Undergrad Fails

@_Byronmiller, who blogs at Behind NMR Lines, @clay_owens and I recently (ahem months ago now) had a discussion about accidents and funny stories that we have witnessed whilst teaching undergraduates. This led us to start the hashtag #undergradfail where we, and others, described amusing and somewhat concerning stories from the lab. Andrew already wrote a blog post with about this but I thought I would also share some of my own experiences.

My personal #undergradfail moments:

  • Thinking that polystyrene and acetone/dry ice are a good combination (*Hint* they aren’t)
  • I have been guilty of forgetting to close my separation funnel tap before adding the solution. Come on people, we have all done that at least once!
  • As a bright-eyed, energy efficient undergrad I turned off the vacuum pump connected to my Shlenk line reaction over lunch. Disaster was averted. The lesson here is, never turn something off before asking a demonstrator/academic.

#Undergradfail moments that I have witnessed:

  • I saw someone make up a column with sand instead of silica. His thinking was that since sand is made from silica that it must all be the same stuff. Error. Similarly, I saw someone make up a column firstly with sand, then silica, then sand, then silica, then sand etc. It looked like a chromatography zebra. Most amusingly, the column still worked!
  • A lab demonstrator friend of mine had someone ask them “what is the stuff dripping on a Buchi.?” The demonstrator told him to try and figure it out. The student then asked “ is it liquid CO2 from the melting dry ice?”. Silence from the demonstrator.
  • Apparently dry ice and thermos flasks are also a bad combination. Broken glass. Everywhere.
  • I saw someone scratching the outside of a beaker to try and promote crystallisation of their product. I then had to point out, with a straight face, that it would be better if he scratched the inside of the beaker.
  • I caught someone cooling down their hotplate by throwing ice on it. Not smart.

#Undergradfail moments that others have told me about (sorry, I have forgetten who exactly but do point out if it was you so I can cite you):

  • Some one set their condenser to a 45 degree angle. They were supposed to set their apparatus up for a 45 degree (temperature) reaction. this was too brilliant not to mention. Please let me know if you are the one that told me.
  • Ever seen anyone use a suba seal as a pipette teat? I think @Azaprins told me about this one.

Do you have any funny #undergradfail or #postgradfail stories to share? Comment here or use the hashtag over on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Undergrad Fails

  1. Witnessed: Evacuating a distillation apparatus, grad student placed stopcocks through the ends of the coolant through which the water flows
    Done: Just beginning grad school. Scratched a beaker too hard (promoting crystallization, on the inside, thank you) that it broke and some glass got into my hand. Slowly, the glass piece made its way out. On the week I got my phd, it fell off. True story!
    Witnessed: Now that I’m into Theo Chem and teach undergrads sometimes I ask for math demonstrations and its not uncommon to read “it has to be true!” in the exams.

  2. I have a number of horror stories from my years as TA at KTH in Stockholm (in the 1980’s), in the school of chemistry and chemical engineering.

    We used Bunsen burners, so of course the number of fires was high, most of them not worth mentioning, we knew how to handle them. But the student who thought heating the flask with EtOAc took too long, and took the flame and wanted to heat the solution directly through the opening of the flask… The flames from the already almost boiling solution were spectacular. She still has her hand, but she had to have a cast for three weeks.

    Yes, we also had the student who connected both ends of the condenser to two different taps… (I did say this was an engineering school too, didn’t I?).

    When getting rid of leftover acid, DON’T take one flask of sulfuric and one flask of nitric in the same hand and pour into a sink where there is some water already! The resulting explosion covered the hand with acid, and that mix acts FAST! Amputation was not needed, but I don’t think he ever recovered the full use of the hand.

    And the prize goes to the student who needed dry ether for a Grignard. Put a 1L bottle in the drying oven for glassware, 130 C… The TA saw it from a distance and reacted fast, so no explosion that time, but a bit too close to complete lab renovation for comfort…

  3. I had a student who didn’t check the label twice and tried to adsorb a product onto aluminum trichloride instead of alumina. Luckily it failed before it was time to pack the column.

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