The best extraction there is

Somehow today I ended up on @Carmendrahl‘s old blog  and found this post on Kugelrohr distillations (“The tastiest distillation there is”). I have spent the last year doing regular distillations and kugelrohr distillations because my  crappy water soluble, highly polar, small compounds are a nightmare to purify.

Although I do love a kugelrohr distillation, my life saving (and by that I mean post-doc saving) piece of equipment this year has been the Soxhlet extractor. Unlike the kugelrohr apparatus, the Soxhlet was named after someone and that someone was Franz Ritter von Soxhlet, an agricultural chemist from Germany.


I use Soxhlet extractors to extract my precious product from a solid because I can’t use aqueous extraction methods. I put the solid from my reaction (usually a reduction using LAH) in to the filter paper-like “thimble”. THF is then put in the round bottom flask and heated up so it boils. The THF is then condensed into the thimble using a condenser. When the thimble is full, it drains back down in to the round bottomed flask and the process repeats. Any one that follows me on twitter will know that I am frequently mesmerised by this process. You can see it for yourself on the multitude of youtube videos.

I should also say that @SellaTheChemist does a much better job of explaining this over at his RSC Classic Kit blog.

Today is my official last day of my current postdoc so I thought I would celebrate the piece of equipment that got me though. Thanks  Franz Ritter von Soxhlet for making this postdoc more than bearable!

My desk – is it normal?

A bit of a random post today but I was just wondering what your working environment is like?

How cluttered is your desk? Do you have something special/different/odd on it? Do you even have a desk of your own?

I have recently been told that I have a lot of stuff on my desk but I think my desk is pretty typical for a lab based chemist. My desk is an environment of organised chaos with everything I need to hand and I can always tell when the cleaner has been and shuffled things around.  The contents of my desk are as follows:

  • My laptop, unsurprisingly, with headphones and mouse attached.
  • Recent spectra
  • Relevant/interesting publications
  • The all-important tea mug
  • Highlighters of every colour (unless one of my lab mates has stolen one)
  • Safety specs of varying sizes
  • Hand cream (because acetone makes my hands dry)
  • A to do list which I re-do every Friday, after hopefully crossing most of the week’s planned work off.
  • Clayden aka “The Green Bible” – The organic chemists must have text book.

So do share…what is on/in your desk?

P.S. If you haven’t already, head over to Stu’s blog, Chemical Connections to check out his latest twitter elements post. It is already my favourite blog post of 2013.

Up-Goer Five challenge

Anyone that follows the XKCD comics will know that they posted an Up-Goer Five comic about the US Space team.  They said that “Most of the jargon used in rocket science is not among the most commonly used words in everyday life. This comic is a commentary on the absurdity of boiling down technical explanations for lay people.”

A few people on twitter have attempted to describe their working life using this concept, including:

Stephen Davy at The Sceptical Chymist shares information with the world

Chemjobber makes people money

Derek Lowe makes people feel better

As well as the many blog posts, people have been using the hashtag  #UpGoer140 to try to explain their work in lay terms, in less that 140 characters.

I have decided to have a go at this. As you know I am a postdoctoral researcher in carbon capture but I cannot use the words science, lab, research, carbon etc. My new job will be to make drug-type molecules.

Here is my Up-Goer Five attempt:

At the moment I work to make the world a better place by trying to find ways of taking the bad stuff out of the air. I want to see if using new things will help or make the world a worse place to live. I wear a white thing and funny glasses every day and play with round glass things and then put other stuff in the glass. I also show other people how to play with round glass things and how to make stuff using them. I sometimes use long glass things with white stuff in to make the thing at the end much nicer. My new job will be to make stuff that will help people who feel bad, feel better some day.

Why not have a go yourself?

*I have realised that only chemists will really get my description, maybe I should have another go and try to write about my work in a way that everyone can understand …?

Did I work hard enough?

As many of you will know, @Chemjobber and @Vinylogous are hosting a kind of blog conversation called “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?”, with many other bloggers out there also giving their opinion on the matter.

As a Brit, I feel like these posts aren’t really aimed at me so much. Although I found the PhD process somewhat stressful, I can honestly say I enjoyed 99% of it (I even enjoyed my viva!). I had a great boss who knew the important of social activity within and outside of the group. He also encouraged us to pursue sporting achievements, in moderation, which for me, involved competing in national ballroom dancing competitions. We were also allowed to take a few weeks holiday and the odd day off, if required. I loved (and miss) the mad research I was doing and I can say that met some life-long friends as well as my boyfriend of three years.

My experience of the UK system is that we work from around 9am-6pm with the working hours getting longer as the end of the PhD draws near (most PhDs are between 39 and 48 months). I worked weekends but only when I wanted to catch up on reactions or set reactions up for the week ahead. I also found weekends a relaxing time to do columns as my favourite (communal) glass column would be available for use and I could control what radio station was played. I was also, of course, productive during the week, except maybe when the Ashes were on. I spent my time between reactions writing up experimental and planning my next reactions.

I am aware that the UK has research groups and departments that do expect much longer hours. I know people at these groups and some of them have told me they stay late just because they are expected to and that their productivity in a day is no higher than if they had done an 8 hour day. I know some academics that require their students to put on a certain number of reactions a day. My view is that chemistry just doesn’t work like that. I am also of the opinion that, because I worked somewhat sensible hours, I kept my passion for the subject that I loved and my sanity.

I was recently of the thinking that I should have gone to the States to get the best PhD that I could have done but I now realise staying in the UK allowed me to become a much more impassioned and motivated chemist. I may not be the best in the world or have millions of results, but I can say I still love my subject.

I hope that this post does not appear to you like I am trying to rub it in your face. I just thought I would share my point of view.

** I feel that I should add that there were plenty of days, especially in my second year, that I thought I was a failure, nothing was working etc but I got through it. It seems most people suffer from “second year blues” so I dug deep and persevered.  I am also not a stressed out person generally. I tend to take whatever is thrown at me and deal with it. I have a somewhat easy going temperament which probably would have not been the best personality to have in a huge, cut throat lab elsewhere.