Archive for the ‘Lab Management’ Category

Starting Up a Chemistry Lab: Advice & Bargains

Tuesday, April 9th, 2013

ed_academic_bigBefore I go and do anything stupid, I wanted to ask everyone for advice about starting up a university chemistry lab from scratch. While it looks like I’ll be inheriting some glassware and chemicals in my assigned lab space, I’ll basically need just about everything you can think of. I know that places like Sigma-Aldrich salivate at the prospect of reeling in people like me, and I’ll definitely take my wish list to them and their obvious competitors for quotes, but I’d love to use this thread as a resource for crowdsourcing wisdom about how to get the most bang for your start-up buck. I see no sense in wasting money.

I’ll begin:

– I am routinely appalled at how much the safety glasses in chemistry catalogs cost (e.g., $11 for a run-of-the-mill pair from Aldrich). I love the style variation and price offered by Northern Safety (e.g., $4 or lower for a better pair). I know $7 is not a huge deal, but it adds up when you’re buying enough to outfit a bunch of people. Also, with decent safety glasses as low as $2, there is no excuse for not carpetbombing your lab with eye protection (for large groups of visitors, etc.) and tossing out nasty, old, scratched-up glasses.

– The cost of balances, especially in scientific catalogs, is unbelievably high. I like the deals offered at Affordable Scales. I think my plan will be to purchase one nice analytical balance to be used only when necessary, then a bunch of “precision” balances for routine lab work. For most things, it doesn’t matter if you make your buffer with 15.1 g of salt versus 15.005 g. In my experience, grad students and postdocs abuse balances. I’d rather have them abuse less-sensitive units than nice ones.

– Stirring hot plates also seem to cost way more than they should. That said, I am leaning towards splurging for IKA models, because I have had bad experiences with other brands. Anyone out there have a favorite hot plate or know where to get a good deal?

If you’d rather send me your advice by e-mail, feel free. I’ll protect your super-secret identity and post it to the thread myself. And if you’re a magnate of industry and have unwanted equipment you want to donate to charity (i.e., me/SLU), let me know. ;)

Thanks!

Long Weekend, Big Plans

Friday, August 31st, 2012

My plans for Labor Day weekend are all set thanks to a nice discovery during a group clean-up yesterday:

Plenty of gloves? Check. Multiple boxes of FIXANAL? Check.

Who would name a brand of buffer concentrates “FIX ANAL” and shape the container like a…well…errrr?

Germans. That’s who. I guess you can just add this to the list of cross-cultural marketing blunders, though I am not certain that there wasn’t someone who did this on purpose. Who else sells buffer mix in an odd tube like that?

Interesting Vendor Mail

Friday, August 24th, 2012

It seems that VWR and I have very different opinions as to what constitutes “IMPORTANT Information”:

 

 

A dinosaur squishy toy attached to a 15%-off coupon for a new balance only musters an 8.2 out of 10 on my scale of importance, but thanks for writing.

WWWTP? – Nomenclature Edition

Sunday, June 24th, 2012

There is nothing like a trip to my mailbox to bring a nice little blogging hiatus to a crashing halt. While attacking my pile of C&ENs, I caught this ad for TOSOH Organic Chemical Company on page 43 of the 11 June 2012 edition:

I guess the hair net and painter’s mask ensure that—unlike my Orange Chicken at Panda Express—these products arrive free of human hair. Matters of lab attire aside, what actually piqued my interest in the ad were the compounds for sale:

Sigh. That is not how I was taught to name organic compounds. My orgo professor—on the recommendation of IUPAC—told us to start by numbering the longest chain of carbons. Thus, 1-bromo-2-ethylbutane is properly named 3-(bromomethyl)pentane, and 1-bromo-2-ethylhexane should be 3-(bromomethyl)heptane.

Avid readers of ChemBark know that I love trick questions, and structures like the ones above make for great nomenclature practice. Many students will instinctively assume the carbon chain extending from left to right is the longest. When I taught orgo, I had to purchase red pens by the dozen.

Chemical-Free Treason

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Matt at ScienceGeist is hosting a blog carnival this week on “Our Favorite Toxic Chemicals.” The idea is to generate posts about chemicals that have reputations for being toxic, but that also have important applications and non-toxic manifestations (e.g., in low concentrations). All of your favorite chembloggers have posts up, including Excimer, who has returned from a long blog hiatus.

I should have my contribution up by Friday. What I love about this carnival is that the posts will live for eternity, standing ready to drop some knowledge on any curious soul who runs a Google search for one of these molecules.

In other news, I have been busy going around the department in preparation for a visit next week from a very special guest. On my recent travels from office to office, I came upon a number of these signs in the hallway outside of a research lab:

CHEMICAL FREE ZONE!!

NO labcoats, gloves, tlc plates, NMR samples or other chemical contaminants

 

The extra exclamation mark lets you know that they mean business. I’ll refrain from identifying the lab to protect my colleagues, but the scene definitely made me cringe. I understand it when marketers raise the “chemical-free” dagger, but a lab of chemists? Et tu, Brute?

In a subsequent discussion on the matter, a member of a different lab pointed out that my concern was probably a trifle, because this building was a laboratory not generally accessed by the public. Under these conditions, the sign is widely understood to succinctly communicate that contaminated items should not be brought into the office space.

While I think such an argument is tenable, it is preferable (and relatively easy) to avoid the controversy completely. If we—chemists—can’t be bothered to find a suitable alternative to “chemical-free”, then why should we expect the same from laymen? It seems like a sign that says “No lab equipment or samples in this room” would get the job done with only a slightly less economical use of words.

And finally, a kind chemical engineer sent me a link to the following paper, in which a freshly-minted Harvard professor railed against “chemical free” in 1995:

Chemistry and the chemical industry often are misunderstood by the general public. It is not uncommon for products to be advertised as “chemical free” or for a product to be labeled dangerous because it contains chemicals. As chemists, we know that these claims are incorrect. Unfortunately, many people in today’s society do not have the chemical training necessary to determine whether or not such claims are valid.

I guess J. Chem. Ed. was where bloggers blogged before there were blogs.

Some Thoughts on Ads

Wednesday, May 9th, 2012

Part of the fun of having a blog is monitoring its traffic, and more traffic equals more fun. I say this because, eventually, someone is going to read this blog and finally create a respectable chemistry journal where all of the correspondence—including letters to the editor, original submissions, referee reports, responses to referees, editorial decisions, and reader comments—is signed and available online. That post was from 2007. What is the delay, people? Let’s make this happen.

Long ago, I had the fanciful idea of running an ad for ChemBark in C&EN. What better way could there be to reach out to so many chemists? Unfortunately, I quickly learned that I couldn’t even afford a single line in those mind-numbing walls of text at the end of the magazine. If you want an ad in the middle of the magazine, the minimum you’ll have to shell out is $3,560 according to this notice (16 April 2012, p. 54).

And what kind of magic was I expecting from an ad in C&EN, anyway? Oh yes…all 150,000+ readers would be so intrigued by a URL under a head shot of Ed the Dog that they would race to their computers and hit the site. Once they had the chance to read my biting criticism of Swiss department stores and admire my poor skills at Photoshop, they’d fall in love and become addicted to blogs, for sure!

Ummm, no. And it is through such a lens that I have wondered what other advertisers have hoped to achieve with expensive print ads—especially those who list random compounds they have available. I think my bewilderment hit an all-time high last month when this ad from Quanta BioDesign was published in back-to-back issues:

“Non-Quenching Fluorescein!” certainly grabbed my attention, and the first thing I felt compelled to do was look at the structure to see what was different about this fluorescein. That is when I noticed something was terribly wrong. At least, I think.

That’s not fluorescein, right? It has a methylene group where an oxygen should be. Wait, is that why this molecule is special? Wait, that shouldn’t even exist…it would tautomerize (such that one of the methylene hydrogens would move to the carbonyl group to make the ring system aromatic).

I was confused, so I went to the Web site and searched for Product #10885. It turns out, there is no product #10885.

So, let me get this straight…this company paid $6,150 (x at least 2 weeks) to run an ad with a wacky structure for a product that doesn’t exist?! I wish I had that kind of money to throw away. I’d save up and get Ed on the back cover.

I have found so many errors in ads run in C&EN that I could probably make a decent living proofreading them on commission. And I sometimes wonder how much money a chemistry blog could make if it wanted to get serious about selling ads. C&EN has a weekly circulation of ~164k and lists a rate of $6,150 for the ad above. Could a blogger like Derek Lowe, who reports traffic of 15-20k pageviews per day, make $615 from running that ad? Seems reasonable to me, and I’d just as well see people throw money at Derek.

Someone should run the experiment, but it won’t be happening here anytime soon. I purposely make sure I’m losing money on this site in an attempt to show I’m not in this for financial gain. That said, just to be on the safe side, I have still reported the blog to my employer as a potential conflict of interest. My job provides me with access to nice things like journals, which are useful to the blog and would cost a pretty penny if I were a professional journalist working from home. I think you can mount a reasonable argument that a revenue-free ChemBark meshes well with the educational mission of a non-profit research university.

Incidentally, the “ads” that you see running on ChemBark are fake. Several weeks ago, I added space for a 150 x 150 pixel image to the left sidebar and a 500 x 80 pixel image to the footer of the page. The ads that you have seen in these positions—for instance, the one linking to the assistant editor position listed at Nature Chemistry—have all been designed by me, for fun. They were neither solicited nor purchased, and I will continue to use these ads to link to things I like. Click them and warm yourself with the knowledge that no one is making a penny.