multi-talented! 

Chemistry was tweeted in real-time on the 7th November. It seems from feedback I’ve received that it was enjoyed. Obviously there is some room for improvement, so please, if you were disappointed don’t hesitate to tell me what you’d like to see in the next RealTimeChem event. As promised I’ve written this post in order to showcase my observations of the day and my favourite-ist tweets and pictures from the day.

It’s been a reeeeeeeally difficult task, as there was a LOT of excellent #RealTimeChem, so if you don’t see yourself mentioned here, I apologise and still think you were wonderful. All tweets and your time were appreciated.

In keeping with the theme of the event here are 24 of my favourite tweets:

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That was the longest day of your life.

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So it is all over! RealTimeChem day has come and gone on Twitter and what a day! There was so much chemistry going on that I pretty much broke my twitter account and I scarcely know where to begin when it comes to summing it all up!

I’d like to thank everybody that got involved in tweeting about their daily life as a chemist, no matter how small the contribution. You all helped to make it a engaging and all round fun day. There are some tweeters who deserve some special gratitude and I’ll highlight those in the next blog post, which I’ll hopefully have done on Monday.

Additionally, I’ll be posting up some of my favourite tweets and pictures from the day once I’ve had time to process all of the awesomeness that occurred.

While #RealTimeChem day is over, the hash tag is still there for use whenever you feel like informing the everyone what you are up to in your personal chemistry world. I think its important in this modern age of social media in particular that chemistry continues to engage with the masses and chemists are able to pass on their knowledge, enthusiasm and general love of their subject onto others in an entertaining way.

Moreover, as a chemist myself it’s really great to see what other chemists in all areas of the profession are doing daily. To see what sticky mess a reaction has made. To see what instruments are being used. To see what articles are being written or read. Even to see how dirty all those fume hoods really are!

Hopefully you enjoyed RealTimeChem Day and it has helped you to feel a part of a substantial community united by our desire for scientific discovery (and twitter!). It’s certainly inspired me.

There will most likely be further RealTimeChem events in the future, but for now…

Mischief managed. 

-Doctor Galactic & The Lab Coat Cowboy-