#Chemsummer Carnival – Productive summer in the lab?

I have finally found some inspiration and time to do a #chemsummer post. There have been a few posts already but I imagine there may be a rush of posts today, so do keep an eye on your readers or twitter.

How is anyone ever productive in the summer?

On paper, the summer break should be the most productive time of year with no students around to bother us. In reality though, I find it my least productive time of the year (as this PhD comic shows).


Below are a list of things that I think are good and bad about the summer vacation:


  • No MChems in the lab (which unfortunately is balanced, of course, by the summer students).
  • No NMR queue
  • No teaching commitments
  • Conferences bring the chance to ‘network’ i.e. get sloshed with like-minded people.


  • I returned from my holiday in the US of A and began working back in the lab only to find that half of my glassware, cork rings, pipette teats and marker pens had gone walkies. Thankfully, I have managed to shift the equilibrium back in my favour by using my powerful master key.
  • Whichever member of staff I need is on holiday. They return from vacation to tell you that you actually need to talk to someone else, who it then turns out is also on vacation.
  • When it is 25°C outside, it is 35°C in the office.
  • All my teacher friends stop complaining for the first time all year and repeatedly post photos of themselves enjoying the nice weather.

So, what do you think? Are you more productive over the summer? What problems do you face when trying to get sh*t done? Let me know in the comments or on twitter (@jessthechemist).

Happy (belated) birthday to me!

So BRSM blog just celebrated his two year blog birthday (blog-iversary?) and he reminded me about my recent one year blog-iversary so I thought I would totally steal his idea. Sorry dude!

My blog started out as somewhere where I shared information about how we came about chemistry in everyday life but became a more whimsical place where I dispensed random ideas and thoughts with the world. I had planned to write a post at the end of May about what I have learnt about blogging over the past year blah blah blah but postdoc and real life got in the way. Instead, I have decided to cheat and take a leaf out of young BRSM’s book and share my top three posts of the OTC Year 1 (ish).

1) My top post from the past year was “The Girl with Zero Hangovers. Yes, I have still really never had a hangover. Thanks must go to the @NatureChemistry blogroll for putting this post and my blog on the map!

2) My personal favourite post comes in at number 2: “My Academic Family II“. The tree has since been updated  so do take a look. This was my favourite post because it started out as a small idea and turned in to something huge thanks mainly to Twitter. Just look how many names are now on there! Feel free to continue to send me names to add to the tree. If I had more time on my hands, the tree would be immense, but alas, no one pays me to make pretty pictures for my blog…

3) My third top post was “Identical Twins but not Identical Income” which I posted a few days after my blog-iversary (yes, I am cheating yet again). It has already had massive hits after only twelve days and is well on its way to being my most popular post to date. Thanks must go to CJ for highlighting this post on his own blog.

Thanks to everyone who has contributed to my first year in the blogosphere. Thanks, especially, to all those bloggers who joined in with the #realtimechem week blog carnival. My highlight as a “firsty” was being asked to contribute to the Nature Chemistry blogroll, so heartfelt thanks to all the guys over there.

Here’s to many more years of The Organic Solution. Cheers!

Identical twins but not identical income

Recently Beth Halford over at C&EN wrote an article on the pains and gains of the postdoc life so I thought I would expand a little on my own experiences using my twin sister as a direct comparison to me…

The odds of becoming an identical twin are around three in one thousand and I am one of those lucky three. Throughout the twenty eight years of mine and my twin sister’s life we have constantly been compared to each other in looks, personality and brain power. Abigail is a trainee general practitioner (GP) which means that she has completed her medicine degree (5 years) and subsequent foundation training (2 years). I am an organic chemistry postdoc, having completed my MChem. undergraduate degree (4 years) and PhD (3.5 years) in chemistry. Considering that the training for our respective roles has been a very similar amount of time, you may or may not be surprised to find that our lives and career prospects are very different.

The MD

Abbie has recently given birth to her first child and a year before this she got married and bought her idyllic, village-based family home. This story is very similar to many of her doctor friends, most of who are married, have a mortgage and child. Her current salary is close to £50k a year for a five day a week, 8.30 am – 6pm job[1]. On completion of her GP training (her chosen specialism), her salary will significantly increase, although her work responsibilities will also rise.

As background, In the UK, you do your degree, which is very competitive to get into, and then do two foundation years[2] in a range of specialities. If this goes well, you then apply for your, sometimes very competitive, specialism. At this point there is a relatively small risk of not getting a job, especially in larger cities and for popular specialisms, but the odds of gaining a job are in your favour.

The PhD

In comparison, I earn £28k a year and am on an eighteen month contract (1 year left) with no guarantee of employment on completion. My working hours can be very variable as research is unpredictable, with late nights or weekends not uncommon. My job is not only laboratory based, but also involves helping students, keeping the lab running smoothly, writing up publications and liaising with industrial partners. I currently live in rented accommodation with my postdoc boyfriend and we can not afford to buy a house or get married. In the last three years I have lived in three different cities and settling down is still not possible if I want a career in academia, which I am not sure that I do. My next step would require a prestigious fellowship, which are harder to come by than a clean NMR tube in a synthetic laboratory! So do I stick it out and hope that I get more publications which would give me a higher chance of a fellowship or do I head into industry?

There is also the issue of having children and, whilst my university does have decent maternity entitlement for fixed term staff, it would not necessarily be a good time in my career to have a child. There are many women that have succeeded in both becoming an academic and mother but the statistics show that only 20% of professors employed in 2011 were women[3].

To conclude…

I earn almost half what my sister earns even though we have spent the same number of years in training. My sister has deal with potentially life or death decisions every day and I applaud her ability to do this. Apart from the higher salary (and therefore larger shoe collection), her education and training allows her to be confident of getting a permanent position, having career progression options and a work-life balance. I feel my education and experience should have more value than is currently given to it, with industry and academia giving more financial incentive to stay in the research sector. I want to work hard and reach the higher echelons of my chosen profession whilst having job satisfaction and a work-life balance. These job requirements mean that it is becoming more likely that I will leave research and change career paths. For now though, I am happy as a postdoc and I will continue to work as hard as I can!

Academic Family Tree III

I thought I would post a more updated #chemistrytwittertree since it  has recently been mentioned in the Nature Chemistry blogroll. This is by no means the final tree so feel tree to offer suggestions on how to make it even bigger and better.

If you aren’t on the tree but can spot a way on, then email me (theorganicsolutionblog at gmail dot com), tweet me or leave the info in the comments section. If you want to find out more about your own academic timeline then academictree.org is a great starting point. Also, if you spot any errors in the tree then please do let me know.

family tree 13-10-13

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.

#Realtimechemcarnival Guest Post: My Favourite Reagents


Today we have a guest post by @Andy_Nortcliffe. He asked me very nicely if I could host his post and I was more than honoured to do so 🙂 If anyone else wishes to have their post hosted, then just get in touch.


My Favourite Reagents.

First of all, before I start harping on about the stuff in the lab I like to use, I’d like to thank @jessthechemist for hosting my guest blog post, much appreciated.

Now, onto the good stuff- reagents. We all use them, and we all have our favourites, along with the ones we hate to use.

I have a handful of them which are always a pleasure to use and I’m going to share them and hopefully you will all do the same.

1.) Ammonium formate.

Oh, I’ve just heard you all do a sigh of disappointment as you expect something magical as my first favourite, well, sorry. Yes, ammonium formate– super versatile reagent. I rarely do a balloon hydrogenation, following my time in industry where they were pretty much outlawed I’ve learned to get by without them. So my first port of call for needing to do a hydrogenation is trusty ammonium formate. From nitro- reductions, to Cbz/Bn deprotections, it always works a treat for me. Dry it under vacuum, whack in a shed load (it’s cheap as chips) with a tickle of Pd and come back overnight to a spot to spot conversion.

2.) HATU

For any of you with expertise in peptide coupling reagents, you will know that there is a growing list as long as your arm. So I’d like to recommend HATU to you all. It’s not as cheap as some of the others (Alfa Aesar sell at a good price), but it’s worth it for its effectiveness. Combining the reactivity of a racemisation suppressant and a carbodiimide, all in all a good egg. Couple of equivalents with same of Hunigs base and you’re onto a winner.

Last but not least…

3) TFA

So, I choose TFA as I have a thing for tert-butyl esters. I always find stuff survives a lot better stirring in a dram of TFA overnight, than in base for half an hour. So TFA, nasty stuff, but good results.

So if you have any reagents you’d like to share (good or bad), please add to the comments and maybe we can all find a new thing to play with.

Thanks and happy science’ing


#Realtimechem Carnival

#Realtimechem week is only 8 days away! As @realtimechem/@doctor_galactic has mentioned, it is hoped that people will blog as much as possible during #realtimechem week. Each evening, or as often as I can, I will collate all the posts here. It would be great if you could either tweet me (@jessthechemist), email me (theorganicsolutionblog at gmail dot com) or simply tweet the link but remember to use the hashtag #realtimechemcarnival so that I can find it easily.

As an indicator, I thought I would show you what I plan on sharing during #realtimechemcarnival. These photos are from an afternoon I spent in the lab last week and demonstrate a typical afternoon in my lab.

We are lucky enough to have an automated column in my lab which makes my life so much easier as I don’t have to column by hand. Firstly I TLC to see what solvent conditions are best and then I get started with the column. Automated columns are great as you can change the solvent gradient with a click of a button.  In this particular case, my product was a very polar, “sticky” amine (the spot pretty much on the baseline) which meant that once the small by-products came off the column, I could increase the polarity of the solvents to get the awkward product off.


As you can see, the column resulted in me having a lot of test tubes to deal with. The column gives me a UV trace which tells me which test tubes have my product in but I am a little anal so I still TLC the test tubes.


After I have confirmed where my product is by TLC, I pour all the solvent from the relevant test tubes into a round bottomed flask and get vacc’ing off the solvent on the rotary evaporator.


After all that work, I end up with a product which I can analyse by NMR and mass spectroscopy (GC-MS in this case). As you can see, the GC trace shows only one product which was confirmed as my desired compound by mass spec.


After all of this, it is time for washing up.

Problem Fridays

Both of these were on my desk this morning. One was given to a PhD student by a certain eminent professor who is still in the lab! Can you work out the mechanisms?

I did one fairly quickly, the other I still haven’t worked out.



Email me your solutions at theorganicsolutionblog at gmail dot com or tweet me @jessthechemist


UPDATE: This problem comes for an OPRD paper: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/pdf/10.1021/op3002933. Take a look and see if you agree with their mechanism.

When does one call oneself a blogger?

A more personal and ramble-y post from me today…I have umm’ed and ahh’ed about publishing this post but I have decided that it is worth putting out there.

Nature chemistry has recently done a wonderful editorial about Twitter (a twitorial) and I was very giddy and honoured when I noticed that my twitter handle got a mention. What I found particularly remarkable about this was that I was mentioned as a “blogger” and not just an overly obsessive chemistry tweep. My point here is that I have never considered myself a blogger, just a person that occasionally writes blog posts on random science. This has led me to ask myself the question: when will I call myself a blogger?

I don’t blog that regularly because “real life” gets in the way and because I occasionally lack inspiration. I started my blog because I was interested in finding out how every day products worked but it has morphed in to a blog about all aspects of chemistry. Lately, I have surprised myself by blogging more and more about my own experiences from my outreach projects to my life as a postdoc. If I posted more often, would I feel more like a blogger or would I feel like I was filling the internet with even more indiscriminate drivel? I am not sure.

A question I often ask is: does the success of the blog or the blogger depend on the number of visitors a day? I guess it does. There are blogs I visit regularly, regardless of whether they advertise their new posts on twitter, and I believe that this is one of the sure signs that you are a successful blogger.

My blog is nearly a year old. It may be that when it turns one, I will decide that I have been around long enough to officially join the club. I don’t believe, however, that the age of the blog has an effect on the impact of the blog and, therefore, the blogger(s). Look at the relatively new blog, Behind NMR Lines. Although it has only been around for a few months, it has already gained a huge following and its own very popular twitter hashtag, #chemclub.

Some might ask me if I am just ashamed of being a called blogger, which I am not, but it may be somewhat true that I am not yet ready for the potential sneers and sniggers from colleagues. It is sad to say that announcing to the world that you are a blogger can often have a negative connotation with people, especially those who aren’t au fait with the internet and, in particular, twitter. I hope that one day soon this is not the case and that everyone gives bloggers the respect they deserve.

On a final note, I think the main reason that I am yet to call myself a blogger is that I have a form of impostor syndrome, in other words, what right do I have to share my limited experience and knowledge with the world? I believe that this is something that I will get over as I learn more about how and what (and what not) to blog about.

So, the main point of this post is to ask the science bloggers out there…when did you start calling yourself a blogger?

#Realtimechem Week – Join us!

#Realtimechem week is nearly upon us (week beginning 22nd April) and so I thought I would invoke a call to arms as such.

Jay (@Doctorgalactic) and I have decided to blog (almost) everyday during #Realtimechem week. I will be attending a computational chemistry course for two of the days and will be in the lab or writing for the rest of the week. At the computational course I will also be meeting some chemistry tweeps that I have never had the pleasure of meeting before, which will add an extra level of excitement.

Do you blog? Do you want to blog but haven’t got around to it yet? Why not start now! It would be great if we could have a #realtimechem blog carnival (#Realtimechemcarnival?). I know that some people don’t have time to blog every day but it would be amazing if we could get as many people as possible blogging on and off during the week. I will try to keep up with all the blog posts and do a daily roundup and I will also do a complete blog roundup at the end of the week. Please consider joining us. The more the merrier!

For further information on #realtimechem week, head over to Doctor Galactic’s place .  If you want to help out, then get in contact with me or him through our blogs or twitter.

My hope is that #Realtimechem week is even better than #realtimechem day. Come on guys, let’s make it the most marvellous week ever!

P.S Jay has now added a #Realtimechem FAQ. It is well worth a read.