Chapter 3: Chemistry Schmemistry

In the last post I briefly (it wasn’t that brief) covered my history in academia, from time as a young thespian, through being an undergraduate to a PhD student in Nanomedicine. Now the plan is to use this and the next post to cover the first eight months of my studies (when I was too lazy to start writing this blog), which should be enough to bring us up to speed. At which point, I can stop rambling about past events and start rambling about more recent activities instead.

As I mentioned last time, I was accepted on to a Centre for Doctoral Training or CDT. For those not up to date on the ins-and-outs of a PhD, a CDT means that before you start your research project which takes 3-4 years, you first have a training year. In my case, that consisted of two smaller projects where I had to try and get as much experience as possible in a variety of areas, before specializing with my main project.  My plan is to cover my first training project, which ran from October last year to January this year with this post, then in the next post I’ll cover my second project which ran from February to last week. Then we’ll finally be all caught up.

Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed

To pick our first project, we (the “we” here refers to the 7 other students who are on this year of the CDT with me) were given a list of projects to choose from. We were encouraged to pick ones that were outside of our comfort zone; those running the CDT said this was the best way to learn. The problem was, even if we appeared to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we were already outside of our comfort zones (at least I felt I was). A new city, a new building, working with people we barely knew… I questioned, in my own head, how much further out of our comfort zones we could go.

As they say, fortune favours the bold; they also say there is a fine line between bravery and stupidity (I have a habit of straying onto the stupid side of the line). I made the decision to go extremely outside of my comfort zone and so picked a project which focused on organic chemistry. While I had studied chemistry a few years earlier in college, I could remember almost none of it and had little (zero) practical chemistry experience. In my first meeting with the man who was to be my supervisor for the next 3 months, the first question he asked me (after I warned him how little I knew) was, “why did you do this to yourself?” He asked this with equal amounts of pity and curiosity - pity because he thought I was a fool and curiosity because he wondered how someone could be such a fool.

The crux of the project I had chosen was focused on synthesizing (I found out this is a fancy chemistry word for “making”) new compounds based on a drug which already existed, in the hopes of making it better. The problem was that we, by which I mean my supervisor (I didn’t know enough at this point to have an informed opinion), were unsure how best to go about this. It turns out that in chemistry the endpoint, getting the thing you want, is the important bit and getting there is just a matter of trial and error. That is what I spent the vast majority of the project doing, trial and error in an attempt to make a derivative of our original drug.

The first few weeks were mainly about learning the practical aspects. It turns out this is very reminiscent of cooking, albeit with slightly more finesse and fancier equipment. One of the most interesting pieces of equipment I got to use, which I hadn’t used before but had heard of, was an NMR (nuclear magnetic resonance Spectroscopy). I’m still not 100% sure on how NMR works, but the idiot’s version is that samples are hit with a magnetic field and the nuclei (plural for nucleus) of atoms release energy which is like radio waves. Then, like tuning a radio, we can pick up these wave or signals and can piece them together to tell us what kinds of atoms are in the sample. This can then tell you exactly what you have in the sample which, in chemistry, is the whole point - make something new and find out what it is.

After learning this new stuff and taking a few cracks at making our new drug, the trial and error part of the project was mostly proving to be error. That was until 2 weeks before the end of the project, where we had some success. I’m fairly sure that when it worked I let out an audible yip. It turns out that I do enjoy chemistry, at least I did when it eventually worked. Once the project was over, I was required to write up a report and handed that in during the last few weeks of January. In the report we were required to sum up how we thought it went. I chose to describe it by saying, “chemistry doesn’t always do what you want, but that didn’t stop it being fun in the end.”

These posts aren’t supposed to pass on any kind of wisdom and usually they will be the opposite; an example of what not to do.  At the very least, I learned that getting outside of your comfort zone can be hard but if you get the chance to learn something new it can be really worthwhile.

Next time I’m going to cover my second project, and I’ll warn you now it isn’t nearly as “wise” as this one.  Until next time this is Steve the Scientist signing off.