I am aware that many of you spend most or a good part of your life working in a laboratory or something related to that. Some people are better than other doing lab research or experimentation, but the basis of why is that true are mainly two:
- Practice, practice, practice. The most important part of learning how to efficiently perform tasks in a laboratory is just spending time on it. No magic tricks on this part. That’s up to you, we cannot do anything to help you on this part, but we can help you with:
- Improving your performance by knowing and using tricks and strategies to approach your daily problems and get better at the lab.
In this article, I am going to show you some tricks and strategies that will help you increase your efficiency at the lab. I have gathered all of this information through the years, from my own experience, colleagues’ experience, reading books, and other kinds of material. I have tried most of them on my own and can confirm they work perfectly well. I have heard many chemists or chemistry students crying because they get overwhelmed by lab work and the difficulties they find every day.
The reason I want to share them with you is basically that when I first learned about them they happened to be really useful, and I had never thought of them. Some of them are more widely known, but I think is worth posting them, because they should not be unknown for anyone in this chemistry business. Anyway, I am sure that you will learn something really interesting here today, so keep reading!
1. If you want to purify little amounts of a product, you can just use syringes as “mini columns”. They work just very fine to this job.
How do you proceed? Just put a bit of cotton at the bottom of the syringe to plug the end, fill it with silica, and you are ready to proceed adding the solvent and then your crude product. You can of course apply pressure using the syringe’s plunger.
Why does this work in many cases? You need to keep in mind that in order to purify a compound in the lab you must use a column of a size which is proportional to the quantity of compound you need to purify. Sometimes “standard lab size” columns just do not fit this description, and you need a rapid solution. This will work perfect. Remember also that when it comes to column purification (although in some cases is unavoidable for tricky purifications), in most of the situations the more silica you employ, the more product you will lose (also there are exceptions where stuff just quantitatively separates from silica) so this micro scale columns are ideal.
A syringe is not required. I know someone who runs columns in glass pipettes all the time. The procedure is just the same, take a pipette, put in some cotton and fill it with a few spatula-fills of silica. Alternatively, glass wool or chem Kimwipes can be used to plug the end of the mini-columns instead of cotton.
Now is time for a simple but extremely useful trick to get better at the lab!
2. Every time you are pouring a reaction mixture out of a flask in which you have a stirring bar in, don’t let it go inside your work-up recipient! Just hold a magnet (or another large stir bar) against the glass when the moment to transfer the liquid comes, keeping the bar in the reaction flask. This is especially useful when it comes to transferring mixtures to a separatory funnel. It is nothing pleasant to end up with a stirring rod inside the funnel, or in a residues container, or down the sink etc.
3. Also related to stirring, if you need to use a stir bar on a very large container, (especially if you are using a container like let’s say, a 5 liters graduated cylinder, which makes the magnetic interaction more difficult) sometimes the bar magnet will just don’t couple with the stirrer magnet. Solution: put a bar on the top of the stirring plate between the plate and the flask, and the plate magnet will just stir the first bar, and this bar will easily stir the reaction flask bar.
4. Are you in doubt about if you need to write something down during a lab session? Do you think you will not need to write something down? Just DO IT. Write everything down. Also the things you think you might not need. You will regret later if you don’t.
This “hint” is probably something the 99% of you already know, but I believe that is SO important that is worth some lines. This is not actually a trick; this is the basis of science. One of the main differences between chemistry and mixing things around and see what happens is that in chemistry you write everything down: exact amounts of reagents, conditions, observations, comparison between what is expected and what happens, yields, TLC analysis…
An experiment can turn up completely useless if you do not write down everything you did.
Also, review the notes you have taken. And don’t wait much to do this. Do not rely on memory. Trust me, me and many more people before have found out that you never remember.
5. Time to do get an NMR of your product? Having a hard time selecting a nice scanning region? Just put the NMR tube inside of a graduated cylinder and fill it up to 3 mL. This sample size makes up a perfect region for NMR scan every time.
Some people suggest using just the “three fingers” rule to measure the scanning region height. It’s somehow the same.
6. You can make fine capillary tubes your own from glass pipettes. You only need, of course, a pipette, a Bunsen burner or blowtorch. You heat the glass pipette up in its middle point and once the glass flows, remove it from the heat source and pull offhandedly on both ends.
This is a good choice for labs where there is not much money, or just for when you don’t have any other option to obtain capillary tubes in that moment. Also using micropipettes (1-10 μL) is an option (if they are available to you).
7. Hot glass looks exactly the same (unless it’s really hot) than cold glass. And the same goes for metals, and for any stuff in the lab. Most of the people I know working in a lab, including me, had to learn this lesson by experimenting them by themselves. It would be nice if you don’t need to, wouldn’t it? Also, keep in mind that latex or nitrile gloves don’t prevent you from getting burn.
8. Working in a lab is not something that you do (or at least you should never do) alone. So you will need to work with other people. There are many tips that can be given related to this, so I’m just going to give some general thoughts about it here.
Move slowly in the lab, and try to avoid crowded spaces: the more dispersed the people working on a lab are the better will be the performance of all of them in most cases.
You should never assume that an instrument or piece of glassware is already cleaned by another people. It’s easier and ends up with better overall results if you just clean it by yourself.
Do not make enemies out of your lab mates. This can only end badly for all of you. And you indeed can make enemies in many different ways, for instance, by continuously making mistakes as a result of a careless behavior or just by being a complete jerk. Be nice to all of your mates and the people from your department. Also I recommend you to treat well the staff and managers of your department, and just don’t piss anybody off who is higher in the laboratory/company pyramid than you. Be nice to other people and they will be nice to you (sometimes) and this definitely helps and can be applied not only for laboratories, but for any workplace. That being said, being friendly is good, but in many cases becoming friends is something you have to avoid, don’t give them too much unnecessary confidence.
9. Now, this point is a bit more philosophical and kind of related to the last ones:
- Did I mention that you should write everything down?
- Be absolutely prepared for ANYTHING that you will do in the lab. And I mean both theoretically and experimentally. Never perform an experiment without knowing all you need to do about it. In the best bad case, the experiment could turn to be useless and you would be wasting your time. In the worst bad case, you or your lab mates could end up harmed.
- Never assume that someone did something correctly. Don’t base your actions in something that a lab mate just has told you. Only trust contrasted and reviewed data and facts.
- Not getting a result is indeed almost any time a relevant result.
- Control your emotions. Don’t let a failed experiment get you down -this happens a lot to people during their PhD. Realize that failure is inevitable in science. You need to be objective and critical; science cannot be based on emotions.
10. Pictures are useful. In the old times, it was really difficult to get photos or there were no pictures at all. Nowadays it’s very easy to have a camera available all the time, for example, in your mobile phone. I always take a picture every time I acquire of use a new chemical (the container or even the chemical itself), and it’s something that helps while you have to write reports, theses or journal papers. Also you might want to attach some of them to your lab notebook, just remember, a picture is worth a thousand words. (This does not mean that you don’t have to WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN, it’s just a supporting feature).
Well, this is the end for now. While I was writing this article, collecting and recalling all the information many more hints, tricks and strategies came to my mind, many more than the one I decided to write. Even now, more important and useful techniques to get better at the lab come to my mind!
But those will have to wait for the next time. I promise that I will provide much more information about this if it ends up being useful! So make sure to subscribe and visit Chemistry Hall periodically so you don’t miss any of this.
To conclude, I want to point out that what keeps us writing is that people like you find this information useful, so make sure you share it with your colleagues, students, or whoever! It will be useful for them!