Surviving Labs: The Chemistry Freshers Guide
When you think of labs what do you think of? It probably varies quite drastically depending on who you are. A humanities student? You may think of gleaming test tubes, lab coats, and scientists walking around looking purposeful and important. A 2/3/4 year scientist? The word may fill you with joy and anticipation of cutting-edge research, or induce a certain amount of bile at the thought of standing around for hours under a considerable amount of pressure and creating an unsurmountable amount of post-lab work. A Chemistry fresher? Probably a big fat question mark, because to be honest, you really have done nothing like this before. And that is totally normal.
I expect it is already obvious that this isn’t really the same as a school experiment, in which your teacher gives a short demonstration and then what should take 5 minutes takes half an hour which is down to about 30 teenagers scrambling for the same materials and just generally having a great time. Labs at university level are designed to take the whole day, teach you skills you will be using again and again, and are a lot more independent. If you are not a student yet and are wondering how they are going to work, I have written a small step-by-step to give you some idea…
- You do a pre-lab test online and fill out the safety section of the lab book with the information about the chemicals you are going to use. Most of the information for this is in the protocol which is also online.
- You go into the lab, kitted out with lab coat, safety specs and lab book, on Thursday and Friday at 11am and stay for the duration of the experiment. They will usually take about 3-5 hours.
- You get in and find the area of the lab your experiment will be taking place in and find the kit you will be using- this contains the glassware and equipment you will need for the day. If you don’t have something you need, that is the time to source it.
- Your demonstrator (a post-grad/pHD student who watches over your particular experiment) will come and sign off your book to say that your safety section is sound and that you are ok to do the experiment.
- Then you may have a small talk with your demonstrator and talk through the protocol, or launch straight into the experiment independently (although you will probably be at similar stages to the rest of your lab group so don’t panic!).
- After you have finished, you go and get signed off by your demonstrator again and then go home to complete the post-lab exercise, which is 5-10 online questions which have to be done in a week.
…and if you are a first year Chemist, here are my tips for having a successful lab experience:
- 1. Do a thorough pre-lab: Don’t just copy up the safety and write a space for your yield, write out the mechanism and make sure you know exactly why each step of the protocol is necessary. If you don’t understand some parts of it, that’s a great thing to be asking your demonstrator when you’re in there and it looks impressive as it shows you have thought through the experiment before. Leave spaces for observations, and write out any literature values that could be necessary like melting point ranges (for melting point analysis) and boiling points of solvents (for when rotary evaporating).
- 2. Look at the post-lab before you get into the lab: Cannot stress how important this is- it means you can ask the demonstrator about anything you don’t understand before you get into the lab, and this can save you hours of time agonising later. Even starting a few simple bits of it before you go in can give you a better handle of what you are trying to achieve when you go in, and will again mean that that post-lab gets done that little bit faster so you can stay in bed Sunday without it playing on your mind.
- 3. Keep calm: It is horribly demoralising when your experiment fails and you are told to start again from the very beginning after an hours work, and it feels like you will be in the lab for the rest of time. But you won’t be, you have to be out by 4. The experiment will more than likely go wrong again if you try to rush it, so take a few deep breaths and try to take it easy. If you don’t finish, and are worried about the marks, you really won’t lose too much, most of them comes from the write-up anyway. Just remember to cite your friend if you use their results!
- 4. Get friendly with your lab group: you will be seeing these guys a LOT over the year, and being sociable with them should be obvious. You will know all their habits; who is the messy one, who does the best pre-lab, who is always late yet seems to still get great marks… Make a lab group Facebook chat early on so you can discuss answers (not that I am recommending making friends for personal gain!), which when you are on your final attempt of your pre-lab really is useful! By the end, chances are you probably won’t want to change groups as you will know exactly the habits of each member and have your own banter (which is invaluable when your experiment gets ruined!) and are probably a solid group of friends!