Lab Entrance Exam

May 30th, 2013

ed_baseballcap_150All of a sudden, I’ve started receiving a deluge of e-mail from undergraduate students looking to start research. Given the space limitations, one of my labmates joked that to be fair, I should sponsor a Hunger Games style competition for admission to the lab.

I have never watched or read “The Hunger Games,” but I am somewhat uncomfortable sponsoring any sort of fight to the death. Nonetheless, it is interesting to think of what characteristics you’d like to have in prospective students. Perhaps a proper entrance exam would be more appropriate than mortal combat?


Lab Entrance Exam for Undergraduate Students

The lab entrance exam is held on the first Saturday of each month beginning at 6 am. It is broken down into the following subjects. You may use a calculator. Good luck.

Glassblowing: Given a BBQ grill and a 55-gallon drum of sand, construct a vacuum manifold for your fume hood.

Art of Negotiation: Given a p-card loaded with $50, purchase a stirring hot plate, lab jack, variac, and set of heating mantles for your bench. Hot plate must be IKA-brand or better.

Hazardous Waste Disposal: Using qualitative tests from gen chem and orgo lab, determine whether the unlabeled bottle of frothy orange liquid left in our future lab space should be disposed of as aqueous acidic, aqueous basic, halogenated organic, non-halogenated organic, or heavy metals waste. Fill out an appropriate waste label and carefully move the bottle to the waste collection cabinet.

Visual Acuity: From a distance of two meters, determine absorption maxima for the three solutions of chromophores sitting on the bench. Each chromophore has only one peak in the visible spectrum. Bonus: estimate extinction coefficients.

Safety: Within 15 seconds, locate and activate the lab’s eye wash station after donning a blindfold and being spun around twenty times.

Language/Writing: Translate any article in the journal Tetrahedron into English.

Olfactory Acuity: Given a hard copy of our group inventory, open the stockroom fridge for two seconds and report what bottles are leaking. If you haven’t already fallen unconscious, locate them and tighten the lids.

Skepticism: Write a 2000-word letter detailing the experimental deficiencies of any recent paper by an associate editor or advisory board member of Science, Nature, JACS, or Angewandte. If the editor refuses to publish your letter, upload it to Reddit/chemistry.

Endurance: Collect 1000 10-mL fractions of a streaky porphyrin mixture by flash chromatography. Rotavap each to dryness and collect an NMR spectrum for every 20th fraction.

Shuttle Run: Transport eight 20 L drums of methylene chloride from the VWR stockroom to our lab.

Strength: Steal a belt driven vacuum pump from the lab two floors above ours. Do not use our cart—I don’t want it scratched or stained with oil.

Instrumentation: Using a pair of yellow dishwashing gloves, duct tape, a cylinder of carbon dioxide, and anything you can buy at The Container Store for under $100, construct a glove-box suitable for our work simulating the prebiotic atmosphere.

Manual Dexterity: Replace the regulator on a nitrogen cylinder using no tools but your bare hands. Fastest time wins maximum points, but leaks in the system will result in penalties.


I’d be happy to take any students who could finish these tasks, even if they were lazy and skipped one or two of them.


18 Responses to “Lab Entrance Exam”

  1. Elaine Says:

    Perhaps a group spelling bee should come before the feats of strength?

    Visual Acuity: From a distance of two meters, determine absorption maxima for the three solutions of chromaphores sitting on the bench. Each chromaphore has only one peak in the visible spectrum. Bonus: estimate extinction coefficients.

  2. Paul Says:

    Touché and fixed. Thanks. That one always bites me: it’s chromatography, but chromophore.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    lol wow. Hardcore.

    I do like the idea of testing certain basic skills though. In genchem, often an algebra quiz is given first to make sure basic algerbra is understood by all the students (often it isn’t).

    Maybe a reasonable thing would be to give them an experimental section of a simple aqueous reaction and ask them to follow it, only with a certain number of questions they can ask.

    How about this: locate the 5 listed items selected at random from the inventory in the lab, write up a quick report of potential hazards and proper handling for each of them. Describe one reaction or process that those chemicals can be used in.

  4. See Arr Oh Says:

    I think you misspelled “Kombat” : )

    Another good manual dexterity / haz waste should be to “accidentally” spill 2 droplets of mercury, and have them pick >99% up with that goofy sponge kit. THEN show them how much better sulfur would have been…

  5. Paul Says:

    Respiratory endurance: Pipette 500 mL of mercury, by mouth, using a glass 20 mL volumetric pipette.

  6. Dr. Mel Says:

    You are of course setting yourself up for a Kobayashi Maru exemption where they manage to have a better idea than you without making you feel inadequate.

    You missed Group Dynamics: Maintain cordial (but not intimate) relations with all members of the group while scrounging: 1 L each of five dry solvents, 10 recently cleaned NMR tubes, an entire fractional microdistillation assembly while finding out what the PI’s coffee / pastry preferences are and bringing them to the next group meeting.

  7. Ian Says:

    I’ve also been struck by the sheer number of undergraduates that want to work in my lab.

    I haven’t figured out a good way to say ‘no’ yet. It seems like aptitude would be a good filter, but as a new prof I have no sense for what my expectations of undergraduates should be!

  8. Shawn Says:

    Very funny. From a practical standpoint, setting out your high expectations/standards in a meeting is usually sufficient to dissuade the résumé fodder only candidates.

    How about
    Perseverance: Do a retrosynthetic analysis for {insert natural product with obscene number of stereocenters} using only the print version of ChemAbstracts.

  9. Untenured Prof Says:

    More than anything I have found it very difficult to anticipate what a ‘good’ undergraduate student looks like ahead of time… best to let them in the lab to try and prove themselves and then can them later if they aren’t up to scratch (harsh, but effective).

  10. a Says:

    This is why god invented Training Projects. Get them up to speed, acts as a trial period for you+them, no harm no foul.

  11. Schrödinger Says:

    One less and we have the 12 tasks of Hercules :P

  12. David Eisenberg Says:

    I’d take a student that understands all these jokes…

  13. bitter pill Says:

    with respect to what to expect from undergrads, I go to Lowe’s Laws of the Lab: A good undergrad will double your workload. A bad one will take out a wall.

  14. kcat/km Says:

    As someone who has a lab consisting entirely of undergraduates at a large state university, I first meet with the prospective student to get some initial information on them. At this meeting I also give them a current paper in my area of research. I then ask them to come back after they have read the paper and we can talk about it. About half never come back. Of the students that do come back only half have actually read the paper and ask even one paper related question (my favorite off topic question was “Is science always this hard?”). I then pick among the students that come back and ask questions. I have been happy with this system and have several talented students.

    My best undergrads are as technically and intellectually good as some grad students I knew at Wisconsin and Hopkins, the students just lack the experience. My worst student won’t take out a wall but will certainly add more work for the other students. I think expectations should be tempered with time in lab. My senior students work about 10 hours a week while carrying a full load of classes, so experiments will happen…just slowly.

  15. Paul Says:

    @kcat/km: That sounds like an excellent system.

    After reading through this discussion and recalling a similar one I had recently on Facebook, I think it’s important to note that we all started out as thoroughly inexperienced undergrads. Labs have a duty to give (at least a few) deserving and motivated undergraduate students a chance to cut their teeth on research. Yes, training them takes a lot of effort and time, but we’re teachers for God’s sake.

  16. wolfie Says:

    1. Don’t ask them whether they know New York or have been at Harvard.

    2. Take them as they are.

    3. Do not believe all the’re telling you. When someone comes to solve you all problems : be alert.

    4. Even the stupidest examplaries will get their Ph.D. in the end. When you help them enough.

  17. Oldnuke Says:

    Many years ago, I was a freshman asking for a project my second week of classes. The glassblowing quiz – make a spiral column for our GC and pack it.

    When I made a perfect column with my first length of tubing and proceeded to pack it, I was in. gr

    (I had spent the summer before (after HS) working as a tech at Dupont’s Experimental Station – some people have all the luck!)

  18. Bright-eyed undergrad Says:

    Um, I’ll recrystallize NBS for you…

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